I was never particularly good at RTS games, mostly because I never dug deep into the mechanics or got involved in higher level strategies that would have enabled me to progress my sills. However I found a lot of joy in the custom maps that many RTS games had and this was especially so for WarCraft 3. Inbetween my bouts of Elemental Tower Defense, Footman Frenzy and X Hero Siege I inevitably came across Defense of the Ancients and like many others became hooked on it. Whilst I still favoured the less directly competitive maps, much preferring the spam fest that other customs offered, the original laid the foundation for my current obsession with DOTA2 a game which has claimed almost 1400 hours of my life so far.
However DOTA2 wasn’t my first reintroduction into the MOBA scene, that honour goes to Heroes of Newerth which I was somewhat intrigued by whilst it was still in beta. I had a small cadre of friends who liked to play it as well but for some reason it just wasn’t enough to keep us interested and eventually fell by the wayside. The same crew and I had tried League of Legends as well but the experience was just too far away from the DOTA we knew and after a couple games our attention was turned elsewhere. If I’m honest though we were mostly excited to hear about Blizzard’s own version of the MOBA genre as that was one of the reasons that WarCraft 3 DOTA was so enjoyable: it had many of the characters we knew and loved.
It was looking like Blizzard DOTA and DOTA2 were going to launch around similar times and indeed once Valve officially announced DOTA2, with the original map maker IceFrog at the helm, news of the work on Blizzard DOTA went silent. Whilst this was partially due to the court battle that Blizzard and Valve became embroiled in afterwards there was little doubt among the community that Blizzard’s original vision for their MOBA title was going to clash heavily with that of Valve and the work we had seen up until that date was to be scrapped. What was less clear however was what they were working on instead as whilst no one doubts the calibre of Blizzard’s work they were going up against 3 already highly polished products, all of which had dedicated communities behind them.
Well it seems that Blizzard has done something completely out of left field, and it looks awesome.
Heroes of the Storm is the final name of Blizzard’s entrance into the MOBA genre (although they’re hesitating to use that term currently) and whilst it shares some base characteristics with other titles it’s really something out of left field. For starters the typical game is slated to last only 20 minutes, something which is a downright rarity in any other MOBA title. Additionally some of the signature mechanics, like individual hero levels and items, don’t exist in the Heroes of the Storm world. It also has different maps, various mechanics for helping a team achieve victory and a talent tree system for heroes that’s unlike any other MOBA I’ve played before. The differences are so vast that I’d recommend you take a look at this post on Wowhead as it goes into the real nitty gritty of what makes it so unique.
From what I’ve seen it looks like Blizzard is aiming Heroes of the Storm primarily at people who aren’t currently MOBA players as it seems like the barrier to entry on this is quite low. Traditionally this is what has turned people off playing such titles as the learning curve is quite steep and quite frankly the communities have never been too welcoming to newer players. Heroes of the Storm on the other hand could be played 3 times in the space of an hour allowing new players to get up to speed much more quickly. At the same time though I think it will appeal to current MOBA players seeking a different experience, whether they’re feeling burn out on their title of choice or just want something different every once in a while.
I’m quite keen to get my hands on it (I’ve signed up for the beta, here) as I think it’ll be quite a bit of fun, especially with my current group of friends who’ve all taken to DOTA2 with fervour. It’s great to hear that it’s going to be a stand alone title rather than a map within StarCraft 2 and I think that will give Blizzard a lot of freedom with developing the idea in the future. Whether or not it can have the same longevity through a competitive scene like all MOBA titles before it thought will remain to be seen but I get the feeling it’ll be something of a LAN favourite for a while to come.
The advent of cloud computing, or more generally the commoditization of computer infrastructure, has provided us with capabilities that few could have accurately predicted. Indeed the explosive growth in the high tech sector can be substantially attributed to the fact that businesses now do not require heavy capital injections in order to validate their ideas, allowing many ideas which wouldn’t have been viable 5 years ago to flourish today. Of course this has also led to everyone seeking to apply the ideals of cloud computing wherever they can, hoping it can be the panacea to their ills. One such place is in the world of gaming and in all honesty the ways in which its being used is at best misguided with most solutions opening us up to a world of hurt not too far down the track.
I’ve gone on record saying that I don’t believe the general idea of Cloud Gaming, whereby a service runs hardware in a central location and users connect to it with a streaming device, isn’t viable. The problem comes from the requirements placed on that infrastructure, specifically the requirement for a low latency which means a user can’t be too far away from the equipment. That would mean that for it to have global reach it would likely need some kind of hardware in all capital cities which would be a rather capital intensive exercise. At the same time the consolidation ratios for gaming level hardware aren’t particularly great at the moment, although that may change in the future with both NVIDIA and AMD working on cloud GPU solutions. Still the fact that OnLive, a once $1 billion company, failed to make the idea feasible says a lot about it.
That hasn’t stopped companies from attempting to integrate the cloud through other avenues something which I’ve come to call Cloud Enhanced gaming. This is where a game can offload less latency sensitive aspects of the game to servers elsewhere so they can do the calculations, sending the results back down the wire. In theory this allows you to make your game better as you don’t have to worry about the limitations of the platform you’re running on, using more of that local grunt for pretty graphics while all the grunt work is done offsite. The latest entrant into this arena is Square-Enix’s Project Flare which they’re marketing as a technological breakthrough in cloud gaming.
On the surface it sounds like a great idea; consoles would no longer suffer from their hardware limitations and thus would remain viable for much longer than they have in the past. Indeed for a developer that’s looking to do something that’s outside of a consoles capabilities offloading processing into the cloud would seem to be the only way to accomplish it should they want to use a specific platform over the alternatives. However doing so binds that game to that backend infrastructure which means that the game’s life is only as long as the servers that power it. Considering the numerous examples we’ve had recently of game servers and services disappearing (including the infamous Games for Windows Live) the effect of turning off an integral part of the game would be far worse and likely without an easy path for remediation.
