Friday, 8 December 2017

Now Playing: Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a glorious clusterf**k of a game. After nearly 60 hours of play, I came away . . . satisfied (I think?) by the overall experience, but also glad it was finally over. There were days when I couldn’t stop playing Andromeda . . . and days I just didn’t want to start. I can’t remember the last time – if ever – I came away from a game with such a positive impression despite wanting to stop playing the game because I was so sick of its bullshit.

It’s not so much the larger issues that bothered me, but the little things that stacked up. Small design choices that drag the entire experience down. The core of the game in terms of gameplay and narrative is solid and enjoyable. Good even, at times. But Andromeda is such a conflicted mess, I’m not sure where the hell I should start.

I never intended to play Andromeda, but after seeing a free trial period available, I decided to give it a go. I still have a lot of love for the Mass Effect universe despite . . . the game I shall not speak of . . . and I must admit, returning to this world was quite a nice experience. And the first few hours of the trial were enjoyable and engaging enough to convince me to buy the full title.

Andromeda, at least from a narrative perspective, was a smart move. It’s the same universe, but a new sandbox. You play as Ryder, a human ‘Pathfinder’ assigned to the ARK Hyperion – a colony ship on a 600 year voyage to the distant Andromeda galaxy. As you’d expect, your arrival in Andromeda doesn’t quite go to plan and you quickly find yourself struggling to survive and gain a foothold on this dangerous new frontier.

It’s a tidy way of keeping the things we love – the races, technology and history of Mass Effect – but without the baggage of the original Mass Effect trilogy. It’s a clean slate, a chance to tell a new story in a new galaxy with new races and . . . oh.

Okay, so let’s talk about the first real flaw of Andromeda. The new races it introduces – the Angara (good guys) and the Kett (bad guys) aren’t terribly interesting. Not as interesting as the races you already know and love. Andromeda also recycles some plot elements Mass Effect fans will be very familiar with – an ancient, now extinct civilisation and a nefarious plan by the Kett to assimilate the genetic distinctiveness of other races in their quest for genetic perfection.

But the Kett and their leader – the Archon – aren’t exactly Reaper level bad guys. Not that they needed to be. I just wish the whole ‘ancient tech’ stuff wasn’t such a big – if any – part of the narrative. It’s so – been there, done that – in Mass Effect, and it’s a shame Andromeda relies so heavily upon it.

That said, the core story and how it plays out is certainly worth your time and provides a fairly engaging and enjoyable ride. The final confrontation feels a little abrupt, but there’s a neat and satisfying little epilogue that ensures you come away from the game feeling pleased.

As you’d expect, Andromeda has you assemble a motley crew to tackle the Kett and put an end to their evil schemes. It’s a . . . decent cast. There was no one I really hated. But there wasn’t anyone I truly loved, either. Drack, the Krogan, was fun, but krogans usually are. It’s hard not to compare the Andromeda cast to the original Mass Effect crew, and though they may not quite hit those dizzy heights, they do offer a few fun scenes and banter.

You have core story quests in addition to key companion and colony world quests. You also have numerous ‘task’ quests. Just as I did with Prey, I’m going to make the unusual complaint and say that Andromeda has too much content.

The problem with the extensive selection of side content in Andromeda is that the bulk of it – like Prey – is low quality filler. It’s not necessarily bad content. But it’s not content that’s worth your time. It has no value. I completed a lot of it but I can’t say I was honestly enjoying it. I was just mindlessly grinding through it for the sake of it.

I’d say 70% of the ‘tasks’ could be cut because they’re completely forgettable and a waste of your time. But also like Prey, there is some really good stuff buried in there. It’s such a shame you have to wade through so much pointless filler to find it.

A big part of the game is establishing new outposts (you’re there to colonise Andromeda, after all) but the game really squanders the potential of this concept. I thought you’d get to explore different worlds and choose where to put down your outposts but instead, you’re restricted to a handful of specific worlds and locations.

