Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Now Playing: Prey

I want to like Prey more than I do. It’s a good game, but also a frustrating one. It just couldn’t quite take that final step from good to great in the way that I wanted it to. It’s a game that’s clearly taken inspiration from the ‘Shock’ series of games – most notably, System Shock 2. And SS2 is one of, if not my favourite game ever.

Prey is set upon Talos 1, a space station not so dissimilar to Citadel Station in the original System Shock. But though the setting may be more SS1, the gameplay is entirely based upon SS2. You begin, as in SS2, with a simple wrench, but your inventory soon expands to include a range of conventional ‘security’ weapons (pistol & shotgun) to more advanced, laser based weaponry.

Your character can also install cyber-modules – sorry, neuromods – which grant a range of ‘human’ upgrade options based around hacking, repair, health and weapon proficiency. But as you progress, you’ll also gain access to more exotic abilities including telekinetic attacks – just like the psi powers of SS2.

Hell, you even have psi-hypos to restore your psi points in addition to health packs and food. Like SS2, you’ll find written and audio logs as you explore Talos 1. You’ll also be able to ‘research’ your opponents – although the research system is more similar to that in Bioshock than SS2.

That’s not to say Prey doesn’t have any new ideas of its own – most notably the mimic ability and the ‘gloo’ gun – but it’s very clearly structured both in terms of story, environment and gameplay upon System Shock 2. And I f**king love System Shock 2. So why don’t I love Prey?

In Prey you play as Morgan Yu who awakes upon Talos 1 to find everything has gone to shit. Guided by other characters you’ll explore the station section by section, upgrading your abilities, securing new weapons and hacking doors and safes. There’s a fairly substantial core quest chain in addition to a large number of side quests.

Which brings me to my first major issue with Prey – there’s too much content. It seems like an odd complaint to make, but Prey is overloaded with what I’d describe as ‘low quality filler’. The majority of the side quests really aren’t worth your time, at least not from a narrative perspective. The problem is, you never know which quest will lead to something interesting.

And this creates pacing issues with the main quest. If, like me, you’re someone who likes to explore everything you can and complete as much as you can, you’ll find yourself bouncing from one end of the station to the next, backtracking through sections multiple times. Which wouldn’t be such an issue if the side quests led to something interesting – but only a handful do.

These side quests only detract from the focus on your core mission. Yes, they’re optional, but some of them are so short and uninteresting that you wonder why they were even included. System Shock 2 didn’t have or need dozens of busy work side quests. It kept a laser focus on your core objectives and anything else you discovered emerged naturally through your own exploration.

Prey didn’t need all these busy work mini-quests, either. It bombards the player with needless distractions that only lead to disappointment and irritation, as you realise you wasted 10-15 minutes of your time on an entirely pointless errand.

And this leads into my second issue – environment design. Whilst the individual sections of Talos 1 are great, the overall structure of the station and the way you traverse it is just . . . not very fun. Some sections can only be accessed by traversing other sections and you’ll find yourself passing through some areas so many times you may get sick of them. Unlike System Shock 1 or 2, there’s no central lift to connect every deck.

As much as I like the design and individual sections of Talos 1, navigating the station can be irritating and repetitive. That said, I did really like being able to access the station exterior and fly between different airlocks – it’s a neat and welcome addition, even if I frequently crashed into things because of the fiddly flight controls.

My third major issue with Prey is enemy design. The early mimic creatures are great, but the ‘phantom’ creatures you later encounter are rather dull and generic and not particularly interesting to fight. There’s a ‘fire’ enemy. An ‘electric’ enemy. It’s all a little by the numbers. There’s a couple more interesting critters that I won’t spoil, but it’s not a great selection.

And finally, my fourth major issue is story. Prey, I’m sad to say, just isn’t terribly interesting from a story or character perspective. It’s not bad. It just lacks the edge it needs to really draw you in. There’s no real ‘antagonist’ as such, which I actually kind of liked – although the game unfortunately makes a poor and misguided late attempt at one – but the plot lacks drive. It never quite gets you invested in its story. At least, it didn’t for me.