The reason why this would be such a big issue is that when compared to traditional game server infrastructure the requirements for a cloud enhanced game are much, much greater. You can happily run dozens of virtual servers that service thousands of clients from a single dedicated box, however try and run physics calculations (like in one of the Project Flare demos) and the number of people you can service per server drops dramatically. This means the time in which those servers remain fiscally viable is dramatically reduced and it’s far more likely that the service will cease to exist much sooner than other game servers would. Moore’s Law goes a little way to remedy this but you can’t really get past the fact that the consolidation ratios achievable with this are a couple of orders of magnitude lower than what developers have traditionally come to expect.
This is not to mention how the system will handle poor Internet connections or overloaded servers, something which is guaranteed to happen with more popular titles. Whilst its not an unsolvable problem it’s definitely something that will lead to sub-par gaming experiences as the two most likely systems (stopping the game to wait for the calculations to arrive or simply not simulating them at all) will be anything but seamless. I’m sure it could be improved over time however the way this is marketed makes it sound like they want to do a lot of computation elsewhere so the console graphics can be a lot prettier leaving not a whole lot of wiggle room when the inevitable happens.
Whilst this idea is far more feasible than running the entire game environment on a server it’s still a long way from being a viable service. It’s commendable that Square-Enix are looking for ways to make their games better, removing restrictions of the platforms that the majority have chosen, however I can’t help but feel it’s going to come around to bite them, and by extension us, in the ass in the not too distant future. As always I’d love to be proven wrong on this but the fact is that farming out core game calculations means that the game’s life is tied to that service and once it’s gone there’s nothing you can do to restore it.
I remember sitting in one of my university classes, it was Game Programming Techniques which I was giddy with excitement to be in, and being proposed a simple yet poignant question: how many of you have tried to code a game? The room was filled with students who had spent much of their past few years at university coding but out of the dozens of people there only a few raised their hands. The answer as to why was the same for all of us, we simply did not know how to go about it. Fast forward to today and thanks to tools like GameMaker and Unity it’s possible for anyone, even non-coders, to be able to create a production quality title. Lilly Looking Through is a great example of how these tools enable people to create, without the necessary background in flipping bits.
Lilly is just like any other ordinary kid, letting her curiosity run wild as she ventures around her own little world. One day though something strange catches her eye, a piece of cloth that appears to move with a life of its own. However she can never seem to get close to it, the devious strip of cloth always flitting away at the last possible second. Then suddenly the cloth seemingly takes a dark turn, snatching up Lilly’s brother Ro and whisking him away faster than Lilly can run. What follows is Lilly’s journey to get her brother back, taking her through all sorts of wonderful and whimsical worlds.
Lilly Looking Through has a decidedly Dinsey-esque feeling about it, with the backgrounds all being lovingly hand drawn. It reminded me of the many similar types of games I used to play as a kid like The Magic School Bus and Mario is Missing, albeit with the additional twist of all the animation being done using 3D models. The developers behind Lilly Looking Through should be commended for blending the two elements seamlessly as traditionally it’s usually very obvious where the distinction lies, something that I find quite distracting. The background music is also quite enjoyable, being a great backdrop to the sumptuous visuals.
At its core Lilly Looking Through is a 2.5D point and click adventure game albeit without the usual trimmings of an inventory system and the requisite try this item with every other item to see if you can progress. This is quite typical of the indie scene where general mechanics are left to one side in favour of other things and, in all honesty, it’s refreshing to play a game that doesn’t have a cornucopia of things to do in it. Thus the majority of your time in Lilly Looking Through will be spent solving puzzles and drinking in the scenery you find yourself in.
The one twist in Lilly Looking Through’s puzzle mechanics is the use of her goggles you pick up early in the game. These allow you to switch between two different times in the same world, allowing you to accomplish things that would otherwise be impossible. It’s by no means an unique or innovative mechanic but it does do its job well by making you think about how to use the two different worlds effectively. The rest of the puzzles build off this mechanic, playing on the notion of time passing and setting up things accordingly.
For the most part the puzzles are challenging, encouraging you to look at the scenery around you and figure out how everything interacts in order to unlock the next section. Indeed my favourite puzzle of the lot (shown below) required you to initially play around to figure out what everything did and only then could you approach it scientifically. However the puzzles that rely on understanding colour theory are, to be blunt, unintuitive and just frustrating. I have a basic understanding of how colours mix together but I know that there’s a major difference between mixing paint and mixing light and trying to figure it out intuitively just doesn’t work. It would be ok if this was just a single puzzle but the last few all rely on the colour mixing mechanic.
The story is also pretty simplistic and whilst I’m not adverse to an absence of dialogue (indeed games like Kairo are a powerful experience) it did feel somewhat hollow. I think much of this stems from the fact that Lilly Looking Through is heavily focused on the visual aspect of the game, and in that respect it does well, however it’s just not enough to carry the game on its own. Don’t get me wrong I think it’s still a great little story, especially if I’m guessing right in that their target demographic tend towards the younger generation, but it really is the bare minimum to keep it moving forward.
Lilly Looking Through is a gorgeous little game, one that rewards the player for being inquisitive with a visual display that is quite impressive. The early puzzle mechanics are fun and enjoyable however the later stages that assume some knowledge of colour theory unfortunately let it down, leading to a frustrating experience that feels more like luck than anything else. Still I think it’s a great little game, one that is probably best played by your youngest relative while you watch from the sidelines.
Lilly Looking Through is available on PC and iOS right now for $9.99. Game was played on the PC with around 2 hours total play time.
