The one review per week deadline I’ve set myself is both a blessing and a curse. I have certainly broadened my gaming horizons considerably since I first started doing it having played many titles I would’ve otherwise let slip by the wayside. Unfortunately it also means that I usually pass on titles that require a heavy time investment as I simply can’t do them justice. However there are exceptions and Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game who’s predecessors I’ve played (and loved) in the past, is one I certainly couldn’t pass up. So, after shirking off all my other responsibilities for the past week I’ve managed to work my way through Bioware’s latest RPG, and I’m incredibly glad I did.
It has been one year since the events of Dragon Age 2 and the world, still reeling from the last blight and the turmoil in Kirkwall, is set to face another threat. The sky has been rendered asunder in a massive explosion that destroyed the Chantry’s most sacred of temples with you, bearing and strange green mark on your hand, being the only one to survive it. Whilst many want you to be put to the axe immediately Seeker Cassandra steadies their hands in the hopes that you will be able to close the breach between this world and the fade. To do this she invokes the right of the Inquisition, severing ties from the Templars and Chantry to form a new order to close the breach and seek its cause.
At first I thought Inquisition was running on some kind of supercharged Unreal engine, due to the way it used specularity, however it turns out that it’s powered by none other than the Frostbite 3 engine, the same one that’s behind the beautiful graphics of the Battlefield series. Compared to its predecessors Inquisition is definitely a major step forward with everything taking on a new sense of scale and detail. Surprisingly this doesn’t come with it’s usual associated cost of stuttering frame rates, something I was quite impressed with. It may not be Skyrim-modded-to-the-nines beautiful but it’s definitely a game that would be best played on a current generation hardware.
The sheer breadth of Inquisition is something that’s hard to understate, something which is wholly a product of the previous instalment in this series being panned for its limited nature. The core of the game still remains the same, it’s a Bioware RPG that has a heavy focus on the story and your role within it, but surrounding that are numerous quests, challenges and other activities that I’m sure adds up to well over 100 hours worth of play time. Layered on top of all of this is the War Room, a birds eye view map of Orlais and Ferelden that allows you to send your advisors on missions to gain influence, rewards or to unlock further missions for you to pursue. It shows that Bioware has listened to the feedback regarding how narrow Dragon Age 2 felt in comparison to its other RPG titles, even if they may have overcompensated to the point of impacting other things (more on that later).
Combat feels like an evolutionary improvement of what was done in Dragon Age 2, keeping the same action-RPG focus whilst attempting to add in other mechanics to make the traditional RPG style more accessible. Instead of the traditional pause mode Inquisition instead gives you a Tactical Camera which allows you to look around the entire combat field and assign actions to your party. It’s not a requirement to use it however as the behaviour system for your companions is back in and, thankfully, is coupled with a much more competent AI that’s able to recognize its new abilities and when it should and shouldn’t use them. Probably the most notable change is though is that the healing system has been completely revamped with no character class having a native healing ability and the number of healing potions given to your party fixed at a certain amount. What this all adds up to is a combat system that’s far more streamlined, lending the focus more to the action than the minutia.
This also means that the strategies you’ll use in Inquisition are going to be far different than any other RPG out there. Instead of ensuring you have the holy trinity set up you’re far more focused on controlling combat, setting up combos and making sure you use other survivability options so you don’t churn through your potion stash too quickly. My party make up usually consisted of a 2H warrior (me), dual wield rogue (Sera), control mage (Dorian) and a frontline tank (Blackwall). The combinations of control from the mage and tank warrior meant that both Sera and I were able to set up extremely devastating combos, some that could drop an entire group of enemies in just a couple hits. There were a couple issues with survivability, especially with mechanics that would drop half your health bar in one hit (not giving them a chance to us a potion) but for the most part once I got past the first 5 hours or so I felt essentially untouchable.
Indeed those first 5 or so hours are probably the most difficult and probably worst paced of the game. Now some of the issues I encountered with not being at the right level might have had something to do with my “go for the story missions first” play style, however once I was over that initial hump whenever I needed to level myself up I didn’t feel like I was struggling to find missions to fill the gap. I think this is probably due to the differences between say, level 3 and 6, being far more drastic than the differences between later levels as I certainly didn’t feel that the later levels made as much of an impact as the first 10 or so did. What was a bit of a chore sometimes was the grind to get power so I could unlock the next set of missions but again this was probably due to me attempting to smash out the storyline rather than meander about.
The crafting system has been shaken up considerably allowing you to create all sorts of highly customized armour and weapons to suit your needs. There’s 3 top level categories of materials (cloth, leather and metal) which have dozens of different types and levels beneath them. This is what allows you to craft armour and weapons with varying characteristics although you’ll likely find you don’t have enough of a particular type to craft the perfect item, even if you’re the stereotypical RPG kleptomaniac. This will then lead you on a hunting expedition for the resources you require something which doesn’t take too long but can feel a little bit grindy if you’re going for the premium materials. However the result can be well worth the grind as I carried my first craft sword through numerous levels.
The war table is an interesting addition, taking its cues from other non-player mission systems like those found in say Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Most of the benefits you’ll gain from sending your advisors on missions aren’t exactly game breaking but every so often you’ll stumble onto something that can make a decent difference in how your game plays out. There does come a time when you’ll run out of the long duration missions however, which puts you in the rather unenviable position of either travelling back to the war room every 15 minutes or simply letting them slide until you next return. Overall I think it’s a good way to keep the story going whilst adding in another avenue to build back story for the world but I probably wouldn’t miss it if it was gone.
This massive amount of content within the game, whilst impressive, has come with an unfortunate cost. As it stands right now the game is riddled with numerous bugs, some of the innocuous and fun, others game breaking or terribly annoying. Many people, myself included, experience random crashes to desktop with no discernible pattern. Others experience weird things like their characters voice changing from male to female or, and this one is particularly frustrating for someone like me who invests an inordinate amount of time recreating himself within the game, change from one voice type to the other. My originally deep voiced character changed to the higher pitched British actor half way through the game, a bug that currently has no fix in sight. This frustration is only compounded by the interface often forgetting that I had a mouse, refusing to respond to any input from it until I ALT + TAB out and back in again.
Whilst I initially wrote this off as a typical Bioware RPG, which have a reputation for doing this, it became hard to make excuses for them the further I got into Inquisition. Sure, it’s clear that they took the feedback about Dragon Age 2 to heart, however at the same time it’s obvious that they sacrificed on polish in order to jam as much content in as they could. Whilst I understand that patching issues, especially the number which are evident within Inquisition, takes time we’re now a week past launch and there’s no patch in sight to fix some of the more glaring issues with the game. Inquisition is still a fantastic game, it’s just held back from where it should be because of these problems.
The incredible scale of Inquisition extends to its story with nearly every aspect of the world getting the full Bioware backstory treatment. Most if it is unfortunately hidden behind giant walls of text that you’ll have to wade through, however for your companions and major story NPCs they will gladly regale you with troves of information about the world and their place within it. At the same time there’s not an incredible amount of reliance on the previous titles to provide context on the events that are occurring, something which I think many of us will be grateful for given the fact that it’s been over 3 years since we last ventured into the Dragon Age world. Truly Inquisition is one of the shining examples of a game that puts a great emphasis on its story and the world which it exists in.
