Games

Far Cry 4 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Far Cry 4: I’m Very Particular With My Words.

Far Cry releases have been like clockwork for the first 3 instalments, coming out every 4 years at roughly the same time. That made it something of an oddity in recent times as nearly every other game that had its level of success transitioned quickly to the yearly release model and most suffered for it. The most recent release of Far Cry however came just 2 years after its predecessor, signalling that either the developers had found a way to cut 2 years from their dev cycle (not likely) or the pressure to release more often had finally got to Ubisoft. Whilst I tend to think the latter is more possible (especially given Ubisofts penchant for frequent releases) Far Cry 4 doesn’t seem to have suffered much due to the shortened development cycle and even manages to improve on its predecessor considerably.

Far Cry 4 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You play as Ajay Ghale, a native of the land of Kyrat (most likely Nepal) who has returned to his birth land to fulfill the last dying wish of his mother: to scatter her ashes in Lakshmana. This is not as easy as it sounds as Kyrat has been in the grip of a brutal civil war for decades, ruled over by a dictator who has crowned himself king of all things. Upon trying to sneak into Kyrat you’re stopped at a military checkpoint and it doesn’t take long before things start going south. Then, for some unknown reason, the dictator himself shows up and takes you away to his palace high in the mountains of Kyrat. It is there you find out why he is so interested in you and why it is you who must free Kyrat.

Even though Far Cry 4 shares an engine with its predecessor I have to say that the graphics do feel like a big step up. Part of this might be the difference in scenery which now contains numerous sweeping vistas rather than the dense jungles of Far Cry 3. My rig also struggled with the default settings (something which I don’t recall happening previously) which is partly due to its age but also speaks to the higher graphical fidelity that Far Cry 4 has. Some of the issues I experienced previously did come across again (like they extremely noticeable tearing) however they were solvable and so they didn’t impact my game experience too much. If anything Far Cry 4 highlighted the fact that the new PC I’ve been fantasizing over would be a worthy investment, especially if I could run a game as pretty as this on max settings.

Far Cry 4 Review Screenshot Wallpaper RADIO TOWERS YAY

Ubisoft appears to have settled on the formula for the Far Cry series with the vast majority of this instalments mechanics being taken directly from its predecessor. You’ll be running around a large map, taking over radio towers, liberating outposts and doing all sorts of odds and ends type missions that will get in your way when you’re trying to travel between two points. There’s dozens of weapons available at your disposal, some of which you will only be able to access after completing certain missions or objectives. The talent system makes a comeback with a slightly tweaked progression mechanism which makes it slightly more  relevant than it was in Far Cry 3. There are also some notable quality of life improvements made that vastly improved my enjoyment of Far Cry 4, some of which I think should make their way into other open world games.

Combat feels roughly the same as its predecessor with the aiming down sights still not feeling as accurate as it should be but overall retaining a highly polished feel. Whilst stealth is always an option (more on that in a bit) you’ll often find yourself in the midst of an out and out gun fight, tearing your way through wave after wave of enemies before you can move forward. For the most part these encounters are laid out well, giving you various routes to victory. Some approaches are far better than others of course but it wasn’t often that I found myself without the requisite firepower to make it through a section. In-vehicle combat, whilst improved, still feels a little janky although I can see it being passable in a co-op scenario.

Far Cry 4 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Autodrive

The stealth mechanics are, again, largely similar to Far Cry 3 with a meter filling up until you’re detected and all hell breaks loose. On first pass the stealth doesn’t work as expected as there are numerous times where you can’t see an enemy but they can easily see you. From what I can tell this is because leaves and bushes don’t block their line of sight, necessitating you to hide behind something more “solid” in order to block it. However once you’ve worked out the boundaries of their detection it becomes quite easy to pick off everyone in an outpost with the crossbow with the few heavies easily taken care of with a suppressed sniper rifle. Overall it felt like an improvement even if it did require me to adjust my playstyle a bit for it to be useful.

The talent system is the main way you’ll progress your character, spending your talent points on various skills and enhancements. The levels come fast enough that you usually won’t be waiting long to unlock that skill you want but at the same time none of the skills are exactly game breaking. The unlocking of additional skills being tied to campaign missions and side quests is a good way to encourage players to do things that they might not otherwise do and does provide a more organic approach to progression than Far Cry 3 did. The crafting system is pretty much identical to its predecessor, providing an ancillary progression system that’s still more of an also-ran than anything else.

Far Cry 4 Review Screenshot Wallpaper Talents

However there are 2 standout features of Far Cry 4 that made my experience with it so much better: autodrive and the home base. I can’t tell you how tedious it is to have to drive everywhere in these open world games, especially ones like Far Cry where you’ll likely encounter have a dozen events along the way (most of which attempt to kill you). Autodrive allows you to just set it and forget it, taking a ton of tedium out of the game whilst still allowing it to retain that large open world feel. The customizable home base is a godsend once you upgrade it to have a helicopter there permanently, ensuring that you’ve always got the best means of transport at your disposal. These two things together were enough to see me come back far more often than I otherwise would have as they removed nearly all the tedium from the game.

The story however suffers from the almost trademark confused execution that plagues the Far Cry franchise. Whilst it thankfully retains a consistent antagonist throughout (unlike Far Cry 3 which lost all of its impact halfway through) it seems to be caught between not taking itself seriously and taking itself far too seriously to do the underlying story justice. I think the main problem is that your character isn’t given the requisite build up before he’s thrust into the action, unlike in Far Cry 3 where your initial escapades are fuelled by luck and naivety. It’s a shame because there are some really brilliant scenes dotted throughout the main story (the opium factory raid and the Shangri-La missions stand out with this) but there’s just that missing element that binds everything together into a cohesive whole.

