Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Now Playing: Prey

I want to like Prey more than I do. It’s a good game, but also a frustrating one. It just couldn’t quite take that final step from good to great in the way that I wanted it to. It’s a game that’s clearly taken inspiration from the ‘Shock’ series of games – most notably, System Shock 2. And SS2 is one of, if not my favourite game ever.

Prey is set upon Talos 1, a space station not so dissimilar to Citadel Station in the original System Shock. But though the setting may be more SS1, the gameplay is entirely based upon SS2. You begin, as in SS2, with a simple wrench, but your inventory soon expands to include a range of conventional ‘security’ weapons (pistol & shotgun) to more advanced, laser based weaponry.

Your character can also install cyber-modules – sorry, neuromods – which grant a range of ‘human’ upgrade options based around hacking, repair, health and weapon proficiency. But as you progress, you’ll also gain access to more exotic abilities including telekinetic attacks – just like the psi powers of SS2.

Hell, you even have psi-hypos to restore your psi points in addition to health packs and food. Like SS2, you’ll find written and audio logs as you explore Talos 1. You’ll also be able to ‘research’ your opponents – although the research system is more similar to that in Bioshock than SS2.

That’s not to say Prey doesn’t have any new ideas of its own – most notably the mimic ability and the ‘gloo’ gun – but it’s very clearly structured both in terms of story, environment and gameplay upon System Shock 2. And I f**king love System Shock 2. So why don’t I love Prey?

In Prey you play as Morgan Yu who awakes upon Talos 1 to find everything has gone to shit. Guided by other characters you’ll explore the station section by section, upgrading your abilities, securing new weapons and hacking doors and safes. There’s a fairly substantial core quest chain in addition to a large number of side quests.

Which brings me to my first major issue with Prey – there’s too much content. It seems like an odd complaint to make, but Prey is overloaded with what I’d describe as ‘low quality filler’. The majority of the side quests really aren’t worth your time, at least not from a narrative perspective. The problem is, you never know which quest will lead to something interesting.

And this creates pacing issues with the main quest. If, like me, you’re someone who likes to explore everything you can and complete as much as you can, you’ll find yourself bouncing from one end of the station to the next, backtracking through sections multiple times. Which wouldn’t be such an issue if the side quests led to something interesting – but only a handful do.

These side quests only detract from the focus on your core mission. Yes, they’re optional, but some of them are so short and uninteresting that you wonder why they were even included. System Shock 2 didn’t have or need dozens of busy work side quests. It kept a laser focus on your core objectives and anything else you discovered emerged naturally through your own exploration.

Prey didn’t need all these busy work mini-quests, either. It bombards the player with needless distractions that only lead to disappointment and irritation, as you realise you wasted 10-15 minutes of your time on an entirely pointless errand.

And this leads into my second issue – environment design. Whilst the individual sections of Talos 1 are great, the overall structure of the station and the way you traverse it is just . . . not very fun. Some sections can only be accessed by traversing other sections and you’ll find yourself passing through some areas so many times you may get sick of them. Unlike System Shock 1 or 2, there’s no central lift to connect every deck.

As much as I like the design and individual sections of Talos 1, navigating the station can be irritating and repetitive. That said, I did really like being able to access the station exterior and fly between different airlocks – it’s a neat and welcome addition, even if I frequently crashed into things because of the fiddly flight controls.

My third major issue with Prey is enemy design. The early mimic creatures are great, but the ‘phantom’ creatures you later encounter are rather dull and generic and not particularly interesting to fight. There’s a ‘fire’ enemy. An ‘electric’ enemy. It’s all a little by the numbers. There’s a couple more interesting critters that I won’t spoil, but it’s not a great selection.

And finally, my fourth major issue is story. Prey, I’m sad to say, just isn’t terribly interesting from a story or character perspective. It’s not bad. It just lacks the edge it needs to really draw you in. There’s no real ‘antagonist’ as such, which I actually kind of liked – although the game unfortunately makes a poor and misguided late attempt at one – but the plot lacks drive. It never quite gets you invested in its story. At least, it didn’t for me.

Getting bogged down by low quality side quests certainly didn’t help, but the main plot, whilst not bad at all – it’s actually pretty decent with some interesting ideas – never really engaged me. And whilst I appreciated that the game didn’t try to put together a lame final ‘boss’ to fight, the ending does feel incredibly rushed to the point where I sat back and said ‘is that it?’ I even checked the ending online in case my game had bugged out and I’d missed something.

To say that Prey has a disappointing and flat ending would be an understatement. It’s also an ending with a couple of twists, at least one of which you’ll see coming fairly easily if you pay any attention to the various logs and audio files. It’s still an interesting ending and an interesting plot in general. I just wish it was better executed.

Aside from those main issues, Prey has several other small annoyances that hold it back. The hacking mini-game is irritating and not fun. The UI is clearly designed for a control pad, which can make it awkward to use. The game makes a thing of using automated turrets and sealing doors to ‘secure’ areas, but enemies respawn regularly and half the time you’ll return to a section only to find your turrets destroyed making you wonder why you bothered.

