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.
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:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
The Old City: Leviathan is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
You’d have to be willfully ignorant to not have come across the massive sensation that is Game of Thrones. I have to admit that I’m one of those people who only discovered it through the TV show, much at the behest of many of my friends who’ve urged me to read George R. R. Martin’s epic works. Still it’s easy to see just how detailed the world he created is with deep and complex political landscapes that stretch back over countless years. It was interesting then to hear that Telltale Games would be doing a title within the franchise as whilst they certainly have the pedigree to bring a story to life the world of Westeros isn’t exact their modus operandi. Indeed their entry into this gritty and uncaring world seems to signal that Telltale wants to begin rising above its current station, and that it has the skills to do so.
MINOR GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS BELOW
The Forresters have been the bastions of the Ironwood forests for countless generations and loyal to the Starks for just as long. That loyalty is what led them to be in attendance for the horror that was The Red Wedding where many of their men met their fates. You are Gared Tuttle, squire to Lord Gregor Forrester, who managed to escape the violence in order to carry a message from your lord back to the house of Forrester. Unfortunately the tragedy that befell you at The Red Wedding has also spread to everywhere else and now the house which you have long been loyal to is under threat. Can you fight your way out of this? Or will you use the more delicate hand to beguile your enemies and have them fall on their own swords?
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Telltale has a very distinctive style when it comes to the games they create, favoring the heavy bordering and solid colours that are typical of their graphic novel inspired works. This has been reworked somewhat for Game of Thrones, dumping the cartoony look and instead aspiring more towards realism than any of their other games have done previously. This has also come with an upgrade in visuals in almost all regards although the semi-stiff animations and less-than-stellar attempts at depth of field do leave a little bit to be desired. Still it’s hard not recognise that this is most definitely a big step up for Telltale games and potentially signals towards them feeling comfortable enough to experiment with the format they’ve perfected.
The signature Telltale style makes a return in Game of Thrones, putting aside most traditional game mechanics in favour of focusing on developing the story and the characters within it. The majority of action sequences play out as a series of quicktime events, throwing up keys to press or mouse movements to make in order to get through a section. The heart of their style is, as always, the dialog system which includes a breadth of options that will shape the game in numerous ways depending on which one you select. Unlike previous Telltale games however Game of Thrones jumps between several different characters, mimicking the format of its source material. All in all there’s nothing too revolutionary about the game itself which isn’t surprising since this is a Telltale title.
Indeed Telltale is probably one of the few game developers out there who are able to get away with doing this since the innovation comes from their ability to tell a good story rather than develop new and novel game mechanics. For story-first titles it’s often better to err on the side of simplicity as too many mechanics, or just a couple poorly constructed ones, quickly distract from the story. This is what titles like Always Sometimes Monsters got wrong, thinking that a variety of different mechanics was necessary in order to keep the player engaged. Nothing could be farther from the truth, so long as the story that you’re telling is engaging enough.
Depending on what your current level of involvement is with the Game of Thrones franchise the story will likely mean a different many things to you although it does tend to assume you’re coming from the TV series rather than just the books. The story begins at the end of the third season and is slated to continue through until the end of the fifth. This means that, unless you’re up to that part in the series, there’s potential for bigger events to be spoiled and pivotal characters that have just recently appeared in the series likely won’t make a great deal of sense to you. Thus to properly experience the story you’d best be placed to catch up to the end of the third season. Who are we kidding though, you’ve already watched it twice.
The story itself is quite engaging, following a thread that’s apparently present in the books but yet to be explored in the series, retaining many of the qualities that made Game of Thrones so popular in the first place. The story isn’t written by George R. R. Martin himself though, rather he sent along his personal assistant Ty Corey Franck (a successful writer in his own right) to be a story consultant with Telltale. Since this is just the first episode there was still a lot of worldbuilding to be done so it wasn’t the most gripping story yet, however many of the events that have taken place are setting the scene for much grander things to come. I definitely have high hopes for Telltale’s version of Game of Thrones and I’m interested to see where they take it.
Game of Thrones is another excellent story-first title from Telltale games, taking the essence of what made their style so popular and maturing it to match the gritty world that George R. R. Martin had created. The graphics are the most notable departure from the Telltale style, ramping it up to a more realistic style whilst still retaining the same feel. However the core of what make their games great, their skill with storytelling, is very much the same and the world of Westeros provides a great canvas for them to paint a new story. Overall for fans of Telltale or the Games of Thrones franchise this title will be certain to delight and is most certainly worth the price of admission.