As to the tale of the Inquisition itself there are numerous moments I could point to (which I won’t, since they’re spoilerific) where the story really shines. It’s a classic hero’s journey, building you up from someone who was in the wrong place and the right time to a leader who inspires all those around him to achieve great things. There are a few moments which stick out in my mind brilliantly where I felt part of something much larger than myself, a notable achievement that few games have managed to replicate. The over-arching story does a great job of making you feel like you’re building towards something greater however the final pay off felt a little anti-climatic. I think this is probably because other games make the penultimate fight feel like you’re going up against insurmountable odds whereas in Inquisition I had cornered my prey and was simply there to deal the final blow. That’s just my impression however, something that may be tied into the fact that I was literally unstoppable at the end.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is a rare example of a sequel surpassing its predecessors, bring a sense of scale and depth that’s rare to see in any game. All the elements that made the original Dragon Age great are there, from the combat to the story to the ancillary elements around them, and the summation of those parts is so much greater than they would be individually. This greatness is however dulled by the numerous issues that plague the game, ranging from the annoying to the down right game breaking. However, despite that, it’s a hard game to put down as everything else about it draws you back in, taunting you to play just one more mission or to follow the end of that quest chain. Suffice to say I think Dragon Age: Inquisition is by far the strongest instalment in the series and it will only get better once Bioware starts patching it.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $89.95, $99.95, $109.95, $99.95 and $109.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 29 hours of play time and 48% of the achievements unlocked.
The Call of Duty franchise is strangely polarizing among gamers. For some it’s one of the most abhorrent examples of what the current games industry is, with yearly product cycles and numerous DLCs coupled with lowest common denominator game play. For others they’re something else, an equivalent to the popcorn titles that grace the cinemas, to be enjoyed for the spectacle that they provide and nothing more. I most certainly fall into the latter camp as I enjoy the titles for what they are and am usually done with them before the first DLC drops. The latest instalment, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, ramps up the ludicrous by taking us to the near future where technology is so advanced it begins to look like magic.
The year is 2054 and you are Private Jack Mitchell of the United States Marine Corps. Your first mission is to support South Korea as their brothers from the North have finally decided to make good on their endless tirade of threats. During the fighting however one of your brothers in arms is struck down and a piece of flying debris severs your arm. Several days later at his funeral you’re approached by his father, Jonathan Irons, CEO of Atlas Corporation, the worlds most powerful military contractor. He offers you a second chance, to get back into action and to right all the wrongs that led to the deaths of people like his son. Equipped with the latest military grade prosthetic arm you follow his lead into battle but it soon becomes clear that Irons’ goals are far more ambitious than you could have known.
In it’s default state Advanced Warfare, to put it bluntly, looks like absolute garbage. I’m not exactly sure why but it seemed to assume I was running it on the computing equivalent of a dry potato and dialled the graphics all the way down to its barest minimums. Now my machine is by no means cutting edge but it’s been able to handle every other Call of Duty title at near maximum settings without hassle. Tweaking everything upwards however brought back the level of graphics I had come to expect from such high budget titles without the performance hit I was dreading based on the initial settings it had chosen for me. Whilst there were fewer stop and gawk moments than previous titles (mostly due to the insane amount of action going on) it’s still a rather good looking game, a big achievement considering how many platforms it was released on.
Advanced Warfare’s plays pretty much how you’d expect it to, given its Call of Duty lineage, however it’s the first in a long time to introduce a core mechanic that shakes up their traditional corridor shooter game play. For the most part you’ll still be running through tight urban environments, laying waste to the enemy du jour, however now you’re equipped with an Exosuit that bestows upon you certain abilities like being able to double jump or regenerate health. The near future setting has also allowed first time Call of Duty developer Sledgehammer Games a great deal of freedom in designing the weapons, some of which are pure science fiction goodness. All this, combined with a couple new interesting mechanics, makes Advanced Warfare a far more varied and interesting game to play than its Call of Duty moniker might first lead you to think.
Combat is, as always, smooth, refined and incredibly fast paced. It’s great to see that Sledgehammer Games was able to replicate the essence of what keeps people coming back to the Call of Duty franchise with their first title as it could’ve easily gone the other way. For the most part combat is challenging enough, punishing you for mistakes whilst rewarding you for good play, however some of the larger battle scenes suffer from an overzealous AI who will pin you, and only you, from every angle. This can lead to some frustrating sections where you have to carefully plod your way through, even though the scene seemingly wants you to run out guns blazing. This may be a function of me playing on the second hardest difficulty but still, sniper accurate AIs using SMGs at long range doesn’t make sense no matter what way you slice it.
The exosuit is by far the stand out mechanic for Advanced Warfare as it’s almost a free license for the developers to give you any kind of power for a specific situation. This includes the rudimentary things like slowing down time and regenerating health to more ludicrous items like cloaking and an unlimited grappling hook. These abilities also allow for many of the maps to be more open than they have been in other Call of Duty titles, allowing you some more control over how combat plays out. Unfortunately you’re never given control over how your exosuit is configured which is a bit of a shame since there are some abilities I’d favour more over others. There is a rudimentary upgrade system for the single player campaign which can turn you into a rather broken super solider if you invest your points well.
I didn’t get much of a chance to sit down with the multiplayer side however it does appear that Advance Warfare makes a return to the smaller, tighter maps that were favoured in previous Call of Duty titles.This means that the spammy, rushy game style that I like to play is viable once again and even with the default classes I found myself being pretty effective, something which usually isn’t the case. However the handful of games I played often suffered from lag, spikes and rubber banding which made it far more frustrating to play than what it should have been. I’m not sure if this is a function of the number of players or just some incredible bad luck but it seemed if there was one laggy person we’d all end up suffering.
Advanced Warfare, whilst being a highly polished game in most respects, still has a few rough edges that I hope will be smoothed over in Sledgehammer Games’ next release in the franchise. I had numerous occasions where enemies were able to shoot through walls, a frustrating thing to happen when you get behind cover only to die to a hail of gunfire that shouldn’t be able to hit you. The sound engine also seems to struggle when you change between headphones and speakers, even when you change it from within the game. Whilst these are issues you can work around they still add a layer of frustration that shouldn’t be in a big budget title like this but I’ll give Sledgehammer Games a pass since this is technically their 1.0 release.
The story of Advanced Warfare is your pretty typical Call of Duty shtick, light on the details and back story but makes up for it in spades with action and explosions. After the first hour it’s pretty easy to figure out where everything is going but with high calibre talent like Kevin Spacey on board it’s hard not to get drawn into it regardless. So whilst you might not have the emotional investment in the characters to warrant the kind of reaction the writers were going for it’s still enough to drive the game forward.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was a gamble that has paid off for both the franchise and Sledgehammer games, demonstrating that they’re able to replicate all the things that make this series great. The combat is fluid, fast paced and satisfying, expanding on the traditional corridor shooter with additional mechanics that are pure, and awesome, science fiction. It may be let down somewhat by its story and rough edges but overall it slots beautifully into the franchise. This should hopefully then flow on to the rest of the Call of Duty titles as they’ll now have an extended development time frame, something which can only lead to bigger and better things. For lovers of fast paced corridor shooters you really can’t go past the Call of Duty series and Advanced Warfare, I’m glad to say, is another great instalment.
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne for $89.95, $99.95, $109.95, $99.95 and$109.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours played and 49% of the achievements unlocked.
There are few games that manage to mix elements of different genres together well enough to produce a playable game but the Borderlands series stands out as one of the best examples. There’s the right amount of RPG style elements, with all the loot, levels and specializations you could ever want, combined with the fast pace of a modern shooter. That, along with it’s never-takes-itself-seriously style, makes Borderlands games an incredible amount of fun to play even years after they’ve been released. The latest instalment, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, continues along the established tradition bringing the same experience that Borderlands fans have come to expect.
Long before Jack became the handsome bastard that he was in Borderlands 2 he was just a simple Hyperion programmer based on the Helios satellite orbiting Pandora. Still he aspired to be something greater and that’s where you come in vault hunter as Jack wants to find the vault and plunder its secrets for himself. However as you’re making your way to meet him on Helios you’re ambushed by the Lost Legion, a group of fanatical soldiers led by the fearless Colonel Zarpedon, who then take over Helios. Now it’s up to you to fight your way through them in order to retake Helios and, hopefully, find your way down to Pandora to find the coveted vault.