Getting bogged down by low quality side quests certainly didn’t help, but the main plot, whilst not bad at all – it’s actually pretty decent with some interesting ideas – never really engaged me. And whilst I appreciated that the game didn’t try to put together a lame final ‘boss’ to fight, the ending does feel incredibly rushed to the point where I sat back and said ‘is that it?’ I even checked the ending online in case my game had bugged out and I’d missed something.

To say that Prey has a disappointing and flat ending would be an understatement. It’s also an ending with a couple of twists, at least one of which you’ll see coming fairly easily if you pay any attention to the various logs and audio files. It’s still an interesting ending and an interesting plot in general. I just wish it was better executed.

Aside from those main issues, Prey has several other small annoyances that hold it back. The hacking mini-game is irritating and not fun. The UI is clearly designed for a control pad, which can make it awkward to use. The game makes a thing of using automated turrets and sealing doors to ‘secure’ areas, but enemies respawn regularly and half the time you’ll return to a section only to find your turrets destroyed making you wonder why you bothered.

Seriously, I tested this shit. One time I left four fortified turrets guarding the main section entrance. I departed the section and then immediately returned to find all four turrets wrecked and no enemies in sight. It makes using spare parts repairing them entirely worthless.

The game gives you a ton of cool abilities, but you rarely need to use any of them. The mimic ability is great at first, but only actually useful in a handful of situations – it’s more of a novelty than anything. The same applies to the extensive range of ‘exotic’ powers, only one of which saw frequent use – there’s really little reason to bother with the others.

Visually, Prey looks oddly dated. Audio is fine. Performance isn’t great though. Considering how dated it looks, it’s a surprisingly taxing title. I had to drop most settings to a ‘medium’ configuration to keep a solid 60.

Overall, despite my complaints and what may seem like an overly negative impression based on this review, Prey is a good game. It just has too many issues dragging it down, pulling it back from being great. It’s frustrating because the potential is there – but it never manages to take that final step. As a fan of the ‘Shock’ series, it was good to play a title that, in many ways, feels like a new ‘Shock’ game in all but name. I don’t know if we’ll see more of Prey, but there’s certainly scope to expand and continue this story – and it’s something I’d like to see.


Monday, 9 October 2017

Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (BETA)

Let’s start with the good. The visuals and audio are excellent – although this was to be expected. Once again, Battlefront delivers an engaging and authentic Star Wars experience. And I’m pleased to say that many of my criticisms of the original appear to have been addressed.

There’s a new class system for infantry and vehicles and each class feels distinct to play. Every class has access to unique weapons and abilities, each of which can be further customised via attachments or Star Card boosts.

There’s far more release day content, not only as far as multiplayer content goes, but a full single player campaign. There’s also no Season Pass for DLC – all post release maps and modes will be free. And what I’ve played of this beta, I have to say, I’ve quite enjoyed, despite the criticisms I’m about to raise.

Okay, time for the bad. The beta offered 3 multiplayer modes – Galactic Assault, Starfighter Assault and Strike. Galactic Assault, as you might expect, is the centrepiece of Battlefront 2, just as Walker Assault was to Battlefront 1. It’s the largest mode in terms of players and maps, with multi-stage objectives and access to a wide variety of vehicles and heroes.

I don’t have an issue with the mode as such, but rather the beta map – Naboo. This beta is being used as much to sell the game as to test it, so I would assume that, like with Battlefront 1, they’d lead with what they considered to be one of, if not the best of the release maps. And that worries me, because the Naboo map isn’t very good.

It’s essentially just a very long, very straight corridor split into two sections – palace exterior and palace interior. The exterior feels too large for the player count – still 20v20 – and the interior too small. You can spend the first half of the map running around barely seeing the enemy, and the second engaged in a total clusterf**k of grenade spam and laser fire. I can only hope that not all of the Battlefront 2 maps are quite so linear and uninspired.

My other concern is the viability of the smaller modes. Even in this beta, Starfighter Assault and Strike seemed oddly underpopulated – which was a real shame as far as Starfighter is concerned, because that was by far my favourite part of this beta. But just how many maps will there be for the smaller modes? And if they’re not very popular at release, will they get any post-release support?