Game of Thrones is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 2 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.
The one review per week deadline I’ve set myself is both a blessing and a curse. I have certainly broadened my gaming horizons considerably since I first started doing it having played many titles I would’ve otherwise let slip by the wayside. Unfortunately it also means that I usually pass on titles that require a heavy time investment as I simply can’t do them justice. However there are exceptions and Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game who’s predecessors I’ve played (and loved) in the past, is one I certainly couldn’t pass up. So, after shirking off all my other responsibilities for the past week I’ve managed to work my way through Bioware’s latest RPG, and I’m incredibly glad I did.
It has been one year since the events of Dragon Age 2 and the world, still reeling from the last blight and the turmoil in Kirkwall, is set to face another threat. The sky has been rendered asunder in a massive explosion that destroyed the Chantry’s most sacred of temples with you, bearing and strange green mark on your hand, being the only one to survive it. Whilst many want you to be put to the axe immediately Seeker Cassandra steadies their hands in the hopes that you will be able to close the breach between this world and the fade. To do this she invokes the right of the Inquisition, severing ties from the Templars and Chantry to form a new order to close the breach and seek its cause.
At first I thought Inquisition was running on some kind of supercharged Unreal engine, due to the way it used specularity, however it turns out that it’s powered by none other than the Frostbite 3 engine, the same one that’s behind the beautiful graphics of the Battlefield series. Compared to its predecessors Inquisition is definitely a major step forward with everything taking on a new sense of scale and detail. Surprisingly this doesn’t come with it’s usual associated cost of stuttering frame rates, something I was quite impressed with. It may not be Skyrim-modded-to-the-nines beautiful but it’s definitely a game that would be best played on a current generation hardware.
The sheer breadth of Inquisition is something that’s hard to understate, something which is wholly a product of the previous instalment in this series being panned for its limited nature. The core of the game still remains the same, it’s a Bioware RPG that has a heavy focus on the story and your role within it, but surrounding that are numerous quests, challenges and other activities that I’m sure adds up to well over 100 hours worth of play time. Layered on top of all of this is the War Room, a birds eye view map of Orlais and Ferelden that allows you to send your advisors on missions to gain influence, rewards or to unlock further missions for you to pursue. It shows that Bioware has listened to the feedback regarding how narrow Dragon Age 2 felt in comparison to its other RPG titles, even if they may have overcompensated to the point of impacting other things (more on that later).
Combat feels like an evolutionary improvement of what was done in Dragon Age 2, keeping the same action-RPG focus whilst attempting to add in other mechanics to make the traditional RPG style more accessible. Instead of the traditional pause mode Inquisition instead gives you a Tactical Camera which allows you to look around the entire combat field and assign actions to your party. It’s not a requirement to use it however as the behaviour system for your companions is back in and, thankfully, is coupled with a much more competent AI that’s able to recognize its new abilities and when it should and shouldn’t use them. Probably the most notable change is though is that the healing system has been completely revamped with no character class having a native healing ability and the number of healing potions given to your party fixed at a certain amount. What this all adds up to is a combat system that’s far more streamlined, lending the focus more to the action than the minutia.
This also means that the strategies you’ll use in Inquisition are going to be far different than any other RPG out there. Instead of ensuring you have the holy trinity set up you’re far more focused on controlling combat, setting up combos and making sure you use other survivability options so you don’t churn through your potion stash too quickly. My party make up usually consisted of a 2H warrior (me), dual wield rogue (Sera), control mage (Dorian) and a frontline tank (Blackwall). The combinations of control from the mage and tank warrior meant that both Sera and I were able to set up extremely devastating combos, some that could drop an entire group of enemies in just a couple hits. There were a couple issues with survivability, especially with mechanics that would drop half your health bar in one hit (not giving them a chance to us a potion) but for the most part once I got past the first 5 hours or so I felt essentially untouchable.
Indeed those first 5 or so hours are probably the most difficult and probably worst paced of the game. Now some of the issues I encountered with not being at the right level might have had something to do with my “go for the story missions first” play style, however once I was over that initial hump whenever I needed to level myself up I didn’t feel like I was struggling to find missions to fill the gap. I think this is probably due to the differences between say, level 3 and 6, being far more drastic than the differences between later levels as I certainly didn’t feel that the later levels made as much of an impact as the first 10 or so did. What was a bit of a chore sometimes was the grind to get power so I could unlock the next set of missions but again this was probably due to me attempting to smash out the storyline rather than meander about.
