The Witcher 3

The Witcher 3 is an enigma of a game for a host of reasons. Rarely have i played a game that, over the course of a year I've loved, grown increasingly frustrated about and got more involved in the lore  than I have with The Witcher 3. Technically, the game is a marvel - as sandbox games goes, it is up there with the finest of its kind - depending on your perspective, think Red Dead Redemption, Skyrim or GTA. TW3 main game contains pretty much 2 entirely distinct maps plus other sizeable locations to say nothing of the DLC and the maps are huge. I can honestly say that although I've played the game off an on for a year, I suspect that I've uncovered less than 50% of the games content. More than likely, WAY less than 50% and much closer to 30% of the game, which says quite a lot about the amount of content in the game itself. 

Of course, big does not mean good and while the maps are outstanding and yes, there is a staggering amount of "content" to be consumed, this is not what I really want to talk about. You see - the mechanics of the Witcher are all good. The combat is good, the mini-games are good, the character progression, the spell casting, the side quests etc etc - you get the idea, they're all good. Basically, the game is easy to sum up in that regard - if you like open world, sandbox fantasy RPG's you're going to enjoy the Witcher 3. The game is polished, well made and generally fun to play, but none of that is really interesting to talk about beyond game mechanics, which I love, but the Witcher 3 has more to say about modern gaming than  just being a really bloody good Fantasy RPG. The Witcher 3 contains a rare combination of depth, narrative, characterization and moral ambiguity that underpins the whole gaming in a way that enhance the core mechanics of the game itself. This may take a bit of explanation, but bear with me. 

You see, the Witcher 3 is not just an RPG game, it is an RPG game probably more popular than the books that created the universe it was set in. In fact, the witcher 3, while based (loosely) on the books of Andrzej Sapkowski seems to play more like a greatest hits of the characters on occasions rather than canon to the books themselves. I do not mean this as a criticism - the game from what i can tell, takes source material and  uses it, rather than bases the game of it This may be controversial among fans of the bools - I do not know - but what i can say is that it was SUPERB to be able to pause playing the game after 5 months and go and read the book "the last wish" to understand the back story of the lead character.

Think about that - there are not many games where you can play for over 30 hrs and then pause, go away and read a novel that amounts to less than 10% of the entire back story of the characters having basically no prior knowledge. Talk about world building and scene setting on an epic scale. Can you imagine playing "Shadows of Mordor" believing it was based on a movie? You watch the movie- the fellowship of the ring and then realise there is an entire series of books behind it. That is what playing the Witcher 3 felt like - you begin playing a role playing game that gives you access to the world yet, upon doing so, you realise that there is much more to the world and characters than you ever knew.

Yet the game does a wonderful job bringing the characters and environment alive - the world feels living and breathing, your choices matter, the characters have depth and they are believable as real people. I say this last point sincerely - the characters in the Witcher 3 are more developed and believable than in many films. 

So, what is the point of all this? Basically, the game is great if you like RPGs and great if you like the witcher series, but its most impressive achievement is, to my mind at least, the fact that the game is a superb vehicle to accessing the world of the Witcher. Sure, it is not without its problems (for example, the game drags out certain elements of the story), but if you embrace it even knowing nothing about the series, there is a more than great chance you;ll end up playing a great game, reading a couple of great books and thinking about how simple moral decisions can effect the complexities of real life.

This is one of those games that is good as a game, but great in terms of the bigger picture it paints and questions it asks. Forget the game mechanics and the cool RPG elements of the game and instead, get lost in the characters, the dialogue and decisions They are what make the Witcher 3 worth playing over and above anything else. The game is as much about the exploration of people in a fully realised fantasy world as it is about leveling up or acquiring new armour or swords. 

A game worth playing, both as a game in itself and as a way of visiting the wonderful fantasy world with complex themes, moral dilemmas and believable characters. Highly recommended

 

D

 

Resident Evil 7 - PSVR

Playing Resident Evil 7 in PSVR in your own home is an experience like no other I've had. In terms of "home entertainment", it stands right up there among the finest and certainly the most immersive and interesting. When I started playing game in the 1980's , the idea that you would eventually be able To walk around a decrepit mansion that felt believable, tangible and real was a distant dream and boy, does that dream come to life in full technicolour. When I first put on the headset and walked towards the house, I imagined that i felt like those movie goers seeing a train rush towards them for the first time. 

The game itself is outstanding survival horror which confidently ticks all the boxes you'd hope and expect - limited ammo, intense enemies, horrific imagery item management, constant ratcheting up of tension and so on. Having played every single minute of this game in VR I can honestly say that even the most simple stretches of gameplay become intense experiences that are simultaneously a pleasure to play through and enjoyably stressful. 

More generally, The structure of the game is classic survival horror - you start off incredibly vulnerable having to run from every enemy -with a slow development of your skills and inventory. I actually found the opening hour or so of the game very difficult, but once I got beyond it and had more than basic weaponry and understood the layout of the house , gradually felt like I was fighting back and learning how to survive effectively. Exploration becomes more fun and enjoyable once you know the enemies weak spots and have a solid strategy to get from A to B to accomplish even the most simple of tasks. 

Speaking of tasks, again, the game keeps it simple, I presume because the core game is so much fun there and was a conscious decision by the developers not to over complicate it. Puzzles are simplistic (find item A , rotate item to fit into a certain shadow shape and progress) yet enjoyable because of the environment. There are not that many types of enemies, but again they are well used to build tension while exploring and they're incredibly well designed, looking suitably grotesque and horrific.  Exploration is also just a joy in itself - the house and its surrounding estate looks amazing and has plenty of small touches that elevate it from being scary to believably scary and exploring each of the 6 or so new areas bring its own sense of adventure and excitement. This is supported by an excellent game mechanic where, through the use of i game video tapes allow you to "watch" a recording series of events that take place in an area before you can yourself fully explore it. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the game involves just this - you're already familiar with parts of the area before you play through it, and then you realise how a sequence you've just seen in an earlier videotape fits in. It's a very smart way of world building, story telling and even building tension. 

As you can tell, i am a fan. I even enjoyed the story and the boss characters who stalk you around each of the areas. They're scary and even comical on occasions and, for the most part are memorable and intimidating. Sure, they're not massively complex but are suited to environment and feel well placed for he game and wider RE universe. 

Any problems? Not reallly, and certainly nothing major. The VR is a little grainy but I actually think this added to my overall experience given the tone of the game. The plot is firmly in the B movie horror genre, but again that's a fine by me and even at that, it is a vast improvement over the mess that was RE6. 

Overall, it's an outstanding game and a wonderful example of what you can do with VR. It reminded me of the legendary Hell Night on PSone with the level of tension and immersiveness dialed up. Worth getting a PSvr for? Almost....there are two ways to look at it. 1. This is just the beginning of Vr on the PlayStation and boy is it excellent and as developers get used to the tech it'll only get better, so you're well recommended to get involved. However, suppose 2. This is the peak - Vr gets no better than this. Either way, the experience itself is worth it in my books. 

 

Outstanding. 

Deus Ex : Mankind Divided

Let me make this clear from the outset - Mankind Divided is one of those games that you just have to play at least once to try. It is by no means perfect, but there is so much to enjoy in the game that if you do get into, it is oh so easy to forgive some of its greater flaws. And the thing is, the game is not without its flaws by any means - in fact, it has one of the most frustrating flaws I've come across in a game, but it is well worth playing in spite of this.

I'm going to start with the bad, just to lay it all on the table so you know what you are getting yourself into.

Firstly, the plot more or less falls flat. This is for two reasons, one major one (which I will come back to below), but also because the main plot in the game tries to carry on the plot from the first game and largely fails. Sure, there is some continuity - including a helpful 10 minute video reminding at the start of the game articulating the main plot points from the Human Revolution (HR), but there are many hints at characters and plot points from the first game that are essentially not followed up on or poorly articulated in the sequel. By the end of the game, sure, I had fought back against a terrorist threat, but i never really felt Mankind was Divided, the stakes were really highly or that I was fighting for the future of humanity. The real peaks of the main plot were, no spoilers, not really that exciting or resolved- it was felt very much like i was playing out someone else's story rather than shaping my own in terms of the main plot.

Secondly, and this is the major point mentioned above, the game seemingly ends 2/3 of the way through. The "final" missions stopped and the ending sequence was essentially a recap of some of the main events of the game. I looked around my living room wondering had i blacked out and missed something but basically, nope, the game just finished at the point I thought the final act was being teed up. The cynic in me thought this was because the intent was leave the game open for another sequel, but apparently (or at least according to the internet), the plug was pulled on the game and it had to be launced 2/3rds complete. It figures, and it shows.

The plot aside, there are other flaws - your player character becomes over powered in the game and, even on the 2nd highest difficulty, becomes relatively easy about half way through the game I played on "give me deus ex" and while i died multiple times, it always felt like a "good challenge" rather than "Christ this is hard". There are uninspiring game sequences - in particular where you infiltrate a neuro-network to solve a bunch of fairly boring box based puzzles - and the game restricts you to a relatively small number of game areas. While Prague is used as a hub for the game missions, a larger world is mentioned but, ultimately you've got one main area and dozen or so side areas to explore in standalone missions. In short, on occasions, the scope feels restrictive sometimes, not just tight or well managed.

Now then - if you've got this far and are a thinking "but he said he loved the game", then bear with me, because i do. Like i also said - the flaws are there, but they are oh so easy to forgive in the context of the wider game. In fact, the fact that they all feel so minor is a testament to how wonderful the core game is. 

Few games have such variety of gameplay and reward innovation as MD does. You can play as a hacker, hacker / assassin, Sniper, Non Lethal Sniper, Stealth, Stealth Assassin, Tank, Explorer and many mor different variations of traditional combat tropes. If you dont like combat you can, virtually avoid it entirely using mainly close quarters non-lethal take downs. Also, the game rewards you for varying your style -  sure, you may find it hard to switch from a tank to a stealth expert, but you can still try and while it can be hard, you can succeed. This is a game designed with flexibility in mind and it rewards innovation. Rarely - if ever - did i feel restricted in how i played the game. In fact, i enjoyed trying different tactics out my reloading my save game just to see if could complete a certain section another way. The game is that good that, in game, you want to replay sections of it. 

Then you have the side missions. And by side missions, what i really mean is world building. While the main plot falls somewhat flat, the side missions are fascinating for the most part. They play out in interesting ways, you face complex moral choices, get a much greater feel for what matters in the Deus Ex universe and, somewhat ironically, connect the game to its predecessor in a way the main plot fails to. They are also incredibly varied - you get to play detective, investigator, combat pro, explorer, political activist, people smugglerand many more roles and often have big choices that play out in interesting ways in the game. If the main plot is the spine of the game, the side missions are the heart and soul and, for the most part, where the real enjoyment can be had.

