State of the Game: 26/06/2017 to 02/07/2017

Tekken 7: Heihachi’s Betrayal.

Tekken and I go a long way back. It wasn’t my first fighting game, that honour belongs to Street Fighter, but it was the first one I played on my original PlayStation. My character of choice was Hwoarang and I’d spend hours practising his 10 string combo in the hopes of using it to decimate my friends. However after Tekken 4 I never made my way back to the series, instead spending my fighting game time on Soul Calibur with my housemates and friends who’d come over to join the fray. When I saw that Tekken 7 was announced and was getting good reviews I figured it was finally time to revisit the series. Whilst I’m glad I did there was one thing I was missing from the experience, something which I think all fighting games need.

The world is still ravaged by the massive war between the Mishima Zaibatsu and G Corporation. The war, started by Jin Kazama to awaken Azazel (the source of the devil gene), has now turned into a power struggle for control of the world. Without Jin to lead the Mishima Zaibatsu Heihachi retakes control of the corporation and formulates a plan to end the war and take control of the world for himself. The story is told from the viewpoint of a unknown reporter whose family was killed in the war, seeking to find out the truth about each of the organisation’s motives for participating in it. What he finds though is the troubled past of the Mishima clan and the supernatural forces at play.

Tekken 7 has been around since 2015 in the arcade and so it’s somewhat understandable that the graphics feel like a generation or so behind. Of course with fighting games that rely on frame perfect execution visuals will often have to take a back seat to performance. Still even the cinematics seem oddly underdone, the character animations usually stiff and stilted, especially when compared to their in-game animations. Interestingly this is probably the first game in a while to run on the Unreal 4 engine that has that “unreal engine” look about it, especially with models that have high specularity. I haven’t gone to an arcade to compare the visuals however, so I’d be interested to see if this is an artefact of the porting process.

Tekken has certainly come a long way in the almost 15 years since I last played it, although there are still some things that remain the same. The core fighting feels very much the same with the same combos still working a decade and a half later. There are two new mechanics introduced in Tekken 7: rage art and power crush. Rage art activates when your health is critical, giving you a damage boost and can be used to execute a devastating attack (at the cost of the rage state). Power crush allows you to continue a move even if you get hit, although you’ll still take the attack’s damage. Included alongside this are the usual trappings we’ve come to expect from current generation fighting games including an online mode, customisable player icons and health bars, a story mode and the traditional arcade mode.

Whilst both of these new mechanics are used to frustrate the hell out of you in the campaign they actually make for a much more action packed game in the traditional 1 on 1 bouts. Rage art ensures that battles are much less one sided than they used to be, giving you a chance to even the odds if you find yourself getting pummelled relentlessly. Of course Tekken’s fighting style is still very much that of long combos and juggling, making sure your opponent doesn’t have the opportunity to respond. It also took me a while to get back into the Tekken button combination mindset as it’s vastly different to that of the fighting games I’ve recently played. Still the fighting felt familiar once I was in control of the characters I used to play which is saying something when I haven’t played Tekken for so long.

Now early on I mentioned that I was missing one key ingredient that all fighting games need. This isn’t a fault of Tekken at all, instead it was mine. After playing through the campaign and the arcade mode a few times I started to lose interest quickly and for a while I wasn’t entirely sure why. Then I remembered all the times I used to play fighting games and it was always ringed by a bunch of mates who’d be there with me for hours on end. You’d have your set of characters, who could beat who with what and inevitably there’d be the person who just unstoppable for a week or two before everyone figured out how to counter them. I didn’t have that this time around and, as a consequence, I didn’t feel as engaged with Tekken as I would have before. Perhaps the online mode could’ve been a decent substitute but I’ve never had much success with them, always feeling like I was a dozen or so frames behind where I needed to be. I may go back and try it again sometime in the future but if this experience has taught me anything its that fighting games are meant to be shared.

