Ever since games realised that they were no longer beholden to the Euclidean world we exist in the number of games based around messing with that idea has increased exponentially. The seminal title for this genre is, without a doubt, Portal which has then spawned a series of spiritual successors that have taken the idea of a non-Euclidean world to its logical extremes. They provide a special kind of challenge as they’re typically not the kind of puzzle game that you can simply bash your head against and get a solution to a problem, instead forcing you to think outside the realm of what would typically be possible. Parallax is the most recent entry into this genre, sporting an extremely minimalistic style and, as expected, mind bending puzzles.
There’s no story to speak of in Parallax, you’re simply unceremoniously dropped into a stark black and white world with a text box hover over a platform that says “Goal”. From there it’s up to you to figure out how to get to that place, usually through the use of the portals that bridge your current world to that of another where the only thing in common is the portals between them. I guess you could derive some meaning of the journey between two worlds that are inverses of each other, although even I’d struggle to find the imagery to support that one. Suffice to say you’re in a world that doesn’t function like you’d expect it to and you have to find your way to a portal at the end of a puzzle.
I’ve played my fair share of minimalist games in the past but Parallax really takes this to a whole new level. Everything is either one of two colours (which, if you so choose, can be something other than just black and white) lacking any kind of texture or lighting. I’m sure part of this is for aesthetic reasons, which in view isn’t misplaced at all, but it’s also definitely done from a game play perspective as the extremely similar environments do add another level of complexity in figuring out just where the hell you are. This is also what helps the game install down to a paltry 100MB, something I haven’t seen since the good old days of gaming when CDs were just starting to become popular.
As I mentioned in passing before Parallax is a non-Euclidean styled puzzler that has you making your way from point A to point B using all sorts of weird and whacky physics. There’s no combat or enemies to speak of but you’re never far from falling off the edge of the puzzle to your doom or potentially getting zapped by one of the laser traps. The puzzles start off relatively simple, only requiring you to understand which portal to go through and which way to point it, but it quickly raps up to add in relative gravity, timed switches and boosters that launch you great distances. It might not be as complicated as Antichamber but it does a pretty good job of emulating many of the things that made that game great.
The puzzles are for the most part challenging, often requiring you to experiment a little bit in order to figure out what the sequence of events is that is required to get you to your goal. Checking my achievements I managed to get just over half of the puzzles done in the “perfect” amount of moves, most of which I was able to do on either the first or second try. Don’t let that number fool you though, some of these puzzles took upwards of 15 or 20 minutes to solve, and some of them I simply lucked out on figuring out the developer’s logic before getting stuck in a downward spiral of doubt and black and white surfaces. The puzzles towards the end are truly mind boggling with the particular one below completely disorientating me numerous times over, forcing me to find a reference point to try and centre my brain again.
Probably my main complaint with Parallax is the amount of back-tracking that many of the puzzles put you through. Quite often you’ll find yourself all the way to the point where you’re flicking that one switch that you need to hit to open up the puzzle only to find yourself having to undo everything you just did in order to access that last door. Sure I get that that can be a challenge at times, especially given how easy it is to lose your bearing in this game, however when you’re doing it for the 5th time in a hour it really starts to grate on you and the pay off just doesn’t feel as good as it could be. Some of them are done well, like the one where the alternate world has numerous boosters all through it and you have to switch the laser gates around to access different sections, but the majority of them are just irritating.
The minimalism also starts to get boring after a certain point. Whilst many lamented the idea of Diablo 3 having such pretty and bright colours it’s hard to argue with the logic: we’re simply not wired to deal with the same kind of monotonous environment time and time again and so visual variety drives engagement. Parallax does a good job of this with the different environments however the stark black and white does make it a rather easy game to put down, as I found myself doing multiple times. Perhaps changing it up every so often ala Lyne could help to alleviate this.
For those who’ve been seeking a game that bends the rules of physics as well as it bends your brain it’s hard to go past Parallax, a great first entry from Toasty Games. It’s scope might not be as large as the big name titles that have come before it however Parallax manages to an incredible amount with the minimalistic stylings it branded itself with. The puzzles could do with some work however, forcing you to retrace your steps all too often adding tedium where there needn’t be any. The style also gets boring after the 3rd hour or so and, whilst you can change up the colours a bit, it doesn’t go far in alleviating the visual boredom. Suffice to say though I think it’s worth a play, even with those few caveats hanging over its head.
Parallax is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 3.9 hours with 69% of the achievements unlocked.
There are some genres in which few dare to tread for fear of being crushed by the long reigning champion. For city building games there was really no comparison to Sim City, a game that had been around for decades and had captured the hearts and minds of a generation of gamers. However their last release, Sim City 4, showed that even the mighty can fall and the community began looking for alternatives. There have been others that have recieved some praise, like Banished and Anno 2070, but they never tried to beat Sim City at its own game. Cities: Skylines is a new entrant into the city building genre and it takes direct aim at the crown, going right at the foundation of what made Sim City great.
Despite its namesake Skylines is not the next instalment in the Cities series of games (which are developed by Focus Home Interactive) instead it comes to us care of Colossal Order who’s previous titles are the Cities in Motion series. Essentially these were cut down versions of what Skylines looks to achieve, being focused solely on the deployment and maintenance of subway systems in famous locations. Skylines is then a natural progression for Colossal Order, taking their lessons learnt from the mixed reviews their games received and aiming high in the wake of Sim City’s failures.
Skylines is built on the ever popular Unity engine which means, as usual, it has a very similar look and feel to other titles that have been released on it. For a city building simulator this isn’t much of a bad thing as you’ll spend the vast majority of your time at a birds eye view. That being said close inspection of my screenshots from both games shows a pretty similar level of detail with the main difference being Sim City favours a light and bright colour palette whilst Skylines is a bit more muted. Indeed comparing both of them it feels like Skylines simply directly ripped off most of the visual and interface elements from Sim City as even the order of the bottom row is identical. The layout works however so it’s hard to fault the imitation but usually it comes with just a touch more subtly.