Okay, so I can see why they did this and it makes perfect sense from a narrative perspective, but you also lose that sense of mystery and adventure. You’re supposed to be a pioneer, but everywhere you go is pretty much already settled and explored. You just have to knock a few quests off at each location to put down an outpost, but even this isn’t handled as well as it could be. I thought outposts would grow and evolve over time, but they remain static. There’s never a real sense that you’re building a new civilisation in Andromeda and that’s the biggest missed opportunity.

Gameplay is a basic third person cover shooter with the addition of a horrendous ‘platforming’ system involving a rather weak jump jet. On the battlefield you can use it to boost dash to cover or leap over foes – and in that sense it’s pretty fun and adds a welcome kinetic dynamic to battles – but it’s also unfortunately used for some f**king terrible and irritating platforming sections.

You’ll be navigating narrow ledges and rising alien pillars and I can’t stress how much I hated any section that required me to use the jump jet in this way. It’s a nightmare to control and you’ll frequently miss ledges or jump too far, either falling to your death or dropping straight to the bottom, forcing you to start climbing all over again.

There’s so many annoying little things in Andromeda that really pissed me off that I actually made a list whilst playing. I’ll probably gloss over a lot of these so this doesn’t run on for forty pages. Ready? Here we go!

The UI is a complete f**king mess. I thought at first it was just because it was designed primarily for a control pad, but it seems to be equally awful regardless. It’s a convoluted system of multiple menus within menus and multiple (and different) key/button presses to do the most simple things. It’s terrible and should be taken out back and shot in the head.

The facial animations, though better now than at release are still bloody awful. They’re stiff and awkward and frequently hilarious. They’re not as bad as the character animations though, which are always hilarious. The highlight was probably the ‘fight’ between two Krogan. I’ve seen better animation in SFM porn.

DOORS! Doors aren’t generally an issue because they only take half a second or so to open. Except on one particular world where they each take 4-5 for no obvious reason . . . other than to make you stand by and tediously watch a little circle go around.

In fact, that whole world design can get f**ked, because in order to enter the main open world, you first need to go through two other sections and a load screen using a fast travel terminal – which also includes an option to return to your ship. And yes, it’s very easy to accidentally hit the wrong option forcing you to leave the planet . . .

. . . because returning to your ship makes you automatically leave the planet/station you’re on. Why? Why can’t I just go back and speak to someone on my ship or whatever, without leaving the location and having to watch the same f**king cutscene of my ship taking off and landing multiple times?

Why do so many quests send you on pointless ‘scanning’ exercises across multiple systems or locations? Why do I have to tediously visit five different relay points in order to find the ‘real’ objective in so many damn quests? It just forces you to continually backtrack through places you’ve already been and for what? I swear, over half of my 60 hour playthrough was spent backtracking for quests.

What’s the point of system scanning and ‘exploration’? Why does it take so long? Why does it have to slowly zoom to every planet and – even if you skip it – still has to zoom in and then out before you can do a scan? WHY??? WHO THOUGHT THIS WOULD BE A GOOD IDEA???

Why is the range of your hand scanner so small? Why can’t you run when using it? Why do so many missions involve ‘locked’ doors that you just need to backtrack to the last room you visited to touch a console to open it. WHY?? WHAT IS THE POINT???

Why do you give us so many skill points and combat abilities if we can only have three active at a time – extremely limiting our combat options? Because you can’t fit more than three options on a control pad? F**k, just put in a radial menu or something . . . oh wait, they did, but only for weapons, not powers. WHY???

Why is the Nomad (your planetary exploration vehicle) so slow? Why are the maps so big and empty forcing you to tediously drive for minutes at a time to get to quest locations that seem to be intentionally placed as far from a fast travel point as possible. Why is there so much annoying terrain that makes it a pain to drive and navigate?

Why can’t I walk around when there is radio or companion chatter without it abruptly cutting out because I walked too far? It means I have to stand perfectly still every time someone is talking or I’ll miss out on what they’re saying. WHY???

