Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Now Playing: Thrones of Britannia

Thrones of Britannia is one of the best expansions I’ve played. The problem is, it’s not an expansion. Thrones is the first title in the new Total War Saga series and must be judged as such. Built upon the existing Total War: Attila engine, Thrones needed to do more to provide a unique experience.

Whilst Thrones may offer a very different campaign experience to Attila – as I explained in my Fist Impressions post – the battles aren’t a significant overhaul. Thrones has been compared by design to Fall of the Samurai, but FOTS provided not only a new campaign experience, but a new land and sea battle experience too.

Fall of the Samurai was fantastic, but it was still an expansion to Shogun 2, and if Thrones was being marketed and sold as an Attila expansion I’d have no problem recommending it to those who enjoyed Attila and are interested in this period.

But Thrones isn’t an expansion. It’s intended to stand as it’s own game and as a result, it’s rather lacking. Thrones would have been a great way of introducing new players – and Total War: Warhammer players – to the historical side of the series. But the game has no tutorials beyond the in-game advisor. If it was an expansion, this wouldn’t be an issue – but it’s not.

I don’t have a problem with them building a new game upon an existing engine, but Thrones seems to expect players to be familiar with the campaign and battle mechanics of Attila rather than provide adequate tutorials. New game, new series, remember? You can’t have it both ways.

Thrones also recycles various assets and animations from Attila. Once again, if it was an expansion, it wouldn’t be an issue – but it’s not. I don’t expect them to redo perfectly fine animations or models, but smaller and more noticeable things – such as the ‘kill’ animation when defeating an enemy army – should have been changed. The engine performance may have improved – though not by a significant degree – but the battle engine in terms of collisions, impacts, animations and AI is nearly identical to Attila.

In a way, Thrones doesn’t offer much more of an overhaul of the campaign or battles than the Age of Charlemagne DLC. That’s the real problem here. I think Thrones offers a decent campaign and I’m enjoying playing it, but it doesn’t do enough to stand at its own game, and that’s how I have to judge it because that’s how they’re choosing to sell and market it.

I actually really like the idea of the ‘Saga’ series. I’ve said before that I think Creative Assembly do their best work on the smaller scale or focus. And Thrones, like Shogun 2, has a wonderfully immersive campaign thanks to its excellent art and audio. But Thrones feels like it has one foot in Attila and one foot out.

Thrones – and the Saga series – needs to do more to provide a unique experience, both mechanically and commercially. A 24.99 RRP would have been a more suitable price point. I think Saga games should also be sold as ‘feature complete’. No DLC. Blood could have been in be default. I understand the ratings argument, but once again, this new series needs to do more to define itself and separate itself from the mainline titles.

Thrones has some of the best siege maps in the series, but it doesn’t have a unique map for every major settlement. Why not? If you’re working on this smaller scale and focus, then you need to go deep, not wide. A unique map for every settlement would have been another way to have increased the value of Thrones as its own game.

I know this review isn’t really covering specific mechanics, but I already spoke at length about those in my First Impressions post, so I won’t repeat myself here. I like the new campaign mechanics, and I like how the campaign plays across those two distinct phases. As I’ve said before – doing things different doesn’t mean doing things wrong. It doesn’t mean doing things right, either, but I’ve always respected this series for being willing to experiment with its feature set.

The problem is, even with its new and tweaked features, Thrones doesn’t offer as much as Attila – it actually offers less. Attila felt like a good step forward for the series, but Thrones feels like two steps back. It strips down or simply removes far too many mechanics.

Overall, Thrones is a solid and fairly enjoyable Total War experience, but it is limited not only by its engine, but by the setting and period. Although I’ve enjoyed my time with the title and will likely play it some more, it really just makes me want to go back to Attila where I can enjoy a far more complex, compelling and diverse campaign.

If CA want to continue the Saga series of titles they need to do better at defining what they are and what they represent, mechanically and commercially. If this was sold purely as an Attila expansion, I’d say it’s a pretty decent one. But if I’m going to judge it as CA want – as a new game in a new series – then Thrones falls far short of what it should be aiming for.


Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Now Watching: Infinity War

I must admit, I had my doubts. I didn’t go to see Infinity War with the highest of expectations. I didn’t think it would be bad – none of the Marvel films are ever really bad. But Infinity War – the final piece of a 10 year and 19 film jigsaw (okay, part one of the final piece – there’s still more to come) could have easily fallen to pieces beneath its own weight.

