There were a lot of games I wanted to check out after doing several tours of the indie area at PAX. Unfortunately most of them aren’t available yet, at least the ones I wanted to play anyway, and so after I got home I did the usual scroll through Steam looking for something that caught my interest for this week’s review. Thankfully the Steam Summer Sale was in full effect and many titles that I had passed over (mostly due to price) were on sale and so I quickly filled my library with several games I had been meaning to play. Dust: An Elysian Tale was one of these titles and I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it but I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.
You, playing as Dust, awaken in a meadow in the middle of a forest. You’re then approached by a strange floating sword who calls itself Ahrah, followed closely by a small flying creature called Fidget who claims to be the sword’s guardian. Whilst they don’t provide you any clue as to who you are or how you got to here they direct you to the local town of Aurora in the search for answers. The town is overrun with monsters however and after dealing with them the town’s mayor asks that you track down their leader in order to get the attacks to stop. This begins your journey to find out who you are and what your real purpose is.
The art style of Dust is quite spectacular as it manages to feel like you’re playing inside an epic Disney animated movie. I’ll admit that it was a little off-putting at first, mostly because I felt like it was going to be skewed towards being a kids game, however I found myself becoming more and more impressed with it as I progressed through the game. Mostly this was due to the added environmental effects like snowstorms on high peaks but there were also very atmospheric set pieces like the haunted mansions. Overall though being able to capture that Disney like feeling, both in terms of visual style and storytelling, is something the developer behind Dust should be commended for.
Dust is a 2D hack ‘n’ slash platformer where you’ll be put up against massive hordes of enemies which you’ll be able to dispatch readily. I’m not usually a fan of these kinds of games, I usually get bored with them as the combat starts to feel repetitive, but Dust manages to keep things fresh by gradually introducing new abilities to you as the game progresses. There’s also some rudimentary RPG elements included as you’ll gain experience and levels by defeating enemies and completing quests. There’s also an inventory system, which thankfully needs no management whatsoever, and a crafting system that will allow you to create some of the most powerful gear in the game. All of these elements bind together quite well providing a game experience that’s very different from anything else I’ve played in recent times.
The combat frustrated me at first since the tools I had at my disposal were quite limited. However after the introduction of the Dust Storm ability, essentially projectile based attacks that your companion Fidget shoots which you then amplify, made it far more enjoyable. At the same time though it felt like it trivialized the encounters somewhat, even playing on the Tough difficulty level, although this is countered by the fact that anything can drop your health to almost zero (but not zero if you’re above say 40HP, giving you a chance to heal). In fact you can play Dust as a button masher for the majority of the game, it’s only later when enemies start requiring certain abilities, like parrying or using special abilities to kill them, that some form of strategy starts to enter in the equation.
Although this seems to go to the extreme towards the end of the game where (seemingly) every enemy gets the ability to parry you making continuing combos and using your special abilities (which has an energy bar) very frustrating. Indeed it gets even worse when I started to notice that they could parry whilst seemingly incapacitated and, randomly, my attacks would simply fail to connect with them for no reason in particular. It’s a drastic uptick in challenge, I’ll give them that, however it feels more like a hacked in solution to ramping up the difficulty than anything else. Perhaps utilizing some of the non-combat platforming abilities as augments to the combat would’ve been a better way to do it as there are several of those introduced after you get all your combat abilities.
The platforming is relatively easy as all the jumps you’ll be required to make can be done without the use of your Dust Storm (which allows you to move a little further in the air than you would be able to otherwise) and the use of randomly moving/disappearing platforms is kept at a minimum until towards the end. It’s to your advantage to explore everywhere you possibly can as well since there’s treasure chests and keys scattered everywhere which usually contain a bunch of gold and health items. You’ll be struggling for keys initially as they’re just as hard to find as the chests themselves but I found that towards the end I had more than enough to open every chest I came across, even without purchasing them.
One thing that did irritate me about the platforming in Dust was the fact that early on you’ll be shown areas that look like there’s a route to get to them but you have no way of getting to them. Of course later on in the game you’ll unlock the required ability to traverse the obstacle and, should you want to return to that area, you’ll be able to make your way through there. I really don’t like it when games do this as I’m not someone who likes going back to retrace their steps every time I get a new ability. It just doesn’t feel like progress to me and instead makes me feel like I’m missing out on something whenever I see an obstacle I can’t yet tackle. It might increase the play time for some but, honestly, I don’t believe that most gamers are judging games by the number of hours it takes to complete anymore.
The RPG elements serve their purpose, giving you that lovely thrill of leveling up every so often that brings with it new levels of power. Since you only have control over 4 of your stats, and can only level up one of them at a time, the progress granted to you through levels doesn’t feel anywhere near as impactful as the upgrades you get from gear. I can remember getting a really good piece of armor before I was probably supposed to have it which made me near invincible against the enemies I was facing but up until that point I still felt like a glass cannon in battle. In fact the only upgrades that feel like they’re making any difference are the ones to defense. Even the 2x attack ring I got towards the end seemed to make little difference to the time it took ti dispatch enemies which was a little disappointing.
The crafting however feels rather well done as instead of forcing you to constantly reload sections to farm up the required materials you can instead sell one of them to a vendor who will then proceed to sell them back to you and restock them periodically. This means its advantageous to sell one of your materials to them whenever you pick it up as the vendor will stock up on it over time so when you need it, to craft that amazing item blueprint you just picked up, it’ll be there for you. This was my primary source of items as whilst I got a couple good drops most of them came from crafting and whilst I didn’t manage to catalog all the materials (some of the earlier ones just didn’t drop for me at all) I had more than enough to craft most of the things I wanted to.
I was honestly surprised by the story of Dust as whilst it’s rated at E (Everyone 10+) and starts off with some rather shaky premises the characters undergo some serious development, to the point where you really start to care for them. Dust also pulls no punches when it comes to dealing with real topics like death and betrayal, something that I did not expect given its very Disney like qualities. Dust does lose a little sheen by doing the cliched screaming for a sequel at the end but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to another installment of this game and the stories it contains.
Dust: An Elysian Tale goes down as one of the bigger surprises for me of this year, seamlessly combining beautifully evocative artwork with a hack ‘n; slash 2D RPG. It has its flaws, although they’re surprisingly few for a first time game developer, and could deal with difficulty ramping better. That being said however the issues melt into the background as you blast your way through hordes of enemies and revel in the deep story line. I’d highly recommend a playthrough, especially for those who love the Disney art style.
Dust: An Elysian Tale is available on Xbox and PC right now for $15. Game was played on the PC on the Tough difficulty with 8.6 hours played and 50% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve had a few people ask me how I come across some of the games that I review here and the answer is pretty simple. If I haven’t seen something that’s been on a lot of review sites (I don’t read the reviews, but if a game keeps popping up that’s a sign it might be worth a look in) then they usually come from me trawling through the new releases section on Steam. From there I work my way through the titles, looking for something that can capture my attention with just a few screenshots and possibly a short video. Mars: War Logs was one of these although it was more for the dev story behind it as Spiders isn’t a particularly large studio but they seemed really dedicated to creating a good game.
Mars: War Logs takes place in the distant future where humans have successfully colonized Mars. A hundred years ago however there was a great upheaval which devastated the colonies and lead to the rise of two opposing factions: Aurora and Abundance. Ever since then they’ve been locked in an ongoing battle for control of the world’s water supply, by far the most valuable resource. You play as Roy Temperance, a prisoner of war who’s caught between the two factions, trying to hide from his past that continues to haunt him.
The aesthetic of Mars: War Logs is reminiscent of many current gen third person titles with infinite shades of brown and grey colouring the world. Although this time around it kind of fits thanks to the world that it’s built in even though it has the unfortunate effect of making every place you go feel a little samey. The graphics are good but not great, which becomes quite noticeable when they’re combined with the rudimentary lip synching and low resolution motion capture. Honestly I’ve seen worse from other recently released titles so I won’t be too harsh on it for that but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the many other, astoundingly better looking games.
Surprisingly though there’s quite a lot under the hood of Mars: War Logs in terms of gameplay, something you don’t usually expect from smaller RPG titles. The combat is mostly whacking other people with metal poles until they fall down with the added strategy element of blocking/dodging incoming attacks. There’s also a stealth system which allows you to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies, although how crouching down counts as stealth is beyond me. They’ve even incorporated a talent tree, crafting system and character perks allowing you a pretty decent amount of customization to how you play Mars: War Logs. This is a lot for a small dev studio to cram into a game and that unfortunately means that there’s a lot of depth lacking from many of these mechanics and some of them are still plagued by bugs that should have been picked up in QA.