The crafting system has been shaken up considerably allowing you to create all sorts of highly customized armour and weapons to suit your needs. There’s 3 top level categories of materials (cloth, leather and metal) which have dozens of different types and levels beneath them. This is what allows you to craft armour and weapons with varying characteristics although you’ll likely find you don’t have enough of a particular type to craft the perfect item, even if you’re the stereotypical RPG kleptomaniac. This will then lead you on a hunting expedition for the resources you require something which doesn’t take too long but can feel a little bit grindy if you’re going for the premium materials. However the result can be well worth the grind as I carried my first craft sword through numerous levels.
The war table is an interesting addition, taking its cues from other non-player mission systems like those found in say Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Most of the benefits you’ll gain from sending your advisors on missions aren’t exactly game breaking but every so often you’ll stumble onto something that can make a decent difference in how your game plays out. There does come a time when you’ll run out of the long duration missions however, which puts you in the rather unenviable position of either travelling back to the war room every 15 minutes or simply letting them slide until you next return. Overall I think it’s a good way to keep the story going whilst adding in another avenue to build back story for the world but I probably wouldn’t miss it if it was gone.
This massive amount of content within the game, whilst impressive, has come with an unfortunate cost. As it stands right now the game is riddled with numerous bugs, some of the innocuous and fun, others game breaking or terribly annoying. Many people, myself included, experience random crashes to desktop with no discernible pattern. Others experience weird things like their characters voice changing from male to female or, and this one is particularly frustrating for someone like me who invests an inordinate amount of time recreating himself within the game, change from one voice type to the other. My originally deep voiced character changed to the higher pitched British actor half way through the game, a bug that currently has no fix in sight. This frustration is only compounded by the interface often forgetting that I had a mouse, refusing to respond to any input from it until I ALT + TAB out and back in again.
Whilst I initially wrote this off as a typical Bioware RPG, which have a reputation for doing this, it became hard to make excuses for them the further I got into Inquisition. Sure, it’s clear that they took the feedback about Dragon Age 2 to heart, however at the same time it’s obvious that they sacrificed on polish in order to jam as much content in as they could. Whilst I understand that patching issues, especially the number which are evident within Inquisition, takes time we’re now a week past launch and there’s no patch in sight to fix some of the more glaring issues with the game. Inquisition is still a fantastic game, it’s just held back from where it should be because of these problems.
The incredible scale of Inquisition extends to its story with nearly every aspect of the world getting the full Bioware backstory treatment. Most if it is unfortunately hidden behind giant walls of text that you’ll have to wade through, however for your companions and major story NPCs they will gladly regale you with troves of information about the world and their place within it. At the same time there’s not an incredible amount of reliance on the previous titles to provide context on the events that are occurring, something which I think many of us will be grateful for given the fact that it’s been over 3 years since we last ventured into the Dragon Age world. Truly Inquisition is one of the shining examples of a game that puts a great emphasis on its story and the world which it exists in.
As to the tale of the Inquisition itself there are numerous moments I could point to (which I won’t, since they’re spoilerific) where the story really shines. It’s a classic hero’s journey, building you up from someone who was in the wrong place and the right time to a leader who inspires all those around him to achieve great things. There are a few moments which stick out in my mind brilliantly where I felt part of something much larger than myself, a notable achievement that few games have managed to replicate. The over-arching story does a great job of making you feel like you’re building towards something greater however the final pay off felt a little anti-climatic. I think this is probably because other games make the penultimate fight feel like you’re going up against insurmountable odds whereas in Inquisition I had cornered my prey and was simply there to deal the final blow. That’s just my impression however, something that may be tied into the fact that I was literally unstoppable at the end.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a rare example of a sequel surpassing its predecessors, bring a sense of scale and depth that’s rare to see in any game. All the elements that made the original Dragon Age great are there, from the combat to the story to the ancillary elements around them, and the summation of those parts is so much greater than they would be individually. This greatness is however dulled by the numerous issues that plague the game, ranging from the annoying to the down right game breaking. However, despite that, it’s a hard game to put down as everything else about it draws you back in, taunting you to play just one more mission or to follow the end of that quest chain. Suffice to say I think Dragon Age: Inquisition is by far the strongest instalment in the series and it will only get better once Bioware starts patching it.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $89.95, $99.95, $109.95, $99.95 and $109.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 29 hours of play time and 48% of the achievements unlocked.
