Monday, 14 August 2017

Now Playing: Outlast

Outlast is a first person horror game. You play as Miles Upshur, an asthmatic trapped in an insane asylum, hunted by crazy naked men. Will he learn the truth of the nefarious experiments? Will he escape? Will he survive? Will you give a shit?

I can’t help but wonder if I’d have enjoyed Outlast more if I hadn’t previously played Alien: Isolation, SOMA and more recently, Resident Evil 7. It’s not a bad game as such, just . . . not as good as any of those titles.

I completed Outlast on its Normal difficulty in 4 hours. It’s not a very substantial game, and the replay value is low. I can’t say I’m honestly interested in playing through it again. But there are harder difficulties and collectibles to discover if you like that sort of thing.

Miles is a journalist investigating the mysterious Mount Massive Asylum. He’s decided the best time to do this is in the middle of the night and without a phone. He’s not particularly bright, and given his ridiculously and hilariously heavy breathing, it seems he also forgot his inhaler.

He’s armed with a trusty camcorder from 1991 which runs on AA batteries and needs to be regularly ‘reloaded’. I don’t really see the point of the battery mechanic. It’s a minor irritation more than anything and the game certainly wouldn’t lose anything without it.

You’ll need the camera to traverse the dark environments of the asylum using the battery draining night vision mode. Its creates a neat kind of ‘found footage’ style, but the reliance on the camera and the limited range of its night vision can become tedious.

It’s no surprise that one of my favourite parts of the game was when Miles lost his camera and had to retrieve it. Finally, the game could use its rather good lighting and shadow effects in a very effective and tense sequence. The game really does get the visual aspects right, as it does the sound. And sound, as I’m sure I’ve said before, is a key part of a successful horror title.

No, it’s not the visuals or sound of Outlast that I have an issue with, it’s more the general gameplay. Outlast is very much a ‘hide and seek’ game or, in my case, a ‘run like f**k from A to B’ game. It’s incredibly linear with heavily scripted sequences. There are small areas with a little more freedom to explore, but these all involve the same gameplay pattern.

There will be two switches, two valves, three fuses, two buttons or whatever within a limited environment that you need to turn, touch, press or collect whilst being hunted by something. It uses this gameplay sequence repeatedly, even during the final ‘boss’ part of the game.

The problem with these sequences is that they’re just a game of trial and error. The idea is that you should sneak from one objective to the next, but in reality it’s far easier to just leg it because you can easily outrun your foe. Once you know the ‘correct’ and only route (because there’s lots of locked doors you might try by mistake) it’s just a case of running (and wheezing) your way from A to B.

You can’t fight back, which I don’t really have an issue with. I think, as we saw with Isolation and Resident Evil 7, that you can still make a game tense whilst giving the player the ability to defend themselves – but that doesn’t mean every horror game has to. Outlast certainly doesn’t, but if it’s relying on stealth and evasion, then it needs to provide far more engaging and meaningful mechanics than ‘hide in locker’, ‘hide under bed’ and ‘run like f**k’.

There’s nothing really to Outlast’s gameplay aside from running and occasionally hiding. It’s a straight shot from A to B with the odd (admittedly effective) jump scare mixed in. I can’t deny that it’s damn tense at times. Some of those early chase sequences really had me on the edge of my seat. The problem is, that’s all it really has to offer. It just repeats the same sequence, albeit in a slightly different location with a slightly different objective.

In terms of story, Outlast starts well but ultimately loses its way. It really goes off the rails during the last section of the game. You find yourself being chased by a stupid ghost thing and, once again, just running from one objective to the next until you can press the ‘game over’ button. It’s dumb. It’s not tense. It’s not fun. It’s certainly not scary.

I wonder if I’d have enjoyed Outlast more if I hadn’t played RE 7 the day before. Seriously, I started playing RE 7 on a Saturday, finished it on the Sunday, started a second run on Sunday, finished it again on Monday, before starting, playing, completing and now reviewing Outlast all on Tuesday.

Nice visuals and sound. A few genuinely tense and unsettling moments. Outlast is a decent little horror title, and easily worth the couple of quid I picked it up for. I don’t want to be too harsh on it. It’s really not that bad. Unfortunately, it’s really not that good, either. 4 hours. Little replay value. Dumb story. Totally forgettable. Try RE 7 first. Or Alien: Isolation. Or SOMA.