The story of Tekken is your pretty stock standard fighting game affair although there has been a lot more care and attention put into its telling. The Mishima Saga does a good job of exploring the back story of the series’ main characters although, honestly, the voice actor for the reporter sounds like he wants to be somewhere else. The individual character sections after that give you a little more insight into what they were doing during the main campaign’s events but are too short for any meaningful character development. Additionally whilst I’d love to believe the ending at face value if the Tekken series has taught me anything its their main characters always manage to find their way back from whatever fate befalls them.

It’s somewhat reassuring that a series like Tekken can feel so familiar after a 15 year break. Whilst the controller and platform may have been wildly different the movement, combos and other mechanics all felt instantly familiar. With all the other modern fighting game trimmings it would seem that Bandai Namco has been no slouch when it comes to modernising the series, ensuring that it has stayed relevant all this time. Indeed playing this now I feel remiss that it has taken me this long to come back, especially without my cadre of fighting game companions at my side. With all that said though Tekken 7 is still an outstanding game, something that’s easy to see even with the small amount of time I’ve put into it.

Rating: 8.5/10

Tekken 7 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC (with a controller, of course) with a total of 3 hours play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 19/06/2017 to 25/06/2017

Nex Machina: A Synthwave Bullet Hell.

Whilst I spent quite a lot of my childhood playing games like Raptor: Call of the Shadows I never really got into the whole bullet hell/twin stick shooter scene. Indeed my recent experience with bullet hell sections in Nier: Automata reinforced that as I didn’t find much to like in them there. However when scrolling through the popular new releases section on Steam Nex Machina caught my eye, both for it’s outrageously neon visuals and synthwave sound track. Whilst I may have once again affirmed my aversion for the genre it’s hard not to appreciate what Nex Machina brings to the table, especially for the fact that it heavily rewards those with skill.

If there’s a story in Nex Machina I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. As far as I can tell Earth is being invaded by an alien force and it’s up to you to push them back. You’ll do this by slaughtering untold numbers of aliens whilst rescuing what humans you can, progressing through each self contained level until you reach the final boss. The challenge comes from not dying, finding all the secrets and, of course, beating each section in as fast a time as possible. At its heart Nex Machina is a mechanically simple game but it does a great job of ensuring that you’re never left without another challenge, especially if leader boards are a motivator for you.

Initially I thought Nex Machina was just another indie game based on the Unity engine but, as it turns out, it’s from Housemarque, a veteran indie developer of over 20 years. Nex Machina is based on a reworked version of the Resogun engine which itself was based on the Super Stardust Delta engine. The visuals themselves are pretty simplistic with the environments utilising voxels for some interesting destruction physics. Where the game shines is in its lavish use of neon lighting effects often to the point of utter visual domination where it’s hard to figure out just where the hell you are. The aesthetic is well matched with its backing sound track however, giving the whole game this great retro-future vibe.

In terms of actual game play though there’s really not too much to talk about. It’s a twin stick shooter, meaning you’ll be surrounded on all sides by enemies which you’ll have to do your best at avoiding whilst you gun them down. As you kill enemies random power ups will drop, making the game ever so easier. If you die however you’ll drop one power up and if you don’t pick it up before you die or complete a section you’ll lose it forever. In this sense the game rewards those who are able to skillfully complete sections without dying, making it easier to do so in future sections. Indeed your first playthrough is likely to be a frustration ridden affair as you figure out what the environmental hazards are, how the different enemies behave and how you can use certain mechanics to your advantage.

However what Nex Machina is quite lacking in is variety. Whilst each different world has its own theme with accompanying enemies they really aren’t that all different when you sit down and compare them. The environmental mechanics are also pretty much all the same, even if they have slightly different triggers or look visually different. Thus, for someone like me, there’s really not a whole lot of replayability as it all starts to feel very samey quite quickly. If, however, mastering a game’s challenge completely is the kind of thing that appeals to you then I’m sure there’s endless hours of enjoyment in Nex Machina. It’s just not there for me.