And yet, quite remarkably, they managed to pull it off. I don’t think the film is perfect, but I’m astounded it was this damn good. How did they do it? Probably because they understood that people see these films more for the characters, than the plot. And they did a fantastic job of balancing so many popular characters.

They also understood that the key to Infinity War wasn’t just the characters we know and love, but the villain. A giant purple CGI man, Thanos has been teased since the first Avengers film. For Infinity War to work, they had to make Thanos work. They had to make him an actual character. And Infinity War is his story, as much as it is anyone’s.

Comparisons to Steppenwolf in The Justice League are inevitable. Two CGI big men who want to collect powerful things to do something bad. But Steppenwolf was a joke. No character. No personality. No clear motivation beyond evil for being evil. Once again, Marvel school DC in how to do it right. Thanos is the glue that binds Infinity War together.

The ‘look’ of Thanos has changed a little every time he’s been teased, but they sensibly rolled back the CGI on the face to let the actor shine through. It pays off. Thanos isn’t just ‘CGI bad guy who wants to do bad thing’ – he’s the star of the show. And to say he comes out swinging would be an understatement.

They’ve teased how powerful and dangerous the Infinity Stones are for years and yet to see them being used so creatively in the many action scenes is a joy to behold. The way the stones are utilised is clever and often unexpected. It’s also pretty terrifying when you realise just how powerful Thanos becomes with each additional stone.

Infinity War doesn’t pull its punches. The stakes are high, the threat is real. I’m sure in part two, certain aspects of Infinity War will be ‘fixed’ but that won’t demean this film, not if they do it right. And after Infinity War, I trust them to do it right. To do it justice. And I’m surprised to say, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Overall, Infinity War was a blast. It has its flaws – some of the early action is pretty choppy and poorly cut. And I’m sure the plot has plenty of holes if you care to pick it apart. But for a film that could have so easily turned into a disaster given the hype, the expectation and what it was trying to achieve, Infinity War delivers the goods.

If you’re not a Marvel fan or if you’ve not followed these films, then you won’t have a clue what the f**k is going on, but that’s not who this film is for. If you are a fan, then I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


Friday, 11 May 2018

Thrones of Britannia: First Impressions

I’ve completed one campaign in Thrones of Britannia and I’m working my way through my second, so I feel like I’m in a good place to give my initial thoughts on the title. Thrones is the first in a new spin-off Total War series called ‘Sagas’. The intention is to create games with a smaller focus, rather than scale. They’ve already released titles like this in the past such as Napoleon or – a more apt comparison – Fall of the Samurai.

Built upon an existing engine (Attila) Thrones is focused entirely on the British Isles following the Viking invasions. In that sense – and others – it’s more similar to Shogun 2 & FOTS than Attila. The smaller focus lends itself to building a more immersive campaign through it’s art and audio, but it also results in a game with little variety on the battlefield. If you disliked Shogun 2 because every faction felt ‘the same’ to play, then you probably won’t like Thrones either. And although they’ve tried to give each ‘culture’ some unique campaign mechanics, these do feel a little tacked on and don’t really change how you play.

Visually, Thrones looks great, even though it’s built upon an older engine. The Attila engine always looked very nice, but it also had poor performance. Thrones is running on a modified version of the engine and I’m happy to report the performance is smoother than Attila – but it’s not a significant improvement, so be warned.

The battles in Thrones are more like those in Shogun 2 – the smaller, less diverse roster playing heavily into a rock/paper/scissors system. But as far as the battle engine and AI goes, it’s basically just Attila, perhaps a little more refined. Collisions, impacts, animations and AI behaviour are pretty much identical.

It’s the campaign of Thrones that’s seen the biggest overhaul. If there’s one thing I like about Total War it’s that every title feels different to play. They’re not afraid to chop and change features, to experiment with new systems – for good and for worse. The campaign of Thrones has a very different dynamic to Attila and previous Total Wars.

The family and political system is a far more integrated and important piece of the puzzle. The way unit recruitment, region management, technology and public order work have all been changed. They may not seem like significant alterations, but the campaign of Thrones is very much about how all of these smaller changes combine to create a unique dynamic.

I don’t think it will be to everyone’s taste – I can already see people being very frustrated by the new ‘minor’ settlement system. In Thrones, they are only villages with no garrisons or walls. But they’re vital to your campaign – they’re the regions which generate your wealth and most importantly your food – so protecting them is key.

I’ve seen people unhappy that agents and army stances like forced march or ambush are gone, but these features have somewhat been rolled into others in Thrones – agent boosts are integrated into the General follower system (which also serves as a skill tree) and increased movement range is tied to followers and technology upgrades.

