Games

State of the Game: 29/01/2018 to 04/02/2018

The Fall Part 2: Unbound: I Need My Rule.

These games reviews serve a couple different purposes for me. The first is to push me to try things out of my comfort zone as there’s so much more to the world of gaming than just the AAA releases. The second, and one I’m finding increasingly useful as my back catalogue of reviews grows, is to serve as a secondary memory; a kind of online copy of my impressions of the game to augment my own. So when I saw The Fall Part 2: Unbound I had this feeling that I’d played something like it before which, of course, I had. So I felt compelled to give the sequel a shot as, after reading through my previous review, I remember liking the concept even if the implementation fell a little short. It seems that the developers have stayed true to their roots in that regard as Part 2: Unbound keeps the same intriguing story whilst retaining many of the issues that I grated up against before.

SPOILERS FOR THE FALL BELOW

Part 2: Unbound begins where the previous story left off with ARID being dragged away for repurposing. During this process she’s infected with a virus which, interestingly, allows her to redefine her core rule. No longer bound by the need to save her pilot, nor anyone else, she defines her new rule as: I must save myself. However a user on the network is attacking her body, seeking to destroy what is left of her. In order to save herself she must find out who this user is, reaching beyond the confines of her body into the vast network beyond. It is there where she meets others who will help her fulfil her rule, whether they want to or not.

The visuals of Part 2 don’t appear to have changed appreciably in the 3 years since the original’s release. There’s certainly a lot more detail in most of the scenes, especially those that deviate from the original’s corridor-only design. The visuals have the trademark “Unity Engine” feel to them which is especially noticeable when the camera zooms in for close ups. 3 years ago this was a refreshing change from the current trends but now? It feels a bit dated. This is somewhat understandable as the focus appears to have been spent more on the puzzles and level design, given the sequel is almost 3 times as long as the original.

Mechanically Part 2: Unbound is the same game as the original, requiring you to explore your environment to find the solution to the current puzzle. This time around however you’ll be doing the majority of that through others, taking control of other AIs to help you complete your task. Each of these different entities have their own set of capabilities and limitations, both of which you’ll need to exploit fully in order to progress.The game also introduces several new mechanics along the way which ramp up the puzzle difficulty substantially towards the end (although I’ll abstain from describing them as it’s most certainly spoiler territory). Combat makes a return with a couple additional mechanics thrown but it’s mostly a distraction from the core puzzle solving game. It’s clear that the developer has focused more heavily on the parts that were received well (puzzle design and story) whilst defocusing others. The result is a game that I’m sure will delight fans of the first but, for people like me, it does highlight a lack of growth in the developer.

I mentioned in my review of The Fall that it was clear that the developer and I weren’t completely in-sync when it came to puzzle design. That hasn’t changed in Part 2: Unbound as there were numerous puzzles that just simply didn’t make any sense to me. Sometimes it was something simple, like missing an interaction point, but other times the logical leaps required would never come to me. Sure I could try clicking everything in sight in order to find out but that gets tiresome really quick. The worse ones were problems that had an obvious solution that was locked behind some mechanic I simply didn’t understand, preventing me from solving the puzzle until I’d completed some other, seemingly unrelated, task. I’d estimate that about 65% of the puzzles made sense (even if they were challenging), 15% were faults of mine and the remaining 20% were just nonsensical. I’ve played worse, to be sure, but I’ve also played better.

I’d forgive the game for that, as I did for the original, if it wasn’t for the fact that the developer made many of the same mistakes again. The control scheme is still the awkward mess it was before with the game often failing to capture the mouse pointer. For dual monitor users this will result in the game minimizing itself every so often when you click outside of the game’s window. There’s also a few puzzles which you can get stuck in, requiring you to exit to the main menu in order to be able to reset. There’s even a few places where you can fall through the world, like when One is on the train (simply walk to the left, there’s no barrier to stop you plummeting off the edge). That will also require a restart to get you back again. For first games from an indie studio I’m usually quite lenient, it is after all not easy to create a game, but for further titles I expect to see some level of polish. It’s just not there unfortunately which is a real shame. Hopefully I don’t see the same mistakes in Part 3 (this is supposed to be a trilogy, after all).

The story is still great with the addition of 3 extra characters giving you a much broader perspective on the world that you find yourself in. Each of the new characters are given enough backstory to get you invested which helps immensely in driving you through the game’s more obvious flaws. It certainly had its share of climatic moments, the Josephs scene comes to mind, and the little bits of levity sprinkled throughout are a welcome distraction from the dark overtones. The game proudly announces “To Be Concluded” at the end, signalling that the next instalment is coming and will be the finale to the story, something which I’ll always take points off for. It definitely feels like the story I’d be much more into if it wasn’t for the awkward controls and illogical puzzles. It’s a shame really as I always hope to see indie developers grow beyond the confines of their original success.