In today’s games market there seems to be something of an arms race going on, one whereby every developer attempts to distinguish themselves from the crowd through unique game mechanics or structure. Original ideas are then quickly copied, modified or parodied and many eventually find their way into mainstream titles due to the amount of success they find. However for a game like The Stanley Parable I get the feeling we won’t be seeing much of it’s ideas flow onto other games, not because they’re bad, more because they just wouldn’t make sense anywhere else. This nonsensical nature is the driving force behind The Stanley Parable and it’s probably one of the most odd experiences I’ve ever had.
Stanley was an ordinary man working for an ordinary company. He loved his job, spending day after day in front of his computer, watching the screen and pressing the buttons when he was instructed to. However one day the screen goes blank and after staring at the screen for what seemed like forever Stanley decided he’d better find out what was going on. All of his co-workers were gone though leaving Stanley alone to roam the office, searching for what had happened to them all. Curiously though all the while a voice played inside his head, seemingly giving him a running commentary or what was going on. Should he do as the voice says or is this just the beginnings of his descent into madness?
The Stanley Parable started originally started out as a mod for the Source engine and thus the graphics and art style have that distinct Half Life-y feel about them. They’re decidedly simple and the vast majority of the world is non-interactive which is done primarily to shift your focus onto the storytelling and decision making aspects of The Stanley Parable. It’s pretty much what I’ve come to expect from indie first person explorers so I don’t necessarily count it as a negative but I am something of an eye candy otaku so graphics are always a big thing to me. To be fair the setting of an office is pretty hard to make visually appealing though.
From a gameplay perspective The Stanley Parable is best described as a first person exploration game although applying that label to it feels like its not doing the title enough justice. Really it’s more of an experimental title that uses exploration as a mechanic to explore various ideals from some of the current gaming trends to larger questions of free will. The entirety of it is narrated by a charming British voice (courtesy of Kevan Brighting) which tells you which path to take. You can do this of course and the story that evolves is quite an interesting one, but it’s far more likely that curiosity will get the better of you and that’s where things start to get interesting.
You see The Stanley Parable is a game that relies on you attempting to break it in any way possible, from disobeying the narrator to attempting to do things that would appear to be not intended by the developer. The results of these adventures can range from the mundane, where you just see another part of the world on your way to another, to the weird or down right inexplicable. The most priceless thing about it though is how the narrator reacts to your decision to disobey him as sometimes he will just respond with mild annoyance and other times with outright maliciousness.
The story then starts to revolve around a weird cacophony of interactions, sometimes between Stanley and the narrator and at other times between you and the narrator with Stanley just acting as a vessel between you. If you’re not a fan of the fourth wall being broken down then The Stanley Parable will likely irritate you as there are many moments when the narrator will address you directly and a lot of commentary comes from the idea that you, an unknown entity, is in control of the character in the game. It can seem a little trite at times but the ideas and criticisms that the narrator goes through are quite through provoking, especially upon reflection.
I’d love to dive into more detail about how the various bits and pieces of the game plays out but to do so would ultimately ruin it for you. The way in which various endings are unlocked, how some of the mechanics work and how the narrator reacts to you are all part of the larger narrative to explore themes that are much larger than the game itself. It’s not a particularly long game and most of the endings are easily uncovered by simply being slightly curious about the environment so this is one of those titles that you just have to experience for yourself, rather than have a reviewer explain it to you.
The Stanley Parable is a curiosity, one that is so far away from any other game experience that it begs to be played by those who are seeking novelty in an increasingly homogeneous medium. It’s somewhat unfortunate that my review can best be summed up as “You need to play this and I can’t explain why” as I’d love to dive into a critique about its many aspects but to do so would take away the reasons as to why it is so enjoyable. It may be a short experience but it’s refined to its core, enabling the player to focus on the points that really matters and to get immersed in the strange and wonderful ways The Stanley Parable plays on your expectations.
The Stanley Parable is available on PC right now for $15. Total game time was approximately 2.5 hours with 60% of the achievements unlocked.
Before Heavy Rain you’d struggle to find anyone who knew about Quantic Dream and the types of games they create. They were a little ahead of themselves with the concept when they released Fahrenheit back in 2005 being largely ignored by the gamer populace even though it received wide critical acclaim. Since then however they have developed a solid reputation for developing games that dispense with game play in favour of creating a deep, rich story whilst also teasing everyone endlessly with their technology demonstrations. Beyond: Two Souls is their latest release which goes back to their roots in paranormal thrillers done in their signature cinematic style.
On the surface Jodie appears to be just like anyone else but ever since she was born she has been tied to another entity that she only knows as Aiden. For a long time that’s all he was, just a presence that was always there watching over her. However over time he developed the ability to interact with the real world and, like the caged animal he was, he began to lash out at every opportunity. This had caught the attention of the CIA who, of course, were looking to exploit this potential power for their own ends. Like anyone else all Jodie wanted was to be part of the regular world but her attachment to Aiden made sure that would never happen.
Quantic Dream have really outdone themselves with Beyond: Two Souls as it aptly demonstrates what the PlayStation3 is capable of. The graphics are simply phenomenal showing that the 3 years since their previous release have been spent pushing the hardware to its limits. The biggest improvements come from the small things that add on exceptional bits of realism like the way skin looks and moves or the way tears roll down the character’s face. It all runs smoothly as well although that’s mostly due to the restricted nature of most of the environments. It allows for a lot of detail but you’re not going to be play in wide expansive environments that are teaming with NPCs.
Beyond: Two Souls retains Quantic Dream’s signature interactive film style with you spending quite a lot of time being in the back seat to the action that’s happening on screen. The dialogue choice system hasn’t changed dramatically, offering up a variety of options which you can choose from and that will influence how the story progresses. The combat sections have been reworked slightly and puts a little more guesswork into completing the interactions successfully. The addition of the Aiden mechanic adds a completely different perspective to the game and also allows for some pretty novel and interesting game play.