Prague. What a city. The recreation of a futuristic Prague is oppressive, hostile, beautiful, tortured and believable. As access to the different quarters of the city unfold, your appreciation of what the developers have done grows. You begin to realise that you have a sewer system to explore, a criminal underbelly you can influence - working with or against - citizens you can help or abuse, all set against an astonishingly beautiful backdrop. Just when you think you've got Prague susses, the game pulls one of its most enjoyable twists on you. Spoiler alert - but (in what turns out to be the final third of the game), the police that have already been out in force in Prague, suddenly transform the city to a curfew zone. They are heavily armored and armed, openly hostile to anyone in the street and have multiple reinforcements. You've still got to get around - i mean its not like your job is done - you've just got to be incredibly creative in how you do so and it is incredibly enjoyable. When this happens i genuinely felt like i was playing in a game that was designed around me, had given me the tools to succeed and allowed me to shape the game how i wanted. It was bloody brilliant.

Then there are many one off highlights - the bank heist mission is incredible and can be played many different ways, Jensen's take downs are super as always, one or two of the main plot twists are, genuinely, really interesting, some of the augments you can take are downright great fun to play with (the slow-down time one and exploding ball bearings are GREAT) and even the final boss fight is a blast. 

Yes - the game has some big problems, yet the fact that these problems feel so, so small when you play Deus Ex - Mankind Divided tell you all you need to know about how wonderful the game really is and why it is well worth completing. 

ZERO ESCAPE : 999 (Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors)

Updated Comments

This is interesting. I've learned something from playing a videogame with my girlfriend, Sarah. Specifically, I've learned a lesson. She'd say that she is (almost always) right about things like this, and I'd be inclined to agree. In particular though, I've learned that there is value in replaying Zero Escape, both in terms of properly exploring the games plot, but also just in playing it through with someone. My original comments are posted below and most of them still stand, with one caveat - to get the most out of this game you absolutely have to play it at least twice, preferably 3 or 4 times. 

When I completed the first run through of the game, Sarah picked up my save game and began playing. What started out as me receiving regular updates developed fully into us playing it together, albeit with her mostly doing the driving (i.e. poking the DS screen to her hearts content). This was primarily down to the fact that that the 2nd play through is fundamentally more interesting, longer and meaningful than the first. So much so, that the first play through is closer in sense and tone to a prologue where you learn the mechanics of the game and a bit about the characters. The second play through is where you properly understand and explore the game. The plot is expanded, you have many more meaningful interactions with the characters, you still make interesting choices and solve interesting (and mostly new) puzzles. The second play through took at least 9 hrs and this included an expanded ending section that was an absolute blast.

The really interesting thing is that the developers clearly structured the game in such a way that the additional play throughs are actually relevant and meaningful in terms of how the overall story plays out, rather than just being irrelevant speed runs. This is really bloody clever - Sarah and I are not playing again to get irrelevant collectibles, we're doing so to properly explore the story and characters which is genuinely awesome. 

This also leads me to another point - I didn't mention the characters so much in the initial review but really, playing through at least twice is best way to fully engage with them. They're so well written, genuinely funny (and often frustrating) and more fully realised in the additional games that I can honestly say i was far too hasty in dismissing the value in "replaying" the game. It is safe to say that you don't so much as "replay" as you do "fresh-play". 

The game is also excellent as as shared gaming experience. It is not a multiplayer game per se, but it really lends itself to being played alongside someone. This is because it is closer to watching a move than it is solo gaming. You discuss the characters together, solve puzzles together, suggest and debate theories about the plot together and tell each other off for poking the wrong DS screen with the stylus. I can honestly say that my experience with the game has been significantly enhanced by handing it over to my girlfriend to play and discuss with me, even if I am no longer actually playing it.. There really are not many games I can say that about at all. 

Finally, the plot. Oh, good ol' Junpei and his inner monologues, Lotus and her ridicculous breasts, June and her falling over in fear at various times and yes, even Clover and her daft hairstyle.... they're all wonderful and often very amusing characters. Their bad language, quirks and grumbles about their situation really do become more amusing as time goes on, rather than wearing on you (almost without exception) and the more time you spend with the game the more you get out of it. Sure, the plot is bat shit crazy, the characters bonkers mental and the writing often silly, but it is all infused with both a sense of fun and mystery that just makes playing and replaying the game so much fun. 

All of this just means that I really cannot recommend Zero Escape enough. It is very good as a standalone 6hr single player game, better as replayable and fully explored "save game plus" and superb as a game to share with someone else. 

Honestly - I am really glad I handed the game to Sarah and said "you may like this", as without her playing it, I'd not have properly got the full game experience. 

She was right. Again. 

Lee

***

Original Review

I “completed” 999 : 9 People, 9 Doors, 9 Hours (999) after approximately 5-6 hrs of play and was left somewhere between intrigued and confused at the way the game had panned out. The game itself is essentially a playable book similar in structure to the old “adventure books” where you could make various choices about where to go and what to do.

999  invites you to play as Junpei – a young chap havinga very bad day. There are two main components to the game – (i) puzzle solving and (ii) character interaction and decision making. The game is set up in such a way that you have Junpei, the player character and 8 other characters with varying motivations, histories and “ways” of doing things. With one exception, all of these characters are painted in various shades of grey – that is they tend to be murky, sometimes deceitful or just downright surprising in how they interact with you. The characters, including your own, provide the backbone of the games decision making and puzzle elements as well as the story.

To say anything meaningful about 999’s plot however would be to ruin its strongest and enjoyable element. There are twists and turns, characters surprise you in what they say and do and you will find yourself carefully considering sometimes seemingly insignificant decisions such as whether or not you believe in Astrology. Often your dialogue choices are not presented as “yes” or “no” – they too are shades of grey and more nuanced than simple binary decisions, It makes reading through the dialogue and making decisions interesting and even entertaining. 

You see, 999 isn’t really a game. I mean, it is a computer game per se, but it is really a digital novel. This is a text heavy but well written game (there is plenty of humour, drama and personality) where you spend the vast majority of your time reading and then painting a picture in your own head as to the story the game is telling you. It is superb and really succeeds as a digital novel. Even the occasional repetition of text and ropey translation are easily forgiven such is the wit and sense of humour that is stitched throughout the game. 

The puzzle solving element of the game is less successful, but still enjoyable. With 1 or two exceptions, none of the puzzles are particularly challenging and typically solved by a “click everywhere / try everything” approach. A couple do require a bit more thought, mental gymnastics and I even used a guide to solve the one really tough one. In fact, assuming there is only 1 solution to the 1 tough puzzle, solving it without a guide really would represent a massive difficulty spike out of tone with the rest of the game.

As you can tell, I really liked the game, it is fast paced, but with plenty of depth, interesting without being overly complicated or super long and intellectually stimulating, if not overly demanding. As a one of play through, I loved it. But there is a problem, the game is not meant to be played once, it is meant to be played at least twice.

See, the first time you play through the game, you get 1 ending. I am not sure if this is the same ending for everyone, but it is one ending with a very ambiguous final scene. I have my theories about what happened, but to know what happened, you have to play through the game a second time and make different decisions to get a subsequent ending, The problem with this is the main game itself – the puzzle solving in particular – doesn’t have enough replay value for me to warrant a full 2nd play through. In fact, I don’t think that you can get the proper ending without a full second play through. Sure, the game allows you to skip some text, but the puzzles are not skippable and to be honest, you will probably have to re-read much of the text to remember where you are in terms of the games progress.

This is all very bothersome and I cant help but feel the developers would have been better off extending the main game by an hour or so to close out some of the questions rather than making you play through the whole thin again.

It is a relatively minor quibble however – and actually, my girlfriend is havinga blast playing through the Save Game Plus instead of me and I get to watch / get the random updates on what is happening. This seems to be a good solution to the problem actually.

There you have it an interesting puzzle game laced with a super story and digitally told narrative. This game is well worth the £23 or so I I paid for it and even if I am not entirely sold on the replay value really recommend playing at least once for the interesting plot, well drawn (literally and metaphorically) characters and intriguing experience of playing, rather than just reading, a book.

Life is Strange is Bloody Good (and true)

There is an interesting moment in life is strange when you begin to realise that your character, Max Caulfield, really doesn’t know what she is doing when it comes to time travel and that whatever decision you make, there is no clear good or bad outcome. That the game allows you to see both the short term outcomes of the binary choice before selecting your “preferred” option is fascinating, but what is wonderful is that the game never really shows you the “unintended consequences” of your action until it is far too late to reverse it. Herein lies the joy in playing life is strange – the game is wonderfully set up, gives you enough information to make you feel like you’re able to make an informed choice, but ultimately, you’re never really sure how your actions are going to play out – just like in real life.

That each decision carry’s weight – some on a small but emotional scale, others on a much grander or more serious note – enriches the game further. This is not a game you play through, it is a game you inhabit – you very much play the role of the characters, feel like you get to know them and get to make decisions on their behalf. Some of those decisions will immediately resonate with you, others will feel alien and uncomfortable but it is almost always fascinating to play through a game where the actual manipulating of the control pad is secondary ore even tertiary to the main components of the game itself. Just like in real life, the material side is often less important than the moral, emotional or even spiritual aspects and the decision making at the heart of the game is undeniably the standout component that makes the game such a joy to play through .

Of course, the decision making of itself is not sufficient to make it a great game. Yes, your decisions carry weight and are carefully implemented, but LIS has a significant supporting cast when it comes to describing what makes the game so great. Firstly, the characters are mostly excellent. They are believable, flawed, richly described and almost always well voice acted. Sure, some of the dialogue is a bit ropey, but by and large you feel like you are playing a role in a real living and breathing town with real people in it. Secondly, the soundtrack and art design are both first rate. While the graphics are pretty much passable, the slightly stylised environments are beautiful and the accompanying sound track is always complimentary and never intrusive. In particular, there are a couple of scenes and even loading screens where the original soundtrack or carefully selected songs just add to the emotion.

Then there is the plot. Part, clichéd teenage angst centred story with sci-fi time travel chucked in for good measure, part exportation of causality and what it means to be friends with someone, part murder mystery. It shouldn’t work, but it does, mainly because the characters are so well written. I loved getting to know Max, creating my own theories about who the serial killer was all the time wondering what the hell was going on with the doomsday hurricane that was coming. It sounds like a hot mess but really, it all just comes together and works so well.

As you can probably tell, I loved Life is Strange, even despite its problems. Sure, there are a couple of issues with pacing, not really communicating the option to explore very well earlier on and the pacing across 5 episodes doesn’t quite work. In fact, this is probably the most frustrating thing – initially released in 5 episodes, the climaxes of each are interesting and well thought out though do feel a little forced (cliff-hanger from 4 to5 in particular) and I cant help but feel it is best played ignoring the episodes and breaking as and when you like. Also, bits of the plot are sort of dull – I was, for example, simply bored by being able to wander around the same house for the 3rd time to find some car keys. GET ON WITH IT I wanted to scream.

However, these problems are minor. Play life is strange and you will have a wonderful story and characters to invest time in, a superb mystery to solve and a truly fascinating decision based game to play. You’ll weigh your decisions carefully, wonder what the right thing to do is and then make a call and not quite believe how things play out.

And the best thing is, once you’ve completed the game you’ll begin to think the same about your own real life decisions and probably both wish and not wish that you could see how the play out and rewind time.


One of the finest games on the PS4 and well worth the time and effort to play through.

