Monthly Archives: May 2020

Half Life: Alyx: The Horror of City 17.

I think I’m officially old now.

So my friend offered to lend me his Oculus Quest which, after putting it off for an inordinately long time, I did. The system itself is pretty great, basically working seamlessly out of the box with only a few little bits of setup required. There are still hiccups of course, like it not behaving if you unplug and plug it back in (it wants another USB port) nor it wanting to power on until the battery is somewhat charged even if its plugged in. Then there’s the issue of the cord which, if you don’t cable manage it properly, becomes an annoying additional challenge to navigating whatever VR experience you find yourself in. Suffice to say there’s a lot of annoyances in just getting to the VR experience in the first place and from there you have another set of challenges to overcome.

You see I, like many others, usually play games to relax or unwind. It’s a decidedly non-physical activity and VR well… it is. So there I am, late at night, standing in the middle of the room ducking and weaving around working up a sweat when that’s really the last thing I want to do. I’m not unfit either but a combination of eye strain and the physical effort usually capped most sessions at an hour or less. I tell you all this as I think the simple experience of this being my first, true long form VR experience is as much a part of the experience as the game of Half Life Alyx is. So take what I say with consideration as whilst this is probably the best VR experience I’ve played it wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable experience.

Set 5 years before the events of Half Life 2 Alyx puts you in charge of the game’s namesake as she works against the combine to establish the resistance on earth after the Seven Hour War. You’re immediately captured by the combine but luckily the resistance is able to stage a rescue but only Alyx is able to be saved. Her father, Dr Eli Vance, is taken away and will likely be enroute to the horror prison Nova Prospekt for interrogation and execution. The game follows your quest to rescue your father in the now alien infested world of City 17.

Alyx, even through the screen door effect of current gen VR headsets, looks pretty great. It took some fiddling to get my eyes aligned just right with Quest’s limited adjustability but once I did it was pretty impressive. Playing around in the initial environment was also pretty great fun too, interacting with objects in a really natural way, even without the freedom of full hand tracking or controllers like the Valve Index has. There are some stark limitations though which crop up more often than not with a lot of things appearing like you can interact with them but are non-physics objects. Where Half Life 2 showed what was possible with good game physics Alyx does showcase what’s possible in VR but it just doesn’t seem as impressive as the former did. To be fair I haven’t played a ton of other VR games, so it’s possible that the leap in mechanics is greater than what my feelings would imply.

I’m not exactly sure how to label VR games in terms of their genre. I mean basically everything is first person in VR right? So saying it’s a VR-FPS is kind of redundant, but I don’t see anyone else calling Alyx a VRS or some other new nomenclature to distinguish it from it’s more traditional brethren. Regardless Alyx is a shooter with a heavy focus on making the most of VR as a platform. This entails puzzles which are made for manipulation with your hands rather than a mouse and keyboard, secrets that are hidden in places that require contorting your body in all sorts of weird ways and the usual mix of VR tricks just to remind you that THIS IS VR HOLY COW! There are a few notable mechanics that I think will end up becoming the norm for future VR games whilst others are things that only really work within the confines of the Half Life IP.

Combat is, to put it frankly, fucking terrifying as you’ll quickly learn that your mad gamer skillz mean nothing when you have to physically aim the weapon you need to shoot. Of course there’s also a bunch of other issues with how it works too, like closing one eye not really helping at all and the controllers being close, but not 100% 1 to 1 with your actual hand position in real life. This leads to combat that’s more akin to survival horror than a real FPS as the controls are more getting in the way than helping you. The enemies are coded not to take advantage of this too much however as combine soldiers who would’ve sprayed you with a full clip in 10 seconds in the original Half Life series are a lot more forgiving this time around. Still it is rather satisfying when you pop around a corner, squeeze off a few rounds and have all of them land perfectly or when you just offhandedly shoot a man-hack and it goes plummeting down without even getting near you.

