Monday, 26 December 2011

Review: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

            Bleary eyed, blinded by the light of the natural world I stumble from the confines of my indoor cell. I of course am talking about my self incarceration at the hands of ‘The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’. I will start by apologising that this has taken quite so long for me to write, you see I wanted to finish at least the main quest before writing a review and I got a little bit distracted. Well I say a little bit, I started the main quest line proper after about 80 hours of side quests, exploration and general dithering. So anyway, on with the show!

As anyone familiar with an ‘Elder Scrolls’ title will already know you begin the game as a nameless prisoner, you are treated to a bit of back-story as the cart transports you and a few others similarly on death row to the town square where you are scheduled to be decapitated. You step down from the cart and are then unleashed upon the character creation screen, you may be here for some time. Obviously the main thing you need to pick is your race, each has unique racial traits and abilities and slight variations in starting stats but go for what you like the look of best, part of the beauty of ‘Skyrim’ is that regardless of race you can be effective as whatever class you like, the only thing you have to compensate for is perhaps a slightly lower starting skill level which is overcome quickly enough at low levels. I looked at the various races and toyed with the idea of being an Argonian thief or a Redguard warrior, but then gave up all pretence that I was going to be anything but a Dunmer (Dark Elf) mage and rolled one of those. This is all I’m going to say about the story so as to avoid spoilers for any who have yet to experience it and to keep this from becoming a novella but trust me it’s rather good. Actually I retract that partially, I urge you to play the first few story quests until you have completed ‘The Way of the Voice’, this gives you a very useful skill which helps you hugely in more difficult fights. At the very least do ‘Dragon Rising’ before commencing your random wanderings since before that dragons will rarely if ever be seen.

The world of ‘Skyrim is simply huge, I genuinely can’t think of anything bigger, if you plan to trek from one end of the map to the other be prepared for a long walk. Luckily you are treated to breathtaking landscapes, skies, random weather and water effects that made me stop and just stare for a bit. This is the best way to experience Skyrim, aimlessly meandering around discovering caves, dungeons, castles and the like. Of course once you’ve found places you can quick travel which is hugely helpful, it would be insane to walk everywhere all the time. Even riding takes time and carts can only take you between major cities which is not always where you want to go but if your anything like me you wont always jump to the nearest possible location or go from waypoint to waypoint but will cover the map in places you haven’t necessarily been into but have discovered for quick travelling back to later on.

Apart from the main quest and general wandering of the world there are several side quests that are long enough to passed off as entire games these days as well as a ridiculous number miscellaneous quests and an infinite, yes infinite, amount of radiant quests. Yes the radiant quests are very straight forward affairs like ‘steal x from y’ or ‘go here and kill whoever’ but they’re there to be completed and you are rewarded each time. The ‘main’ side quests revolve around the major guilds or groups in the game: The College of Winterhold, The Dark Brotherhood, The Thieves Guild, The Civil War and The Companions all need your help and the Dark Brotherhood and Thieves Guild stories were incredibly strong in my opinion.

The game mechanics are a cross between ‘Oblivion’ in that they go up as you use them and a ‘Fallout’ style perk system. The fusion works very well for the most part and is what allows you to play whatever character you like. As you complete actions related to a spell, deal damage with Destruction magic or craft a weapon with Blacksmithing your skill level rises. Raise it enough and the level increases granting an amount of experience to your overall level corresponding to your current character level and the level of the skill increase. Put simply the higher level you are the higher the level of your skill increases need to b e to make a notable impression of the next level. Now this system makes a lot of sense, getting better by doing something is logical and feels more real than adding some points at level up to various areas, however it does have drawbacks. I shall use my thief character as an example of this. Being a thief I snuck about a lot, picked every lock I could find and stole from anybody’s pocket. Whilst hugely entertaining this meant that my sneaking skills levelled up frequently, resulting in my overall character level rising with it. Not a problem until you are out on a main quest perhaps and are faced with a tough enemy who has been levelled to match your character level. The issue is now abundantly clear, my combat and armour skills are drastically lower than the game expects them to be based on my character level which means that if my sneak attack from stealth doesn’t insta-kill the opponent I’m immediately in trouble. This isn’t helped by the games somewhat random decisions as to whether you’re hidden or not. There are times I’ve been detected but nobody is anywhere near but my target and they certainly hadn’t seen me since they weren’t trying to jam a sword in my neck.

That aside the combat system was surprisingly good. Melee combat from first person has always felt clunky and unnatural to me and whilst it is still not perfect it’s certainly the best I’ve ever experienced. Similar to ‘Fallout’ melee with added fancy finishing moves and a more fluid feel I found myself enjoying charging up to people spewing flames from my left hand before sticking them with the sword in my right. Obviously there are some issues; enemies have a tendency to jink radically to the sides meaning misses and frantically spinning round to try and locate them, Dragon Priests in particular are right bastards for this. The main combat mechanic I was massively impressed with was archery. Archery in video games has in my experience always been utter rubbish which saddens me, not so in ‘Skyrim’. Equipping a bow and taking to my quest I was apprehensive but had to try because I sort of wish I was Robin Hood, I hid in some shadows, held down the trigger and drew the string back, lined up the shot and loosed the arrow, ‘Thunk, scream, dead bandit’. Amazed I tried again on the next victim with the same results. If you can sneak up on your enemy to gain your X2 bonus (X3 if you take a perk) and have a perk or two to increase archery damage the first guy you shoot is probably going to die, letting you quickly eliminate or drastically weaken priority targets before drawing the next arrow and starting on the underlings. Immensely satisfying and I could finally use a bow in a game and not be horrifically underpowered. Once you take perks for zooming in and slowing down time (at a cost of draining stamina) you won’t often miss and can take out most small groups before they realise what’s going on.

Now this wouldn’t a ‘Skyrim’ discussion without talk of a few glitches here and there. This was of course expected as it usually is with a Bethesda title and there clearly are some. I elected to get the Xbox version as my desk is nowhere near comfortable enough to sit at for the sheer number of hours I would be spending in front of this game and I have had quite a few freezes on loading screens and one or two in game as well. Apart from that, the occasional frame rate dive and some issues with dragon corpses not behaving quite properly I only had one other issue. That said it was a big one. The first time I tried to complete the Thieves Guild quests the second one didn’t trigger, I was told who to speak to and should have been given the quest then and there but wasn’t. 20 hours later I decided to carry on that particular path so consulted my quest log to find no mention of the quest I thought should be there. Consulting a guide I found the person I was meant to talk to and they didn’t have the required speech option. A quick internet search told me this was apparently a common problem and there was nothing I could do about it.

In spite of its problems I simply adore this game; I dare not glance at my playtime anymore for fear of the sheer number of hours I’ve poured into the world of Tamriel. The vastness of the world, the beauty of the surroundings and the completely immersive experience as a whole make for a truly magnificent game. It has a feel to it unlike anything I’ve experience and while it may not be the greatest game ever made it easily puts most anything form the last few years to shame. This is an RPG worthy of your attention unlike some others I will not mention again, though you probably know to what I’m referring. Watch out for ‘Fallout 4’ or whatever they decide to call it. Using the engine from ‘Skyrim’ and keeping a few of it’s choice elements such as being able to save your perks for later rather than forcing you to take them at level up that game could further redefine the modern open world RPG. So that’s it, review over and didn’t make one ‘Arrow in the knee’ joke, somewhat proud of myself. Now it’s off to my new time sink ‘Star Wars: The Old Republic’, more on that to come in the near future!


Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Modern Warfare... what's the point?

So it's finally upon us, the years 'biggest release' has arrived in stores and provided those of us that happen to work in one of said stores a day you would normally undergo in Hell for some heinous crime. Well that is if the deluded masses... sorry religous people, are right and there is such a place, but anyway back on topic. 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3' has been released after months of held breath, near uncontrolable excitement or complete and utter disdain (delete as appropriate).

This is as close to a review of 'MW3' you'll get from me, being as I am in the third of the mindsets I just described. Whilst I'm funding my games myself on my budget of not a lot I can't afford to buy games I have no interest in simply for review purposes. This instead will be mostly about how I 'don't get' Call of Duty, not at all.

It's well known now I expect that I dislike FPS games as a general rule and COD chief among them is not exempt from this. Before people rage about not being able to have an opinon without playing them let it be known that I played Modern Warfare, finished it on whatever hardest mode is called and throughout the entire thing barely ever had a moment of fun, nothing put a smile on my face or felt like I'd achieved anything difficult. Strategy seemed completely irrelevant as trial and error was more than enough to get through any situation, even the 'stealth level' was painfully non challenging. I even tried 'Modern Warfare 2', but 30 minutes in I realised I played the game before when it was called 'Modern Warfare'. To give them their dues they are well oiled shooters, I'm sure they're good games (well one good game with a load of different titles) but I don't like them.

One of the things that bugs me the most is the insistence by the people that buy these games that the multiplayer is all they're really for. Now I take issue with this on multiple fronts. Firstly, I'm an anti-social misanthropic person who with very few exceptions will not play with other people. Secondly no game should be released on the basis that the multiayer is the core of the content unless it's an mmo OR it doesn't pretend to have a noteworthy single player. COD is neither of these.

The other thing that really gets me are the sorts of people who generally buy these games. They assume that as a gamer I must play them and upon learning that I don't look at me like I'm crazy. I cannot see the appeal of playing the exact same levels against random, often irritating people. These same people will be the ones who won't play RPGs because 'random battles are repetative.' Well done genius, fuck off back to your 500th match on the same damn map.

In conclusion, I dislike Call of Duty (in case you missed that). A well made but tedious, bland and unfulfilling game it is sure to be. The multiplayer being what appears to be the main focus of the game alienates the single player market and completely ostracises anyone looking for anything deep or even remotely interesting in terms of story or characters. Don't give me the rubbish that these games have a good story, I shall simply laugh at you and direct you to something more engaging things, like 'Spot the Dog'.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Not just backing sounds

             Music is essential to almost all video games, there are very few exceptions to this rule and sports games are the only ones I can think of and even then there is something to be said for it. Even the mentally challenged sheep poring hours and hours into Call of Duty have a backing score which they may not notice is there, but definitely would realise something was different if it weren’t. Arguably the most important video game scores are those for RPGs where the gamer is led to identify with characters and situations, the correct music must be employed to ensure not only you engage fully with the game but should the music be wrong the opposite can occur and the illusion completely dispelled. Luckily for us there are plenty of games where the musical score is precisely what is needed and to my mind the most striking combination of games and more importantly composer of such pieces is, and here’s a shocker, Final Fantasy and Nobuo Uematsu. Don’t worry this isn’t just a fanboy raving about his favourite series again… well not much anyway, there’s a point to it all and to this latest rambling of mine though granted it is slightly different than usual.

            ‘Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy’, a concert of popular tracks from the legendary series, has been touring the world for a while now and finally made it to London last night and I was lucky enough to get a hold of a pair of tickets for myself and a close friend who shares my love for Final Fantasy and for game soundtracks. So comfortably overdressed as we turned out to be we headed for London’s Royal Albert Hall for an evening of orchestral excellence. Upon arrival we discovered that the last minute tickets I managed to get were in fact rather good, centrally located, on the floor and about 10 feet from the stage and settled down for the show, after dashing to a merchandise stand to grab programmes, copies of the FFVII Original Soundtrack and in my case a t-shirt as well. 

            The atmosphere in the hall was incredible. Completely packed with fans of the series, possibly a few begrudging partners dragged along but even they couldn’t have been disgruntled once the orchestra started playing. The show kicked off with Nobuo himself taking the stage to rapturous applause, closely followed by conductor Arnie Roth leading the musicians in the Prelude which is synonymous with the opening menu screen of the series before launching into the sublime and nostalgia inducing Liberi Fatali from Final Fantasy VIII’s opening sequence. I have never been to a classical concert before and was therefore unsure what to expect, what took me slightly by surprise was how much these songs affected me. Goosebumps and butterflies in my stomach were not the results I had anticipated but none the less this is what occurred.  

            Rather than give a play by play of the entire event I shall just skip to the end which was met with a standing ovation, an encore of ‘One Winged Angel’ and a second standing ovation. The evening was unlike anything I have ever experienced and helped to show me something I have always held to be true. Music is an incredibly powerful tool and perhaps this is more apparent in video games than any other medium. The fact that The Royal Albert Hall, a large and prestigious theatre, was filled to capacity for both this event and one the previous week for the ‘Zelda Symphony’ concert is proof that music in games is more than just the sounds in the background. It breaths life into the games and seen performed live the true significance is mind blowing and made abundantly clear. My friend and I are already keeping an eye out for tickets for the return of ‘Distant Worlds’ next year to commemorate Final Fantasy’s 25th anniversary, I urge you to do the same.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Review: Batman Arkham City

Its official, the string of massive game releases has begun. Over the next month or so you will surely be buying at least one of the following: ‘Battlefield 3’, ‘Uncharted 3’, ‘Modern Warfare 3’, ‘Assassins Creed Revelations’, ‘Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword’, ‘Saints Row the Third’ or ‘Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’ (angelic music for dramatic effect). It all kicked off on Friday with ‘Batman: Arkham City’, which I have devoted vast amounts of my fleeting free time to in the last week.

The successor to ‘Arkham Asylum’, itself an impressive game that unlike most superhero games actually made you feel like the character, certainly does not disappoint; in fact it surpasses the original in many ways but let's start at the beginning.

The story is as follows: Arkham City is a large super prison run by Hugo Strange and policed by TYGER security has been established in the heart of Gotham following te events of Arkham Asylum. The game opens at a protest rally where Bruce Wayne is kidnapped and thrown into said super prison, it appears Strange knows Wayne is Batman and wants him locked inside. I won’t go into any more detail to avoid potential spoilers but the plot is pretty good and there are plenty of villains to foil along the way to defeating Strange and of course Joker.

The gameplay is very similar to the predecessor which is not a criticism, if it aint broke and all that. The free flow combat system is a joy and a great example of easy to pick up hard to master fighting. Of course all out brawling isn't always the way forward and often you will have to take out goons systematically and silently using stealth and the plethora of gadgets available to you, and if I'm honest I find these sections far more interesting. Picking out priority targets, working a way to them without being seen and silently taking them down before grapneling up to the rafters to begin the next take down. The surprise joy of the game though is simply travelling around Arkham City itself. The playable area is huge for a game of this type and combining the grapnel, gliding and running on streets or rooftops brings a genuine smile to your face along with thoughts of 'Hell yeah I'm Batman!' It captures the movements perfectly and they have absolutely nailed the look and feel of Gotham.