The removal of ambush doesn’t really bother me, but I don’t see why it needed to be cut. I also don’t know why they removed the General equipment feature from Attila – it would have been a nice way to further customise your characters. I’m also not entirely convinced by the follower system, as you’re always going to pick the same things – command & movement range for your generals, and financial / public order boosts for your governors.

Unit recruitment now works on a ‘mustering’ system, so units replenish to full strength over time. Once again, it makes sense for the period, and it’s another small change which creates a new dynamic – you can’t suddenly raise a full stack at full strength in a single turn or two. This makes battles, particularly in the early stages of the campaign much more important – if you lose a fight, you’re pretty much f**ked because you won’t be able to raise a new army fast enough to stop the AI from gobbling up all your undefended villages.

And this, of course, applies to the AI too, which can make defeating factions feel a little too easy, as a single victory against them will pretty much destroy their forces and cripple their economy. But the Thrones campaign tends to play across two quite distinct phases – Phase 1 is where the ‘big boys’ expand and the major players emerge. By the time you’ve completed your ‘Short’ Victory, there will probably only be 5-6 major factions on the map, some of whom will be as big if not bigger than you.

Which is Phase 2 – the clash of the major factions. Phase 1 was all about smaller battles, with singular armies, but Phase 2 is when it really kicks off with these larger factions now capable of supporting multiple stacks. Diplomacy also becomes more important during this phase, as you have to pick and choose your wars very carefully.

As I said, it’s a new campaign dynamic, but it’s not without its issues. For one, it’s a little too easy to exploit the AI. They don’t always understand the importance of the smaller villages, and as a result, it’s pretty easy to cripple them by sending single unit armies to rampage through their territory.

Overall, I’m enjoying Thrones, but I do have my reservations about exactly what it is. Can it really be considered a new title rather than a big Attila expansion? I guess that’s the real question here. Because if it was just marketed and sold as an Attila expansion, I’d say it’s a very good one – although due to the campaign changes and smaller focus, perhaps not to everyone’s taste.

But judged as a ‘Saga’ title? As the first in a new spin-off series? I think it’s a little lacking. It needed to do more to separate itself from Attila and from other titles in the series. Why not release Saga games as ‘feature complete’ with no DLC? Why not release with blood by default? Thrones, I think, needed to do more to stand apart and provide a unique experience.

So do we judge it for what it is, or for what it’s not? All I can say now is that I’m enjoying playing Thrones and to stay tuned for my final review.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Suburban Killbot Year 6

Another year, another update, and another year of things not going to plan. This yearly update comes and goes, and I always hope that by the next one, I’ll find myself in a better place. A place where things are going right.

I’m behind schedule on my latest book – TF, TM & TE. I expanded upon my original plan, going from 4 parts to 5, but I’ve also had a lot of other stuff to deal with that’s gradually put me behind. I still hope to have it wrapped up by the end of June or so.

Blog posts are probably going to continue to be a little sparse as I focus on the book. I’m not playing many games at the moment, although I will probably pick up the new Total War. I might even do some more videos for it. I’ve not updated my YouTube channel in nearly six months, but I guess that doesn’t matter when they demonetise all your videos because you’re too small a fish.

It’s not like I was making any money from it, but my growth and views were steady and I was on course to earn enough to buy a couple of games or so by the end of the year, which would have been a nice little bonus. I’ll probably still put some videos up, maybe a campaign series. Nobody will watch it, but I quite enjoyed recording my Norsca campaign and I’d like to do another. The only problem is finding time to record when I won’t be disturbed.

I’ve expanded my top rated mosaic because that’s a thing I’m still doing. I don’t really have anything else to say. I’ll keep working on my new book. I’ll try putting out some more videos. I just don’t want to find myself back here next year and nothing has changed.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Now Watching: A Ghost Story

I think the best way to sum up how I feel about A Ghost Story is that I like what it’s doing, more than how it does it. It’s a film dealing with all the big issues – life, death and love. But above all, it’s about time.

Casey Affleck plays a nameless man who dies but returns as a ghost wearing a white sheet. It’s both comical and quaint, but neatly plays into the feeling of disconnection between him and the world of the living. As the film progresses he does learn to interact with this world to a limited degree, but he’s largely a passive observer. Time passes, but he remains constant.