 

Lee

 

PS the closest game I can compare this to is Until Dawn. Both are excellent but I have to say that I had a lot more fun with Until Dawn. Sure, life is strange is more interesting and intellectual, but Unitl Dawn is just such a blast start to finish that if I could only play or recommend one of the two games, I’d definitely go with Until Dawn over Life is Strange.  

 

Other Games I have been playing this year...

This year I've had the fortune of playing a bunch go games somewhat intermittently. Here are a few of the highlights that are on my list but I've not yet got round to writing about, completing or properly playing...

 

PS4

  • Shaddows of Mordor (PS4) - Really enjoyable action / combat sandbox game with a ludicrous plot set in the Lord of the Rings Universe. Weirdly satisfying to play and complete, largely due to the Nemesis System that sets up titanic battles with the bosses of Sauron's army. Genuinely one of the most fun games I've played and completed and much more satisfying in terms of combat, characterisation and setting that Assassins Creed (Completed main quest)
  • Soma (PS4) - an interesting first person horror / exploration game with wonderful graphics, setting and an interesting, if obtuse story. it came highly recommended from Chris Survival Horror (25% complete)

 

PC

  • Her Story (PC) - a fascinating piece of interactive fiction where you watch out of date videos to piece together the events leading up to a murder. Ambiguous, fascinating a great example of a really simple concept delivering a meaningful and complex game (100% complete).
  • Civilisation 5 (PC) - Playing Civ 5 is a wonderfully varied experience. I don't think it is possible to "complete" the game given the number of different variations, mods, game play modes and experiences you can have on it. One thing is certain however, it is a wonderful way to while away an hour / afternoon / whole day / day and night. One game I played recently was particularly memorable. I expanded my Greek empire with lightly defended sea ports to the West and heavily fortified cities to the east. I went to war in the east, mobilising against the mongols. Eventually I destroyed the Mongols, but just as I did and my army was stretched, the English and the Persians invaded my West flank! While i was embroiled in a long war, they acquired sea power and invaded my undefended NE flank. Woe was my greek empire... it became an exercise in damage limitation and try as I may, I could not repel them. This, and many other epic tales like it, are what make Civ 5 worth playing again. And again. AND AGAIN - JUST ONE MORE TURN.

 

iOS

  • Hitman Go (iOS) - Hitman themed puzzle game that provides a suitable level of idle distraction when on the tube. Good, by no means great, but with engaging enough puzzles (10% Complete)
  • Super Hexagon (iOS) - eye bleeding rave-a-thon testing reflexes, memory and sanity. One of the finest games of its type I've played and SUPERBLY hard (10% complete)

Game of Thrones - Tell Tale games

I recently completed Tell Tale Games Game of Thrones Season 1 and I really enjoyed it. Having bought all 6 episodes in one go, i played through them over a period of 6 months, finishing the final episode just as Season 6 of GOT was airing. It was a great way to get back into GOT and gave me a nice filler in between the early episodes. 

Weirdly, I actually hate most of the actual "gameplay" in telltale games; i do not like repeat quick time events, do not enjoy simplistic "place your cursor here and press X" and absolutely despise "hammer circle as fast as you can to save your character". These, in addition to moving your character around areas in the game make up the majority of the games "playing" but really, they're just the necessary evils you put up with to get to enjoy the meat of the game.


The main reason this game is worth playing is of course for the story. The plot, voice acting, characters (series regulars and new ones) are all excellent and really  well voice acted. Most importantly, the whole game looks and feels authentic to the Game of Thrones universe. The decisions you make feel like the carry weight and even if the big ticket components of the outcome are largely predetermined, the journey itself is so important and meaningful that you let the game away with it.

Also, I've not felt tension like this in other games - I defy anyone not to feel nervous when Ramsey Bolton shows up and begins intimidating members of the Forester Family. He is every bit as menacing and ruthless in the game as he is on screen.

The plots success is largely down to the wonderful characters in the Forester family and how well developed they feel. The plot is spread out but comes to an exciting climax that ties together several of the character threads while leaving enough ambiguity and lose ends for an inevitable sequel. The way the story pans out is both shocking and exhilarating and even your small choices feel like they have real consequences. 


This game is more interactive fiction than a "traditional videogame" and when viewed in that light it is one of the finest pieces of IR I've played. That said, I also really enjoyed the fact that you can just get it wrong in the game and get a game over screen. I had an instance (no spoilers) where I made a decision that led to the immediate death of the entire family and enemies. It was amusing because I had already settled on my negotiating strategy and planned to approach the scenario in a particular way, did so and promptly led the family to death and ruin. The variety of outcomes available couldn't quite cope with this and hence I got a game over screen, but it was really amusing to see the scene played out, well acted and delivered before getting my "GAME OVER - YOU KILLED ALL THE FAMILY" screen. 

GOT - Tell Tale Games is a fine example of interactive fiction and if you ignore the slightly ropey actual "game-play" there is a lot to love here. You'll meet familiar characters from the series, engage in interesting negotiations, make weighty decisions and feel like you're playing a role in a standalone yet connected part of the game of thrones universe. Better still, your experience will differ slightly from your friends as you will undoubtedly make different choices. A fine way to get more GOT and play a part in some wonderfully written and voiced interactive fiction.

Highly recommended for those who love either GOT or Interactive Fiction. 

What I am currently playing...

My to play list is as long as my reading list and I am trying desperately to get through as many of my games as possible, but I seem to buy / aquire more than I have the time to play...

 

Actively Playing

  • Resident Evil Revelations [3DS]
  • Life is Strange [PS4]

 

On Hold

  • The Order 1886 [PS4]
  • Soma [PS4]
  • Dark Souls [PS4]
  • Destiny [PS4]

 

To Play

  • Gone Home [PS4]
  • zelda - a link between worlds [3DS]

 

Wishlist

  • The Witcher 3 [PS4]
  • Deus Ex - Mankind Divided [PS4]
  • No Man's Sky [PS4]

 

Hotline Miami - All Killer

Hotline Miami is a really good game and is perfect on a PS Vita or other portable console. It's designed in such a way to deliver short and sharp chunks of highly engaging, hyper violent, puzzles. My brother encouraged me to play the game for 6 months or so before we both made a commitment to complete "1 nominated game" each - he nominated me Hotline Miami and I nominated Deus Ex - Human Revolution for him.

I really enjoyed the 7 hours or so I spent with hotline miami - it has a great sound track and a number of "hell yeah!" moments ranging from figuring out a problem to just feeling like a badass having just killed your way through a portion of a level. It almost always feels fun, engaging and presents you with both puzzles and a range of tools to solve them.

In fact, the in-game flexibility offered is by far HM's greatest success. For those that don't know, the game is essentially a 14 or so top down 2-D game where you have to move your character through levels that contain a variety of bad-guys. You have to kill all the bad-guys on each level to progress to the next for the most part and do so using guns knives, snooker cues and other delights. The controls are tight and your character highly mobile. While the AI is simplistic, it never detracts from the game-play. You often have multiple different ways to approach levels - sometimes going in guns blazing reaps rewards - you can, with a little planning and precision shooting blaze your way through a decent portion of some of the levels. Other times, you'll want to use one of your "masks" (i.e. perks) that gives you a silencer or stops dogs from attacking to ensure a more stealth based approach. Then again, you can take a trial and error approach - trying each portion of the stage multiple times, figuring out enemies movement patterns and sight lines before that one perfect practiced to precision run through.

No one approach is right or wrong or for that matter better than the others and all are equally satisfying.... well, maybe not equally, those few highly successful commando runs are particularly fun. 

The game is well designed and fun to play but it is by no means perfect. In fact, I found myself getting bored and somewhat frustrated with it eventually. There is not a huge amount of variety in the levels / stages - they all boil down to kill your way to the top and then escape. They all look similar and core game-play is pretty straight forward, you just get better at it as the game progresses. Then there are a couple of boss fights that are essentially "remember the sequence of attacks and defeat them by not being shit". I also didn't find the game particularly challenging. Sure, some bits of it are a bit difficult in that you need execute a series of attacks / movements to perfection, but figuring out what to do was often pretty straightforward (i.e. the puzzles themselves were pretty basic for the most part). 

The plot is also pretty dull and somewhat gratuitous in its violence. Save for one or two interesting narrative beats, the slightly obtuse plot just didn't interest me. It did not ask many interesting questions and the ending itself was pretty dull. I know the game is not all about the plot but while it did start off initially interesting I was largely uninspired by it and the graphic cartoon violence wore a bit thin without any interesting context or plot to give it meaning.

Finally, while I enjoyed the game, it did over-stay its welcome by about 2 or 3 levels. I completed it a few months back so I cannot remember the specific ending though I do recall wishing that the last few levels were over more quickly that they were.

All in all, a really fun game to play while commuting but neither the deep nor particularly interesting experience I had hoped for. Maybe I expected too much, but Hotline Miami really is all killer, no filler.

 

Lee

 

 

Metal Gear Solid 5 : The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid 5 : The Phantom Pain is a truly excellent game in so many ways, yet there is something not quite right about it. love it in so many different ways, but I just don't love it in total.

Technically, the game is superb. It balances a bunch of different concepts and ideas superbly well and has a fully immersive world. Playing the game is often a joy where you plan, set up and execute a perfectly formed stealth take down of an entire base, without firing a single shot in anger. You will approach the base from the south, enjoying both the wonderful visuals, changeable weather and array of tools at your disposal. You'll even select your approach music accordingly from the array of great tracks available to you. You will probably order a buddy in to support you accordingly - I typically enjoyed using Quiet as a sniper scout.

The way the game plays - be it action or stealth - is always excellent. There is an enormous array of weapons tools and quite frankly, the level of flexibility offered to you would be overwhelming if the games interface wasn't so smartly designed. 

As you can tell, I love playing the game. Yet, there is more to a great game than it being technically excellent. There are three major problems that over-shaddow the game and they start - and end - with the narrative.

The story itself is not at all bad - in fact, by the usual metal gear solid standards, it is relatively easy to follow and quite interesting. The plot picks up where Ground Zero's left off and  explores a range of interesting themes -  the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the use of child soldiers and the effect of the war economy - interspersed with the typical MGS crazy plot elements of clones, huge armed mechs and telepathy empowered on fire psycopaths.

However,  the problem is that the main plot  as it is revealed through the mandatory parts of the game is relatively sparse and consequently hard to engage with. The game relies on the player playing numerous cassette tapes to fully explore the story. The problem with this mechanic is two-fold. Firstly,listening to the cassette tapes often gets in the way of doing actual missions - either because they shift your focus from what your actually doing or because some other voice over from the gameplay starts talking over the cassette tape. This is incredibly frustrating.

The second problem is related to the first - you're effectively left having to stand around listening to in-game audio files to explain key plot threads. This is a terrible way to engage with players - I never really felt motivated to do so for the simple reason that the bits of the game I wanted to play were there in front of me and listening to the cassettes either stopped me from doing so or distracted me to the point where it was pointless to play them in the background.

I applaud the attempt to find an innovative way of both making the game accessible and offering an alternative way to explore the narrative, but ultimately this design choice just did'nt work and left me feeling like i was forced to sit and listen to audio just to understand what the hell was going one when what i wanted to do was play the game.