As well as the main story there are a good number of side quests involving familiar faces all of which can be pursued almost any time before the last story mission or in free roam after you've completed the main game. A particular favourite of mine is one of the first you will encounter and has you answering a ringing payphone before forcing you to get to a different one to stop psychotic serial killer Zsasz from killing innocent hostages. Hunting him down by tracking signals from the resulting phone calls is satisfying and the mad rush to the phone before the timer hits zero is exhilarating. Riddler also makes a repeat appearance and has placed a staggering number of riddles and challenges all over the city for to solve. This time around though as you solve them you will get locations of hostages he has taken, head to these and you are presented with a challenge room which you must complete to save them. As you can see there is a lot of content to be had here should you wish it.

Unfortunately this leads me nicely onto my main gripe with the game, the length if the main story. Don't get me wrong it's by no means short but it does seem to end rather abruptly and I had been led to believe it would be longer. The ending IS poignant but feels almost (I'm sure it wasn't) like a rush job and that someone at Rocksteady wanted to keep going but were simply told that’s that and forced to end it then and there. My only other real criticism is the Catwoman sections of the game. These were incredibly enjoyable and as such were disappointingly short, her combat agility also made going back to Batman after her brief interludes a little disheartening as he feels positively sluggish afterwards. Granted this is accurate and she should feel this way, but she feels better rather than just different which perhaps shouldn't be the case given the star of the show.

‘Arkham City’ is a fantastic game, if you like ‘Asylum’ you will love it as it genuinely is a bigger, better game experience. It's not revolutionary like Asylum was, it plays almost identically for the most part but that was to be expected and like I said earlier, the game makes me feel like Batman and the mechanics work wonderfully so there's very little to complain at here. As a start to big game season it's set a very high bar for the others to clear.


Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Can't wait much longer...

You know that feeling you sometimes get when you want something really, really bad? You see something awesome and shiny in a store, maybe you’re really hungry and smell something amazing, perhaps even there’s a girl or guy you’re desperate to be with. Whatever it is you want you almost certainly do not want it as much as I want ‘Skyrim’, I am prepared to fight to prove this.
The initial announcement made me ever so slightly giddy, the subsequent theatrical footage weak at the knees and the gameplay footage you can download for free from wherever you so choose (or simply YouTube) knocked me to the floor, LOOK AT IT! That’s IN GAME! Everything looks incredible, even the damn map is rendered in beautiful 3D representations of the actual topography. It has been a while since I’ve been so stunned by the sheer aesthetic of a game and I could not be happier that it is at the hands of the latest Elder Scrolls game.
My first experience of the series was ‘Morrowind’ and that was fucking brutal and brilliant in equal measure. I lost track of the amount of times I was killed, or cursed, or had to drop half my inventory to be able to move or whatever was going on in the game. I was young, it was ages ago and my memory on specifics is fuzzy. What stays with me is that I loved that game despite how hard I found it.
‘Oblivion’ is the title in the series that most will be familiar with or at least have heard of. Here you have a 100+ hour sprawling open world adventure where all kinds of awesome and crazy stuff can go down. Now I never managed to get round to finishing ‘Oblivion’ or even playing for that long (20 or so hours only) because Fallout 3 happened and boom, there went 100+ hours of my life, but what I did play I enjoyed immensely and I find myself wondering why I never went back, there’s bound to be a reason but again it was a few years ago now and specifics elude me. Regardless it was an awe inspiring experience at the time, the scope and scale of everything was spectacular.
This sense of hugeness is still very much present in ‘Skyrim’ if you pick up a magazine or find a website and read someone’s preview to have this proved. All the big names in video games publications recently got a 3 hour no holds barred playtest of the game with only the main story quests removed so as to spoil nothing. I have read 4 separate accounts of the same event and each describes an entirely unique experience. What was also abundantly clear is that another 100+ hours of my life are now scheduled in for this one as barely scratched the surface seems to be a resounding understatement of the games length and depth.
I’ve been trying to decide how I’m going to play the game, what race I want to play as based on what I’ve seen so far, though I’ll probably be a Dark Elf mage at first, because that’s my go-to race and class, but the free flowing class (or indeed classless) system means if this isn’t working or I simply want a change for a bit I can try pretty much anything else. The potential to dual wield magic, weapons or combination of both makes for a staggering combination of things I want to play around and experiment with.
I’m excited about this release, more so than I have been about any game for a while and with the exception of ‘Mass Effect 3’ in March I am unlikely to be again. I am prepared to go back on those words as soon as Fallout 4 is announced and is using the same engine but even that may not equal the splendour I feel for this sure fire masterpiece. Every day I wake up and it isn’t November 11th is not good enough, but at least it’s always one less day of waiting.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Review: The Cursed Crusade

            It’s getting to the time of year when every week there seems to be a big hitter out which makes it an expensive time to be a gamer, this week is no different. ‘Rage’ came out on Friday and is set to do very well indeed. The eagle eyed among you may have noticed that the title of this had no hint of ‘Rage’ in it whatsoever, that’s because I will not be mentioning it again from… now. ‘The Cursed Crusade’ also came out on Friday and despite it not necessarily being something I’d go for I decided to give it a punt, and you know what? It’s actually pretty good.
            ‘The Cursed Crusade’ is the story of Denz De Bayle, Templar knight on a quest to cleanse his soul of the Templar’s Curse which he has inherited from his father. In order to do this you must hack ‘n slash your way through some 30 levels of gradually increasing difficulty. You are assisted by the AI companion Esteban Noviembre, a Spanish bandit also afflicted with the curse who by a twist of fate you are intertwined with from the very beginning.
            As a hack ‘n slash the game consists almost entirely of rooms connected by corridors with enemies to batter along the way, this being the case the combat system is pretty much the be all and end all of the game. Luckily ‘The Cursed Crusade’ doesn’t disappoint in this area. Your moves depend on what weapons you happen to be holding at any given time, you can pick up weapons from downed enemies and can carry one two handed weapon, one shield, two one handed weapons and one ranged weapon at a time. You can wield these weapons in a decent number of combinations and each has different brutal finishing moves you can perform. As you finish levels you gain Victory Points, these points are used to learn new moves for the weapon combinations you’ve unlocked and one point per level is used to increase one of your core skills: Strength, Weapon Mastery, Armour Mastery, Constitution and Curse Mastery. Strength and Constitution boost damage and health, Weapon Mastery increases weapon proficiency and lets you do finishing moves more often, Armour Mastery adds extra bits of armour the enemy has to get through before they hit your health bar and Curse Mastery makes you able to stay longer in Curse.
            Curse is the game’s stand out point which differentiates itself from between the other myriad games of the same genre. Curse is activated by hitting LB (in the case of Xbox 360) and changes the area to a fiery hell on earth type place; you grow horns and get several new abilities as well as being stronger and faster. Here’s where Curse mode gets interesting, as you kill enemies the Curse gauge fills in tiers, tier 1 auto refills and from that point on it increases as you kill enemies or take damage. Whilst you are in Curse mode the gauge depletes but you have to keep to an eye on it because if it runs dry and you haven’t cancelled it your health drains to maintain the Curse: and it drains really, really fast. I spent a good portion of the game only using it very sparingly in combat but in the later levels I found it was becoming more necessary to use it and in one of the last ones became very hard indeed when I did run out of Curse, didn’t notice and was very quickly playing most of the level on 1/3 health.
            I made sure to say that I used Curse sparingly in combat because there are other things to use it for. In most levels there are souls to purify and a bloody crucifix to find and destroy and both of these can only be seen in Curse. Finding them is definitely worthwhile since they give you bonus victory points as well as trophies or achievements. Curse also lets you break weakened walls to access new areas and progress through the levels.
            So good combat, good amount of game time (8-10 hours easy) and a nice system that sets it apart from the competition, what’s the bad side of this game? Well there are definitely a few minor niggles here and there that stop this from being a great game and cement in firmly in the good category. First, for all the good things Curse mode does for the game the changes in the environment make certain things difficult to see, including a good number of the crucifixes that can only be seen in Curse mode. The lock on system the game employs is sometimes irritating, forcing you in one direction when you would be better off alternating between targets and the general camera controls can sometimes seem jumpy, in certain areas moving the camera slows the game to almost flick book pace. There were a couple of instances where an animation didn’t work properly but there was no problem in game, just a bit annoying. Dying in a level means you have to start all over again, the levels aren’t that long and at least on the lower difficulties you won’t die often but checkpoints are your friends! Finally in terms of negatives there was a sound issue where every time I turned the game on the sound levels were all turned to 0, which was weird and annoying.
            All in all ‘The Cursed Crusade’ was an enjoyable game. The good combat outweighs the minor points that bring it down and make the game worth a play if you want something not so mainstream to keep you going until the next big release you are no doubt waiting for. Hack ‘n slash isn’t a genre I usually dabble in so the fact that I enjoyed and played it all the way through to the end is testament to it’s good quality. Like I said  at earlier it’s not great but I wasn’t expecting it to set the world on fire, it’s good fun and well worth giving a second glance to, as most people will see it then ignore it completely and buy that particular weeks big gun. That said I shall now start said big gun ‘Rage’ which I bought at the same time because I’m weak when it comes to post-apocalyptic romps, wait… does that count as mentioning it… damn it.