Thursday, 10 August 2017

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Now Playing: NieR Automata

Near a Tomato is one of the best games I’ve played this year. But it’s not a game I can recommend. Not on PC. Because the PC version of NieR has severe technical issues that may at any time render it entirely unplayable. I’d heard about these issues upon release, which is why I waited for a sale and the expected patches. But no patches came. At the time of writing, it seems that the PC version of NieR has been left to rot.

I wish I could just talk about how good NieR is as a game but I can’t just pretend these issues don’t exist and that they don’t impact negatively upon the experience. At one point in the game with over 16 hours played, I suddenly began to experience the dreaded ‘white screen’ crash every 5-10 minutes. I’d experienced a handful of these crashes prior to this point but the game was now unplayable and I could no longer progress.

After 2-3 hours of trying various ‘fixes’ and replaying the same short section more than 10 times, I eventually made it through and continued on my way – although my ‘fix’ didn’t prove to be permanent and I experienced several more crashes before I finally completed the game. In addition to the ‘white screen’ crash issue, which seems to be most prevalent on NVIDIA cards, NieR also has problems with resolution settings that can only be fixed by use of a third party mod.

But here’s the thing – if NieR wasn’t a good game, I’d have just quit and refunded the title. The fact that I was willing to deal with all this shit should tell you just how much I liked it. But the sad reality is, these issues did impact my enjoyment of the game, and how severe these crashes are seems to be entirely random from one player to the next. And that’s why I can’t recommend the PC version of NieR, as good as the game may be.

So what is NieR Automata? It’s a third person action RPG set in a desolate future where Earth has been invaded by aliens using an army of deadly machines. In response, the few surviving humans have fled to the Moon and use their own army of androids to strike back in an attempt to reclaim the planet. The way the game handles its narrative aspects is one of, if not the most interesting thing about NieR. It’s a great example of how a narrative can be presented in a way that’s uniquely suited to this medium.

The game shifts between multiple playable characters, multiple ‘routes’, multiple gameplay mechanics, multiple endings and unexpectedly interactive sequences (the final final credits) that tie together many of the themes of the title in a surprisingly effective and fascinating way. NieR isn’t a game I want to spoil for anyone, but it’s important to break down the basic structure of the title to explain why, in many ways, I find its structure to be more interesting than the game itself.

When you begin NieR you begin route ‘A’ and play as the character 2B – a combat android. Route A will introduce you to the world and characters of NieR. It’s a fairly large open world split between three main themed areas – city, desert and forest. You have, as you might expect, core and side quests to complete. As you progress you’ll level up and acquire new weapons and ‘programs’ you can use to customise your build.

Route A is fantastic. It has a great variety of environments, quests, enemies and some extremely enjoyable boss fights. When you reach the end of route A (about 16 hours for me) and the credits roll, you should be fairly satisfied by the experience. But it’s not the end of NieR. Not by a long shot.

Completing route A unlocks route B in which you play as 9S – a scanner android with a specialisation in hacking. Because 9S accompanies 2B for much of route A, you will replay many of the core quests, although you’ll be seeing these events through the perspective of 9S. Whereas 2B relies upon light and heavy attack combos, 9S is most effective when hacking opponents – either to damage them, subjugate them, or to directly control them.

The hacking ‘mini-game’ you enter will vary in difficulty depending on the size and importance of your enemy. Some may find it overly repetitive, but it’s up to you how much you wish to use it, and there’s enough variation in the mini-game so that it never gets too dull – when the achievement popped telling me I’d hacked more than 100 machines, I was honestly surprised I’d used it so much.

Route B does vary in places from route A, as 9S is separated from 2B. We see more, learn more and experience things that 2B did not. Route B also unlocks new side quests, and any side quests completed in route A remain so. But completing route B isn’t the end, either. Because route B unlocks route C and another playable character – A2.

Although route C continues the story where it was left in A and B it must be said that, overall, it’s probably the weakest part of the title. It begins very strongly, but loses its way as it progresses. Narratively it’s interesting, but in terms of gameplay – it’s lacking. It’s real problem is that by this time, the game doesn’t really have anything new to throw at you. Aside from a couple of unique enemies, you’re mostly fighting your way through everything you’ve already seen and as a result, it can feel like a bit of a grind.

Thankfully, route C pulls it all together at the end and the game does finally end quite strongly, making all your struggles feel worth it. It’s a wonderfully bleak but also surprisingly hopeful ending, and I loved the way the game handled the final struggle through the last credit sequence, making it a part of the narrative itself. Like I said, the way NieR handles its interactive narrative is something that’s unique to this medium and that’s what makes it so interesting – even more so than the game itself.