My main worry though is multiplayer progression. You level up, but I don’t really know why, as you don’t unlock anything when you do. No new weapons. No attachments. Not even an emote. Individual classes don’t even level up as you play them. All you can ‘earn’ whilst playing is credits, and credits can only be used to purchase Loot Boxes.

These boxes form the micro-transaction model of Battlefront 2 – not unexpected, considering the lack of a Season Pass or DLC. Each box contains three random items that might be weapons, emotes, another form of virtual currency, or a Star Card.

And this wouldn’t bother me too much, if the entire progression system wasn’t reliant upon it. Levelling up should give me something new, and a new goal to attain. The more I play a class, the more I should unlock for it. But in Battlefront 2, you’re just grinding credits so you can buy random Loot Boxes, hoping you’ll get something useful for a class you actually want to play.

Because unless you do, you can’t level up the various classes. In the beta, I primarily played with the Fighter class in Starfighter Assault, but could only reach level 4 because none of the Loot Boxes I opened contained any Fighter Star Cards. Instead, I received a load of Interceptor Class Cards which boosted my Interceptor level to 14 – despite barely playing it.

It sucks and it’s stupid. There’s no other way to say it. Progression shouldn’t be randomised via a damn Loot Box. And what makes it worse, is that the Star Cards these boxes contain now come at different upgrade levels – and some of these upgrades provide an objective advantage in battle. Whilst you can ‘craft’ these upgrades, you need the other form of virtual currency to do so – which is also limited by the randomised Loot Boxes.

It makes Battlefront 2 feel dangerously close to a pay-to-win system, as someone could buy a bunch of these boxes on Day 1, get access to some top-tier Star Card boosts, and have an instant advantage over those who are trying to grind out their credits the old fashioned way. Progression is all about providing an incentive to hit the next level. Battlefront 2 has zero progression beyond randomised loot that may or may not be useful.

I did say in my Battlefront review that whilst the signs for the sequel looked good, I was sure EA would find a way to f**k it up – and this Loot Box system may be it. It hasn’t put me off the game entirely, but I can’t see the ‘progression’ system, as it currently exists within the beta, being very well received.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on Battlefront 2 as it builds to release. I know I’m not the only one with these concerns, so it will be interesting to see how or if they’re addressed.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Total War: Warhammer 2: First Impressions

Is it a sequel? Is it an expansion? Is it a little bit of both? The real question is – is there enough new content in Total War: Warhammer 2 to justify the price? Based on what I’ve currently played, and as a fan of the original Warhammer, I’d say the answer is yes.

If you liked Warhammer 1, you’ll like Warhammer 2, it really is that simple. Warhammer 2 builds upon the solid foundation of Warhammer 1 and adds an additional layer of new content and mechanics. It’s a very polished, refined and upgraded version of the original – so much in fact, that it almost makes Warhammer 1 feel redundant in comparison.

And that feeling will likely only grow with the release of the combined campaign that will incorporate all of the Warhammer 1 content, with the addition of the Warhammer 2 improvements. Does that mean we’ll have no reason to return to the Warhammer 1 campaign? It’s hard to say, but it’s important to remember that without Warhammer 1, we wouldn’t have Warhammer 2.

It’s clear that a lot of the feedback and criticism of Warhammer 1 has fed directly into the development of Warhammer 2. Most notably when it comes to the campaign side of the game. And if there was one key area that I wanted to see Warhammer 2 expand and improve, it was the campaign.

The Vortex Campaign is the most narrative heavy Total War campaign we’ve ever had. Although it is possible to ignore the Vortex mechanics, I don’t see much point playing the campaign if you do – you’d be better off waiting for the combined map if all you want to do is expand and conquer.

The Vortex Campaign is a race from beginning to end and I can see some traditional Total War fans who prefer more slow, leisurely campaigns, being frustrated by the ritual mechanics. Because the AI isn’t a passive player in the Vortex Campaign. It’s actively working towards its campaign goals, whether you choose to participate or not.

Warhammer 1, in many ways, felt restrained. It’s almost like Creative Assembly weren’t quite willing to embrace the Warhammer licence – not entirely – because it was such a radical departure from their previous work.