Seriously, I tested this shit. One time I left four fortified turrets guarding the main section entrance. I departed the section and then immediately returned to find all four turrets wrecked and no enemies in sight. It makes using spare parts repairing them entirely worthless.

The game gives you a ton of cool abilities, but you rarely need to use any of them. The mimic ability is great at first, but only actually useful in a handful of situations – it’s more of a novelty than anything. The same applies to the extensive range of ‘exotic’ powers, only one of which saw frequent use – there’s really little reason to bother with the others.

Visually, Prey looks oddly dated. Audio is fine. Performance isn’t great though. Considering how dated it looks, it’s a surprisingly taxing title. I had to drop most settings to a ‘medium’ configuration to keep a solid 60.

Overall, despite my complaints and what may seem like an overly negative impression based on this review, Prey is a good game. It just has too many issues dragging it down, pulling it back from being great. It’s frustrating because the potential is there – but it never manages to take that final step. As a fan of the ‘Shock’ series, it was good to play a title that, in many ways, feels like a new ‘Shock’ game in all but name. I don’t know if we’ll see more of Prey, but there’s certainly scope to expand and continue this story – and it’s something I’d like to see.


Monday, 9 October 2017

Star Wars: Battlefront 2 (BETA)

Let’s start with the good. The visuals and audio are excellent – although this was to be expected. Once again, Battlefront delivers an engaging and authentic Star Wars experience. And I’m pleased to say that many of my criticisms of the original appear to have been addressed.

There’s a new class system for infantry and vehicles and each class feels distinct to play. Every class has access to unique weapons and abilities, each of which can be further customised via attachments or Star Card boosts.

There’s far more release day content, not only as far as multiplayer content goes, but a full single player campaign. There’s also no Season Pass for DLC – all post release maps and modes will be free. And what I’ve played of this beta, I have to say, I’ve quite enjoyed, despite the criticisms I’m about to raise.

Okay, time for the bad. The beta offered 3 multiplayer modes – Galactic Assault, Starfighter Assault and Strike. Galactic Assault, as you might expect, is the centrepiece of Battlefront 2, just as Walker Assault was to Battlefront 1. It’s the largest mode in terms of players and maps, with multi-stage objectives and access to a wide variety of vehicles and heroes.

I don’t have an issue with the mode as such, but rather the beta map – Naboo. This beta is being used as much to sell the game as to test it, so I would assume that, like with Battlefront 1, they’d lead with what they considered to be one of, if not the best of the release maps. And that worries me, because the Naboo map isn’t very good.

It’s essentially just a very long, very straight corridor split into two sections – palace exterior and palace interior. The exterior feels too large for the player count – still 20v20 – and the interior too small. You can spend the first half of the map running around barely seeing the enemy, and the second engaged in a total clusterf**k of grenade spam and laser fire. I can only hope that not all of the Battlefront 2 maps are quite so linear and uninspired.

My other concern is the viability of the smaller modes. Even in this beta, Starfighter Assault and Strike seemed oddly underpopulated – which was a real shame as far as Starfighter is concerned, because that was by far my favourite part of this beta. But just how many maps will there be for the smaller modes? And if they’re not very popular at release, will they get any post-release support?

My main worry though is multiplayer progression. You level up, but I don’t really know why, as you don’t unlock anything when you do. No new weapons. No attachments. Not even an emote. Individual classes don’t even level up as you play them. All you can ‘earn’ whilst playing is credits, and credits can only be used to purchase Loot Boxes.

These boxes form the micro-transaction model of Battlefront 2 – not unexpected, considering the lack of a Season Pass or DLC. Each box contains three random items that might be weapons, emotes, another form of virtual currency, or a Star Card.

And this wouldn’t bother me too much, if the entire progression system wasn’t reliant upon it. Levelling up should give me something new, and a new goal to attain. The more I play a class, the more I should unlock for it. But in Battlefront 2, you’re just grinding credits so you can buy random Loot Boxes, hoping you’ll get something useful for a class you actually want to play.

Because unless you do, you can’t level up the various classes. In the beta, I primarily played with the Fighter class in Starfighter Assault, but could only reach level 4 because none of the Loot Boxes I opened contained any Fighter Star Cards. Instead, I received a load of Interceptor Class Cards which boosted my Interceptor level to 14 – despite barely playing it.

It sucks and it’s stupid. There’s no other way to say it. Progression shouldn’t be randomised via a damn Loot Box. And what makes it worse, is that the Star Cards these boxes contain now come at different upgrade levels – and some of these upgrades provide an objective advantage in battle. Whilst you can ‘craft’ these upgrades, you need the other form of virtual currency to do so – which is also limited by the randomised Loot Boxes.

It makes Battlefront 2 feel dangerously close to a pay-to-win system, as someone could buy a bunch of these boxes on Day 1, get access to some top-tier Star Card boosts, and have an instant advantage over those who are trying to grind out their credits the old fashioned way. Progression is all about providing an incentive to hit the next level. Battlefront 2 has zero progression beyond randomised loot that may or may not be useful.

