I’m in something of a love/hate relationship with online co-op games. On the one hand I think they’re amazing as some of the best times I’ve had in gaming have come from the times when a bunch of us have got together and just smashed out a couple hours on a game. Notable examples of this include Dead Island, Borderlands and Left 4 Dead. At the same time however it can be pretty difficult to get everyone online at the same time or, worse still, if you have more people who want to play than there are spots in the game it inevitably means it’ll never get played. Thankfully developers have noticed this and designed systems to alleviate at least the former of those issues. Payday 2 is one such game that lives and dies by its co-op experience but thankfully it’s a rather seamless experience, even if you can’t find any friends to play with.
You’re a career criminal who’s been on the lamb for a while. Your old friend Bain has got into contact with you as he’s in need of your skills again. He’s set you up with a safe house, some cash and a cache of weapons to get you started. From there he leaves the rest up to you, allowing you to pick and choose through various heists, purchase additional weaponry and develop your skills in whichever way you see fit. You’re not the only criminal out there however and more often than not you’ll be working side by side with many others, some who might not share your view of how these things ought to go down.
Everything about Payday 2 is optimized for fast paced action and that includes the graphics. Whilst they’re not exactly bad it’s clear that they’ve been done with FPS in mind first and since it’s a multiplatform release the limitations from the consolization are quite apparent. I had every setting set to maximum (with v-sync on) and never once saw any slow down, even in the most heavy action scenes. I don’t expect Crysis level graphics from everyone but if you’re playing Payday 2 on a PC the limitations are going to be quite apparent, but they are there for a reason.
Payday 2 plays out through various different “heists” which are essentially short, usually no longer than 30mins long but can be as short as 1 min, missions which have varying degrees of risk and reward associated with them. You have little control over all these parameters however, instead you’re given an interface where you can choose from a multitude of available heists with various properties. The more white dots something has the bigger the reward for completing it is and the yellow dots denote additional risk (which appears to translate into a tougher mission, although not always). There are also Pro Jobs which have to be comepleted in one attempt otherwise you’re sent back to crime.net to search for another one.
The jobs will be different each time you play them as pathways will be opened/closed, resources required to complete them in different areas and, if its a multi-day heist, the outcome of the previous days will determine what options are available to you. It usually comes down to a choice between maximising your profit or shortening the amount of time you need to spend on that particular mission. One of the most popular heists, the Ukrainian Job, can be done in 30 seconds although you can loot the jewelry store for extra cash which, potentially, can make you miss the early escape that’s available.
There’s 4 different character classes in Payday 2 and which one you choose will drastically alter the potential ways you have to finish a heist. Early on there isn’t much choice as the game changing skills don’t come until much later however the different equipment available to each class can be the make or break for those early level heists. I had initially chose the Enforcer class, which is essentially a soldier who deals out and soaks up damage, since all the heists I was in never worked out when we attempted to do stealth. I’ve since changed to the Technician almost exclusively for the shaped charge equipment (which allows you to blow open most things that would otherwise take ages to drill) but even then I’m still eyeing off the sentry gun tree as something that could be quite viable.
The leveling system is made up of 3 different components. The first is straight up experience, granted to you on the completion of every day of a heist, and every level grants you a skill point (and ever 10 levels gets you 2 bonus points). The higher up the skill tree the more points a particular skill costs so those top tier abilities require quite a heavy level of investment. The second is cash which is used to purchase skills, weapons and also to customize your mask. Past a certain point cash usually isn’t much of an issue, you’re never more than a mission or two away from buying anything you want, however the 3rd part of the leveling system, the unlocks, severely limits how far a large cash reserve can go.
You see whilst you’re able to buy every weapon once you reach the right levels the modifications to those weapons come as part of the “payday” you get at the end of every heist. Essentially it’s a random chance to get a drop which can be anything from mask components to weapon mods or even just additional cash. Problem with this is that it means once you get to say level 45 or so you’ll have the best weapon you can get and the only way to progress further is to get more unlocks. This is why you’ll see people preferring the single day heists that can be completed quickly and honestly its at this point that the replay value of Payday 2 diminishes rapidly as grinding out those unlocks just isn’t fun.