That’s not to say the gameplay of NieR isn’t also interesting. The way the game can seamlessly switch perspective and gameplay styles is fantastic. It’s part third person action game, part top down shoot ‘em up. My only issue with the gameplay is that neither of these aspects are particularly deep.

The third person combat though fast, fluid and remarkably fun, is also rather shallow with a very limited combo set. This is improved somewhat by the decent selection of weapons, each with its own style, but it’s still not a particularly in depth system. The same applies to the shoot ‘em up sections which may be quite exciting to play, but aren’t very challenging either. I wasn’t exactly expecting Bayonetta level combat, but I was hoping for something a little more involving than what we got.

I played the game on Normal, so I can’t comment on higher settings, but I found it very easy to abuse the upgrade chips to make myself essentially immortal. I could regain health by taking damage, doing damage and by destroying enemies. I never really needed to use my extensive inventory of health kits because I was practically invulnerable. Checking my stats upon completion, I only died 4 times during my entire run.

But even once you ‘finish’ NieR there’s a lot of stuff to see and do. Completing route C unlocks a chapter selection that will let you go back and complete any remaining side quests or add to the world information archive that’s compiled as you progress. There’s a ton of ‘joke’ endings to be found and all manner of little secrets. I finished route C with nearly 40 hours played, but there’s still stuff I’ve missed that I want to find – if I can play it without the regular crashes, that is.

Visually, NieR is great, though a little rough in the open world. The soundtrack is fantastic. As I said, I can’t recommend the PC version of NieR as it is, but maybe things will change in the future. The issues I experienced did have a negative impact on my experience, but the fact that I was willing to persist with it should give you an idea how impressed I was with the game itself. It’s one of the most unique and interesting titles you’ll play this year, both in terms of narrative and gameplay. It’s such a shame the PC version is f**ked.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Now Watching: The Mummy

The good: Sofia Boutella. The bad: everything else. The Mummy is one of the worst movies I’ve seen this year. Tom Cruise is horribly (and embarrassingly) miscast as a cheeky thief who unearths the prison of an ancient Egyptian princess – Ahmanet (Boutella). She’s the titular Mummy and by far the best and only redeeming aspect of this total shit show.

Tonally, the film is a complete mess, attempting to balance action, horror and comedy and failing miserably at all three. The story is very simple, but needlessly and repeatedly recapped.

The Mummy wants to stab Tom Cruise with a dagger to make him an immortal God with the power over life and death. This is a bad thing, apparently. Immortal? God? Super powers? Beautiful Egyptian princess? Wait, what’s the catch?

But Cruise must ‘resist’ and seek help from Russell Crowe, and that’s when the film really goes off the rails. Because The Mummy isn’t just its own thing. It’s also meant to serve as the launch pad for a new ‘cinematic universe’ of classic movie monsters. Ha! Good luck with that!

Crowe plays Mr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – although Hyde has a hilarious cockney accent which I suspect Crowe did for a laugh just to see if he could get away with it. Crowe and his team of evil hunters (?) or whatever the f**k they are capture and torture the Mummy and plan to dissect her. If the movie was trying to make me sympathise with the monster rather than the ‘heroes’ it was doing a good job.

The Mummy is a mess. It’s poorly shot, poorly edited and Cruise is horribly miscast. The action isn’t exciting. The attempts at comedy fall flat. There’s no ‘horror’ to speak of, not when the most interesting and sympathetic character is the ‘monster’ herself.

The 1999 Mummy movie with Brendan Fraser is everything this movie is not. It’s the perfect mix of action, horror and comedy. It’s pure fun, wrapped up with engaging and enjoyable characters. Go watch that instead.


Monday, 24 July 2017

Now Playing: Resident Evil 7

Resident Evil 7 AKA Resident Evil 7: Biohazard AKA Resident Evil 7 biohazard / Biohazard 7 resident evil (seriously, someone fix that on Steam it’s f**king up my library), is that latest game in the long running horror/action series. But in many ways, RE 7 feels more like a reboot of the series than a direct continuation as it strips the series back to its survival horror roots. In terms of gameplay, story and structure, RE 7 has far more in common with the original Resident Evil than any of its predecessors.

I played the original RE upon release. I then played RE 2, but RE 3 I’m not entirely sure about – I think I played it but didn’t finish it. I also played Code: Veronica, RE 4, the GameCube RE remaster and RE 0. I haven’t played 5, 6 or any of the spin-off titles. So it’s been a long time since I had any real interest in the series and I honestly wasn’t sure about RE 7 either. I played the demo they released, but was rather underwhelmed. But when the game went on sale recently, I decided to give it a go. And I’m glad I did, because it’s pretty damn good.