Sunday, 2 October 2011

Here we go again...

The recent release of FIFA 12 got me thinking about something that every now and then makes its way to the foreground of my mind: ‘Why do people buy every edition of their given sports game(s)?’ This has always baffled me and the massive rush to grab the latest version of 'wimpy boys kick a ball around' shocked me, I expected it to do well but nothing close to quite how well.
To clarify I have nothing against sports games whatsoever. I can’t hit a homerun off of Justin Verlander but in ‘MLB:The Show’ I can, I can’t score past Roberto Luongo but in ‘NHL’ I can, I can’t throw a pass to Adrian Peterson but in ‘Madden NFL’ I can… you see where I’m going here right? Sports games give you the opportunity to ‘be’ as good as the people you enjoy watching play the game for real. The argument that you’d be better off going out and actually playing the sport in question is also ridiculous; they’re two very different things. For starters you can’t just go out and play a proper game without prior planning or enough friends with nothing to do to make up both teams, if you wanted to play football (I refer here to proper football not the soccer variety) that’s a lot of people to gather up, and that’s before you even get to the fact that you are not as good as you can be in a game.
That said it doesn’t explain the need to purchase the game every damn year when pretty much the only difference will be some players will be wearing different colours, there might be a new one here and there, oh and of course the number on the cover will be one higher than the last one. I’m beginning to think it’s the number thing that actually makes the difference; people instinctively associate the higher number with higher quality. This is of course nonsensical, compare Final Fantasy VII to XIII for proof of that, but I’m sure it must have some truth to it. For all the claims of exciting new features and whatever is ‘game changing’ about the current version there is likely to be very little that fundamentally separates the newest iteration from the previous. Of course every now and then there will be an exception, this years ‘F1 2011’ for example brings in the rule changes that actually impacted the sport so was necessary, and maybe this FIFA is the one in however many that IS different in some way… I can’t give an example how since I have as much interest in the game as I do in choosing carpet samples but it doesn’t change the fact that the people who would notice the difference already have or have had the last 3 or more versions of essentially the same game.
So I propose another option (shock, applause, sharp intakes of breath etc). Don’t buy the game every year. Instead, and here’s the crazy part so bear with me, buy one then wait for the one in three or four years time. Give either the companies time to actually make the game better or at the very least change something noticeable. Possible exceptions can be made if something in real life happens that should change the game. Again I cite F1 as they have made a variety of changes to the sport this year that made the sport itself very different and thus the game should follow suit. Sorry did I say it was the crazy part? My mistake, I meant to say ‘logical and sensible part that saves you money or let’s you buy something else’, in this case I offer Rage this week, Forza 4 next week or Arkham City the week after. I’d say Skyrim but that’s a bit far away for now, though it’s going to be approximately 10000% better than whatever EA threw out on Friday, just LOOK at it and see. Go on do it. I’m off to watch the trailer again, or the gameplay footage… screw it I’ll watch both.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Review: Dead Island (Xbox 360)

            Man it seems like a long time ago when I first saw screens of this in an issue of PC Gamer, and then the sublime theatrical trailer which had a little girl savagely attack her father to be thrown out a window. Shocking stuff I’m sure you’ll agree and I was very much looking forward to this release, it turns out I was lucky to get a copy since it’s been sold out for 360 pretty much since launch. So the premise of this game? First person survival horror on a beautiful tropical island. So far so good, the thing I found myself hoping for was that it didn’t go too ‘Left 4 Dead’ and focus heavily on the gunning down of countless zombies, not that that’s a bad thing but it’s just we already have Left 4 Dead for that, I wanted a proper nerve wrenching survival horror. Did I get what I want, well sort of, ish, in a way… but not really.
            At the start of the game you must choose which of the four miraculously immune to zombification survivors you wish to play, each with a different weapon specialisation. I picked Logan whose expertise lies in throwing weapons, this seemed like the best of both worlds to me until I realised that you don’t have a stock of throwing knives or the like, you simply have the option to hurl whatever you happen to be holding at the time. This meant that as I started to get better weapons I was loath to use my character’s special skill for fear of losing a decent bludgeoning device for when the buggers got up close. This was compounded when I did throw something decent which hit the target for a good amount of damage only to be immediately savaged to death by an Infected (recently turned, very fast and particularly vicious zombies) and after re-spawning I couldn’t locate the weapon I threw initially. So word of advice, pick either the Sharp Weapon or Blunt Weapon specialists, guns may sound cool but ammo is scarce and thus it’s arguably even more useless than throwing. Anyway I digress; your goal is to travel the island doing quests for people with the eventual aim of escaping the island of Banoi and getting home for a well deserver cup of coffee, or whatever.
            The game is split into Acts which are split into Chapters, to me this seemed kind of arbitrary but I guess it’s a nice easy way to add some achievements, honestly there isn’t much need to differentiate the sections of the story. The game world is also split into 3 main areas which are free roam-able, starting at the beach, then moving into a city slum and finally into the jungle complete with an Oceanic plane wreck split into 3 parts (I’m not making that up). Unfortunately the City and Jungle areas aren’t as interesting as the initial Resort (read: pretty beach) but they aren’t terrible, just less stunning than the starting location. Speaking of stunning, the graphics on this one are superb. I wish I’d got the PC version to really crank it up but the 360 does perfectly well and everything looks incredible, again particularly in the Resort.
            As you kill zombies and the occasional human enemy you gain XP which levels you up granting you extra health, stamina and a skill point to spend on one of your three skill trees. This was a pleasant surprise for me as I avoided reading much of what was around pre-release for fear of spoiling what I wanted the game to be so was expecting an FPS I could finish in a few days and trade in for something else while it was till worth something, instead it appeared I had Fallout with zombies which can only be a good thing. These skill trees are Fury, a unique set of abilities that focus on your characters specialty and are used in ‘Fury Mode’. The next is a general Combat tree and the third is Survival which let’s you increase your health, learn to pick locks and other such skills. The Survival tree is easily the most useful here with Combat coming in at second. Other characters may have better Fury skills but as it stood mine just let me hit multiple enemies when I threw things and let me throw things further, not that great really.
            The combat itself is pretty good, it’s heavily focused on melee weapons which after getting used to I thoroughly enjoyed since it gave a more realistic ‘survival feel’ than falling over automatic weapons and shotguns, at least until I had an electro shock axe which dispensed death at a grin inducing rate. A few issues are the ease at which your attacks can get interrupted, especially if you’re using heavier weapons and end up against Infected who close very quickly and if you miss time the initial swing you take some serious damage. The way you move itself is slightly weird; the first time I pushed the stick forward I felt like the air you’re moving through was throwing up slightly more resistance than it should. The quick inventory could use some work too. Tap RB and you cycle once clockwise around your inventory of equipped weapons, there’s no way to cycle back but you can hold the button down and select what you want in a Dragon Age/Mass Effect style by moving the stick to point at what you want. This would be great if it paused the action while you do it so you can make a proper decision, or at least make sure you’ve picked the right machete since the icons are the same, but it doesn’t and this leads on to my biggest gripe with the game.
            Dead Island was very obviously designed with co-op play in mind and this is made abundantly clear by the weapon wheel not pausing the game as well as the sheer number of opponents you sometimes find yourself facing, often followed by an untimely death. Being the misanthropic person that I am I dislike the majority of the human race and certainly don’t want to have to play with people I don’t know to survive the odd unbalanced encounter here and there. The game basically forces you into co-op play, the default setting lets up to 3 randoms join your game with a simple press of left on the d-pad and even with this altered to single player mode the right hand side of the HUD is constantly being filled with messages that someone is near you and about the same level and asking if you want to join them. I find this counter intuitive to what was billed as a survival horror; to me a large part of this genre is the sense of desperation that only isolation can bring.
            This is when I realised that the game was not what I was hoping it would be. Once you factor in the subversive insistence on engaging with others and the Farcry 2-esque travel distances (complete with muddy vehicle controls and dodgy views out of windshields) to complete samey missions just to travel back for the reward you realise that the game is trying to do too much. Instead of being a first person survival horror it ends up being a first person free roaming RPG emphasising co-operative play over single player. Dead Island is a decent game, I just wish it had stuck to it’s initial MO instead of trying to be all things to all men, instead it falls from great into average and if I’m honest I was pretty disappointed by this.