There are so many little problems with this game that, on their own, wouldn’t have bothered me too much. But combine them all, and they stack up to create one of the most frustrating and infuriating games I’ve ever played. Seriously – F**K THIS GAME. Do you think I’m done? Stay with me, there’s more!

Why do so many key side quests go nowhere? Why was the Turian ARK quest so shit? Was it unfinished? Why introduce important plot elements like the ancient AI, the Collective, the Kett ‘ally’ or the mysterious ‘benefactor’, if NONE of them are resolved? Were they intended for DLC? Or a sequel? I guess they were, seeing as how the game teases the Quarian ARK at the very end. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon.

I should probably repeat – as hard as it might be to believe – that I still came away feeling positive about Andromeda despite the game apparently being designed to be as irritating as possible. I hated parts of this game. There were times I wanted to stop playing it because I was so sick of having to grind through all this annoying little shit to get to the good stuff. It’s like a bloody endurance test.

The question is – is Andromeda worth it, in the end? Despite everything, despite all my complaints, I have to say yes . . . barely. In the end, the good shines through. But I’m never f**king playing it again.


Monday, 27 November 2017

Now Watching: Lady Vengeance

Lady Vengeance is the third film in what’s popularly known as the ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ by director Park Chan-wook. Three films – Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance – each with the subject of revenge at their core. But though they share a common theme, each film is actually quite unique.

They each have their own distinctive narrative, structure, tone and style. They also deal with the subject of revenge very differently. But if there’s one thing all three films have in common, it’s that they do find humour within the heart of tragedy.

I’d say Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is the most conventionally shot and structured of the trilogy. It’s also the most bleak and depressing. Oldboy probably has the most engaging concept and narrative, and features a fantastic performance by Choi Min-sik, but it’s Lady Vengeance which is easily my favourite of the three.

The narrative may lack the complexity or immediate mystery of Oldboy, but it’s far more stylish in terms of visuals, audio and structure. The first half of the film is like a shifting puzzle with pieces of the story slowly falling into place.

It’s the most daring and unconventional of the three in how it presents its narrative. It’s also the darkest in terms of subject matter, but also, conversely, the funniest. I also think it’s the most interesting in terms of how it explores its themes.

The trailer for Lady Vengeance is incredibly misleading because it presents the film as more of a straightforward tale of revenge. But that’s not really what the film is about. It’s the story of Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) a young woman imprisoned for the kidnap and murder of a young boy. But Lee Geum-ja is innocent, and she’s spent the 13 years of her incarceration plotting her revenge against the real villain.

I won’t spoil any more of the plot than that, but what I will say is that it doesn’t unfold this tale in a conventional way. The film slides between events in the past and present, slowly building the picture of her time in prison and how the pieces of her plan fall into place.

Lee Young-ae gives a fantastic performance as Lee Geum-ja. Even when she secures the revenge she seeks, the conflict of emotion is clear to see. Because Lady Vengeance is as much about seeking redemption as it is revenge. It’s a film that relies more upon visuals and performance to tell its story as it does dialogue.

That’s why it’s my favourite of the ‘revenge trilogy’. It’s not just the story, but it’s how the story is told. It’s a film I always find something new to appreciate every time I see it. It’s dark, stylish, funny and moving.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Battlefront 2 is F**KED

Where do I even start when talking about how f**ked Battlefront 2 is? I touched a little upon these concerns in my Beta Impressions post, but I’ve got more to say. A lot more. All the signs for Battlefront 2 looked good. A story based, single player campaign. More multiplayer content on release than Battlefront 1. Space battles! And no, I repeat no Season Pass or paid DLC.

It wasn’t unexpected there would be some form of monetization to fuel future development, so when loot boxes were announced it wasn’t a great surprise. And honestly, even though loot boxes aren’t super popular right now, if they were included in Battlefront 2 for items that were purely cosmetic in nature – such as character, vehicle, ship or weapon skins, in addition to things like poses and emotes – I wouldn’t be writing this post, and there wouldn’t be such an outcry.