You play as Ethan, a man with a remarkable tolerance for pain and seeing crazy shit. It’s kind of funny how not bothered he is by everything that’s going on. Ethan is searching for his missing wife upon a rural estate in Louisiana. It’s the home of the Baker family who serve as antagonist ‘boss’ style characters throughout the game.

The Baker family and your interactions with them are the real highlight of RE 7. They’re not just mindless, violent beasts. They speak to you, taunt you and inject real personality into the experience. It’s notable that once you’ve effectively ‘dealt’ with the Bakers that the game gets far less interesting.

RE 7 is a tricky game to review, because I really don’t want to spoil anything. Finding your wife and dealing with the Bakers is a big part of the game, but it’s not all the game is about. As you progress, more of the story is revealed – how the Bakers came to be like they are, the truth about how your wife came to be there, and where the f**k all that black goo came from – are explored and explained. The game does rely a little too heavily on expository documents towards the end to fill in the blanks but overall, it’s a fun and engaging story that should hook you until the end.

Unlike previous RE games, RE 7 is a first person experience and the first person view is used very effectively. It can be played in VR, and if I ever did get a VR set it’s something I’d love to play it with. But despite the change of perspective, RE 7 does feel a lot like the original game. It’s more of a pure survival horror than an action title.

Weapons, ammunition, health and inventory space are all limited. There are ‘safe’ rooms where you can save and use an item chest to store gear. Some items can be combined to create new items or more potent variations. It plays just like the original RE, only in first person. The map is split between different areas of the estate, with different key types required to access new areas. There are also classic RE style puzzles required to progress.

The game gets off to a fantastic start which is both a good and a bad thing. Good in the sense that it draws you into the experience from the go, but bad in the sense that it can’t maintain that momentum all the way through. RE 7 isn’t a very long game. I cleared it on Normal difficulty (the highest available when you start) in just under 8 hours – although I didn’t find all the documents, coins or bobblehead collectibles.

Despite its short run time, some parts of the game do feel a little padded, and as I’ve already said, once you deal with the Bakers it does get a little less interesting to play. The last 2-3 hours or so of RE 7 are rather weak compared to what came before. It’s still engaging and enjoyable to play, but it’s a shame the game can’t maintain the same quality throughout.

I don’t really want to get into specifics, because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I was expecting a new environment with its own challenges and puzzles to be introduced towards the end, similar to the original RE. But instead, the game feels rather rushed at the end as you’re stuck traversing some unimaginative and cheap looking caves.

Outside of the Baker family, RE 7 doesn’t really have much in the way of interesting creatures to fight. There are these ‘black goo’ monsters that pop up and which are initially quite threatening. But aside from a couple of variations of these monsters, there’s really nothing else. And when you’re pretty much done with the Bakers, the game relies entirely upon them. But the game just throws more and more of them at you to the point that they lose all sense of menace and just become kind of an annoyance.

There’s some replay value, at least in the sense that it’s fun to play and there are collectibles to find if you like that sort of thing. But the game is pretty linear and overly scripted in places, so there won’t be any new surprises. Even when the game asks you to make a choice, a choice you might expect would vary the last couple of hours a little, it turns out almost immediately to be entirely worthless.

The game also has some performance issues, with the frame rate regularly tanking for a few seconds when entering new areas. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s pretty irritating. Graphically it’s pretty good, but the exterior environments look a little shoddy. Sound design is great.

Despite my criticisms, Resident Evil 7 is a damn good game. Some parts of it are excellent, but it sadly runs out of steam before the end which feels hastily stitched together. It needed to be a little longer and offer more variety both in enemies and environments. It’s a little frustrating how close to great it is, but as a ‘reboot’ of the series, as a way of stripping RE back to its roots, I’d say it’s a massive success. Far from perfect, but well worth your time, and I’m certainly interested in what they’re going to do next.


Monday, 17 July 2017

Now Watching: Splice

Splice is a sci-fi horror film directed by Vincenzo Natali. It tells the story of two hilariously inept scientists – Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley). Clive and Elsa create genetic hybrids for medical experimentation and exploitation, but when their corporate overlords threaten to derail their plans to introduce human DNA into the mix, they decide to do it anyway. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?