Saturday, 3 September 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

            I want to put this out there right at the start, Deus Ex is one of my favourite games of all time and I have been waiting for this release since I first laid eyes on the eyegasmic trailer. Think kid at Christmas excited, you know that kid in the YouTube video who goes mental over his new N64, just a little less than him. It’s been 10 years in the making but a sequel to this gem of a game is finally here, ‘Invisible War’ doesn’t count, because it was rubbish. After getting rather annoyed that the disc I bought early apparently just opened Steam and I had to wait til midnight, then download it all night and have to wait til after I finished work to actually play the… sorry, tangential rambling, let’s get on with this shall we?
            You take control of Adam Jensen, ex-SWAT, gravel throated protagonist who gets brutally mutilated at the end of a brief tutorial which sets up the rest of the plot. Now we come to the first of the very few problems with his game, the plot is… convoluted to say the least. I expected this to some degree after all this is a Deus Ex game and as such is required to have a conspiracy theory to complicate matters. In this it seems more like it was just added to the initial idea to needlessly complicate things. It all boils down to; the attack on Sarif Industries (Adam’s employer) that left him in the aforementioned mutilated state and his girlfriend (among others) dead. Cue Adam’s boss sending the newly augmented soldier on a mission to find out who attacked and why, with a spattering of revenge thrown in. This would have been fine with a few twists here and there to keep it fresh, unfortunately everything gets bogged down in confusion and you sort of lose track of the specifics and focus on the core I outlined already.
            Thankfully the gameplay is fantastic and help make up for the slight plot issues. Each and every mission can be approached in a number of ways, the main variants being stealth or frontal assault. You can choose to take either of these options and also whether you want to take a non-lethal or lethal path both of which net slightly different rewards. Obviously you have an array of weapons at your disposal, inventory permitting, which can be upgraded to improve their potency. You’ve also got a lot of different augmentations to choose from which can improve all sorts of things for your character. These range from simple things like a radar or in built cranial com device to personal cloaking and the Tempest explosive launcher which sprays little bombs all around you taking out everyone in the area. You have to pick and choose which of these augments to buy and upgrade using Praxis points which you get from gathering experience points from completing objectives, taking out enemies and finding secret areas. This is where you can really diversify your game as you upgrade yourself to play how you want. My personal approach was to quickly upgrade my computer hacking abilities, my max energy and the personal cloaking to help with my plan of sneaking around in air ducts, easily hacking security systems and taking people out silently and non-lethally where possible.
            We now reach the second problem which is to do with how the augments are set up and the energy cells you have to power them. I appreciate that some of the ones the game gives you at the beginning are completely necessary to the game and therefore fine to start the game with. The radar, the com link, level 1 hacking and strength were all fine, I take issue with the game providing the health recovery system from the get go. I was expecting this aug as it was in the first game and was welcome, but you had to buy it. As it is here they’ve thrown it onto the menu simply to placate the people who have forgotten what med-kits are for and have come to believe hiding behind a wall has magic healing powers. My second issue with the augments is the energy cells. You start with 3 and can have a maximum of 5 if you spend some points on them but if you want to be using your take down moves, Typhoon attacks, punching through walls or the hugely draining cloaking device you have to use an item to refill them. So far that’s not the worst thing in the world, indeed it’s entirely expected but unfortunately there is no other way to charge them up and the items to replenish the cells are quite scarce. Now for me this was a huge problem thanks to now I planned to play, and I understand there would be balance issues if I could run around silently and invisibly as much as I wanted but the drain on the stealth made it a last resort thing rather than something that was fun. Your last cell will always recharge but the others only will if not fully deplete, and most things cost 1 full cell. I don’t think it would have been too game breaking to put recharge points every now and again or something like that. Finally and somewhat superficially there are whole trees of upgrades that are basically useless, the stealth enhancer adds some things like vision cones on the radar but you won’t need that and the lung upgrade to stop poison gas hurting you is a total waste of points.
            This aside the combat is very well managed, the cover system works much better than I was anticipating and is actually pretty vital to surviving fights, you take damage fast and the first attempt at the first boss will show you quite how easy it is to die very quickly. All guns blazing will end very badly if you aren’t carful and even if this is your desired approach it’s often best to at least sneak into a good position first and take down a guy or two quietly before the alarms go off. One thing I don’t really understand is how Jensen is entirely proficient with handguns, shotguns, assault rifles and heavy weapons but as soon as he puts a sniper scope to his eyes it wanders about far more than it should, if there was an upgrade to help this I could forgive it but there’s not. So I won’t. You need to be careful with what weapons you carry round with you too.  You have a finite inventory and each item has a certain size it takes up, big weapons may be powerful but once you’ve got say, a heavy rifle and a case of ammo you won’t have that much space for other stuff, especially if you haven’t upgraded your inventory space.  I relied mainly on my super upgraded 10mm pistol for the times when the game forced me into situations where my tranquilizer rifle or stun gun wouldn’t do.
            A final word on the sound and visuals, both are outstanding. The music is never intrusive but certainly aids the atmosphere; the soundtrack from my Augmented Edition is now happily placed on my iPod to bring some pleasure to my commuting life. The graphics, speaking here for the PC version with everything turned up to 11, are sublime. Everything is bright and well defined and the textures are a nice change from the fuzzy concrete from the original, which hasn’t aged well at all and even at the time wasn’t exactly cutting edge.
            This game is awesome; a serious contender for Game of the Year though I think Valve’s Portal 2 might just edge it. It has a few problems and I do wish the RPG element was more prevalent in the augmentations like it was in the original but it’s a refreshing change of pace from all the other FPS games out there at the moment, for this is much more an action game with RPG elements rather than it’s older brother which was an action RPG. One of the rare games to live up to the hype generated it does the original justice, although it doesn’t surpass the original it certainly does it justice. You should pick this up and experience it for yourself, you won’t be disappointed.