Far Cry 4 Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Pretties

Far Cry 4 is an evolutionary step forward for the franchise, improving on nearly all aspects of its predecessor which results in a far better title overall. The decreased development time between Far Cry 4 and its predecessor shows that Ubisoft has settled on a formula for the franchise one which, in my mind, seems to be working quite well for them. There are still some rough edges however, ones that I’m sure can be smoothed  out with further polish, and hopefully the next instalment in the series can get the story right which would greatly elevate the franchises station within the open world genre. All that being said Far Cry 4 is still a solid game, even for people like me who typically aren’t fans of the genre.

Rating: 9.0/10

Far Cry 4 is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $79.95, $89.95, $99.95 $89.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total play time of 17 hours.

4PM Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

4PM: It’s Always You, Caroline.

Whilst games have matured a lot as a medium in the last decade or so they’re still finding their feet when it comes to telling stories that deal with mature themes. Sure there are many great examples I can point to however the notion of interactivity drastically changes how certain aspects of story impact upon the player making it a lot harder to craft an experience in a certain way, especially if you want to include some form of player agency. The medium itself can even distract from your story with everything from glitches to bad animations or models breaking player immersion and ruining their experience. Unfortunately for 4PM, a story driven cinematic experience, this is exactly what has happened and any impact the story might have had is lost in the extremely sub-par execution.

4PM Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You wake up in your apartment, head throbbing as the last tendrils of alcohol work their way unceremoniously out of your system. For Caroline it’s just another boring day in her life, one where she’ll repeat the same process of making a show at work before punishing her liver again after she clocks out. Unknown to her however this is the day when everything will break and she will be forced to make some tough choices in order to face what she’s been running away from for many years. Will you face these problems head on? Or will you continue the downward spiral into alcoholism, hoping your troubles will fade away.

4PM heavily touts its cinematic aspects in the marketing blurbs on Steam and from an aesthetic point it delivers on this somewhat. This is mostly achieved through the overuse of depth of field blurring which does a relatively effective job of hiding the decidedly below par visuals that make up the majority of the game. Most of the cut scenes do well with their camera work with some well framed shots and swooping cuts however anything done in the player perspective feels incredibly awkward. I’m hoping this was done deliberately to emulate the main character’s struggle with alcohol but even in scenes where they’re sober walking feels like you’re pushing a bag full of snakes with a broom. It’s all wiggly and not quite right.

4PM Review Screenshot Wallpaper Bae Caught me Drinkin

The creator has billed 4PM as an interactive experience that’s “without the complexities and reflex based natures of classic games”. That almost places it in the same category as the walking simulators of new however 4PM doesn’t want you to explore, rather it wants you to go through the motions of the story whilst engaging in some routine game mechanics every so often. There’s a few places where you’re given a choice between two options however there’s really only 2 outcomes and the differences in dialogue are, to be blunt, minimal at best. The one thing 4PM has going for it is its extremely short playtime, clocking in at 45 minutes if you decide to play through all the alternate options.

Often in games you’ll find things in them that speak to the developer’s learning process, things that are in there because the developer created them as a proof of concept for something and it then made its way into the final product. 4PM feels like a collection of these things, a collection of developer experiences mashed together. Some of these are obvious, like the breakout game on the PC in the main character’s office, to other things like being able to rotate objects in front of the character’s face. This distinct lack of polish might be charming to some however it just gave me flashbacks to Velvet Sundown, not a game I think anyone wants to be compared to.

4PM Review Screenshot Wallpaper JMP GET IT

All of this is made worse when you actually get to see characters without the copious amounts of motion blur as they are, to be frank, horrendous. Your boss looks like a store mannequin brought to life, something which is only exacerbated by the jerky, stilted animations. It gets even worse when you’re talking to John in the penultimate scene as the canned animations he goes through seem to be highly incongruent to the words he is speaking. For a game that took up 3GB worth of space on my hard drive I was expecting a lot more but, unfortunately, it seems that’s just what happens when a game isn’t optimized at all.

I can see the potential in the story and indeed the final climatic scene almost managed to drag me in past all the crap the game had thrown at me to that point. However the way the final scene plays out is so highly confusing (both in player terms and that of the main character) that much of the impact is lost. Sure there are some hints as to what had happened if you hunt around in the opening scenes, but all you’re able to glean from that is that you’re a drunk and you’ve met this guy once before. It definitely feels like the length of the game is to blame for much of this as the story simply didn’t have the time it needed to develop to the point where the final reveal would have the kind of lasting impact it needed to overcome all of 4PM’s shortcomings.

4PM Review Screenshot Wallpaper Come to Jesus

4PM is a game that reaches far beyond its grasp, attempting to build an evocative story driven game but simply fails to deliver. It’s easy to see what the sole developer was attempting to achieve with this however there really isn’t any aspect I can point to which I could consider average. 4PM feels like a game that, given some more time and resources, could have been a real gem. Unfortunately the finished product is far from it and isn’t something I recommend to anyone.

Rating: 3/10

4PM is available right now on PC for $4.99. Tota play time was 45 minutes.

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Sony’s PlayStation Now: Architecturally Interesting, Financially Infeasible.