To be fair, Clive actually says this, so at least the movie is somewhat self-aware. Their creation is kept a secret from their boss (Rodney McKay) and their colleagues, despite several dangerous situations that might cause harm to their creation, to themselves or to any poor f**k who wanders in by mistake. They name their creation Dren, which is also the slang for ‘shit’ in Farscape, so that kept me rather amused.

The film doesn’t get off to the greatest start with a lame SCIENCE MONTAGE as they attempt to add human DNA into their genetic cocktail. Several attempts fail for some unknown reason, before one attempt succeeds – for some unknown reason. They could have just had the first attempt succeed and not wasted so much of my time, but I guess we had to see them doing SCIENCE.

Eh, whatever. They succeed because the plot needs to move forward, and they keep being thick because the plot . . . actually the plot doesn’t really move much beyond this. Dren is created, we see her develop, and things just kind of meander along for the next 50 minutes or so.

Though the plot doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, Splice does improve during this second act as we see Dren learn, evolve and grow. Delphine ChanĂ©ac, who plays the now ‘adult’ Dren brings a little life and personality to the role, which is more than can be said of Brody or Polley, who put in maybe . . . 40% effort? Or is that too generous? Seriously, some of their line delivery is terrible and hilarious.

In a shocking turn of events, things GO WRONG, although the film spoils its own ‘twist’ about 15 minutes before it occurs so it’s not exactly a surprise when it happens. The final act of Splice is a complete f**king mess. Despite a shoddy start, things do improve during the second act, but everything goes to garbage in the third. It gets dumb, so dumb that it’s embarrassing to watch.

By the time the credits roll you’ll just want to say ‘f**k you, Splice, you really wasted my time’. It’s disappointing, because there is some promise not only in the concept, but within the second act. Unfortunately, it’s entirely squandered and then destroyed by the third.

There’s potential with a sub-plot about Elsa’s mother and how Elsa was treated as a child – which in turn feeds into her treatment of Dren. Unresolved feelings, childhood trauma, the role of the Mother etc, etc . . . but it’s not properly incorporated or explored, nor does it lead anywhere.

Also not explored are the moral implications of their actions, so if you’re looking for a more thoughtful examination of ‘playing God’ then you won’t find it here. Instead, Splice just turns into a shitty monster movie with a poorly executed and stupid ending. Not recommended.


Thursday, 13 July 2017

Now Playing: Tiberian Twilight

I’d heard the final Command & Conquer game – Tiberian Twilight – was bad. I didn’t expect it to be this bad. There’s no pretty way to put this. Tiberian Twilight is f**king garbage. It’s one of the worst games I’ve ever played.

I’ve never reviewed a game I didn’t finish, but I’m making an exception in this case. I made it through the opening missions of the GDI and NOD campaigns, but after only a few short hours, I’d seen enough. I had to stop. I closed the game and immediately uninstalled. All I could think was ‘what the f**k did I just play?’

Visually, Tiberian Twilight is a complete mess and easily the worst looking C&C game. The environments are sparse and bland, and the units look utterly terrible. They’re ugly and their animations are wonky as shit. Audio isn’t any better, with irritating music that you’ll rapidly be sick of. I knew something wasn’t right when I entered the settings menu and realised there was no option to rebind keys. How did this happen? Who thought this would be a good idea?

In terms of gameplay, Tiberian Twilight is dull, annoying, poorly balanced and the complete opposite of fun. Base building has been almost entirely stripped from the game. You now control a single MCV responsible for all unit and (very limited) building construction. The MCV comes in three types – Assault, Defence and Support – each of which grant access to a unique (and small) selection of units.

Whilst it’s possible to ‘delete’ your existing MCV and swap it for another of a different type, there’s little point in doing so due to the utterly baffling decision to introduce extremely restrictive unit limits. Every unit costs a varying number of command points, and there’s no way to increase these command points as you play. As a result, you’ll only ever be controlling 8-12 units at a time if you want a couple of higher tier units on the battlefield.

Combine these limits with units being locked behind the three different MCV options and you have what it may be the most tactically restrictive and boring ‘RTS’ game ever made. Why did they include these limits? What purpose do they serve?

Why not let us earn more command points as we play by capturing key structures – allowing us to expand our forces and introducing a new form of map control to the series? That would have made some kind of sense, even if it was a break from the more traditional RTS structure of previous C&C titles.

Why not allow us to call down multiple MCVs so we can mix unit types? There’s many ways that Tiberian Twilight could be ‘fixed’ into a somewhat competent title – perhaps not a traditional RTS, more a basic RTT. Instead, it doesn’t succeed at being either. It’s a complete failure on every level.