Nex Machina is a solid twin stick shooter with an excellent retro-future vibe. Whilst this is a genre I’d typically not even bother foraying into the visuals and driving sound track were enough for me to want to give it a go. It might not have swayed me on the genre, indeed it reaffirmed it more than anything else, but I do feel like Nex Machina is a great example from a veteran developer in the genre. If you lust for the old days of twin stick arcade shooters then Nex Machina is right up your alley.

Rating: 7.5/10

Nex Machina is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 1 hour of total play time and 21% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 12/06/2017 to 18/06/2017

STRAFE: Sometimes Nostalgia is Just That.

A sizeable percentage of the games I own are wholly or in part due to my feelings of nostalgia towards them. Some are originals, games I keep around because of the fond memories I have of playing them and have grand ideas of going back to replay them one day. Others are there because they invoke the feelings of that era, with simpler graphics and without all the trimmings that modern games bring with them. STRAFE got attention and Kickstarter backing because of the latter, promising to bring the best of what the 90s shooters had to offer. Unfortunately all it seems to have done is provide a strong reminder of how far we’ve come.

You play as an unnamed “scrapper”, a person who’s job is to collect scrap so they can get paid. Your corporation has sent you to the ship Icarus which is on the outer limits of humanity’s reach in space. No other scrapper has returned alive from the Icarus so, the logic goes, surely its littered with tons of scrap just waiting for collection. Of course the corporation takes no responsibility for what happens to you whilst you’re there so it’s up to you, dear scrapper to make sure you stay alive. That’s about all the motivation you’re given before being thrown back several decades to a low poly hell filled with monsters, scrap and a varying array of weapons.

STRAFE comes to us via the Unity engine which, for once, isn’t to blame for the way the game looks. The visuals are reminiscent of the early Quake era although its obvious that the textures are much higher resolution and the low poly models likely having several times more polys in them than they did back in the 90s. The aesthetics are quite confusing at times, making it extremely hard to work out things like what constitutes a door or an elevator at a glance. Due to the game’s fast paced action and use of semi-procedurally generated terrain this is a bigger deal than it would be in other games as it can make it quite hard to actually figure out just where the hell in a level you are. Overall it does a good job of emulating the 90s shooter experience, warts and all.

STRAFE is a fast paced FPS centred on clearing a level as fast as you can whilst discovering all the secrets and collecting as much scrap as you can. The levels are semi-procedurally generated, a random grab bag of rooms selected and then cobbled together every time you load a new section. What this means is that secrets will never be in the same place, enemies will never be where you expect them to be and, most annoyingly of all, the vendors where you can buy ammo/armour/upgrades are never where you need them to be. The variety of enemies is low and the challenge comes from the game throwing ever more of them at you whilst you struggle to find enough ammo to take them all out.

Now I’m as much of a fan of spammy, fast paced combat as the next person but STRAFE’s was just straight up boring and frustrating. Sure it was fun to line up a bunch of enemies and take them out with a grenade, but having to do that 20 times over per level meant it lost its lustre very quickly. The weapons also felt very samey, none of them feeling particularly unique or interesting in their own right. Couple this with the deluge of samey enemies and you’ve got a recipe for combat that’s uninteresting, repetitive and frustrating. I honestly couldn’t play for more than 15 mins at a time before getting horrendously bored and giving it up for another day or two, it was that bad.

Some may say that it’s simply too hard for someone like me or I don’t enjoy this kind of challenge. To counter that argument I’d point you to my reviews of games like Bloodborne or Dark Souls III both games which punish its players but I found far more rewarding than anything STRAFE had to provide. Sure, I’ll grant you those games probably had several times the budget that STRAFE did but the point still stands: I do enjoy a good challenge and I don’t believe STRAFE provides one. Instead it provides a samey, randomised experience that does far more to frustrate than it does to challenge and reward the player.