For starters the combat, whilst somewhat engaging and enjoyable at certain points, varies wildly between being so easy that its almost pointless to being so hard that you’ll spend the majority of your time rolling around just so can whittle enemies down a couple hits at a time. This is because there’s no dynamic scaling of enemy difficulty and it only increases at certain points, usually at the start of a new section. The pacing of the game then becomes highly disjointed as you can be breezing through the last half of a particular section only to hit a brick wall at the beginning of the next, rather than having a gradual ramp up in the challenge. Some would argue that this is part of the strategy but in all honesty it’s just sloppy design, especially when “challenging” means that you lose the majority of your health in a couple hits.
The stealth system is a complete joke as whilst you can sneak around the benefits of doing so are minimal at best. When you’re first introduced to it stealthing up to an enemy and hitting them doesn’t take them out, it just takes away a good portion of their health. Of course that means that after doing that all the enemies close by will aggro forcing you to go toe to toe with them anyway. Now I didn’t invest any points in the stealth abilities so this could be somewhat improved by that but that tree is also the weakest out of the 3 when you consider that, no matter how well you stealth, you will eventually have to fight everything. I think Spiders would’ve been much better off skipping this feature altogether to focus more on the core of the game as it really adds nothing in its current form.
Although there’s a talent tree with 3 different styles to choose from only 2 of them are available to you from the start, with one of them being the aforementioned weakest of them all stealth one. This means that you’re kind of shoe horned into spending points into one specific tree (melee combat) and thus can’t take full advantage of the third tree (technomancy) until much later in the game. However even if you wanted to I don’t think it’d be very viable as the amount of damage output you need later in the game can really only come from charged melee weapons, unless you want to spend 20 minutes running around waiting for your fluid (mana) levels to regen.
The crafting system is equal parts good and complete crap thanks to the massive overabundance of materials that you’ll find in every area. Essentially you can craft a couple things like health packs and ammunition but the real power of the crafting system comes from upgrading your armor and weapons. Now not all weapons and armor can be upgraded so that really expensive top tier armor might look great but it’s in fact completely inferior to anything that comes with upgrade slots. This has the unfortunate consequence of making the vast majority of items irrelevant as anything that lacks upgrades is most certainly not worth it.
After the first section you’ll almost never be out of materials for crafting things you need, especially if you’re a veteran RPGer and seek out all the free stuff like I did. What this meant was that whenever upgrades became available (usually after having to run the gauntlet at the start where everything is stupid hard again) I was able to purchase them and then instantly upgrade them to their maximum. There are no rare items to be found or obtained from quests so literally the highest damage/armor item you can buy from the vendor is the best item you will ever see. If you’re low on serum there’s a good chance you have a ton of materials that you can pilfer for serum in order to get the upgrade and in fact you’re probably better off doing that then trying to convert resources as typically you’ll get more if you sell said items to the vendor then buy back the ones you need.
Most of this would be forgivable however these are just some of the more obvious structural flaws that Mars: War Logs has. The interface is confused and doesn’t operate as you’d expect with fun quirks like: doors mostly requiring left click but sometimes pressing R, the attack button (left click, again) is also the loot button, pressing quick buttons for things like menus twice doesn’t minimize them and whilst you can assign 0~9 for powers you can only ever see the first 4 unless you go into the power wheel again. This is not to mention the issues with the incredibly stupid AI, both for your companion and the enemy, which routinely gets stuck on all sorts of terrain. Not only that many of their abilities are capable of friendly fire, leading to some incredibly frustrating moments where they inadvertently kill you. I’m hoping that it was intentional otherwise it’s yet another point where Mars: War Logs differs from the norm and not in a good way.
As always I could forgive nearly all of this if the story was worth anything but sadly, it’s not. Most of the lines are delivered completely flat in rapid fire fashion which, combined with the poor lip synching, makes for a jarring experience. It also doesn’t help that the characters have as much depth as a children’s pool with many of them changing their motivations on a whim. My particular love interest, Mary, went from murderous rage to sympathetic follower in less than 4 sentences and the resulting relationship could not have been anymore shallow. Indeed the game’s one attempt at invoking emotion feels incredibly cheap and only serves to anger the player.
Objectively Mars: War Logs is a decidedly B grade game with fundamental flaws riddling the core mechanics which, combined with the many other problems can make for a frustrating experience. There were times I had fun with it, especially when I got my build up to the seriously broken level, but unfortunately that wasn’t enough to make up for the numerous flaws. I commend Spiders for trying, I really do, but it just goes to show that sometimes you need to cut back on your ambitions a bit in order to solidify the core aspects of the game. I totally understand where they wanted to go with this but unfortunately it falls short of that goal, leaving us with a game that feels like it was halfway towards something great.
Mars: War Logs is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation3 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty setting with 9 hours total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.
If we spin back the clock a couple decades we find ourselves in a time when games fit quite easily into all of their genres. If you were told that a game was a Real Time Strategy you could be pretty sure it’d contain units, resources and buildings that you needed to build up in a strategic way in order to win. First Person Shooters were just that, you holding a gun and running from one end of a level to another ensuring that anything that got in your way didn’t stay that way for very long. Role playing games would have multiple character classes, pages of statistics and long running stories that would carry you through from the start right up until the end. Today however those kinds of boundaries aren’t so well defined with many games blending elements from several different genres which calls into question the use of these broad genres when classifying current generation titles.
Jonathan Holmes of Destructoid fame then asks if its time for us to retire the term RPG as it no longer seems to be a good fit for the games that fall under that genre. He makes a good point too, many games that include rudimentary aspects of RPG titles like levels, classes or statistics often get categorized as RPGs alongside other titles that seem far more deserving of the classification. Now that games are garnering bigger budgets and technology has advanced exponentially since the term was first used in the video games industry I’d have to agree with him that the use of the general RPG term is probably outmoded but we’re a long way away from retiring it completely.
For me personally if a game is to have the RPG moniker applied to it there has to be a couple attributes for it to qualify. Primarily it comes from being able to customize your playstyle to a fairly high level which is usually achieved through the use of classes or talent tree specializations. This, in effect, is what allows you to define your role in the game whether it be from a fire slinging mage to a half cyborg engineer who uses all manner of machines to do his bidding. Stat building, levels and all the other means to this end are really ancillary to the goal of being able to craft a role that you want to play within that game universe and that, in my mind, is the loophole that allows other games to have aspects of a RPG yet not fall into that genre.
However I feel that the term RPG is too broad to encompass everything that now fits under its original definition and that’s where the liberal use of prefixes is warranted. Whilst saying a game is a RPG might conjure a particular image for some and not others you’d be hard pressed to misunderstand what I mean when I said a game was a FPS RPG, action RPG or MMORPG. Each of these sub-genres each has a much more distinct set of guidelines for a game to fall under its umbrella and I feel is the proper way to identify games that blur the traditional definition of a RPG. In essence this means that the term RPG becomes a broad category that encompasses all of these sub-genres and can no longer be used to refer to a single category of games based on its original definition.
The redefinition of the RPG term is a sign that the games industry has grown beyond its traditional roots where everything fell neatly into the categories as we had defined them. I think that’s a wonderful thing as it shows that game developers are experimenting with game ideas that cross genres, blending elements from both in order to create game experiences that are truly unique. Indeed with all my reviews there have been many times when I’ve struggle to pin games down to one genre and that’s not just limited to RPGs. We may no longer be able to use the term to refer to a specific type of game but that doesn’t mean we should abandon the term entirely as the RPG ideals are still valid in today’s gaming industry.
An old friend of mine wrote a post not too long ago saying that the FPS genre had almost run its course and was in either need of a reboot or a bullet. I agreed with him although countered with a single game that was, technically, a first person shooter but flipped the idea of what constituted a traditional FPS and got it all mixed up with some heavy RPG elements. Whilst I didn’t mention it at the time (mostly because the question was centred around player agency) Borderlands was another title in the FPS genre that felt like a breath of fresh air when compared to all the other generic shooters that have graced our gaming platforms over the past few years. Its sequel, released a couple weeks ago, stays true to the original’s FPS/RPG hybrid styling whilst provided some much needed polish in the areas that needed it.
Borderlands 2 takes place 5 years after the events in the original and with the vault opened and the monstrosity contained within it defeated a new valuable resource, a purple metal called Eridium, has sprung up all over Pandora. Handsome Jack, a member of the Hyperion corporation, notices this and secures the resource for himself allowing him to take over Hyperion. Jack now uses his power, as well as a giant orbital satellite in the form of a H which can be clearly seen from the ground, to control the inhabitants of Pandora. However rumours have been spreading of another vault contained on Pandora and a new set of vault hunters have come seeking its contents.