Exploration is fun but it highlights just how limiting a space can be when you need to move around it like VR requires you too. I don’t have the recommended amount of space in my room to full utilise VR (it’s about 2.4m x 1.8m of useable space) and you’ll quickly run up against the guardian pretty much every time you’re doing a puzzle or engaging in intense combat. Combine that with the screen going full orange on you whenever you poke your head through something you shouldn’t and you’ve got a lot of moments that’ll break the immersion really quickly and remind you that you’ve been standing for 30 mins straight and oh god I just want to sit down.

I do like the puzzles in Alyx as a lot of them are things that really only make sense if you have both your hands working in 3D space. The same goes for some of the exploration puzzles which rely on you popping your head through areas or exploring objects in a way that’d be really cumbersome if it was implemented on a mouse and keyboard. That being said however there’s an awful lot in Alyx that straight up doesn’t need VR to work or the addition of VR doesn’t add much to the equation. So whilst I’d agree that, holistically, Half Life Alyx is a VR first experience I think the delta between it and a mouse/kb version isn’t as great as Valve would have you believe.

Putting aside the issues that can be attributed to VR as a platform there’s still some wonky parts to Alyx even months after its release. There’s the usual array of weird physics bugs which admittedly are pretty fun to mess around with from time to time but aren’t something I’m used to seeing in titles from developers like Valve (even if this is what you’d call a 1.0 VR game from them). There’s also issues around hit detection which show themselves most prominently with the barnacles as you’ll often chart a path seemingly past them only to get snagged. The glove detection is also pretty wonky sometimes, often not registering flicks for a couple tries in a row before finally working (which sometimes includes shooting the item right past you). A good chunk of these can be attributed to this being the first amongst its kind in terms of a VR experience but I guess I was expecting more from the great and mighty Valve.

The story is, at best, inconsequential given it takes place between the two major half life games and you know exactly what happens on either side of them. To be sure it has its moments, like discovering that Alyx is afraid of the dark or the on-going banter between her and Russell, but overall apart from usual in-scene tension moments the story doesn’t seem to add much to the Half Life world nor to the characters that are in it. It does avoid making things worse or retconning in things which is honestly all too easy to do, especially when all the original writers left Valve over 3 years ago.

Half Life: Alyx is probably the most in-depth and well polished VR experience to date but, at least for this old man, that doesn’t make for a spectacular gaming experience. To be sure there’s a great lot of moments when you’re fooling around in VR and you can see the potential the platform has but then that’s quickly swept away by all the negatives that come along with it. It is also highly possible that VR as a medium is just not my cup of tea in its current iteration and needs a few more iterations to reach the level I expect of it. I was somewhat expecting Alyx to be the one game where I’d finally make the splash to buy a VR headset of my own but it’s instead confirmed that I’ll stay away for another generation or two as both the hardware and the experiences just aren’t enough for me to justify the asking cost. Indeed it’s been enough of an experience that I’m not even sure I want to give Boneworks a go and I’ll maybe just give my mate his headset back earlier than I expected.

Rating: 7.0/10

Half Life Alyx is available on PC right now for $84.95. Total play time was 6.3 hours with 46% of the achievements unlocked.

Sky: Children of the Light: Rebirth in the Stars.

Journey is an incredibly influential game; it’s concepts weaved throughout numerous titles who sought to emulate their ways and perhaps earn some similar levels of acclaim. Indeed the concept I’ve dubbed “That Journey Moment”, the one where you first skate your way down a long dune past a ruined city, has been copied so much that it has almost become a genre defining idea in itself for these indie exploration games. So it’s been a long wait whilst Thatgamecompany worked on their next title, something which I’d left myself completely blind on so I could enjoy it without having anything ruined. Whilst the spirit of Journey lives on strongly in Sky: Children of the Light its soul has been crushed by that evil which comes for many games should they live long enough.

That evil is microtransactions.

Your world was once one filled with infinite light with the constellations filled with stars who shone down upon you. However over time those stars fell to earth and their light no longer brightened the sky. So it was that your kingdom began to fall into disrepair until it found itself in the desolate state that it is today. Your task, little child of the light, is to find those lost stars and return them to their constellations and reignite the cycle of death and rebirth that everything, even the stars, are bound to.