STRAFE had grand ideas of being the best 90s shooter ever but falls incredibly short of that mark. Indeed whilst STRAFE borrows a lot of elements from FPS games of yesteryear, like its visuals and fast paced action, it fails to do much with them in order to make a good gaming experience. The visuals, whilst staying largely true to the 90s formula, are a visually confusing mess that only serves to amplify the game’s less than stellar qualities. The combat is repetitive with a distinct lack of variety in weapons, enemies and level design. The Roguelike elements simply add another level of frustration rather than challenge, leaving this reviewer feeling that his time was better spent playing almost anything else in his library.

Rating: 5.0/10

STRAFE is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.96. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours played.

RiME: Paradise Lost.

Once your average game development house find some success they tend to stay on the same track. Even in the indie scene, which is ripe with games that explore every niche possible in the gaming medium, you’ll see developers stick to a formula once they know they have an audience for it. However there are a few developers which, for better or for worse, branch out with every new release. Tequila Works, who previously brought us the survival horror game Deadlight, is very much in the latter category as their latest game RiME is nothing like anything they’ve released before. Whilst it might not be the most original idea (indeed I think we’ve had enough games in the “young child lost in ancient ruins” genre that it’s something of a stereotype) it is exceptionally well executed.

You wash ashore, the waves lapping at your feet and the sounds of a tropical island echoing in the distance. What lays before you is an island of ruins, the marks of a civilisation that has long since fallen dotting the landscape. In the distance stands a great tower, looming over the picturesque landscape below. Your memories of how you came to be here at hazy and there’s an ever present feeling that someone is watching you from a distance. This island and its mysterious tower hold the secrets to your past and, eventually, your future.

RiME’s cartoon-esque style comes from its cel-shading which typically goes hand in hand with low-poly work. RiME is most certainly not a low-poly piece however as after I cranked everything up to its maximum my system turned into a slideshow. As the screenshots will attest to though you can see that RiME is making good use of all the grunt you can throw at it with its large, expansive environments that are all lavished with details and modern effects. There were a couple sections where performance dropped through the floor although I’m not 100% sure if that was due to me alt-tabbing out or not. Also worth mentioning is the absolutely amazing soundtrack and foley work that coincides with RiME’s impressive visuals, something that is often overlooked in similar games.

RiME is a 3D platformer/puzzler, pitting you against a variety of challenges that you’ll need to beat to progress to the next section. It’s a linear game in terms of progression, meaning that there’s no backtracking through previous puzzles with new abilities in order to unlock something that was previously unavailable. Mechanically all the puzzles are straightforward and self-contained, rarely requiring you to go far away from the current area in order to solve them. However exploration is still very much encouraged as there are various things to collect scattered all over the place, the purposes of which aren’t made clear to you until the very end. Overall RiME is a very simplistic game, one that would have you focus more on the overall experience rather than any one aspect of the game itself.

As there are no real progression mechanics to speak of all of the puzzles in RiME build up in difficulty based on your understanding of the mechanics it presents to you. Initially the puzzles are simple, putting this block there or getting a NPC to do something for you, but over time you’ll be introduced to different mechanics which you’ll need to understand fully as the game goes on. RiME makes clever use of mechanics like perspective, day/night cycles and sound, all of which can be combined together in a variety of different ways. RiME shies away from making anything too complex or deliberately challenging although there are some sections (like the one where everything gets non-euclidean for a spell) which I can see some players getting stuck on.

For the most part the puzzles are intuitive although the game does have some issues when it comes to visual signalling. As an example not all surfaces are climbable and, whilst climbable ones are marked, there are some you can climb that aren’t marked (which are required to solve the puzzle). This becomes more apparent when you start exploring to find secrets and other hidden things as there’s numerous (unintentional, I believe) false flags scattered around. Now I’m not usually one to go object hunting in these kinds of games so I may be a bit more critical of these kinds of things than other reviewers may be but it was enough that I gave up on it after only an hour or so into my play through.