Just like the original Borderlands 2 sticks to cel shading for its graphics style and 3 years down the track its not looking any worse for wear. Whilst many have praised Borderlands 2 for being a graphical step up from its predecessor (and it is, in many ways) if you were like me and dived into the configuration files you would have been able to get similar levels of detail. That being said not having to do that now thanks to a menu that reveals all those options to you is a much better alternative and speaks volumes to the lengths that Gearbox has gone to in order to not make the PC version a bastard child of a port. Seeing as that was one of my main gripes with the original I’m glad to see this was addressed as I wasn’t looking forward to panning them again for it.
As I mentioned previously Borderlands 2 is a hybrid FPS/RPG with core elements of both combining together to form the core of the game play. The FPS portion, at its most basic level, is your typical run and gun affair with regenerating health (in the form of a shield) and chest high boxes littering the landscape to provide you with cover. The RPG elements aren’t as deep as full on RPG titles like say Skyrim but you’ve still got 4 distinct character classes each with a talent tree that contains 3 different paths in it giving you quite a bit of freedom in how your character ends up playing out.
Now whilst the basic aspects of the FPS part of Borderlands might not be too different from any other generic shooter the way in which combat actually plays out is nothing like it. Just like in the original each of the character classes has a unique action skill that can drastically change the way a fight goes. Since I choose the Commando I had myself a sentry turret that provided both added damage but also a distraction for some of the tougher enemies so that I could run up behind them and unleash hell in relative safety. Talking it over with my friends the Sentry gun is one of the most useful but apparently Zero’s ability (being able to turn invisible whilst leaving a decoy behind) is by far the most fun.
Of course there’s even more variation in the FPS aspects thanks to the near infinite amount of guns, grenades and other inventory items that can drastically change the way you engage hostile targets. Whilst there’s a couple simple mechanics like different types of elemental damage that are more/less effective depending on the type of enemy you’re facing there are many guns with ludicrous abilities that can transform a meagre character into an unbridled tool of destruction. Indeed finding such weapons are usually key to progressing past certain points and you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a couple a long your way.
For me it was a rocket launcher called the Partisan Mongol which upon firing launched a barrage of rockets that did several orders of magnitude more damage than I was capable of unloading with any of my other weapons. This weapon became a key part of my arsenal as it meant that should I get into a jam and need to kill something quickly to get second wind all I needed to do was whip out my launcher and lay waste to whatever was in front of me. Sure it wasn’t fool proof and the amount of ammo it consumed meant it wasn’t particularly sustainable but considering I carried that weapon with me from level 20 something right up until the end just shows you how valuable weapons like that can be.
Your talent trees will also have a major impact on how you progress through the game. I played as a Survival Commando mostly because the initial talents went a long way to reducing the amount of down time I had to endure. As I went up in levels however the skills made me almost unstoppable as I was able to take massive amounts of pounding without breaking a sweat. Couple this with a couple other items like say an amp shield that imbues your weapons with extra damage at full charge and a build that was primarily defensive in nature suddenly becomes wildly offensive. In the end I settled on a build that reduced the cooldown of my turret skill by half and enabled me to have two turrets out at a time that both had shields on them, giving me both amazing survival power and an incredible damage output.
There’s also another levelling system on top of the regular one and its called, eerily enough (considering the title of my last Borderlands review), Badass Ranks. In essence they’re like a sub-achievement system, they’re only tracked in game, but you get ranks for completing things like setting a certain number of enemies on fire, using certain item abilities and performing all sorts of weird and wonderful acts. Once you rank up you’re then given a token that you can spend on a percentage based perk that can be things like increasing your shield regen rate. According to what Gearbox tells you these perks are unlimited and thus function as a levelling system that will continue long on after you’ve hit the 50 level cap. Unlimited is a bit of a misleading term though as its clear that as you level up the same perks you start to hit diminishing returns on them and I get the feeling that the upper bounds for many of them are in the realms of 10% or so.
In terms of overall polish Borderlands 2 is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor. Gone is the GameSpy account requirement and the need to open up a rather excessively number of ports on your router in order for it to work. The menus are also not painfully console specific reacting much better to the additional input options offered by the mouse and keyboard of the PC platform. I did encounter some interesting and quirky bugs along the way and there was only one that actually broke the game in a serious way.
Minor plot spoilers follow:
For the BNK-3R boss fight I spent most of my first try of it running around looking for ammo drops to replenish my stash. Now I’m not sure if it was due to me being in a strange position or not but once it was past a certain percentage of health and Roland said something like “Now that’s a big gun” it jammed itself on the corner of the platform and then started violently shuddering whilst not getting anywhere. I figured it was just stuck and hopefully wearing its health down would trigger it to teleport out or get unstuck but unfortunately after wearing it all the way down to 0 health it just sat there. After jumping to my death (and eating the respawn cost) it regenerated all its health but was still stuck in the same position. The only way to get it unstuck is to reload and then hope it doesn’t happen again. Thankfully for me it didn’t but there are many people on the forums reporting the same issue so hopefully it gets fixed soon.
The writers have also out done themselves as the comedic tones that are interwoven in through a semi-serious plot make for a story that’s engaging, entertaining and completely hilarious at times. All of the characters have their own unique brand of humour and whilst I didn’t find all of them laugh out loud funny they all had their moments. Handsome Jack, your nemesis for the entire game, is also an extremely hateable character and they did a great job of making him a real douche bag. Needless to say that I spent the majority of the game just waiting for a moment when I could put a bullet between his eyes.
The story itself was good too and whilst I didn’t feel a deep emotional attachment for many of the characters (apart from Mordecai as I played him in the original) I did genuinely care about how the ending panned out. If pushed I’d say it was the game play that made it for me rather than the story but overall I’d rate it far above other titles in the FPS genre which usually only use a paper thin storyline in order to keep you going.
Borderlands 2 is an amazing game having taken all the ideals of the original and polishing them up to a glorious hue. All the complaints that I had about the original are gone and save for a few bugs the experience is seamless. Even for those who didn’t play the original Borderlands 2 offers a great FPS/RPG experience that is only matched by other greats in this hybrid genre like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you’re one of the many who enjoy games with a long shelf life then Borderlands 2 is definitely a title for you as my play time is probably only a quarter of what’s possible.
Borderlands 2 is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 right now for $49.99, $69 and $69 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 25 hours of total play time, 58% of the achievements unlocked and reaching level 31.
16 years, that’s how long its been since the first release of Diablo yet I can still remember some of the moments with it fondly. I can remember the first time I wandered down to that level and physically leaping out of my seat when the butcher first growled “Aaaahhhhh fresh meat!” when I dared enter his lair. I spent many hours attempting to get further and further into the dungeons and only after pairing up with people I had never met before online was I able to progress further and ultimately defeat Diablo. My time with its sequel released 4 years later was a much more social affair with many LANs dedicated to pushing our characters through the 99 levels that it offered to us. Today I find myself back in that same world again, playing through a world that’s been with me almost all of my gamer life. One that I’ve become very fond of.
Diablo 3 takes place 20 years after the events of Diablo 2. Deckard Cain and his niece, Leah, are investigating an old prophecy that’s foreboding a great conflict between man and the terrors of hell. During his investigation a star falls from the sky towards Deckard and his niece and destroys much of the cathedral leaving only a hole into which Deckard falls. You, known only as The Nephalem, have come to investigate the falling star and arrive at the town of New Tristram to find it under siege from the undead. So begins your long journey, one that draws many parallels to the past releases.
There’s something to be said about Blizzard’s approach to the visual and auditory nature of all of their games. They’re never on the cutting edge of graphics (which I was very thankful for as half of my time with the game was spent on an almost 2 year old MacBook Pro) but they never feel as dated as other games who attempt the same style do. Their heavy use of stylization, clever lighting effects and heavy use of perspective makes the low poly graphics feel like they’re a lot more detailed than they actually are. This also means that in heavy battle situations even those with modest computers won’t be playing through a slideshow, something that has always worked in Blizzard’s favor.
Like all their games the accompanying music, foley and cinematic cut scenes help to elevate the Diablo experience further. Blizzard really are no slouch when it comes to making cut scenes that are tear-inducingly beautiful and the ones in Diablo are no exception to this rule. Russell Brower, the man behind nearly all of the music in Blizzard games of the past decade, has done a fantastic job with Diablo 3′s music which aptly sets the mood for the entire game (bar one level, but I’ll get to that later). The voice acting is also done well although I felt the dialogue was a bit of a let down in some parts but that’s no fault of the voice actors.