Sky does a fantastic job of painting a beautiful world with the limited hardware that’s provided by mobile devices. The art style will look incredibly familiar to anyone who’s played Journey with similar colour palettes, styles and animations. The near decade between the titles has seen significant leaps in technology and Sky makes good use of them with lavish particle systems, lighting effects and wide open vistas that you’ll spend a good amount of time simply soaking in. Layered on top of these stunning visuals is an amazing soundtrack, one that’s beautifully tied into the events that are happening on screen. My only gripe was that the foley mastering seemed a bit off as the numerous bass-y things that happened seemed to peak out my headphones, even after turning the base down completely. I didn’t try any other headphones though so this could be a non-issue. It goes without saying then that Sky’s craftsmanship is superb and is likely the best I’ve seen on mobile platforms to date.

The core game mechanics will be familiar to those who’ve played Journey although I wouldn’t go as far to say that playing its predecessor is necessary reading to play Sky. The main aim is simply exploration as you seek out the lost stars, relive their memories and find other collectibles along the way. The main mechanic is, of course, flight although this time around you can basically glide for forever but to gain height will cost you one of your wing energy things. Right from the start though you’ll be surrounded by other players and, should you choose to cooperate with them, you’ll be able to soar to even greater heights. There’s 7 different worlds to explore, each with a different theme, challenges and collectibles for you to track down. There is also (rather unfortunately) a microtransaction store where you can purchase cosmetics and something called an Adventure Pass which I’ll touch on a bit later.

Exploration is a rewarding activity in Sky as they’ve taken out a good chunk of the frustration in tracking things down by highlighting things of interest with sun dogs that you can see from a decent distance away. Depending on how many players are in your zone though you might find some things already done or completely locked out to you and the game doesn’t do a great job of informing you about what’s happening. After a while though you get a feel for when an area has been completed even though you haven’t done everything and should you find yourself in a fresh area it’s almost guaranteed to fill up before you reach the end.

The puzzles and other mechanics are pretty light on in terms of challenge but that’s largely to be expected for a game that’s supposed to have wide reaching appeal. The community is also pretty great too with most players all too happy to help out where they can, sometimes even offering to friend you and grab your hand if it becomes apparent that you’re really not understanding what you should do next. This is, of course, the main thrust of the game which Thatgamecompany experimented with in Journey: the idea of helping each other out even though you only have limited means by which to communicate with each other. If the stars align just right for you this can mean some incredible emotional moments as you share pivotal moments of the game together with strangers you will likely never know or meet ever again.

However there are 2 major issues with the game that fundamentally tarnish what would have otherwise been another masterpiece from Thatgamecompany. The first, and honestly probably the worst of it, is the fact that the game is free and powered by microtransactions. Now the full game is available to you at no charge and, for the most part, you won’t be locked out of anything if you decide not to spend real money on it. But things like the adventure pass ($15) only last one season and need to be rebought for each of them, costing you a total of $60/year if you so wish to indulge. It’s also unfortunately obvious right from the get go as one of the most prominent UI elements is the god damn shopping trolley in the right hand corner. That instantly ruined the entire mood of the game for me as no longer were the symbols people carried with them signs of mastering the game, they were more likely real dollars. I feel that this really crushed the soul of Journey that this game inherited and there’s really nothing that can be done to Sky to recover from it. I’d personally suggest hiding the fact that there were any microtransactions until you’ve completed your first playthrough so you could have that emotional journey without the baggage of the F2P model hanging around you.

Secondly the control system is finicky, unreliable and down right frustrating to use. Some of the more complicated platforming sections are incredibly frustrating because your character won’t respond like you want them to and there are other times where it’s impossible to tell if you’re just not doing something right or if you’re really not able to do what you’re trying to do. This could potentially be solved by pairing a controller to your phone (something I only found out about after I’d completed the game) but still, the game was meant to be played on your phone as is. It’s incredibly frustrating to have such a well crafted game that’s so horribly let down by its control scheme. I don’t believe this is beyond fixing but I know I’m not the only one to be frustrated by it.