The Pre-Sequel retains the same visual style of its predecessors, bringing along with it some noticeable improvements to the visual effects such as the lighting, physics and particle systems. It still uses the same engine as Borderlands 2, which is the main reason you won’t see it on previous generation consoles, so the overall feel of the game remains largely the same. It’s at this point where my rig was starting to show its age as after tweaking with a few settings the game rapidly descended into unplayable territory, something I had never experienced with the previous Borderlands title. Once I figured out what I was doing wrong (cranking up PhysX without an NVIDIA card was probably bad idea) the game was buttery smooth throughout.
The gameplay of The Pre-Sequel remains largely the same as its predecessors, giving you the same hybrid RPG/FPS experience with all the Borderlands style trimmings. There are 4 character classes to choose from, each of which is roughly equivalent to the same kinds of character classes from the previous 2 titles. They are unique in their own right however and the skill trees further differentiate them from anything that’s come before. You’ll be collecting dozens of guns again, however this time around you might not be leaving all those greens on the ground thanks to the newly introduced grinder mechanic. Apart from that The Pre-Sequel will play pretty much the same as both of its predecessors, for better or for worse.
Combat flows between you being an unstoppable killing machine, able to lay waste to dozens of enemies without breaking a sweat, to feeling like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. Part of this is due to the game’s slightly off pacing as I often found myself several levels ahead of many of the side quests by the time I got around to them which made me not want to do them. There’s a real dearth around the level 20~24 bracket which I got around by fishing out a couple quests and grinding the enemies, something which put me off playing for extended periods of time. Past that point though it started to feel a lot more balanced with my mistakes rightly punished but careful strategy was rewarded properly.
I chose to play as the Enforcer which seemed to match my desired play style pretty well. His action skill summons 2 drones, one that continually heals you and the other who hunts down enemies for you. It felt like probably the best “OH SHIT” action skill out of the lot since I could summon them just before I died and I’d usually end up getting a kill before the second wind timer expired. I did however opt for the more character focused skill tree which made certain gun types absolutely ridiculous at dishing out damage, especially if my shields dropped and I had just offed another enemy. Towards the end I became completely unstoppable however as I, somehow, got my shield recharge rate down to almost instant, allowing me to tank pretty much any enemy face on.
Loot will come at you thick and fast in The Pre-Sequel, much like it did in the previous 2 games. However The Pre-Sequel introduces the Grinder, a machine which allows you to combine 3 items of the same quality into one, hopefully netting you a better item. If you’ve got a hole in your gun selection and nothing good seems to be dropping then this can be a great way to fill it. However it does have an upper ceiling as you can’t combine 3 epic items into a single legendary (you can only create legendaries by combining 2 legendaries with an epic). I can somewhat understand the reasoning behind this, it’s for those end game gun raiders who are looking for the best gun possible, but it was a little annoying to find that out after I had saved up 3 epic pistols hoping to get myself a shiny orange.
Probably the biggest issue I have with The Pre-Sequel is that it’s just too similar to Borderlands 2. Its predecessor introduced a whole host of new mechanics that made the game fresh and gave the end game players something to progress. The Pre-Sequel on the other hand feels pretty much like an expansion pack to Borderlands 2 as nearly everything is the same, just with new character classes and an additional loot generation mechanic. I’m sure Borderlands purists will love this aspect of the game but for those of us who like to see franchises grow and expand past their roots it’s a little painful to see something spin its wheels, even if the game itself is pretty enjoyable. This is most certainly reflective in my total playtime which is a stunning 9 hours less than in the previous title.
The Pre-Sequel’s story definitely has some moments of brilliance in it, especially with the Australian humour weaved into it. Of particular note is Jack’s transformation from a run-of-the-mill Hyperion employee to the insane psychopath you crossed paths with back in Borderlands 2, even if some of the events that happen feel a little forced. The rest of the characters are pretty much throwaways with enough backstory for you to know why they’re there but nothing to make you care for them in the slightest. It’s pretty much par for the course in the Borderlands series, much like the rest of the game.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is sure to delight long time fans of the franchise as it brings the same hybrid FPS/RPG experience that keeps many of them coming back for years after initial release. However that’s also what makes the game somewhat weak in comparison to its predecessors; it fails to innovate past the benchmark that Borderlands 2 set all those years ago. Suffice to say I still think it’s worth playing however it’s longevity, at least for me, was drastically cut short due to the high levels of similarity.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is available on PC, PlayStation3 and Xbox360 right now for $89.99, $79.95 and $79.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 16 hours of total play time and 38% of the achievements unlocked.
We seem to be going through a revolutionary period in gaming where IP from other mediums is suddenly finding its feet, becoming on par with (and even surpassing) experiences that were born within the gaming genre. Many will agree that this started 5 years ago when Rocksteady Studios released their seminal title: Batman Arkham Asylum. Since then many other titles have followed in its wake, staying true to the original IP whilst creating an experience that you simply could not get in any other medium. The latest addition to this style of games is Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, set between J.R.R Tolkien’s novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which takes the source material and turns it into an experience that is among the best I’ve played this year.
You are Tailon, ranger captain stationed at the Black Gate in Mordor, sworn to keep watch over Mt Doom and all the horrors that dwell within it. The dark lord that dwelled within those lands had not been idle however, growing his vast army of grotesque orcs and uruk quietly, leaving the world of man to think they were safe once more. One fateful day he unleashed them upon the Black Gate, killing everyone within it. But your life wasn’t to be taken, instead you were bound to an unknown wraith spirit in a horrific blood sacrifice, unable to die and bound to the mortal plane. Now, with your new found wraith powers, you look for vengeance and the means with which to end this existence so you can be with your family once again.
Shadow of Mordor is quite the pretty game with scenes ranging from sprawling vistas to cramped caves and busy garrisons. The graphics still have that last-gen feel to them, mostly attributable to the choice of colour palette, however they’re certainly not bad on the eye. It’s also probably due to the choice of engine as well as Shadow of Mordor uses the LithTech Engine which hasn’t seen a game on it in the past 2 years. Still it manages a good level of graphical fidelity given its open world nature which manages to run smoothly even on my now aging rig. I’ll admit that I might be giving it a bit of an easy pass in this regard since I’m coming fresh off the horror that was Dead Rising 3 as by comparison Shadow of Mordor is liquid smooth.
In terms of game play Shadow of Mordor feels like it’s a cross between several different titles, taking aspects from each whilst integrating a new mechanic that binds and elevates the whole experience. At its core Shadow of Mordor is an open world game,. giving you dozens of missions to do any of which will help progress your character, the story or will help you get all those collectibles which so many people seem to lust after. The combat takes after the Arkham series of games in the classic beat ‘em up fashion. Then there’s the RPG elements in the character levels and talents alongside the gear upgrade path which takes the form of runes and a kind of currency that you’ll need to spend to unlock more slots. However the best part of the game is the Nemesis system, whereby members of enemy faction grow stronger, fight with each other for power and provide you with challenges to avenge your friends who’ve been cut down by them. Shadow of Mordor really does pack a lot of game into it’s (non-Australian taxed) asking price and I’m sure there’s double the amount of game play in it for dedicated fans.
Whilst the game wasn’t developed by either Rocksteady or Warner Brothers Studios the combat feels like they lifted the entire system right out of one of their Arkham series titles. As anyone who’s played those games can attest combat systems such as those are incredibly enjoyable to play, offering the right balance of challenge and reward, at least at the start anyway. You’ll start out struggling to deal with large crowds of orcs but you’ll soon morph yourself into an unstoppable killing machine, nigh on impervious to any attack the game might throw at you. It can get a little repetitive though as the ultimate abilities are simply unlimited versions of regular abilities but most of the time you’ll still feel like the ultimate badass when you come out on top of the two dozen orcs you happened across.