Payday 2 is also has quite a few quirks, one of which is pictured above. Other player characters don’t walk particularly smoothly on screen, usually twitching between walk cycles randomly. There’s also a lot of jitter on player models, almost as if the physics engine is buffering them around, which is most notable on the lobby screen before you commence a job. The hit detecting also seems to be a little weird as there were times I could nail people with a shotgun from 100m away only to have that same weapon miss when they were at point blank range. They’re not exactly game breaking issues but they are things that can cause additional frustration, something which can tip you over the edge if the heist isn’t going particularly well.
Payday 2 feels like one of those classic LAN games, one where you can just pick it up and bash it out with a couple friends for however long you feel like. The fast paced action and rudimentary level strategy is enough to make Payday 2 interesting whilst not overly complicated, significantly reducing the barrier to entry for those who want to play it. It’s not without its quirks however although I have to say that it’s probably one of the most polished games I’ve played that’s cost me less than $30. So if you’re a fan of cooperative styled games then Payday 2 has quite a lot to offer, especially if you have a few friends who have it already.
Payday 2 is available on PC and Xbox360 right now for $29.99 and $39.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with around 10 hours played and 33% of the achievements unlocked.
Co-op games run a fine line of balancing the game between the single and multi-player experience. You see whilst it’s great to be able to bash out a game with mates (as I often do) I can’t rely on all my friends being available when I want to play. Borderlands suffered somewhat because of this as their support for drop in/drop out co-op left a lot to be desired, leaving many to simply not play the game at all if they couldn’t get their original crew together. Dead Island, a game I picked up on G2Play to play with mates at a recent LAN, is a cross between borderlands style RPG play but in a setting much more like Left 4 Dead and it seems to have gotten this balance between play modes figured out.
You get a choice of 4 different heros: Xian Mei, Sam B, Logan Carter and Purna. The game starts out with you waking up to find the resort you’re staying in being overrun by zombies (from an unknown source) leaving you to fend for yourself. The game then centres around finding pockets of survivors on the island and helping them out, travelling between different locations on the island. Part way through a mysterious voice appears over the radio who starts helping you out in the hopes that you’ll be able to help him save his wife who’s become one of the infected.
Each of the 4 main characters represent a different character class, each with their own distinct set of advantages. I choose Purna, mostly to round out the team of 4 I initially played with, who’s a firearms expert. The character classes all have 3 talent trees that unlock new skills and perks as you level up and they’re each unique to the character in question. Depending on which skills you go for the way in which you play Dead Island can be wildly different to others, which gives the game quite a bit of replayability. I for instance didn’t put any skill points in the “Fury” tree but as a result I was devastating with melee weapons and I buffed my entire party with an aura, making some situations quite a lot easier.
The single/multiplayer balance in Dead Island is done absolutely brilliantly. I joined the game about 30 mins after my mates had started (since I was bashing out a couple StarCraft 2 games with another friend) and I was placed nearby so they could find me. I was worried about many quests showing up saying “This will not be recorded in your profile” but as it turns out side quests aren’t saved during co-op sessions, but main quest progress is. So upon jumping into single player I was greeted with a bevy of side quests to complete should I feel the need. Jumping back into multiplayer synced you up with the person who was the least progressed with the main plot, a godsend compared to Borderlands. Dead Island also takes out some of the more laborious aspects of questing, planting the objectives on the minimap so you don’t spend hours looking for that one last thing to complete that quest.
Dead Island also implements a system whereby you can join up with other people who are in a similar place in the game as you are. This will appear as a message on the right hand side of the monitor and after one key press you’ll be joined up with them. Whilst my experience with this was mixed (quite a few people simply left the game after I tried to join with them) it’s a really nice touch and can make some of the more challenging areas far more easy and enjoyable.