As you’d expect Skylines is a city building game, one where you start out with nothing and have to build your way up to a grand town with thousands of citizens. The controls and mechanics will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s played their fair share of games in this genre, especially anyone who’s spent even a small amount of time with Sim City. You’ll drop down roads, zone areas for certain types of development and deploy services that your citizens needs. Interestingly most of it isn’t accessible to you right at the start, instead the game slowly unlocks things as your population increases. Considering there’s no real tutorial to speak of (those hints don’t really count) this helps in understanding what each of the services does and where the best place is to place them. On top of this Skylines boasts an AI that doesn’t do the things that made Sim City 4 such a chore to play however it still has its own set of quirks, some of which are fun and others which are downright confusing.
Like all city building games Skylines has an optimal configuration for the roads, facilities, zoned areas and transportation but what that is can be a tricky thing to decipher. My first couple towns, which were centred on a main arterial with small roads coming off it, worked reasonably well at the beginning but quickly fell apart once the population started ramping up. The configuration below seemed to be the best one I could come up with, using long main roads without many intersections and having side roads come off them. The main limiting factor is the fact that zoned areas need to be next to roads so there’s only so much space you can pen in. I wholly admit that this was me trying to solve the transport problem with roads alone as once I added in metro lines things seemed to get a lot better.
There’s a few quality of life features in Skylines that makes your time a little easier, like power jumping from adjacent buildings so you don’t have to run power lines all the way through your city to get it going. The same can’t be said for other services though and so you’ll spend much of your time laying water pipes and other various bits of infrastructure to expand your city. That’s not terribly laborious however it does start to lose its lustre after a little while. It would be nice to be able to create patterns that you could stamp down, something which would form its own little mini-game of developing the best city cells to use for your larger deployments. Thankfully that’s something that might end up happening thanks to the already thriving modding community that’s sprung up around this title.
The city simulation seems fairly robust with things behaving how you’d expect them to. It’s a little more logical than what I remember Sim City being with things like the size of the road mattering when you place down a fire station or university. This adds a little more complexity to the city planning aspect of the game but it’s also far more rewarding when you manage to place a single building that then covers your entire city for that particular service. The AI actors are also not functionally retarded and perennially homeless like their Sim City brethren were, going back to the same homes each night and not taking the least cost path to everything all the time. This means that you can stack certain services on top of each other to service a particular need, something you just couldn’t do in Sim City 4.
As to whether Skylines is “the game Sim City should have been” well in all honesty they both play very similarly, Skylines just has the benefit of the hindsight gleaned from the last failed release of its competitor. The main gripes (poor AI, can’t expand, always online, etc.) have all be addressed but they were things that weren’t above being fixed in Sim City anyway. I do like the potential the modding community has though as that could extend the life of this game well past anyone’s current expectations. Indeed just looking through the mods now shows many solutions to the issues currently plaguing players and some interesting concepts for improving some of the core game mechanics.
Which, if I’m honest, are where Skylines is the weakest. Try as I might to understand why certain things are happening in my game, like below where there are dozens of buildings lying abandoned, I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s going wrong. Sim City got around this problem somewhat with the advisors, something Skylines attempts to do with the tweet roll at the top, however it’s hard to trace problems to their root cause when all the information you get is “This building is abandoned!”. I know its hard for smaller developer houses to invest heavily in tutorials or helpers like this however this was what made me stop playing as I really could not be bothered hunting around forums to figure out how to stop buildings from being abandoned, make commercial places produce more goods or the bloody lumber yards from burning down even though they had 2 fire departments right next to them.
Cities: Skylines does a great job of taking the fundamental ideas that Sim City 4 attempted and addressing every issue that the community had with it. The resulting game is something that has the same look and feel of its elder genre brethren but has many of the features the community wanted in it. That doesn’t necessarily make it the game that Sim City should aspire to be, indeed Skylines lacks any real originality or direction to where it might be going in the future. It’s a solid title, one that plays a heck of a lot better than Sim City 4 did, however it’s derivative and the onus is on the community to take it in new and strange directions to help differentiate it from its main competitor. That being said it’s still enjoyable to play and most certainly worth its current asking price.
Cities: Skylines is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked.
Trawling through the weekly releases can be something of an eye opener. There’s often a bevy of shovelware titles on there that I’m sure no one is proud of, a few early access titles that are looking to cash in on their promise and, if I’m lucky, a few titles that look like they’re worth playing. However every so often there’s a new concept in there that just stands out because of how out of left field it is and whilst most of them languish in Early Access a few of them have crossed the barrier into full release, allowing me to play them. The Deer God from Crescent Moon Games was one such title as its curious concept plus intriguing art style piqued my curiosity.
You are a hunter, or at least you were not too long ago. The Deer God has punished you for the crimes you have committed against its kind, trapping you inside the body of the young fawn you killed and set you forth on a quest to make reparations. There are many challenges before you and should you ever want to return to your human form you will have to best them all. How you go about this is your decision though: do you retain that callous hunter attitude and kill anything that stands in your way? Or has the transformation changed you, making you want to improve upon yourself and the world you live in? Only you can answer these questions, dear hunter.
The Deer God is a clever mix of pixelart and voxel stylings resulting in an interesting 2.5D landscape. Everything takes place in the one plane, which can be a little hard to discern visually when you first start out, however the landscape flows past you giving you the impression that the world is much larger than what the camera is showing you. All the environments are procedurally generated although it’s clear that there are numerous tiles that are used since the scenery tends to repeat several patterns over and over. There’s also dynamic weather effects for some regions and a day/night cycle, which helps to break up the repetition a little bit. The resulting world is visually impressive however, especially for some scenes like when you’re galloping across an open field while the sun is going down.
Mechanically The Deer God is a side scrolling platformer in which all the levels are procedurally generated. You’ll spend the majority of your time going from the left side to the right side of the screen, jumping over obstacles and head butting enemies into submission. Every so often you’ll be faced with a puzzle which, depending on how far you’ve progressed in the story or power tree, you may or may not be able to complete. However thanks to the procedural nature you’ll eventually come across that puzzle again in the near future, meaning that you’re never really stuck at a point where you can’t progress. There’s also a ton of optional things you can do to get items and powers which can help you later in the game. If that isn’t enough there’s also a whole host of achievements that’s sure to keep most completionists busy long after the initial game runs its course. Suffice to say that The Deer God’s asking price is likely well worth it for the hardcore platformers out there.