The second major problem with the game is really simple. Post mission 31, the game offers 20 or so "post-game" missions. Around half of these offer you opportunities to gain XP and tie up some of the story threads, so no problem there. Half of them are repeat missions selected from the first 30, just made slightly harder. While I enjoyed a couple of these, the bottom line is that these felt like a lazy way to expand the games content rather than actual innovations. While not a problem in and of itself, needing to complete these to access the final missions in the game pissed me off a bit. That and the fact that most of them aren't terribly fun. I actually think that they would have been better off offering you the opportunity to play any mission at extreme difficulty or from the start without any gear, rather than picking a bunch at random and pegging them on the end of the game as part of the closing out of the game.

I am really not a fan of "repeat but harder" missions.

Finally, the other problem with the narrative is the sort of related to both of the above points. The game is so horrendously uneven in how the plot is revealed that you end up feeling like you're not quite sure what happened at the end of act 1. Having 30 "plot" missions where some have virtually no relevance at all to the plot interspersed with other missions that are crucial is annoying, but forgiveable. Spoiler alert - but having the main bad-guy die virtually out of nowhere after an uninspiring boss battle when half the plot threads are still hanging is both incredibly frustrating and unforgivable. It honestly felt like they decided half way through development that the games narrative was going to spread over 30 missions, rather than 50 and dumped the main "ending" into the point of the game that would be around 60% completion, rather than at the actual end of the game.

This really hurts the game - like I say, it is technically great, but all the wonderful stuff you can do in the game, including the cool stuff you can develop, the characters you can build relationships with and the missions you can do, totally lose impact, meaning and context when the main game plot abruptly ends and asks you do all this other really cool stuff in an open ended sandbox world rather than an inspiring, tense plot driven one.

And there, finally, is the problem. The game is so good in so many ways technically that it will always be fun to play, but I expect more from a Metal Gear Game - I don't just want to have fun with it, I want to really engage with the game, relate to the characters and explore the barmy plot, but doing so in a game where the actual narrative has ended just robs the experience of any deeper meaning or close relationship with the game experience.

Instead, the first two thirds of the game is the "metal gear experience", the last third is the "phantom" experience itself. Maybe they really were trying to tell us something in the title.

Lee

 

PS even though this is mainly about the stuff that drove me mad about the game, I'd still give it a 8 or 9 out of ten overall, but it could  have been so much more...

Until Dawn - Horrific Fun and Games

I had an experience with Until Dawn that I rarely have with any game - that is I binge played it. Over a 3 day / 2 night period, I played through the games story in 4 x 3 (or so) bursts of the game. It is rare that I play a game like this, not least because I tend to want to do something else after an hour or so, but mainly because I enjoy games in relatively short doses.

Bearing that in mind, it became clear to me after 15 mins of Until Dawn I was, so to speak, all in until I completed it. Before I comment on what I liked and did'nt like, there is a useful bit of context. I played this around new year when I was back in London on my own and when my house was empty, that is my housemates and girlfriend were all away. 5 days alone, in the depth of winter - the perfect time to play a horror game I thought.

1. Storytelling at its B-Movie Finest

The plot in UD really is ludicrous, but to get hung up on that would be to miss the point. The fun in the game is'nt in the specifics of the plot, rather it is in how your decisions play the plot out. Instead of watching a daft movie, you're part playing in one, part directing it. The characters all have their quirks, but you get to shape how they react to the situations that range from quirky to life threatening. Sometimes getting one character to be a dick to another character is fun "just-cos", but other times you'll find yourself weighing your decision - balancing the questions of :

- what would this person do if they were faced with this situation

- what would I do if it was me in this situation

- what do I want to do to achieve a certain outcome in the game

Or, to put it another way, the game engages you on several different levels through its effective storytelling, even if the story it is actually telling is'nt particularly original or clichéd.

The reason that I have opened with this point as being the main one that I loved is because it really is the backbone to all the other great (and bad) bits of the game, however, the way the game tellls the story is also crucial...

2. Patience, voice acting and actual decision making = a game that you become invested in

The other components, ideas and gameplay mechanics that the game uses are all supported by the wonderfully engaging engaging way the game tells its story. How does it do this? Well, specifically...

i. Excellent Voice Acting : all of the characters are well acted and really believable and even when the script is slightly crappy, they still really sell it

ii. Decisions that actually matter : Where other games (The Walking Dead - I am looking at you) give you the illusion that the decisions you make matter in terms of the key points of the game, UD really does put the players decision making to the forefront. Small decisions have bigger repercussions later in the game, big decisions mean that the relationship or experience you have with certain characters can change dramatically very early on. I quickly realised that I was playing a game that had not just enormous replay value but also one where I could see both in the short, medium and long term that my decisions mattered. This was particularly interesting where I made a decision that had a (shocking) unintended consequence which I then realised would have other effects on what that character could and could not do later in the game. 

iii. Engaging and patient gameplay : Even the bits of the game where you are essentially just walking forward are interesting and engaging. They're often used to visually develop the world, build tension and even give insight and add believability to the Characters. This is helped by both the excellent voice acting (again) and the superb graphics, however, it is more than that. The game seems to "get" that good horror is'nt all about the gore or jump scares, it is as much about the build up and patient character development so that when the horrific things happen, they mean something. The game, even the bits that are a little slower, are very well paced and there is always an underlying tension even though the game is very linear in the order in which you play through the main events. 

UD really goes at lengths to get the feel of it right. It is as if they developers thought "we know this is a B-Movie horror game, but we're going to make it the best damned B-Movie Horror game we bloody well can". Even the bits that I didn't like so much, I easily forgave the game for because it got so much right.

As for what I did'nt like so much...

1. Some of the decisions are made for you

Obviously, you have a lot of choices in the game, but as this is a game these choices are in a framework and sometimes some of the biggest choices are made for you. For example, early on in the game, two characters elect to go wandering off on their own and then you influence how this wandering off plays out. Fine. However, when something happens to them, it is very simple - I'd play the game by demanding all the characters stay together, but this literally is'nt an option. So the game invents other reasons for them to separate. It's not a big issue, but there were a few moments like this where I was reminded that though I could take these characters on a path, that path had already been laid out for me by the developers.

2. Some of the shocks are really unforgiving

I was actually going to put this in a a positive for the game, but bumped it to a negative because this will really drive some players mad I think. I actually quite like it, even though it did piss me off a bit. I was aiming for a particular type of play through and I had certain characters I really wanted to survive. At one point I was faced with a choice and the route that I took led to instant death for the character, despite it feeling like a relatively safe situation. There was no QTE to offer me the chance to escape, no "are you sure" moment, just I made this choice and t that character was no more. It is a strength, but it upset me as I was pissed that a) my game ending was going to change and b) I lost one of my favourite characters. What was good about this is that it also taught me about myself - leading a character off to explore something on their own is ALWAYS a bad idea, but when faced with the option in a horror game I just thought "oh...go on then.... I'll be all right...".. They were'nt and they died brutally.

3. The plot slightly messes things up

The plot is a B-Movie style horror flick, so don't expect too much by way of shocking revelations. For the most part, this is absolutely fine, but there are a few moments of eye-rolling where a well worn cliché is trotted out or a character makes another ludicrous conclusion. They are few and far between and by no means damaging to the games over all story, but I've heard the "beware the insane asylum" trope so many times now that I just fail to believe that anyone would go wandering around an abandoned one at the top of an isolated hill without being heavily armed.

***

Until Dawn is a bona fide great game, easily one of the most engaging and fun games I've played on the PS4 and PS3 too. The annoyances with it are made pretty obvious pretty early on and they are incredibly easy to forgive given that the game gets so much else right. I'd strongly encourage anyone who enjoys a good daft yarn, interactive fiction, horror games, decision based gameplay or even just "something a bit different" to play it. It would also be fun to be played as a couple too - it is very much like watching a movie where you influence the decisions and characters and a lot of fun can be had with it. 

The Last of Us

July 5th 2013

The Last of Us

It took me less than 10 minutes to realise that The Last of Us is a special game. It’s rare that I play a game that blows me away start to finish and hits all the right notes in terms of story, characters, game play, setting as well as graphics and art design. There are so many things that I loved about the game that I could talk about it all day, but instead I am going to focus on what made TLoU a special experience and probably the best game I’ve played on the PS3.  I am going to eschew my usual “3 likes and dislikes” for this and instead just talk about the many strong points, before winding up with some brief criticisms and conclusions. First of all, I wanted to talk about how the game feels to play compared to its peers.

The Last of Us launch timing is interesting– this game could not have been made at the start of the PS3’s life and it is clear that Naughty Dog have all but mastered how to design a 3rd person action adventure with an emphasis on tactical battles that give you the choice between full stealth, full action or a blend of the two. When I first picked it up, I was immediately reminded of the combat in Uncharted, but realised that this had been improved significantly. Whereas Uncharted feels flighty and loose, the Last of Us is intense, personal and relentlessly violent. So much so that, whereas by the end of games like Uncharted, Gears of War and even Call of Duty I am usually desensitised to killing, the Last of Us seemed to get more and more brutal as the game wore on - right to the very last battle it retained a sense of grittiness that I’ve not found anywhere else.

It is also clear that Naughty Dog had the confidence to make some critical gameplay design choices that are bold, but definately pay off. First of all, the game is played almost entirely in real time – you can pause to go to a menu, but every other action takes place live in the game world. From healing and reading to executing your opponents, you always need to be aware of your surroundings. For example, your character (more on him soon), can perform some really cool execution style moves – these vary and often take time to take down an enemy in anything from 1 to 5 seconds. However, while doing so, you are not immune- you still get shot at, still get hit and can still die. This immediately makes you think about how to use these techniques as a tool rather than as a get out of jail card meaning that they always remain satisfying and brutal.

Another design choice which pays off massively is to eschew the use of bosses and “traditional” game tropes such as getting bigger and better weapons right before you fight the next big enemy. Sure, you get improved guns and there are a couple of set pieces where you need a particular weapon, but for the most part they are introduced to bring variety to the game rather than to clue you in to an impending boss fight. Oh and you can upgrade and improve your weapons (in real time) allowing you to tailor your style to the situation at hand. Nothing fancy, but a nice enough touch to add depth to the game play that always makes you think.

The most striking design choice however is more about what goes in the guns, rather than the guns themselves. During my play through on normal difficultly, I rarely, if ever, had double figure ammunition in any of my weapons, and rarely had ammunition for more than 4 of the 10 weapons at a time. This may sound limiting, but it is actually liberating. It encourages you to do two things: 1. Explore the environment to find additional ammunition / supplies and 2. You end up using all the weapons at your disposal and learn to be creative with them. For example, while I initially ignored the Bow and Arrow, realised quite quickly that using it in combination with smoke bombs is super effective as you distract enemies, don’t give away your position and can take a couple out from distance before moving in to finish them off with a shiv, crowbar, bat or your bare hands. It’s great fun and always varied and challenging and even minor skirmishes or the early small environments feel challenging to play through.

Moving on from the design, The Last of Us tells a story that is both anchored in its characters but deals with big themes such as loyalty, personal purpose, and the future of mankind and the purpose of life. Much of the tale outside the characters is told in subtle ways – you travel across and through abandoned cities, countryside and towns and as you loot, scavenge and kill, you often come across snippets of information about the people who lived there before you, get to hear and read their stories and piece together a broad picture of what it must have been like going through the end of modern civilisation.

