The current torrent of AAA releases makes for an overwhelming selection for a reviewer like myself. There are titles that we’re simply expected to play, like one I shall not mention until this time next week, and others which only appeal to a very certain demographic. Indeed that’s exactly why all these games can all launch at the same time and still find the financial success they were looking for. However most of these games are incredible time sinks and my one review a week schedule simply can’t accomodate them. Thus I look to the poor indies who found themselves in the mix with the giants of the industry to fill the gap with their shorter, more concise experiences. Refunct certainly fills the first requirement aptly clocking in as probably the quickest game I’ve ever fully completed.
Refunct is a first person platforming game, something which I’m sure strikes fear into the hearts of all gamers. You see platforming in first person has always been somewhat of a hit and miss affair, both in the literal and figurative sense. Judging distances in first person mode is a flawed endeavour as there’s no real way (apart from trial and error) to figure out how far your character can move or whether or not you jumped too early. Refunct however has billed itself as a game that everyone can play, meaning that the developer must think they’ve addressed the first person platforming problems. To an extent they have, but not because of any new or clever mechanics.
Instead Refunct is incredibly generous with its hit detection when it comes to near misses on ledges and the height that you character can jump. For the first few jumps I was expecting the normal platforming behaviour, you don’t make it you fall flat on your face, however if you’re within a certain tolerance your character will pull themselves up. Later on, when its revealed that you can push yourself off walls, you can exploit this somewhat as even full misses can result in a successful jump if you bounce yourself off the wall. For new players this means that jumping puzzles, which typically rely on pinpoint precision, are much more forgiving. For power players like myself though it’s an easily exploitable system that significantly reduces the play time of Refunct.
Refunct uses the Unreal engine and, judging by the world effects it makes generous use of, must be running on the latest version of said engine. Whilst it’s one of the most basic games you’re ever likely to come across, pretty much everything is a block or cylinder, it does look incredibly nice. The subtle day/night cycles, clouds gently passing by in the background and the accompanying soundtrack do make for a rather pleasant experience. That being said in terms of graphics it’s not much more than a demonstration of Unreal’s inbuilt capabilities. I guess where I’m going this is: I like the way Refunct looks but it feels like a low amount of effort went into making it look that way.
From a game play perspective Refunct is pretty seamless with the generous platforming mechanic smoothing over what could have been many frustrating moments. At the same time however this means that for any kind of regular gamer Refunct is likely to be little more than a curious distraction as I was able to complete the whole thing, to 100%, in no less than 22 minutes. For some this might be a problem, especially in the age of numerous other $2 games that give many more hours of play time, so it’s something to bear in mind if a simplistic first person platformer is sounding like something you’d like to play.
Refunct is a succinct first person platformer that is far more forgiving than its genre would lead you to believe. The generous platforming mechanics means that a wide variety of players would be able to play it start to finish without the frustration that accompanies nearly every other title that incorporates such mechanics. It simple and clean aesthetic does make for a kind of zen experience which is only heightened by it’s great soundtrack. However it is a brutally short experience, almost shorter than the time it will take many to download it. Overall I’d recommend it but only if you’re looking for an after-AAA mint to clean your pallet before you set yourself up for your next meal.
Refunct is available on PC right now for $2.99. Total play time was 22 minutes with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
The 3 year, 3 developer cycle that Call of Duty switched to has meant that it’s been a little longer between drinks for Treyarch, once considered the poor step child to Inifinity Ward. For players like me, who enjoyed Treyarch’s slightly more story oriented style for the single player, it’s been a bit of a wait but all hopes were that the extra polish would be worth it. After spending the last week with Call of Duty: Black Ops III I can definitely say the wait has been worth it, although Treyarch might need to come down from the giant ivory tower that they’ve crafted themselves.
The year is 2065 and you’ve been sent to rescue hostages from the NCR, the latest terrorist organisation to begin its war against the western world. You, along with your partner Hendricks, have been sent to Ethopia to rescue hostages and a VIP who’s been captured by this group. Whilst the extraction was a success you were left behind and mortally wounded by one of the NCR’s combat robots. You’re transported back to the Coalescence HQ for emergency medical treatment, bestowing upon you cybernetic abilities that elevate your combat capabilities far beyond that of any normal soldier. What follows is your exploits as a CIA black operative following a terrible conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.
Considering that Black Ops 3 was released on nearly all platforms (including 2 last gen ones) it’s great to see it able to use all the grunt of a modern PC to render some truly stunning graphics. On first release though this was unfortunately at the severe cost of performance as smoke and other particle heavy systems would drag an otherwise buttery smooth experience down to a slideshow. Thankfully this was a bug and was fixed in a patch last week, allowing me to once again ratchet all the settings up to maximum. Unlike other Call of Duty titles though you’ll rarely have any time to stop and take in the view as the game is all about action all the time (save for the last section which I’ll dive into more later).
Black Ops 3 is the definition of a corridor shooter, putting you in tight spaces with hordes of enemies that you’ll need to mow down in order to progress. Like Advanced Warfare before it though there’s a few extra mechanics thrown into the mix to keep things fresh, most of which come in the form of various powers granted to you by your cyber augments. Also, unlike most Call of Duty games where your load out is specified for you, Black Ops 3 gives you the option to build out your own kit for each mission. You’re even given a briefing panel which allows you to judge which kit would be best for each engagement. Apart from that (and the multiplayer, of course) there’s not much more to say about Black Ops 3 as it really does feel like Advanced Warfare with the trademark Treyarch psychological twist.