There would still be those who considered it ‘wrong’ for a fully priced, AAA title to include microtransactions, but I think the majority would understand and accept the trade off to avoid DLC and Season Pass bullshit. And there’s a lot they could do with cosmetic content in a cross-era Star Wars game, especially with unique character/race skins.

The point I’m making isn’t that Battlefront 2 is f**ked purely because it has loot boxes. The loot boxes aren’t the issue. It’s what’s inside the loot boxes that is. These boxes provide objective gameplay advantages over other players. In any class based shooter, there will be a degree of imbalance as some classes will excel within certain roles or engagements more than others. Natural skill and experience also plays a role.

But on its current system, Battlefront 2 will very rapidly become a game of those who have and those who do not. The fact is, that in 2-3 months, if you’re not rocking a full hand of epic Star Cards, you’re going to be at an objective disadvantage to those who do, regardless of experience or skill. The only way to create a ‘level’ playing field is to grind – or spend cash – to obtain epic Cards of your own.

This alone is enough to make me not want to buy the game. Even during the limited beta, players who had obtained higher level cards would frequently dominate matches, particularly in my favourite mode – Starfighter Assault. Even I was guilty of it, as I got lucky with some crates and obtained a full deck of ‘rare’ Interceptor cards. And I could feel the advantage I had going into fights with players who didn’t have any. It felt cheap. I could fire faster, longer and do more damage. Matches became about which team had the best cards, not the best pilots.

Since the beta, the grind to obtain loot boxes and the necessary cards needed to level up has only increased to the point where you may need to spend 2 or more hours of play to earn a single crate. Why? To encourage you to buy them with real cash, of course! Even this, as terrible as it is, wouldn’t be so bad if all vehicles, classes and heroes were available to play at their most basic level. But no!

Some heroes require credits to unlock – an obscene amount of credits, which on current calculations may take 40 hours of play to unlock – provided you don’t spend a single credit on anything else. Let’s not forget – this isn’t a free to play title. It’s a full priced AAA release locking release day content behind a pay wall. EDIT - they’ve now reduced the hero cost, but reducing it isn’t enough – it needs to be removed entirely.

And rumours are beginning to spread that the intention is to continue this approach with the upcoming ‘free’ content, which will be locked behind ridiculous credit costs, forcing players to grind for countless hours to unlock it or take the intended short cut and buy random loot crates to speed up the process.

Everything about the loot box system, the obscene credit costs for those who don’t pay, the locked content, the gameplay advantages that will f**k over any player who picks up the game post-release, the fact that you can find DUPLICATE items in those crates, and the whole encouraging players to gamble aspect which I haven’t even touched upon means that Battlefront 2 feels rotten to the core.

It’s gone from a game I was wanting to buy, to a game I most certainly won’t. Not unless significant changes are made. And I guess that’s the point of this post. If enough people keep bitching about it, maybe things will change. They said changes would occur post-beta, but it seems they’ve only made things worse. Maybe this time they’ll really listen.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Now Playing: Hollow Knight

I kind of love and hate Hollow Knight. I almost gave up on the title after only 40 minutes of play, not because it’s a bad game, but because it just wasn’t clicking with me. But I’m not one to give up so easily. I decided to persist, to see if Hollow Knight would improve and evolve as I progressed. And it did, in some ways. To say that Hollow Knight is a ‘slow burn’ would be an understatement. You have to be willing to put 2-3 hours into the title before it really begins to get good.

Good, not great. I feel like I spent the entire game waiting for Hollow Knight to take that extra step, to go from being a good but flawed experience, into an unforgettable classic. I wanted another Ori and the Blind Forest. But I didn’t get it. Not even close.

Hollow Knight is a 2D side scrolling action / platform game very much in the ‘metroidvania’ style. As you explore the world and defeat various bosses, you’ll gain new abilities which will, in turn, unlock new areas to explore and new bosses to fight. It’s a tried and tested cycle of progression, pushing the player through the world and regularly introducing new locations and challenges from beginning to end.