Not all of the quests are that well done however. The escort quests, of which one is pictured above, are extremely tedious as the NPCs don’t follow you. Instead they follow their own path (completely unknown to you) and will often throw themselves right into the middle of a horde of zombies, requiring you to fish them out. They also feel needlessly long at points, trapping you for a good 15 minutes or more in a game of follow the leader. Why this kind of quest was put in Dead Island escapes me as they feel quite out of place compared to the rest of the quests in the game.
Dead Island’s loot and inventory system is a mixed affair of getting some aspects completely right whilst others just utterly wrong. You have limited inventory slots (which can be upgraded, typical RPG affair) but crafting materials don’t take up any space in it. This is fantastic because there’s just so much crafting crap around the world that balancing an inventory around it would be nigh on impossible and ensures that when you find a vendor with that key ingredient you never find you can stock up on it for future use. Crafted items and upgrades are also very useful and, in the case of weapon mods, visibly change the weapon that they’re applied to.
Finding good items however is somewhat of a crap shoot. Early on in the game I read a tip that said “the best items are always in chests” or something to that effect. With that in mind I upgraded my lock picking still to the max so I could open up all those chests. Throughout my entire play through I found only 1 solitary non-white item (an orange level sickle) in the chests. All my other good weapons were either rewards from quests or bought from the vendors and there were maybe 5 or so blue level items that dropped from zombies. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’re better off not bothering hunting for loot and instead just using quest rewards or vendor items.
Combat in Dead Island is visceral, over the top and thoroughly enjoyable, once you get past the initial hump that is. You see that blue bar in the screenshot above? That’s the stamina bar and it limits how much you can run, jump and attack (except for guns, which have ammo). When that runs out you can’t do anything except for one thing: kick. The kick attack, which every character has, is an unlimited attack that interrupts all attacks and can’t be interrupted itself. For the first 40% of the game or so there’s really no reason not to use this attack and this attack only as you can knock down every zombie and then proceed to pummel them to death on the ground. Playing this at a LAN with all my mates in ear shot made this a rather fun experience, naming our band of heroes the Kick Squad. It was quite hilarious to see one zombie go down and then be repeatedly kicked to death by 4 people, but it made weapons in the game rather redundant for a while.
One thing that Dead Island doesn’t deliver in is the plot. Now the trailer for Dead Island was actually quite well done as it depicted a game that had both thrilling action and also a deep and meaningful plot. Honestly I was sold on buying the game after seeing that trailer, being able to play it with mates at a LAN was just the icing on the cake. However all the characters are completely unrelatable, either through being complete dicks or being horribly voice acted (my wife referred to Purna’s voice as sounding like it was done by someone in Play School). There’s also a few attempts to pull on the heart strings at various points through the use of cut scenes but honestly they don’t fit in with the environment at all. It’s made even worse by the ending, which taken into context makes little sense and is cheapened by a last ditch effort to make the ending feel bitter sweet.
Overall though Dead Island is a solid game that’s enjoyable both as co-op and as a single player experience. It’s not without it’s flaws however and whilst none of them are entirely game breaking they can be enough to make some of the time you spend in Dead Island rather tedious. Still the game looks like it could be a LAN favourite for a while to come as the 4 character classes and 3 skill trees per character gives enough variety to make sure that each play through is unique and enjoyable. If you liked Borderlands and need another fix of zombies in your life then Dead Island won’t disappoint you.
Dead Island is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $49.99, $89 and $89 respectively. Game was played on the PC with around 15 hours of total play time (8 of those being co-op) and reaching level 38.