Combat takes wild swings from being a breeze where you feel like an unstoppable killing machine to the disastrous lows where you spend 10 minutes and many deaths trying to beat a single enemy or elite pack. Granted for the vast majority of the game (everything up to Act III/IV hell for me) you probably won’t struggle bar getting a pack/elite with a rather nasty combination. Even then it’s usually a quick change of skills and a repair away from being a walk in the park again. Failing that all you’ll need to do is take a quick trip to the auction house to be able to elevate yourself out of the current rut you’re in, so long as you’ve got the requisite cash of course.
The itemization in Diablo 3 seems to work well in the beginning with upgrades dropping left, right and center. However as you progress through the levels you’ll notice that upgrades start to come further in between, leaving you wondering what the deal is. For the most part its because up until Inferno difficulty most items that drop will be below your level and thus won’t be much of an upgrade. The auction house goes a long way to mitigate this, as does the fact that there are no soulbound items, but that also means you’re somewhat reliant on it should you want to progress at a reasonable rate. Granted this isn’t that bad since semi-decent upgrades can be had for a pittance if you’re willing to search and wait but it is starkly different to the way it was in the previous installments in the Diablo series.
The gem system is back but instead of relying on the Horadric cube to do all your combining and upgrading of gems you instead have your very own artisan that can do the upgrades for you (for a fee, of course). To get better gems you have to pay to train him and as you progress further you’ll need to seek out additional items in order to upgrade him and the gems he creates for you. Gems are also infinitely resusable which is a welcome change as now you can spend quite a lot on crafting good gems and not have to ditch them when you get a gear upgrade (or delay that upgrade because of the gems). This also means that the secondary market for gems is somewhat non-existent as all you need is a friend who’s run Inferno once or twice to come into your game and shower you gems they don’t need but are godly to you.
The crafting system starts off as being a wonderful alternative gear path allowing you to convert unwanted items into crafting materials that can then be used to craft items. All of the items are random however meaning that there’s a very high chance that you’ll create a piece of equipment that you’ll have no use for (which can then be turned back into mats again, if you so desire). Since the investment cost at the lower levels is, funnily enough, low you can quite easily create multiple items and usually get a hit that’s an upgrade. Additionally you can also train the blacksmith to create items that are a higher level than what you can current use, giving you something to look forward to as you level. I did exactly this all the way up to level 30 or so, and that’s when crafting started to fall apart.
The investment cost at higher levels starts to consume all of your available gold should you chose to keep pursuing it. Additionally the material requirements start to ramp up as well meaning that you can craft fewer and fewer items the further you progress. This means that chance starts to play a much bigger factor in whether crafting is worth it or not and in my experience it stats to lose its luster very quickly after level 30 or so. The base idea of the crafting system is sound what it needs is some finessing to make it less prone to rolls of the dice when the investment required for crafting each item is so high. If you’re an action house wunderkid this might not be so much of a problem, but not everyone who plays this game is.
The talent system has been streamlined extensively, taking heavy cues from the improvements that had been made in the upcoming World Of Warcraft Mists of Panderia expansion. Instead of the typical talent tree with 3 different play styles segmented neatly by the different tabs they dwell on Diablo 3 instead goes for an ability based system, allowing you to pick and choose the abilities you want to use and then augment them in specific ways. This streamlined approach appears at first glance appears to be a vast simplification of the traditional RPG system, one that had the potential to remove a lot of the diversity from the game. The actual result is far from that with Blizzard reporting that the most common build is only used by approximately 0.7% of players. Even with my extensive amount of play time in this game I’m still finding myself experimenting with different skills to see if they’ll give me an edge in damage or survivability, something that I had only thought would be possible with traditional talent systems.
Many of the set pieces feel like they are done either for the fans or in spite of them. Much of the game feels a lot like its predecessor with the progression through levels (town/rural -> desert -> keep -> heaven/hell) being eerily similar. Thankfully the environments feel fresh and distinct from their counterparts in Diablo 2 so it doesn’t feel like they’re just 3D renderings of the former 2D sprite based environments. The rainbow unicorn level (I.E. the not “cow level”) is one that was obviously done in reaction to fan’s bellyaching around Diablo 3 being too colourful when compared to its predecessor. This is the one place where the music is just plain wrong but that’s just part of the whole experience of this particular level.
The story of Diablo 3 is definitely above the level I’ve come to expect from most AAA games that only have it as a side note to the main game of multiplayer but somewhat lacking in what I’ve come to expect from Blizzard. The Diablo world, and its current incarnation, is not short of lore and back story for nearly every main character and NPC that you come across. However, and this may be because of the character class I played or not, I never really felt any empathy for the characters apart from Deckard Cain (the only one who I can remember being in past Diablo games). I also never really felt any driving motivation for my character either, mostly because of the way he interacted with the main protagonists.
Whilst a lot of the NPCs would show fear and doubt my character never showed a lick of hesitation when it came to talking down to prime evils or even supposed members of high society. After a while it started to sound more like bravado than anything else which was only compounded by the fact that many of the other characters acted somewhat irrationally towards him (like Azmodan saying at every turn that I would fail, even after I had completely decimated his army). The other classes might have been better but this combined with the lack of empathy for any of the characters meant that I didn’t really care that much for the story. I don’t hate it, I’m just indifferent to it.
So it’s at this point in the review where I look back at the game and ask myself “well, was it fun?”. The beginning stages of Diablo are very enjoyable especially as you get your first rare drop or you completely kit yourself out in blues for the first time. It gets a whole lot better with friends too as the multiplayer experience has been streamlined and integrated perfectly. Still I couldn’t help that feeling I had in the back of my mind, one that I used to get when I was playing World of Warcraft at max level. Sometimes I feel compelled just to do things for the sake of doing them and towards the end as I was approaching 60 I started to wonder why I was doing it. Granted this was at the end of a probable 20 hour binge over the course of the last 4 days, so I was probably just burnt out on playing.
Diablo 3 feels like a game that was made for the fans. The settings and the gameplay instantly dredge up that nostalgia feeling whilst keeping the experience fresh and exciting. Whilst I don’t believe there’s nothing in this game for those who haven’t played before their experience won’t be the same as that of long time fans of the series. I’m not sure if I’ll roll another character but I’ll definitely be joining my friends when we set out to conquer Inferno mode.
Diablo 3 is available on PC right now for $89.99. Game was played through the Normal, Nightmare and Hell difficulties with the Monk class reaching level 60 with around 32 hours of total play time.
Ah Mass Effect, a game that inspired so much fanboyism and geek lust within me that I’ve gladly parted with embarrassingly large sums of money in order to play it. My relationship with it started with an excited friend of mine breathlessly singing its praises before sending me a short video clip of it. The second the clip finished I knew this game had to be mine, no matter what the cost. This was the only reason why a Xbox360 graced my home in the first place and was so again when I upgraded to one of the new slim models to play through the final instalment. Today I will review the last chapter in Mass Effect trilogy; a review that’s been 5 years in the making.
Mass Effect 3 puts you right back into control of Commander Shepard of the Normandy. Returning back to the Alliance Navy after the events of Mass Effect 2 Shepard is placed under house arrest due to his work with Cerberus. His warnings of an impending Reaper attack have gone unnoticed and it’s not until a full Reaper invasion starts that they look back to him for help. Earth succumbs to the Reaper invasion rapidly but Shepard reluctantly escapes, only leaving so he can gather support to retake Earth back from the Reapers and hopefully drive them back for good.
First impressions of Mass Effect 3 were quite good. For Xbox360 players you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the graphics updates as there’s a noticeable improvement over Mass Effect 2. Whilst it’s not up to the same level as say Deus Ex: Humand Revolution or Skyrim they’re still quite impressive, especially if you’re playing the game on a massive TV like I was. PS3 owners won’t notice much of a difference however as Mass Effect 3 on the PS3 uses the same engine as 2 on that plaform. PC players will also be somewhat disappointed as the code for the Xbox360 version is basically the same and is unable to take advantage of any additional grunt your PC might have. It’s clear that Bioware’s target platform for this game was definitely the Xbox360 first above all others which is great for people like me, but I can understand the frustration levelled at Mass Effect 3 by gamers on other platforms.
The combat of Mass Effect 3 is just as exciting, fluid and challenging as it was back in Mass Effect 2. I was very tempted to try out yet another class as my switch from Soldier to Vanguard in Mass Effect 2 made the game that much more interesting but discussing it with my friends showed that the Vanguard was probably the most fun class out of the lot of them. With the new weapon/upgrade system the Vanguard could easily be made into an incredible weapon of destruction, one that didn’t actually need to carry any guns with him if you played your cards right.