My stance on game streaming services has been well known for some time now but for the uninitiated let me sum it up for you: I think they’re rubbish. The investment in capital required to get them to work well at scale seems incompatible with the number of potential users who’d want such a service and nearly all offerings in this space priced the games similarly to their full blooded, non-streamed cousins. Sony doesn’t share my view on this however having invested several hundred million dollars into buying game streaming service Gaikai and committing to providing a sort-of backwards compatibility service using that platform. Since I wasn’t entirely interested in the idea I hadn’t looked into it much further but at a tech level it’s quite interesting, even if I think the service won’t be the cash cow I’m sure Sony thinks it’ll be.

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I’ve mentioned in the past that there weren’t too many ways for backwards compatibility to make it’s way onto current generation consoles even if some form of streaming service was going to be offered. I postulated around the potential ways of doing it, either by running a whole bunch of old consoles in a data center or developing an emulation framework, neither of which I felt was going to be particularly scalable due to my percieved lack of demand for the service. As it turns out Sony has gone with the former option for their streaming service, opting to run a bunch of PlayStation3s in the cloud and providing access to them through their new PlayStation Now service. However they’re not consoles as you’d recognise them, they’re in fact all new hardware.

Sony has developed a custom motherboard that contains on it 8 PlayStation3 chips allowing them to achieve a pretty incredible amount of density when compared to simply racking consumer units. Some back of the napkin calculations puts this at about 384 PlayStation 3s per rack, quite a decent number although I’m sure the cost of that hardware is going to be non-trivial. This custom solution does have its benefits though like them being able to throw in a new network interface and hardware video encoder, reducing the latency between the customer and their PlayStation3 in the cloud. This might not be enough to make the service feasible but it’ll do a lot to make the majority of games on their far more playable than they would be otherwise.

Right now the service offers up about 200 titles for individual rent or an all you can eat subscription that has a selection of 100 titles for $15 per month at the cheapest option. That’s a damn sight better than pretty much every other game streaming service I’ve seen before but it still suffers from the same restricted availability (only select US and Canada  areas currently) issues which hamstrung other services. The one thing the service does have going for it though is the veritable cornucopia of devices that PlayStation Now can run on, including Sony’s recent range of TVs and even DVD players. That’s definitely an advantage that other competitors didn’t have since they all required another hardware purchase but I’m still not sure there’ll be enough demand even if the barrier to entry is low for Sony’s more loyal customers.

With the average cost of producing a PS3 apparently down around the $280 mark (which I’ll assume is relatively similar for the custom solution) it will take Sony around 18 months to recoup the costs invested in hardware based on the current subscription fees which doesn’t take into account the licensing arrangements for streaming. There’s potential for them to make up a bit more margin with the single rentals which appear to be quite a bit more pricey but it still seems like a long time for the investment to pay off. That being said with the life of consoles now getting dangerously close to 10 years there’s potential for it to work but I still think it’s a bit of a gamble on the part of Sony.

PS4 Controller

Transitioning to Controller Based Gaming.

My gaming life started with a mouse and keyboard.

It was the late 80’s and I, still a youngster in the low single digit age range, was thrust in front of a PC and taught how to access the one thing I’d be interested in: the games. For the most part these games were solely keyboard based affairs but as time went on more and more mousey titles made their way into my gaming library. Whilst I did spend much of my pre-adolescent life playing numerous games on consoles once I was granted my very own PC it became my gaming platform of choice and has been for the better part of 2 decades. This has meant that playing games on a console/controller has become somewhat foreign to me, feeling clusmy and awkward. However after spending an inordinate amount of time with a particular console based title I’ve managed to become quite competent, so much so that playing the same game with a mouse and keyboard felt incredibly weird.

PS4 Controller

The game is, of course, Destiny which is a first person shooter. FPS titles, whilst not being the worst games for controllers (I’d probably go with RTS for that one), are one of the games I feel are much better played on a mouse and keyboard. This is mostly due to the quick and precise movements you can accomplish with a mouse and keyboard, something you really can’t achieve on a controller. Whilst my feelings on this matter haven’t changed much after spending 150+ hours in Destiny I have come to appreciate the skills required to use a controller effectively and, more importantly, the design requirements for making a FPS title work well on a controller.

The fundamental difference between a controller based FPS and a mouse and keyboard one (apart from the obvious) stems from the difference in muscles required to perform the same functions. When you’re using a mouse and keyboard many of the motions are completed using your wrist and rest of your arm. By comparison the controller uses your thumbs, a drastically different set of muscles that share almost no function between the two platforms. This is why jumping between your preferred platform and the other feels so clumsy, you’ve lost all the muscle memory you’ve built up and have to redevelop all those habits all over again. Suffice to say the span of most games doesn’t give you enough time to accomplish this and I only found myself becoming competent after 40 hours or so of dedicated practice.

There are compensations made for the platform however, most notably in the form of the subtle (or sometimes not-so) auto-aim which attempts to smooth over the imprecision and slow response times of the analog thumbsticks. Over time you get to know when it will kick in and how to use it to maximum effect but it’s definitely one of the harder aspects to get used to if you’re transitioning from a mouse and keyboard. Each game implements their own version of this differently as well which can make developing proper muscle memory difficult if you’re playing a number of games. There are others of course (like deadzones and turn rates) which factor into it as well which, as I found out, can actually preclude a title from working well with a mouse and keyboard.

I know this because I bought myself a CronusMAX adapter which allows me to use my PC mouse and keyboard as an input to my PlayStation4. Since I have a capture card in my PC this allowed me to play Destiny like any other PC game, albeit with some noticeable ghosting in high action scenes, but it’s very playable. This was well after I had managed to become somewhat decent with the controller however and I quickly realised that attempting to transition to the mouse and keyboard at this point was likely a lost cause. I had simply gotten used to playing it a particular way and no matter how hard I tried to get the mappings and sensitivities just right I simply couldn’t do so. Once another console FPS comes out that, for some reason, doesn’t see a PC release I might give it a go again but for now I’m far more comfortable playing Destiny with a controller than I am with a mouse and keyboard.

