Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Now Playing: Ikaruga

I wasn’t sure if I should do a review of Ikaruga. It’s a shoot ‘em up I originally played on the GameCube in 2003, but recently picked up again on PC. Ikaruga is generally regarded as one of the best of its genre, but it’s not a genre I’m particularly familiar with – so keep that in mind, because this review is going to be written from a more casual point of view.

Ikaruga is a game that’s easy to beat, but very hard to master. There are only five levels, and each can be cleared in about five minutes. If you’re new to the game I highly recommend heading straight to the settings and enabling infinite continues for your first run – by default, you get zero continues.

It won’t record your scores if you alter the default, but you really shouldn’t be worrying about score, but about learning each stage and becoming familiar with the mechanics. The game won’t teach you as you play, so it’s also worth watching the ‘How To Play’ video, found in the options menu.

Your ship has two polarities – white and black – which can be switched on the fly. Enemies also come in either a white or black variety. By firing bullets of one polarity, you can do more damage to those of the other, but if you’re struck by a bullet of the opposite polarity you’ll be destroyed.

So far, so simple, but this is where things get more interesting. You can also absorb the energy of the bullets matching your current polarity, charging your special attack – a multi-missile strike. So it can actually be beneficial for you to soak up enemy fire in order to use it against them.

But learning the mechanics is only part of the challenge. You can also be killed by coming into contact with enemy ships, or by crashing into pieces of scenery – and on a couple of levels, it’s attempting to navigate the constantly shifting/rotating scenery that can prove as difficult as dealing with the hundreds of bullets heading your way.

Ikaruga requires time, patience and dedication if you want to ‘git gud’. Memorisation of each level is key if you want to aim for higher scores. You can multiply your score by building ‘chains’ – destroying multiple enemies of the same polarity in a row. If you want to do more than simply ‘beat’ Ikaruga – which you can do in about thirty minutes – and achieve the highest ranking, then be prepared to replay every stage multiple times. As I said – time, patience and dedication.

And that’s why I wasn’t sure if I should do a review of Ikaruga, because I just don’t think I have the patience for it. I’ve played through the game four times, clocking up a couple of hours play. I’ve tried replaying the first chapter several times to improve my score and hit a higher rank, and whilst I am getting much better at building my chains, the system is pretty punishing to the point that a single slip can ruin an entire run.

Fans of the genre seem to love it, and I can certainly see the addictive appeal. The short levels do encourage repeat play, but as someone who’s not really a fan of the genre, I don’t really feel the need to do so. Visually, the game looks great, and it has a suitably killer soundtrack. I do like the mechanics and think the polarity system is pretty clever, but I just don’t know if I want to keep playing for score alone.

I might keep jumping into Ikaruga to see if I can hit those higher ranks. I’m already watching videos of people who know what the f**k they’re doing to see if I can pick up a few tips. Hitting those higher ranks is a challenge that appeals to me, but I’m just not sure if I have the patience to keep at it.


Thursday, 8 March 2018

Work in Progress: TF, TM & TE

I’m in the process of wrapping up Part 2 of TF, TM & TE. I’m a little behind schedule – in my original Work in Progress post regarding this project, I said I’d hoped to be finished by the end of April. And if I’d stuck to my original outline, I wouldn’t be too far from hitting that target.

But plans change, and my outline for TF, TM & TE has now expanded from 4 Parts to 5, so it’s going to take an extra month or so to write. I’m now targeting late May / early June. With Part 2 complete, I’ll begin fleshing out my Part 3 plan.

I’m pretty happy with how the project is progressing. I’m doing a lot of heavy editing as I go. I spent a week scrapping, editing and rewriting entire chapters in Part 2 because I wasn’t entirely happy with them. It’s not easy scrapping hours of work just because it doesn’t feel right. But I knew I had to, and after many long and tedious hours I finally knocked those troublesome chapters into shape.

If my blog posts seem a little slow this year, it’s because this project is taking up a lot of my time. But I’d like to keep things ticking over, and I’ve got a handful of posts written and ready to go, at least for this month. Next month might be a little thin, but we’ll see how it goes.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Now Playing: The Vaulters (DLC)

Endless Space 2 was one of my top rated games of 2017. A fantastic 4X strategy title that I don’t feel received the attention or sales it deserves. Which is part of the reason why I decided to purchase the first DLC – The Vaulters – upon release. This is a game I want to support and continue to see evolve and improve.