There’s a lot to be said for a game that genuinely treads new ground, daring to defy the current norms. I’m always a big fan of these experiments because they’re so refreshing in a world that’s constantly dominated by the same games repeatedly even if I do enjoy some of those titles. The original Portal was one of these such games bringing in a game mechanic unlike any that had come before it. Despite the unusually short length Portal managed to capture the hearts and minds of nearly everyone who played it with it’s distinctive humor and characters, spawning several memes in the process. Portal 2 picks up where its predecessor left off and will take you much deeper into the Portal universe.
This review contains spoilers about major plot events since I wouldn’t be able to review it properly without talking about them. If you’re planning to play Portal 2 sometime soon I’d recommend bookmarking this and coming back later 😉
The game starts off with an interesting tutorial that puts you as one of the test subjects in the Aperture Science laboratories. It appears that you’re one of many test subjects who are kept in a state of hibernation and a disembodied voice walks you through some exercises to make sure you’re not turning into a vegetable. When you next awake however the bright room you were in is now in a major state of disrepair and the voice from before states that you’ve been asleep for 9999 days. You’re then introduced to a new companion, Wheatley, a personality core who assists you in escaping the Aperture Science laboratory whilst also providing comic relief at nearly every turn.
Running through these run down test chambers familiarizes you with the basic portal mechanics that were the staple of the original game. Wheatley guides you along this journey and eventually finds you in the chamber of a dormant GlaDOS and attempts to acquire an escape pod for your escape. Unfortunately he activates GlaDOS who identifies you as Chell, the protagonist from the original Portal, and proceeds to send you back to the test chambers so that you can further science once again, you monster.
The next section of the game is in essence identical to its predecessor with each chamber being a single puzzle. The differences come from the environment which, whilst not as run down as the initial chambers you went through, show signs of being in disrepair with GlaDOS attempting to fix the problems as you enter each chamber. Apart from the introduction of the jump pads (devices used to make some of the velocity based puzzles a bit easier) there’s nothing really exciting about this section of the game. Indeed I found myself a times wondering how long I’d have to put up with this since whilst the original was adventurous and inventive this just seemed exploitative, a cop out seeking to cash in on the Portal IP.
It’s quite possible that I just didn’t enjoy the formulaic nature of this particular section of the game. I loved the humor in the original because GlaDOS was always attempting to maintain the appearance of being a computer without any emotions, whilst in this one she just seemed felt like a disembodied human who was angry at me for trying to kill her. Still the puzzles were enough to keep me going and I made it through to the next section, the reunion with GlaDOS.
Wheatley’s usurping of GlaDOS was an interesting plot point although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect him to turn on me immediately. However the next section proved to be my favorite by far as it takes you back to the very beginnings of Aperture Science, hidden deep underground in a former salt mine. The setting feels very 1960s post-apocalyptic, with all the remnants of the initial Aperture laboratories showing their age. The attention to detail in these parts is absolutely staggering, with the paraphernalia lining the offices giving you that distinct feeling that you’d gone back in time. I spent quite a lot of my time here just soaking in the atmosphere of it all, thoroughly enjoying the fleshing out of the Aperture back story.
Of course the old Aperture also had old test chambers too and with them comes the introduction of another new game mechanic: gels. The gels are in essence paints that can cover nearly any surface that give them a certain property. Blue for bouncing, orange for ultra speed and white for turning surfaces into ones capable of having portals on them. I found them to be quite intriguing, especially when they let you loose with a full on stream of the substances so you can paint the entire room in your chosen color, even if there’s really no point to it at all.
However this brings me to a point of difference between the puzzles in Portal 2 and its predecessor. The original Portal felt very much like there were multiple options to solving the puzzles, some of which the designers had obviously not intended (especially if you watch the speed runs). Portal 2, whilst still providing many challenges, feels a lot more like there’s only a single solution and you’re just figuring out exactly what that is. The jump pads and gels demonstrate this quite aptly since they both have to be (or have been) placed in their exact positions for the desired solution. There are some exceptions to this of course (like the first room with the white gel) but its definitely one of the areas that Portal 2 falls down in comparison to its predecessor.