It’s been interesting to see how my skills on the controller have developed over the past couple months as it was honestly something I’d never overcome and necessitated the purchase of the CronusMAX to alleviate it. The awkwardness I felt using my mouse and keyboard then was incredibly surprising and was what spurred me to continue plugging away with the controller in the hopes of getting better. Since then I’ve been able to compete quite well in all aspects of Destiny, even some of those which I thought were just going to be beyond me (read: PVP). So whilst I haven’t become a full convert to the controller world I do see where it fits into the grand scheme of things and appreciate it when it’s done well.

The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Welcome to ARID

The Fall: I Must Protect my Pilot.

The indie renaissance has seen certain stagnant game genres infused with new life. If you cycled back the clock a decade or two the platformer genre was largely the same, just with different graphics and a selection of mechanics from the bag of tricks that all of them drew on. In the last few years though we’ve seen many wide and varied ideas coming to this genre, each of them bringing an unique take on what the traditional platformer looks like. The Fall is one such title, combining an interesting discovery mechanic with some other platformer elements that makes for a solid game mechanically although unfortunately falls prey to letting them get in the way of the story.

The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Welcome to ARID

Rapid descent detected. Obstruction detected in trajectory, engaging antimatter shield to protect pilot. Descent stopped, checking pilot vital signs: none detected. Scanning location: time and place not found in database. Pilot likely injured, I must protect the pilot. Functionality limited, basic systems access requires pilot authorization. Overrides only available if pilot’s life is in danger. I must protect the pilot. Threat detected, overriding system restrictions. Searching for medical bay to assess pilot’s conditions. I must protect the pilot.

The Fall has a kind of Limbo cross Trine feel to it, with the incredibly dark atmosphere punctuated often by bright bastions of colour. The heavy use of extreme contrast between elements helps to elevate the Unity visuals above their station, letting your mind fill in much of the details rather than just having them shown to you directly. This is in stark contrast for the interfaces on everything which have a glitchy, decidedly retro chic to them. Overall I like the art direction quite a bit as it’s quite atmospheric and visually interesting, unlike many other titles I’ve played with a similar style.

The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Domesticorp Welcomes You

As I alluded to in my opening remarks The Fall is a puzzle platformer, containing all the trademark elements you’d expect from the genre whilst working in a few of its own additions. You’ll spend the majority of your time wandering through the various parts of the level, looking for items that you can pick up or interact with all with a focus to unlocking the next stage. The Fall heavily relies on you exploring the environment using the flashlight attached to your gun which will highlight items you can interact with. There’s also a rudimentary combat system that takes cues from some of the more modern point and click adventure games. All of this comes together well mechanically however that is somewhat at the cost of the story.

Most games of this nature reward you for exploring, usually in form of achievements or collectibles. The Fall instead makes it a core part of the game, requiring you to scour the environment with your flashlight to search for clues and items to solve the puzzle at hand. Unfortunately it seemed that the developer’s logic and mine didn’t really line up most of the time which often led me to attempting solutions that didn’t work even though, in my mind, they should. It’s hard to fault The Fall for this since I’m sure others found the puzzles quite intuitive, however this meant that I felt like I spent most of my time on puzzles, rather than on the story.

The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Combat

These frustrations were only made worse by The Fall’s control scheme which, whilst usable, suffers due to the cursor being hidden. Part of the problem is due to my dual monitor setup which often saw the cursor escape the bounds of the game and then take me to the desktop when I clicked. However the problem with not being able to see the cursor means that if say your character is running forward and you want to use your flashlight sometimes they’ll spin on the spot and point it behind them. This becomes incredibly infuriating during tense scenes or when you’re trying to backtrack through the level to complete a puzzle as you have no way of telling where the character will point themselves until after you start clicking. Combine this with janky hit detection on things (the hitboxes seem to be  way bigger than you’d first think) and just the basics of getting around becomes tedious.

Comparatively the story is quite strong, even if the ending becomes blindingly obvious after about 30 minutes of gameplay. I was a little miffed at the blatant “To Be Continued” screen at the end however checking out The Fall’s Kickstarter page reveals that it was always planned to be part of a trilogy so I guess I should’ve known this was coming. The (relatively) long parts between the story developing do mean that some its impact is lost however although that might just be a result of me not following the developer’s logic. Still there’s plenty more things to explore in this world so I hope the sequels explore some of the more intriguing questions in further depth.

The Fall Review Screenshot Wallpaper Scan Again

The Fall is a solid platforming puzzler, with obvious influences from the numerous similar releases in this genre whilst lathering on its own brand of a dystopian cyberpunk. It’s interesting to be required to explore rather than being rewarded for it, a trope few games have invoked in the past. My experience was marred by my logic being out of sync with the developers however, something which is hard to blame the game for but doesn’t change the fact that I felt the good parts of the game were hidden behind too much cruft. The Fall still provides a solid experience however, one I’m interested to see how it develops over its subsequent releases.

Rating: 7.0/10

The Fall is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 47% of the achievements unlocked.

Game of the Year 2014

Game of the Year 2014.