I don’t think Hollow Knight handles its progression particularly well, however. As I said, the opening few hours are a slow slog with little variety or challenge, and it takes a few hours before you unlock the necessary skills to really open up this fascinating world. But even then, progression feels needlessly slow.

Every new location should be a joy to explore but in Hollow Knight, they can feel like a tedious slog as you slowly exhaust all available routes until you find the ‘correct’ path. This is less of an issue as you advance through the game and unlock all of the various abilities and items, but during the early stages, when you’re very limited by where you can go, it results in a lot of ‘dead ends’ followed by an infuriating amount of backtracking.

Even with a new (if limited) fast travel system, Hollow Knight is a backtracking nightmare during the early to mid game. You might say that’s part of being a metroidvania title – but Ori used the same system of progression, so why did it work so well there and not here? The answer is – world design.

In Ori, previously explored areas could be traversed far more rapidly when you had gained the appropriate skills. There were multiple paths based around these skills and they made backtracking fast, easy and more importantly – forced the player to put their new abilities to the test. But in Hollow Knight, even when you’ve unlocked all of the different skills, alternate routes and fast travel stations, backtracking through old areas isn’t significantly faster than when you began.

That’s because your skills are primarily used to access and explore new areas, not to traverse existing areas. So when you have to backtrack through previously explored levels it’s rare that you’ll be able to use your new skills to speed up the process.

I don’t want to get too hung up on the backtracking issue because it’s not the only flaw holding Hollow Knight back and, as I’ve said, it becomes less of an issue towards the end game. Slow, methodical exploration and progression is encouraged and rewarded by Hollow Knight’s design. And that’s not a bad thing. But it is an issue when it comes to traversing previously explored areas.

It results in the game feeling padded with needless and unnecessary travel. There are far too many ‘redundant’ screens that seem to serve no purpose within the overall design. They seem to exist purely to slow the player down. It’s not all bad – because there are areas where they clearly thought of placing ‘short cuts’ within the design allowing you to bypass previous sections. So no, it doesn’t get it entirely wrong. But for everything it gets right, it seems to get something equally wrong. And that is particularly true when it comes to difficulty.

It’s always tricky talking about difficulty because it’s such a subjective topic. I’ve seen Hollow Knight referred to as a ‘2D Dark Souls’ and that’s actually a description that attracted me to the title, in addition to the wonderful visuals and music. Because if you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know I rated Dark Souls very highly.

Dark Souls got difficulty right. It offered what I considered to be a fair and balanced challenge. When I died in Dark Souls, I was never angry at the game. I knew I’d died because I’d made a mistake, or because I wasn’t yet prepared to face the challenge before me. Every death was a chance to learn and improve.

I can’t say the same for Hollow Knight. I was frequently irritated by the game because I was taking hits or getting killed in ways that felt beyond my control. Deaths that felt random and unavoidable. I’m not just talking about the extensive selection of boss characters. Even traversing the world could be a pain.

Hollow Knight has some lovely visuals and environments, but it also loves what you might call ‘foreground’ scenery which, at times, can obscure your view of enemies, hostile projectiles or even hazards like spikes and water. When you take a hit by something you couldn’t even see, it doesn’t feel very fair.

The game also takes great delight in punishing the player for trying to move quickly. As I said – slow, methodical exploration is encouraged. But when I’m passing through an area for the 4th or 5th time, I just want to hurry on my way. Hollow Knight makes that difficult with a lot of needless environmental hazards.

I’m talking about having to repeat a series of tedious precision jumps, or avoid falling rocks which, when you’re in a hurry, may catch you out and result in a cheap hit. And taking even simple hits like this can prove punishing due to what I call ‘chain damage’.

In Hollow Knight, taking one hit can lead to a chain of hits either due to enemy or level design. A basic example would be this – a falling rock hits you (1 hit), knocking you from a platform onto an enemy below (2 hits) which then knocks you onto some spikes (3 hits). I don’t want to over exaggerate the issue, but it is a problem, particularly in some of the boss fights, nearly all of which take place in enclosed arenas and a single slip can result in you getting ‘stuck’ in a corner, taking a chain of hits you simply can’t avoid.

