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.