Along the way you pick up GlaDOS who’s been transformed into a shadow of her former self being powered entirely by a potato. She provides some interesting commentary during your journey through the old Aperture labs and seems to get quite excited when Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science, addresses you over the intercom via pre-recorded messages. She stays with you the entire time but isn’t as chatty as Wheatley was before her which I was quite thankful for when I was stuck on some of the puzzles.
Eventually you make your way back to the current Aperture labs where Wheatley has taken over the test chambers, many of which are GlaDOS’s creations with the wall panels rearranged to spell TEST in large letters across one of the walls. This of course is all leading up to the point where you face up with Wheatley in his current form in a boss fight that feels oddly-similar-yet-completely-different from the original boss fight in the original Portal. Of course nearly every mechanic you’ve used previously makes an appearance in this and for those who’ve completed the fight there’s a scene in their that tickled the space nut in me just right.
Of course whilst the single player game is the main selling point for most buyers Portal 2 ups the ante by including a separate co-op experience that you can play with a friend or random stranger on the Internet. Initially I choose to find someone randomly as none of my playing buddies were online and I must say the matchmaking system works perfectly, finding me a partner in science in under 30 seconds. Of course it’s not as enjoyable as it would be with good friends so I decided to put it off after a couple chambers, but I did give it a good run through last week.
Whilst they’ve gone to great lengths to make the co-op in Portal 2 pretty painless without voice communication it’s quite a lot better with it. Still though the pinger tool they give you, basically a laser pointer that can mark stuff or set a timer, still comes in handy when trying to guide (or be guided by) your partner. The puzzles themselves are quite interesting as well especially when GlaDOS takes you outside the test chambers to retrieve information left behind by the former human scientists. Her humor in these sections was also far more enjoyable as she taunts the robots and gets frustrated as they show human traits like high-fiving or hugging each other.
Overall though Portal 2 proves to be a worthy successor to the original Portal. I had had my misgivings about the game during the first half of it, feeling that the changes made to it were only skin deep. However the old Aperture labs turned me right around making me heavily invested in both the characters and the plot of the game. The puzzles, whilst many feeling like single solution jobs, still managed to keep me guessing and were incredibly satisfying once accomplished, especially considering I did not once reach for a walkthrough (although I’d put the credit for this to the game designers themselves, not my amazing playing ability). The co-op is also quite a fun experience, especially when done with a close friend. If you liked the original Portal or are fan of intriguing puzzle games then you won’t go wrong with Portal 2 and I’d highly recommend giving it a play through.
Portal 2 is available on PC, Xbox360 and Playstation 3 right now for AUD$49.99, $108 and $108 (PS3 edition includes a free Steam copy) respectively. Game was played on the PC with total game time around 7 hours for the single player and 2 hours spent on the co-op missions without finishing them all.
I couldn’t really tell you how many games I’ve played over the years that made me think “The only thing that would make this better was if I could play it with my mates”, I.E. good old fashioned co-op. I haven’t said that much to myself recently though as more and more games have some kind of multi player aspect to them, although few still allow you to run through the main story with a friend by your side. Borderlands is one of those few and after spending a week or so slogging through it and finishing the game at the tender level of 37 I’ve found myself wanting more of the rockstar-eque game play feel where you can truly be the bad ass of the wasteland of Pandora.
Rewind back about a year or so and something appeared on my PS3 that I didn’t recall downloading: the trailer for said game. Turns out that my housemate at the time had been browsing the trailer section of the Playstation store and happened across it. Back then though it was a very different beast to the game it has become today:
That trailer alone was enough to sell me on the game although I barely thought about it until several months afterwards, when they decided to make the jump to cel shading. I wasn’t too sure how that would work out for them as most cel shaded games I’ve played in the past failed to add anything to the game apart from hiding bad texture jobs.