So unlike its predecessors Mass Effect 3 gives you the choice of what weapons to equip, allowing you to carry around up to 5 different weapons. The downside is that the more weapons you carry the slower your powers will regenerate. So for weapons based classes like the Soldier you’ll probably still walk around armed with every single weapon you can carry but my Vanguard spent most of his time with only 2 weapons (later I carried 3 once I had the right upgrades), favouring the 200% buff to power recharges instead. This meant that past a certain point I was basically invulnerable as no enemy could wear down my shields before I could charge again, recharging them back to full.
Still though there were several fights that I found challenging to the point of frustration. Now I’m willing to blame this on the fact that I’m not a console gamer, the PC is my usual platform, and the many deaths I experienced early on where a combination of me not being able to aim properly and a bad talent build. However for most of the really difficult fights there was usually a heavy weapon hidden somewhere which I wouldn’t find until my 4th or 5th time attempting that particular combat scene which made the fight trivial. There are also some particular enemies that will 1 shot you from full health and shields with no way to get out of it (even with upgraded health that left me with 1 bar afterwards, I’d still die). It’s a real shame as apart from these 2 faux pas the combat is really quite enjoyable (thelatter making the last couple hours annoyingly torturous).
The talent tree system received a massive revamp since Mass Effect 2 and the improvements are quite nice. Whilst it still retains the base idea of adding points into a certain ability to make it better once you get past the first 3 stages you’re then presented with choices as to how to improve the ability. In doing so you’re able to craft your character along very specific lines, much more so than you were in the previous 2 games. With a little bit of looking around its very possible to create a character that is nigh on unstoppable, but it’s the improvements that Bioware made around the talent system that are most welcome.
The inclusion of a respec system in Mass Effect 3 is probably the most welcome addition. When you start off many of your talent points are allocated for you. Whilst this is a great way to introduce you to the character class it does mean that your character might not play the way you want it to. Thankfully the first respec is free and that will allow you to craft your character in the way you want. Additionally you’re able to choose 1 ability from your companions to include in your talent tree for a small sum. Yet again this allows you to augment away any of your character’s weaknesses or push them further into unstoppable territory.
The Galaxy Map remains basically unchanged from Mass Effect 2, keeping the same navigation elements whilst changing up the mini-game aspect of it significantly. Instead of going to every planet and scanning them for 5 minutes just to find the resources contained within there you instead scan around the current solar system, looking for little pockets of treasure. If one of the assets happens to be on a planet you then do the familiar scanning mini-game again but at least now it has a pointer to where it is, saving you countless pointless minutes scanning around. There’s also an indicator as to how many assets you’ve recovered so you don’t waste time looking for that one last thing.
You can’t scan around indefinitely though as scanning alerts the Reapers to your presence there. It’s supposed to make you scan smartly around, using the minimum number in order to recover all the assets. If you do alert the Reapers they’ll invade the system and try to hunt you down but they can’t really catch you unless you stay still for more than a couple seconds. Realistically you can just scan to your hearts content then exit/enter the system repeatedly to get the assets, which is what I ended up doing after alerting the Reapers for the 20th time.
WARNING: Mild plot spoilers follow. (There’s a second warning about the MASSIVE ones if you want to keep reading).
Of course where Mass Effect 3 really shines is the grand story that they’ve crafted over the past 5 years. Ever since the first Mass Effect there’s been a terrible sense of foreboding about the coming Reaper invasion and whilst there are some major plot holes (why did the Council ignore Shepards warnings after a GODDAMN REAPER ATTACKED THEM is beyond me) they’ve managed to keep the story moving through 3 games, even with the wild amount of control that the player has over the plot elements.
As always I decided to play Shepard as a Paragorn and whilst I’d agree with the way he acted about 90% of the time there were some definite moments when he’d go off the rails completely. This is mostly due to the paraphrasing that’s done in order to make the dialog wheel work, making it hard to accurately judge what he’s going say, but when the tough-as-nails by-the-book Shepard I spent the last 5 years crafting started acting out of character it really dumped me out of the game. Thankfully those moments were few and far between, but happened often enough to cause me frustration.
Now I don’t know if this was due to the choices that I had made in the previous games or not but the romantic relationships in Mass Effect 3 felt kind of…weird. In Mass Effect 1 I romanced Ashley who makes no appearance in 2 at all. In 2 I romanced Miranda and when I came face to face with both of them again I set my eyes on Ashley, her being Shepard’s first love. What got me however was the fact that Ashley seemed wholly unresponsive to my advances even though, as far as I was aware, there was no way of her knowing what I got up to during Mass Effect 2. Indeed she never confronted me on the fact, instead just giving me the cold shoulder. Miranda on the other hand was extremely responsive to the point where I basically fell into the romance scene which was a total cop out (when did Mass Effect become PG?). I mean I did feel something for Miranda but it felt kind of odd that Ashley would shut Shepard out like that, especially after the first few deep conversations.
It gets even more interesting as the token gay NPC, Steve Cortez (who’s done brilliantly by the way), ended up in a rather deep relationship with Shepard without me really trying. It could just be because it wasn’t possible to have that kind of relationship before Mass Effect 3, thus having to accelerate the emotional attachment, but it still made me think that Ashley’s behaviour was odd in comparison to everyone else. Not odd as in “Why doesn’t she like me”, more like there was something either unfinished or broken in the story line that I was playing through. I could’ve just stuffed up a critical dialogue option and not realised it, but I’m usually pretty good at noticing those kinds of things.
The rest of my relationships with the crew were just as good as the one with Cortez. Whilst towards the end there are many scenes that are pretty much “This is the last time you’ll get to see them here, better make the most of it” kinds of deals they do feel genuine. I personally found the scenes with Liara, Garrus and Legion to be especially touching, giving me the feeling of a true bond between comrades who had been through heaven and hell together.
WARNING: I’m going to spoil the ending here like crazy. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
I’m not going to pretend that this review exists in a vacuum but I did my absolute best to avoid all the articles about Mass Effect 3′s ending prior to finishing the game for myself. All I knew before going into this is that there were people who weren’t happy with it and thanks to my information black out I figured it was just a minority. However after playing through to the ending myself, being able to get the good (read: Green) ending and choosing the Synthesis option I can unequivocally say that Bioware completely and utterly bollocks the ending up, and not just for the reasons that many others have cited already.
For starters whilst the story introduced the deus ex machina ending early on that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a deus ex machina. Granted there are few ways that such an epic story could come to an ending without resorting to this kind of plot device but it’s obvious that the entire plot wasn’t created back when Mass Effect was originally created. Indeed accounts from Bioware employees corroborate this meaning the true ending wasn’t created until just recently. This then feeds into the larger problem, the actual ending itself.
The whole idea of the Star Child, the devices to control/destroy the Reapers and the requirement of Shepard to sacrifice himself are things that don’t line up with the Mass Effect world or the characters within them. Shepard is not a tragic hero and indeed should you have been a tragic hero in Mass Effect 2 (where not enough of your team members survive) you in fact can not import that game into Mass Effect 3 as Bioware has deemed that ending non-canon. The idea then of Shepard making the ultimate sacrifice for the rest of the universe is completely out of character, as well as being completely non-sensical in terms of the Star Child’s solution. Indeed, whilst the Star Child is ostensibly of synthetic origins and thus can be assumed to be completely rational it acts in ridiculously irrational ways. I would go on but many people have dissected it better than I ever could and my sentiments echo theirs closely.
Now I wrestled with the ending for a couple days before talking to my friends about it but the conclusion I came to was always the same. I really do hate the ending of Mass Effect 3, not because it’s the ending or because its tragic (indeed I hated the ending of Red Dead Redemption, but it was good because I was grieving for the loss) but because it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the Mass Effect universe. Instead of the ending being driven heavily by your choices made throughout the game you’re instead treated to different coloured explosions with 1 of 3 endings based on your choice right at the end. For a universe that managed to incorporate so many of your choices into every aspect of the game this ending feels like it was done absent any thought for the rest of the universe and it really shows.
As a game Mass Effect 3 was almost everything I had come to expect from the series. The combat was fun and engaging with just enough challenge to make sure that I wasn’t powering through the game. The characters were (apart from one) believable and relatable and I felt a real connection with them. Right up until the final couple hours the plot and pacing of Mass Effect 3 was magnificent and it makes me very ashamed to say that the ending just simply didn’t stack up with the rest of the game, and the rest of the series for that matter. Still I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Mass Effect 3, even if the ending left a sour taste in my mouth.