The buttery smooth, fast paced FPS combat that’s a hallmark of the Call of Duty series is back once again in Black Ops 3. The additional enhancements you’re given as part of your cybernetic upgrades goes a long way to alleviating some of the issues that plagued previous instalments in this series. Notably this includes things like target highlighting, “danger zones” shown on the floor to give you an idea of what might happen if you go there and the vast array of powers you have to devastate your enemy. However one piece of advice I’ll give is that, if you’re just looking to enjoy the single player, avoid the higher difficulties. Instead of making the enemies tougher it essentially makes you weaker with the hardest difficulty allowing any enemy to one shot you. Sure that does provide some form of challenge but, honestly, it’s just more tedious than anything.
For all its polish though there are still some rough bits in the single player. Quite often enemies will be able to shoot through or glitch through walls which, if you’re playing on anything above normal difficulty, will mean your instant demise. This became painfully clear on the final mission when you’re storming the last building and mechs, flying drones and anything else would just pass through terrain to get to you. I can handle getting nailed by unseen targets, that just means you need to be aware of where they are for next time around, but when you literally can’t do anything to stop them it really does grate on you.
The story retains Treyarch’s signature psychological thriller style, this time around with a sci-fi twist. To begin with it’s interesting as the characters deal with the implications of technology and the enhancements it brings them. Things start to come unstuck a bit as they dive deeper into the (highly predictable) conspiracy aspects of it and it comes completely unglued towards the end when the symbolism gets dialled up to 11. Probably the worst part about it though is that, if you read a couple specific things in game, the whole thing is basically naught anyway. In all honesty it started off strong before it tried to M. Night Shyamalan everything and completely disappeared up its own ass with that one piece of text.
The multiplayer is your mostly standard Call of Duty affair with levels, unlocks and customizations galore. It uses the familiar “choose 10” system, allowing you to create a character that fits your play style perfectly. The biggest change that comes with Black Ops 3 is the inclusion of “specialist” classes which are essentially base character models that come with abilities. These can be either a weapon, which can be incredibly devastating when used right, or an ability which usually gives you a tactical advantage over the enemy. This combined with Call of Duty’s typical huge array of weaponry makes for some incredibly varied combat, something which can be a bit overwhelming when you first start out.
Probably my only gripe is that the levelling is a bit too slow for casual-core players like myself. I’ve played about 4 hours at this point and my main weapon, the Kuda SMG, is no where near unlocking all the mods that I want to use. This means that, for nearly all of my current multiplayer time, I’ve been using the Vanguard starting class since it has a fully customized Kuda as part of the loadout. Treyarch is aware of this and is making up for it by making this weekend a double XP weekend but that feels like a bandaid solution on the problem honestly. Having a rested system or something similar would make the experience a lot better for players like myself as otherwise the longevity of the multiplayer will be severely limited.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III maintains the level of quality we’ve come to expect from the series, adding the Treyarch signature psychological thriller style to the future combat motif that has permeated the last few instalments. The single player is pretty much as you’d expect, maintaining the same fluid FPS experience even if it does overstay its welcome a little bit too long towards the end. The multiplayer, whilst suffering from a rather slow levelling system, is just as good as it ever was. As always the Call of Duty series might not be for everyone but for those of us who enjoy a spectacle, along with a few solid hours of multiplayer fun, then there’s really no other title to turn to right now other than Black Ops III.
Rating: 8.75 / 10
Call of Duty: Black Ops III is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $79, $59, $79, $59 and $79 respectively. Game was played on PC with a total of 43% of the achievements unlocked.
I, like many of my generation, spent far too much of my time in Games Workshop stores as a teenager. I’d go there to gawk that the miniatures, painted in such exquisite detail that I tried and failed to replicate. That was only half of it though, the sense of community among those of us who’d spend as much time as we could at these places was far and above anything else. Thus the rather tumultuous path that the Games Workshop has walked these past few years has been tough as many of us felt they no longer cared about us, their biggest fans. However one good thing has come out all this and that has been Games Workshop’s more generous attitude towards licensing out its IP. The latest such incarnation comes in the form of Warhammer: The End Times: Vermintide, a Left 4 Dead-esque co-op survival game that breathes new life into the genre.
You are a band of warriors in the town of Ubersreik, a city that has been overrun by the Skaven, a race of devilish rat people. With the town in peril everyone has been looking towards you to save them and there are numerous quests you must complete to keep the town safe. Some of these are simple, stopping the Skaven from poisoning the wells or destroying the food stocks, others will require you to climb to the top of massive towers to stop powerful magic from falling into Skaven hands. These will not be easy quests, dear warrior, and you’re likely to face much more than just hordes of rats along the way.
Vermintide comes to us care of the Autodesk Stingray engine, essentially a revamped version of the BitSquid engine that powered titles like Gauntlet and Magicka: Wizard Wars. In terms of capability and performance the engine really does shine, with great visuals that don’t drag your system down when the action heats up. The visual style is also very distinctive, being slightly stylized but still feeling as if it was pulled directly out of the Warhammer universe. Of course there have been some sacrifices in order to ensure performance remains consistent, meaning that some areas do feel a bit barren with little detail, but you’re usually too busy dealing with rats to notice. Considering the rather low asking price for the engine I hope to see more indie titles make use of it and the capabilities it can provide.