I did say in my Battlefront review that whilst the signs for the sequel looked good, I was sure EA would find a way to f**k it up – and this Loot Box system may be it. It hasn’t put me off the game entirely, but I can’t see the ‘progression’ system, as it currently exists within the beta, being very well received.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on Battlefront 2 as it builds to release. I know I’m not the only one with these concerns, so it will be interesting to see how or if they’re addressed.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Total War: Warhammer 2: First Impressions

Is it a sequel? Is it an expansion? Is it a little bit of both? The real question is – is there enough new content in Total War: Warhammer 2 to justify the price? Based on what I’ve currently played, and as a fan of the original Warhammer, I’d say the answer is yes.

If you liked Warhammer 1, you’ll like Warhammer 2, it really is that simple. Warhammer 2 builds upon the solid foundation of Warhammer 1 and adds an additional layer of new content and mechanics. It’s a very polished, refined and upgraded version of the original – so much in fact, that it almost makes Warhammer 1 feel redundant in comparison.

And that feeling will likely only grow with the release of the combined campaign that will incorporate all of the Warhammer 1 content, with the addition of the Warhammer 2 improvements. Does that mean we’ll have no reason to return to the Warhammer 1 campaign? It’s hard to say, but it’s important to remember that without Warhammer 1, we wouldn’t have Warhammer 2.

It’s clear that a lot of the feedback and criticism of Warhammer 1 has fed directly into the development of Warhammer 2. Most notably when it comes to the campaign side of the game. And if there was one key area that I wanted to see Warhammer 2 expand and improve, it was the campaign.

The Vortex Campaign is the most narrative heavy Total War campaign we’ve ever had. Although it is possible to ignore the Vortex mechanics, I don’t see much point playing the campaign if you do – you’d be better off waiting for the combined map if all you want to do is expand and conquer.

The Vortex Campaign is a race from beginning to end and I can see some traditional Total War fans who prefer more slow, leisurely campaigns, being frustrated by the ritual mechanics. Because the AI isn’t a passive player in the Vortex Campaign. It’s actively working towards its campaign goals, whether you choose to participate or not.

Warhammer 1, in many ways, felt restrained. It’s almost like Creative Assembly weren’t quite willing to embrace the Warhammer licence – not entirely – because it was such a radical departure from their previous work.

But as they released more content for Warhammer 1, it was clear they were becoming more bold, more willing to take risks and experiment with the formula. And in Warhammer 2, it feels like those self-imposed shackles have finally been cast off – even at the cost of alienating some of their older fans.

Because I can see some people really hating the Vortex Campaign. As someone who has played the Total War games since Shogun 1 and been a part of the Total War community throughout that time, there is a small, but vocal subset of fans who, as much as they might say they want to be ‘tested’ by the AI, only really want to approach their campaigns at their own pace, fighting and expanding entirely on their own terms. The Vortex Campaign, by design, makes that very difficult. As I said – it’s a race, and if you want to win, you need to keep up or you’ll be left behind.

You have to be active, aggressive and take risks. There’s far more emphasis on taking key territories and completing missions in order to boost your ritual currency. The Vortex Campaign is a very different type of Total War campaign and it’s not going to be to everyone’s liking. But as I’ve said before, doing things differently doesn’t mean doing things wrong. The Total War series has always, with every major release, looked to do something new.

It’s what’s kept the series fresh and popular after so many years. It’s why there’s currently seven Total War games in the Top 100 most played games on Steam and why you’ll receive so many different answers to the question of ‘what’s the best Total War game?’ That said, I’m impressed by how much has changed between Warhammer 1 & 2 because I wasn’t expecting so many new mechanics or features.

I expected Warhammer 2 to just be more of the same but with a new map and races. But Warhammer 2 really does feel like a significant overhaul that improves upon and expands nearly every aspect of the original. I’m genuinely surprised by how much of an upgrade it feels over Warhammer 1 because I really wasn’t expecting it to.

I don’t know how the Warhammer 1 & 2 maps compare in terms of regions, but the map in Warhammer 2 does feel larger, probably because it’s split across four very different continents. I obviously haven’t had a chance to get stuck into every race yet, but from what I’ve seen, the campaign mechanics for each will offer a unique experience and challenge.

The AI seems on par with Warhammer 1 but I’ll need more time to properly assess if there’s any additional improvements. Graphically, it looks amazing, and the lighting on some maps, which could be rather flat and dull on some Warhammer 1 maps, seems to have been improved. The background scenery is great, and the variety of terrains and battle maps (including the return of ‘bridge’ battles) is excellent.

Some people really hated the sieges in Warhammer 1 but I actually quite liked them – or at least, I liked the intent behind them. That doesn’t mean I think they were perfect, and if there’s one aspect to Warhammer 2 that is a little disappointing, it’s that sieges haven’t really changed much at all. There are minor improvements to settlement design and the addition of unique abilities tied to certain settlements, but it’s not the extensive overhaul many might have been hoping for.