From what I can remember of Heavy Rain you, for the most part, got unlimited time in which to make the decision about which dialogue option you chose. Beyond: Two Souls on the other hand will often begin to fade the choices out after a small period of time, leaving you with only a single option which will be automatically selected for you. I will admit that this helps with pacing as you can sometimes be paralysed by choice but you can sometimes end up regretting taking to long to think about what you wanted to say. Of course this also means that subsequent play throughs could be quite rewarding as even when you get to choose the options you want there are still many others that you’d potentially want to see.
The combat/quick time event system has been changed significantly with the the visual cues being almost completely removed. For combat sequences you’re now instructed to follow Jodie’s motion on screen using the right analogue stick. This does eliminate the majority of the rather immersion breaking pop-ups that alert you to what button you need to press however it also adds a layer of ambiguity to what action you need to perform. It’s relatively forgiving as I often found myself getting things right when I was pretty sure I just mashed the stick in a random direction however I just as often found myself getting it wrong when I was sure I got it right.
There are still times when you’ll be pressing buttons, holding down combinations of them or doing things with the controller that the prompts on screen are telling you to do although they’re usually regulated to the non-action sequences. Its also during these sequences that you’ll go hunting around for white dots which detail something you can interact with which also suffer from the not-so-precise detection method of pointing with the right analogue stick. Whilst I don’t have a better system in mind it does feel like it’s somewhat pointless for some sections.
The biggest deviation away from Quantic Dream’s traditional style is the inclusion of the Aiden mechanic, a disembodied spirit that has the ability to go through walls, throw things around and even kill or possess people should the need arise. For the most part he functions as another puzzle mechanic, allowing the developers to create rather intricate puzzles that require some lateral thinking in order to complete. You’re also given a little bit of choice as to how you play Aiden as you can either make him out to be the benevolent watcher or the dick that attempts to screw with every aspect of Jodie’s life. For the most part the game seems to encourage you to be a dick, making abstaining a torturous exercise.
Aiden also functions as the writer’s get out of jail free card as whilst his powers are initially limited to throwing things around it becomes evident that he’s really some kind of all powerful demi-god who can do pretty much anything he wants. Whilst this allows them to put Jodie in a whole host of situations that would otherwise be somewhat unbelievable it does make you question why some things happen to her and some don’t. Thankfully though Aiden isn’t a complete deus ex machina but it remove a good chunk of believability to the game, even for someone like me who’s able suspend disbelief in aid of a good story.
From a story perspective Quantic Dream has done an amazing job of bringing these characters to life; no small part of which is due to the amazing acting by the Ellen Page and William Dafoe. It says a lot that all the emotions I felt whilst playing came rushing back while I was reviewing my footage for screenshots, my heart aching for the pain they endured. Even though I was satisfied with my initial play through I still feel like there’s another side to this game that I’ve yet to experience due to the wide range of dialogue options available. This means that just like Heavy Rain before it Beyond: Two Souls is a game that will reward subsequent playthroughs. even if the overall story is known.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
However I feel like Quantic dream kind of screwed up the relationships in Beyond: Two Souls, specifically with Ryan. Whilst Joide makes it clear that she thinks she might be falling for him initially it appears that he’s not completely interested in her, especially considering how he left after she had a flashback to when she was almost raped. The confession then of how he loves her, and indeed in the final scenes when he continues to say he loves her, seem tacked on and hollow. The other relationships by comparison have deep and rich back stories to them that develop over the course of the game and I actually felt something for them, even if some of them were a little shallow. Its possible that I might have felt more if I had pursued the relationship further and its definitely one of the reasons that I’m considering a second play through.
Beyond: Two Souls reaffirms Quantic Dream’s domination of the cinmeatic game genre, pushing highly interactive gameplay aside in favour of deep and engrossing story that comes alive thanks to the brilliant acting of all the characters. It’s also a return to their roots in fantasy, almost feeling like a spiritual successor to Fahrenheit, and whilst it does suffer a little bit because of this I still find it hard to find fault with it. If you’ve ever played a Quantic Dream game and enjoyed it then you simply can not go past Beyond: Two Souls as it aptly demonstrates just how good they are at building titles like this.
Beyond: Two Souls is available exclusively on PlayStation 3 right now for $78. Total game time was approximately 8 hours with 46% of the achievements unlocked.
Telltale Games has a reputation for taking IP that’s either old or from another media and translating it into a new game experience in their very distinctive style. If I’m honest I had avoided many of their titles as whilst it was cool to see things like Sam and Max make a comeback I had long left adventure style games behind, preferring the more fast paced worlds that FPS and RTS offered. Still it was hard to ignore the fervour that surrounded their interpretation of The Walking Dead and my subsequent play through of it showed me that Telltale was able to deliver a deep and compelling story. So when I heard about The Wolf Among Us I was sold on it instantly as the brief taste that 400 Days had given me of the signature Telltale experience had left me wanting for so much more.
The days of the fables living in their own world has long since past and they now attempt to fit into the world of humans through a kind of magic called Glamour. This allows them to take on human form so that they can blend in with the wider world, enabling them to live out their lives in relative obscurity. You play as Big B Wolf (affectionately referred to as Bigby) charged with being the sheriff of the Fabletown community, keeping everyone in line and ensuring the safety of all the fables that have made the transition to the real world. However the magic of glamour doesn’t change past deeds and many old rivalries are still going strong. It was only a matter of time before everything started to take a turn for the worse although you’d never expect Bigby, even with his chequered past, to be at the centre of it.
The Wolf Among Us brings with it Telltale’s trademark style for transitioning comic books to the PC gaming medium, favouring a heavily stylized world that’s light on the graphics but heavy with detail. Every scene feels like a pane pulled straight from a comic book with the only thing missing being giant speech bubbles above all the characters. The art direction has improved quite a bit over The Walking dead with the lighting having an almost oil painting like effect on everything. It’s hard to describe but The Wolf Among Us definitely has a similar feel to other Telltale games but there’s an air of refinement about it that their previous titles lacked.