Thursday, 25 August 2011

Quality guaranteed?

I always found whilst I was growing up that there were certain things about a new game that got me excited about it. The genre, reviews and screenshots in magazines (this was before I had the internet people!) were of course a part of it but one thing above all else made me salivate and yearn for a game to come out; the word 'Squaresoft' printed on the cover. Back then if I saw that logo I was buying that game. End of discussion. I cottoned on to this notion that Squaresoft games were awesome long before I realised, for example, that I will almost certainly love a Christopher Nolan film. Hell I was noticing this even before I started reading different books by the same author after reading one I liked. This realisation has revealed two facts to me. Firstly I like video games more than other forms of entertainment (granted this was not a shocker) but also that the games industry can have a dramatic effect on their customers, at least equal to that of directors and authors of their movies and books.

Unfortunately Squaresoft no longer exist. Over the years they have degraded and become what we know today as Square Enix, a company turning out tripe like Kane and Lynch 2 and the biggest disappointment in my gaming life to date, Final Fantasy XIII. The changes to this particular series need to be rectified very quickly indeed.

I'm not saying trying to say that the Square Enix logo is a sign of a poor quality game, you only have to look at Deus Ex: Human Revolution to see that that would be an absurd statement; it's just that the Square name is no longer a sign of the superb quality we used to get. They have now branched out into so many different things that I think they've lost their focus on the games and instead turn their hand at anything, such as Mindjack...don't even go there with that one.

This wasn't intended to be a Square shooting gallery so I'll change the tone and introduce the company that now represents an almost sure fire sign of a great game, Bioware. I've always like Bioware games and hold both the Baldur’s Gate and Mass Effect games very highly. The one thing I have found that is true of all Bioware games is that they are well written; even Dragon Age 2 which I didn't get on with quite as well could not be said to have poor writing. I am aware that i hold this particular attribute of a game perhaps more highly than a lot of people but it is certainly important to the immersion within a story and I can't think of anyone who does it better than Bioware.

Right now I find myself in the odd position that the last game I desperately wanted (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) and the next (Star Wars: The Old Republic) are split between my old and new favourite companies. I worry slightly that Deus Ex won't live up to my expectations as at time of writing I have yet to play it (cursed Steam download taking ages, I bought the damn disc why make me download the... stopping there, ranting imminent) but I hope that Square Enix have brought out another gem for me to enjoy. My only fear about SW:TOR is that I will lose friends as all my free time is spent glued to my PC.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

I should go... but I don't think I will!

            Recently I decided to finally get round to playing a game I should have played before, especially since I picked it up dirt cheap around Christmas last year. For some reason I never played Mass Effect 2 when it came out, I played the original and enjoyed it but the sequel was one of those games that I wait for but don’t pick up. Before I dived back into the Mass Effect universe I bought myself a 360 copy of the original so I could replay that and have a save file carry from 1-3 when I play that next year. In light of my experience re-running Mass Effect that one will definitely be a day 1 purchase, special edition already on pre-order. At time of writing I have still not started Mass Effect 2 but this piece is actually about how incredible the original game is.
            At the heart of this epic Sci-fi action RPG lies the incredibly written story, as you can expect from a Bioware title. The game follows your own created Commander Shepard in your quest to save the galaxy from a rogue Spectre, a special agent of the Citadel Council which is the governing body of the central hub serving Citadel. Early on Shepard is promoted from a marine to a spectre him/herself and you must travel around the galaxy chasing leads and gathering information to locate and stop your quarry. One of the things that really makes the game stand on its own is a genuinely good morality system. You can often choose to be neutral, good (Paragon) or not so good (Renegade) and these choices effect a variety of things including character interactions and even the side missions you are allowed to take. Naturally for these my own Commander Shepard is a Renegade who takes no shit from anybody and puts bullets in the heads of people who try to give it. That said I ended up with a few dirty Paragon points because I was nice to my team, partly because I wasn’t sure if any of them would leave if I was a bitch to them but mainly because that’s how I feel I would react if I was in the shoes of Shepard in reality. Given the situation you are thrown into from the offset I don’t understand the Paragon approach but that’s just my feelings on it.
            It’s this freedom of choice which makes it so easy to identify with Shepard and thus it feels as close to you yourself making the choices and having the conversations as I have ever experienced. You grow to be close to your team, you will of course have favourites and I quickly settled on Garrus and Tali as my primary squad mates and ironically the characters I felt most separate from were the other 2 humans available. That said I still cared about them and when… actually I’ll stop there, spoilers and stuff! Suffice to say there by the end of the game there was a bond that I haven’t felt in a game since Final Fantasy VII.
            Now to hark back to a subject of a previous article, why are new games not as good as old? Well Mass Effect is an exception to this rule, as obviously there will always be. The weirdest thing to me is that I didn’t remember how phenomenal the game is even having played it the whole way through before. On top of the story is a sound cover based shooting system, a good character development and ability set and more side missions than I’ve seen in a while so it keeps you going if you want to do everything. I am relieved that I replayed this game. I wish to thank a few of my friends who know who they are if reading this, for re-introducing me to an incredible series and an amazing gaming experience. Now Mass Effect 2 beckons.

I should go.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Score Whoring?