Mass Effect 3 is available on Xbox360, PlayStation 3 and PC right now for $78. $78 and $99 respectively. Game was played entirely on the Xbox360 on the Hard difficulty with around 24 hours of total play time and 80% of the achievements unlocked.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning isn’t a game I thought that I would be playing. Out of all my gaming friends only one of them had played it (and didn’t care for it) and I, as always, avoided the hype for it just in case I did end up wanting to play it. However after reading the AMA on Reddit from the writer behind it there seemed to be an awful lot of fans of his work so I figured the title would be worth the look, even if I hadn’t heard of the developers or writer behind it.
Kingdoms of Amalur starts with your unceremonious death on what appears to be a battle field, felled by a race of corrupted immortal elves called the Tuatha. You’re then taken to a mass grave to be dumped and forgotten along with all the other soldiers that have fallen in the war. However despite your apparent death you come back to life shortly after being dumped amongst the dead. It is soon revealed that you were used in part of an experiment to duplicate the immortality of the elves with the mortal races of the world and you are the first one to succeed. Your resurrection also granted you freedom from fate, a power that you’ll make great use of throughout the entire game.
Despite the heavy stylization that Kingdoms of Amalur makes use of the graphics are still heavily dated, being far more appropriate for something like a MMORPG than a single player game. As far as I can tell there are 2 reasons for this: the first being the obvious point that this is a dual release on Xbox and PC and we’re limited by its dated graphics potential. The second is that this particular engine is more than likely going to end up being used for an upcoming MMORPG based in the same universe. I can understand that this makes sense from a business point of view but in comparison to all the other titles that have been released recently Kingdoms of Amalur won’t win any prizes for cutting edge graphics. There are several “ooooh pretty” moments (like the one below) but they’re the exception rather than the rule.
What Kingdoms of Amalur does have going for it though is its unique approach to the traditional elements of a RPG. Whilst it’s a RPG at heart with all the levelling systems, talent trees, loot and so on it’s the unique take on each of these aspects that makes Kingdoms of Amalur stand out from its counterparts.
For the vast majority of RPGs, including Kingdoms of Amalur, you’ll begin by choosing your race and what your character looks like. Usually then you’ll also pick your character class which will determine how you do combat (and various other things) throughout the game. Kingdoms of Amalur has a much more flexible system: you put points into one of three talent trees which determines what kind of class you’ll play as. The 3 trees are your typical archetypes (warrior, rogue, mage) but you can mix and match between them and once you reach a certain number of points in a tree (or several of them) you’ll get a buff that corresponds to your choice. Should you not like the choices you’ve made there’s NPCs who can reset your talents everywhere, an absolute godsend in a game where the freedom to choose your class can have you making some decidedly bad choices early on.
Combat in Kingdoms of Amalur is a strange mix of hack ‘n’ slash mouse mashing with elements of strategy chucked in so the game didn’t get thrown in the same bucket as other titles like God of War. Initially, when you have very few other abilities, you’re pretty much stuck with clicking the left mouse repeatedly and attempting to dodge any incoming blows. As you progress further though your options become much more open, leading you to be able to execute long combos on enemies that end with devastating force. After a while though it gets to the point where the only challenge comes from times when the game deliberately throws multitudes of enemies at you and even that is mitigated by Diablo-esque potion swilling. I think the main issue here is one aspect of the combat that’s simply assumed that you’ll use whenever something difficult comes across: reckoning mode.
As you defeat enemies you’ll fill up the Fate bar, the purple looking one in the screenshot above. When that hits full you can enter Reckoning Mode. What this does is slow down time for everyone else but you and also sends your damage output through the roof, making you nigh on invincible. This doesn’t last forever though, about 30 seconds at my count, but that’s usually enough for you to dispatch most enemies (and bosses) before the timer runs out. Should you not have the fate meter full at a critical point though you’ll have to struggle through the fight, chugging potions and trying to stay alive long enough to fill the bar up. Once you understand this it’s quite easy to judge when you’ll need it but the one fight where I didn’t have it and it was obvious that the encounter was designed to for me to use it there wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.
What Kingdoms of Amalur does get right is the inventory system. Whilst you don’t have an unlimited inventory with which to stash the incredible amount of loot that drops they have taken out the laborious inventory management that usually plagues RPGs. Your main inventory of potions, usable items, weapons and armor are limited to a certain number of slots. However you have 3 unlimited crafting bags that hold components for you. What this means is you’ll never have to worry about having to clear out your inventory to pick up that reagent and you can keep carrying those reagents with you everywhere. What this means is that you’ll actually want to pursue the crafting options in Kingdoms of Amalur rather than ignoring them and then power levelling them when its worth it.
The crafting system also deserves praise as it’s a worthwhile pursuit in Kingdoms of Amalur. Blacksmithing for instance can break down all the items you pick up into their various components which you can then use to build better armour and weapons for yourself. Alchemy has the awesome mechanic of experimentation where potion recipes can be discovered by randomly mashing ingredients together and seeing what comes out the other end. Sagecrafting, in essence making gems for socketed equipment, has a similar mechanic but you’re able to see the outcome before you commit the ingredients. High levels of blacksmithing allow you to combine gems into your crafted equipment, making it on par with many of the best drops you’ll find whilst questing. Overall I was very pleased with the way the crafting system was implemented, much more than I have been with other RPG/MMORPGs.
Now I have to say that for the first few hours, indeed probably the first 6~8 hours, I was incredibly bored with Kingdoms of Amalur. At the beginning there’s really no feeling of tension, nothing that’s really driving you forward. Your resurrection as the Fateless One has stripped you of your memory and whilst there are several characters that recognise you it’s not until you’re near the end of the main quest that they’ll tell you anything about your past. The open world doesn’t do anything to alleviate this lack of drive either as you’re completely free to ignore the main quest and just simply do whatever the hell you want to. This is one of the times where the possibility of reviewing the game kept me going, that was until after I passed the 8 hour mark.
After that many of the stories that I was following started to develop and began to become interesting rather than just an impediment to me levelling my character. Even some of the side quests, ones that you could simply pass by and never do, had interesting stories to them that spanned over the course of an hour or more. Thankfully the quest log is unlimited so that you can pick up pretty much every quest in sight and then complete them at your own leisure. Doing so would put your total play time somewhere north of 100 hours however, something which I’ve never really done outside of MMORPGs.
So taking that all into consideration how does Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning stack up as a game? It definitely has its fun moments, especially towards the end when you can take out legions of enemies without breaking too much of a sweat. The story, whilst lacking at the start, is incredibly detailed and the multitude of side quests reveals a depth much greater than its appearance would lead you believe. They also got the loot system right as whilst I was drenched in epics and set pieces by the end I still got a thrill every time I saw a purple drop and an even bigger one when it was an upgrade for me. There are however some issues that can’t be overlooked despite the rational explanations for their choices. The graphics aren’t that great even when compared to other stylized games like World of Warcraft. The barrier to the meat of the game is incredibly high, rivalling the lengths of many AAA titles.
Thinking about it more I feel the same way as I do about Skyrim. All the elements of the game work well together, as long as you give them enough time, but the sheer size of the game means that eventually you’ll get to a point where everything starts to feel the same and there’s really no getting passed that. Indeed just as I did in Skyrim before I did in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I got to a certain point where my character was pretty much unstoppable and then just powered through the main quest line. After that the lack of motivation sets in again since there’s nothing driving you and it’s best to leave the game as is.
With all that in mind however I still feel that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a solid game and I look forward to the upcoming MMORPG version.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is available right now on PC and Xbox360 for $59.99 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on PC on the Hard difficulty with 21 hours of total play time and 39% of the achievements unlocked. If you have any questions about my reviewing process please feel free to leave a comment or consult this guide.
In the interests of full disclosure (and those who are new to the blog) it needs to be known that I’m a pretty big fan of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. So much so it managed to take out my nomination for Game of the Year for 2011, a pretty amazing feat considering the competition it was up against. Still even though my fan boy-ness might be at levels to rival that of my other passions I still couldn’t bring myself to spend the $15 on the Missing Link DLC that was available shortly after. No it would take a heavy discount to $5 in a recent Steam sale to bring me over to the DLC bandwagon but suffice to say, I’m glad I did.
The Missing Link takes place during part of the game where the main character, Adam Jensen, goes off the grid for 3 days. During Human Revolution Pritchard’s enquiries into what happened in the intervening 3 days are brushed off by Jensen and it was very easy to miss this gap in the original game. Indeed the experience would seem to be something he’d want to forget after being taken captive, having all of his augmentations reset to nothing and then having to fight his way out again. It’s a good premise for DLC as the experience plays like a short episode in the bigger Deus Ex world without having to rely too heavily on the original game.
