Monday, 15 January 2018

Now Playing: The Long Dark

The Long Dark is a first person, wilderness survival game. It launched as an Early Access title in 2014, but has since officially released – though it’s still not entirely complete. There are two main modes of play – Story and Survival. The Story mode is episode based, but only two of the planned six episodes are currently available. The Survival mode is a customisable sandbox where the goal is to simply stay alive as long as you can.

I began The Long Dark with its Story Mode. You play as Will, a pilot who crashes in the wilderness following some kind of natural ‘geomagnetic disaster’. Your ultimate goal is to track down your missing ex-wife, which means following her path through the wilderness whilst also trying not to die of thirst, hunger, the cold or angry wolves.

The first episode is essentially the ‘tutorial’ designed to teach you the basics of survival. It does a decent job of it, but there’s still a lot you have to figure out yourself via trial and error. Unlike the Survival mode, there are NPCs to interact with – one in each episode – and these give you additional missions and objectives you’ll need to complete in order to progress.

The first episode feels a little rough, and I encountered a few bugs mostly to do with item interactions not triggering when they should. The second episode is a little more polished, with 3 connected maps and more compelling story elements. A lot of the NPC quests do devolve into basic ‘fetch me X amount of Y’ bullshit, but episode 2 does add some fun ‘set piece’ style sequences in the form of a bear hunt and your final escape through a dam.

The integration of the story and missions into what is primarily a sandbox focused title doesn’t always work, but episode 2 makes some smart choices to balance this out, and hopefully they’ll continue to learn and improve upon this balance as further episodes are released.

In all, I played the Story mode for about 20 hours, so it’s a pretty substantial piece of content, even incomplete – although it should be noted that a lot of that time is spent travelling or fetching stuff. By its nature, The Long Dark is a very slow paced game, so it’s easy to clock up a lot of hours without much really going on.

Many will consider the fully customisable Survival mode to be the real meat of the title, but a part of me prefers a more objective focused adventure to just survival for the sake of it. It’s an impressive mode, no doubt, with so many difficulty settings to choose between, plus an extensive range of custom options, but I’m not sure how long it can really keep me engaged.

Like so many survival games, once you get yourself established with a regular supply of heat, water and food, you fall into a repetitive pattern. You have to, really, because it’s the most ‘efficient’ way to play and survive. The mode uses a perma-death system, so taking risks isn’t exactly encouraged. It’s very enjoyable in the early stages, as you scavenge for supplies, tools and weapons, but becomes more of a monotonous grind as you progress.

Time, in many ways, is your most valuable resource. Everything you do requires time – eating, drinking, cooking, crafting and exploring. Managing your time is key to your survival. It can feel a little silly at times, as even basic actions take far longer than they really should.

Even with a decent axe, it can take up to 45 minutes of game time to break down a rickety chair, which in reality I could probably disassemble by hand in about 10 minutes. The way the game handles thirst and hunger can also feel a little . . . off. During one stretch of Episode 1, it seemed like I was eating five steaks a day and my guy was still complaining he was hungry – although I suspect this may have been a bug, because it seemed to settle down after hitting another story trigger.

As far as the general survival mechanics go, The Long Dark is fairly comprehensive and provides a compelling and enjoyable experience. It’s not striving for absolute realism, but to walk that fine line between realism and fun – and in that sense, it does a pretty damn good job. There are a few oddities – such as your inability to jump, or even climb over a tiny fence, but this may just be an engine limitation.

Wildlife has some terrible path finding, but it’s not a major issue. Graphically, its cartoon style doesn’t detract from the serious nature of the gameplay, and lends itself to some lovely environmental visuals.

Overall, The Long Dark is one of the few titles that’s emerged from early access in a more impressive state than it began. With regular updates and fixes, and what appears to be a good level of community engagement, it’s a great example of early access done right. Despite my concerns about the longevity of Survival mode, I am looking forward to the next Story episode to see where it goes.


Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Steam Winter Sale: Damage Report

The Long Dark is a game I’ve been keeping track of since its early access release. I’ve thought about picking it up in a few previous sales, but I wasn’t quite sure I’d like it. But it’s now out of early access, and with a hefty discount, I figured it was worth a go.

I already own Bayonetta on 360 and WiiU, but the PC version looks like it might be the best, so I had to get it at some point. I’ll be getting the Switch version too. You can never have too much Bayonetta.

Vanquish is another title I already own, but the PC port is looking like the definitive version. I’m curious to see if I enjoy the game more without the frame rate issues it suffers on 360, or if I’ll still feel it’s a stylish but ultimately shallow shooter.

Ikarugaanother game I already own, this time on GameCube. But I never played much of it on GC, and the PC version was only a couple of quid, so I thought it’d be a nice addition.

And finally, Game of Thrones by Telltale. I watch the show, even if it seems to get worse every year. I like the world, so I’m curious to see how the game integrates its story and characters into the existing narrative.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Clayton Awards 2017

Game of the Year 2017 – NieR: Automata

There were many strong contenders for my Game of the Year. I ruled out Bayonetta 2, despite it being my top scoring game, because I prefer to give this award to a title actually released this year. So that left Breath of the Wild, NieR: Automata, Endless Space 2 and Total War: Warhammer 2 all competing for victory.

It really came down to either Breath of the Wild or NieR, and after much consideration, NieR takes the prize. NieR started and ended strongly, whereas I felt Breath of the Wild fell a little flat at the end. I also had no end of technical problems with NieR but I just had to keep playing – a strong testament to just how good it is. (Full Review)

Most Disappointing Game of 2017 – Battlefront 2

Battlefront 2 was the AAA title I was most looking forward to in 2017. And that means a lot, because I don’t typically get very excited about online shooters these days. They said all the right things – a single player campaign, more content than Battlefront at release, space battles, a new class system and no Season Pass.

I had my doubts, of course. I suspected EA would find some way to f**k it up. But I didn’t expect them to f**k it up quite so spectacularly. But even without the loot box / progression controversy, what I played in the beta left me less than impressed. The beta map was poorly designed, and from what I’ve seen of the game via videos and streams, the other maps aren’t any better – nor is the single player campaign, which looks disappointingly short and dull, not to mention unfinished.

Battlefront 2 went from being a game I wanted to buy, to a game I wouldn’t even bother with in a sale. Good job, EA. (BETA Impressions) & (Battlefront 2 is F**KED)

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Work in Progress: TF, TM & TE

It’s time for a new project, currently titled TF, TM & TE – figure that one out, if you can. It’s the next book in my sort-of-but-not-quite-a-trilogy, the first book being QOTSS and the second, DOTJ.

It’s a little like my Zero Sample series, in a way. The books are all set in the same world, but each has its own unique story and characters. They do connect, but you don’t need to read them all, or in any particular order to enjoy or understand them.

They’re all structured and paced in a similar manner, and my goal is to have the first part of TF, TM & TE written before the New Year. I’m a little behind schedule already. Life seems to like interrupting my plans with unforeseen drama.

I’ve only plotted the first part in any great detail so far, because it’s difficult to grasp the world and characters until I get stuck into them – and only once I do, can I really know how the plot will evolve.

I’d love to say I’ll have it all wrapped up by next April and that’s what I’m aiming for, but there may yet be more unforeseen interruptions arising to thwart my plans. I also don’t want to rush it. This might be my last hurrah, so I’d better make it a good one.

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.