For the most part the platforming is pretty basic thanks almost entirely to the procedural generation. Once you’ve been through a biome a couple times you get a feel for which tile you’re currently in and what series of jumps you need to complete to get passed it. Sure, there are variations in the monsters and whatnot, but it’s not enough to make you pause and think about how you need to tackle the jump each time. Indeed most of my deaths resulted from me fat fingering the keys, rather than the challenge being too hard to overcome. This might have been different if the enemies couldn’t all be defeated by jumping over their attack and then hitting them but only the bosses provide any real variety combat wise. The powers do add a bit of fun into the mix, especially the dark ones, but the limited nature of their use means that you can’t go out of control with them.
Whilst The Deer God might be out of Early Access now it’s still shaking off some of its beta nature with a few of the puzzles still glitched as can be seen by a quick jaunt to the game’s Steam discussion page. Most of these have work arounds so it won’t stop you from finishing the game, however sometimes you can find yourself on a bugged puzzle for a frustratingly long time before you remember to check the discussion page to make sure you’re not barking up the wrong tree. There’s also some things I’m not sure are bugs or not, like if you fall into lava you respawn in the lava rather than back at some safe place. Thankfully the devs seem pretty active on the forums so its likely that most of these bugs will get ironed out sooner or later, but I’d still keep the forums open in the background just in case.
The story has some potential however it’s not developed at all. Most of the characters have only a few lines of dialogue and they’re really only there to facilitate the game moving forward rather than building up the world you’re in. It’s somewhat forgivable given the procedural nature of the game, allowing the player to create their own narrative within the world, however you can see there’s aspirations of it being something a little more than that, its just not realised. Considering the relatively short time between The Deer God’s KickStarter and its subsequent full release there was obviously sacrifices that needed to be made and it seems that the story was likely the first on the chopping block.
The Deer God is an interesting concept, taking the nostalgic pixelart styling in a new direction and combining it with procedural platforming resulting in a curious game. The procedural worlds are done brilliantly with all the ambient effects coming together well to produce some visually impressive set pieces. The core gameplay is rather repetitive and predictable after a short time and whilst the puzzles break it up a bit towards the end there’s simply not enough there to break up the monotony. Credit where credit is due though for The Deer God getting out of Early Access as quickly as it did, even if it came with some rough edges. Overall I quite enjoyed my experience with The Deer God and am definitely looking forward to more titles from Crescent Moon Games.
The Deer God is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 3.7 hours with 37% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s been a while between drinks for DirectX with the latest release, 11, coming out some 6 years ago . This can be partly attributed to the consolization of PC games, putting a damper on the demand for new features, however Vista having exclusivity on DirectX 10 was the biggest factor ensuring that the vast majority of gamers simply didn’t have access to it. Now that the majority of the gaming crowd has caught up and DirectX 11 titles abound demand for a new graphics pipeline that can make the most of new hardware has started to ramp up and Microsoft looks ready to deliver on that with DirectX 12. Hot on the heels of that however is Vulkan, the new OpenGL standard that grew out of AMD’s Mantle API which is shaping up to be a solid competitor.
Underpinning both of these new technologies is a desire for the engines to get out of the way of game developers by getting them as close to the hardware as possible. Indeed if you look at the marketing blurb for either DirectX 12 or Vulkan it’s clear that they want to market their new technology as being lightweight, giving the developers access to more of the graphical power than they would have had previously. The synthetic benchmarks that are making the rounds seem to confirm this showing a lot less time spent sending jobs to the GPUs thus eeking out more performance for the same piece of hardware. However the one feature that’s really intrigued me, and pretty much everyone else, is the possibility of these new APIs allowing SLI or CrossFire like functionality to work across different GPUs, even different brands.
The technology to do this is called Split Frame Rendering (SFR) an alternative way of combining graphics cards. The traditional way of doing SLI/CrossFire is called Alternate Frame Rendering (AFR) which sends odd frames to one card and even frames to the other. This is what necessitates the cards being identical and the reason why you don’t get a 100% performance boost from using 2 cards. SFR on the other hand makes both of the GPUs work in tandem, breaking up a scene into 2 halves and sending one of to each of the graphics cards. Such technology is already available for games that make use of the Mantle API for gamers who have AMD cards with titles like Civilization: Beyond Earth supporting SFR.
For Vulkan and DirectX 12 this technology could be used to send partial frames to 2 distinct types of GPUs, negating the need for special drivers or bridges in order to divvy up frames between 2 GPUs. Of course this then puts the onus on the game developer (or the engine that’s built on top of these APIs) to build in support for this rather than it sitting with the GPU vendor to develop a solution. I don’t think it will be long before we see the leading game engines support SFR natively and so you’d likely see numerous titles being able to take advantage of this technology without major updates required. This is still speculative at this point however and we may end up with similar restrictions around SFR like we currently have for AFR.
There’s dozens more features that are set to come out with these new set of APIs and whilst we won’t see the results of them for some time to come the possibilities they open up are quite exciting. I can definitely recall the marked jump up in graphical fidelity between DirectX 10 and 11 titles so hopefully 12 does the same thing when it graces our PCs. I’m interested to see how Vulkan goes as since it’s grown out of the Mantle API, which showed some very significant performance gains for AMD cards that used it, there’s every chance it’ll be able to deliver on the promises its making. It really harks back to the old days, when wars between supporters of OpenGL and DirectX were as fervent as those between vi and emacs users.
We all know that vi and DirectX are the superior platform, of course.
Puzzlers are something of a mainstay of the indie community thanks to their relative simplicity and large amount of creative freedom they offer the developer. That being said it means that the same generic mechanics tend to crop up quite often and unique puzzle mechanics are few and far between. There is a lot of innovation in the indie scene however and every so often it manages to create a gem of a puzzle game that provides a fresh take on the genre. Grow Home is one such game, taking the more traditional 3D puzzler and shaking it up with some interesting game mechanics and a certain sense of charm that makes it a delightfully fun game to play.
You are BUD, the Botanical Utility Droid, who’s been sent on a quest to harvest star seeds from the elusive star plant found on some planets. Your ever watchful parent ship MOM has located one of these plants and has sent you down to the surface to cultivate the plant. Now it’s up to you to grow the star plant up to its optimal height, 2 kilometres tall in fact, so that it will blossom and produce those wonderful seeds that you’re looking for. MOM has sent down some resources for you in preparation for your journey and you’re going to need every single one of them if you are to grow this plant to any height.