As I alluded to earlier Vermintide is a co-op survival game modelled directly on the framework Left 4 Dead so successfully created. You’re a band of four heroes who must make it from the start to the end whilst completing objectives along the way. You’ll be beset on all sides by hordes of Skaven including various special versions which have abilities to disrupt your team and take them out of the fight. Unlike Left 4 Dead however this is not a PVP game, instead Vermintide’s variety comes from the various character classes you can choose, the RPG like levelling and loot system and the rather deep combat mechanics that make the game much more than a simple hack and slasher. Honestly the first hour had me thinking I was simply playing the latest version of Left 4 Dead but once I dug under the surface I was incredibly impressed by the level of complexity that Vermintide has.
Unlike other survival games where melee is a last resort in Vermintide it’s your primary damage dealing mechanism. You still have a ranged weapon, limited by ammunition, but they’re usually reserved for special situations like dealing with special vermin or clearing a path through swarms. This melee focus means you have to be much more aware of what is coming at you, when its attacking and when you should either dodge or block. Sure you can ignore all of that and just go charging in however you’re likely to find yourself running out of health very quickly, something which is at a premium in this game. Indeed we were barely able to finish the first mission on easy by using that tactic and it was only after a more seasoned friend of mine showed us the ways did we start to appreciate just how complex the combat was.
The different character classes have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, all of which you’ll need to take into consideration when crafting your party. Each character class isn’t locked into a specific role either as different items can change the way you play. I was playing the Empire Solider for the most part and could change from a damage dealer/special slayer into a front line tank by equipping a sword and shield. For other classes weapons can change them from single target to AOE focused or impart some insane abilities like arrows that are guaranteed headshots. Suffice to say there’s a lot to keep you coming back to Vermintide over and over again as the loot and character variety ensure that there’s dozens of hours of gameplay to be had.
That’s not to mention the loot system’s ingeniously evil risk vs reward system. Essentially there are various loot bolstering devices hidden around the map and each of them will reduce your ability to survive the rat onslaught. However should you make it all the way through with them you’ll get bonus loot dies at the end. Some of them are innocuous, like taking away your healing slot (but you can just drop the tome and use the healing then pick the tome back up) to others which reduce the entire parties health by 25% permanently. Suddenly a simple run becomes a balancing game of how much loot you can get vs how well you think you can survive.
There’s also a crafting system, allowing you to upgrade, salvage and “forge” better weapons for yourself. The forge is essentially just a dumping ground for all the loot you don’t want as you’ll get, at most, 2 weapons per run (1 from the roll and 1 from a level up) and you’ll need 5 to make it work. Green and higher tier items have upgrades on them which need to be unlocked using certain coloured rocks. Those rocks will come from salvaging other items that you no longer want. Overall it’s a pretty simplistic crafting system but at least it gives you the opportunity to make something of the drops that you’d otherwise get nothing from.
For all its polish though Vermintide still has a couple issues which could do with fixing. The hit detection can get a bit crazy at times, resulting in strange behaviour like pack masters being able to pull players through walls. It works two ways though so sometimes you can get special rats, like the gattling gun one, stuck in a place where they can’t hit you but you can hit them. There’s also some lag induced issues which can cause rats to flit all over the place, fall through the ground or randomly spawn out of no where. I’m assuming this is born out of its P2P hosting nature which means that game sync can get a bit weird if one or more people have a tenuous connection to the host.
Vermintide would be easy to write off as a Left 4 Dead clone but after a couple of hours you quickly realise it’s anything but. Sure the combat and core mechanics are definitely inspired by the grand daddy of this genre but the extra elements that Vermintide has makes it on its own. The character classes and loot system help keep the game fresh, even after you’ve played the same map a dozen times over. The combat retains that same high tension feeling that we all grew to love in Left 4 Dead whilst distinguishing itself with a bunch of Warhammer inspired mechanics. The crafting system and few rough edges are the few let downs of vermintide but it says a lot that those are the only negative things I have to say about it. For those who were let down by Evolve Vermintide could very well be the game that resells you on the genre.
Warhammer: The End Times – Vermintide is available on PC right now for $29.99 and coming Q1 2016 to PlayStation4 and XboxOne. Total play time was 6 hours with 22% of the achievements unlocked.
Last week I wrote about how Blizzard has been working to revamp itself over the past few years with new games that didn’t follow it’s traditional business model. Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm are both wild successes that followed the free to play model and many were wondering when their other titles would follow suit. Indeed it was assumed by everyone that the upcoming team shooter title, Overwatch, was likely going to follow the F2P trend. However at BlizzCon over the weekend Blizzard made the stunning announcement that for the US$40 asking price you’d get access to all the heroes and maps. Plans for future heroes and other content were less clear however and this sent the vocal Internet minority into a tail spin.
There were numerous interviews floating around where Blizzard employees were pressed about the future of the game and what content they could expect. On the subject of heroes they typically stated that there weren’t any current plans and there would definitely not be any additional heroes at launch. This led everyone to speculate that there were plans to release more heroes in the future and that it’d likely be something that players would have to shell out for. This was concerning due to Overwatch’s emphasis on reactive play, switching up your hero class to counter the enemy’s tactics, which would break if some heroes were locked away behind a paywall. Whilst I’ll admit that the last point is accurate it makes an assumption which I don’t believe to be true.