Overall, if it wasn’t already clear, I’m very impressed by what I’ve played of Warhammer 2. I’m not quite ready to do a review, because I want to complete at least one campaign to see how things progress during the late game. But so far, so good. Oh, and the music is bloody fantastic.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Call of Duty: WWII (BETA)

I’m not sure what I was expecting. Something new? Something different? I thought that by taking Call of Duty ‘back to its roots’ – so to speak – we might see a change. But no. Call of Duty: WWII is just . . . more of the same. It’s the same tired formula with a new skin.

It’s the same chaotic clusterf**k of an experience. Maps are small, the action is fast, and the TTK (time to kill) is extremely low. If you thought a WWII CoD would feel at least somewhat different to play than those of the more recent modern and ‘future’ warfare trend, think again! This is a game where even WWII shotguns can be equipped with ‘reflex’ sights. No, I’m not joking. I don’t want to call it a lazy re-skin, but based on this beta, that’s exactly what it feels like.

Visually, it looks muddy and dated, yet would frequently gobble up all 8GB of VRAM on my new 1080. Why it’s such a resource hog, I just don’t know, because the visuals certainly don’t justify the high demand – so I can only assume it’s due to extremely poor optimisation.

The beta had a couple of maps available and a fairly by the numbers selection of modes – TDM, Domination and Hardpoint. The only interesting addition is War – an objective focused mode with ‘attack’ and ‘defence’ phases for each team. But if you’re expecting this mode to shift away from the chaos that is the typical CoD MP experience, you’ll be disappointed.

I went into this beta hoping for more. I played the original CoD titles upon release and enjoyed them a lot but the series feels like it’s been stuck in a rut ever since the release of Modern Warfare 2 – which is the last CoD title I purchased.

I guess the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to design applies. CoD has an established audience that knows what it likes – more of the same. Nothing too radical. Nothing too new. Same shit, different skin.

But I thought this title would be an opportunity to break free of that formula. That’s what I wanted to see. I wanted a new CoD that would bring me back to the series. But instead, CoD WWII just plays it predictably safe. Can we blame them? I mean, why take the risk?

If it sells, why change it? If people want it, why not just give it to them? If you like the established CoD experience then you’ll probably like this too. If, like me, you were hoping for something new, then I wouldn’t bother. Oh well, I suppose there’s always next year.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Now Playing: Endless Legend

After thoroughly enjoying Endless Space 2, I decided to give Endless Legend a spin. Like ES2, it’s a turn based 4X strategy game. But unlike ES2, the stetting is fantasy on a land based, hex grid map. In that sense, it has more in common with the Civilization series.

But despite the change of setting and map type, EL shares much in common with ES2. In fact, many of the positive and negative aspects I discussed in my review of ES2, apply to EL too. Like ES2, the presentation is fantastic. Visuals and audio are of excellent quality. The UI is very good, though not entirely perfect – but could be, with a few tweaks here and there.

Like ES2, EL has an extensive selection of unique factions to choose between, each with their own style of play – although like ES2, how different does vary somewhat from one to the next. And like ES2, the unit selection of each faction is somewhat limited.

The game does have a large selection of unique unit types, but these are spread very thin across the multiple playable major factions, and the non-playable minor factions. Although it is possible to recruit up to three additional unit types by assimilating these minor factions, your military unit choice remains disappointingly sparse.

The game does introduce ‘guardian’ units as you progress through the impressive technology tree, but by the time you’re able to construct these powerful, elemental based units, you’ll probably be close to achieving victory anyway.

Like ES2, the combat system is probably the weakest aspect of EL – but even more so. Army limits restrict how many units can enter a fight, but fights are also determined by a set number of turns. This isn’t such an issue during the early game, when armies and battles are relatively small, but in the late game when multiple armies clash, battles become a tedious, multiple turn grind of endless reinforcements.

On the small scale, the battles are quite fun. On a large scale, they’re f**king boring and best auto-resolved. ‘Grind’ really is the best way to describe them, particularly when both sides have upgraded weapons and armour. To make matters worse, the battle maps – which are a zoomed-in version of the main playable map – are very small and restrictive.

Once again, it’s not such an issue during the early game with smaller armies and less units, but during the late game, battles become almost unmanageable because there’s no space for units to move. You’re stuck watching these powerful, late game units slowly chip away at each other over multiple turns.

Though the combat system of ES2 isn’t perfect, it’s far more enjoyable and engaging than in EL, even if you’re not directly controlling the action. Because ES2 was released after EL, it’s clear that a lot of lessons learned in EL fed directly into ES2. Which is why, if it wasn’t already clear, I consider ES2 to be the better game – because there’s nothing that EL really does, that ES2 didn’t do better.

That’s not to say EL is a bad game. Despite its flaws, it’s still a very accomplished 4X title. The problem for me, isn’t just that I think ES2 is the better overall game, but that I prefer the setting of ES2. I just like that space stuff more than this fantasy stuff. But you might be different and prefer the setting and map style of EL to ES2. Honestly, you can’t really go wrong either way.