But as they released more content for Warhammer 1, it was clear they were becoming more bold, more willing to take risks and experiment with the formula. And in Warhammer 2, it feels like those self-imposed shackles have finally been cast off – even at the cost of alienating some of their older fans.

Because I can see some people really hating the Vortex Campaign. As someone who has played the Total War games since Shogun 1 and been a part of the Total War community throughout that time, there is a small, but vocal subset of fans who, as much as they might say they want to be ‘tested’ by the AI, only really want to approach their campaigns at their own pace, fighting and expanding entirely on their own terms. The Vortex Campaign, by design, makes that very difficult. As I said – it’s a race, and if you want to win, you need to keep up or you’ll be left behind.

You have to be active, aggressive and take risks. There’s far more emphasis on taking key territories and completing missions in order to boost your ritual currency. The Vortex Campaign is a very different type of Total War campaign and it’s not going to be to everyone’s liking. But as I’ve said before, doing things differently doesn’t mean doing things wrong. The Total War series has always, with every major release, looked to do something new.

It’s what’s kept the series fresh and popular after so many years. It’s why there’s currently seven Total War games in the Top 100 most played games on Steam and why you’ll receive so many different answers to the question of ‘what’s the best Total War game?’ That said, I’m impressed by how much has changed between Warhammer 1 & 2 because I wasn’t expecting so many new mechanics or features.

I expected Warhammer 2 to just be more of the same but with a new map and races. But Warhammer 2 really does feel like a significant overhaul that improves upon and expands nearly every aspect of the original. I’m genuinely surprised by how much of an upgrade it feels over Warhammer 1 because I really wasn’t expecting it to.

I don’t know how the Warhammer 1 & 2 maps compare in terms of regions, but the map in Warhammer 2 does feel larger, probably because it’s split across four very different continents. I obviously haven’t had a chance to get stuck into every race yet, but from what I’ve seen, the campaign mechanics for each will offer a unique experience and challenge.

The AI seems on par with Warhammer 1 but I’ll need more time to properly assess if there’s any additional improvements. Graphically, it looks amazing, and the lighting on some maps, which could be rather flat and dull on some Warhammer 1 maps, seems to have been improved. The background scenery is great, and the variety of terrains and battle maps (including the return of ‘bridge’ battles) is excellent.

Some people really hated the sieges in Warhammer 1 but I actually quite liked them – or at least, I liked the intent behind them. That doesn’t mean I think they were perfect, and if there’s one aspect to Warhammer 2 that is a little disappointing, it’s that sieges haven’t really changed much at all. There are minor improvements to settlement design and the addition of unique abilities tied to certain settlements, but it’s not the extensive overhaul many might have been hoping for.

Overall, if it wasn’t already clear, I’m very impressed by what I’ve played of Warhammer 2. I’m not quite ready to do a review, because I want to complete at least one campaign to see how things progress during the late game. But so far, so good. Oh, and the music is bloody fantastic.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Call of Duty: WWII (BETA)

I’m not sure what I was expecting. Something new? Something different? I thought that by taking Call of Duty ‘back to its roots’ – so to speak – we might see a change. But no. Call of Duty: WWII is just . . . more of the same. It’s the same tired formula with a new skin.

It’s the same chaotic clusterf**k of an experience. Maps are small, the action is fast, and the TTK (time to kill) is extremely low. If you thought a WWII CoD would feel at least somewhat different to play than those of the more recent modern and ‘future’ warfare trend, think again! This is a game where even WWII shotguns can be equipped with ‘reflex’ sights. No, I’m not joking. I don’t want to call it a lazy re-skin, but based on this beta, that’s exactly what it feels like.

Visually, it looks muddy and dated, yet would frequently gobble up all 8GB of VRAM on my new 1080. Why it’s such a resource hog, I just don’t know, because the visuals certainly don’t justify the high demand – so I can only assume it’s due to extremely poor optimisation.