Dialogue is almost non-existent, as the film relies upon its visuals and sound to tell its story . . . at least until a completely unnecessary scene in which a living character practically turns to the audience and explains the plot in a meandering, pretentious monologue.

The scene could have been cut, and I think you’d have a stronger film without it. In fact, there’s a lot of scenes that could be trimmed, particularly during the first act. The concept is sound, but this feels like 60 minutes of solid content stretched to 90. Stretched so thin it almost breaks.

Almost. Fortunately, A Ghost Story pulls it back together and delivers a satisfying pay off at the very end – even if it’s one you’ll see coming long before we get there. I do understand why so many of the early scenes are presented as they are, as it ties into our perception of the passage of time – but it’s still 10 minutes of watching someone eating a pie that I’ll never get back. Cut that scene in half, and the impact would be the same.

Overall, I felt a little disappointed by A Ghost Story. The presentation is great. The direction, sound and concept are all things I can appreciate – but I think the execution is flawed. It’s a difficult film to recommend, but if you’re in the mood for a more slow paced, thoughtful film exploring themes like the nature of death and time, then be sure to check it out.


Sunday, 15 April 2018

Now Playing: Final Fantasy XV

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game shit the bed quite as hard as Final Fantasy XV. In just a handful of hours, it went from a game I considered to be an early contender for my GOTY, to an early contender for my Most Disappointing Game of the Year.

I had an absolute blast during Chapters 1-8 of Final Fantasy XV. Chapter 9 seemed promising, but that’s where things rapidly fell apart. Chapters 10, 11 & 12 took a serious dive in quality and Chapter 13? Chapter 13 was so bad it made me want to stop playing the game entirely. Oh god, was it bad.

Then came the final chapter, and I was just ready for the game to be over. But Chapter 14 knocked it the f**k out of the park with an absolutely fantastic finale. And suddenly, FFXV became a contender for my GOTY once again. To say that FFXV proved to be a roller-coaster of an experience would be an understatement.

The question is: what the hell happened? Chapter 9, which introduced a new location and map, felt stripped down, and the following Chapters 10-13 felt unfinished. The story was always a little disjointed, but from Chapter 10 onwards it goes entirely off the rails. It feels like massive chunks of content are simply missing and these last few chapters were simply cobbled together with whatever they had.

Was it a matter of time and budget? I don’t know, but as I said, FFXV does gets it shit back in order for the final chapter and go out with a suitably epic bang. But my god, was Chapter 13 terrible. There are two routes available, and from what I understand, Route B was only added because of how poorly received the original (and only) Route A was. But I didn’t know that going in, so I chose Route A because it seemed the ‘right’ choice to make considering it focused on the main character.

I wish I hadn’t. Route A is so boring, tedious and infuriating it made me want to quit. But I’m glad I pushed through, because Chapter 14 f**king rocked. I don’t think I’ve sever seen a game dive so hard in quality but recover just as quickly. That’s not to say Chapter 14 doesn’t take a misstep or two. It’s a shame we didn’t see more of the new world Noctis awakes to. I was disappointed we didn’t get to see demon slayer Iris, for example.

The most fun I had with FFXV was simply exploring its world. The side quests and monster hunts do a good job of pushing you to see every area and creature. Yes, the side quests are mostly basic fetch quests, but there’s a nice variety of objectives and fighting the fantastic variety of monsters is something I never grew tired of.

As I said in my First Impressions post, the combat system of FFXV is stylish fun, but it can become very messy in enclosed environments. This is particularly true during the dungeons, many of which feature narrow tunnels and chambers. But once you’ve unlocked all of the various combat skills and abilities, there’s more depth to the combat than you might initially think. It’s very fast paced, so it can descend into a mindless brawl, but when everything clicks, it’s very satisfying to play.

I’m also quite impressed with how much post-game content there is to explore and unlock. It keeps you wanting to play, even once you’ve finished the man story. And the main story, overall, is pretty good, despite feeling butchered to pieces during the last few chapters. What sells it are the characters, all of whom are pretty fun to interact with.

Graphically, FFXV looks great but could use a few more patches to improve performance. They fixed an issue with the summoning ability, but at the time of writing I’m still experiencing what I’m sure is a memory leak. Because I don’t tend to play for extended periods it’s not really an issue for me, but many people are still reporting it.

Final Fantasy XV was the first FF game I really got stuck into and despite the flaws and that late dive in quality, it’s a game I thoroughly enjoyed and intend to keep playing until I’ve completed all of the additional content. It’s certainly got its highs and its lows, but when it hits high, it really knocks it out of the park.