Sure, this has been done before and it would have been easy for The Last of Us to fall into genre clichés, but it never does. Every environment is beautifully realised with incredible detail and you’re encouraged to explore them in your own time (there is no map or radar). This has the effect of making the broader story feel very organic in how it unfolds as it is often up to you, you have to decide where you go, how deep you explore and how much time you take to find out about the world. It is a great way to immerse yourself in the game and when you combine this with the tension that comes from exploring areas that are full of infected and / or military / survivors, it creates a fascinating and tense backdrop to the narrative that runs throughout the game. In fact, the game paces this so well that right up until the end you feel like you’re on an incredible journey through a fully realised post apocalyptic world with its own stories and background - it's just its up to you to find them.

I can’t comment on The Last of Us without at least mentioning the main characters, Ellie and Joel. I intend on keeping this spoiler free, so I’ll not say a huge amount about their story arcs and instead focus on how they hold the game together.

Joel is the world weary but determined survivor - he looks out for himself and his partner and that’s about it. While this may sound a tad stereotypical, from the opening scene there is a brutal intensity to Joel that you rarely see in games. While Joel starts out essentially as a mercenary, through his journey with Ellie you see a change in his character and attitude to life. It is remarkable to see such a believable character in a game – he is mature, conflicted and extremely well voice acted and even his occasional in game quips seem natural.

In stark contrast to Joel, you have Ellie, an independent 14 year old who relies on Joel’s protection to help her survice in the harsh post apocalyptic world. Ellies role is part sidekick, part emotional mirror to Joel. While there are obvious father / daughter undertones in the 2 characters, this never distracts from the believable friendship that develops between the two. Ellies character changes during the journey and while she initially relies on Joels protection, eventually she shows herself to be a very capable survivor in her own right.

The excellent voice acting and animation are more than welcome, but the script is so good that on occasions it seems more like watching a movie than playing a game – everything from the casual conversations between the characters to the critical plot moments are handled superbly and the game uses the moments spent traveling to allow the characters to interact and discuss their thoughts and experiences. It’s much more character driven than the likes of gears of war and the fleshing out of the characters through interesting side discussions and key plot moments works so well that when the big twists / plot moments happen – even if you saw them coming – they are incredibly rewarding.

There last point I wanted to make about The Last of Us is about the main game play. Similar to Uncharted, you get a mixture of light puzzles, exploration and combat. However, the action in The Last of Us is absolutely central to the games experience and is much, much stronger than in other 3rd person action adventure games. The reason for this is 2 fold.

Firstly, the actual combat itself is superbly handled. You’ve usually got the choice of stealth or balls out action, but you can also mix this up with a blend of the two through using bottles & bricks to distract your enemies, smoke bombs to confuse them, or even nail bombs and Molotov cocktails to take out groups from afar. All sounds standard enough? Well, maybe so, but the game is tough and you are almost always outnumbered and outgunned (both in terms of the weapons you have + the bullets available), so you better get used to mixing close quarters combat with crowbars, bats, machete’s if you want to go in big and loud, or your bare hands if you want to do it quietly. Some areas you may find stealth is the only way through, but you miss some supplies, others require combat but your health is very low – you’re constantly under threat to think about how to handle the challenges the game throws at you and never does it feel repetitive. There is always enough variety in the places you’re fighting, the cover spots, the options for stealth vs. combat and the weapons that every area feels like it has multiple paths through and multiple ways of dealing with the problems you face. It makes the whole experience immensely rewarding and fun.

The second point about the combat is something that really sets the game apart (very minor spoiler ahead). I’ve mentioned previously that I am not a big fan of bosses in games and the last of us ignores bosses entirely. Instead, it pits you up against different types of enemies, all of whom have different ways of dealing with you. The infected are chaotic and brutal and boy do they feel tough due to their heightened hearing and one hit kills from some of them. In contrast, you also fight people, some of whom are military (behind barriers, ranged weapons), scavengers (poorly equipped and spread out) as well as other bandits and general all around nasty people. They will try outflank you, they’re good shots for the most part and they will work together to make your life difficult with some of the best AI I’ve seen in an action game and some of the battles play out more like chess matches where you’ve got to out think as much as outfight the enemy.

There are also plenty of moments that make the combat special too – you’ve got a limited amount of QTE’s that never disrupt the game play and lots of moments where i found myself thinking “Wouldn’t be cool if....” , right before the game allowed me to do exactly what I wanted – sometime this was a brutal stealth kill, others it would be something more subtle like a way of dealing with a situation. It is rare that a game gets the combat as right as this.

As you can tell, i loved the game and I am not going to say much about what I didn’t like as there is genuinely not that much to dislike. There are occasional moments where your AI partner does something weird (e.g. runs in front of an enemy and doesn’t get spotted) and the game doesn’t seem to mind, and there are one or two moments where the story maybe misses a beat and feelsa little awkward (there is one moment in particular, but it is definitely forgivable), but other than that, there is so much to love in The Last of Us that you forgive the small number of minor issues.

The Last of Us is genuinely one of the best games I’ve played and certainly one of the best on the PS3 – the only other games that I can think come close to it are Metal Gear Solid 4 and maybe Skyrim (though an entirely different type of game it is). In fact, MGS4 is probably the closest game I’ve played to The Last of Us in terms of mixing stealth and combat and, as much as I love Metal Gear, I’d probably say that I enjoyed The Last of Us more, its a tighter and more emotional experience (probably about 2/3rds the length of MGS4) and contains a very human story that ties together the amazing setting with incredible combat that really does make it the a complete experience.

I can’t recommend the Last of Us highly enough – it is a truly excellent game and quite possibly the last great game on the PS3.
D

The Last of Us [First Impressions]

June 26 2013

Hey,

Its rare that I play a game which I love from the moment I pick it up. I say this, (often because even my favorite games often give you a semi interesting tutorial section that spells out basic game rules for you) but also because games take a while to get going. However, the Last of Us has had me hooked from the second I picked it up and though I've not completed it yet (I think Im 2/3rds through) I've loved pretty much every minute of it.

When I review Last of Us properly, I'll comment on the specific bits of the game I loved, but for now I just wanted to comment on howan individual take on the end of modern civilization tells both two of the most believable and compelling characters in video game history, but also uses a setting both edgy and believable to make this both exciting and compelling.

This is, at face value, a zombie apocalypse setting, but the brave step of relying on 2 genuinely great characters to tell a story that juxtaposes both vulnerability and extreme violence has so far mad for a great experience. Ellie and Joel are probably the most compelling videogame characters I've scene and their voice acting, dialogue and animations are all top notch.

As a movie this would probably be worth watching, instead you get to play through the whole experience and experience a fantastic game at the same time. This plays like I reckon the walking dead : Survival instinct probably wanted to.

I cant wait for the end, but I also don't want to finish it.

D

Monetising Video Games - Letter to Edge

19th June 2013

Hi Edge Team,

I hope you are all well and having a good 2013 so far. I was reading Leigh Alexander’s piece in Edge 253, May 2013 on games staying relevant in the changing digital landscape and I found her nostalgic musings on how games used to be both interesting and similar to my own. Her article did spark a thought in my head, mainly around how monetised games are now compared to when I grew up. You have probably had correspondence on this before, but I wanted to share my own take on the just how expensive it is becoming to access games and suggest that the big players in the gaming market aren’t just getting our hard earned cash in exchange for games, but we’re paying them to take much more than that.

Firstly, one of the biggest leaps in monetising the video game industry has undoubtedly been down to the internet. Whereas before we would have had to pay once for a game, now there are additional charges levied on many games. For example, Fifa 13, brand new, will have cost a minimum of £40, but to play it online on X-Box Live, you also have to take out an XBL subscription, my own costing £60 per year, just to play it with my friends and have access to all its features. Other games of course offer DLC add-ons, typically at a cost of 1/3 or ¼ of the price of a full game.

Of course, development time went into these titles and people need to be rewarded for their efforts, but in any other industry, this is just cross selling – ensuring you get extra money out of the customer you already have secured. DLC packages are a great way to reach people who have already spent money on your game and are highly likely to spend more. When you layer in the other costs, say for a decent broadband connection, the console itself, a HD TV, your basic set up costs for gaming are at in excess of £500 plus several subscriptions that need to be charged to a bank account. What I am getting at here is that while we do have unparalleled access to a wider variety of games than ever before, its also become much easier to monetise what would have been part and parcel to a standard game package in the past.

My point isn’t to criticise companies for doing this per se, but when you are talking about having to spend at least £500 to get the basics right for 1 console plus more than likely another £200 - £300 per year to have access to a decent selection of games on 1 console and play them online, you’re probably talking close to a £1k per year commitment on what is essentially entertainment. Oh, and if you’re like me and just have to play both Metal Gear Solid and Gearts of War, add another couple of hundred pounds on to that for the 2nd console. No wonder the videogame industry has grown as big as it has, but this has priced many people out of enjoying games – my younger brother for example can just about afford 2nd hand PS3 games, some of which he cant even play online because they ship with an “online pass” – another way to nudge people towards purchasing full price games. Oh and you could even have additional download fee’s as game downloads tend to be big and not everyone has access to unlimited broadband.

There is however a flip side to this – the industry which I work in relies heavily on customer data to make decisions. In fact, so much so, that we often pay significant amounts of money to ensure that we have access to up to date customer data (and, in the census’s case, out of date data). However, each and every time we connect to XBL or PSN, we are sharing our user data with Sony and Microsoft. No problem, except we are paying them for the privilege of this. Sure, they are providing us as service, but what are the main components of the service? Access to more game downloads that we can pay for and a great platform for them to send use tailored advertisements that we are more likely to like, and therefore spend more money on. In my business, we pay money for this information, in gaming, we are paying MS and Sony subscription fee’s that give them unparalleled access to our behaviours (what we play, how long we play it, what we buy, when we buy it) and their sales targeting and customer segmentation will only improve as their data set gets richer and richer.

By this point you could be asking, so what? Well, call me a cynic, but with the announce of two new next gen consoles over the last couple of weeks, both of which are emphasising online connectivity and social media integration, monetising the industry will only get more and more prevalent. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon saw retail games shipping essentially 50% unlocked where you then had to pay a fee per chapter / racing track / weapon if you wanted to unlock it, and some games are already doing this.

Finally, just to turn this on its head, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing – in fact, my favourite gaming experience in the last year actually leveraged both of the above points on monetising the game and data collection perfectly and created a truly phenomenal game. Telltales “The Walking Dead” was a truly great game that had a chapter structure where I was more than happy to pay £15 for the full game (all 5 chapters). The game then shared feedback of how my decision data played out against other game players which greatly enriched my overall experience as I was able to see where my own moral compass played out against the wider community and buy bite sized packages in an really affordable way.