Grow Home is a styled in a beautifully minimalistic way, using extremely low poly count models and, if I’m not mistaken, eschewing any kind of textures in favour of just solid colour polygons. It is lavished by a lot of other effects though, like distance hazing and night/day cycles, so the minimal polygons end up looking a lot better than you first expect them to. The game touts the main character as being “procedurally animated” which means that it attempts to move in a certain way based on the inputs which, for the most part, works and adds to the whole bumbling charm of BUD although it sometimes wigs out and causes all sorts of mischief. This is most certainly intentional though, as is most of the emergent behaviour you’re able to invoke in this world.
Your task is very simple: grow the star plant to the requisite 2000m height and then gather a star seed from the flower on the top. To do this you’ll need to guide the little stems on the star plant to energy rocks which give the plant a burst of energy allowing it to climb to greater heights. However to get to all these energy rocks you’ll need to climb the plant, inching ever higher in order to get to the next rock. This means, of course, that the higher you go the more you have to lose should you fall as one misstep can send you tumbling back down to earth with only a few things to stop you from making BUD jam on the ground below. There’s also other objectives for you to complete which tempt you to take even greater risks but should you get them it could be well worth the effort.
Grow Home tells you at the start that it’s better played with a controller and whilst I’m usually a stickler for keyboard and mouse I’m inclined to agree with the devs here. You see in order to climb you have to press and hold the mouse buttons, something that’s a little fatiguing after a while. A controller by comparison, especially the current gen designs, are much easier to deal with in that regard. That being said I didn’t have many climbing related incidents due to finger fatigue but it would’ve likely made the whole experience a little better. Once you get the hang of making sure that you have at least one hand connected to a surface the rest of the climbing flows pretty well, save for some times when the procedural animation engine tries to reach beyond BUD’s grasp and just leaves him reaching for a goal he can never get.
The few other mechanics are great little quality of life additions, with the flower and the leaf ensuring that one misstep doesn’t cost you the last 10 minutes progress. The crystal upgrades are also well worth it, making the whole climbing process a lot easier and quicker. I only got up to 30 something crystals before I finished the game but those improvements were certainly worth the effort. If you’re so inclined you can bring stuff to the teleporters and have MOM scan them for some rather comical data bank entries for you to read although since I’m not usually a “collect all the things” kind of player I left it to one side, only bringing things in that were nearby. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of stuff to keep you entertained in here should that sort of thing appeal to you.
Grow Home runs smoothly thanks to its low polygon use however the Unity engine its running on, for some reason, really doesn’t like being alt-tabbed out of. This highlighted another rather annoying issue with the game’s save mechanism as it doesn’t save anything unless you hit the save and quit button in the menu. I lost the first 30 minutes of my initial game because I alt-tabbed to check something and then couldn’t get back in, putting me right back at the start. There’s no option to run in fullscreen windowed either, something which would render my frustrations moot.
Grow Home is a delightful platform puzzler with gorgeous minimalistic graphics and a fresh set of puzzle mechanics that make it a joy to play. If you’re like me and play games to completion then the asking price might be a bit rich for the 2ish hours of game play it delivers but there’s certainly a lot more to Grow Home than just getting your hands on the star seed. That being said I still really enjoyed my time with Grow Home as it’s so far away from everything else I’ve played recently. If you enjoy a good puzzle game then you can’t go past Grow Home.
Grow Home is available on PC right now for $9.95. Total play time was approximately 2 hours with 15% of the achievements unlocked.
I remember when I was a doe eyed teenager thinking that it would be great to make games (I know better now, of course) if I could only afford the fees to get a good engine. You see back then commercial engines were licensed for inordinate sums of money and the technical hurdle of building your own engine was fraught with danger. Over time though that has changed with old engines being open sourced, new products entering the fray and licensing models shifting to be more palatable to those who might not be able to afford huge upfront costs. Today it seems that free is now the way to go as 3 major platforms have just announced that their engines are free for all who want them, opening up a wealth of possibilities to indies and big development houses alike.
Unity has been the mainstay of many indie games for quite a while now, enabling many to create games that would’ve otherwise been impossible. They’ve also long been sympathetic to the cause, offering free (but often cut down) versions of their engine to anyone who’d ask for them. The difference between the free and paid tier has been eroded completely with both versions containing all the same features and editor. This is a big step for Unity as there was a definite rift between the paid and free versions, something that was abundantly clear to me when I was tinkering around with it. Now the difference between the tiers comes in the form of additional services and can be had for a measly $1500 (which includes a team license) or $75/month if that’s too rich for your blood. Suffice to say that I think Unity is likely to remain the king of indie engines for a long time now as even the pro tier is well within the grasp of aspiring devs.
Not to be outdone by Unity Unreal announced on the same day that their new Unreal 4 engine, which has had some incredibly impressive demos, is now free to any and all comers.The barrier to entry wasn’t particularly high before, they only charged $19 to get access to the engine and all its source, however that’s enough to stop some people from considering it in the first place. Now you’ll be able to get it everything that program gave you for free and you won’t have to pay a dime until you’re able. The limit on revenue isn’t particularly high though, only $3000 per product per quarter, before you have to shell out 5% of gross revenue something which could be a killer for some devs. Still it’s hard to deny what the engine is capable of producing so it might be an easier sell for more established dev houses.
Lastly Valve has swaggered into the picture debuting their new Source 2 engine and announcing that it will also be free to anyone who wants it. It’s been not-so-secretly released as part of the DOTA 2 development tools for the better part of a year now and by all accounts seems like a really capable next-gen engine. Source 2 appears to be the most “free” of the free engines that have debuted in the past couple days with Valve wanting no money up front for the engine nor any backend revenue should you make it big. However there is the caveat that the resulting game be released on Steam which means all sales on there give Valve their 30% cut although you’d incur this same cost regardless of which engine you used if you sold on Steam. Source 2 is then something of a loss-leader for future sales, a clever move by Valve to bring more developers onto their platform (as if there wasn’t enough already).
With this many options available now developers are now spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting an engine for a game, something you really couldn’t say even a few years ago. Whilst I think Unreal will probably be the least likely one to be used out of the current 3 I think there’s going to be some stiff competition between Unity and Source 2 as time goes on. Unity has the head start in this regard as their tools really are top notch for both novice and advanced developers alike but Source 2 has the potential to turn into something amazing based on the community that Valve seems to develop around every one of its products. The real winner in all of this is us, the gaming public, as it means more games will get made and more concepts will be explored.