The main game mechanics remain largely the same from their previous titles with the majority of it taking the form of a point and click adventure that’s peppered with quick time events for the more action oriented scenes. Like the artwork it feels a little more refined than their previous titles with the mechanics having improved UIs that are a lot more responsive. Of course the level of game play in The Wolf Among Us is deliberately simple as the focus is heavily on the story rather than anything else which may frustrate some players. I personally enjoy it, especially after such heavily interactive titles like Shadow Warrior and Grand Theft Auto V, but it’s definitely one of the more valid criticisms that are often levelled at Telltale games.
The dialogue system has seen a small change as now instead of the options being on top of each other they’re laid out as a bunch of squares and no longer begin to fade as the time runs out. The “say nothing” option also seems to be far more prevalent something which you can use to great comedic effect if you feel like doing so. These changes definitely make the options a lot easier to scan and choose between, especially when you don’t have a lot of time to make a decision, and I’m not quite sure how to put it but the flow of dialogue definitely feels different to previous Telltale games. I like it and I’d be interested to see what long time Telltale fans think of the changes.
Whilst I think Telltale are probably the only company to do episodic content right this is the first time I’ve come in at the ground level for one of their IPs and, if I’m honest, it’s actually a little frustrating to start this early. Each episode is a bit sized chunk, on the order of 2 hours each, and whilst they’re quite entertaining in their own right I’m not the kind of person who likes to go back and revisit games for DLC and the like. I most likely will for The Wolf Among Us but it still feels like it’d be somewhat better to wait 5 months until all the episodes are out and then binge on them over a weekend. This can be made up somewhat by the fact that multiple play throughs can be quite a rewarding experience with Telltale titles as the game can play out very differently depending on what seems like minor decisions.
I’m not familiar with the source material behind The Wolf Among Us so I can’t comment to how true to form it is (although I’m told The Walking Dead was essentially like for like) but the story is gripping and thoroughly enjoyable. Of course that’d be all for nothing if the voice acting wasn’t up to scratch but the casting has been done exceptionally well with Bigby’s gravely voice fitting his character perfectly. I really can’t wait to see how it develops over the coming episodes as the first episode was action packed enough and the small teaser they give you at the end is almost cruel in how many questions it raises.
The Wolf Among Us continues Telltale’s success with translating IP material onto the video game medium with skill that few other game developers can match. The current instalment is more than enough to get you hooked into this new world, leaving you clawing at the walls for more that won’t be coming for another month. Whilst the simplistic game style won’t be for everyone the story more than makes up for this, providing an extremely rewarding experience for those who take the small amount of time to experience it. Whilst I’d probably recommend holding off until all the episodes are out it still stands on its own as a great experience, even if its a little short.
The Wolf Among Us is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 for $24.99. Game was played on the PC with around 2 hours of total play time and 16% of the achievements unlocked.
It shouldn’t be a secret that I’m something of a Windows guy as I’ve essentially made my career in IT out of their products as well as it being my preferred gaming platform. It’s not that I have anything against the alternatives per se, more that there really isn’t another platform capable of doing all the things that Windows can do currently. If I was to stay on the PC platform my only alternatives are OSX and Linux and the former requires an exorbitant investment in hardware which I, as someone who builds his own PCs, am quite adverse to. Whilst the merits of Linux are vast it’s still got a long way to go before I can consider it on par with Windows, even if there’s been significant progress of late.
Indeed it’s gotten to the point where some industry veterans, like DICE creative director Lars Gustavsson, have gone on record saying that Linux is only one killer app away from seeing explosive growth. There’s definitely been an escalating amount of investment in the platform over the past couple years, mostly in the indie space thanks to things like the Humble Bundles, however Linux gamers are still only make up a tiny minority, on the order of 2% (even on the current champion of the platform, Steam). With that in mind whilst I agree with Gustavsson’s point that Linux is only one killer application away from seeing a lot of growth that statement hides the significant amount of work required to make that happen.
For starters hidden within that 2% of users is an incredible amount of diversity in terms of which distribution they’re using. This is less of a problem than it used to be since a couple base distributions now power the majority of the Linux world (Debian, Red Hat, etc.) however it still presents a challenge that needs to be overcome. I think (and feel free to correct me on this) that the majority of this stems from a driver level where there’s a huge amount of fragmentation thanks to either a philosophical standpoint, I.E. no non-free software so binary blobs are out, or simply because manufacturers aren’t willing to provide that level of support to Linux users.
There also needs to be a critical mass of users in order for it to become attractive for bigger developers to want to support Linux as a platform. Now there’s some potential for this to happen with SteamOS and SteamMachines although it will still take some time for that to permeate. It will be interesting to see if SteamOS users will translate into Linux users over time or if they’ll remain as users of the platform, just like current console gamers are. There will need to be significant traction for this critical mass to be reached however as even OSX, which commands around 6% of the PC gaming market, still hasn’t managed to reach that level where big developers and publishers see it as a priority platform to support. What that critical mass is however I am not sure of but it’s definitely far above the current level which Linux reaches to currently.
I’m not saying that any of this isn’t possible, it most certainly is thanks to the mountains of work done by dozens of companies, just that “One Killer App” is so much harder to achieve than what the soundbite makes it sound like. Personally if it happened I’d be pretty excited about it as more competition means better products for the end consumer, even if I don’t completely agree with some of the motivations that are driving it. It’s for that reason that I signed up for the Steam hardware beta as I’d love to see the PC platform make a resurgence as the king of gaming regardless of the software platform it runs.