So there are my musings, I guess the challenge that I really have is where next for the next gen consoles – personally when I buy a game I expect it all to be there and not have to pay extra to download bits that should have been in the game, but equally I am all for greater flexibility of payment and use of data to enrich the gaming experience. My main worry is that the big players will dominate and place the emphasis on ensuring that as much advertising and selling to customers takes place as possible and I fully expect gaming to not only continue to be an expensive (and eventually, somewhat exclsusive) hobbywhere we are continually advertised and sold to. I don’t want my gaming experience to end up like the TV (adverts every 15 – 20 mins) or the cinema (30 mins of adverts before the film) or even football (corporate sponsorship everywhere), but I suspect that as consoles get more and more sophisticated and complex technology it will only get easier and easier to “sell to consumers” rather than deliver great games for games.

Apologies for the length, but I am both excited and fearful for the next gen consoles and I’ve already had to start a savings account to put money aside for a console. It was easier growing up – my dad just bought an amiga and my cousin sent me his 2nd hand games for free once he finished with them, those were the days.

Best,


Lee

Some context...

June 19th 2013

Hello -

I've just put my first post in 7 months up - this isnt because I've been lazy or not playing games, but I've had a couple of big personal things happen (inc. moving house and changing job) so its been pretty hectic. Also, there  are a couple of game reasons why I've not posted, and I wanted to explain why, more because it is interesting how choosing which games to play can drastically affect my ability / will to write...

  • initially I planned to write 4 posts on RE6, basically as I expected big things from it. However, after playing Chris's campaign and enjoying it, I moved on to jakes - completing this nearly made me want to not play the game again, but I started Leons and then decided, as good as it was, I'd complete the walking dead (on iOS) first...
  • So then I completed the walking dead and immediately wrote half a post on it, thinking I'd come back to it the next day... a week or so later I fractured my wrist meaning I couldn't really play games or type very well, so that meant my posts  went on ice...
  • When it recovered, I decided to play some Skyrim, which basically took up all my gaming time and, as I don't generally post until I finish a game, nothing ever got written on Skyrim. I've not even near the end of Skyrim, but I will still post about it at some point given that I have completed the Thieves Guild and Dark Brotherhood + a handful of missions on the main quests, so I definitely have some things to say about it (it is a fantastic game that's for sure...)
  • Now, I have just bought the last of us, and boy is it good. I am about 4-5hrs into it and once completed it will be reviewed properly - it is truly a great game so far and again, like the walking dead game, it has so much good about it you forgive the relatively minor flaws.

So there you have it - a short potted history of my excuses for not writing quite as much as I would have liked, but I hope to get back amongst it now that things are (I hope) beginning to settle down. I have high hopes for the end of the last of us - its a great game and like the walking dead it has both a strong male central character with a younger female in support, but Ellie (LoA) is very different to Clementine (WD) ; the similarities are more in that both games have genuinely interesting and believable young female characters that are superbly voice acted and well written - to be honest, it kind of makes a nice change from the ropey dialogue in resident evil games and the like (though I do love RE games of course...)

So yeah, watch this space...

D

The Walking Dead - A Telltale Game

19th June 2013

Howdy,

I recently interrupted my play-through of resident evil 6 to complete the walking dead video game. Late last year, my brother mentioned the walking dead to me and while I had heard of it elsewhere, hadn't actually watched it. I told my brother that I would pick it up in the new year, figuring that if it was as good as my bro thought it was, I'd want to experience the whole thing properly and start the series, read the comics and play the games at the same time... oh and I should also chick in listening to a podcast about the show at the same time. This is, more or less, my main entertainment at the moment, and boy is it worth it.

I actually wanted to say a little about the show and comics first, just to give a bit more context on where I am coming from. the show is an ultimately very entertaining if flawed take on the zombie genre and is, for the most part very well acted and with strong, well defined characters. the comic handles the broader social questions around morality more deftly, and places greater emphasis on dialogue than you might think. And personally, i think podcasts are a great way to get some interesting debate with an active and enthusiastic community out there to discuss tv shows and actors they find both enjoyable and frustrating - for me the discussion adds to the experience (massive shout out to the guys at baldmove for producing a very funny and thorough podcast on the show).

Amidst this mix of TV / Reading and discussion, I also have the game for my iPhone (on which i've actually replaced the screen myself) and its the first game I think I've reviewed on the platform. For me, the iPhones games are for the most part limited and not the sort I invest time in, but the Walking Dead is too good not to include - I didnt just invest time into the game, i invested in the characters, interesting decision and genuinely inventive gameplay.

Onto the game itself, in terms of what I liked and disliked, there are many points of the game that I enjoyed and the complaints are minimal and almost entirely functional. In fact, the only major complaint I can have about the game is the fact that it is sometimes hard to play on the comparatively small iphone screen that makes some of the button presses and views awkward. This complaint however is entirely forgivable once you start actually playing the game itself, so enjoyable is it.

1. The Characters are well defined, interesting and excellently voice acted

Each and every character you come across in the game is nuanced and believable and the game allows you to interact with them more or less, how much you want to. The central duo of Clementine and Lee (the playable charactereach have an interesting back story and have a character arc stronger than certain parts of the series. Clementine in particular is a fully realised and developed person who you are encouraged to protect, given her vulnerability as a 8 year old girl in the zombie apocalypse end of the world scenario, but you can also choose to train her in using a gun to help defend herself. Lee's character is tragic in a very classic way - the anti hero with a troubled past but driven to do the right thing through a new sense of purpose in Clementine. Both are excellently acted, with Clementine in particular believable and perfect for the character throughout. Thats not to say the supporting cast aren't good - there are many great performances with characters you can chose to side with, victimize, develop relationships with and, on occasions chose between life and death. I'll discuss the decisions in a moment, but what makes the key decisions your character has to make about them so tough. The game is paced perfectly around critical decisions that are unique to the game but fit in well with the walking dead universe.

2. Decisions Decisions

Decisions are at the heart of the walking dead gameplay, though the mechanics and outcomes from them are cleverly disguised in the games mechanics. I mean, I really enjoyed 2 things specifically about the decision making. firstly, they felt like big choices, that is whether or not people lived or died - you can, not to spoil the game, decide at certain parts who to side with, how to kill and even how to kill them. This feels extremely involving and creates a great sense of immersion in the game, even though I played it on an iPhone screen. The second point around decisions is the context you get from the wider gaming community. I wouldn't say that this changes anything fundamental about the game per se, but it does shape how you view your character and the way you play through the game. So, for example, if you play through the game taking a cold hard approach to everything and everyone, you'll not only find yourself alienated from the characters in the game, the likely hood is that you'll find out that you're also making decisions that are in the minority compared to those of otherg gamers. Like i say, I am not sure that it adds depth to the game, but crowd sourcing fellow gamers decision making data and using it to provide context to your own gameplay experience was a stroke of genius that only served to add emotional weight to the game. Personally, I loved both the decision arcs and context and rarely have I felt so involved with a game on an smartphone.

3. The structure - perfect for a handheld device

The overriding feeling I have about the walking dead is that it was just designed, written and acted really well, right down to the developers clearly taking into account the device it was being played on. I know it was released for the iphone, xbox 360 and PS3, but for me the 5 act & supporting chapter structure worked perfectly for a portable device. Each smaller chapter took me around 20 - 30 mins to play through  (perfect for travelling / remembering where to come back to) and there were always nice natural break points where a pause or exiting of the game worked well. The game by now means looked or felt held back being played on a smart phone (with one minor complaint) and indeed felt as well planned out as any big budget commercial game with even pacing followed by suitable climaxes. There is even an element of predictability that I would say was a strength of the game - because of the 5 5 act + smaller chapters, you kind of get to know when the peaks are likely to arrive and so, working out when to pause and come back is usually very easy. For a portable game this is crucial, as you wont want to be playing the climax of the chapter  right before you are due to navigate the tube at Waterloo - you want a degree of knowledge about when may be a good time to break, and the games fairly simple structure generally makes this obvious, in a very good way and I really do mean it when I say this is undeniably the best game I've played for the iphone or any hand held (with the possible exception of peacewalker on the PSP).

What didn't I like - really not much. The only issues I really had were around functionality - having your screen double as your controller does restrict the view (naturally) which can be a pain and the touch screen sensitivity occasionally goes out the window and mis-interprets your controls, but hey, that's life. If I was being very harsh, I'd say that while the game is a great point and click, some of the action elements feel tacked on - the shooting isn't really that great when you have to do it and there are a couple of moments where the games jerk from narrative to action doesn't quite hit the right notes, but these are minor criticisms.

All in all, this is a great game that I wouldn't have been disappointed paying full price for, but at £12 for 5 episodes, its an absolute bargain and a minor technical marvel given the quality of the game on an iPhone, both in terms of plot, acting, graphics and game play.

I also think the game benefited from the bold decision to script it largely outside the TV shows universe - there are a couple of cameos (no spoilers), but the game is both solid in its ties to the shows main themes (isolation, lack of purpose, protection) but distinct in its portrayal of them to feel like a new experience in a recognisable game world.

This is one of those games I cant really rate highly enough - fun to play, satisfying to complete and interesting to think about, you cant ask for much more from a top quality hand held game that is in no way held back by the platform I played it on.

I'd give this a solid A - recommended to play, whether you love the show or not...

Dont get bit...

D

Resident Evil 6 [Jakes Campaign]

24th February 2013

Howdy,

I completed Jakes RE6 campaign last weekend and have put off writing it up as I was reading and playing some more interesting material, mostly Walking Dead related. Before I comment on Jakes campaign, I will just make a quick comment on the Walking Dead game which I've been playing on my iPhone. When I complete it, I'll writeabout it more specifically, but what a great game it is with a great blend of tension and action combined with a strong character driven plot. In short, it has more in common with the original resident evil series than RE6 does. Where RE6 flits between being part action movie and part video game, the WD retains a great sense of horror and struggle to survive against the odds. It is an interesting juxtaposition and serves to illustrate just how far RE6 has deviated from its roots.

Anyhow, onto Jakes campaign - it certainly has a different pace to Chris's campaign but retains the same basic controls and premises to Chris. I'll comment on what i liked and didn't like, but in short, it is not really different enough in game play for it to feel totally new and, most frustratingly, the elements that are different are not really strong enough in their own right for this to feel anywhere near as exciting or fun as Chris's. Anyhow, what i liked / disliked...what i liked is up first...

***

1. An attempt at variety is to be applauded...Irrespective of how successful the fact that Capcom tried to offer different pace and game play in the same game is commendable. I admire the fact that Jake is immediately quicker and more nimble that Chris, has a broader array of close combat moves that make taking down zombies very fun. Also, the fact that Jakes campaign places more emphasis on set pieces and boss fights does make the overall flow of the game feel suitably different to the other campaigns to, initially at least, that my interest was piqued. Good effort, or rather, good idea at least...

2. The Voice Acting is very strongBoth leading characters in Jakes campaign are very well acted and bring a sense of gravitas to what could have been quite cliched scenes in the game. Hell, the scens are cliched, but they get away with it due in large to the great voice acting. Both Sherry and Jake are enjoyable characters to listen to with interesting back stories and motivations.