Because hits can be very random. Sometimes they’ll knock you into trouble, and sometimes they won’t. It just feels that it’s luck, not skill, that sometimes determines the outcome of a fight. And that, I think, is really at the heart of Hollow Knight’s problems and why it never quite clicked for me. It’s not really a game of ‘skill’ but of slow, methodical trial and error gameplay.

Every piece of the game be it boss or world design is set up in an intentional way to slow and punish the player. Traversing and defeating these challenges isn’t a matter of using your abilities in a skilful way – it’s more about learning the patterns and responding accordingly.

But to me, that’s not very interesting or engaging gameplay. Once you know the patterns, it’s not hard to progress – it’s just slow. It’s a tedious game of trial and error be it finding the ‘correct’ path to go or the ‘correct’ way to defeat a boss.

Which wouldn’t bother me so much if the combat was a little more varied. The game has a fantastic variety of enemies to fight, but you have very limited combat abilities and nearly every enemy is dealt with in exactly the same manner – a basic repetition of strike and dodge. Your new skills never really come into play in the boss fights. Every fight is just a case of learning the pattern and knowing when to strike, when to dodge and when it’s safe to heal.

Oh yes, healing. Healing in Hollow Knight can take a few seconds even when regenerating a single life. This forces you to use your healing wisely. What I don’t like, however, is the unnecessary delay upon entering and exiting the heal animation. You’re effectively locked into place unable to move, dodge or strike. You can argue that you should also take this delay into account when choosing to heal, but there are times when it doesn’t feel entirely fair.

One boss, for example, would frequently and randomly spawn smaller enemies during the fight. And if one spawns right next to you as you’re entering a heal there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent the hit. If it happens, it’s just bad luck. But luck should never be the defining factor that can win or lose you fights.

Too many hits in Hollow Knight feel cheap, random and unavoidable – at least until you learn the patterns, and then it’s actually pretty easy to progress (aside from the aforementioned ‘bad luck’ moments). If you like that trial and error style of play, you’ll probably love this. I don’t. Which isn’t really a fault of the game, as such, but more of a personal preference.

The store page promises ‘tightly tuned controls’, but that wasn’t always my experience. I sometimes found the controls unresponsive, especially for precision jumps or fast dodges, which adds to the feeling that some hits are cheap. And hit detection could feel dodgy, both for enemy attacks and environmental threats – sometimes you’ll clip a spike and take a hit, and other times you won’t.

The positioning of save points is also a point of contention, as at times it may result in a 3-4 minute journey back to a boss fight. Not a major problem, but it slows you down. Hollow Knight doesn’t always value or respect your time which is a significant problem.

There’s just too many ways that Hollow Knight goes wrong for me to consider it a game as good as say, Ori or Dark Souls, two games that it shares much in common with both structurally and thematically. Ori got the balance between exploration and progression nearly perfect, whereas Dark Souls got the balance between difficulty, skill and luck just right.

Hollow Knight, on the other hand, is all over the place. Sometimes, it gets these things right, but many times, it doesn’t. It results in a very mixed, uneven and incredibly frustrating experience that I always felt was just a small step beyond being one of the best games I’ve played. It gets so much right, but is continually hampered by poor design choices that drag the experience down.

Hollow Knight never takes that step. It never truly opens up and lets the player enjoy their new skills or abilities. Everything has to be slow, methodical and punishing. Some may like it, but to me, it’s just not very fun. It’s a tedious slog of trial and error gameplay that I found as irritating as enjoyable. But I kept playing it because for every moment it annoyed me, it managed to hook me back in with something new.

It’s certainly not bad. It’s good, but sadly not great. You know when I write so much about a game it’s because I’m frustrated by it. Because I wanted to like it more than I did. Hollow Knight is good. There’s a lot I like about it. I just wanted it to be better.


Monday, 6 November 2017