The upgrade system is well thought out in most respects, giving you the feeling of progression often enough that you won’t find yourself feeling like you’ve gone hours without the game rewarding you. There’s 2 stages of progression for your character namely your ability points and power level. The ability points are gained in the regular way, getting XP via missions and killing things, however power is only gained when you resolve power struggles, kill captains/warchiefs or do any of the other assorted red missions. It really doesn’t take long to unlock all tiers of abilities, enough so that I had access to the final tier about halfway through the game. If you’d prefer to keep the challenge up then all you need do is avoid the red missions however if you want to become ridiculously overpowered you’re no more than an hour or two away from doing so.
The loot and gear upgrades feels a little less polished as you’ll get runes from defeating captains but what you get is a little random. You can ensure a drop of a certain type by exploiting weaknesses and fears but unless you’ve deliberately died to a captain several times over you’re not likely to get a good drop from them. You can break down the runes into the currency to fuel the other upgrades however I feel like it would’ve been better to have a rudimentary crafting system in there to upgrade them. I usually had several runes of a type that I really liked but they weren’t powerful enough to use on their own. If I could combine say, three into one, to get an upgrade I feel like that would’ve been a lot better than praying to RNGesus every time I killed a captain or warchief.
I couldn’t publish this review without mention just how awesome the nemesis system is as it provides this kind of player driven narrative on top of the core story of Shadow of Mordor that’s just incredible. Essentially the uruks fight each other in order to gain power and you fight them to gain power as well. Should you die to one they’ll grow in power and, potentially, move up the ranks and get followers. If you’re so inclined you can even influence them to move up ranks, get them to usurp their own captains or turn on each other. Couple that with the wide variety of responses that the uruks have upon seeing you (knowing you’re using someone to betray them, how many times they’ve killed you and so on) and even facing the same enemy again doesn’t lose its lustre. It’s an incredibly deep system and one that’s sure to provide enjoyment to both story players like myself and those that just revel in open world games.
Whilst the story probably isn’t the strongest part of Shadow of Mordor it is most definitely above the average dreck that I’ve been making my way through this year. The main premise probably needed a bit more development in order to make that initial emotional moment a bit more impactful, and thus make me empathise with the main character a little more, but it didn’t take me long to get into it. Since this is drawing on the wider Tolkien IP it does manage to get away with not explaining a lot of things that would otherwise need some rigorous explaining which does aid the story quite a bit. I’ll also have to admit that the ending was so-so, missing that final climclimactictle that I was so looking forward to with my incredibly overpowered character at the ready. So overall I think it’s ok, although on the proviso that you’re already familiar with The Lord of The Rings IP.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is a game where the sum of its parts is much greater than its whole. The combat is fast paced and satisfying, the progression well paced and the overall look and feel just feels a level above other similar games of recent memory. The nemesis system is really what pulls the whole game together, adding another layer on top of the game that really ramps up how engaged you’ll be with Shadow of Mordor. It’s not a perfect experience by any stretch of the imagine, with the middling story being the biggest mark against it, but the whole package helps to patch over the various minor faults. In all honesty I think most gamers will find something to like in Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor as its wide variety of mechanics and styles ensures that it caters to an incredibly wide audience.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $39.95, $99.95, $89.95, $89.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on PC with 13 hours of total playtime with 61% of the achievements unlocked.
A game based around any of the world wars is usually an instant turn off for me. The number of games that have been based around those events are so numerous that there really doesn’t feel like there can be any more angles to tackle it from as pretty much every story from it has been done to death. The alternate reality and fantasy versions of it, like those in Wolfenstein, get away with it since they’re not wholly dependent on war stories for inspiration but they’ll still need a little something extra to pique my interest. Valiant Hearts, which comes to us care of Ubisoft Montpellier, has been receiving wide praise for it’s touching story. As someone who’s just come off 2 rather lacklustre story based titles I wasn’t hoping for miracles but Valiant Hearts managed to surprise me, bringing this writer to tears as its conclusion.
The year is 1914 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused Germany to declare war on Russia. France, anticipating that this war will escalate far beyond those two countries, deports all of its German citizens back to their home country. Karl is one of those citizens, torn away from his wife and young son he is sent to the frontlines of the war to fight for his home country. Not long after his wife’s father, Emile, is called to duty as well and sent to fight for the French army. What follows is a tale of how the war drives families apart and the never ending quest for them to be reunited once again.
Valiant Hearts reminds me of the flash games of yesteryear, albeit with production values far exceeding that of any of its predecessors. It was developed on the same framework that powered Ubisoft’s recent release Child of Light and it’s easy to see just how heavily the choice of that platform influenced the art work. In contrast to Child of Light however Valiant Heart’s art style is far more dark and monotone with infinite shades of brown and grey being the primary colour palette. This does mean that when colour is used it’s quite striking and the art team does a fantastic job of using it to great effect. This also extends to the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies the game, ebbing and flowing at all the right moments.
In terms of actual game play Valiant Hearts is much like other story-first games in the sense that it usually takes a back seat to progressing the story. For the most part you’ll be doing elaborate fetch quest missions that require you to find one item in order to progress through the next session. Sometimes you’ll have to make your way through various different people in order to get to the final objective and try as you might there’s no clever way to bypass certain things. There’s also a bevy of quicktime-esque events that will require you to either guess correctly or simply memorize the sequence in which events happen in order to move on to the next part of the story.
Thankfully Valiant Hearts didn’t fall into the trap of putting far too much game play in between sections of the story like both the recent titles I played through did. In all honesty I didn’t think it was a major hurdle for games of this nature to get past as many of them are done by indie developers and so ancillary mechanics are usually on the bottom of their to do list. However with 2 games falling prey to the same problems I have to commend Valiant Hearts for getting the pacing right which helps immensely with keeping the player interested in the story. There were some sections that could use some tuning but compared to my recent experiences it was heaven.
Most of the puzzles are fairly intuitive as your inventory space is limited to a single item, limiting the amount of complexity that the game can throw at you significantly. There’s a pretty good variety of puzzle mechanics so you won’t be redoing the same thing over and over again but most of them shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes or so to figure out. A couple of them will require you to think laterally about what you’re doing as some of them lack obvious cues as to what might interact with what. This did lead to a couple confusing moments when I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing the right thing but most of the time you’ll get there through trial and error.
One issue I did find with Valiant Hearts was that since there’s not a lot of visual differentiation between different parts of the environment it can be sometimes hard to find a path you’re meant to go down or what elements are interactive. This meant that in some of the more visually busy sections I was wondering just where exactly I was meant to go as I couldn’t find the particular path to go down. I also had some deaths that felt like they were more due to visual confusion more than anything else. This might just be a fault of the writer however but it’s still an issue that should be pointed out.
Of course what really makes Valiant Hearts worth playing is the story. Overall it’s a pretty typical story of a family torn apart by war, almost Romeo and Juliet like in the star crossed lovers from different houses idea, and the story of them trying to reunite with each other. The main characters all receive the background and development they deserve, which helps immensely when it comes to scenes that rely on engaging your sense of empathy with them. Some of the elements of it are a little on the fantasy side, which can be a tad distracting from the overall message that the game tries to put forth, however they’re only there as aides to the plot so they’re easily pushed aside.
I’ll have to admit that for probably the first half or so of Valiant Hearts I wasn’t too emotionally invested with the characters or story. Whilst the opening was gripping enough to draw me into playing the game further there’s a bit of dearth in the early game as the characters are seemingly just going through the motions. However as each of their back stories is developed in detail you find yourself becoming attached to them and each tragedy that befalls them starts to cut into you. The final climatic scene is by far one of the most bittersweet endings I have endured in recent memory and whilst it might lean on the cheesy/predictable side that didn’t stop me from bursting into tears, overcome with a sense of grief.