3. The action, as with Chris's game remains tight and is fun to play
Again, RE6 is generally well designed in that the controls are responsive and the combat intense. Zombies explode believably, you can move around the environments at pace and deliver pretty cool close quarters combat interspersed with some pretty fun QTE's to kill them with a variety of weapons and, ultimately, you get to kill a lot of zombies, which is a large part of what Resident Evil has become (rather than avoiding them). These are the sections of the campaign where the game is at its strongest. Unfortunately, as i hinted at above, there is a far greater emphasis on set pieces that ultimately disrupt the flow of the gameplay...

***

1. Sooooo many set pieces just dont workThe first thing that you must get right if you are going to have a game that has 50% of the gameplay focused on set pieces is that they need to be well executed and fun. Sadly, the majority are neither. The motorbike scene is boring and clearly more interested in showing you some cool slo-mo moments than it is actually allowing you to have fun escaping zombies on a sports bike. As someone who drives a bike, I was amazed at how boring and frustrating they managed to make this. For a start, the bike is speed limited, which means you drive along at a normal pace and cant go any faster - this means your kick ass bike is overtaken by zombies driving regular cars. I assumed that as zombies are meant to be braindead, they wouldnt be that great at driving but apparently they are. Couple this with a shoddy snow mobile escape scene where I continually died without explanation or an opportunity to avoid the thing that killed me (an avalanche) and you get an often frustrating and unexciting game experience. Sure, the game looks great while your completing these sections, but it all feels a bit too on-rails and unexciting. In fact, graphics aside, in these sections there was nothing that wouldnt have been out of place on a PS2 game - it was distinctly poor.

Oh, and one more thing about the set pieces, the semi regular boss fights, that include stealth moments neither have tension nor terror - you get a checkpoint right before them and it is just a case of rinse repeat until you get through them. For some reason fighting the same indestructible boss over and over again lost its fun. And on this boss...

2. The Boss - indestructible until the very end...I wont 'spoil' the final boss fight in case my bro reads this, but my god i've never had a more frustrating boss fight. It literally took me 20+ attempts, and it is not because the fight itself is particularly hard - you just need to sink loads of bullets into him - its just the controls and camera really let you down in close quarters fighting with huge boss. Oh and the floor is made of lava, so when you fall over (as you do every time the boss attacks), you get hurt. Oh and all the items are left in the lava so it hurts you to pick them up. Basically, its a bit of a mess by the end and rather, it is the games limitations that made it hard, not the difficulty level. I mean, having a camera that hugs your characters shoulder and a character model that takes up half the screen and an enemy that takes up the other half is just downright awkward. Chuck in a lava floor and an enemy whose 2 attacks both knock you down and, basically, its not fun and it is certainly not clever. And i'll not even start on how you actually defeat the boss - it is totally ludicrous and contradictory to everything that has gone before you, i mean he is meant to be indestructible and the manner in which he is dispatched is quite frankly laughable and for me was one suspension of disbelief too far for me.

3. By the end, it all wears a bit thin, there is just not enough quality
By now, your probably getting the impression that this campaign is more style over substance, and while that is true, its not this fact that hurts the game. Rather, it is that the game promises variety in its different characters and approach but ultimately fails to deliver. Jake's campaign is basically a lazy concoction of poor set pieces, one long boss fight and some standard RE6 action where the only variety comes from your increased ability in hand to hand combat. While fun initially, it is not enough to sustain over a relatively short campaign and that is the most damning thing - by the end of the 5 hours it took for me to complete it I immediately thought "thank Christ that is over", rather than "wasn't that fun".

***

So there you have it - needless to say I wasnt impressed with Jakes campaign. The annoying thing was that there was plenty of good stuff in it - even the story managed one interesting twist and there were several nice cross over moments with the other campaigns that I enjoyed. There was one moment where I even realised that I had revealed something about Leons campaign that, had i not completed Jakes campaing first, wouldnt have known. This was particularly cool, as it was sort of an in game spoiler about another part of the games plot and got me thinking "hmmm, i wonder if this will influence how i play Leons campaign..." Unfortunately though, theses moments are few and far between and the majority of the campaigns gameplay is pretty average at best, or a poor imitation of what other games have done better before.

Disappointing BUT I have started Leons campaign and it is significantly better and much closer to the original RE experience, both in terms of setting, gameplay and tone. In fact, its the first of the 3 campaigns that i've played to actually try throw some horror in the mix, so I suspect I'll enjoy it more.

As for Sherry and Jake, well, a shame as it could have been much better with a little more thought and stronger design.

Rating - C

Best,

DD

Other Games - A range I've completed over the years

February 16th 2013

Howdy,

I've actually just completed Jakes campaign in RE6 but given how infuriated I was by the end of it, I am going to hold back on commenting on it and instead, write about something that I have fond memories of. Instead, I've decided to post a list (hey, I love data...) of the games that I know I've completed over the years. I've grouped by consoles and its certainly not exhaustive, but it should give a feel for the games that I know I've finished across at least 3 consoles.  First up are my ps1 games...

PS1
Final Fantasy 7 - 
probably the greatest role playing game of all time. Not for its gameplay, but certainly for its plot, characters and iconic status as one of the genre and console defining games of its era. I've completed it at least 4 times, start to finish and only have fond memories of it. Finest Moment - the moment where you realise, 20 hrs in, that you've only realised that you've scratched the surface of the depth of the game - there really is so much more than meets the eye to the game and only investing a significant amount of time over multiple playthroughs allows you to discover it. (9.5/10)

Final Fantasy 9 - Skipping FF8's rather irritating main character and instead presenting both a plot and cast that even the most hardened JRPG hater could enjoy, here you have a game where the emphasis is on a return to the series roots blended with a real sense of fun and genuine humour. While both FF9 and FF7 have similar plots, FF9 deals the cards, literally on occasions, with a sense of fun and genuine humour that only endears you to its cast. Of course, FF7 holds classic status, but in its own way, FF9 is also a true classic with a great combat system, grand scope and sense of adventure that can be missing from its rather more revered predecessor. Finest Moment - 5 minutes in, when you first see Zidane as a playful rogue and realise that the game aims to maintain the moral complexity and retain the drama associated with previous FF games, without a melancholy leading man. (9/10)

Gran Turismo - the first game i truly grinded through to complete. It took me 8 years, but i got my B, A and A international licence and won every tournament you could. A truly legendary racing game that was more than just a racing game - it was the real driving simulator and ahead of its time. Finest Moment - I defy anyone to watch a GT reply on the PS1 for the first time and not feel astonished. It was the first atempt at not just recreating lifelike racing, but also lifelife spectating on the racing. Bold, ambitious and beautiful, (9/10)

Metal Gear Solid - Not really just a game, probably the first attempt at blending a game and a movie. Sure, the polygon count is a bit too low to make it believable, but the ambition of the game means you forgive so much - including the short time to complete - because it was so enjoyable while it lasted. The game paid homage to its predecessors but did what they couldnt in creating a spy thriller packed with great story and fantastic game play. Finest Moment - There are to many to name, but for me one memory stands out, and its not really one moment. Its the perfect realisation of the character delivered through David Hayters voice acting. (9.5/10)

Resident Evil - Of course, its not the first survival horror game, but having played it recently, I can say that it definitely stands the test of time. The sense of horror, drama and, dare I say it, realism, defined a genre. Its not that the game is realistic per se, but RE tried to create a sense of horror and tension through starving characters of ammo and resources, just as could easily happen. Finest Moment - the hilarious voice acting aside, the game is best remembered for the Mansion Itself - even by todays standards a truly haunting location with superb art and design(9/10)

Resident Evil 2 - Technically a better game than RE1, but it was probably the game that first instigated the series moving in a different direction. What I loved about RE2 was the retention of the horror setting but it upped the ante in terms of action and scale. Finest Moment - the introduction of Leon - what a great character and all around badass. He was more fully developed than the RE1 characters and went on to become a series stalwart. (9/10)

Resident Evil 3 - To be really honest I dont recall much of this game save for the mixing of gunpowder to make some pretty cool ammunition and the Nemesis monster, but it was the last RE game on the PS1 and I have nothing but fond memories of those games. While it was undoubtedly inferior to RE1 and RE2, it at least broadened the sense of terror by moving you into the city and out of the mansion, making it more of a sideways step, rather than a step forward. Finest Moment - Again, I dont remember this particulary well, but defeating the Nemesis sure felt satisfying... at least i recall the sense of satisfaction, if not the battle. (8/10)

Silent Hill - Probably the greatest survival horror game of all time. The convoluted plot, the town to explore and ongoing sense of terror and dread make this as close to a complete horror game on the PS1 as you can get. It had equal measure of puzzle solving, terror and action and Konami delivered a game that was both ahead of its time and trend setting. SH2 and 3 merely built on the fantastic platform SH1 developed. Finest Moment - the fog; an ingenious use of the consoles limitations to improve the experience, rather than limit it. (9/10)

Tenchu - a genuine attempt to deliver 3D stealth based action in a historic setting. Where MGS was all about the plot and characters, Tenchu gave you much more in some respects - large and sprawling environments, a historical setting and varied range of misions and enemies. I loved this game, as much for its realisation of medieval japan as the downright great gameplay itself. Finest Moment - the ending has a genuine heart wrenching moment, but the fact that the game is both difficult and rewarding means that the games setting itself is the finest moment, rather than any standout set piece in particular. Taking a limited console such as the PS1 and bringing medieval Japan to life makes this an all around classic. (9/10)


So there you have it - some of my classic PS1 experiences, I am sure that i have completed more, but the console itself really did punch above its weight, mainly because it had a long lifespan and many creative developers. One of the finest points that proves this is of course that SIlent Hill actually used the limitations to its advantage, but other games werent limited by the console, rather they made the console much more than what it was. It could have been just a games console, instead games like FF7, Gran Turisimo and even RE1 and 2 showed the public that cinematic experiences could become interactive, and not just observational.

DD

Resident Evil 6 [Chris's Campaign]

February 07 2013

Howdy,

Its been nearly 2 months since i posted, but its not because I've not been playing much, rather I've been super busy with work / life and been playing RE6 (and Fifa). RE6 is an interesting game - it gives you 4 unique campaigns, tied together by the same controls, animations and, broadly speaking gameplay. The difference is that each campaign has its own unique take on the games story - Chris's campaign is action focused with an emphasis on often Gears of War type gameplay. Jake, on the other hand, has a definite emphasis on boss fights, close quarters combat and light puzzle solving. I've yet to play Leon or Ada's campaign, but from what I've read, Ada's is puzzle focused and Leons the closest to the traditional Resident Evil gameplay, in it settings at least. Given the t game has 4 unique campaigns and characters, I plan to put one post up on each, with a final post on how I thought the game played out overall.

Without further adieu, I'll crack on, so to speak, with what I found interesting and not so interesting in Chris and Piers campaign and I'll do my best to avoid spoilers, though there is little that can actually be spoiled - the game is pretty relentless in its action and most of the plot twists (with one or two exceptions) are at the very end of the game. So, what did I like....