As to be expected all the core aspects of the game: the graphics, gameplay and so on are identical between Human Revolution and The Missing Link. This works well for The Missing Link as all of these things were done extremely well in the original leaving little much room for improvement. That being said that also means the few quirks of the game like the ones I mentioned in the original review are still there. None of them are game breaking but you still need to be aware of them either to avoid getting trapped by them or to use them to make your life easier.
The Missing Link starts you off as a fairly advanced character except that all your mod points are unspent (except for the default ones). What this means is that you can craft your character anew, avoiding some mistakes you might have made. I’m on the fence about this as whilst it makes sense in the story I remember my character being a lot further ahead than the one in The Missing Link was. The choices you then make heavily impact what your experience of The Missing Link will be like (I.E. if you want to hack everything you’re going to have to spend most of your initial points to do that). With the total number of additional praxis points being relatively low you’ve got to make your choices wisely as every single aug can be used within The Missing Link’s short play time.
However The Missing Link heavily encourages you to play a certain way: mostly stealth. Now for most Deus Ex players this will be second nature as it’s pretty much the default play style and indeed Human Revolution heavily favoured this way of playing as well so it really should come as no surprise. It’s slightly disappointing as I attempted to make a run and gun character but ended up having to stealth most sections anyway, rendering those points I spent useless. It’s not a terribly huge deal, but I feel like my time with it would have been a lot better had I opted to spend my points differently.
I need to point out here that The Missing Link’s level design seems to be somewhat lazy compared to that of Human Revolution. Whilst I can understand that the setting doesn’t lend itself well to a large sprawling environment the running back and forward between sections, with the seemingly way too long scanner sections depicted in the screenshot above, doesn’t make for great game play. Indeed you’ll spend much of your time clearing sections you had already cleared previously. It’s a dreadful form of asset reuse and not something I had come to expect from the guys who had made Human Revolution.
Thankfully though the story (and the developer’s humour, as you can see above) is what makes The Missing Link worth playing. Whilst I can’t go too deep into it without spoiling everything for you suffice to say that in the short time you’ll spend with The Missing Link you’ll still be gripped by the story, one that has all the trademark elements that we’ve come to expect from a Deus Ex plot. One criticism I’ll level at it though is the incorporation of what is seemingly an arbitrary decision at one point that only seems to affect some dialogue between Jensen and another character. Had The Missing Link been integrated into the main Human Revolution game this could have been alleviated somewhat, but I can see why this didn’t happen.
For someone who usually avoids DLC like the plague Human Revolution stands out as one that I’ll heartily recommend to anyone who’s played through Deus Ex: Human Revolution and wants to dive back into it. Whilst it may not stand up to the high standards that Human Revolution set for it The Missing Link is still a great story accompanied by intricate and nuanced game play, aspects that many games struggle to pull off individually. Thinking back on it now I still stand by decision to wait though as whilst $15 is fair value (going on a $/hour of game play perspective) I’d still probably hold off on this until there’s another sale just because The Missing Link isn’t exactly required playing unless you’re a completionist.
Deus Ex:Human Revolution The Missing Link DLC is available right now on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $15 (or equivalent points). Game was played entirely on the PC on hard difficult with around 5 hbours played and 30% of the achievements unlocked.
The number of quality, well polished games that independent developers have been releasing recently has been great for the games market. Gone are the days where the idea of making a game was constrained only to the big developer houses or specific platforms and today we have a thriving independent ecosystem to support these talented developers. One such game to come out of the indie scene is Bastion a game that’s received much praise and developed something of a cult following. I’m not sure why I avoided it at the time but after getting frustrated with the end-game situation in Star Wars: The Old Republic and on the recommendation from friends I gave Bastion the once over.
Bastion puts you in control of a character known solely as The Kid. You awaken in your bed to find the whole world around you has fallen to pieces and every move you make is narrated by a gravely, disembodied voice. You then make your way to the Bastion, a safe place that everyone in Caelondia (The Kid’s home ) agreed to head in times of danger. There he meets a stranger, later revealed to be named Rucks, who’s voice is the one that narrates your every move. Ruk then informs you of the terrible event that occured, The Calamity, and how they need to go about restoring the Bastion after it was damaged during the event. So begins your long journey as you seek out the items required to restore the Bastion and uncover the truth about the Calamity.
Visually Bastion is quite pleasing on the eyes with its heavily stylization, bright colour palette and cel shaded 3D models that blend seamlessly. This style is reminiscent of other isometric RPGs like Diablo which use visuals like this in order to make sure you don’t get bored. This works quite well as whilst I was initially frustrated with Bastion (more on that later) my second session saw me play it all the way to the end and not once did I feel that the environments I was playing through were repetitive. It just drives home the idea that cutting edge graphics aren’t a requirement for good story telling, especially if you do them right like Bastion has done.
Bastion incorporates many aspects of traditional RPGs whilst doing away with others in order to simplify the gaming experience. There are levels for your character, which you gain in the traditional way of killing enemies and allow to add additional buffs to your character, but there’s really no loot system to speak of. Instead you have an arsenal of melee weapons, ranged weapons and special abilities that are all interchangeable. The weapons are also upgradeable allowing you to make them far more powerful than they originally are. This means that it’s likely that no 2 play throughs will be the same and lends a decent amount of replayability past the initial encounter.
I believe this simplified system is what lead me to get frustrated with Bastion in the early stages of the game. Initially you’re limited to a rather small arsenal, only a few weapons for each slot. You do pick one up every second level or so but progression at the start feels a little slow as most of the weapons and upgrades don’t feel like they’re making any difference. Later on, when your choices are much greater, that initial feeling starts to slip away in favour of you becoming somewhat unstoppable, at least my character did. I didn’t make it anywhere near max level (I think I got to level 6) but my combination (all fully upgraded) of Cael Hammer, Scrap Musket and Hand Grenade meant I could dispatch waves of enemies with little trouble.
It becomes apparent very early on in the game that whilst the Calamity might have destroyed much of the world there are still some people left alive. After you find them they’ll join you in the bastion and they’ll give you some insight into the various mementos that you find scattered throughout the world. They also bring with them challenges that you can complete for extra experience and cash to spend on upgrades whilst fleshing out the background story of one of the characters. The challenges are gauntlet style affairs and are a nice aside from the dungeon crawling that makes up the majority of Bastion.
One of Bastion’s most notable features though is the near constant narration. It serves two purposes, the first being to give a running commentary what’s currently going on. This gives you a great sense of the character’s motivations, feelings and gives the story solid direction in what would otherwise be a rather dull dungeon crawler. Secondly having a constant voice over allows Bastion to develop an extremely rich lore without having to result to giant walls of text that are common in RPGs. Whilst I can understand the reason why this is rare (voice acting is a time consuming and costly activity) Bastion’s use of it is quite unique. Plus Logan Cunningham’s dulcet tones aren’t hard on the ears either.
Where Bastion does fall down however is in the final throws of the story. Right up until the last 30 mins of the game your entire experience has been completely guided, your decisions ultimately made for you with a little freedom in what order things are built or upgraded. This is a fine way to tell a story, in fact this is how the vast majority of games play out. However right at the end you’re presented with two very distinct options to choose from on two different occasions. For a game that’s been choice agnostic up until this point adding in a choice at this part seems to only be for the sake of adding in some replayability. As a mechanic, I find that particularly cheap.
Warning, spoilers below:
Worse the first of the choices, whether or not to save Zulf, doesn’t seem to have any meaningful impact on the rest of the game. Granted the choice comes so late in the game that there’s not much it could really affect but that just makes its inclusion even worse. I’ll admit that the scene itself felt quite powerful, the notion of a selfless hero willing to put aside all the hurt someone has caused in order to save them, but the fact that your decision only mattered for then and there makes the choice arbitrary. The same goes for the ending as it basically boils down to the same problem that Deus Ex: Human Revolution suffered from. Instead of choices you make doing the game leading to an ultimate conclusion, you’re instead presented with a blunt “Hey choose your own ending!” screen. Though unlike Deus Ex you can’t just reload and see the other ending, meaning the intent of that mechanic is simply to encourage a second play through. Whilst it didn’t ruin Bastion for me it did sour the idea of going for a second playthrough as there doesn’t really seem to be a point to it.
Bastion is yet another shining example of games being used as a great story telling medium. The characters are well developed, the story thoroughly engrossing and the game play is rock solid, carrying all these elements along beautifully. Whilst I might disagree with some of the arbitrary moments that the game presents you with that doesn’t discount the rest of the game. Bastion then represents another magnificent independent release that shows just how far indepedent games developers have come, and how far they’ll be able to go.