            Whether you play Xbox, PlayStation or indeed Games For Windows Live titles on PC or the Windows phone you will now be intimately acquainted with a system that gives you virtual rewards for doing things in games. Microsoft started it all by adding Achievements to their 360 games and shortly after someone over at Sony realised it was a good idea and ‘borrowed’ it for their own Trophy system. Both of these systems are essentially the same, granting you little pop ups that you get for completing certain objectives, killing x amount of enemies with such and such a weapon, reaching a certain level etc etc. Now at first this seems like a really cool idea, I mean it gives you challenges that extend the life of the game… right?
            I’m going to throw this out there, I’ve never been much of an achievement hunter, in fact there are only 2 games I have 100% points on, Fallout 3 and Assassins Creed 2, and that’s because I fucking love those two games. Now I wager that even without the achievements I would have played both of these games for just as long as I did to get the 100% and the combined 2000 and something points it added to my Gamer Score. I’ve played both for hours after I got to this point so that’s just testament to my theory here. Compared to a lot of people I know my Gamer Score is fairly low and my Trophies score is abysmal because most games I get for my 360 and my PS3 is at this point pretty much a BluRay player only until the next interesting exclusive comes along. Neither of these facts bother me in the slightest.
            I have no qualms with story based achievements/trophies or ones that are genuinely fun to get, but there are some bloody stupid ones out there that don’t bear thinking about. As an example I shall take Fallout: New Vegas which has an achievement/trophy for healing 10,000 points of damage by eating food. Food restores bugger all health so this would take forever. Furthermore food takes time to heal you when Stimpacks are abundant, instant and heal more damage. Other ones that piss me off are the ‘Secret’ ones that aren’t story based. Seriously whose stupid idea was that? ‘Here’s an idea, we’ll stick this achievement in where they have to do this really complicated thing, but not tell them what the complicated thing is!’ What really worries me is that these guys aren’t getting fired on the spot like they should be but instead being LISTENED to. Actually while I’m thinking about people who should be fired, anyone who proposes an insanely difficult task and awards it 1pt as well as the people behind any that give you a reward that is not a multiple of 5 should be next in line. Seriously I care very little about the number but when it was XXX3 I had to try rather hard to get the 2/7 (forget which) pairing to make the damn thing right.
            What I’m rambling towards is that I really don’t understand why people try so hard to increase that number. I’ve seen people buy games they openly admit they don’t like but know the achievements are easy. Forgive me but that is a terribly stupid reason to buy a game. You may have heard about the Avatar game that lets you get 1000pts in minutes, by pressing the same button over and over while standing in one place. The game is terrible but because of this one fact it was sought after in really quite silly numbers. I could see the appeal of increasing my Gamer Score if it was actually a measure of skill, but games like this and other less extreme but similar ones negate the score meaning anything at all.
            I can’t even begin to describe how I feel about multiplayer achievements either, but let’s have a go anyway. Now I don’t normally mind swearing but I shall have to engage a language filter on myself here because my true feelings on this are rather un-publishable, even on the internet. This rant is more aimed at Xbox who force you to pay to play online but it is applicable to PS3 as well. Nobody should be forced to play online to 100% a game if that is their wish. Playing multiplayer with random people is generally an unpleasant experience and it is inexcusable to make people engage in this should they want to ‘complete’ the game they have been enjoying thus far. I shall cite Assassins Creed: Brotherhood here. The multiplayer on this game is innovative and actually pretty fun, doesn’t mean that I want to spend hours and hours trying to get in certain situations that cause that little pop sound and give me more numbers for my E-ego.
            It saddens me somewhat that a lot of kids will never know gaming without this system. When I was playing games growing up the achievement was finishing the games without cheating. There was one difficulty, finite number of lives and when you ran out you went back to the very beginning and had to start all over again. We’re pampered now with save points, infinite lives and other such ‘continue from here’ methods that cheapen the achievement of actually getting to the end, which when you think about it should be the biggest one there is. Instead actually completing the game takes a back seat to killing a shit-ton of enemies for no reason other than because a little text box says you will get 30pts for doing so. Don’t get me wrong I definitely wouldn’t give up the modern methods completely; I just think everyone should experience the elation that comes from completing a game like ‘Sonic The Hedgehog’ on the Sega Megadrive.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

ST Oh no... more problems for Cryptic

             As you may know I recently purchased a gaming PC and once everything was set up and ready to go I thought to myself ‘Hmmm, it’s been over a year now since Star Trek Online first came out, I wonder if it’s fixed yet?’ For some background on this we travel back to February of 2010…*wibbly memory music*
            The situation: I have played the beta and thoroughly enjoyed myself despite a few niggles, but after all it’s beta so what do you expect? I pre-order the game and play in the 2 week ‘Head start’ for either pre-order holders or lifetime subscribers. I point out here that I was both of these after having being conned by the beta, but more on that story in a bit. The start of these 2 weeks are plagued by server problems and downtime but again, a new MMO launches and I expected a few hiccups at the beginning. Head start finishes and oh boy here comes a metric fuckton of problems. Server wait times are huge, quite often the server is down though so you don’t have to wait. The Klingon side of the game basically doesn’t work; you have 3 charcter slots and have to pay for more if you want them and worst of all is the lag that makes the game damn unplayable. Now the lag problem may have been at least partially down to my machine but everything else? Not so much.
            It was at this time when I regretted buying the lifetime subscription, which at the time seemed like a great idea. I mean the beta was fun and I’m a massive Star Trek nerd, what was not to love? I try every now and again to play the game over the next year and handful of months only to give up because of horrific lag. However once everything was installed on my new rig things were…smooth. I pressed W and immediately walked forwards, a quick press of 2 on my Naga mouse fired my phaser’s alt-fire straight away. There was still a lot of ‘Go to the C-store to buy X’ and I think this is a unforgiveable. If you make an MMO do EITHER monthly subscriptions OR micro transactions, both is simply greedy and I can think of a C that describes that store, and I tell you now it’s not ‘Cryptic’. Despite this though things seemed to be looking very much in the upward direction.
            This lasted for all of 5 or maybe 6 days before they released the next big ‘Season 4’ patch. First time I log in after said patch I’m playing for about a minute before I’m looking at my desktop somewhat bewildered and reading a ‘Fatal Error has occurred’ message. Low and behold it happens every time I try and play now and I thought that maybe it was just me, I mean my internet connection is truly shocking at the moment so it must be that I foolishly thought. A quick check of the forums shows me that I am most definitely not the only one experiencing difficulties with the new patch.
            This is such a shame because in STO Cryptic Studios have something that could be incredible. The space combat is genuinely a joy and I love that I have (sort of) command of my own Starfleet ship. I just wish they could sort out all the technical difficulties and actually let me play the game I so want to love. I’d rather it not take about 18 months this time either, it’s not fair on the people who put their faith in the game and bought the lifetime sub but in a way it’s even less fair for those customers paying monthly and not being able to play the game, but surely still being charged for the privilege of reading error messages.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Had to happen eventually...