That Blizzard knows exactly where Overwatch is headed.
As I’ve mentioned before, and which has been mostly confirmed by numerous other sources, Overwatch is the bits and pieces that Blizzard was able to salvage from the failed Project Titan MMORPG. The cancellation of that project occurred in September last year and Overwatched was announced only a few months later in November at Blizzcon 2014. Now here we are, 1 year later, and the game has a solid release date and a closed beta that just got started. Essentially Blizzard has gone from having almost nothing to a fully fledged title ready for release in a year so the project is still very much in the nascent stages, especially by Blizzard standards. To think that they’ve got the whole future of the game mapped out is a huge assumption as Blizzard has likely spent the last year getting the functional, let alone thinking about where they want to take it.
When you also consider the fact that this will be Blizzard’s first FPS title you can see why they’d be a little cagey on what their future plans are. They have a wealth of experience in the MMORPG and RTS genres but little beyond that. Whilst they’ve been successful in some of their recent endeavours there’s a trail of failed ideas behind them which never met the light of day. It’s entirely possible that they’ve been so heavily focused on getting the initial game right that the future runway has been left undefined for the time being. One thing Blizzard has shown a talent for (and I’m ignoring some of the larger issues with Hearthstone for this comment, I know) is reacting to how its community plays its games. My money is on the fact that they’re going to wait until after launch to gauge where everything is at and then, at that point, they’ll see how they want to grow Overwatch further.
Even at that point however I sincerely doubt that Blizzard would break the game in the many severe ways that fans are describing now. The auction house debacle of Diablo III taught them a valuable lesson in how breaking core game mechanics ruins the experience for many and I doubt they’ll look to repeat that with a fresh IP. The good news is that Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director, has gone on record stating that Overwatch won’t be adopting a Heroes of the Storm type model. Whilst this has done little to quell the vocal swell it does reaffirm my position and should give everyone hope that Blizzard is committed to the Overwatch business model as it stands today.
Freelancer was a seminal game, one that managed to pull Microsoft Game Studios’ reputation out of the gutter and set the bar for any space based game that would follow it. However instead of a glut of similar titles following it, like what seems to happen to any mildly successful idea these days, there was nothing. The decade that followed was devoid of any titles that could hold a candle to Freelancer, both in raw gameplay terms and story. DarkStar One and Evochron Mercenary came close to replicating the feel but, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, were easily forgotten titles that lacked the staying power that kept Freelancer relevant for so long. Rebel Galaxy then is another attempt to rekindle the magic that once was and, whilst it does a fairly good job at that, it falls short on some key aspects which stop it from achieving the same greatness.
It all starts with a panicked message from your aunt. You need to come meet with her she says, sending you the coordinates of a ship you can use and the place you should head to. You’ve always known that your aunt was some kind of big trader but this is out of character for her. Begrudgingly you climb aboard the relic she’s left you and make your way to the destination. However upon arriving you find she’s not there although there is someone who can help you locate her. So begins your journey in the wild side of this galaxy where you’ll deal with all manner of aliens, scum and villainy in order to track down your aunt.
On first blush you’d be forgiven for thinking that Rebel Galaxy was another Unity as it’s actually powered by a heavily modified version of the OGRE engine, made famous by the Torchlight series. It may seem like an odd choice however Double Damage Games is the brain child of the co-founders of Runic Games who were the developers of that series. In that regard it’s easy to see the visual similarities with bright lighting and visual effects abounding. It’s not going to bring a bleeding edge gaming beast to its knees, nor will it win any awards for being the most pretty game, but it does feel fitting for the type of game that Rebel Galaxy is.
Rebel Galaxy is a space trader and combat sim, drawing influence from all the obvious places. Whilst there’s a campaign to play through, and something that you should probably do on your first time around, you’re basically left to your own devices when it comes to choosing your path. Want to play the spreadsheet game? There’s a full economy simulator in there allowing you to buy and sell your way to riches. That a little dull for you? There’s a whole host of different types of combat missions available for you to pursue. All of these help further the aim of upgrading your ship with better weapons and gear so you can take on ever bigger contracts to make even more money. How the game unfolds is completely up to you, allowing you to become the space cowboy you’ve long dreamed of.
Combat is halfway between Freelancer’s full 3D, 6 DOF style space dogfighting and EVE-Online’s point your ship and things and shoot them on timers style combat. Everything takes place in the same plane (with a couple of exceptions) and you’re likely going to be spending most of your time aiming your broadside canons. You’ll be facing up against enemies ranging from small fighters all the way to large capital ships with devastating arrays of weaponry. For the most part it’s serviceable, even fun when you start to outrank your current enemies firepower, however it falls short of being really satisfying for a couple reasons.
The everything in one plane constraint seems fine at first until you start meeting enemies that are allowed to violate that constraint with reckless abandon. I understand why this choice was made, smaller fighters would just get one shot otherwise, however later on when those fighters start getting capital class items and weapons it feels more like tedium than challenge. Additionally the broadsides are rather finicky about when they’ll switch into precise aiming mode, forcing you to wrangle the camera and fire randomly in an effort to get them to lock on. I can deal with pretty much everything else easily (like making sure you’ve got weaponry to deal with numerous situations) but these two issues took the combat down from “great” to just good.