The beta had a couple of maps available and a fairly by the numbers selection of modes – TDM, Domination and Hardpoint. The only interesting addition is War – an objective focused mode with ‘attack’ and ‘defence’ phases for each team. But if you’re expecting this mode to shift away from the chaos that is the typical CoD MP experience, you’ll be disappointed.

I went into this beta hoping for more. I played the original CoD titles upon release and enjoyed them a lot but the series feels like it’s been stuck in a rut ever since the release of Modern Warfare 2 – which is the last CoD title I purchased.

I guess the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to design applies. CoD has an established audience that knows what it likes – more of the same. Nothing too radical. Nothing too new. Same shit, different skin.

But I thought this title would be an opportunity to break free of that formula. That’s what I wanted to see. I wanted a new CoD that would bring me back to the series. But instead, CoD WWII just plays it predictably safe. Can we blame them? I mean, why take the risk?

If it sells, why change it? If people want it, why not just give it to them? If you like the established CoD experience then you’ll probably like this too. If, like me, you were hoping for something new, then I wouldn’t bother. Oh well, I suppose there’s always next year.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Now Playing: Endless Legend

After thoroughly enjoying Endless Space 2, I decided to give Endless Legend a spin. Like ES2, it’s a turn based 4X strategy game. But unlike ES2, the stetting is fantasy on a land based, hex grid map. In that sense, it has more in common with the Civilization series.

But despite the change of setting and map type, EL shares much in common with ES2. In fact, many of the positive and negative aspects I discussed in my review of ES2, apply to EL too. Like ES2, the presentation is fantastic. Visuals and audio are of excellent quality. The UI is very good, though not entirely perfect – but could be, with a few tweaks here and there.

Like ES2, EL has an extensive selection of unique factions to choose between, each with their own style of play – although like ES2, how different does vary somewhat from one to the next. And like ES2, the unit selection of each faction is somewhat limited.

The game does have a large selection of unique unit types, but these are spread very thin across the multiple playable major factions, and the non-playable minor factions. Although it is possible to recruit up to three additional unit types by assimilating these minor factions, your military unit choice remains disappointingly sparse.

The game does introduce ‘guardian’ units as you progress through the impressive technology tree, but by the time you’re able to construct these powerful, elemental based units, you’ll probably be close to achieving victory anyway.

Like ES2, the combat system is probably the weakest aspect of EL – but even more so. Army limits restrict how many units can enter a fight, but fights are also determined by a set number of turns. This isn’t such an issue during the early game, when armies and battles are relatively small, but in the late game when multiple armies clash, battles become a tedious, multiple turn grind of endless reinforcements.

On the small scale, the battles are quite fun. On a large scale, they’re f**king boring and best auto-resolved. ‘Grind’ really is the best way to describe them, particularly when both sides have upgraded weapons and armour. To make matters worse, the battle maps – which are a zoomed-in version of the main playable map – are very small and restrictive.

Once again, it’s not such an issue during the early game with smaller armies and less units, but during the late game, battles become almost unmanageable because there’s no space for units to move. You’re stuck watching these powerful, late game units slowly chip away at each other over multiple turns.

Though the combat system of ES2 isn’t perfect, it’s far more enjoyable and engaging than in EL, even if you’re not directly controlling the action. Because ES2 was released after EL, it’s clear that a lot of lessons learned in EL fed directly into ES2. Which is why, if it wasn’t already clear, I consider ES2 to be the better game – because there’s nothing that EL really does, that ES2 didn’t do better.

That’s not to say EL is a bad game. Despite its flaws, it’s still a very accomplished 4X title. The problem for me, isn’t just that I think ES2 is the better overall game, but that I prefer the setting of ES2. I just like that space stuff more than this fantasy stuff. But you might be different and prefer the setting and map style of EL to ES2. Honestly, you can’t really go wrong either way.

Like ES2, there’s an extensive range of custom options to set up your campaigns however you want. The art style and design of the map, factions and units is also excellent. The game (with all the expansions) also incorporates an enjoyable naval expansion and combat aspect, which is normally something I never really enjoy in my strategy games, but I liked it here.