I have something of a love/hate relationship with 4X style games. Usually at the beginning I hate them, the complicated web of variables that needs to be balanced properly usually irritates me to no end, especially when I figure out I’ve backed myself into a corner. Whilst that might make put them down initially there’s always that voice at the back of my head that tells me I should try again because this time, it says, you’ll get the balance right. And so the cycle goes until I look at the clock and its 1am…2 days later. The Civilization series has long set the benchmark for the 4X genre and with its latest instalment, Civilization: Beyond Earth, it seems set to keeping setting the standard by which all others will be judged.
Earth lies a ravaged husk of its former self. 600 years into the future humanity made a terrible error, The Great Mistake, that is slowly rendering the planet unliveable. Thus all the great nations of the world put their resources behind a desperate plan: they’d send their best and brightest across the galaxy to find new worlds, to start fresh and save humanity from its certain death. It is now up to you, dear traveller, to restart humanity on worlds that are not of our own. Will you remake humanity in it’s own image? Or will you craft a new kind of civilization, free from the bonds of its past? The world is yours to craft.
Having not played Civilization V it’s hard for me to comment on how the graphics compare to its predecessor although perusing through some screenshots shows that there’s been some improvements, not least of which comes from the form of a better UI. Like most 4X games Beyond Earth tends towards a more simple graphical style mostly because the screen ends up littered with hundreds of objects in no short order, able to bring even a respectably specced machine to its knees. That being said it’s not an ugly game, especially when you’re zoomed out, indeed it’s probably the best looking 4X game I’ve played.
Like all other Civilization games Beyond Earth has a bewildering amount of things to do. It’s enough that, at first glance, you almost feel like you need to read a novel to make sure you know what you’re doing before you click the start button. However, just like other games in this genre, the best thing to do is to simply plonk yourself down and attempt to hammer your way through it, figuring out how each different mechanic works. There’s a semi-helpful AI who’ll pipe up every so often to let you know when something’s happening or there’s a mechanic that needs explaining, which helps a little bit, but the larger overall strategy is still left entirely up to you. With so many options available to you, along with the routine 6+ hour per game play time, you have a recipe for an incredibly addictive game.
Unlike Civilization games of years past Beyond Earth allows you to craft your own history by making a few choices. Your opponents are no longer historical figures, instead they’re representatives of the various factions of Earth that have been sent to settle this planet. The tech tree that we’re familiar with is gone, replaced with a tech web that sprawls out in numerous directions, opening up several different paths to unlocking technology. Beyond Earth also brings with it a system called affinity which sets the overall tone for how your settlement behaves in this new world. With technology trading removed it’s nigh on impossible to research everything in one sitting, ensuring that Beyond Earth will keep you coming back for several more play throughs.
Perhaps the most fundamental thing to understand in Beyond Earth is what all the resources are, what they’re used for and how you can generate the required amount of them in order to unlock the things you want. In my first game I heavily prioritized science which, unfortunately, meant I quickly found myself in an energy hole from which there was little escape. The second time around however I figured out that building out certain resources first were far more advantageous, as was the low hanging fruit in the tech tree. Indeed Beyond Earth, like most 4X games, rewards players for planning out a strategy and then executing it, rather than rushing for the best technology first and hoping your opponent doesn’t get there sooner.
One of the things that I don’t think was explained terribly well was trade. It’s a completely optional thing to engage in, however it quickly becomes one of the largest sources of resources that you’ll have access to. Indeed my energy-first strategy often allowed me to fully kit out a new colony with a trade depot and 2 convoys the second it came online, dramatically increasing its capabilities and growth rate. There are downsides to trade, of course, like your convoy getting eaten by native fauna or picked off by an angry neighbour but trade still seems mightily powerful when compared to the alternatives.
I’m not sure if it was the difficulty setting I was playing on but the AI seems to have some strange quirks when it comes to reacting to what they perceive as a threat. My blue neighbour, who was my biggest trading partner by far, declared war on me twice for nothing I could clearly discern apart from maybe my huge stockpile of energy. The thing is though that they needed me far more than I needed them so the second they broke all trade with me they lost all means to produce additional units. It didn’t take long for me to whittle them down and get a juicy peace treaty as a result but it still felt like the AI should’ve understood the situation it was getting itself into, rather than attempting to bully me with its puny force.