Trading seems like it can be a worthwhile endeavour according to what many of the users on /r/rebelgalaxy are reporting. There’s a complex event system which drives prices on certain commodities in certain directions so, if you know what does what, there’s potential profits to be made all the time. Trading in single player games has always felt like a waste of time to me however so I really didn’t bother getting into it too much. Still if hauling cargo is your thing then Rebel Galaxy has a complex enough economy system that I’m sure there’s more than enough for you to enjoy here.
Like many open world games whilst there’s lots to do a lot of it becomes very same-y after a short while. Bounties, blockades and all other types of combat missions are largely the same in the way they play out usually requiring you to knock out all the small fighters before taking out the capitals one by one. The smuggling/trading runs are profitable however you should make no attempt to fight as you’ll likely lose due to the insane number of ships they throw at you. Escort missions are like any other escort mission, mostly boring but interspersed with a few moments of combat action. There’s a lot of exploring you can do but, again, the lack of variety makes that a dull prospect. All in all, whilst I can appreciate that this is the kind of thing some people thrive on, I just get bored after a while, preferring to pursue the campaign.
Unfortunately in that regard Rebel Galaxy isn’t anything to write home about, the story feeling really rudimentary and failing to grab me at any point. Whilst everyone is projecting their Firefly ambitions onto the character (spurred on only by the developer’s choice in music, which I did like) the story of your actual character couldn’t be any further from it. Indeed your sudden escalation from nobody to swashbuckler is so fast that it borders on ridiculous, breaking any idea of relatability that your or any other character might have had. If you ignore it to find your own path in the game then all the more power to you but for me, someone who enjoys a well crafted story, I found little to praise in Rebel Galaxy’s story.
Rebel Galaxy is the space sim that many have been waiting for, allowing them to live out their Firefly fantasies out on the edge galaxies. In that regard it delivers much of what is expected of it having all the trimmings that is expected from a game in this genre. The combat is unique however it suffers from a few key problems which quickly turn the challenge into tedium. Its open world nature is likely to appeal to many however the lacklustre campaign left this reviewer wanting. All in all Rebel Galaxy is a solid game, one that’s sure to delight both Freelancer and Firefly fans alike, however it’s not a great game like the ones it seeks to imitate.
Rebel Galaxy is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 14% of the achievements unlocked.
World of Warcraft stands out as an exception in the MMORPG world. Where nearly all other titles have either faltered or drastically altered their business models in order to survive World of Warcraft has remained steadfast to its subscription based system. This has made it the most successful MMORPG ever, making it a multi-billion dollar business all of its own. However its heydays are long behind it, with subscriber numbers slowly dwindling over the years. The more regular release of expansions have helped to keep the number up somewhat but the downward trend was still easily noticeable. Blizzard, obviously aware of this, has decided to stop reporting subscriber numbers altogether after their last quarterly report yesterday.
The last subscriber count pegs World of Warcraft’s player count at about 5.5 million, the lowest it’s been in 10 years. Whilst that number might sound like the first rattles of World of Warcraft’s death knell it’s likely anything but as many long time MMORPGs have survived on much smaller subscription numbers. For Blizzard it does present a challenge as dwindling numbers can often have a runaway effect; reaching a critical point where the majority of the playerbase abandons the title for greener pastures. That point is probably still some time away and indeed if the last subscriber peak (from the last expansion) is repeatable then I see no reason for World of Warcraft to go away any time soon. However the change in what (Activision) Blizzard communicates, as well as their recent purchase of King, is indicative of some of the other issues the company is facing in their attempt to stay relevant.
It was around this time that Blizzard was planning to announce their next MMORPG based on an entirely new IP. This was known internally as Project Titan, a name which got more than a few people fired when it was made public. Unfortunately the game simply didn’t work in the way it was originally envisioned and it was scrapped late last year. Whilst Overwatch may have arisen out of its remnants it meant that many who were looking towards Blizzard’s next MMORPG were left wanting and thus began to look elsewhere. Had project Titan been released around this time the demise of World of Warcraft might have been fully sealed but it would have been a greater win for the company overall.
This has led many to call for World of Warcraft to change their subscription model to be more inline with current trend of switching to free-to-play. To be sure the transition can be made as The Old Republic and other titles have shown however there’s little incentive for Blizzard to do so when their monthly revenue rate is still in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Until they’re really hurting for numbers, and I mean really hurting, such a transition would likely devastate their revenues to the point where World of Warcraft wasn’t sustainable. However I think Activision Blizzard recognises this as a potential possibility and that’s where the acquisition of King comes into play.
King, for those who don’t know, are the developers behind the incredibly successful Candy Crush saga. Activision Blizzard is paying a cool $5.9 billion for the company which isn’t a bad deal if their current profit rate of $127 million per quarter is anything to go by. They are undoubtedly one of the leaders in the free-to-play model and there’s every chance they’re buying them with a view to revamp the business models for some of their products. This isn’t limited to Blizzard titles of course, but the timing of the two announcements certainly makes it feel like they might be related.