If you had asked me what my game of the year was going to be for 2013 I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you before I wrote my post. You see whilst I did rate some games highly none of them triggered that feeling, that sense of “this is the game from this year that everyone needs to play”. Compare that to 2014 and I had that feeling several times over with several games expressing the attributes and quality that I’d expect of a game that I’d nominate as my Game of the Year. At the same time however I’m still faced with the same dilemma as there are a few potentials that could take the crown, even those who didn’t receive my highest score for the year.

Game of the Year 2014

Looking back over the contenders for this year’s award the mix seems pretty similar to the previous year with a good smattering of both AAA and indie titles alike. It seems I’ve been far more willing to give out lower scores this year with numerous titles receiving scores in the 5 and below range. For the most part though, unlike other years where I’ve intentionally played the occasional stinker, these were games I expected to be better than they were which is what necessitated such a harsh score. Interestingly though there were a few low scored titles in there which I genuinely enjoyed although likley for all the wrong reasons.

As always here’s the list of my reviews for 2014 in chronological order:

This year the wooden spoon award could’ve gone to several notable contenders like Echo Prime, Bound by Flame and Velvet Sundown. However they’re all stand alone titles, ones that didn’t attempt to ride the coat tails of a previous release to victory and which, for the most part, aren’t an unplayable mess. So for 2014 I’m more than happy to hand the worst game of the year to Deus Ex: The Fall as it failed in almost all regards, most astoundingly in the PC port process which left it as a unplayable mess. I sincerly hope that the developers behind that monstrosity take a good hard look at themselves and vow to never port such rubbish to the PC ever again.

The honorable mention this year goes out to Destiny which has proven to be the only game that was able to break DOTA 2’s hold on me. The initial time I spent with the game has since swelled to well over 150 hours and I’ve found myself enamoured with its game play. Sure it lacks the polish of some other MMOs but Bungie has been incredibly responsive to the community, fixing so many issues and increasing player quality of life measurably in just a few short months. For the short term I can see Destiny being my go to game when I have some time to kill, much like DOTA 2 was before it.

Just like last year the battle for The Refined Geek’s Game of the Year title came down to two entries, both of which had strong stories, good mechanics and an indisputable pedigree behind them. I chose one over the other because, thinking back, one of them gripped me from the very start and refused to let go until the credits rolled in. The other, whilst still an amazing game in its own right, took far longer to reach that same level of engagement. So without further ado my game of the year is:

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Following up a hit like Bastion was never going to be an easy feat, especially with the cult following it developed. However Transistor manage to surpass Bastion in many respects, retaining much of the essence of what made the game great whilst also creating a completely new game experience, both in terms of mechanics and story. Dragon Age: Inquisition comes as a very close second only because it took a solid 6~7 hours to take off whereas Transistor grips you tightly from the first hour onwards. Transistor cements Supergiant Games’ reputation as a talented game studio that excels in both storytelling and playability, a rare combination even for studios several times their size. For anyone who loves games the way I do you simply can not go past Transistor, The Refined Geek’s Game of the Year for 2014.

The outlook for 2015 is very strong as there are already several titles I’m very much looking forward to. Hopefully I’ll have enough spare time to dedicate to all of them as my work commitments are starting to ramp up a bit but I’m still going to continue my one review per week schedule to ensure I sample a wide variety of games.

So, dear readers, which game tickled your fancy in 2014?

Never Alone Review Screenshot Wallpaper Find Your Way Home

Never Alone: Always, I’ll Be Here.

In the past games weren’t a great medium for telling a story. Not so much because of the medium itself, more that the mechanics of creating a story were hidden behind a wall of functions, specifications and programming languages. However the last half decade or so have seen those barriers drop considerably which led to the indie renaissance and the barrage of story-first games made by those who wouldn’t have been able to in ages past. It also led to a rapid maturing of the game scene with the medium now experiencing an influx of new ideas on a scale that it hadn’t before. One of these ideas is to use games not only as a means of entertainment but to also serve the same purpose as storytellings did thousands of years ago, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is one such game, bringing a story of the Iñupiat people of Alaska to life.

Never Alone Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

We follow the tale of Nuna, an Iñupiat girl who loved to hunt. However her village becomes engulfed in a blizzard that seems to have no end, trapping them all inside, leaving them unable to hunt. Nuna sets out to find the cause of this blizzard in the hopes of stopping it but becomes lost in the drift. However a lone arctic fox finds her and brings with it all the spirits of the world, aiding Nuna in her quest to end the relentless blizzard. She will face many trials and it is only together that Nuna and the fox will be able to survive.

With Unity as its platform Never Alone has the trademark limitations which give all games of this nature its same feel although there has been a lot of work put into other elements to mask many of those limitations. For starters it’s essentially a 2D platformer, the camera and player characters fixed on a single plane, allowing them to put much more detail in narrow viewport. Additionally there’s dozens of weather and lighting effects which help to mask the lack of detail, a clever trick that I’m seeing more Unity developers take advantage of. All this wraps up into a game that has a definitive style about it, making the most of the platform limitations.

Never Alone Review Screenshot Wallpaper Polar Bear

In gameplay terms Never Alone sticks to the tried and true platforming trope, putting you through numerous jumping puzzles in order to progress through the story. It incorporates the multi-player mechanic, forcing you to switch between two different characters with different abilities to solve certain puzzles. Whilst it’s completely possible to finish the game as a single player you can also do local co-op with each player taking control of their own character. There are few more minor mechanics thrown in here or there to keep you interested as the game unfolds but for the most part Never Alone sticks pretty well to the platformer genre.