Missions are (at least the ones I played before I gave up) so simple yet so tedious. Some I completed in a matter of minutes to my utter confusion, whilst others dragged endlessly on as I slowly whittled the enemy down with my tiny unit squads. To say the game feels half-assed and unfinished would be an understatement.

The game is so poorly balanced that it’s a complete joke. There’s no strategy at play here. No resource collection either – you can just keep spamming units every time your command level drops. Oh, and unit path finding is also f**king terrible which makes units a nightmare to control.

If it isn’t entirely obvious, I absolutely hated what I played of Tiberian Twilight. It’s very, very rare that I’ll just give up on a game, especially after only a few short hours. But it really is that bad. I’m just going to pretend it never happened. I was going to play and review Command & Conquer: Generals alongside Twilight, but after this shit show, I’m totally burned out on RTS. Maybe in the future.


Saturday, 8 July 2017

Steam Summer Sale: Damage Report

Who needs to eat?

I didn’t expect to pick up much in this Summer Sale, but as is usually the case, I ended up spending far more than I intended to.

Resident Evil 7 was my first purchase, and at the time of writing I’ve already completed it twice, which should give you some indication of how much I liked it. Expect a full review soon.

With a taste of first person horror and a desire for more, I also decided to pick up the original Outlast. I’ve also already completed it, although I can’t say I enjoyed it half as much as RE 7. I really need to stop blasting through these games so quickly. At this rate, I’ll have finished them all before the sale is even over.

Next up was the new Prey. I’ve heard it compared to the System Shock games, and you know how much I love System Shock 2 so I just had to get it. I’d also heard a lot of good things about Hollow Knight and I liked the art style so I figured it was worth a go.

Nier: Automata is a game I intended to get at release, but the reported technical issues made me wait to see if they’d be fixed. It doesn’t seem like they have, so I was wary of picking this up, but it’s a game I really want to play. I’ve heard my GPU in particular – a 780 – has some serious issues with the game. If I find it’s unplayable, then I’ll just have to get a refund. I hope I can play it though, it looks pretty great.

After enjoying Endless Space 2 so much, I decided to give Endless Legend a go. I’ve never really enjoyed the Civilization games, despite trying a number of them, so I’m not sure I’ll like this either, but I’m willing to give it a try.

I also picked up a couple of pieces of DLC for Total War: Warhammer. Oh, and in the recent Origin sale I also bought the Ultimate Edition of Star Wars: Battlefront. It’s pretty fun, but I’m glad I didn’t pay more than 8 quid for it.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Now Playing: Blood Dragon

Far Cry: Blood Dragon is a standalone expansion to Far Cry 3. With a silly, 80s sci-fi / action themed story and characters, it’s a complete overhaul of FC3 – at least in terms of visuals, audio and narrative. You play as cyber-commando Rex Colt, on a mission to stop the evil Colonel Sloan from destroying the world. The story and characters of Blood Dragon are its real highlights, and Michael Biehn does a fantastic job voicing Colt. It’s ridiculous, over the top and frequently very funny.

Visually, Blood Dragon looks pretty good with bright, neon lighting and effects. It also sounds pretty good too with an 80s inspired synth soundtrack. But aside from visuals, audio and narrative, Blood Dragon, unfortunately, doesn’t really overhaul the gameplay of FC3.

Like FC3, you have a fairly large open map with multiple outposts to capture and secure. Each of these unlock side missions directly ripped from FC3 such as animal hunting and hostage rescues. If you’ve read my previous posts regarding FC3 and FC4, you’ll know I’m rather weary of the Far Cry ‘template’, and it’s a shame Blood Dragon adheres to it so closely.

Fortunately, you can ignore the outposts and side content entirely and focus purely on the main story missions. There’s only about 7 of these, with maybe 2-3 hours of play, but honestly, any longer and the joke would have likely worn rather thin.

The main missions are decent enough but once again, Blood Dragon is held back by its core FC3 gameplay, where using stealth and taking cover is the best way to go. I can’t help but feel that a more fast paced, linear style shooter would have been far more fitting for the style and narrative.

As a result, as fun as Blood Dragon may be in terms of story and visuals, it’s rather bland and by the numbers in terms of gameplay, with a disappointing selection of weapons and rather lacklustre combat. The main missions do their job, but there’s nothing particularly spectacular. The side content is dull, repetitive and best avoided entirely.