This definitely feels like a pivot point for Activision Blizzard as they muse through their options for future growth. There’s definitely a trend for their newer IPs to be done differently to those of the past and how Overwatch is positioned will be strongly telling of how they see game development in the future. Right now it points to a free-to-play future, one that could very well make its way into already established IPs. If any company can make the transition work, and work well, it’s Activision Blizzard but no change of this magnitude is without risk.
Many older games, like those that were built before the time when the Internet was as ubiquitous as it is today, are playable so long as you can figure out how to install them. This can be no small feat in some instances although emulators like DOSbox do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. However for slightly more modern games, especially those that relied on DRM or activation servers in order to work, getting them installed is only half the battle. Quite often those activation servers have long since shut down, leaving you with few options if you want to enjoy an older title. Typically this meant turning to the less than legitimate sources for a cracked version of the main executable, free from the checks that would otherwise prevent it from working. This practice however is now legitimized thanks to a ruling by the Library of Congress spurred on by the Electronic Freedom Foundation.
The ruling allows gamers to circumvent any measures of abandoned games that would prevent “local play” of a copy that they legally purchased. Essentially this means that if a central server is shut down (or made inactive without explanation for 6 months) then you’re free to do whatever you need to in order to resurrect it. Considering so many of us now rely on Steam or other digital distribution platforms this ruling is critical to ensuring that we’ll be able to access our games should the unthinkable happen. It also means that more recent abandonware titles that had central DRM servers can now be legally resurrected. For many of us who still enjoy old games this certainly is a boon although it does come with a couple caveats.
Probably the biggest restriction that the Library of Congress placed on this ruling was that multiplayer services were not covered by this exemption. What that means is that, should a game have a multiplayer component, creating the backend component to support it is still not a legal activity. Additionally should the mechanisms be contained within a console the exemption does not cover modification of said console in order to resurrect the game. Whilst I can understand why circumventing console protections wasn’t included (that’s essentially an open season notice to pirates) the multiplayer one feels like it should have been included. Indeed a lot of games thrived on their multiplayer scene and not being able to bring back that component could very well mean it never gets brought back at all.
The exemptions come as part of the three yearly review that the Library of Congress conducts of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). In the past exemptions have also been granted for things such as jailbreaking phones and the fair use of sampled content from protected media. There’s potential in a future review for the exemptions to be extended which could potentially open up further modification capabilities in order to preserve our access to legally purchased games. However the Entertainment Software Association has been fervent in its defence of both the multiplayer and console modification arguments so it will be a tough fight to win any further exemptions.
These exemptions are good news for all gamers as it means that many more titles will be playable long into the distant future. We might not have the full freedom we need yet but it’s an important first step towards ensuring that the games of our, and future generation’s, time remain playable to all.
In the age of sequels, spin-offs and re-releases we find ourselves in true endings to games are becoming increasingly rare. AAA titles will always have an eye towards a sequel or another instalment, often at the cost of a succinct narrative that ends satisfactorily. Story-first games have gone some way to alleviate this problem, focusing on narrative elements rather than gameplay, however they are still mostly in the minority. More interestingly though are the games which don’t have the Hollywood ending that many have come to expect and are incorrectly labelled as ending poorly. It’s these kinds of games which challenge our preconceived ideas about what it means for something to end well versus it ending nicely.
To illustrate my point I want to show you two examples of games where the ending wasn’t Hollywoodized but one was well executed whilst the other was not (and there will be MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS for both). The first being probably one of the most lamented endings in recent gaming history: Mass Effect 3. The second being one of the more sleeper hits of its time, well known as being a standout IP among story-first gamers: Red Dead Redemption. Both of these games share a commonality in that their ending was tragic, leaving you feel like you were done a great injustice by the eventual outcome, however the former did so in a way that was incongruent to the rest of the story whilst the latter was the bitter conclusion that was built up over the entire game.
Mass Effect’s story, and the effect you could have on it, was the selling point that attracted many gamers to the franchise. You could sculpt Shepard, both literally and figuratively, into the character that you wanted them to be. Decisions you made echoed throughout the whole storyline and you had to bear the weight of their outcomes whether they were what you intended or not. The ultimate (and original, I won’t talk about the DLC’s efforts to remedy the issues) ending however threw all of this away, that burden you carried through the entire game cast aside in favour of an endotron 3000 deus ex machina that asked you to choose one of three possible outcomes. Fans of the series weren’t upset at the fact that the Mass Effect trilogy was coming to an end, we all knew what we were in for from the start, we were upset that so much of what we built up meant nothing in the end.
Shepard was also not built up to be a tragic hero. Sure there are many tough decisions you had to make along the way, many of which resulted in dire consequences, however central to this was the fact that Shepard was able to overcome them all. His untimely end (or weirdly lack thereof for one ending which made little sense) was completely out of line with the character that had been built up to that point. There was every chance to start moulding Shepard for such a fate from the first title, heck even the final instalment had ample opportunity to do so, but the Starchild ending fell flat because it was a round hole solution to the square peg of Shepard.
John Marston, on the other hand, is a tragic hero character who’s incredibly sad story was built up from the opening scene. From the very beginning you know that Marston has a past that he’s trying to escape from but it’s catching up to him faster than he can run. There are moments where you think everything is going to work out, small glimmers of hope that this next thing will set him free, but they all come back around eventually. The entire story is one of struggle against himself, his past and the future he’s trying to build for his family and the sacrifices he needs to make in order for this to happen.