Bastion is available on PC and Xbox360 right now for $14.99 and 1200 Microsoft Points respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on the regular difficulty with around 6 hours played time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve played my fair share of Star Wars games over the years. I can remember playing one on my trusty Nintendo Entertainment System which was just your basic platformer but was still enough to keep me captivated way back then (I was 6 at the time). More recently I indulged in the Jedi Knight Academy series of games which, to their credit, were actually quite fun and had a half decent story about them. I did not however get into Star Wars Galaxies, having heard how atrocious it was. Star Wars: The Old Republic however caught my attention from the get go mostly because BioWare was going to be the one developing it. I’ve always enjoyed their RPGs so it follows that their MMORPGs should be no different. Thus I pre-ordered my collector’s edition from Amazon months ago and I’ve been playing it ever since.
SW:TOR puts you 300 years after the events that occurred in the single player game Knights of the Old Republic which is still some 3,500 years prior to the events that take place in the original Star Wars movies. The Sith have returned in full force, retaking their old home of Korriban and re-establishing their Sith order. You then get to decide which faction to play for, The Republic or The Empire, and your choice will drastically change the story that unfolds before you. For reference I was a Jedi Knight base class and choose the Guardian specialization, putting me as a tank/dps. Your choice of advanced class doesn’t appear to influence the story however, just the archetype role you’ll fill.
Character customization is definitely a step above what I’m normally used to seeing in a MMORPG but is still somewhat lower than what you usually find in traditional RPGs. Most of the choices are from pre-set options so whilst it’s unlikely that you’ll find 2 characters that are completely identical there’s a very good chance you’ll notice someone running around with your face at one point, leading to some rather awkward moments. Still there’s enough variation in both your base character model as well as armour types to ensure that you won’t feel like you’re playing in a clone army.
On first impression the graphics of SW:TOR are nothing to write home about, especially when compared to the stunning visuals of some recent RPGs. Still much like World of Warcraft the stylization that has been used throughout the game means that it doesn’t detract from the experience. Of course, as with any MMORPG, graphics usually have to be stepped down in order to cope with the potential for huge numbers of players to be on screen at any one time. Indeed I’ve experienced some slowdown in the more populated areas (<30 people) but for the most part the graphics are the right balance of pretty and performance.
All that being said however some of the environments that are set up within SW:TOR did trigger my sense of awe. The screenshot above was just the first such example of where I stopped in my tracks and just took in the world for a while. It really did make me feel like I was part of something much greater than myself, something where the scale was far beyond just what was being presented to me at the time. However it would all be just simple eye candy if it weren’t for the story that underpins your entire reason for existing in this vast universe.
Now for most traditional MMORPGs the idea of an over-arching story line usually only goes as far as one particular level bracket. I can remember this quite clearly from my time with World of Warcraft where each area would have its own unique story but the connections between them were either tenuous or non-existent. SW:TOR on the other hand has a series of class quests that are in essence the driver for you to go from one planet to another. They’re far from a simple advancement device though as there are many times when you’ll be whisked away from the known planets on your map to other locations, sometimes for hours at a time.
Indeed SW:TOR could very easily be played as a single player RPG for those who’d like another fix of Star Wars goodness but were turned off by the MMORPG title. Sure there’s no escaping the fact that there’s countless “Kill X enemies” or “Gather Y of Z item” kinds of mission in there but should you not be too concerned with levelling as fast as you can they can be, for the most part, skipped entirely. A good chunk of the missions have some kind of unique mechanic or are broken up by enough cut scenes to make them feel a lot less grindy than their counterparts in other MMORPGs. Indeed there were times when I was playing simply because the story was driving me to, not the urge to get to max level and start gearing my character. I can honestly say I’ve never had that in a MMORPG before.
Levelling is actually quite enjoyable and doesn’t feel like a barrier to the real meat of SW:TOR. Unlike most MMORPGs where getting max level takes months of herculean effort you can easily reach max level in around 3 to 4 days played if you put your mind to it. My trip to max level was decidedly more leisurely but even I was able to knock out a max level character in under a month of play. This again reinforces the idea that SW:TOR would in fact make a great single player game that you could play through and be done with afterwards. That is, of course, how they’ll hook you in but I’ll be damned if it isn’t true.
The space missions also serve as a nice break from the usual tedium of questing. They’re something of a point and click adventure with the camera running along a set path with you being free to move around inside it. Initially they’re a walk in the park, especially for experienced gamers, but as you progress there will be ones that will challenge you. Like most things though you’ll eventually overcome the challenge and you’ll have to wait until you pass a certain level before you get another challenging one, but they’re still refreshing if you’ve been questing endlessly for a couple hours.
Your space ship also functions as a melting pot for you and your companions as well as being your transport between questing areas. I think this is probably why the questing in SW:TOR felt so fluid as each planet has a specific level bracket and could be travelled to with very little hassle. It also meant there weren’t any strange transition areas like there are in other MMORPGs when the designers tried to meld say a vast desert with a dense jungle (think Desolace to Feralas in WoW). It’s also quite nice to have the external camp to interact with your companions as their story lines (and potential romances) are quite interesting in themselves.
The experience however is not exactly trouble free. Shown above are two common glitches that I would routinely encounter, the one on the left moreseo than the right. There are quite a few graphical glitches that crop up from time to time but thankfully none of them too severe and are usually temporary. The second one shown above is a more extreme (but hilarious) example of the camera angles for cut scenes going all whacky and sometimes glitching out you or your NPCs armour. Mostly it would be my cape being stuck in my torso, but there’s also been people missing, voice overs not playing and characters not moving their mouths when talking.
There’s also some issues with lag, but not the ones you’d think. Even though BioWare didn’t release SW:TOR in Australia because of lag concerns I routinely get sub 200ms pings to the server, better even than I got in World of Warcraft (before I started using a tunnel, though). However there were still a few occasions when the server and my client would get out of sync, sending my character into a flurry of stepping forward only to be slingshot back. This would continue for up to 30 seconds at a time making for some rather frustrating moments.
PVP is something of a mixed bag at the moment thanks to the end game version of it still being a work in progress. You can participate in PVP from level 10 and currently everyone is thrown into the same bracket together. Everyone’s stats are boosted up to the highest level participant however so you can be somewhat competitive even when you’re just starting out. There are 3 different scenarios (capture and hold, timed race to the end and, in essence, football) so there’s not a whole lot of variety and it does start to feel repetitive after an hour or so. Still you’ll receive credits, experience and tokens towards PVP gear for participating so it’s well worth doing them, even if PVP doesn’t interest you at all.
The end game PVP appears to be an attempt to copy the ideas that Warhammer: Age of Reckoning brought to the table with Realm vs Realm PVP. There’s one world called Illum that’s basically up for grabs for either side should they want to have it. You can capture it by holding objectives although it’s not entirely clear what you get for doing so. This would be great except that currently open world PVP doesn’t award valor (PVP rank points) and there doesn’t appear to be any kind of bonus for holding Illum. Thus the end game PVP is reduced to people sitting at the objectives long enough to complete their dailies and then leaving, usually not even attempting to engage each other. I won’t complain about the free loot but it does feel somewhat pointless as there’s no reason to be there than for the dailies.
Compared to other recent MMORPG launches Star Wars: The Old Republic really stands out as one where the developers did their homework and worked hard to deliver an experience that was on par with those that were currently on offer. Sure its not as complete or as polished as others are now but for a first release it’s actually quite phenomenal, easily beating the initial release experience I’ve had with nearly all other MMORPGs. There’s still a lot of things where they could improve but overall the current game is more than enough to cement their position as a solid contender and I can see myself continuing to play it for a good couple months after this review.
The question many people ask is though, will this take the crown as MMORPG king away from World of Warcraft? I don’t think it will, but not because of any fault with the game itself. All the other WoW killers out there were fundamentally flawed at launch, usually lacking content or sufficient polish. World of Warcraft is the opiate for the MMORPG masses and the only ones capable of taking it down are Blizzard themselves and indeed it looks like they will with Diablo III and the mysterious Project Titan. SW:TOR however is a strong contender to be second place to them, and not just the distant second that many have been before it.
Star Wars: The Old Republic managed to re-ignite that same sense of passion, wonder and fulfilment that I first felt all those years ago when I made my first tenuous steps into the world of MMORPGs. It really is a wonderful feeling going through a new world for the first time, especially one that’s as rich as SW:TOR. I can’t see myself getting as addicted as I did back in my MMORPG heydays but that’s probably just me getting older more than it is the game being any less addictive. For Star Wars fans, MMORPGers and RPG fans alike SW:TOR is definitely worth checking out, even if you ignore that whole online part.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is available right on exclusively on PC for $62 which includes 1 month of game time. Game was played entirely on PC with around 5 days (120 hours) of total play time and reaching the level cap, 50.