Few games have been talked about as much as The Order 1886 has been recently and fewer still with as much derision. For some this game seems to embody everything that’s wrong with AAA development, focusing on all the wrong areas and failing to deliver the game experience that they were expecting. Others saw the potential the title had and, whilst still not heaping praise on the overall experience, had high hopes for what Ready at Dawn could do with this IP. After avoiding much of this discussion before playing The Order 1886 I’ve since dived head first into all the discussion and, frankly, don’t disagree with the more nuanced arguments out there. Still this game has its merits and trashing everything about it, like many seem keen to do, doesn’t seem fair.
You are Sir Galahad, member of the Order of the Knights of the Round Table and devout servant to your country. You are sworn to fight the half-breed blight who seeks to destroy humanity and do so with the aid of the Holy Grail which heals all wounds and greatly extends your life. Thus the order has existed for numerous centuries with many of the knights living for just as long and those who fall in battle passing on their name and title to those who follow them. However not everything is as it first seems as turmoil within London sparks an unusual reaction from your leader, prompting you to investigate further.
If there’s one game out there that should serve as the current reference point for graphics on the PlayStation4 it has to be The Order 1886. The world is lavishly detailed in every aspect, from the environments to the weapons to the character models which have some of the best animations I’ve seen to date. The seamless transitions between cut scenes and game play sections is, I’ll admit, jarring at first but after a while they beautifully melt sections together. Best of all this is done without a hint of performance degradation even in the most action heavy scenes, something which most graphical envelope pushing games fail to achieve consistently. Suffice to say that The Order 1886 is PlayStation4’s Crysis and the effort that Ready at Dawn invested in their RAD 4 engine was not wasted.
The Order 1886 tiptoes between the cinematic story and 3rd person corridor shooter genres. The bulk of the game is spent either in cut-scene or wandering around an environment which is then inter-dispersed with sections of cover-based shooting. There are numerous mini-games as well like the unique lock-picking and the transformer overload puzzle. There are a few sections which require you to solve a puzzle in order to progress to the next section but not enough that I could say that The Order 1886 is much of a puzzler. Lastly the fabled quick time event makes numerous appearances throughout the game, sometimes blended into the 3rd person shooting sections and later as the main boss fight mechanic. If this is sounding like a jumble of mechanics without a coherent thread to tie them all together then you’re right, it is and this is why I don’t disagree with the bulk of the criticism levelled at The Order 1886.
Whilst I’m not a huge console FPS/3rd person shooter player I have played an unhealthy amount of Destiny and so I have a feel for when janky mechanics are blame rather than my lack of skill with a controller. With that in mind the combat of The Order 1886 feels decidedly half-baked as I would often line up clear head shots only to have them inexplicably miss. This is somewhat made up for by the inclusion of a bullet-time shooting mechanic but it doesn’t help when the ability is on cooldown and all your bullets seem to miss. The more innovative weapons, like the lightning gun and the thermite rifle, are a blast to use and feel far more effective than any of the other very generic weapons but they’re unfortunately highly limited. With the lack of variety of enemies this means that most encounters are largely the same, just in different locations. Had I not invested so many hours in Destiny I might’ve written this off as just me being derpy with the controller but, unfortunately for Ready at Dawn, I feel that most of the problems stem from the decidedly below average combat mechanics.
I did enjoy the mini-games which were thankfully used sparingly throughout the game, rather than being peppered everywhere like some games tend to do. They don’t take a lot of skill honestly and once you’ve done them once it’s pretty easy to finish them without even thinking about it. Unfortunately even the best of mini-games can’t make up for the faults that the larger game has as whilst they’re fun distractions that’s all they amount to, nothing more. Perhaps some of the time dedicated to these small parts of the game could have been better spent addressing some of the more pressing issues that the game faces like the lack of coherency around what it was trying to achieve.
It’s obvious that the primary goal of The Order 1886 was to make it a kind of cinematic experience, one where there’s a little less focus on game mechanics and a little more on the story and cinematography. The problem I see with this, at least in The Order 1886’s case, is that typically such cinematic games focus on player agency (or at least the illusion there of) something which it doesn’t lack. That means that it’s more apt to compare it to all the corridor shooters which, unfortunately, it can’t hold a candle to as the various combat mechanics are incredibly weak when compared to say Call of Duty titles. So The Order 1886 straddles the boundaries of these two genres, doing neither of them well and unfortunately falling in a screaming heap.
Which is a right shame because there’s a ton of potential in all the jumbled pieces that make up The Order 1886. Each of the individual pieces feel like they’d be right at home in an open world game and there’s numerous other aspects that would translate directly without too much effort. I understand that this is a non-trivial exercise however it’s clear where most of the effort was spent and it wasn’t in making sure the game was a cohesive experience. What The Order 1886 shows us is that you can’t just have a bunch of great elements all thrown together in a pile and expect the resulting game to be great, careful attention needs to be applied in the integration so the sum of the parts exceeds the whole.
The Order 1886’s story, whilst it has strong roots, fails to develop and is utterly predictable which means it doesn’t make up for the range of mistakes that the large game makes. The story follows the well trodden trope of a righteous soldier finding out he’s on the wrong side of the fight which isn’t bad on its own however The Order 1886’s telling of it is just so predictable. I called out nearly every single one of the twists long before it occurred, something which I’m not particularly good at usually. It got to the point where I was browsing Reddit most of the time cut scenes were happening since I didn’t feel the need to hear every bit of dialogue to understand the story. Again, like most of the game, there are elements in here that have tons of potential, like the setting and back stories, but they’re just not developed or cohesive enough to formulate into a solid game experience.
The Order 1886 is a victim of its own ambition, seeking to create a truly cinematic experience but ultimately falls short, failing to even deliver a coherent experience. Without a doubt its crowning achievement is its graphics, something that Ready at Dawn should be proud of, however everything built on top of that fails to achieve the same level of excellence. The combat is repetitive and clumsy, the story predictable and uninteresting and the various other bits and pieces just don’t seem to fit well into the game’s larger picture. It’s a right shame as the different parts wouldn’t be amiss in a more coherent title it’s just that The Order 1886 lacks that one thing to bind everything together. It’s worth at least spending some time with The Order 1886 just to see what the PlayStation 4 platform is capable of, maybe later when you can grab it on special.