The first day after I had the game downloaded and installed I decided to give it a romp through, starting with single player. I had not been playing more than 10 minutes before one of my friends messaged me over steam to join them in a multiplayer game. This was the first let down for Borderlands for two reasons: first it needs around 4 ports opened to function properly, which is fine but an annoyance none the less. Secondly having to sign up for a GameSpy account is another small annoyance which could have easily been removed from the game since it added no benefit when the game is played via Steam. It is much the same problems that plagued Dawn of War II as you had to run 2 separate game networking programs to actually play multiplayer. Once you get past these difficulties the game does start to come into a world of its own.
Choosing Mordecai as my class I set off with the rest of my team (we had one of each class). After slogging our way through the beginner missions we finally got into our first instance, Skag Valley. I was instantly drawn back to 2004 where I ran my first instance in World of Warcraft and the memories came flooding back. Nothing is more exciting than grabbing a couple mates and beating down a challenge that a game developer has set up for you, and Borderlands is no exception. The instances are well designed and feel expansive whilst not feeling too long to make you dread the walk back to the start (in fact most of them have a quick return path). There is also, of course, the loot.
If there’s one thing that will keep gamers coming back for more its the prospect of getting that next great widget to help them slaughter their enemies with and Borderlands does this with impressive finesse. You can instantly recall the first moment when you see your first blue, purple and eventually orange drop. Even better are the weapons that function abnormally like the shotgun that shoots 8 bullets at a time that bounce off walls or the revolver that can shoot as accurately as a sniper rifle (with scope to boot!). My character managed to finish the game covered in purples with all but one weapons being orange, something which made him an almost unstoppable force when it came to shooting his share of bad guys.
This was were Borderlands really shone for me, the atmosphere set by the graphics and music made you feel like the ultimate bad-ass rockstar that’s decended upon the world of Pandora to make it your bitch. From the first time you see a head explode in a flurry of gibs to the moments when you’re surrounded by 10 raiders only to set them all on fire with your elementally enhanced SMG Borderlands makes you feel like everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, and your the pilot. I can’t tell you how many times our party was wiped almost completely out only to have one of us score a second wind and then proceed to mow down everything that took us out. Even more hilarious would be when Brick would be the one doing it, since he was usually screaming his head off and punching the crap out of something.
I’d love to say the vehicles were an important part to the gameplay but they’re really not. The FPS genre has always struggled with putting vehicles in game as if you make them too weak people don’t want to use them. Make them too strong and it can break the game. In Borderlands they feel more like a means to an end, serving as a fast means from A to B whilst still giving you the impression of a very large and open world. They are a hell of a lot of fun co-op though, but that’s mostly because I’m an ass with them and tended to ram my fellow Borderlanders off the road and flip them at every opportunity I got.
The experience is marred (but not ruined by) a decidedly made-for-console like interface. Now I’ve seen my share of console ports before and apart from those ones developed at the same time as each other the port will always suffer some lagging parts of the UI from its predecessor. For instance many of the game controls in Borderlands require you to press a key to use, instead of the more intuitive mouse click. Confirmation happens with the enter key for most things when again a mouse click would be far more appropriate. Whilst the majority of the action isn’t hampered by this all the menus, vendor interactions and inviting friends to play are plagued with illogical button choices that only serve to slow you down. Had I played this on the PS3 rather than the PC the story might have been different, but then again I don’t think I could have enjoyed it as much (there’s no cross platform multi available).
Overall Borderlands is an amazing game just for the times you’ll share with your friends romping through instances, slaying skags, raiders and Lance infantry. The loot makes the game so enjoyable that you’ll spend hours recounting the times you found that sniper rifle that could one shot enemies from across the map or that shotgun that shot rockets. The game doesn’t take itself seriously at all and this shows with the characters that, whilst shallow from a plot perspective, always bring a smile to your face when you see them.
Borderlands is available for PS3, Xbox360 and PC right now for AU$96.00, AU$98.00 and AU$54.00 respectively. Game was played on the PC through to level 37 finishing the game once with the majority of it spent with others doing co-op.