Reviving old IPs has proved to be something of a double edged sword. There’s definitely a lot of demand out there as many successful Kickstarter campaigns have shown but the resulting games have always been something of a mixed bag. For the most part the ones that simply try to recreate the old game with modern technology tend to fair worse whilst those that actually attempt a faithful reboot using the world and characters fair a lot better. This was the difference between Rise of the Triad and Tomb Raider for me, although the latter’s budget probably had a lot to do with it. So you can imagine when I saw a Shadow Warrior reboot I was hesistant to try it out for fear that it would have been yet another straight port, even if came with Lo Wang’s signature tongue-in-cheek humour.
You are Lo Wang, general badass and agent to the Zilla corporation, working directly with the company’s head doing whatever is required. Your first mission is simple, offer up $2 million in exchange for a single sword and bring it back. The deal, predictably, goes south and after dispatching numerous guards you find yourself confronted with another foe: demons from the shadow realm. As it turns out that sword you were sent to retrieve was none other than the Nobitsura Kage, an ancient katana which is the only weapon that can destroy beings from the shadow realm. Guided by your new demon friend Hoji you’re sent on a quest to retrieve all the pieces in the hope that you can stop the unrelenting demon invasion. Of course not everything is as it appears and Zilla’s intentions are far from being that of a simple collector.
All aspects of Shadow Warrior have been tuned for fast paced, hack ‘n’ slash combat, including the graphics. If I’m honest they’re at the level I would have expected from a cross platform release however with Shadow Warrior being a PC exclusive that excuse doesn’t hold up unfortunately. It’s not that they’re bad or dated, indeed as some of my selected screenshots will attest to it can be quite pretty at times, but apart from those set pieces it definitely has not been designed for you to gawk at. Combine this with a healthy dose of asset reuse that you’ll see throughout the game (which includes everything from the treasure chests to whole sections of levels) says to me that the graphics weren’t the highest priority but they do serve the purpose well, even if it gets a little samey as the game goes on.
Shadow Warrior is a first person hack ‘n’ slasher, throwing hordes of enemies at you which you can dispatch in numerous ways. Your primary weapon in nearly all of these encounters will be your katana as only it has the clearing power required to churn through enemies fast enough. There’s a ton of other weapons available all of which are made available to you a various sections in the game and you’re not likely to be wanting for ammo thanks to it being strewn everywhere. However chances are if you can get within melee range of your enemies you’ll want to use the katana over everything else thanks to the synergy it has with the other primary combat mechanic: dark powers.
There are 3 separate upgrade systems in Shadow warrior, each having their own unique upgrade currency and all of them affecting different aspects of the game. The primary upgrade system, or at least the one you’ll be using the most often, is the karma system which is levelled up by defeating enemies. Using special abilities and varying your approach will also net you karma bonuses, allowing you to attain upgrades quicker. The skills you get in this tree are augments to your other powers as well as direct stats boosts which can be your saving grace in the middle of a giant firefight. There are also some unique abilities available which can radically change how you play the game although, in all honesty, you’re crazy if you don’t focus everything on the katana and the skills surrounding it, especially the life stealing abilities.
The other 2 upgrade systems focus on dark powers (upgraded through Ki Crystals of which there are usually 1~2 per chapter) and weapons (which use money). The dark powers system feels like an organic progression mechanic more than anything else as the upgrades come regularly and predictably and, past a certain point, don’t heavily influence the game play. Your initial choices will heavily influence your choices down the line however as it’s pretty clear that you can either favor an offensive or defensive style. Weapon upgrades are probably the least influential out of any of them since the katana is just so much more powerful by comparison except when it comes to the boss fights. Thus I usually found myself with a horde of cash up until I got to a point where I felt a certain weapon needed upgrading to help me out. It’s also worth noting that whilst the katana appears in this menu you will never be able to upgrade it using money, so don’t bother waiting for the unlocks to happen.
All of this combines into a combat system that is fast paced and utterly enjoyable. You’ll start off with small engagements with only a handful of enemies but it will slowly ramp up to the point where you won’t be able to remember how many enemies are on the field. Over time new enemies get thrown into the mix, including giant warlords, warlocks that raise the dead and beasts covered in metal that can only be taken from behind (snicker). Unfortunately it does start to wear on you towards the end because the only way the difficulty increases is by adding extra enemies or reducing the amount of space you have to move around in. Additionally a lot of the cool abilities you unlock will simply not work on the higher tier enemies which kind of makes them pointless, making you reliant on the one move which does the most damage.
Despite this the boss fights are probably the strongest aspect of Shadow Warrior as whilst each encounter uses the same mechanic for defeating them (shoot the glowy bits until the fall down then kill the crystal inside) they each have unique abilities and all of them are just epic in scale. They can be a tad frustrating as there are some one hit kill mechanics and the checkpoint system doesn’t always save at critical points but honestly that was only a big issue with one of them. The rest were a hell of a lot of fun as you spam all your weapons at them to bring them down and nothing can beat the exhilaration you get after you’ve spent 30 minutes circle strafing your way to victory.
Shadow Warrior unfortunately suffers from a few notable glitches as well as having some outright game crashes that happen without warning. The screenshot below shows how shurikens will sometimes just float around in space forever. This usually isn’t an issue however I sometimes heard the shuriken noise coming from behind walls which, for a game that uses sound cues for certain things, can be quite distracting. I also experienced game crashes twice which I can directly attribute to some unknown edge case in ability use as they both happened instantly after I used an ability (circle of iron was the last one I could remember and it happened right after I released it). Key press recognition also seems a little flakey when you start to get dozens of enemies on screen which can be a little frustrating when you’re trying to heal yourself or trying to clear a path so you have some breathing room.
Of course it wouldn’t be Shadow Warrior if it didn’t have signature style of humour including numerous Wang jokes as well as other tongue-in-cheek humour. Thankfully, unlike other titles that tried to use similar humour techniques, it doesn’t get overplayed at every opportunity. Sure you’ll hear the same jokes every so often but it at least doesn’t scream “HEY WE’RE FUNNY RIGHT? YEAH WE TOTALLY ARE” desperately, hoping you’ll give them some laughs out of sympathy.