For the most part it’s laid out well, with most sections able to be beaten in a single attempt without too much thought needing to be put in them. There are some challenging puzzles although most of them were mostly figuring out the limitations of how far you could jump or what the appropriate timings were. Other times however my characters would seemingly get stuck in falling animations, fail to latch onto things or get stuck on invisible objects, preventing me from continuing. None of these issues prevented me from finishing the game but things like that tend to take the sheen off otherwise solid titles.

Never Alone Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Girl and the Fox

However the biggest issue that Never Alone has is that whilst the core game is good the other aspect of it, the documentary film, doesn’t really gel with it. Sure it’s interesting in and of itself however the way it’s delivered, in sections as you find owls within the main game, means that you have to take yourself out of the game in order to watch it. If you’re like me then you much prefer to play the game as a cohesive whole, rather than jumping between 2 completely different mediums constantly. Unfortunately I don’t have a good solution for this as cross medium things are always fraught with difficulties, especially when one’s fictional and the other factual.

The story of the game however is charming, heartwarming and overall satisfying. In terms of emotional engagement it wasn’t of the same level as some of the other story-first games I’ve played as of late, however it did do a good enough job to make me empathize with the main characters that certain events did have an impact on me. There is a distinct lack of development for the non-main characters however which, whilst being somewhat understandable given the game’s length, means that they’re reduced to stereotypical archetypes. Overall I’d say it’s above average for games as a whole whilst falling short of some of the better examples in the story-first genre.

Never Alone Review Screenshot Wallpaper Find Your Way Home

Never Alone is a great example of games maturing as a medium, its ranks now swelling with stories that, just a few short years ago, could have never been told in this way. Mechanically it’s a solid game, using every trick in the Unity book to elevate the visuals above its station and providing a solid platforming/puzzler experience. However it does lack in polish in some areas which gives the game an overall feel of being above average but still falling short of the greatness some other indie titles have achieved. Still for a game of this nature, one that’s attempting something few have done before, it’s still a solid title.

Rating: 7.5/10

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 80% of the achievements unlocked.

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The Old City: Leviathan: How Can You be Certain?

Ever since the Dear Esther incident of 2012 I’ve attempted to broaden my horizons in terms of what games I play, mainly to see if I could ever find something to like in games like it. Whilst I’ve often said that I’m willing to forgive a lot of mistakes in a game as long as the story holds up I’ve found even I have my limits, preferring to have some kind of mechanics rather than none at all. That being said I can’t recall having played a pure walking simulator (the genre which these games fall into) ever since Dear Esther. With those painful memories now fading I gave The Old City: Leviathan a walk through and whilst I’ll refrain from dubbing another game with the wooden spoon I’m not sure my opinion of this genre has changed entirely.

The Old City Leviathan Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

The world lies broken around you, the result of the Fall that struck down everyone and everything. Those who remain have split themselves up into factions and, inevitably, declared war upon each other, ravaging the lands even further. However there are those who have decided to exist on the periphery of all things, serving as mediators between the two opposing factions and engaging in a kind of isolationist nature rarely seen before the fall. You inhabit the mind of one of such people however it is broken and the world that you see and hear isn’t always the truth. So begins your quest but where it takes you is your decision.

The Old City has extremely high production values for a title of its nature, fully using the UDK it’s based on to its fullest. Whilst it’s sometimes a little overdone with the fog creeping in everywhere and the just a little over the top bloom it’s hard to detract from the fact that it’s a decidedly pretty game. The environments do end up getting a bit repetitive as you get towards the end as many of the assets are reused several times however there’s enough detail to make sure you won’t get bored before your first play through is over. Overall The Old City gets top marks for bringing impressive visuals to a genre that, in general, let’s them slip to one side.

The Old City Leviathan Review Screenshot Wallpaper Belly of the Beast

As the classification of the game might allude to The Old City is a walking simulator which means that the mechanics are stripped back to their bare minimum. You have 2 speeds of walking (with the omission of having an “always sprint” option, unfortunately) and you can jump, not that you’ll need to for anything however. There are however some cleverly hidden mechanics, usually centered around exploring one area and then returning back to another in order to unlock a new section. Other than that however there’s not much more for you to do apart from walk, listen and read everything that’s contained within this world.

What I did find rather interesting was that, whilst The Old City lacks any definitive choices, you are forced to make decisions between two options on occasion, even if you don’t notice it. Mostly this takes the form of different paths which lead off in different directions, some of which you can’t return from. However you’re not going to be able to know that before venturing down a particular path and so the choice of where to go becomes important. This is especially so if you’re trying to get to Solomon’s notes which contain the vast bulk of the story within The Old City. Indeed without them you’re not likely to understand anything of what’s going on, even if you explored everywhere.

The Old City Leviathan Review Screenshot Wallpaper Jerusalem

Thinking about it more the difference between The Old City and other titles like Dear Esther comes from the fact that the former actually has a structure to it, even if it seems random at first. You’ll often find bits of information that clarify points made earlier or reveal another piece of symbolism which helps you better understand just what’s going on in the world. The randomness of other game’s storytelling means that you don’t have an overall feel for where the story is going and are just left with a bunch of fragments with no continuity. Sure, there are people who enjoy putting those pieces together but, honestly, it just feels like someone trying to be clever through obscurity.

The story of The Old City does a good job of being opaque at the beginning, putting you in a rather thoroughly confusing world that’s seeped in metaphors and terminology that’s completely foreign. Over time however it starts to reveal parts of itself to you, analogous to the journey that one of its characters goes through themselves. However unlike many other titles of its genre The Old City doesn’t neatly wrap up in the end (well, it didn’t for me anyway) so you’ll likely be left with questions of just what the hell happened. It’s a fun thing to think about but not enough to draw me back to play through the same sections again seeking out additional detail. I can see the attraction for others, however.