MILD PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

Sky’s story is very middle of the road, thanks in part to the fact that it shares a lot of tropes with its spiritual predecessor which has been copied to death by numerous indie exploration titles in the years since its release. However I do have to admit that it has its moments and, should you be lucky enough to be playing with people at the right times some incredible emotional moments. For me it was when I was finally heading to be reborn in the stars and I found myself walking through the pools of light towards the door. It was there that someone who was with me in the level just before appeared, and the first showed me where to get a free heart. From there they walked with me towards the door, cheering for me along the way. Then, just before I entered the door, they waved goodbye as I was sent down to be reborn. Honestly without someone else there at the end with me I wouldn’t have thought much more of it but the fact that I wasn’t alone at the end was an exceptionally powerful moment for me, one that’s still bringing a tear or two to my eyes as I write this.

Does that mean I can forgive the games various sins? Possibly as I can see the beauty that they wanted to achieve but honestly without knowing there was a store and with a better control scheme Sky would’ve been competing head to head with Ori and the Will of the Wisps for my game of the year. Now though? It’s not even close.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Sky: Children of the Light is an exceptionally well crafted games with a couple deep flaws that tarnish what could otherwise be yet another genre defining experience. The graphics and soundtrack are both exceptional in their own right but down right amazing when paired together. The core game loop is fun and rewarding, encouraging you to work with others and explore the gorgeous world that the developers have created for you. Sky also provides fertile ground for those emergent narrative moments that games like these are renowned for, something I’m incredibly glad I got to experience at the game’s emotional peak. Unfortunately the microtransaction store and the horrendous control scheme are painful wounds on an otherwise great experience, severely detracting from the game’s spiritual core. Overall though it’s still very much worth playing, if only to support Thatgamecompany so they’ll hopefully make another game in 8 years time.

Rating: 8.0/10

Sky: Children of the Light is available for free on iOS and Android right now and will come to Nintendo Switch soon. Game was played on an Android Pixel 3 XL with a total of approximately 4 hours play time.

Cloudpunk: I Don’t Think We’re in the Eastern Peninsula Anymore Camus.

You know, I’ve really missed driving games. I spent a great deal of my youth in seminal titles Gran Turismo and the early Need for Speeds, even playing some of the more esoteric titles like the very first cel shaded game I ever played Auto Modellista. Later on I’d spend countless hours with my mates playing Need for Speed Underground, spending most of the time customising our rides before spending what time we had left together racing or trying to beat each other’s drift scores. The want to go back is definitely still there, heck I was staring down buying a racing wheel for far too long recently, but I just haven’t dived fully back in yet. So dipping my toes back in with something that notionally straddled the “driving” genre with one I’ve gravitated more heavily to over the past few years seems like a good middle ground to start off with. Cloudpunk is that game and there’s certainly a lot to love here, from the unique visuals to the simple pleasure of simply driving around the surprisingly large world, the open world tropes that have made their way into the game really detract from the game’s solid core.

You are Rania, a young woman from the Eastern Peninsula who’s moved to the big floating city of Nivalis to escape the debt corps who chased you out of home. You’ve taken a job with a delivery called Cloudpunk; their business? Simple: they’ll deliver a package from A to B for you without any questions asked and they’ll do it faster than anyone else can. This is your first night on the job and it becomes clear that life in the city is nothing like where you come from and just making it through this first night is going to be a challenge in and of itself. You don’t have much time to think about that however as Control tells you that you have a delivery and it’s time to get to work.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I played a voxel based game (quick search shows it was over 5 years ago, The Deer God) so it was refreshing to see agame go back to this art style. Given that you spend a great deal of the game zoomed out though it’s easy to forget that it’s essentially 3D pixel art that you’re looking at, especially given the incredible amount of detail that the developers have packed into the game. Truly the game’s scale is really impressive, especially with the amount of diversity there is in the various details (like different levels having different styles befitting their status). Of course when you do get to zoom in close the extreme lack of detail in things becomes abundantly clear, like just how few blocks make up the majority of the items on screen. Still though it’s the best looking voxel game I’ve seen to date so hats off to the art team behind this.