Like ES2, there’s an extensive range of custom options to set up your campaigns however you want. The art style and design of the map, factions and units is also excellent. The game (with all the expansions) also incorporates an enjoyable naval expansion and combat aspect, which is normally something I never really enjoy in my strategy games, but I liked it here.

Each faction has their own unique quest and ‘story’ to follow (if you wish) which lends to the replay value. Like ES2, EL has ‘hero’ characters to serve in your armies or as governors of your cities. In ES2, I always felt heroes were far more useful as governors and that’s also true in EL. The boosts they provide to production or city defence can prove invaluable.

Like ES2 the difficulty ranges from ‘Newbie’ to ‘Endless’. I began on the Normal setting, but found it to be a complete (and rather dull) cakewalk. Bumping up to ‘Serious’ gave me a far more enjoyable challenge, although it’s clear the AI is given some serious boosts in order to compete. That said, the AI is pretty good – as long as you’re willing to bump it above Normal, in which it barely seems to do anything.

City expansion and population management differ a little from ES2 but the principle remains the same. More population = more resources. Food = faster growth. Science = faster research. Industry = faster construction. Regardless of which game you play first – EL or ES2 – you’ll feel right at home jumping into the other.

Performance is pretty solid, but I did notice some frame rate issues during one of my larger map campaigns. I’ve had a couple of crashes during my 30 hours of play, but I haven’t noticed any other bugs.

Overall, Endless Legend is a solid and enjoyable 4X game. Though I prefer the setting of Endless Space 2 – which is why I’ll probably put far more time into that title – EL is a welcome alternative and certainly worth checking out if you’re a fan of fantasy based strategy or hex grid Civilization style games.


Monday, 18 September 2017

Now Watching: Alien Covenant

Alien: Covenant is the sixth (?) film in the Alien series, a sequel to Prometheus, but a second prequel to the original Alien, a film that never needed a prequel, let alone two of them. But here we are. Again.

I didn’t hate Prometheus. Though the execution was flawed, I quite liked the concept, and there are themes explored in Covenant that carry on from Prometheus, albeit in a less interesting way. But I do think both Prometheus and Covenant would have been better movies if they also weren’t trying to be Alien movies.

Alien Covenant is about a colony ship that makes an unnecessary detour to investigate a strange signal. We know it’s a bad idea. They know it’s a bad idea. But they do it anyway because plot.

Covenant has a needlessly slow start, in which we’re expected to sympathise with a character we’ve just met, over the death of a character we never met. Things do pick up when our hapless heroes land on a mysterious planet, but rapidly fall apart with the arrival of David (Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus.

But before we’re reintroduced to David, we’re treated to an unintentionally hilarious scene in which our crew become stranded. We’re also treated to a rather poor CGI alien. Seriously, it’s like they’re interacting with a cartoon.

The crew of the Covenant are incredibly stupid and remarkably incompetent, which makes it rather hard to sympathise with them. David may have rescued them, but when he leads them into his secret lair surrounded by thousands of dead bodies, you’d think they’d have a few reservations about trusting the guy.

It’s so dumb it becomes comical. One of the crew is killed, despite David telling them they’re perfectly safe. The Captain then observes David having a polite chat with the alien and instead of immediately shooting David in the face, instead decides to follow him (alone, and without warning the others) into the heart of his lair, where he confesses to making monsters.

If that doesn’t get the alarm bells ringing, he then invites the Captain down into his creepy basement full of strange looking eggs. He tells the Captain to stick his face into one of the eggs – it’s perfectly safe, trust him! – and the Capitan duly obliges. You’ll never guess what happens next!

What’s frustrating is that there are so many ways they could have set up this scene and not make the Captain seem like a complete moron. The original Alien and its sequel Aliens, got this shit right. Even if the characters weren’t always successful in their plans, or perhaps underestimated what they were dealing with, at least they behaved and reacted in a way that made sense.

The problem is, the characters in Covenant don’t feel like real people. They do stupid things because apparently the plot can’t progress unless they do. Except it can. Quite easily, in fact. The film just spirals off the rails from here into a poor amalgamation of Alien and Aliens that feels and looks like a straight to DVD Alien knock off.

I can’t recommend Covenant. At least Prometheus had an interesting concept, but Covenant has nothing. It’s forgettable. It’s dumb. It’s so dumb it’s insulting. It’s almost Into Darkness dumb, that’s how bad it is. It’s not worth your time, and I feel bad wasting my time writing this review. Avoid. Go watch the original Alien and pretend these ‘prequels’ never happened.


Friday, 15 September 2017

Now Playing: Battlefront

I played Star Wars: Battlefront in beta prior to release. I enjoyed it a lot, but not enough to pick it up. You can read my impressions of the beta here. And honestly, my criticisms of the beta still apply. Because though Battlefront is undoubtedly fun, it’s also a very shallow, repetitive and content sparse experience.