I was already familiar with the Vaulters race from Endless Legend, so it was interesting to see how they’d be incorporated into ES2. Their primary and most useful mechanic is their portal technology, allowing you to instantly transfer fleets between your colonised systems. Knowing you can immediately jump a fleet to even the most distant system in your empire gives you far greater freedom not only to defend your borders, but to attack others.

The Vaulters, like the other races, also have their own unique quest chain to complete and heroes to recruit. They also have their own unique ship designs, the best of which is their carrier class vessel. But this DLC doesn’t just add new things for the Vaulters.

It fleshes out the pirate ‘faction’ and allows you to engage with them diplomatically. It also adds a new ‘boarding pod’ module, allowing you to capture enemy ships – although I must admit, I found it easier to just keep blowing them up.

I played my Vaulters campaign on the Hard setting with 5 rival empires. It was great to jump back into the game and see not only the additions of this DLC, but the free updates I’ve missed in my time away – such as the new fighter and bomber modules, or the improved diplomatic options.

Just as I did at release, I still feel the game has difficulty issues – my Hard campaign versus 5 empires was actually pretty easy to win. But when I started another campaign on Easy against a single empire to test some things, I actually started to lose. The difficulty in ES2 can seem strangely random, regardless of the setting.

Overall, The Vaulters DLC expands and improves an already enjoyable and content rich experience. I wouldn’t say it’s an essential purchase, because it doesn’t really add much in the way of new mechanics, quests or events, but if you’re a fan of the game, this new race is certainly worth your time and investment.

That said, I hope the next DLC isn’t just another race with a handful of new mechanics, but one which overhauls how the campaign plays for every race. Maybe some kind of invasive horde from beyond the galactic borders, creating a campaign not of expansion, but survival. That would be pretty neat.


Monday, 19 February 2018

Now Watching: The Justice League

The Justice League is the best comedy of 2017. I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed so much or so hard whilst watching a film. It’s also really bad. I consider it to be the worst of the DC Cinematic Universe films, not just because it’s bad, but because it’s so damn bland.

I can at least say Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman were bad in an interesting way. But there’s nothing interesting or surprising about TJL – it’s as safe and by the numbers as you can get. I don’t know how much of an impact the reported re-shoots / change of director had, but the inconsistencies in tone, style and structure are clear to see.

Visually, the film looks off, as if the colour gradient is all wrong, and many scenes look ugly as a result. This isn’t helped by the poor CGI. I’m not sure what’s worse – the big bad Steppenwolf, who looks like he’s just stepped out of a Mortal Kombat cut-scene, or Henry Cavill’s fake upper lip. They’re both hilarious, though.

What’s not hilarious are the numerous, extremely awkward and bizarre attempts at humour. Many of these misguided quips fall to The Flash, who is unfortunately the only character with some traces of a personality.

The plot is paper thin, the villain is a joke, the action is poor and everything looks fake as f**k. Cyborg looks like a cartoon. There’s no sense of stakes, tension or emotion. It’s flat, drab to look at and poorly scripted. The only redeeming aspect of The Justice League – and the reason it didn’t score lower – is because it’s so damn bad it’s funny.

The film opens with a music montage – never a good sign – lamenting the death of Superman. But the sad music and glum faces only serve to remind us how poorly the death of Superman was handled in BvS. DC, in a misguided attempt to keep pace with Marvel, is riding roughshod over what should be major plot and character developments in the series.

The Justice League desperately wants to be The Avengers and fails miserably at it. Aside from Superman (to a limited degree) and Wonder Woman, none of these characters have been appropriately established. What’s the rush, DC?

The Wonder Woman film felt like a step in the right direction, but The Justice League isn’t just a step back – it’s a flying leap. I honestly can’t see a way forward for the DCU at this point. I think they need to scrap the entire project and start over from scratch. The Justice League is just . . . embarrassing. It’s a joke.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

Bayonetta & Vanquish (PC)

I’ve played Bayonetta on 360, Wii U, the Wii U version emulated on PC, and now the official PC release. I’ll also be picking up the Switch version. To say that I love Bayonetta would be an understatement. The question, I suppose, is which version do I think is the best?

At the time of writing, I’ve not yet played the Switch port, so I can’t comment on it, but if it’s equal to, or even a slight upgrade of the Wii U version, it will probably become my favourite. Because I must say, despite the sharper graphics and more consistent frame rate of the PC port, I actually still prefer the Wii U version.

Why? The extra, Nintendo themed costumes, mostly, some of which add some pretty fun gameplay effects. As much as I’ve enjoyed playing through Bayonetta again on PC – I probably won’t come back to it once the Switch version is released. But if you don’t have access to a Wii U or Switch, then the PC port is a fantastic alternative.