Valiant Hearts is a beautiful story masterfully told through the medium of video games. The art style and music direction are some of the best I’ve experienced in their category, taking the traditional flash styled game and ramping it up to the next level. The game mechanics are simple, enjoyable and thankfully stay out of the way of the story, leaving the player to enjoy Valiant Hearts for what it truly is. Finally the story is by far one of the best examples I’ve come across this year with all the characters receiving the right amount of screen time and development required for it’s ultimate emotional climax. If you, like me, have been feeling let down by the offerings of story based games of late then I can wholeheartedly recommend Valiant Hearts as the cure to what ails you.
Valiant Hearts is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $14.99, $22.95, $22.95, $19.95 and $19.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time.
Ever since I had my first taste of a story first game all those years ago I’ve been hooked on finding that same experience again in modern titles. Whilst Quantic Dream has always managed to deliver a solid experience in this regard newcomers to this field are very hit or miss, often not achieving what they set out to do. The struggle between just how much game makes it into the final product is what usually trips up most first time developers with the story suffering because of it (or vice versa). Murdered: Soul Suspect treads carefully enough to avoid some of these potential pitfalls whilst unfortunately falling prey to many others.
In the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts a murderer walks in the shadows. The killings seemingly have no relation to one another except for the victims always being young girls. The case has become something of an obsession for one of the local officers, Ronan O’Connor, a reformed criminal looking to make up for his questionable past. When he gets word of the Bell killer’s location he disregards all calls to wait for backup and pursues the criminal himself. However things don’t go as planned and in an instant things take a dark turn with Ronan thrown out a window and his life unceremoniously ended by his own weapon. Now, as he lies trapped between this world and the next, Ronan is compelled to find out who his killer is.
Visually Murdered: Soul Suspect is a dark and dreary place with the whole game taking place during the course of a single night. The graphics are about average when you compare it to similar titles of its time, a lot of the style still rooted in the previous generation’s console limitations. This might also be partly due to the use of the Unreal 3 engine which always seems to have a similar visual feel no matter the art styling. The styling of the UI elements seems to be of much poorer quality than the rest of the game, to the point of being quite distracting. I understand that at least some of this was done to enhance the “supernatural” feel of the game but since it’s not consistent throughout the various elements it just ends up sticking out more than anything.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is a puzzle game, one that requires you to gather up all the clues you can find and then use them in order to piece together what happened at a particular scene. Typically the clues are just things lying around the room, waiting for you to interact with them, although some will require a little more detective work in order to unlock them. Whilst the world isn’t particularly big you are free to explore pretty much all of it at your leisure although some places will be unavailable to you until you’ve unlocked some of your ghost abilities further down the line. There’s also numerous side quests and collectible missions which unlock various other stories that aren’t related to the main campaign, something which bolsters Murdered: Soul Suspects otherwise drastically short play time.
The puzzles that you’ll solve really aren’t that difficult at all considering that you’re told what area you need to look in to find them (moving out of an area where a clue might be removes the clue counter, indicating you’ve wandered too far) and that relevant clues typically come with a “memory flash” of what happened. These flashes sometimes come with another word puzzle element which has you choosing a few words to describe the picture you’re seeing. The hardest part then comes from selecting the right clues to complete the investigation or figuring out how to influence someone in order to get the clue you need. Indeed the only time I struggled to finish investigations was when the game decided not to spawn the required objects for me to interact with, something I’ll touch on later.
There are open world aspects to Murdered: Soul Suspect as well, allowing you to run around Salem looking for collectibles and helping out other ghosts that find themselves trapped in this realm. You can also posses people and read their minds, which sounds fun to begin with, however after a while you start to find that many NPCs are reused throughout the game and, despite their different circumstances in which you find them, they always have the same few lines to say. I feel like there’s something of a missed opportunity here as it would’ve added a little something more to the world to be able to influence the random people on the street or if there was another story you could unlock by reading enough minds. Sadly there isn’t and so after the first hour or so you’ll likely find yourself skipping all non-essential ghost power use.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is also rather glitchy as the screenshot above will attest to. There are numerous times when NPCs just won’t spawn or will spawn but won’t be visible or in the location where the game wants them to be. You can often resolve this issue by restart from a checkpoint but other times, like during an investigation, you’ll be left wandering around in circles wondering where the last clue is or clicking on clues you’ve already discovered hoping they’ll trigger something else. For a game that struggles with pacing at the best of times this isn’t a great glitch to have and it definitely had a negative impact on my experience.
However Murdered: Soul Suspect’s greatest failing is that the story just fails to captivate you in any way. On the surface the concept sounds pretty amazing, you’re a ghost detective solving your own murder, however I simply failed to empathize with the majority of the characters. There was massive potential here to give the characters incredible depth using the mind reading mechanic which unfortunately seems to be used to pad the game time out. Worst still the characters that were seemingly given the most attention, in terms of backstory development, are the ones with the least amount of presence in the actual game, being constrained to journal entries. Honestly my hopes weren’t that high for an emotional rollercoaster but I have to say that the overall story felt very lacklustre which is only amplified by the sub-par mechanics.
It’s a real shame because the side stories, typically the ones you unlock from collecting a bunch of artifacts in a particular area, are actually quite good. This was probably the only reason I pursued most of them down as they are the shining moments in Murdered: Soul Suspect, both in terms of their stories as well as the voice acting behind them. Again it feels like another one of the game’s missed opportunities as these stories are a part of the history of this game’s world and yet they’re limited to 5 minute reading sessions that are only unlocked through a tedious collecting mechanic. I don’t have a good idea as to how they could be worked in but suffice to say that Airtight Games would do well to replicate what they did in those stories in the main campaign.
Murdered: Soul Suspect unfortunately fails to achieve the goals it set out to do, delivering a mediocre story behind trivial puzzle mechanics whilst hiding its best aspects in a tedious treasure quest. I won’t deny that I had my hand in this as when I heard about the concept I immediately started drawing comparisons to Heavy Rain in my head and there are few games, in my mind, that come close. Still even taking that into consideration Murdered: Soul Suspect feels like a decidedly average game, failing to evoke the kind of emotional investment required by a game of this nature.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.95, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 83% of the achievements unlocked.
The evolution of open world style games has been pretty interesting to watch. The gold standard has (and likely will be for a long time) the Grand Theft Auto series which grew from a humble 2D car stealing simulator to the vibrant organised crime simulator today. Indeed this is how most open world games progress, starting out with a core idea that then has a bigger and better world built around it as the successive titles roll on. Watch_Dogs is no exception to this, with its core idea focusing heavily on hacking, enabling your character almost superpower like qualities. Whilst the execution of this idea has drawn ire from those who bought heavily into the hype Watch_Dogs is one of the better first entries into the open world genre, something which should be expected from the veteran open world developer Ubisoft Montreal.
Aiden Pearce is a man tormented by his past, the guilt of his niece losing her life instead of his in a botched assassination attempt has weighed heavily and he’s spent every one of his waking moments since then looking for answers. He’s not beyond reproach however as the guilt has clouded his sense of right and wrong, instead dealing out his own brand of justice wherever, and to whomever, he deems fit. Inevitably this comes back around to him and he is forced into doing things lest more harm befall those he cares about. The tale of his journey from here on out is one of obsession fueled by a passion to right what’s wrong with the world with no regard to the cost to himself.
If you’ve read anything about Watch_Dogs recently there’s been numerous complaints about how the graphics don’t seem to be up to the same standard as they were in the E3 demo. As someone who’s playing on a 3 year old PC I felt the graphics were around the same standard as what I’ve come to expect from most open world games which is to say that, compared to the video, mine certainly don’t look as good. However I feel we should most likely temper our expectations since that was shown as a demo and was likely running on a hardware system that few would have running. That follows on to why it probably looks sub-par on consoles as whilst they’re powerful machines for the money you’ll spend they just can’t match a PC for raw grunt. That being said my console playing brother said it looked great on the XboxOne and had no graphical issues at all so it seems your mileage may vary considerably.