There’s also a few rough edges here and there, like you can see in the first few screenshots in this review. For the most part the innocuous, just seeming to be glitches in certain parts of code that either fail to display something or display it more times than it needs to, but it happened often enough that it did become a little irritating. Since I was coming into this game a little late I usually expect these little rough edges to be gone by the time I get to it so it was a little disappointing to see. That being said the rest of the game runs perfectly so it’s a very small mark on an otherwise smooth experience.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is yet another great example of why Sid Meier’s series is considered the best in the 4X genre. The staggering amount of mechanics, playstyles and strategies that the game puts before you means that there’s always something new to discover or try out, providing nigh on endless hours of entertainment. Like all of the previous Civilization titles it demands a heavy investment of time in order to get the most out of it but should you commit the experience that you’re rewarded with is simply unmatched within its genre. It’s not a perfect experience, lacking a good introduction and having a few rough edges, but it’s still a solid overall experience, one that’s sure to delight Civilization fans all over.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is available on PC right now for $49.99. Total game time was approximately 8 hours with 20% of the achievements unlocked.
The Call of Duty franchise is strangely polarizing among gamers. For some it’s one of the most abhorrent examples of what the current games industry is, with yearly product cycles and numerous DLCs coupled with lowest common denominator game play. For others they’re something else, an equivalent to the popcorn titles that grace the cinemas, to be enjoyed for the spectacle that they provide and nothing more. I most certainly fall into the latter camp as I enjoy the titles for what they are and am usually done with them before the first DLC drops. The latest instalment, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, ramps up the ludicrous by taking us to the near future where technology is so advanced it begins to look like magic.
The year is 2054 and you are Private Jack Mitchell of the United States Marine Corps. Your first mission is to support South Korea as their brothers from the North have finally decided to make good on their endless tirade of threats. During the fighting however one of your brothers in arms is struck down and a piece of flying debris severs your arm. Several days later at his funeral you’re approached by his father, Jonathan Irons, CEO of Atlas Corporation, the worlds most powerful military contractor. He offers you a second chance, to get back into action and to right all the wrongs that led to the deaths of people like his son. Equipped with the latest military grade prosthetic arm you follow his lead into battle but it soon becomes clear that Irons’ goals are far more ambitious than you could have known.
In it’s default state Advanced Warfare, to put it bluntly, looks like absolute garbage. I’m not exactly sure why but it seemed to assume I was running it on the computing equivalent of a dry potato and dialled the graphics all the way down to its barest minimums. Now my machine is by no means cutting edge but it’s been able to handle every other Call of Duty title at near maximum settings without hassle. Tweaking everything upwards however brought back the level of graphics I had come to expect from such high budget titles without the performance hit I was dreading based on the initial settings it had chosen for me. Whilst there were fewer stop and gawk moments than previous titles (mostly due to the insane amount of action going on) it’s still a rather good looking game, a big achievement considering how many platforms it was released on.
Advanced Warfare’s plays pretty much how you’d expect it to, given its Call of Duty lineage, however it’s the first in a long time to introduce a core mechanic that shakes up their traditional corridor shooter game play. For the most part you’ll still be running through tight urban environments, laying waste to the enemy du jour, however now you’re equipped with an Exosuit that bestows upon you certain abilities like being able to double jump or regenerate health. The near future setting has also allowed first time Call of Duty developer Sledgehammer Games a great deal of freedom in designing the weapons, some of which are pure science fiction goodness. All this, combined with a couple new interesting mechanics, makes Advanced Warfare a far more varied and interesting game to play than its Call of Duty moniker might first lead you to think.
Combat is, as always, smooth, refined and incredibly fast paced. It’s great to see that Sledgehammer Games was able to replicate the essence of what keeps people coming back to the Call of Duty franchise with their first title as it could’ve easily gone the other way. For the most part combat is challenging enough, punishing you for mistakes whilst rewarding you for good play, however some of the larger battle scenes suffer from an overzealous AI who will pin you, and only you, from every angle. This can lead to some frustrating sections where you have to carefully plod your way through, even though the scene seemingly wants you to run out guns blazing. This may be a function of me playing on the second hardest difficulty but still, sniper accurate AIs using SMGs at long range doesn’t make sense no matter what way you slice it.