The Order 1886 is available on PlayStation 4 exclusively right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 6.5 hours.
There’s a new trend among the newer game developers who found success with their earlier titles. Instead of relying on releasing sequels (although most of these kinds of developers still do that) they instead rely on applying their trademark style to different games, allowing them to experiment with new IPs whilst still retaining the majority of the brand loyalty that a sequel would. The most prevalent example of this is Telltale Games who’s titles include various IPs ranging from their signatures like The Walking Dead all the way down to TV tie-ins like their CSI games. Turtle Rock Studios made a name for themselves with the Left 4 Dead franchise which had the unique appeal of putting you in charge of the monsters that terrorized other players. Evolve extends that idea except now instead of being team on team it’s now one versus four and that difference, along with the swath of new mechanics, make it quite an interesting title.
The planet Shear is a planet deep in space, on the far reaches of humanity. We set up colonies there, hoping to plunder the vast riches of this world for ourselves. However the world rebelled against us, sending huge hulking monsters to destroy everything we built and slaughter everyone who dared to tread on its surface. That’s when William Cabot arrived, bringing with him his team of hunters who would put these monsters in the ground, allowing us to escape from the planet’s deadly grasp. You are one of those hunters and its your job to save colonists and collect a fat pay check in the process.
Evolve is the first taxing game I’ve run on my new rig and suffice to say that it looks absolutely gorgeous with everything turned up to its limit. There’s a slight Unreal engine feel to it, most likely due to the texturing more than anything else, which would usually detract from the visual experience however Evolve has so much detail that you stop noticing it very quickly. You won’t have much time to stop and gawk at the huge environments however as you’ll always be in motion, whether you’re the monster or the hunter trying to track it down. This visual pleasure does come at a cost however as DirectX 11 is a strict requirement so if you’ve let your GPU age a couple generations now would be the time to invest in an upgrade.
The mechanics in Evolve are a fresh take on the style that Turtle Rock perfected with the Left 4 Dead series, using the futuristic setting to the fullest extent to create 5 truly unique archetypes that all have their role to play. The monster is the signature character class and, depending on how you play the game, will either be your staple or class you rarely ever play. The Monster is the signature archetype of the game which is controlled by a single player for the entire duration of the match. The hunters make up the remaining 4 archetypes, each of them filling a specific role in bringing the monster down. For the hunters the game centres on team work, ensuring that everyone performs their role correctly and executing whatever battle plan you have in your head perfectly. For the monster however it’s a game of balancing evolving, battling hunters and trying to complete the map’s objective before the hunters get you. So whilst Evolve might be a little derivative from their past titles it’s most certainly a fresh and unique experience, one that is tied to how good your team and/or the monster is.
Evolve gets credit for putting everyone through a couple of mandatory tutorials before allowing them into the main game, ostensibly because playing the monster is a non-trivial exercise and you’ll need to know the basics of movement before you can play effectively as a hunter. Whilst it’s not as thorough as say, the DPS/Tank challenges in World of Warcraft, it’s enough to make sure you won’t be completely useless. Evolve does send a bevy of prompts your way through the game though so even if you haven’t played a class in a while you should be able to pick it up without too much hassle. After that it was only an hour or two before I had grasped all the key mechanics pretty well and was feeling like I was actually contributing to the fight.
There are two main ways to play Evolve: either as a team (which bars you from being the monster) or as a solo player who can choose to play whichever class they want. You won’t always get the class you want however you can set a preference for which ones you’d like to play more than others. I’ve only had a couple games where I wasn’t given my first or second preference so if you’re keen on playing a particular class you shouldn’t go long without getting it. I managed to get some time playing on both sides of the equation and, most definitely, my favourite way is to play with a group of mates. However the game play is still solid enough that playing online with a bunch of strangers is still rewarding although it is a far more variable experience.
This is mainly because in those types of games, the ones which are mostly made up of random people playing together, the advantage tends heavily towards the monster. This isn’t a fault of the game, more a product of the fact that a bunch of randoms are less likely to work as a cohesive whole than a single guy with the power of 4 other people. I definitely noticed this when I was playing as the monster and the hunter’s medic was, shall we say, unaware of the fact that their death would spell the end of their team. I managed to win 4 out of 5 matches against them (foiled at the last stage when the auto balance was at 4 bars in their favour) by waiting for them to trap me in and then going to town on their healer. I’ve also been on the flip side however when a less than stellar monster decided that evolving in front of me was a good idea, something which Parnell (who with Super Soldier activated) took advantage of. I’m not sure how the match making works yet but there definitely needs to be some kind of ranking system in the back end to make the games a little more even since, as it stands right now, most matches are pretty one sided.
Evolve was rock solid for most of the time I was playing it however there were a couple issues that I think bears mentioning. The worst one I encountered was a Cry Engine error that said DXGI_ERROR_DEVICE_HUNG which highlighted the fact that there’s no way to rejoin a match if you crash, lag or disconnect. I looked around for a solution but nothing seemed to give me a solid answer one way or the other and, thankfully, I only saw it once during my 7ish hours with Evolve. I also had the rather annoying issue of my mouse cursor appearing when it shouldn’t (so I could see it while I was playing) and not showing up when it should (like in the menus). This could usually be fixed by alt-tabbing or shift-tabbing however sometimes it would require an entire game restart to get it working. These were minor inconveniences however and didn’t detract heavily from my overall experience.
Like Left 4 Dead before it Evolve has musings of a story peppered throughout it via bits of conversation between your character and your fellow hunters with a few bits fleshed out in various cut scenes. There definitely appears to be a larger world that the world of Evolve exists in however it’s not explored in any kind of depth beyond that of the back and forth banter that your characters sometimes have. Considering this is a multiplayer-first game (there is the option to do solo stuff if you want) like Titanfall I wasn’t really expecting much and so I can’t really count this as a fault. Ultimately the stories you and your friends create in Evolve will be far more interesting than the lore behind of this world you’re playing in.