The ultimate ending, one which I replayed several times over in the hopes that there was some way I could overcome the odds, is the end the ultimate conclusion that had been built up over the course of the entire game. It’s not the ending I wanted (as the anger I felt at the end will attest) but it was the ending the story needed. Should they have strayed away from it, instead allowing Marston to live on with his past no longer bearing over him, that would be completely ruin him as a character. I might not have felt great after it happened but it was one of those endings that stuck with me long after the console was off and made me question how I felt about the whole story and not just its conclusion.
As you’ve likely picked up on the crux of what makes an ending good or bad, regardless of what emotional state it leaves you in, is whether or not the story has been built up to service its conclusion. This isn’t something that’s unique to video games either but its something that’s been given new light with the medium. As the medium matures we will increasingly see titles that buck the Hollywood happy ending trend and we’ll have to continually ask ourselves what it means for a game to end well. One thing will remain certain though; the conclusion to a story must be supported by all that preceded it.
For some reason the gaming community has thrived on titles that are, for want of a better word, incredibly brutal. The trend started to take root after the first Dark Souls game which prided itself on not holding the players hand, nor caring if it proved too difficult to be enjoyable. On first look such games were the antithesis to the base ethos of games: that they be fun above all else. However such games, when played well, provide a sense of satisfaction beyond those who are perhaps a little more forgiving. Planetbase is a city building game in this vein, putting you in control of an offworld colony which, if managed incorrectly, will have dire consequences.
You are the invisible hand that will guide these colonists to establishing a viable colony. Upon landing on your planet of choice, with your colony ship full of resources and a handful of aspiring colonists, it’s up to you to give them everything they’ll need to survive. In the beginning their needs are simple, oxygen and water being all you’ll need to make it through the first night, but after that you must find a way to provide them everything they need. Like all closed ecosystems though these things need to be created in balance and should that not be done you will quickly find yourself facing catastrophe. Will you be the leader that leads your colony to success? Or will you become the agent of their destruction?
Planetbase has that Unity-esque feeling that most games developed on the engine have. It’s hard to quantify exactly what it is but like Flash games before them they all seem to share a similar visual style that became something of a trademark. This is especially true for Planetbase which feels like the colonist version of Kerbal Space Program. The simple visual style is partly due to performance reasons, something which could become a concern with larger bases. The visual simplicity also helps a lot with making sure you can keep track of your base layout, something which becomes increasingly difficult as your base grows. Overall, whilst Planetbase won’t win any awards for its graphics, they are far more than sufficient and are perfectly suited to the type of game that it is.
Your goal in Planetbase is simple: you have to build a self-sustaining colony on a new world. As you click your way through the tutorial this seems rather easy, there’s a logical progression to the structures you need to build in order to satisfy the growing needs of your colonists. However once you’re in the real game it’s easy to forget a critical step which leads to the untimely demise of your entire colony (like the above screenshot, taken not 5 minutes into my first game, can attest to). Like all city building games there’s numerous resources that you need to collect, create and manage in order to ensure that everyone in the colony has everything they need. A lack of resources in one place ultimately leads to issues in other areas of your colony and, without proper treatment, life ending consequences. The game may warn you of your impending doom every so often but that can often come too late, the alarm bell serving only to inform you of the inevitable.
Getting through your first night sounds like an easy enough challenge but it’s one that’s incredibly easy to get wrong. Should you fail to build your power array and storage too late you won’t have enough to make it through the night. If you forget to build your water extractor you won’t be able to generate enough oxygen, asphyxiating everyone before they have a chance to build the life saving solution. Thankfully once you’ve figured out these challenges (which are all addressed well enough in the tutorial) surviving the first night becomes child’s play, but the game past that point still provides a significant challenge.
Past the first night your goals turn towards building all the components you’ll need for self sufficiency and that means generating many of the required resources yourself. The first two major ones you’ll need to create are metal and bioplastic which allow you to create all the structures you’ll need. For most players metal is the first roadblock that they’ll encounter as it’s the first thing you run out of and one of the harder ones to produce. There are several strategies to deal with this (and I’ll talk about my approach a bit later) however it’s likely to be the main resource which keeps you back for a long time. Once you’ve got a production line of these two resources going the pace of the game slows down significantly as you look towards planning your future expansions.
Typically the next issue most people run into is food as your colony gains more and more people. What was interesting about this though is how many factors can influence the simple problem of not having enough food for everyone and every single one can mean people start going hungry. Not enough biologists to tend to the plants? They won’t make enough food. Not enough mealmakers in the canteen? People will have to wait for meals and there might not be enough to go around. Didn’t monitor the number of colonists you have? Keeping the landing pad open to colonists constantly might not be the greatest idea as your food production might simply be unable to cope. It took me a good 3 hours to get food working sustainably and even then it wasn’t the most efficient process.
Indeed if you really want to succeed at building a colony then you have to start thinking in much broader terms from the very get go. Whilst the smaller structures are far cheaper and quicker to construct they are by and large incredibly inefficient. The greatest example of this is the biodome with the smallest one only allowing you a third of the number of plants of the largest but costing far more in relative terms. This means that, if building a big colony is your goal, you’ll have judge which buildings to build big right off the bat and which to hold off on. For me it took a good 6 hours of play time before I reached this point and that’s when I was able to finally build a colony that wasn’t always at the brink of disaster.