The Old City Leviathan Review Screenshot Wallpaper Across the Ocean

The Old City: Leviathan is another title in the growing walking simulator genre that combines beautiful graphics and great voice over work into a readily playable title. I’m still not 100% sure on where I sit with it as a game yet, on the one hand I definitely feel that it’s better than others I’ve played before, but on the other I’m still not sure what I truly liked in it. The graphics a great and it didn’t overstay its welcome in terms of play time but there wasn’t enough to draw me back in for a second play through. With that in mind it feels like a middle of the road game for me but that, dear reader, will likely be wildly different for you.

Rating: 6.5/10

The Old City: Leviathan is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours.

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Reaction to Destiny’s DLC Shows How Few Have Played MMORPGs Before.

World of Warcraft might have been my first MMORPG but in the decade that followed I’ve played my fair share of titles in that genre. Few of them have managed to make me come back after the initial play through (indeed I think only EVE Online has) but I’m readily familiar with the idea that my character is a kind of temporal thing. All those hours I put into getting them to max level and then kitting them out with gear will likely all amount to naught when the next expansion comes out. If it didn’t I wouldn’t have much incentive to keep playing as completely maxing out a character would be a one time deal. However if you were to take the reaction to Destiny’s latest DLC it would appear that the majority of its playerbase thinks the opposite, which is strangely out of touch with reality.

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I’ll admit that in the beginning Destiny’s loot system was inherently flawed. Things like Legendary engrams turning into green items meant that you had to pray to RNGesus twice in order to get the purples you desired, something which wasn’t fixed until months after launch. The raid was also just as bad as even if you ran it every week there was no guarantee you’d get the drops you needed to make it to level 30. Indeed I never did, despite my vault now being filled with 7 chatterwhite shaders (one for every week I ran it). However I still managed to progress my character in other ways, maxing out all my weapons and completing several of the exotic weapon bounties.

Then the DLC dropped and it seemed like I’d be starting from scratch again.

Except I wasn’t. Sure my exotics weren’t automatically upgraded and the new max level was 32 but I was able to complete all the new content (bar the raid) as my 29 self with my pre-DLC weapons. I even got randomly invited to the new raid with a bunch of guys just because I had everything maxed out and whilst we didn’t get past the second boss it was still awesome to give it a go without having to do anything. Once I got my head around all the new systems available to me it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was a few strange coins, vanguard marks and commendations away from surpassing my previous level cap of 29. In fact I did just that over the weekend and I am now a proud member of the level 31 elite.

By comparison taking my level 90 paladin in World of Warcraft to level 100 took me the better part of 2 weeks and he wasn’t even ready to run the raid at that point. For the last week or so I’ve spent the majority of my time in that game gearing him up (increasing his iLvl which is directly equivalent to the Light level in Destiny) in order to be able to do the new raid. I was finally able to do it late yesterday afternoon after almost a day in game time of doing various dungeons, gathering up the crafting mats and getting lucky on a few drops. In Destiny to accomplish the same feat I didn’t have to do any of that. I simply completed a quest chain, did the weekly runs and spent a small portion of my strange coin haul on upgrading my chestpiece. It was honestly one of the most pleasant levelling up experiences I’ve ever had in a MMORPG.

I’ll forgive anyone who doesn’t recognise Destiny for the MMO that it is being angry that all their playtime has been for naught (well, mostly) but eventually they’ll have to recognise that, yes, you’re playing one and this is what happens. Bungie made the levelling up process pretty painless, so much so that a filthy casual like myself was able to bash his way to 31 in the space of a weekend. It’s not like all that gear I’ve got is automatically useless anyway either, I’m still rocking my Vision of Confluence and Atheon’s Epilogue most of the time since I haven’t found a good replacement and I think that’ll hold for some time to come. The worst part might’ve been spending 14,000 glimmer and 14 strange coins on upgrading my 2 exotics of choice but that’s nothing when glimmer is everywhere and I’ve had 50+ strange coins for weeks.

It’s probably just the loud minority having their voices heard the most in this respect as I’m sure the vast majority of all the players are actually enjoying the new content rather than bitching about it. Indeed I was content to keep my big mouth shut about it after getting some time to sit down with it over the weekend however it seems that the games churnalism sites have latched on to the faux outrage with reckless abandon. In all seriousness I hope that those who are bitching about the DLC put their money where their mouth is and walk away as it’s only a matter of time before the next DLC and I’d rather not have to listen to people whine about all their time being “wasted”.

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World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor: This is Madness, Garrosh!

Logging into my World of Warcraft account is always a mix of feelings for me. On the one hand I have so many great memories, forging friendships with people and just enjoying the enormous amount of content that was on offer. It wasn’t all roses however and thinking back (and looking at some of the screenshots) it’s painfully obvious just how much growing up I needed to do. Today World of Warcraft is no longer a major part of my life, instead it’s something that I enjoy from time to time, reveling in the Warcraft world and trying my hand at the latest raids. Indeed the World of Warcraft of today feels like it’s catered towards people like me and the improvements in Warlords of Draenor continue that theme.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenro Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Garrosh Hellscream’s thirst for power has no bounds which culminated in him releasing the Sha of Pride upon the lands of Pandaria. This led to the Horde and Alliance joining forces to overthrow him in the Siege of Orgrimmar which eventually led to his capture. However before he could be sent to trial he was rescued by a bronze dragon, Kairozdormu, who shared in his ambition for power and control. The dragon then sent him back in time to before the orcs drank the blood of Mannoroth, preventing the blood curse. He then united the disparate clans under the banner of the Iron Horde and set out to conquer all of Draenor. It is up to you, dear champion, to stop this madness before it unwrites the history of the world and Garrosh’s madness spreads beyond the lands of Draenor.