Evolve is a wonderfully fresh breath of air, taking all the best parts of the Left 4 Dead franchise and rebuilding them in a new world that allowed Turtle Rock Studios to really experiment with what their niche genre was capable of. The game oozes polish in all the right places with only a hint of some issues still present a couple weeks after release. Playing with friends is a great experience, one that will be sure to create tales that will be retold for years to come as Evolve is broken out at LAN parties everywhere. The match-made multi-player experience is, unfortunately, quite varied although it’s not beyond saving and hopefully Turtle Rock is watching these first few weeks carefully to see what tweaks are needed to make it a much more fair experience. Overall though Evolve is a game that’s incredibly fun to play and one I can see myself coming back to when I need a break from the typical FPS drudgery I find myself in.
Evolve is available on PC PlayStation4 and XboxOne right now for $59.99, $99.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with approximately 7 hours of total play time and 27% of the achievements unlocked.
For gamers who’ve been craving solid stories where the player has real agency the last couple years have been a real boon with dozens of titles being released. Telltale remains the king of this particular genre and their style can be seen influencing nearly all others, for better or for worse. Life is Strange, the second game from Dotnod Entertainment who’s only previous title was the rather lukewarmly received Remember Me (although I quite liked it), definitely draws inspiration from the Telltale style but strives to stand out through their use of mechanics and more down to earth setting. For the most part it pulls this off however there are a few key things that, unfortunately, get in the way of the story.
Max had always dreamed of this and it was finally happening: she was going to Blackwell Academy to study under one of her photographic idols. It was so surreal coming back to the place she left 5 years ago, her home town having changed in subtle ways. Everything was going well, or as least as good as it could be given her shy and recluse nature, until she found herself in the grips of a strange nightmare in the middle of class. Upon waking however it appeared that she wasn’t asleep and events that had happened before seemed to be happening again, like the strongest case of deja vu you would have ever experienced. Her return home was about to take a turn for the supernatural.
The art style was described by the developers as “impressionistic rendering” which essentially boils down to them using hand painted textures. In some parts this works well, especially in the wider shots where the detail isn’t so important, however up close the stylization loses its lustre very quickly. This lack of detail is present in almost all scenes from the character models to the environments to even the animations which, jarringly, never seem to line up with the character’s speech. Indeed out of all the aspects of Life is Strange the visuals are the weakest, often getting in the way of the story coming across due to how jarring they are.
Life is Strange is your typical story-first adventure title where the focus is on developing the story and characters whilst giving you some real agency in sculpting how the story develops. However you’re given the unique ability to rewind (but not fast forward) time, allowing you to do things that would otherwise be impossible. Interestingly this ability is extended to all the key decisions within the game, allowing you to see how each of your choices would have played out. You can’t rewind infinitely though but it does give you an indication of how a particular decision would’ve played out and the potential consequences that could arise from it. Apart from that there’s a few rudimentary puzzles thrown in here or there, all of which make use of the rewind mechanic, but they’re a minor distraction from the rest of the game however.
For those of you who played Remember Me the rewind mechanic will be somewhat familiar as it’s very similar to the memory replay mechanic. Most of the time you’ll be rewinding to try and catch some kind of detail or figure out a series of events that needs to unfold in order to progress to the next stage. Interestingly items you pick up and your position in the world don’t change when you rewind, something which takes a little getting used to since that’s different from most other time travel games I’ve played in the past. Suffice to say the main mechanic is novel and definitely makes Life is Strange stand out a little more from the current crop of story-first games.
Thankfully Life is Strange does avoid the common pitfall of attempting to put in too many game mechanics that many story first games do, usually to avoid being lumped in with the walking simulators. The puzzles are relatively simple and the game usually gives you an indication of what you need to do through audio cues or visual prompts so it’s unlikely you’ll get stuck on them for any length of time. Instead Life is Strange encourages you to explore around your environment, uncovering bits of back story for all the characters you’ll come across and gaining insight into what Max is thinking. It’s a good balance, one that I’m hopeful more games like this will be able to achieve so their stories can shine rather than being hidden behind needless tedium.
As this is the first episode of what’s shaping up to be a 5 part episodic game it’s hard to get a complete picture of the story however this first instalment is a strong one. Life is Strange does require you to explore quite a bit in order to get the full picture and there’s a treasure trove of back story hidden in the journal that’s never really made reference to. However if you spend the time to explore, read and soak in the various details of the story it’s clear that there’s a rich world of detail that the writers are drawing on and the supernatural aspects are simply an aside rather than the main draw card. Overall this first episode sets up the game with a strong base, now all that’s left is to see if they can build on that and, potentially, give Telltale a run for their money.
Life is Strange is an interesting change of direction for Dotnod Entertainment, casting off their action roots in favour of a story first experience that, for the most part, achieves what it set out to. It’s quite clear where the majority of their focus was however and unfortunately some aspects of the game suffer because of it. I’m often of the mind that graphics don’t matter if the story is strong however Life is Strange’s art style and simplistic lip syncing detracts heavily from its well crafted story. This is somewhat made up for by the novel time rewind mechanic and strong story but it’s hard to escape it when you’re constantly reminded of the rather below par visuals. I am interested to see where this story goes however as it has the potential to set up Dotnod as one of the few developers able to execute well in the episodic game space.
Life is Strange is available on PC right now for $4.99. Total play time was 2 hours.
It’s an unfortunate fact that creating a new IP is always fraught with danger. The wider gaming community is incredibly hard to judge and seemingly minor decisions on certain mechanics can have a huge reaching impact on how they perceive your game. There is a good chunk of this community that hungers for new and innovative content however and should you touch a nerve with them a new IP can quickly turn itself into a dynasty of its own. Dying Light is Techland’s most recent new IP, taking the lessons learned from Dead Island and using them to craft a better experience in a new world. For the most part they pull this off although the key differentiating mechanic is both its greatest and worst asset.
The city of Harran is in chaos. Months ago a mysterious outbreak occurred that turned people in ravenous monsters, feasting upon the flesh of others and spreading the contagion at a rapid pace. The city was quickly walled off however, containing the spread ensuring it wouldn’t cause a worldwide apocalypse. An organization called the Global Relief Effort has been instrumental in ensuring that some semblance of order remains, appointing a man called Kadir Sulaiman to keep the peace. However a tragedy involving his brother has sent him rogue and he is threatening to release a file that could put thousands of lives at risk. It’s up to you, Kyle Crane, to stop him and save not only the people of Harran, but the world at large.