As the opening plot summary would indicate this is basically a game of fetch quests, sending you between two points with the usual array of challenges mixed in. It is an open world game though, allowing you pretty much free reign of the entire game right from the get go. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded too as you’ll find tons of items, side quests and other tidbits of plot or worldbuilding scattered around everywhere. Thankfully everything is helpfully displayed on your map too, ensuring that if you want to go item hunting you won’t be spending a lot of time trying to discern one clump of voxels from another. There’s also some market mechanics although they’re never explained, but should you want to make a bucket of lims you could do trade runs once you find some arbitrage to exploit. Finally there’s a whole host of cosmetic upgrades for your character and apartment although they have absolutely no impact on the game whatsoever. All said and done there’s quite a bit to unpack in Cloudpunk and for those who simply love driving around and exploring I’m sure this is a game that’d give you quite good value for your money.

The main campaign ticks over at a steady pace throughout game, which you’re most welcome to ditch at any particular point (save for a few specific missions) to go off and do other things that interest you. All of the side missions are self-contained as well and don’t have any bearing on how the main campaign plays out. Your choices in the main campaign will have an effect on the story and the world however, although in all honesty I don’t think you can really move the needle too much in one way or the other.

After a while though the monotony does start to set in however as you’re often sent from one side of the map to the other only to find out that you’ll have to switch to another level and then traverse that to get to your destination. This wouldn’t be so bad if the driving was a bit tighter, or at the very least had upgrade options that’d make it a lot more enjoyable. To be sure there are upgrades but most of the handling ones didn’t seem to make much of a difference. I can understand that it’s part of the game’s design, hover cars after all probably wouldn’t drive like they’re on rails, but when the main thing you’ll be doing for more than half the game isn’t particularly enjoyable perhaps it’s worth looking at sacrificing authenticity for enjoyment.

It’d also help if the upgrades were somewhat rewarding but they’re honestly not. I was pretty excited to see that there was a retro console upgrade and retro game cartridges as collectible items. Figuring that I’d put 2 and 2 together and get something cool, maybe even an achievement, I bought the upgrade. Trouble is I couldn’t tell you where in my apartment it was nor could I interact with it at all. This goes for basically all the upgrades which are simply just more voxels for your PC to render. The clothing upgrades for your character are worse still, some of them just being basic colour changes. It feels as if the game was built with a reason for you to need a truckload of lims but never got around to implementing it fully. So instead we just have what amounts to cosmetics in a single player game, not particularly worth it if you ask me.

There’s also a few items which could use some fine tuning. The physics engine sometimes gets real confused when you bump into another car and shoots you directly upward as far as you’re allowed to go. This would be an edge case issue if the hitboxes for the cars weren’t quite a bit bigger than the models themselves, making unintended bumps and skyward punts more common than you’d expect. It would also be nice to have a way to upgrade your walk speed (for the record I did try the caffeine drink, whatever it was, and it seemed to make Rania run faster but I couldn’t tell you if she really did) as walking back through the same area for the 5th time does get a bit laborious and it’d be nice to be able to rush through them. Apart from those small issues though the game is basically fault free.

The story is kind of middling although it does have a great cast of characters that are given enough screen time to build them out substantially. In the beginning it is a bit much to have everyone you meet vomit their life story at you but after a while they do start to build together into an expansive world which is quite intriguing. However the story told within that just doesn’t really hit the mark and the emotional highs it tries to put forward feel unearned. The ending is also sub-par, taking the end-o-tron 3000 approach after spending most of its time trying to impress upon you the gravity of the choices you’ve been making. I’d definitely play a sequel if the devs choose to revisit this world, though.

Cloudpunk crams a lot into one place with vast voxel environments for you to explore from the comfort of your trusty hover car. There’s been a lot of care and attention paid to the visual experience and they’ve really managed to capture that dystopian, cyberpunk future feel. However the actual gameplay is very middle of the road, with the repetitive nature of the core game loop, unrewarding progression mechanisms and so-so story making for an experience that’s good, but not great. If all you’re looking for is an excuse to drive through a neon-soaked futuristic dystopia then I don’t think there’s many better alternatives around right now.

Rating: 7.25/10

Cloudpunk is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with 7 hours of total playtime and 63% of the achievements unlocked.