True to its open world genre Watch_Dogs has a lot of things packed into it, from mechanics to skills to the numerous side missions, mini-games and unlockable content. The star mechanic of Watch_Dogs is, of course, the hacking which is best described as a real world superpower that allows you to do all manner of things that regular people simply can’t. The hacking also extends to your car, something you’ll be making heavy use of since you won’t be able to use your guns whilst driving. The combat is your typical 3rd person shooter affair with your arsenal of weapons being extremely varied and including hacking inspired augments that can give you the edge when you’re grossly outnumbered. Should you find yourself bored with the campaign you can take part in the numerous NPC side missions or, if you’re so inclined, invade another player’s game and battle against them for notoriety points. There’s also dozens of unlockable cars, weapons and even songs for you to listen to in your car, enough that even the most venerable achievement hunter will likely give up before they get them all.
One of the biggest aspects in open world games is how the world feels as early versions of Grand Theft Auto had a very lonely vibe to them, almost post-apocalyptic like given the lack of people and cars that were around. For me Watch_Dogs felt about as alive as Grand Theft Auto did although I’ve heard many say that it feels no where near the same. Whilst the city does have a lot of detail in it the variance of the people is a little on the low side as I can’t tell you how many times I ran into the same group of beatboxers throughout the city. On the flip side the little profile descriptions you get for everyone are extremely varied which is a nice little touch. Indeed I think the lack of detail in some areas is due to the wide variety of detail in others which is a classic symptom of time constraints, something Watch_Dogs was unfortunately plagued with.
You’ll be doing a lot of driving in Watch_Dogs which is a little bit unfortunate as it’s probably one of the lesser aspects of the game. The initial cars you get access to all feel like boats, being incredibly sluggish to respond and even less so when there’s several police cars ramming into the back of you. Thankfully the later cars go a long way to improve this but then it becomes a choice of driving a flimsy, well handling car and something that can take a beating which retains that god awful boat like feeling. In all honesty I’m not that surprised that the driving is sub-par, it’s an incredibly hard thing to get right, however if you’re going to rely on that to be your player’s main way of getting from point A to point B you’d better make sure it’s enjoyable. I’m sure subsequent sequels of Watch_Dogs will improve on this dramatically as this is Ubisoft Montreal’s first game to prominently feature driving as a mechanic.
Combat feels much like any other 3rd person shooter with your typical infinitely regenerating health and aiming systems I’m sure need some assistance when used on a console. Most encounters are done in 2 phases: the first being the part where you stealth around, take out as many enemies as you please and generally cause havoc. Most of the time this will result in you getting detected and a firefight will break out although if you’re careful there are numerous times when that can be avoided altogether. To Ubisoft Montreal’s credit the stealth system is well thought out and the majority of the times I was detected were due to me not being careful enough, rather than the NPCs having eyes where they shouldn’t. For the most part it’s challenging and satisfying, with the short reload times ensuring that you’re not left waiting long to fix your mistakes.
The “hacking” mechanic is essentially a power that your character has, enabling you to do certain things to the city due to it all being interconnected via a giant system called ctOS. Your powers are rather limited to begin with, being able to hack cameras and traffic lights, but as you level up all manner of crazy powers will be bestowed upon you. Some of them are plausible, like the ability to raise/lower road blockers, whilst others, like blowing up steam pipes, are almost enough to be called magic. The hacking mini games are just an elaborate puzzle sequence, one which can usually be figured out rather easily through trial and error. All in all it’s a solid idea to base the game around however having one button to execute everything makes the powers feel a little too easy to use. Maybe a short quicktime event (I can’t believe I’m writing this) would be sufficient to make the powers feel a little more impactful as right now they make you feel like a script kiddie rather than an elite hacker.
The levelling and progression system strikes the right balance of progression and choice, giving you enough points to get something in everything very quickly and then forcing you to make hard decisions about which way you want to build your character. The unlockable system also feels rather well done as should you want to unlock the new abilities typically it will be the first or second one you’ll get, meaning you don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time grinding missions to unlock them. Achievement hunters on the other hand will have a lot of work ahead of them as the myriad of guns and cars available to unlock will likely have them clearing out whole city sections before finishing off a chapter in the campaign.
Like most open world games there’s a bunch of emergent behaviour in Watch_Dogs, some of it good and some of it bad. There’s always the hilarious situations you can cause by changing traffic lights (even when you’re not being chased by the police) and the AI sometimes reacts in the strangest ways to your presence, like random NPC cars running each other off the road should you come a little bit too close to one of them. At the same time I’ve had several missions that I had to restart at a checkpoint due to things like destructible terrain blocking my path, my character’s ragdoll physics glitching out causing him to get stuck on the ground or things not spawning (or the wrong things spawning) preventing me from going on. It probably happened about half a dozen times throughout my playthrough so it’s nothing major but I’ve heard the issues are magnified somewhat on older consoles.
The story of Watch_Dogs deals with a lot of very mature themes however some aspects of it do feel like they ring hollow. Thinking back on it there were a lot of characters that the story seemed to assume that I’d have some kind of empathy for but, and I’m not sure if this is a function of me playing mostly campaign missions, I feel like they didn’t have sufficient screentime to justify it. There are some shining moments though with Aiden embracing his anti-hero qualities with gusto however they seem to get undone almost instantly in the scenes that follow. The lack of player choice and influence on the story will also annoy some but that’s not something I’ll fault Watch_Dogs for. All being said it’s passable, especially for a first entry into a new IP and genre for the developer, and hopefully future instalments can build on this in order to make the story much more engrossing.
Watch_Dogs is a great first entry into a new open world IP, building around a solid core mechanic and adding in all the things that we’ve come to expect from games in this genre. The combat, progression systems and hacking mechanics are all well done, providing dozens of hours of challenge and rewards for even the most seasoned achievement hunter. The driving leaves something to be desired and will likely be the biggest let down for open world fans who are still coming down from their GTA high. The story reaches a little far beyond its grasp, lacking the appropriate amount of buildup to elicit the emotional conclusion they were looking for, however it should serve as a decent base for the subsequent releases. All in all Watch_Dogs is a great first entry into this new series, one I feel that’s only going to get stronger as time goes on.
Watch_Dogs is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $89.95, $89.95, $99.95, $89.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on PC with approximately 16 hours of total play time with 44% of the achievements unlocked.
Nearly every gamer of my generation would have grown up with the classic FPS Wolfenstein 3D. I was just 7 years old when it first came out and my parents, not wanting to expose me to violent games that involved killing people, forbid me from playing it. Of course this didn’t deter me one bit and through an ingenious floppy sharing and copying system my brother and I managed to get our hands on a copy. However it was clear this game was beyond my skills at the time as I can’t remember ever getting past the first level and my guiltily acquired pleasure was soon ditched for more entertaining games. The Wolfenstein series has made many reappearances since then with varying levels of quality. The sentiment among my friends for this latest instalment wasn’t particularly high but, in all honesty, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a great game in its own right.
You are agent Blazkowicz, Nazi killing extraordinaire who is taking part in a large allies raid on the axis forces. It’s been 3 years since the events of the previous game and the Nazis have developed highly advanced technology, turning the tide against the allied forces. Your mission is to strike directly at the heart of the Nazi war machine: your old nemesi: General Deathshead. Unfortunately your plane is shot down before you can start your mission, putting you deep in the trenches facing off against some of the technological horrors of the Nazi army.
The New Order is one of the few games to be based on the id Tech 5 engine with the last one being it’s debut game, Rage. It’s most certainly worthy of its next generation status as the visuals are top notch, even on an aging computer like mine. There are some notable performance issues, especially during the opening scenes, which required me to tweak several settings to get them working satisfactorily. That being said once I was past that initial scene and into the more corridor-esque parts the performance issues seemed to die down somewhat. It’d be interesting to contrast this against a similar machine with a NVIDIA card, considering the amount of optimization The New Order has for it.