The PC version of Vanquish, on the other hand, is easily the definitive version. With sharper graphics and a rock solid frame rate, it’s the best Vanquish can possibly be. I wondered if I’d enjoy Vanquish more on PC, and I did to a degree – it’s nice not having the frame rate tank whenever there’s a missile spam. And switching to the precision of a mouse is a great – although it does make the game significantly easier as a result.

But overall, I still feel Vanquish is one of the weaker Platinum titles. The story/characters aren’t bonkers or interesting enough for you to care, and if you skip all cut-scenes, the game is only about 5 hours to play, with about 30 minutes of tedious ‘walk and talk’ segments.

The levels are kind of bland and don’t really do anything interesting with the enjoyable gameplay mechanics. Once you’re half way through the game you’ll have seen every enemy type Vanquish has to offer, and from that point on it just starts to recycle and double down on everything. It’s still damn fun to play and a game I’d recommend, but it’s a shame the game surrounding the combat mechanics isn’t more elaborate, extensive or clever.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Now Playing: Game of Thrones

When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. Or just die, in this case. Because you’re not really playing Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series – you’re just watching a scripted story play out and occasionally pressing a button to progress to the next scene. I’m going to be pretty hard on GoT in this review, not because it’s a terrible game, but because it’s so damn lazy and shoddy.

I’ve played a number of Telltale titles and enjoyed all of them to one degree or another. They’re titles that live and die primarily on the strength of their narrative and characters. They’re interactive stories which present choices to the player – choices which shape both the characters and how the narrative will progress.

I’ve never had unrealistic expectations for how divergent the narrative in Telltale titles will be. I’ve always said there’s going to be a limit to how far a plot can branch based on player choice. But it’s also an aspect to these games that I’ve wanted to see improve.

Considering that GoT was released after both The Walking Dead: Season 2 and the excellent The Wolf Among Us – not to mention the strong potential of the Game of Thrones licence – I expected far more. Instead, GoT takes a significant step back.

Graphically, GoT is shoddy, with poor environmental textures and character models. Animations are stiff and awkward. There’s also a number of visual bugs, such as characters winking in and out of existence in the background. It feels rushed, and somewhat incomplete – playing with subtitles on, it was funny to see so many lines appearing that actually had no VA.

The ‘gameplay’ segments of GoT also feel lazy and pointless to the point that they may as well not exist. You’ll be given control of many of the characters for short ‘walking’ segments where you only take five steps before it triggers another scene. The few environments you get to ‘explore’ are small and the items you can interact with entirely irrelevant.

It’s like they just didn’t know how to incorporate these gameplay segments into the the title – or just couldn’t be bothered to try. Who thought having you walk slowly along The Wall lighting torches one at a time would be an engaging gameplay segment? It’s just – like nearly all of these segments – filler. It adds nothing to the experience but irritation.

Fortunately, the overall story is okay. It’s not great, but it keeps you fairly engaged. Which can’t really be said about the characters, some of whom I just found annoying to play as, and as a result, I didn’t really care about what happened to them.

Not that what happens to them is in any way under your control. This may be the most restrictive title I’ve played by Telltale as far as its ‘choices’ go. It became clear during the first episode that nothing I did or said would result in a different outcome.

Even dialogue choices don’t really change scenes, as other characters just respond with generic ‘one size fits all’ dialogue. Some of the episode ‘recaps’ even played dialogue I’d not chosen – not that it matters, but it gives you a sense of how poorly this title has been put together, when it can’t even properly keep track of your choices between episodes.

People may argue this isn’t that different to previous Telltale titles, but at some point, surely we should expect them to step up their game? And a GoT title was the perfect opportunity to create their most complex, divergent narrative yet. Instead, we get a title with practically zero narrative branching.

It’s only at the very end of the title that your choices can change things – but only in a potential sequel that may never come, and if it ever does, will probably ignore and make those choices irrelevant anyway.

And when you know your choices won’t actually change anything, you just don’t care about those choices – dialogue or otherwise. You’re not concerned about the impact your choices will have on these characters, because their fates are predetermined whatever you do.

With the GoT licence, Telltale had an opportunity to deliver their most ambitious title yet, but instead delivered a title that doesn’t even try. It’s a step back from their previous work – both graphically, technically and narratively – when it should have been a step forward.

As I said, it’s not a terrible game. The story and characters are decent enough to see you through – even if it does often feel like someone’s mediocre fan fiction. Overall, it’s a disappointing title. It’s lazy, shoddy and should have been so much better.