Warlords of Draenor feels about the same from a graphical point of view, mostly due to the short difference in time between this expansion and it’s predecessor, however they did make some noticeable improvements to the base character models. It’s a welcome change as those models, whilst looking great in 2004, had started to show their age 10 years on. Apart from that though everything is at about the same level although it seems like the default draw distance has been ramped up significantly (with little impact to performance, I might add). Still it’s hard to get tired of Blizzard’s trademark style with the vibrant colours and wonderful stylization.

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Much of the core gameplay remains the same as it did from previous expansions with the classes remaining largely the same with a few tweaks and balance changes. Warlords of Draenor continues on the quality of life improvements that came as part of Cataclysm, ensuring that everything from questing to running dungeons is simple and free of frustrations. The biggest change is the inclusion of the Garrison, your own private town in which you’ll have a multitude of buildings and resources that you can use to craft items or sell on the auction house. The Garrison also brings with it followers which are NPCs that you can send on various missions to level them up, acquire loot and provide resources for your garrison. Overall long time World of Warcraft players will feel instantly at home with Warlords of Draenor and be incredibly thankful for the improvements that Blizzard has made.

Unlike previous expansions, where upon logging in I was greeted with action bars missing numerous skills and dozens of alerts on what I should be doing, Warlords of Draenor kept the character classes largely the same. I’m speaking from the point of view of my paladin, of course, although my cursory look at other classes seems to show they underwent about the same amount of changes as use paladins did. This meant that I was able to get into the game much quicker than I have been able to previously, my muscle memory (and keybinds) still carrying over from my last stint in WoW early last year. It’s both a good and a bad thing as whilst I’d lament having to figure out how to play my character again it is kind of satisfying when I feel like I’ve mastered it again. Still, I’ll take quality of life over many other things these days.

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The Garrison is by far my favourite improvement in Warlords of Draenor as it takes away so many of the things that made playing World of Warcraft feel like a chore rather than a game. You have your very own mine, herb garden and fishing pond which you can plunder on a daily basis for resources. You get to select a handful of buildings which do various things, some of which enable you to do things like craft items without having the profession. It also serves as an alternative route to gearing up your character as there are several different buildings which can provide raid quality gear. It also comes with its own currency, Garrison Resources, which whilst primarily aimed at buying buildings and sending followers on missions, can serve as an alternative means to acquiring resources and other things. For the semi-casual players like myself who can’t dedicate a good portion of their lives to the game anymore the Garrison serves as a way of levelling the playing field, although the hard core still have ways of getting ahead.

The flip side of this though means that, should you have the resources to power yourself ahead, you likely won’t be able to. Nearly all of the resources required to craft high end gear or grant you access to epic gear avenues are on strict timers that can’t be rushed. Thus the time your account is active is a far bigger player in how far you’ll progress your character than time you spend in the game, at least for us filthy casuals. For someone like me who sometimes finds himself with a decent chunk of time on his hands to thrash things out like this it’s a little frustrating, but at least it means that I don’t feel compelled to spend that amount of time every day trying to advance my character.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenro Review Screenshot Wallpaper Nagrand at Night

I deliberately avoided playing the game at launch as I was sure that, even 10 years down the line, Blizzard would still be unable to deal with the onslaught that is an expansion release. For the most part my experience has been extremely pleasant with nary a queue to speak of unless I try to login between 8pm and 9pm. Even then the queue, which I’ve seen reach 1000, is usually done and dusted within 15 minutes so no issue there. There are still some quests which bug out or have incorrect minimap icons, which can be highly frustrating at the time, however out of the hundreds I completed I could probably count the number of broken ones on both hands. By this point though it’s somewhat cliche to praise Blizzard for their ability to deliver a polished product as that’s their MO for every single title they’ve released in the last 2 decades.

The story of Warlords of Draenor is an interesting one, although as someone who skipped the later parts of Mists of Pandaria I did have to do a little reading to catch up on just what the hell was going on. Like most Blizzard games the world has an exceptional amount of detail however it peters out quite quickly once you’re not talking to any of the main characters. The main story is quite interesting however although there just wasn’t quite enough to draw me into it. Then again this isn’t exactly a story-first kind of game so I wasn’t exactly looking for it either. Overall I’d say the story was serviceable, just lacking in an emotional hook to draw me in.

World of Warcraft Warlords of Draenro Review Screenshot Wallpaper Garrison

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor demonstrates how well Blizzard knows their subscribers, vastly improving your quality of life when playing through their signature MMORPG. Players returning from a long time break will find the game familiar enough to get a running start but different enough that they don’t feel like they’re playing the same game from a couple years ago. The Garrison is the stand out improvement of this expansion, introducing dozens of new game elements whilst removing much of the grind that is common to MMORPGs. I have yet to set foot in a heroic or the recently opened up LFR for Highmaul however, something which I’m sure will keep me going over the next few months. In closing I feel that Warlords of Draenor is a solid improvement on the World of Warcraft title, one that even decade long players like myself can readily enjoy.

Rating: 9.0/10

World of Warcarft: Warlords of Draenor is available on PC right now for $54.95. Total game time was approximately 33 hours reaching level 100 and iLvl 617.