In terms of actual game play The New Order is your typical corridor shooter that’s been augmented with a few RPG characteristics here and there to give you a sense of progression. The New Order avoids the current pitfall of infinitely regenerating health, instead allowing you to regen up to a certain point before requiring you to seek out health packs. You can still carry a ridiculous number of guns, although you won’t be able to carry them across chapters, and all of them will get augmented in one (or several) ways, opening up many new opportunities for taking out Nazis in the most glorious ways. There’s also a stealth system which, whilst functional, loses much of its sheen when it’s unceremoniously ripped away from you. Still the combination of all these parts makes for an interesting, if not entirely unique, experience.
The combat is fluid and highly polished, comparable to that of other AAA shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield. The aiming does feel a little on the generous side as you’ll be able to easily nail headshots from the hip at great distances. For the most part though the combat isn’t exactly difficult, indeed you’ll likely not die for much of the first half of the game, but the later stages of the game do require you to employ a little strategy in order to progress without dying repeatedly. Often it’s just remembering when/where the strongest enemies appear as they’re usually the ones who’ll cause your unexpected demise.
The stealth system is pretty basic, you can crouch down and then sneak around and take out enemies one by one and they’ll be none the wiser to your presence. Indeed the bodies of taken out enemies don’t seem to phase them one bit, allowing you to take out great swaths of enemies without much of a thought to the order in which you do it. On the flip side there’s very little leniency with getting spotted and most likely the second you’re in a guard’s line of sight you’ll be spotted and everyone will know exactly where you are (even if you move away from that spot out of sight). It’s much better than other games that have tacked on stealth mechanics however it could still do with a little more fleshing out.
I really quite liked the talent system as instead of it being based on XP or some other arbitrary value or event it’s tied to you completing certain objectives in the game. This means that should you favour one style of game play over another that particular way of playing will get strong over the course of the game. Of course this can backfire on you completely if you say, choose to complete things in a mostly stealthy manner, as most of the time you’ll have the opportunity for stealth completely removed from you. Still even with that limitation I was able to unlock the majority of the perks without trying too hard and those few that required something special could usually be done in the space of a single chapter.
Unfortunately the 3 years between the release of RAGE and The New Order haven’t seen the larger issues with the id Tech 5 engine sorted out. Texture pop-in is rife in almost every environment, something which is highly noticeable if you spin around at even a mild pace. Combine this with the frame rate issues at the beginning and it’s not a great experience, one that had me searching for solutions for quite some time. Updating to the latest beta drivers seems to be fixing that for most people but texture pop in will still remain. Hopefully a couple patches will be able to sort these issues out as whilst they don’t stop the game from being playable it does add frustration where it’s not needed.
The New Order’s story does shine through as one of the better aspects as whilst it’s not exactly Oscar winning material it does make you empathize with the characters. You will have to ignore some of the obnoxious plot holes in order to fully enjoy the story but it’s one of the first FPS games in a long time to do tragedy right. Of course you could still play The New Order, completely ignoring the plot, and still get a lot out of it however.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is a well polished evolution of the Wolfenstein series, combining the classic FPS game style with modern elements that results in a very solid experience. The combat is fast paced and well polished, the stealth system actually usable and the story punches above its weight. However the id Tech 5 engine seems to still show signs of not being fully baked yet, mostly due to the fact that this is only the second title to be released with it. Nothing about those issues aren’t fixable however and hopefully they’re resolved in future patch releases. Wolfenstein: The New Order is a game that both long time fans and newcomers to the series can enjoy, a feat few long running series like this can lay claim to.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $79.95, $79.95, $99.95, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on PC on the hard difficulty setting with 10 hours of total play time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.
The last couple months have been a little barren in terms of releases which, whilst it gives me some time to plunder the vast depths of the numerous indie releases, does leave me hungering for a more traditional type of experience. During my usual stumble through the new releases on Steam I happened to come across Bound by Flame, an action RPG that managed to impress me on its trailers alone. However it was hard to miss the rather damning Metacritic review score on the store page that indicated that this title was probably less than stellar. Still the short bits I had seen seemed to indicate that it was worth playing and so I sat myself down to see if I was right.
The world is under siege, a massive army of the undead shambling its way across the land and devastating everything in its path. Each battle with this terrible army, under the command of powerful magic wielders called Ice Lords, only serves to swell their ranks even further. There is not much hope for humanity however a group of scholars called the Red Scribes believes they have a way to turn the tide of the war. You are Vulcan, member of the Free Born Blades, a mercenary group who has been hired by the Red Scribes to protect them while they attempt to complete the ritual. However not everything goes as planned and suddenly you find yourself being far more involved in this conflict than you’d first anticipated.
Visually Bound by Flame has the look that many similar previous gen RPGs did with an extremely muted colour palette and somewhat simplistic looking graphics. The screenshots are a little misleading as on their own they look quite good but once you see everything in motion it becomes apparent what the limitations are. Indeed the whole thing feels like a fantasy version of Mars: War Logs, which shouldn’t be surprising considering it’s from the same developer, but this means that all the issues that plagued that game are present in Bound by Flame as well. Considering their close release dates I’m assuming that they didn’t have much time to take the lessons learned from their previous title and apply it to this one, which is rather unfortunate considering they seem like a studio who wants to make a decent game.
Bound by Flame is an action RPG at heart, taking the majority of the traditional mechanics and wrapping them up in a real time combat system in order to keep the pace up. All the usual elements you’d expect are there: levels, a skill tree system that you use to get new skills and improve old ones, various perks that can be unlocked, loot galore and a crafting system to augment items you’ll find. There’s a main story quest that will be your main way of progressing forward but there’s also a handful of side quests to do should you feel the need. You’ll also have a variety of party members to choose from, each with their own set of skills and story lines which you can pursue at your leisure.
The combat is reminiscent of Mars: War Logs as you’re just whacking on an enemy until they try to attack, at which point you’ve got to block or somehow get out of the way. Bound by Flame differs through the use of “stances” which are essentially different ways of doing combat. The warrior stance lets you use your 2 handed sword but stops you from being able to quickly dodge attacks. The ranger stance on the other hand is focused on quick attacks but the ability to parry incoming attacks is greatly reduced. Just like any RPG you’d better focus on one or the other as trying to mix the two will likely lead to a sub-par experience. There’s also the pyromancer abilities which are essentially augments to the other two as the game doesn’t seem to have the itemization to support someone being a full time mage.
Unfortunately the wild flails in difficulty that plagued Mars: War Logs remains in Bound by Flame meaning that you’ll likely struggle at the start of a section until you find an upgrade or two at which point the game becomes a breeze again. The bosses are also on a completely different difficulty scale to the rest of the encounters you’ll have meaning you’ll likely blow through most of your stash just to get past them. I understand the need for challenging the player, hell I’ve criticised games for not being able to do this, but the disjoint in difficulty isn’t a challenge to overcome, it’s poor game design. This is made all the more obvious by the final boss fight which is, in all honesty, an absolute travesty as unless you’ve built your character specifically for that fight you’ll likely be unable to do it without sinking an disproportional amount of time into it.
The crafting system seems well thought out on the surface however it only serves to highlight just how little differentiation there is between most items in Bound by Flame. In the beginning you’ll have to carefully choose your upgrades in order to get the maximum benefit however about half way through you’ll be drowning in materials, allowing you to get the best upgrade for each of your items. The game seems to hint at the idea that you should change your gear constantly to fit the situation but even if you do that you’ll still find yourself with more materials than you know what to do with. Honestly if they had a crafting system that let you make weapons and armour I think the amount of materials that drop would be justified. Maybe then I could craft myself a pair of boots (seriously, I had to buy an upgraded pair of boots in the second to last chapter because I never found any).