I promised myself I wasn’t going to do this but with bugger all having come out at the moment I have decided to break my promise and review the greatest game of all time. Ever. Without question. At this point if you know me you will know the game of which I speak, even if you don’t you should know anyway; Final Fantasy VII is obviously the game in question.
I’m only going to mention graphics once and I’m going to get it out of the way right at the start. They are not that bad. You must remember that this game came out in 1997and therefore cannot be accurately compared with the hyper graphics of today. In fact working with such simple character models whose only facial features are eyes Squaresoft achieved far more than Square Enix was able to do with the gorgeous looking (only complement I have for this) Final Fantasy XIII. I care about the simple little guys in VII; in XIII all I wanted to do was punch Hope in the face and rip out Vanille’s voice box.
The story is by far the most engaging, well written, heart tugging video game plot ever written. The characters start out as a rebel group thinking big but acting, in the grand scheme of things, small. By the end of the game you are fighting to literally save the planet upon which they live. You may think this sounds unoriginal and in a sense you may be right, however it’s the journey from one state to the other, both literally and the individual journey each character has to make to get them to the point at which they can fight that fight that is the true draw. The protagonist, Cloud Strife, obviously has the biggest trials to overcome but he is by no means alone in this as each character has their own demons they must face.
The dialogue between the characters is superb. You feel like the things they say are realistic, by that I mean what those people would be saying to one another in real life, without the insane censorship that would prevent companies from doing this in new games today. For example, during a long stair climb (which is optional so may be missed) Tifa says to the complaining Barret “Shut up and climb you retard.” There’s no way you could get away with saying that these days and this is a shame, not because it’s funny but because it’s real. Something else you couldn’t do in a game of this rating in these days where everything must be voice acted, badly, is the amount of swearing that particularly Barret and Cid come out with. Again this seems real and how these people should be talking, you can’t hide behind %^&#* anymore. While I’m on the subject and closing out this paragraph, what the hell was wrong with games having entirely text based dialogue? They gave you the chance to imprint your own personalities onto the characters within the game and surely that is better than the pre-described bullshit you usually get now. I guess we aren’t trusted with our own imaginations anymore.
The game itself is huge, we’re talking proper RPG length here folks with upwards of 60 hours if you want to do everything there is to do. It won’t have the same significance now but when I first stepped out onto the world map those years ago my mind was blown by the scale. Fortunately despite the size you are, at least in the beginning gently lead through the main story by conversation prompts and a map design that means you can’t go everywhere until you have a certain vehicle to allow you to cross terrain features, for example the buggy that allows you to cross quicksand and rivers. It all opens up once you get the airship but again you will never be lost as long as you listen to the dialogue and even if you forget you can talk to people on the bridge for a reminder.
The thing the game hinges on, second to the story anyway, is the battle system since you will spend a lot of time in battles as you progress through the game. It is a simple turn based system with the option to have the enemies turns paused whilst you are selecting commands from windows. This option means you can take your time over what abilities you want to use and not have to worry about getting attacked while you do so. You can of course turn this off so there is always a sense of urgency to the battles, in particular the bosses later in the game.  The abilities you can use are what make the battle system come alive. Each character has a set of unique attacks called Limit Breaks in addition to the basic ‘Fight’ and ‘Item’ options. As you take damage a bar charges and when it fills you can unleash one of these powerful moves with varying effects. Each of your weapons and pieces of armour also has a number of slots, some linked and some single, and into these slots you can put materia. Materia are spheres of varying colours which do different things. Green materia are magic spells, red allow you to summon monsters as special attacks, yellow give you special attack abilities, blue adds effects to either your attacks it’s paired materia and finally purple enhances your base stats. The sheer number of combinations and pairings you can make means that there are some incredibly potent pairings. The materia system is truly a triumph and to this day is the best ability management system I have come across because of the freedom it allows the individual player.
Nobuo Uematsu (composer of Final Fantasy soundtracks and lead of the epic band ‘The Black Mages’) has composed a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to accompany the game. The boss music gets the heart beating, the battle music doesn’t get tedious and the different music for the various towns gives each one its own personality. For example the military city of Junon has loud, impressive music suitable to its own grandeur and massive coastal defence cannon. In contrast Cosmo Canyon has an earthy, tribal tone which compliments its natural red rock setting, building styles and back story given in the game.
I honestly believe that in Final Fantasy VII we have as close to a perfect game as there has ever been and, to be honest, ever will have. The story, character developments and relations, music and mechanics are faultless. If you put a gun to my head and told me I had to say something negative the only things I could provide are that since O is the select button I find myself accidently cancelling things in other games after I’ve played it for a while and that I can’t use the analogue sticks to move around due to them not being on the controller when the game first came out. That is literally it and neither of those is really a problem or indeed much to do with the game. I urge you all to play this game; it is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

99% (only because I feel that 100% isn’t viable as a score, because I guess technically something better COULD come along, however unlikely that may be)

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D

            I hope you’re ready for about 1000 words of gushing praise because that is pretty much exactly what you’re going to get this week. I have previously mentioned that the original version of this game is one of my favourite games of all time so part of me just wants to use this re-release as an excuse to review it, so I shall.
            The very first thing you will notice is how amazing this game looks on the 3DS. The colours are bright and bold and, for those of us used to the original, everything is very smooth. The faces of characters are less angular and the whole thing is far crisper and cleaner. I must admit I was slightly worried about it being a direct port without doing much if anything to the visuals but all those worries have been put to rest. I assure you the game is stunning. The 3D works remarkably well for the most part; it adds depth to the game and genuinely enhances the visual appeal which I was, if I’m honest, not really expecting.
            The music is simply divine from start to finish as well, the backing tracks are well suited to their individual environments and the melodies you play on the ocarina are great. Given that there is a musical instrument in the title this seems somewhat fitting and I cannot think of a game I would put forward as a contender for having a better soundtrack…well at a push Chrono Trigger but I still think this one edges it. The nostalgic value of stepping out onto Hyrule field for the first time in too many years is an amazing one for those of you lucky enough to have been there before.
            Right on to the game itself. The plot is a fairly normal one, young boy thrust into a huge adventure and needs to go on a quest to save the world, going through dungeon by dungeon gathering new equipment as you go allowing you to progress. That said the game will take you a good chunk of hours to complete and is not at all linear in that you can wander Hyrule and search for extra Heart Containers to increase your health or Great Fairy Fountains to gain new magic spells so you never feel forced down the story path.
            The gameplay is sound and remains mainly unchanged from the origins but the introduction of the touch screen has led to some interesting and beneficial changes into how it works. Where before you would have to pause the game and hit L or R until you got to the right menu screen now you simply touch the tab on the bottom screen and that’s that. This makes switching out your assigned items much quicker and less irritating which was one of the only complaints I have about this classic. This is further aided by having 4 active items at once, 2 mapped to X and Y and 2 on touch buttons as well as the Ocarina having its own dedicated button so there’s never a need to have it take up an item slot. Also now when you select the ocarina you can open a tab which has all the songs you have learnt there for you so you can read it off and play. This is a vast improvement on the old way which meant that if you forgot the song you had to quit playing, pause the game, rotate the menu to the correct screen, find the song you wanted and then attempt to memorise it. Not a great method if your short term memory is a s bad as mine!
            Possibly the biggest change in how the game works is in the first person viewing mode and the aiming for ranged weapons. You can still use the circle pad as you would an analogue stick and aim around as you normally would but there is now another way. Once you have the weapon drawn or have zoomed into first person you can physically point and move the 3DS around and the screen moves as if you were actually looking around in the game world. This is great except for a few small issues. First among these is that if you are playing with the 3D on the image splits horribly if you don’t move your whole upper body around to keep the head on view the 3D image requires. This coupled with the fact that, at least in my handheld gaming posture, you don’t get that much of an arc to move in, it made me feel like one of the guards from Metal Gear Solid who can only ever see in a cone shaped spot directly in front of them.
That is one of only two complaints I have about this game, the other is so minor I feel it’s hardly worth mentioning but I will in an attempt to bring some semblance of balance to this fan boy fuelled rambling. Once while I was riding around Hyrule Field I attempted to jump a fence and glitched on top of it, unable to get off at all. This however was easily sorted by saving the game, quitting and reloading since unless you are in a dungeon when you restart after you quit you go to either the Temple of Time or your House in the starting village.
To conclude, I adore this game. I have done ever since I was much younger than I am now and will continue to do so into the future. The story, although somewhat basic, is charming and the game itself is a fantastic example of a near perfect adventure game. As an added bonus the Mater Quest option is available after you have finished the game which is mostly the same game but with more challenging dungeons. There is also a boss challenge mode which does exactly what it says on the tin and requires no explanation. In all with the slight 3D niggles involved in aiming aside I genuinely feel that with this re-release Nintendo have improved on the near perfection that this game already was, if I had the option to play it on big screen with the DS acting as a bottom screen (Wii U compatibility may be a possibility for this in the future…) I would be even worse than I have been in terms of praise. As it stands though there are a few things that could be tweaked to make it better, just a little bit better but not a lot. Thank you Nintendo for bringing this game back into our lives for those of us with fond memories, and for bringing it to the new generation of gamers to experience greatness for possibly the very first time.