Each faction has their own unique quest and ‘story’ to follow (if you wish) which lends to the replay value. Like ES2, EL has ‘hero’ characters to serve in your armies or as governors of your cities. In ES2, I always felt heroes were far more useful as governors and that’s also true in EL. The boosts they provide to production or city defence can prove invaluable.

Like ES2 the difficulty ranges from ‘Newbie’ to ‘Endless’. I began on the Normal setting, but found it to be a complete (and rather dull) cakewalk. Bumping up to ‘Serious’ gave me a far more enjoyable challenge, although it’s clear the AI is given some serious boosts in order to compete. That said, the AI is pretty good – as long as you’re willing to bump it above Normal, in which it barely seems to do anything.

City expansion and population management differ a little from ES2 but the principle remains the same. More population = more resources. Food = faster growth. Science = faster research. Industry = faster construction. Regardless of which game you play first – EL or ES2 – you’ll feel right at home jumping into the other.

Performance is pretty solid, but I did notice some frame rate issues during one of my larger map campaigns. I’ve had a couple of crashes during my 30 hours of play, but I haven’t noticed any other bugs.

Overall, Endless Legend is a solid and enjoyable 4X game. Though I prefer the setting of Endless Space 2 – which is why I’ll probably put far more time into that title – EL is a welcome alternative and certainly worth checking out if you’re a fan of fantasy based strategy or hex grid Civilization style games.


Monday, 18 September 2017

Now Watching: Alien Covenant

Alien: Covenant is the sixth (?) film in the Alien series, a sequel to Prometheus, but a second prequel to the original Alien, a film that never needed a prequel, let alone two of them. But here we are. Again.

I didn’t hate Prometheus. Though the execution was flawed, I quite liked the concept, and there are themes explored in Covenant that carry on from Prometheus, albeit in a less interesting way. But I do think both Prometheus and Covenant would have been better movies if they also weren’t trying to be Alien movies.

Alien Covenant is about a colony ship that makes an unnecessary detour to investigate a strange signal. We know it’s a bad idea. They know it’s a bad idea. But they do it anyway because plot.

Covenant has a needlessly slow start, in which we’re expected to sympathise with a character we’ve just met, over the death of a character we never met. Things do pick up when our hapless heroes land on a mysterious planet, but rapidly fall apart with the arrival of David (Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus.

But before we’re reintroduced to David, we’re treated to an unintentionally hilarious scene in which our crew become stranded. We’re also treated to a rather poor CGI alien. Seriously, it’s like they’re interacting with a cartoon.

The crew of the Covenant are incredibly stupid and remarkably incompetent, which makes it rather hard to sympathise with them. David may have rescued them, but when he leads them into his secret lair surrounded by thousands of dead bodies, you’d think they’d have a few reservations about trusting the guy.

It’s so dumb it becomes comical. One of the crew is killed, despite David telling them they’re perfectly safe. The Captain then observes David having a polite chat with the alien and instead of immediately shooting David in the face, instead decides to follow him (alone, and without warning the others) into the heart of his lair, where he confesses to making monsters.

If that doesn’t get the alarm bells ringing, he then invites the Captain down into his creepy basement full of strange looking eggs. He tells the Captain to stick his face into one of the eggs – it’s perfectly safe, trust him! – and the Capitan duly obliges. You’ll never guess what happens next!

What’s frustrating is that there are so many ways they could have set up this scene and not make the Captain seem like a complete moron. The original Alien and its sequel Aliens, got this shit right. Even if the characters weren’t always successful in their plans, or perhaps underestimated what they were dealing with, at least they behaved and reacted in a way that made sense.

The problem is, the characters in Covenant don’t feel like real people. They do stupid things because apparently the plot can’t progress unless they do. Except it can. Quite easily, in fact. The film just spirals off the rails from here into a poor amalgamation of Alien and Aliens that feels and looks like a straight to DVD Alien knock off.

I can’t recommend Covenant. At least Prometheus had an interesting concept, but Covenant has nothing. It’s forgettable. It’s dumb. It’s so dumb it’s insulting. It’s almost Into Darkness dumb, that’s how bad it is. It’s not worth your time, and I feel bad wasting my time writing this review. Avoid. Go watch the original Alien and pretend these ‘prequels’ never happened.