Bound by Flame is also riddled with bugs and strange quirks that mar the whole experience. I had several occasions where, if I dragged a NPC out of their normal roaming area, the enemies would flit between being invisible and invulnerable to being visible but disinterested in me. Other NPCs would sometimes inexplicably face the walls or get stuck on things which would incapacitate them. This is not to mention your party members AI which is beyond useless most of the time, even when you use the order commands to try and modify their behaviour. Reading over my Mars: War Logs review reveals that many of these issues were present in that game as well, something that Spiders needs to fix lest they be forever labelled as a B grade RPG developer.
I could forgive pretty much all of this if the story was passable however it’s not. The core idea is solid, you’ve got to choose between your humanity and power, but the execution is sorely lacking in character depth, motivation and just general coherency. Hell even the developers themselves can’t get it completely straight as I note several differences between the story on their main site and the one in the game. Worst still are the romances, if you can call them that, as many of them come down to just choosing one right dialog option at one point, rather than actually cultivating any kind of meaningful depth between the characters.
Bound by Flame continues Spiders’ unfortunate history of producing B grade RPGs, seemingly being unable to learn their past mistakes to make their future releases better. It has all the makings of a good RPG, the combat system works most of the time (despite it’s wild changes in difficulty), the levels are meaningful and the crafting system is halfway to being worthwhile. Still the story is well below mediocre and Bound by Flame has numerous glitches and behaviours that do nothing but ruin the experience. I’d love to say I’m looking forward to what they’re doing next but it seems that they have no interest in learning from their mistakes.
Go on Spiders, prove me wrong.
Bound by Flame is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Xbox360 right now for $39.99, $79.95, $89.95 and $79.95 respectively. Total play time was 10 hours with 54% of the achievements unlocked.
Reviewing a game every week has been a great way to discover my internal set of negative biases towards certain types of games. Indeed I wouldn’t have known that survival horror games just aren’t my thing had I not attempted to slog through several of them, something which is contrary to the fact that I played through many of the original Resident Evil series. Turn based combat is another mechanic that I’ve found myself avoiding but recent examples of how it can be done well, like for South Park: The Stick of Truth, have started to break down that barrier. It was the main reason I didn’t jump on Child of Light right away and whilst I might still not be a convert to the turn based combat system I can at least begin to see its merits when applied properly.
You play as Aurora, daughter of the king and heiress to the kingdom of Austria. One night though you are struck down with a terrible illness that, strangely, sends you into a mystical world quite unlike your own. This new land you find yourself in has had its moon and sun taken from it by the evil queen Umbra, plunging the world into darkness and enslaving its population. You soon find out that there’s only one way home: you must restore the moon and the sun back to its people so that the way between your worlds can be opened once again. Time is of the essence too as the visions of your world that leak through show that it is in danger, and needs your help just as much as this strange new one you find yourself in.
Child of Light has a delightfully well done art scheme, with everything for the characters to the environments having that whimsical feeling about them. The art style is done as if everything was painted with watercolours with the wide and varied palette bleeding and fading into each other. It’s also done in a 2.5D style with the backgrounds being largely static and the characters being cel shaded 3D models. This allows Child of Light to have some pretty impressive effects as well as some nice little touches (like Aurora’s hair) that really help to build up the whimsical feeling. Ubisoft Montreal has definitely taken a page from the Blizzard book here the visuals are rarely boring, especially with the large amount of variety in the environments.
From a core game perspective Child of Light is a best described as a side-scrolling RPG with turn based combat that uses a system similar to the Final Fantasy time active combat system. All the classic RPG elements that you’d expect to find are there including an experience system, talent trees with multiple arms and specializations, item progression and, of course, numerous party members to manage. Whilst the systems that have been implemented are probably more on the simplistic side (at least from a veteran RPGer’s perspective) there’s still enough depth in all of them that 2 playthroughs are unlikely to unfold in the same way. Finally there’s a crafting system for augmenting your character in certain ways, something you’ll need if you don’t want to spend hours fighting battles.
The combat system works well as it encourages you to think strategically about what actions to take when and whether or not you’ll be able to complete them. Once you’re in the “cast” section of the bar you get to choose a skill to use which all have a varying amount of time associated with them. Should someone attack you during the cast you’ll be interrupted and sent back to halfway through the “wait” bar. There are ways to speed yourself up and slow your enemies down but you can also judge how long their abilities are going to take to cast and react accordingly. The AI, for the most part, is predictable enough (it will most likely attack whichever of your party can attack the next) but working around the various abilities that they have is what provides most of the challenge.
Like most games that use elemental damage types every enemy has strengths and weaknesses meaning that it’s nigh on impossible to build Aurora, or any of your characters, as a jack of all trades. This is made even more complicated by the fact that some enemies are weak to magic and not physical attacks (or vice versa) something which isn’t readily apparent from just looking at the enemies. Indeed whilst you can kind of work out what they’re likely to be weak to given their appearance (things on fire probably don’t like water) there’s no way to inspect the enemies and have that information presented to you. Worse still there’s no health bars for you to look at and the only indication that you’re close to finishing an enemy off is when they slump down. Considering you can be having an encounter every minute or two small things like these start to wear a bit as you’re never quite sure of just how powerful you are (or aren’t).
The levelling system feels like it needed a little more attention as whilst it’s always nice to have a sense of progression Child of Light is light a desperate friend trying to impress their new date, constantly begging for your attention. At least one of your characters will level up after each fight, normally multiple ones of them, necessitating that you switch over to the character screen in order to allocate their talent points. Sometimes this leads to a meaningful upgrade, like a new version of a spell, however most of the time it’s just more stat building. Honestly it would’ve been far better to have fewer levels with those stat upgrades built into the levels themselves. That way I wouldn’t have spent a good 20% of the game simply managing my party, making sure I’d spent all their points.
The Oculi crafting system is a pretty neat idea as it allows an alternative means of progression which is totally under your control. Whilst there seems to be some obvious choices for certain slots (the extra XP from the diamonds seems like a no brainer) some of the more advanced gems, weapon slots seem to be a lot harder. Whilst you can chop and change as many times as you like it can be somewhat annoying to have say a fire gem equipped and then end up facing water enemies. Essentially this means that you’ll often find yourself pushed into sub-par fights which, whilst not impossible, are usually quite tedious. Being able to change Oculi as an action during combat would be a happy medium and would go a long way to removing a lot of the repetition present in Child of Light.
If I’m honest the rhyming couplets style of dialog really annoyed me as whilst some of it was done to great effect much of it just made comprehending them that little bit harder. I feel that the story would stand on its own quite well however the method of its delivery ultimately detracted from it. It’s a shame really as the rest of the things that go into building that story (like the music, foley and art style) are really top notch. Perhaps this is the more cynical side of me coming out as I’m typically not a fan of whimsically styled things, such as the Studio Ghibli animation which this is apparently inspired by, but honestly try sitting through 8+ hours of people rhyming incessantly and let me know if you feel any different.
Child of Light is a beautiful game that, despite its simplistic approach mechanically, provides a very satisfying experience. The art style is unique and gorgeous, bringing to life the whimsical world that lives in many a child’s minds. It’s not without fault however as the simplistic nature has been taken too far in some respects making some parts of the game laborious, confusing and repetitive. These are not things without fixes however and I’m sure Ubisoft Montreal will be able to rectify this in subsequent titles released in this genre. There’s a lot to like in Child of Light, something that I’m sure will delight RPG fans out there, and I definitely count it as time well spent.
Child of Light is available on PC, Xbox360, XboxOne, PlayStation3, PlayStaion4 and the WiiU right now for an average price of $14.99. Game was played on the PC with around 9 hours of total play time.