Visually, Battlefront is excellent. It’s easily one of the best looking shooters you’ll play. And despite its impressive graphics, the performance is remarkably solid. If there’s one thing that Battlefront truly excels at, it’s capturing the magnificent spectacle of Star Wars combat.

A big part of this is not only visual, but audio. As I said in my beta impressions, Battlefront wouldn’t be half as good without the use of the Star Wars licence, particularly when it comes to audio and music. This is a game that is significantly elevated beyond its rather shallow gameplay and weak content thanks to the strength of its source material.

But damn, am I glad I didn’t get this game at release. Even with all additional post-release content, Battlefront feels thin on the ground. Yes, there are a lot of modes, but outside of the three 40 player modes – Walker Assault, Supremacy and Turning Point – everything else is essentially dead. And I can’t imagine they were very active to begin with.

Why? Because people enjoy the (somewhat) large scale that Battlefront has to offer. It’s in those 40 player modes that the game really comes to life and immerses you in the middle of a spectacular and authentic Star Wars experience.

Unfortunately, there’s not exactly an extensive selection of maps, which wouldn’t be such an issue if map quality was high. But instead, we’ve got a handful of excellent maps, with a handful of not so excellent ones. Thankfully, the few excellent maps do have a lot of replay value. Hell, I sunk nearly 20 hours into the Hoth Assault map alone during the beta.

There’s no class system, and character customisation is extremely weak. There’s an extensive selection of weapons but very little variation, and some weapons are so clearly and objectively more effective than others that it’s a little silly. The fact they’re introducing classes and more unique and distinct weapon types in Battlefront 2 is a welcome change. I also hope they do far more with class and character customisation.

There’s no single player campaign – once again, a welcome addition to Battlefront 2 – but there is a Skirmish mode that lets you fight bots alone (offline) or with a friend (online) on the original Walker Assault maps. It’s a nice addition because it means that you can still enjoy the game years down the line when the online is entirely dead – but I’m going to bitch about it anyway.

Why didn’t they update Skirmish to include the DLC content? And why didn’t they expand it to include the other modes? It feels a little half assed and honestly, the bots aren’t particularly great to fight with or against. Sometimes they just stand around and do nothing.

The core gameplay, though a very basic and shallow shooter, is still fun. The ships still handle like ass though. The online is still fairly active (at least for the 40 player modes) so you can currently find games fairly easily, although this may change come the release of Battlefront 2.

It almost feels like a waste of time reviewing Battlefront at this point, especially when Battlefront 2 is coming and looks to have addressed many of my criticisms of the original. I’ll be sure to give any beta a try and I’d seriously consider picking it up on release. The lack of any season pass is a good sign, but this is EA we’re talking about. They’re sure to f**k it up somehow.

Overall, it’s hard to recommend Battlefront with Battlefront 2 just around the corner. But for 8 quid, I’ve already put in over 30 hours and had a lot of fun both in skirmish and online, so I can’t say I haven’t gotten my money’s worth. People hacking online is a problem, but not too prevalent. But it’s clear at this point that the online aspect of Battlefront has largely been abandoned so it’ll probably only get worse.

Battlefront still feels, in many ways, like a beta. Hopefully Battlefront 2 can deliver not only the high visual and audio quality we expect, but also improved and more in depth gameplay, in addition to far more content. But until then, Battlefront 1 isn’t a bad way to waste some time.


Sunday, 10 September 2017

No Man’s Sky: Atlas Rising

I wasn’t sure if I’d ever play No Man’s Sky again following my review back in January. But since then, we’ve had two major content updates, the most recent of which is Atlas Rising. So I decided to hop back in and give it a spin. And I have to say, I’m impressed with how No Man’s Sky has evolved and improved since that disastrous release.

This update includes numerous smaller fixes and quality of life improvements to various aspects of the gameplay and UI. The most substantial addition is a new story campaign to serve alongside the previous Atlas Path quest. It incorporates elements of the previous base building expansion as well as the new faction system. But is it any good? Well, what I played of it was okay, but I didn’t actually finish it for reasons I’ll explain later.

I started a new game with this update to see these changes from the start. I said in my review that it was important for No Man’s Sky to include micro-goals on your journey through the stars. The base building was a key part of this, but the new faction / race reputation and mission system is another important step forward.

Yes, missions. These are randomly generated from one star system to the next and involve a fairly basic rotation of destroying things or delivering things. There’s no complex multi-system/stage missions which could be another potential expansion in the future – further to travel, but greater rewards.

The missions will gain you reputation with new guilds and the existing alien races. And reputation now serves an important purpose, as you must now purchase various technology upgrades from vendors based on your reputation level.

Ships are now defined by class and type with bonuses to shields, damage and hyperdrive range based on their quality. You can also finally rename your ship too. There are new technologies to discover, new materials to harvest and new items to craft. The base building quests have been tweaked and improved and they’ve even added an entirely new ‘exocraft’ facility so you can drive about worlds and harvest on the go.