This then flows onto the story which, admittedly, isn’t anything to write home about but surprisingly is far above what I expected. I guess I was somewhat let down by Rise of the Triad (which was more of a direct remake of the original than anything) and thought Shadow Warrior would be the same but it’s so much better. Whilst the shift in tone towards the end comes at the cost of the humour it does help to round out the story well and thankfully avoids the pitfalls of screaming for a sequel. Overall it’s not the dramatic story telling experience that you might expect from some games but then again you’re not playing Shadow Warrior for that, you’re playing it for the fast action and wang jokes.
Shadow Warrior is a shining example of what a reboot can do to an old IP. Instead of trying to recreate the past exactly with modern tools Shadow Warrior is instead a homage to the title of yesteryear, one that takes all the things we loved about it and bundles them up in a completely new game experience. It’s not without its faults, especially with the rudimentary challenge scaling and game crashes, but I’m hopeful that the latter will be fixed in future patches. For me Shadow Warrior is the standard to which I’ll hold future remakes as it’s faithful to the original IP without relying on nostalgia to drive it. Fans of Wang should definitely check this out.
Shadow Warrior is available on PC right now for $39.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty with 10 hours total playtime and 59% of the achievements unlocked.
You’d have to be living off the grid to not have heard about the latest instalment in the Grand Theft Auto series. The budget alone made waves when it was announced rocketing it to the number one spot for most expensive video game ever developed. Of course this has since translated into it being one of the biggest selling games of all time selling well over $1 billion worth of copies in its first day and looks like it will be well on its way to being the highest grossing entertainment product of all time. Even though my history with the series isn’t the greatest (Vice City was probably the only one I actually enjoyed) there was no question that I had to play GTA V and stick with it long enough to do it justice.
GTA V, unlike its predecessors, shares its main story between 3 different career criminals. The first you’re introduced to is Michael, a once great mastermind of planning and execution he has now entered retirement. The circumstances surrounding how he got to this point is something of a mystery but its obvious that his retirement isn’t sitting well with him. Franklin, a former gang banger who’s trying to go legit, runs across Michael’s path when he’s tries to repossess a car that belongs to Michael’s son. Seeing his potential Michael takes him under his wing, bringing him along for the first real heist he has done in a decade. This has the unfortunate consequence of alerting one of Michael’s former running mates, Trevor, to the fact that he’s still alive, something which doesn’t sit particularly well with him.
This is likely to be the last big hurrah for the current console generation and true to form the graphics for this title are pretty astounding. Sure I’ve seen a lot better on the PC, indeed there are few things that can hold a candle to Crysis 3 these days, but for a console architecture that’s pushing 8 years old the level of fidelity is very impressive. What really sets GTA V apart from other open world style games is the incredible amount of detail in the world, something which becomes readily apparent when you’re flying over it in your aircraft of choice. This does come at a cost some times as even my less than 1 year old Xbox struggled to keep up at some points but I’ll gladly wear the occasional frame dip if it meant graphics of this calibre everywhere.
That breadth extends into the game world itself as there’s innumerable things for you to do in this world. I personally stuck to the storyline missions as they’re the things that interested me most but, should that not exactly tickle your fancy, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find something to do. Indeed you might not even need to go looking for it as there are randomly generated events that can happen anywhere so its quite likely that even just mindless driving won’t be as uneventful as it sounds. This is then complimented by how alive the GTA V world feels with it teaming with NPCs that aren’t just mindless zombies, they’re active parts of the environment. From what I can remember from GTA IV this is quite a stark contrast as by comparison it felt a lot more…sterile.
From the get go its obvious that Rockstar put a lot of time into getting the driving mechanics of GTA V just right. This doesn’t mean realism, as much of the driving physics are certainly not based in reality, more in the context of the game the driving experience and how it interacts with the larger game feels very solid. Should they have foregone this for some reason I’d probably have a much dimmer view of the game overall as you’ll be spending a great deal of your time driving through Los Santos’ roads. I will admit that towards the end I started taking taxis everywhere as I was getting a little tired of having to drive all the way across the map all the time but at least the developers had the foresight to include such a mechanic, alleviating a lot of potential frustration.
Combat is done through a traditional 3rd person cover based system which thankfully avoids the usual pitfall of only allowing you to have 2 weapons at a time. Instead your entire arsenal is always at your disposal, from night sticks and pistols all the way up to miniguns and rocket launchers, all available through a weapon selection wheel. Whilst some would argue that this could trivialize some of the encounters (and it does, to an extent) I think going for the 2 weapon norm would have taken out much of the fun that comes with the GTA brand. The flip side of this is that, when combined with the aim assist that’s built into the game (which, I admit, I did not turn off) most of the encounters aren’t exactly difficult and are more about positioning and use of cover than they are about weapon choice.
Despite that GTA V does a good job of creating tension during combat by using your ability to switch between characters. You’ll usually start off using one of them and then you’ll need to switch to another in order to keep on progressing forward. Sometimes this will be because they have some kind of tactical advantage, like being on the roof and able to take out snipers, other times it will be so that you can get them out of a jam. To be honest I was sceptical that this would add anything to the game play but the execution of the idea is done well enough that it alleviates much of the repetition. This could also be due to my storyline-first play style which saw me go through many varied environments but even the small fire fights I got into outside of them felt quite varied.