Dying Light is built on Techland’s own Chrome Engine 6 which is exclusively for PC and next gen platforms. There’s a notable step up in graphics, in everything from textures to lighting to the detail of the models, which predictably sent my rig into slideshow mode in the more action heavy sequences. It’s definitely an evolutionary step rather than a revolutionary one as it still retains the same feel that Dead Island had in terms of graphics and effects, something which I noted early on before I found out that it was the same developer. That being said the environments are much bigger and broader in scope with a lot more attention to detail given the exploration heavy nature that the game has now taken on. In a nutshell it’s a solid amount of progress for Techland and it will be very interesting to compare and contrast it against Dead Island 2 when it debuts.
Dying Light is an open world, first person survival horror game that blends in a lot of RPG elements including talent trees and crafting. Those of you who’ve played Dead Island will find many of the mechanics to be very similar however many of them have been streamlined so you spend a lot less time diving through menus. Unlike its predecessor however Dying Light includes a heavy exploration aspect, allowing you to clamber all over everything in the world in good old fashioned parkour styling. This radically changes how the game plays out, giving you a vast array of options in how you tackle each situation. Finally you’ll engage in good old fashioned melee combat using crude tools like pipes and wrenches all the way up to fully automatic weaponry. All in all it’s best summed up as an improved version of Dead Island although some of the improvements aren’t without their drawbacks.
The combat in Dying Light will likely be an unique experience for everyone as there’s a huge number of combinations of weapons, modifications and talent builds that all affect how you hack and slash your way through the game. The melee aspect is the most polished although it still suffers from the trials and tribulations that is first person melee combat. Quite often you’ll find weapons (especially big 2 handed ones) not connecting like you think they should, requiring almost frame perfect timing to get them to land properly. The guns are by far the weakest aspect of the combat as they just don’t feel polished enough, especially when compared to the melee weapons. The parkour aspect allows you to alter the dynamic quite a lot, often allowing you to use the environment to gain a significant advantage.
Indeed, as I alluded to earlier, the parkour/exploration aspect of Dying Light is simultaneously the best and worst aspect of the game. The good of it is that it adds a whole new layer onto the trope that Techland set up in Dead Island, significantly opening up the map to an incredible amount of exploration that is quite rewarding. There’s still a fair chunk of jumping puzzles which only have one proper solution to them but other than that you’re free to find the best angle of attack for your current challenge, something which can make the difference between a mission being a complete breeze and a total nightmare. Once you get the grappling hook upgrade it gets even better, enabling you to travel across the map at inhuman speed and get you out of jams that would’ve otherwise resulted in your death. Suffice to say the good of the parkour is really good but it’s marred by its less than stellar aspects.
There are numerous points in the game where the parkour simply doesn’t flow like you’d expect to. The visual cues to what you can and can’t climb on aren’t terribly consistent and judging whether or not you can make a particular jump is more of an art than a science. Worst of all the hit detection for your character to latch onto things fails way more often than it should, often sending you plummeting to the ground with no indication of why that failed. Worse still when you do get the grappling hook it will likely be disabled with the cop out message “You’re too exhausted to use your grappling hook right now” making the upgrade worthless. These are fixable issues, and undoubtedly something that will get patched in later versions, however it doesn’t detract from the fact that some of the parkour heavy sections can be seriously frustrating.
The talent system is well thought out, splitting out your character’s progression into 3 main categories: survivor, agility and power. The survivor tree is levelled up by completing objectives and gives you access to ancillary skills that will help you survive in Harran. Agility is progressed by simply moving around the world and enables you to move easier around the world. Finally the power tree is all about zombie killing, turning you from a schmuck wielding a pipe to a whirling death machine. With 3 different things to level up progression is consistent and constant, ensuring you’re never too far away from unlocking something to make you just that little bit better. Honestly though apart from the grappling hook most of the upgrades aren’t hugely impactful but after a while the sum of their parts starts to add up to something greater.
The crafting system is very rewarding and retains many of the characteristics from Dead Island. All crafting reagents, bar the base weapons, can be held on your character in unlimited quantities, ensuring that you always have all your materials on you to craft things. Gone is the requirement for using a bench or other things enabling you to craft whatever you need whenever you need it. The only issue I have with the system is that weapon upgrades (not modifications) cannot be crafted and so most of your weapons will likely have their upgrade slots unused. I’m pretty sure this isn’t me missing a key mechanic in the game either as my numerous Google searches on the issue came up blank. Suffice to say whilst I think the crafting system is strong in Dying Light it seems like one aspect was overlooked.
Dying Light was a relatively smooth experience for me, free of any major issues like crashing or game breaking bugs. However there were numerous quirks where things happened that shouldn’t have like the picture above where my safe zone was somehow infested with zombies despite me having just cleared it out. There was also the rather unsettling thing of my character screaming, yelling or saying something random every time I loaded in which often made me think I had been dropped into the middle of combat before realising it was just him making noise for no reason. It kind of feels like a Bethesda release if I’m honest, where the core game is solid but stuff around the periphery is a little wonky and will likely take a couple patch cycles to sort out.
The story feels, at best, mediocre due mostly to its predictability and pacing issues that a present throughout most of the campaign missions. Now I’m willing to admit part of this is likely due to my campaign-first playstyle for these kinds of games (putting me at least than half of total completion by the end) however I’ve played several other games that have managed to get that right without relying on side missions to flesh things out. Combine that with the obvious plot twists and highly predictable emotional climaxes and you end up with a story that’s enough to drive you along but not enough to make you empathize with the characters. Indeed it’s one of the few aspects that doesn’t improve on Dead Island at all, a right shame considering that it was one of the more heavily criticised aspects.
Dying Light is a solid new IP for Techland, taking the essence of what made Dead Island great and translating that into a whole new game which stands well on its own. There’s a lot to love in Dying Light, from the parkour to the visceral combat to the crafting system that allows you to create weapons of untold destructive power. However much of the experience is marred in varying issues ranging from the fixable game play variety to the mediocre story which doesn’t add much overall. Suffice to say I still think it’s worth playing just maybe not by yourself, instead with a bunch of mates and a few beers to take the edge of the more frustating aspects.
Dying Light is available on PC, PlayStation4 and XboxOne right now for $71.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 15 hours played with 46% of the achievements unlocked.