Once you’ve got that all sorted then the final challenge you’ll face is getting the layout of your base right. Whilst this isn’t as impactful as the other resource challenges I’ve mentioned before it is something you’ll need to consider as your base grows in size. Placement of things like oxygen generators, processing plants and high traffic areas like bunks and canteens can radically impact the efficiency of a single colonist. If you get the layout wrong most of the time it just means progress is a lot slower than it can be but can sometimes lead to base destroying issues. One of the best examples I had of this was having one of my bunkers too far away from an oxygen generator which, when it got full at night when people went to sleep, meant that it ran out of oxygen.
Despite all these challenges though Planetbase managed to grip me in a way that few games have, tapping into that part of my brain that needs to know how this complicated system works so I can exploit it. Indeed whilst it took me 8 hours to reach 100 colonists I barely realised I had spent that much time in it, forgetting myself for hours at a time whilst I watched my little puppets go about their daily lives. There were some frustrating moments of course but they are the kinds of stories these games thrive on, those moments where a lapse in concentration or missing component ends up having unintended consequences. It may not be for everyone (unless a brutal version of Sim City is your cup of tea) but for those of us that thrive on challenges like this it’s definitely worth playing.
Planetbase is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 25% of the achievements unlocked.
We gamers sometimes forget how personal games are for their creators. Often they’re a reflection both the creator’s intent and the creator themselves, especially for games that are created by one person or small independent studios. I think this is partly due to the arms-length relationship most of us have with games due to the developer/publisher ecosystem, something which removes much of the potential for a personal connection. The Beginner’s Guide however is a game that attempts to connect with the player on a very personal level and, I feel, is the developer’s way of working through some of the issues he endured after the success of a previous title.
The Beginner’s Guide is a narrated collection of games from the developer’s friend who’s named Coda. They’re a loose set of quirky titles, many of which defy conventional gaming standards by having things like unsolvable puzzles, areas of grand detail that are completely inaccessible and mechanics that are actively hostile towards the player. The narrator wants to show you these titles because he wants to encourage Coda to start making games again and feels like the only way to do so is to show his craft to the wider world. Whether that will be effective or not is something we might never know, but that might not be the most interesting thing about The Beginner’s Guide.
Graphically The Beginner’s Guide certainly feels like a group of cobbled together games with varying art styles permeating throughout the course of the game. Knowing that it’s built on the Source engine gives you some insight into where the aesthetic is coming from as it does feel like an overgrown set of mods for Half Life. Apart from that there’s not much to speak of in terms of visual aesthetic as the game is much more about the levels themselves, rather than how they look.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Now this is usually the point in the review where I give you an overview of the mechanics and gameplay before I delve into each of them to give you a feel for what you can expect. However with The Beginner’s Guide, whilst there are mechanics which I could discuss, I don’t feel that’s the real point of the game at all. Instead The Beginner’s Guide is a well crafted narrative, told through the medium of games, about how the game’s developer (Davey Wreden of The Stanley Parable fame) struggled with the burden of success. Indeed it becomes very clear towards the end that Coda is a fictional character and these creations that we’re playing through are actually the product of the narrator who is dealing with his issues through the creation of this game.
I’ll admit that for the vast majority of the game I played along, figuring that this was just a quirky set of games that was cobbled together for the fun of it. Indeed there was a part of me that was annoyed at Wreden for doing so, charging me $10 for the privilege of playing games he himself did not create. However towards the end, where it’s revealed that Coda had abandoned Wreden because he simply couldn’t be around him any more, it becomes clear that this is a story of fiction. At that point though the game changed for me, instead of wondering who Coda was and why he left now I wanted to know why Wreden would create something like this. It didn’t take long to find out.
After rifling through numerous discussion threads I eventually landed on his blog, specifically the most recent post which is about The Stanley Parable’s widespread acclaim. In it he details what the success of that game has meant to him and the burden which he feels he carries for everyone who’s played it. Whilst I might not have reached the level of fame and acclaim that he has I can very much relate to the burden that success can bring to you; how success is supposed to negate all feelings of doubt or worry and erase all problems in your life. Indeed success can do quite the opposite, often dredging up issues or exacerbating current ones.
The Beginner’s Guide then serves as a catharsis for all these feelings, an expression of all the mixed feelings that a creator feels when their work is recognised and praised widely. The not-so-subtle hints towards Coda’s creative machine no longer working, the fear of being public, wanting to recluse himself away from society, all these take on new meaning when you realise they’re actually about the developer himself and not the fictional being of Coda. In that regard The Beginner’s Guide is one of the most personal games I’ve ever played and I’m very glad I did.
The Beginner’s Guide is a personal journey, both for the player and the developer. It’s Davey Wreden working through his trials and tribulations that the success of The Stanley Parable brought him and you’re along here for the ride. Indeed The Beginner’s Guide shows how games can be used as a medium to work through things like this, just like more traditional mediums have been in the past. It might not be a game for everyone, especially for those expecting something more along the lines of The Stanley Parable, but it’s a wonderful experience all the same. One that had me playing long after I closed the game down.
The Beginner’s Guide is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 1.5 hours.