Whilst there’s not explicit levelling or progress counter in GTA V there are aspects of the game that are gradually unlocked or made accessible to you as you progress through the game. As far as I could tell newer weapons were made available to you after a certain set of storyline missions were completed as it wasn’t until late in the game that I was able to get the Advanced Rifle. To be fair though you really only need a shotgun and an assault rifle to get you through pretty much everything and when a mission requires you to have a special kind of firearm its given to you free of charge. Car upgrades also seem to be somewhat moot as whilst I could save the car in my garage I couldn’t seem to figure out how to make it my default car so after one mission it, inexplicably, disappeared along with the $100K I had dumped into it. I’m willing to admit ignorance on that one, however.
For a game of this size GTA V manages to get out of it relatively bug free, especially if you don’t go out of your way to find them. I ran into a few random occurrences however the most notable of which was reloading a quicksave that put a lightpost through the middle of my car. Driving forward then threw it up into the air and, had it been on the other side, would have likely resulted in my character’s death. There were also some rather unusual physics that occurred when driving around, usually when at moderate speeds and I’d clip something that I couldn’t see and then proceed to be sent skywards. None of these detracted from the overall game however and considering just how much content there is within GTA V I’m quite surprised that there are so few; a testament to how much polish Rockstar has put on this title.
Out of everything in GTA V I’d have to say my favourite part would have to be the heists, especially the first one at the jewlery store. Now I’m not sure if this was a failing on my part or not but there seemed to be a indication that more heists would be made available later on but, as far as I could tell, they weren’t. So whilst it was all well and good to say that crew’s skills would get better with repeated heists I never felt like I had the opportunity to take the risk on the cheaper ones in order to skill them up. Indeed it seemed whenever I did take one of the cheap ones they always ended up dead so I really had no choice in the matter. I’ve since read that heists will be a co-operative encounter in the GTA Online experience but since it was only released recently (and has been struggling with the load) I haven’t had a chance to play it.
The story of GTA V is pretty engaging and is probably the only reason why I stuck through it for as long as I did. Whilst I avoided many of the side missions, mostly because the few I did play were total crap (i.e. tow truck with Franklin) they did seem to be a good way to flesh out the 3 main character’s backgrounds, if you were interested in knowing more. The one thing that I will take issue with, and again this might be due to my storyline first play style, is that many of the issues that the characters have (both with each other and the various other NPCs in the world) seem to wrap up rather quickly during the last couple missions, seemingly out of no where. This does make for a rather satisfying ending (I chose the death wish option, if you’re wondering) it did feel a little hacked together.
GTA V is one of those rare examples where a big budget, long development cycle and never ending hype has actually culminated in a game that lives up to all the expectations lumped on it. The world is large and varied, peppered with numerous different things for you to do and distractions to give you a break in-between missions. Nearly every aspect of the game has received the level of polish we’ve come to expect from Rockstar games with many of them exceeding my expectations. It’s not a fault free experience, as much as some fans would like to say otherwise, but it is an incredibly solid game, one that sets the standard for all others in its genre to be compared against. Whilst my typical aversion to open world games means that I probably won’t be racking up many hours on it for years to come it still stands on its own as a solid single player game experience, one that’s definitely worth your time to play.
Grand Theft Auto V is available on PlayStation3 and Xbox360 right now for $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played on the Xbox360 with a total of 24 hours played with approximately 60% completion.
Valve spent all last week teasing the greater Internet community about how the Steam Universe was going to be seeing some massive expansion in the coming year. The first announcement, SteamOS, set the tone for the rest that followed them even though many a Valve fanboy hoped that the last announcement would be Half Life 3 (although honestly they do that with any announcement from Valve). Whilst it’s been known that Valve wanted to make an attempt on the living room for some time now, as Big Picture mode demonstrated, these last 3 announcements form the basis of their first dedicated attempt to bring PC gaming into the world that consoles have dominated for decades.
And the crazy thing is it might just work.
PCs were the dominant platform for quite a long time, indeed those of us who grew up with games during the 80s and 90s would have had it as their platform of choice. Many of us would have had consoles as well however but the best games that we played would always be found on a PC. Over time the convenience of consoles started to attract more and more people to gaming and this snowballed to the point where the vast majority of gamers now get their experiences through a console of some type. However to many of us there is still nothing better than a PC for gaming and with the time frames between console generations getting longer and longer the PC has seen something of a resurgence of late, especially with distribution platforms like Steam backing it.
However the primary interface for a PC, the mouse and keyboard, isn’t exactly conducive to the living room environment. Most of us PC gamers have been at a LAN where we were confined to a couch or attempting to play games on our big TVs just for the fun of it only to find that the experience is sub-par when using traditional PC input methods. However whilst you can get around this with a controller there are genres of games where a mouse and keyboard are required (any RTS and, personally FPS). The Steam Controller seems to be an attempt to bridge these two worlds together and I can see some situations where it would work however there are others where it will still struggle. I’ll reserve final judgement until I have one in my hands but suffice to say that I feel that RTS style (like DOTA2) games will struggle with it.
What I’m particularly interested to see is what kind of hardware Valve will make available as part of their Steam Machine platform. Traditionally PCs required fairly regular refreshes in order to play the latest games (I do mine every 3 years at the latest) although that has been stymied somewhat by the consolization of games. The specifications of their hardware will determine where the line is drawn between games that have a great experience and ones that don’t as whilst it’d be great to run Crysis 3 at 1080p @ 60fps the hardware required to do so would push the cost of a potential Steam Machine far beyond that of a traditional console. In short if Valve is trying to compete with consoles they’re going to have do it in the same price range and that will put an upper limit on its capabilities.
The sum total of all these different parts is a clear strategy from Valve to increase the PC platform’s market share and, consequently, grow Steam’s potential market. It’s a smart move as they’ve effectively dominated the PC as a platform and the next logical step is to grow it further. This can only be done through cannibalizing gamers from other platforms and the best way to do this is to bring Steam to them rather than try to convince them to switch to PCs. Whether that value proposition works for current console gamers is something I’m not completely sure of however if anyone can convince them to come across it’s Valve.