RiME tells its story visually with no dialogue to speak of. Whilst you get the general gist of what brought you to the island early on the nuances of the story are left until much later in the game. The ultimate reveal of RiME, whilst a powerful statement in its own right, probably required a bit more development of certain story aspects for it to have the impact it was aspiring to. Don’t get me wrong, RiME certainly had its heart wrenching moments for me, however I feel like the conclusion (which came together in the last 30 mins or so) needed a bit more time to develop to ensure that I was fully invested. Still the journey to that end was an enjoyable one.

RiME is a beautiful, well executed puzzle game from a game developer that continues to demonstrate their ability to innovate. The cel-shaded environments belie the incredible amount of detail throughout the game which, if you’re not careful, can bring even the most beastly of gaming PCs to its knees. Mechanically RiME is simple, putting the focus on the overall experience rather than challenging puzzles. The story, told visually without dialogue, is done well although its ultimate conclusion needed more development to have the impact it desired. If for nothing else RiME is worth playing just for how well everything is put together as the music, mechanics and visuals all work together beautifully.

Rating: 8.75/10

RiME is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total play time and 26% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 29/05/2017 to 04/06/2017

State of the Game: 22/05/2017 to 28/05/2017

Endless Space 2: First You Get the Dust…

When I play 4X games I have one objective in mind: acquire a single victory. On average that will take me between 15 to 18 hours to complete as that’s how long it takes to grok the fundamental mechanics that will enable me to actually win. Even with titles I’ve played before which, you’d assume, would share similar fundamentals take just as long since it’s not often I’ll go back to revisit a 4X game between releases. The original Endless Space was something of an anomaly then with my first victory coming in at a swift 10 hours. Thus when I saw its sequel come out of Early Access earlier in the year I figured great, another streamlined 4X game that I can enjoy without the massive time investment. Well here I am, 22 hours of in-game time later and I’ve only just barely managed to scrape in a win.

So much for a casual 4X experience.

Set in the distant future where the currency of the day is Dust, a nano-element material that an ancient race used as a basis for everything. Your choice of race will heavily influence how you approach the game, which mechanics prove problematic for you and what aspects of the galaxy you’re able to uncover. Like all good 4X games the story that the game tells is the one you make by how you interact with the mechanics, your AI rivals and how you develop your civilisation.

Compared to its predecessor Endless Space 2 is a leap forward in terms of graphical fidelity. Partly this is due to the massive improvements that’s been made to the base Unity engine over the past 4 years or so, as it is far more capable of producing good graphics now than it ever was. However, and I’ll dive into more depth on this later, Unity also has some limitations and these start to become rapidly apparent as you start getting well into the double digit turns. Still when the game is running it runs well and the various bits of eye candy make it a much more visually pleasing experience.

At a base level not much has changed from the original Endless Space, mechanically speaking. You’ll be placed in a procedurally generated galaxy with a random number of planets, systems and constellations (something which you can control, if you so wish). You’ll get a home system, a colony ship and a scouting ship to begin your journey in dominating the galaxy using whatever method you choose. From there it’s up to you to explore systems, research technology and grow your empire to the point where you can achieve one of the 4 victory conditions (military, science, economy or score). Layered underneath all this are the equations which drive various aspects like population growth, your approval rating and so on, each of which you’ll have to optimise if you want to reach your objective. Like I always do I tended towards a science based victory condition and, whilst I don’t think that’s the hardest (military probably is, I think) it definitely felt like one of the more challenging paths to take.

It took me about 3 or 4, 1 hour games to get a handle on the basics so that I could sustainably grow an empire to the point where I was competitive with the AI. The main reason for this was forgetting that there’s a bit of a priority in Endless Space for what you should go for. The first thing to look for when establishing a new colony is food as that will dictate how long it will take for it to go from an outpost to a full colony. After that you want to develop your industry as that will determine how quickly you can build things, reducing the time to make the colony effective. Lastly you’ll want to prioritise whatever you need for your preferred win condition which could be any of the FIDS (Food, Industry, Dust, Science) resources. Once I remembered that everything started to fall into place however that’s when the cracks in the experience started to show.