I wish I could be more positive about Blood Dragon. I do like the style and story, but it’s not that fun to actually play. Maybe if I wasn’t so tired of the Far Cry formula I would have enjoyed it more. I don’t really have anything else to say about it.

A fun plot, cool visuals, good audio and great VA aren’t enough to prop up what is essentially only 2-3 hours of mediocre gameplay. I got it for free and I’m still disappointed.


Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Now Watching: Rogue One

I must admit, I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Rogue One. The thought of a new Star Wars film every year doesn’t exactly excite me. I grew up with and came to love the Original Trilogy. I thought the Prequel Trilogy was kind of bad. But I thought The Force Awakens was pretty good.

Despite a somewhat weak story, The Force Awakens got the most important thing right – the characters. Rey, Finn, Kylo and Poe all injected new life into the franchise. They elevated the rather weak material with heart, warmth, humour and charisma. It’s those characters that make me interested in seeing Episode 9.

Rogue One, in many ways, is arguably a better film than The Force Awakens. I think it’s better shot, the visuals are more impressive, the effects, the action . . . it gets everything right aside from, unfortunately, its story and characters. And characters are key, because if we don’t care about them, we don’t care about anything else.

First up – the story. I’ve heard the question asked – was this a story that needed to be told? Well, probably not, but it’s not a terrible idea for a stand alone ‘Star Wars Story’ either. I certainly think a more character focused, small scale ‘heist’ style movie would have been a more interesting direction, but I don’t think the darker, more gritty tale of war and sacrifice we got is particularly bad either – it’s just that the film makes a real hash of it.

I’m kind of frustrated by Rogue One, because I can see the potential within. I can see ways of taking the existing material and making some small but meaningful changes that would, at least in my opinion, dramatically improve the narrative.

But I don’t want to write a point by point account of how I’d ‘fix’ Rogue One or we’d probably be here all day. Because ultimately, as we saw with The Force Awakens, a weak plot can be elevated by strong characters. And it’s the characters who are at the heart of Rogue One’s failure.

Our main character is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who is . . . a rebel, I guess? I can’t really say much about her because the movie doesn’t tell (or more importantly show) us much. Not about her relationship to her father or to Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who raised her within his splinter faction of the Rebellion.

She and Saw fell out .. . or something, but that’s not appropriately addressed either, nor is her opinion of the main Rebellion. We don’t really know who she is or what makes her tick. We don’t really know anything about her aside from what we’re told in dry, expository dialogue scenes.

It would help if we followed Jyn from the beginning, introduced to the world and supporting cast through her eyes, but after only a minute or so with Jyn, we’re bouncing from one world to the next (and one character to the next) in what is a completely unnecessary set up to a plot that we already know in advance – Death Star. Plans. Rebels.

When your movie is more concerned with plot than characters, especially when your plot is as basic as this and – WE ALREADY KNOW WHAT THE OUTCOME IS – you’ve made a big mistake.

The supporting characters get even less development than Jyn to the point where I can’t even recall their names – thanks, Wikipedia. Take Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and Baze (Jiang Wen) – two pretty cool characters (though purely in style), but they just join up with Jyn because . . . because they’re cool, I guess?

Why not just make them part of Saw’s splinter group and already know Jyn? Why not let her reunite with them so we can see the affection shared between them? You know, emotion. Seeing these characters connect would go a long way to helping us connect to them.

In fact, the whole Saw ‘splinter rebellion’ thing is so poorly handled and has so much squandered potential that it really pisses me off. Why not keep Jyn as part of Saw’s group and show that she’s disillusioned with the main Rebellion who are ‘all talk’. Show her wanting to fight back and then losing Saul – a surrogate father figure – would really put some fire in her belly to tell the ineffective, weak and indecisive Rebellion to finally stand up and fight.

It could have been the spark that spurred the Rebellion into action but it . . . sort of doesn’t. Not quite. Not until the plot decides they need to if we’re going to have a big space battle. As for Jyn, she just decides to fight because . . . again, plot. I’m very frustrated by this because I see ways to tweak this story so that a) it makes more logical sense and b) it lends more emotional weight to these characters. It makes us root for them, care for them.

Eh, I’m starting to get into my ‘how to fix’ guide now so let’s try to wrap this up. Despite not being particularly fussed about it, Rogue One still disappointed me. I can’t fault the direction, the action or even really the actors who do their best with what they’re given. It’s a potentially good movie let down by a very shoddy script. And no, I can’t say I give a flying f**k about ‘young Han Solo’. Stop it, Disney. STOP IT.


Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Now Playing: Endless Space 2

Endless Space 2 is my first ‘Endless’ game and what may be the first 4X game I’ve played in a decade or so. It’s a space strategy game with a customisable turn based campaign. There are 8 playable races, each with their own unique campaign mechanics, ship designs and play style. I wasn’t sure if I’d like Endless Space 2, but at the time of writing, I’ve completed four campaigns and clocked over 70 hours of play.

As I said in my First Impressions post, the tutorial aspects of Endless Space 2 aren’t great. The numerous pop-up messages do just enough to teach you the basics of managing and expanding your empire, but I do feel a more heavily scripted ‘mini-campaign’ would have been far more beneficial to new players.

You can customise nearly every aspect of your campaign – the size of the galaxy, the density of the star systems, the available resources, the number and type of rival empires and various other settings. You can also enable or disable specific victory conditions, or create your own ‘custom’ faction to play – although this aspect could be greatly improved.

All these options enable you to set up and play the game how you want, and each campaign will play differently as a result – as will your galaxy map, which will be randomised based on your settings. The downside, of course, to this random element is that it can play havoc with balancing between the various races. Where each race starts, their home system and their initial local resources can play a big factor in determining who comes out on top.

That said, this extensive randomisation and customisation lends a great degree of replay value to Endless Space 2. You can set up short, small, quick to play campaigns with a single specific victory condition. Or you may prefer a very long, massive galaxy campaign with multiple races all competing for various goals.

As far as the races go, I’ve only played as 4 of the 8, but of those I have played, each did feel unique and enjoyable in their own way. There’s obviously some races which play more differently than others but overall, it’s a very interesting mix of play styles. What’s more important, however, is the ‘personality’ of each race, which adds charm, humour and character to the game.

All of the races in Endless Space 2 have their own ‘story’ and unique quest chain to follow (or not, if you’d prefer). These provide background on the race and provide a neat narrative drive to your campaign. They are, admittedly, rather basic and not massively influential on your campaign, but they’re a welcome addition nonetheless.

One thing I would have liked to see more of is unique technologies for each race. Every race (with a few minor alterations) shares exactly the same tech tree. They all share the same system infrastructure and weapon technology, and it would have been great for each race, if not to have entirely unique tech trees, to at least have far more race specific buildings, ships and weapons.

But though they do share essentially the same buildings and weapons, how you expand with each race will be different based on their unique campaign mechanics. Ultimately though, how you build your star systems won’t differ much from one race to the next – at least it hasn’t with the races I’ve currently played as – and there’s a lot of scope to further enhance and add variety to the races in this area.

Building your empire in Endless Space 2 is a big part of the experience and you’ll spend a lot of time navigating its extensive UI, switching between various screens for economical, political and military stats. The UI is decent but could be improved. It would be nice, for example, for star system improvements to be properly broken down and listed separately by building type, rather than lumped together in a single, inaccessible blob.

Combat in the game is entirely auto-resolved but can be viewed as a rather cool simulated battle. You can set a custom formation for your ships, based on various tactic ‘cards’ you can unlock, but there’s not much more to it than that. If there’s one area that Endless Space 2 could certainly do with improvement, it’s the combat system, most notably in terms of ship and weapon variety. What’s currently on offer is rather sparse. The ground battle aspects could also be improved, as could the the implementation of the ‘hero’ characters, who exist as little more than stat boosts to either your colonies or fleets.

Visually, Endless Space 2 looks great, both in campaign and battle, but there are some performance issues, particularly when you’re playing in a large galaxy map, or during larger space battles. Music is great at setting the mood, and the VA for each of the race leaders helps enhance that important sense of personality whenever you deal with them diplomatically.

In terms of difficulty, I’ve not really had any trouble winning my campaigns, even when I knocked it up from Normal to one of the most challenging (though not the highest) setting. The competency of the AI has varied quite wildly between campaigns and from one race to the next so there’s room for improvement here too.

There’s also a few issues with bugs, most commonly with battles in my experience, when the auto-resolve doesn’t function correctly. There’s also some issues with quests not properly completing. As good as I think Endless Space 2 is, there’s no doubt that it needs some extra care and attention, some bug fixing and some performance improvements – in addition to fleshing out various aspects of it mechanics and gameplay.

Overall though, Endless Space 2 is a fantastic strategy game with a great degree of faction variety and replay value thanks to its extensive custom options. I’ve had a real blast with the title, and I’ve still got 4 more races to play. If they can fix the issues and enhance what’s already here, it’ll be a strong contender for my game of the year.