The exosuit is by far the stand out mechanic for Advanced Warfare as it’s almost a free license for the developers to give you any kind of power for a specific situation. This includes the rudimentary things like slowing down time and regenerating health to more ludicrous items like cloaking and an unlimited grappling hook. These abilities also allow for many of the maps to be more open than they have been in other Call of Duty titles, allowing you some more control over how combat plays out. Unfortunately you’re never given control over how your exosuit is configured which is a bit of a shame since there are some abilities I’d favour more over others. There is a rudimentary upgrade system for the single player campaign which can turn you into a rather broken super solider if you invest your points well.
I didn’t get much of a chance to sit down with the multiplayer side however it does appear that Advance Warfare makes a return to the smaller, tighter maps that were favoured in previous Call of Duty titles.This means that the spammy, rushy game style that I like to play is viable once again and even with the default classes I found myself being pretty effective, something which usually isn’t the case. However the handful of games I played often suffered from lag, spikes and rubber banding which made it far more frustrating to play than what it should have been. I’m not sure if this is a function of the number of players or just some incredible bad luck but it seemed if there was one laggy person we’d all end up suffering.
Advanced Warfare, whilst being a highly polished game in most respects, still has a few rough edges that I hope will be smoothed over in Sledgehammer Games’ next release in the franchise. I had numerous occasions where enemies were able to shoot through walls, a frustrating thing to happen when you get behind cover only to die to a hail of gunfire that shouldn’t be able to hit you. The sound engine also seems to struggle when you change between headphones and speakers, even when you change it from within the game. Whilst these are issues you can work around they still add a layer of frustration that shouldn’t be in a big budget title like this but I’ll give Sledgehammer Games a pass since this is technically their 1.0 release.
The story of Advanced Warfare is your pretty typical Call of Duty shtick, light on the details and back story but makes up for it in spades with action and explosions. After the first hour it’s pretty easy to figure out where everything is going but with high calibre talent like Kevin Spacey on board it’s hard not to get drawn into it regardless. So whilst you might not have the emotional investment in the characters to warrant the kind of reaction the writers were going for it’s still enough to drive the game forward.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was a gamble that has paid off for both the franchise and Sledgehammer games, demonstrating that they’re able to replicate all the things that make this series great. The combat is fluid, fast paced and satisfying, expanding on the traditional corridor shooter with additional mechanics that are pure, and awesome, science fiction. It may be let down somewhat by its story and rough edges but overall it slots beautifully into the franchise. This should hopefully then flow on to the rest of the Call of Duty titles as they’ll now have an extended development time frame, something which can only lead to bigger and better things. For lovers of fast paced corridor shooters you really can’t go past the Call of Duty series and Advanced Warfare, I’m glad to say, is another great instalment.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne for $89.95, $99.95, $109.95, $99.95 and$109.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours played and 49% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s no doubt that the media we consume has an effect on us, the entire advertising and marketing industry is built upon that premise, however just how big that impact can be has always been a subject of debate. Most notably the last few decades have been littered with debate around how much of an impact violent media has on us and whether it’s responsible for some heinous acts committed by those who have consumed it. In the world of video games there’s been dozens of lab controlled studies done that shows consumption of violent games leads towards more aggressive behaviour but the link to actual acts of violence could not be drawn. Now researchers from Stetson University have delved into the issue and there doesn’t appear to be a relationship between the two at all.
The study, which was a retrospective analysis of reports of violence and the availability of violent media, was broken down into two parts. The first part of the study focused on homicide rates and violence in movies between 1920 and 2005 using independent data sources. The second then focused on incidents of violence in video games using the ESRB ratings from 1996 to 2011 and correlated them with rates of youth violence over the same period. Both periods of study found no strong correlation between violence in media and acts of actual violence, except for a brief period in the early 90s (although the trend quickly swung back the other way, indicating the result was likely unrelated).
Violent video games are often used as an outlet for those looking for something to blame but often the relationship between them and the act of violence is completely backwards. It’s not that violent video games are causing people to commit these acts, instead those who are likely to commit these acts are also likely to engage in other violent media. Had the reverse been true then there would have been a distinct correlation between the availability of violent media and acts of real world violence but, as the study shows, there’s simply no relationship between them at all.
Hopefully now the conversation will shift from video games causing violence (or other antisocial behaviours) to a more nuanced discussion around the influences games can have on our attitudes, behaviours and thought processes. There’s no doubt that we’re shaped by the media we consume however the effects are likely much more subtle than most people would like to think they are. Once these more subtle influences are understood we can then work towards curtailing any negative aspects that they might have rather than using a particular medium as a scapegoat for deplorable behaviour.