1. The action is tight, agressive and mainly fun

As a character, Chris is pretty limited - a macho, beefy well armed marine with a gravely voice and penchant for blowing the crap out of things. Oh, and he is fiercely loyal to faceless soldiers (more on that at a later point). However, the game is undeniably at its strongest when Chris and Piers are fighting their way through multiple hordes of heavily armed and grotesque zombies. You get decent array of weapons, though all are fairly standard (shotgun, grenade launcher etc), but they remain satisfying right until the end of the game. When you are fighting standard enemies, the game is fun, with a decent amount of ammo to go around ,well designed levels for the most part and plenty of inventive ways to take the bad guys out. Add a strong cooperative element into the game and you do get a pretty solid action game. The controls, while occassionaly slippy, for the most part are intuitive and the combat is noisy, tense and, on veteran diffuculty provides a decent challenge without being frustrating. As an action game, Chris's campaign was a pretty solid, if unspectacular showing and I generally liked it. Of course, if there were 4 campaigns all very similar, I would have been bored, but as a one off campaign it felt good.

2. The Story tries new things...

The plot in RE games is usually ludicrous and RE6 is no exception, though it does at least try to innovate by tying all 4 campaigns together. While I cant speak for the plot in the remaining campaigns, it was quite cool to see Leon, Sherry and Ada show up knowing that at some point you'd get to play through the same parts from their perspective - its not revolutionary, but at least they have tried to take the general flow of the game in a new direction - and it doesn't even matter what order you play through them. Irrespective of how successful this is across the game, kudos to Capcom for trying something a little different in tying the games story threads together.

3. Partners in crime...

Where Sheva in RE5 was pretty much a standard sidekick, Piers gets some great lines, some interesting character development and even a couple of pretty big moments in terms of the games story arc. Personally I liked this - especially in playing it Co-Op with my bro as it meant that rather than the secondary character merely making up the numbers, here they actually give the supporting character a decent amount of credibility and action. Again, I cant talk about the other campaigns, but by the end of the game I genuinely liked Piers role in the RE universe and, helped by strong voice acting, I accepted him along side Chris as a strong marine with his own outlook on the world who goes through his own individual experiences. Again, irrespective of my view on the game, Capcom went to considerable effort to ensure the games co-op experience, in plot and gameplay, held its own with the single player and this is commendable.***

So, what didn't I like? Well, there wasn't that much I actively disliked, but there were moments of utter frustration, though most were borne out of just poor design choices at specific moments of the game rather than underlying flaws with the games core gameplay.

1. Boss Fights - with a knife

Without exception, I only ran out of ammo on 4 or 5 occasions and all of these were during boss fights. I mean, the game gives you a decent selection of ammo throughout and while not excessive, you usually have all the tools needed to do the job - except with bosses, where there is a finite amount of ammo, and if you run out you are reduced to using the knife. While the knife is cool (and over powered) it was ludicrous in the extreme that I had to kill the final boss by knifing it to death - just as i had done for the preceding ones. While this in itself is not a problem, the fact that knife fights are basically a combination of blind luck and button bashing, it basically relegates the boss fights to pot luck survival with limited skill involved - and this was the same on both veteran and normal difficulties (I played on veteran, played portions of the game with my bro on normal).

2. Snipers - get used to being knocked down

I am not going to say much on this, but trust me, you will be knocked down, alot, by invisible snipers and it will drive you mad. Apparently diving out of the way works sometimes, but not always - in fact, again, it is more blind luck that anything else. See, when a game reduces bits of the game to blind luck it removes all sense of engagement with it and, ultimately for me increases frustration. There are enemies in the game that this applies to, but I'd say that without a doubt, the sniper sections are the worst offenders

3. Dont fight - run

This is a minor gripe, but, again, there are certain portions of the campaign where you are made to feel like you are in a tight spot - that is under pressure, surrounded and having to battle your way out. What do you do - surrounded by bad guys...do you fight them? No - just run away and ignore them - its easier, conserves ammo and helps you progress through the game quicker. Is this a problem? Well, not in itself - games like silent hill and even early RE titles employed this to great effect, however RE6 is definitely an action game and, as such, lacks any sense of horror or suspense. This means that those sections where you can run through are just the quickest way to get from A to B. Oh, and add your very helpful PDA that constantly guides you to your destination and you have nothing more than a linear run past well animated zombies and environments. The problem is that these sections are actually fairly frequent and thats the problem - its an action game that, on occasions actively encourages you to avoid action, and while it doesn't have the horror elements of old, dashes to the finish hurt the games pacing and sense of immersion.

***

So there you have it - while the action is great, there are some very strange decisions that really hurt Chris's campaign. Chris is a great character with actually some fairly interesting set pieces, but the problem isnt with the bits that RE6 does well, the problem is with those bits that RE6 uses as filler and they largely miss the mark.

There is one other problem - the controls are mostly good, but there are moments of sheer anger when you've got to muck around with inventory selection, randomly changing camera angles and sheer frustration when you die for some reason you couldnt have anticipated.

By and large, they are forgivable - RE6 is a fun game to play through, but the flaws add up to make it a B-movie game feel, rather than a slick blockbuster like you have in GOW or similar. Of course, this may have been the ambition, given Resident Evil's roots, but, given the production values, I suspect not.

Overall - B+

Lee

Deus Ex - Human Revolution

December 3rd 2012

I've been discussing Deus-Ex with a couple of colleagues, and those who've played it agree that its an incredibly flexible game where the whole really is better than the sum of its parts. But, before i comment on the 3 things i liked / disliked about the game, i wanted to spend a moment talking about the structure of the game.

It begins with choice
The great thing about deus ex is that it fundamentally encourages experimentation with each of its core game modes. As i saw it,it was more a very clever illusion of choice, that gives you a lot of variety, but is actually fairly repetitive. You see, you've got 3 main "types" of gameplay, and 3 main ways of playing through each, the story, exploration and combat. And you can pretty much play each of these game

Combat
1. Soldier (i.e. first person / 3rd person cover based action)
2. Stealth based (sneak around)
3. Blend i.e. take out emenies by stealth / run away / use sniper rifles etc

Role Playing (i.e. the plot and your role in it)
1. Good (i.e. generally accepting of people, want to see the best in the characters)
2. Bad (i.e. be badass, give people a hard time)
3. Smart (i.e. use the social interaction mod and really try and play the debates / complex moral dilemmas)

Exploration
1. Pay no attention, just progress the plot of the game forget trying to find random hidden areas / side quests)
2. Hack your way through - focus on upgrading hacking skills, disable cameras, make exploration easier
3. Use your Body - upgrade your jumping, strength and vision, make exlproing and finding stuff easier

The clever bit is of course that you are rarely faced with one of these gameplay components at a time, they all infact overlap and gave the game its feeling of enormous flexibility, albeit within predetermined rules.

About 1/3rd into the game, there is a moment of realisation where I was finally good enough at combat and taking out enemies quietly, that I started to try and explore a warehouse. Then i realised that i needed to upgrade my hacking skills to access an area, so i did. Next thing i knew, I had bypassed a whole pile of enemies on patrol, hacked a local security terminal and turned all the drones on my enemies, saving me a pile of ammo and hassle. This is a farely common occurance in the game - you frequently get the chance to mix up your own way of playing and are never penalised for it - you can be pretty much competent at everything major at the end of the game and still find interesting ways of solving what could have easily been routine problems.

Deus ex really does bend over backwards to accomodate multiple ways of approaching the game - and when i say that its more that the sum of its parts, this is specifically what i am referring to - the combat is not as strong as GOW, Resident Evil or even Mass Effect. Nor is the role playing as developed as Skyrim, Mass Effect (again) or Final Fantasy (in fact, the while the story here is good, its the pacing of it is strange). Finally, the exploration is particulary limited, despite early promise of having cities to explore. However, put them all together and you get a great and varied role playing game with enough interesting takes on pretty regular components to make it easy to recommend.

So what did I like and dislike? I'll keep this fairly short, given how much i've already said on the game itself...

Likes
1. The action is always satisfying (except for boss fights)

The combat may not be as great as Gears of War, but boy is it fun. Once you get out of the first 4 hrs, the game lets go and you have enough toys to play with to ensure that routine action is plenty of fun. You get a healthy arsenal to shoot with (tranquilize or kill) including a shotgun (of course), a couple of fun rifles, grenades (which of course can be turned into mines), but you also have 2 swords up your arms for bloody death dealing to unsuspecting guards. Combine this with varied settings (both in design and layout) and you get a pretty enjoyable single player action game.

2. The Setting
Put simply, the scenery is great in Deus Ex with its orange hue throughout, it has plenty nice touches that make it feel like a believable dystopian (?) future. Also, Jensen your character looks like a ludicrously clothed badass when killing people. its so OTT, that its funny.

3. The Conversation Combat & Ambuguity
I'll not spoil either, but conversation combat (or "social duels") are a real highlight. You have to use what you know about your adversary and use your wits / words to take down a foe. The game gives you a spot of practice with this early on, and at several key moments employee's it expertly. Regarding the plot, while good, what makes it really interesting is the amount of ambiguity (with one exception - see the end, below), where there arent many clear cut decision. In fact, the game is littered with plenty of debates that are well structured and interesting to listen to. Where the FF games can be weighed down by their overly played out storylines, Deus Ex, true to its form gives you the choice as to how much you engage with it. You can read a good selection of PDA's, E-Books, Notes, Emails etc and hear interesting dialogue debating the ethics behind genetic modification & enhancement of humans. For the most part it is excellent and both well acted and written.

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Dislikes
1. The Boss fights
Enough has been said about this for me to not need to repeat it, but believe me, these are the least interesting parts of the game by far. All I'll say is that they reduce any choice from the scenario, and you a required to shoot the crap out of a heavily armed bad guy. Also, weirdly, the bosses get easier as the game goes on too - the first one is super hard if you've not really been paying attention to your augmentations (see below)>

2. The Pacing
The designers made some really weird pacing decisions. For a start, the bosses get easier - be this by by product (as you are just generally "harder" by the end) or a deliberate choice, it really hurts the overall flow of the game. The first two bosses are very punishing (especially #1) and if you have been playing as a light footed stealth character with little emphasis on guns, you're basically screwed. For me, it felt more like they were shoe-horned in to present natural climaxes in the plot.

3. The Inventory Management
For a game so slick in look, feel and general execution of ideas, my god did the skip a beat with the inventory. I can only assume the designers did this to keep the "challenge" in the game, but it is just so fiddly. Not only are you limited in space, you've frequently got to drop weapons / items to free up enough space just to upgrade / heal / equip new items. Its just a bit of a pain, but not enough to ruin the experience.
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So there you have it - dues ex human revolution is a great game to play with an interesting and well developed plot and varied gameplay. It is sometimes frustrating, but always has enough breadth and depth to keep you entertained and interested.

The last thing I'll say is the weird mis-step at the end. I'll not spoil it, but there are 4 different endings, and you have to make a choice that decides the fate of mankind. However, rather than this choice made overlooking some epic vista, or having any tension or urgency, you are plonked infront of 3 buttons, each of which has 1 distinct outcome (the 4th choice is unlockable if you've done something during the game). I literally made a save game and watched all 4. It totally removed all emotional impact the endings could have had as you can literally just play the 2 minute video sequences for each. Sure, they are interesting, but dont feature any real character resolution and the whole 'bit at the end' feels like a cheap CG ending at the end of a hollywood horror movie when you were expecting something truly epic.

Overall - B+

Thats it - interested in your thoughts!

D