Endless Space has actually been available since October last year through Early Access. Since then it’s undergone quite a lot of development with about 3 major updates since it first debuted there. However the game still suffers from numerous issues which are, unfortunately, game breaking in nature. I had one game which, at around turn 50, could not complete the current turn. Checking the forums I saw that others had had this issue and that a save and restart could resurrect them. Not so in my case unfortunately and so that game is simply unplayable. There has been another patch since then so it’s possible that it’s playable now but, right then, there was no option but for me to restart (I don’t tend to keep saves for every turn or anything like that). There are a lot of other issues I could point to but I’ll focus on what I believe is the most critical issue for this game: performance.

So my current PC, whilst not being the latest and greatest anymore, is most certainly overkill for nearly any game I care to throw at it. Endless Space 2 is no exception to this so I was surprised when, at larger turn counts, the game would start taking minutes to finish turns and would chug heavily while doing so. Puzzled I decided to fire up task manager to monitor CPU usage and HW Monitor to monitor my graphics. What I saw heavily indicated that the majority of Endless Space 2 runs on a single computation thread as only a single core of my machine was being utilised heavily. Similarly my graphics card would barely jump above 50% utilisation. Part of the blame is likely to lie with Unity as I’ve heard multi-threading can be a challenge with that engine. But, as someone who’s had to do his fair share of multi-threaded programming of late, I can’t help but think a good chunk of the computation that Endless Space 2 is doing couldn’t be parallelized. I’m not a game developer, of course, but when my system is under-utilised and something runs poorly there’s really not many other possibilities to consider.

If you can get past those issues though the core game can be quite fun, however. In my first almost-won-this-damn-thing playthrough I got tantalisingly close to achieving a swift science victory. However, early on in the game, I had put myself at odds with the Riftborn as they were colonising a pretty strategic set of planets that I wanted. So I, of course, blockaded them and proceeded to push them back until I had what I wanted. Whilst this never escalated into full scale war it did mean that the military political faction grew in power slowly over time. Eventually they became the preferred party and, with only 2 techs of the endless left to research, ended a policy that allowed me to research tech 1 level above what I should have access to. Then, because I had little option but to clear out the Riftborn I ended up with way more colonies than I could handle. Then, about 10 turns later, my entire system was in open rebellion and that was the end of it. Thinking back on it now it’s kind of comical how I ended up making my own bed, even if it was incredibly frustrating at the time.

My one, and only, victory came care of an aggressive early expansion strategy that locked off key areas that I could exploit later on. Like most 4X games the AI will get uncomfortable with you at one point and launch an attack but, weirdly, they’ll usually do so at a fixed technology level. So, once you know what level that is, you just have to quickly research the next highest level (something I could do easily with my research advantage as Sophons). After that point it was pretty much just a waiting game with my eventual science win at 100 turns or so. Honestly, without the performance issues I think I’d probably be able to achieve victory much earlier as the later turns were taking about 3~5 minutes to resolve, especially if there was any combat involved.

Endless Space 2 is a much more ambitious version of its predecessor in almost all respects. The breadth of the world you’ll play in is much greater, the races deeper on a technical and lore level and the fundamental mechanics have many more intricacies for you to learn. Suffice to say the additional requirements meant that I spent much longer Endless Space than its predecessor. However it’s still very much shaking off its Early Access roots with numerous game breaking glitches, performance issues and general quality of life improvements needed. None of these are beyond the developer’s capability to deliver I feel and, if you’re reading this review a year or two down the line, it’s very likely that Endless Space 2 is a different game to the one I’m reviewing today.

Rating: 8.0/10

Endless Space is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total play time was 22 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.