All of these fixes, improvements and additions both large and small go a long way to making No Man’s Sky the game many always wanted it to be. But it’s not quite there yet. These are all good steps forward, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Most notably, planet terrain and life really needs to be extensively expanded and overhauled. I said in my review that the limited assets mean you’ll see pretty much everything No Man’s Sky has to offer when it comes to alien terrain and life within a matter of hours – and that still hasn’t changed.

So would I recommend No Man’s Sky in its current state? Probably. I put another 30 or so hours into it before I grew rather tired of the repetitive gameplay loop of land, scan, harvest and repeat. Because despite these additions, you’re still going to be doing a lot of tedious grinding for resources in order to continue on.

But I had fun with it, for a time. And I’ve now put 80 hours into a title many considered a disaster upon release. Part of that is because I like my space stuff. And another part is that sometimes you just want a mindless time sink to keep you busy – and No Man’s Sky is a decent option.

That said, I’m pleased No Man’s Sky has kept on going and is slowly winning people over. It was an ambitious title that fell flat on its face but now seems to be picking itself back up. Slowly. One step at a time. It’s nice to see.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Now Playing: The Wolf Among Us

The Wolf Among Us is an interactive, episodic adventure developed by Telltale Games. It’s based on the ‘Fables’ comic book series by Bill Willingham and serves as a ‘canon’ prequel. You play as Bigby Wolf, Sheriff of Fabletown. Your job is to investigate the murder of a fellow ‘fable’ – a storybook character seeking refuge in our world.

I wasn’t familiar with the original comic upon playing The Wolf Among Us but the game does a good job of explaining things with little exposition. As you progress you’ll unlock information boxes that provide more context to various aspects of the world, characters and lore.

If you’re familiar with other Telltale adventure games you’ll know exactly how it plays. It’s a very narrative heavy adventure with a few small ‘exploration’ segments and QTE heavy action scenes. It also promises that the story will change depending on your unique choices but, as is usually the case, that’s not entirely true.

There are 5 episodes each taking about an hour or so to complete. That’s a little shorter than some other Telltale titles and particularly disappointing in this case. Because despite not knowing a thing about the original comic going into The Wolf Among Us, I thoroughly enjoyed what I played and came away with a strong connection to this world, its story and its wonderful cast of characters.

As far as the central narrative goes, I really have no complaints. It’s an engaging and enjoyable tale from start to finish. But it’s also very short and it doesn’t leave you entirely satisfied at the end. Considering the depth of the source material, The Wolf Among us could have easily been at least twice the length – which would have really fleshed out the story, world and characters to a far more appropriate degree.

The Wolf Among Us sets up so many potential story threads but drops so many of them as it focuses entirely on the core narrative. This gives the narrative a great sense of pace, but it’s incredibly frustrating when so much of its world and characters are teased but barely explored. Like other Telltale titles there’s a lot of notifications that ‘X character will remember that’ but very few, if any, pay off by the end.

Even when you think you’ve made a decision that will change the narrative it doesn’t really do a thing. That’s always been a problem with Telltale and the ‘illusion of choice’ but it feels even more pronounced here because this game, as I’ve said, is a canon prequel to the comic series. As a result, everything has to end in such a way that ties neatly into how the comics begin. So no matter what you do, or what choices you make, you don’t really have any influence on the overall narrative.

What you do have, however, is the ability to shape the character of Bigby – how he responds both verbally and physically to the various situations you’ll find yourself in. Do you try to be the law abiding sheriff that Snow White wants you to be? Or do you give in to the beast inside? That struggle is at the heart of the narrative and thanks to some great VA for Bigby and the supporting cast, it’s that struggle that keeps you engaged throughout.

I won’t get into story specifics because the narrative is what makes this game great and it’s best to discover it on your own. I just wish the experience was far more substantial and not so heavily restricted by its status as an official prequel to the comics.

Despite my disappointment at its length and how it largely glosses over your choices due to those restrictions, I still thoroughly enjoyed The Wolf Among Us and I’d be interested in seeing more of this world and these characters.


Friday, 1 September 2017

Suburban Killbot: YouTube Update

In January 2016 I set up the Suburban Killbot YouTube Channel, but I didn’t invest a great deal of time or effort into it. But I’ve always wanted to do more with it, it was just a question of what I wanted to do, if I could do it and if I had the time.

And that’s what I’ve spent the last few weeks figuring out. I’ve decided that in addition to raw gameplay videos, I’ll begin a trial of commentated Let’s Play videos. I’ll begin with Total War: Warhammer campaigns, the first of which will be based on the latest DLC – Norsca. I’ll also be doing some shorter instructional videos such as battlefield tips and tricks and unit showcases.

I’m also planning to transfer blog content into video content. I’ll still be doing my regular written posts of game reviews and impressions, but I’ll also be creating video versions too. I may also do video film reviews, but that’s currently undecided. My time is limited, so I have to pick and choose what I want to focus on very carefully.

I want to keep quality high, so don’t expect more than a couple of videos per week. Raw and commentated gameplay will obviously be quicker to upload than video reviews which will take more time to produce and edit.

I don’t really expect the channel to take off and generate a dizzying amount of traffic, but we’ll see how it goes. I’ve already begun recording my first campaign and I’ve found that commentating as I play adds an interesting and enjoyable dynamic to the experience.

But I don’t want to throw myself in too heavily and burn out. I’ll be taking it slow, seeing how things progress and try to find a nice balance with all the other stuff I have to do.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Now Watching: Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell (2017) is a sci-fi action film directed by Rupert Sanders – most famous for, uh . . . Snow White and the Huntsman, I guess? – and starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s an adaptation of the Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell (1995) which itself is an adaptation of a manga series (1989) of the same name. I’m not familiar with the original manga, but I have seen the anime and the subsequent ‘Stand Alone Complex’ series.

This latest incarnation of the Ghost in the Shell story sees Major Mira Killian (Johansson) working as an elite operative of the anti-terrorist agency Section 9. Killian, whose parents were killed in a terrorist incident has, understandably, both a personal and professional investment in her work.

Killian was also nearly lost in the attack that killed her parents, but she was saved by Hanka Robotics. They made her the ‘first of her kind’ – a human brain transplanted into a fully augmented, cybernetic body. She’s seen as the future of humanity by Hanka – but also the future of their company. The story strays some way from the anime original, but many of the core themes remain intact. Themes of self, identity, consciousness and the concept of the soul – or ‘ghost’ . . .

. . . sort of. Ghost in the Shell touches upon these themes, but only very lightly. It doesn’t stray too far from the more action oriented experience general audiences will expect – perhaps understandable, given its budget and the risks involved in selling a Japanese manga/anime adaptation to a Western audience.

That said, the action in Ghost in the Shell never overshadows the plot. It’s used thoughtfully, appropriately and the film, overall, is well paced and strikes a good balance between drama and action. Many of the action scenes are directly lifted from the anime original – most notably, the final confrontation.

It successfully weaves these scenes into its own variation of the original plot. These scenes are adequately shot but not particularly impressive, though I am thankful they remain grounded within the reality of the world and the Major’s capabilities.

Visually, Ghost in the Shell looks quite impressive – but that’s to be expected. The visuals, the world, the technology, costumes and weapons are easily the strongest components of the film. Unfortunately, the story and more importantly the characters, are its weakest.

If there’s one good aspect to the story, it’s that you don’t have to be a fan of previous incarnations of Ghost in the Shell to understand what the hell is going on. The film does a good job of explaining the world, concepts and characters to an unfamiliar audience. That said, this version of the story has little to no surprises, even for an unfamiliar audience.

But whilst the plot is sadly predictable and by the numbers (and doesn’t explore the original themes of the manga or anime to a degree some fans may desire) that wouldn’t be such an issue if the characters were better handled.

The majority of the supporting characters are poorly developed and receive little attention and screen time, which is a real shame. Especially in the case of Batou (Pilou Asbæk) who brings genuine heart and humour to his role, and plays exceptionally well against this more ‘stoic’ interpretation of the Major.

Now, it should be noted that it’s been such a long time since I saw the original anime, that my general ‘impression’ of the Major character is more likely based around the SAC series. But I don’t recall the original Major being quite so . . . bland. The plot may be playing the ‘I can’t remember my past’ angle, but that’s no excuse for the Major to be little more than a dull, blank slate.

There are brief flashes of personality, but these are too few and far between. It’s a real problem, because the Major is the character we should be connecting with, yet she remains disconnected not only from her fellow characters, but also the audience. I understand this feeling of disconnection is an important element of the plot and her character, but we needed to see more of her, of who she is once you strip the machine away – to see her ‘ghost’.

But the film sadly lacks this important connection, and it’s what the audience needs to go on this journey of self-discovery with the Major. Without it, everything falls a little flat despite the great visuals and solid, if unspectacular action.

Though not a bad film, it’s hard to recommend Ghost in the Shell, because I don’t really know who it’s aimed at. Fans of the original may be pleased to see a big budget adaptation, but may also be displeased at the changes to the story, characters and the lack of exploration of the original themes.

And I’m not sure audiences unfamiliar with the original will find much to connect with, either. The visuals are nice, the action is competent, but the story and characterisation are weak. As a result, the film is ultimately rather forgettable and bland. It’s kind of lifeless and, rather ironically, lacks an identity of its own.


Tuesday, 22 August 2017

E-Book Release: High Strangeness

UFOs, Aliens, Angels, Poltergeists, Animal Mutilations & Mysterious Men in Black. With the relentless summer sun came the High Strangeness to the sleepy English village of Aversham - ‘A paranormal party to which everything you never believed in is invited.’

But the Strangeness is more than a gathering of supernatural forces. Its presence foretells a coming disaster, as sixteen-year-old Beth Wells learns from the enigmatic Felix Clark. At odds with her family and struggling to accept the reality of what she has seen, Beth has six days to uncover the truth and attempt to prevent the disaster before it can strike.

High Strangeness is a four part, young-adult novella series of horror and mystery. Reader discretion: High Strangeness features some mild bad language and scenes that may disturb a younger reader.

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.