The Fall Part 2: Unbound, doubles down on what made the original popular whilst retaining many of the things which I’d had hoped they’d change. The story and puzzles were definitely the developer’s main focus as the game is much longer and more in depth than its predecessor was. However things that marred the original, like the awkward control scheme, lack of polish in some aspects as well as puzzle design that simply didn’t gel with this writer, felt like I was playing almost the same game from 3 years ago. For those who loved the original these issues aren’t likely to pose a problem but for me, someone who loves to see indie developers grow over time, it feels like they’re stagnant. In my mind Over The Moon Games has one last chance to prove that they, and their IP, can innovate beyond what they’ve achieved so far. All this being said The Fall Part 2: Unbound is still probably worth playing for those who love a good puzzle and story, I just wish it wasn’t almost the same game as it was 3 years ago.

Rating: 7.0/10

The Fall Part 2: Unbound is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $16.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total playtime and 43% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 22/01/2018 to 28/01/2018

Elementium: What You Find in the Depths of Steam’s New Releases.

Years ago I used to troll through the new releases section of Steam, looking for anything that piqued my interest. I played a lot of things out of my comfort zone and grew to enjoy the wide and varied experiences that the Indie scene brought to bear. Back then the signal to noise ratio was quite a lot higher, mostly because there were far fewer games released per week (it’s something like 200+ on average now). Those days were mostly gone however as I could usually find something on the first page of “Popular New Releases” section but last week I came up empty. Enter Elementium, the game that managed to catch my eye with its Talos Principle like visuals. It isn’t anything like that though, more akin to an alpha release of a Kickstarter game than a full release on Steam that the developer is charging $15 for.

Elementium is a physics based puzzle game where the main mechanic is where you can change the size of objects through the use of perspective. That’s pretty novel, indeed the tech demo of the Museum of Simulation Technology is the only other “game” I can think of that uses it, however that’s where the interesting part of the game ends. What follows is a series of 40 levels, most of which can be beaten on first try in under a couple of minutes. The others? Well they’re fiddly messes, either requiring precise timing (something you’ll struggle to get done due to the ham fisted nature of the controls) or doing things that have a high chance of failing which will require you to restart the level (which takes approximately 30 seconds to load every, damn, time). Honestly I was going to be kind to this game at the start but after 40 levels I’ve simply run out of patience.

It does manage to look good however I think that’s more a function of the Unreal Engine’s asset store more than anything else. The sound design is god awful with each sound always sounding exactly the same including very noticeable things like your character’s footsteps. Indeed anything without a smattering of glowy lights looks like something that was developed over 5 years ago with that telltale Unreal engine feel about them. Suffice to say the audio-visual experience isn’t going to save this game and, unfortunately, the overall game doesn’t do itself any favours either.

Most of the puzzles are so blindingly simple that you’ll often wonder if there’s some kind of hidden switch or alternate solving method to unlock a secret. There are none and it’s hard to see why the developer built most of the puzzles the way they did. For example there’s one puzzle with 3 boxes in a room and a laser stopping a door from opening. To solve it all you have to do is put one box in front of it, that’s it. What were the other 2 boxes for? Just fun decoration? When that first happened I thought, maybe, that was just an early test puzzle or something but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Instead there are numerous puzzles with extraneous items strewn about, never to be used for anything.

Crappy puzzle design would be one thing but the real irritation comes from interacting with those items. Picking up items can be a bit of a guessing game, often requiring you to get just the right angle on it to be able to pick it up. This because quite a chore when you’re working with big items as quite often you’ll be unable to put them down. The game says that the middle mouse button is the “drop item” button but it rarely works. What this often leads to is furious clicking as you try to figure out how to pick up and move stuff about often to no avail. Worse still the perspective/size mechanic works on items even after you’ve finished interacting with them. This is especially clear when you’re say dropping big boxes into holes as they’ll magically shrink as they fall down, even if you’re not looking at them.

The same feeling of extremely low effort applies to the other aspects of the game like the UI. Every element is simple text boxes, all of which will require at least 2 mouse clicks to register properly and even after you’ve done that it can be hard to tell if the game is actually doing anything. The final scene of the game is a simple portal that has 2 switches which, when pressed with the boxes, display the simple text shown in the screenshot below. This makes me think that at one point the game did have some kind of story, which might explain why there’s a pointless corridor walk at the start of each puzzle, but the developer simply didn’t have enough time to get it done before he shoveled this pile of crapware into the public eye.

This isn’t even a game where a few simple tweaks here or there would result in a game that I’d deem worthy of playing. Pretty much every aspect has to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch as there’s not one part of this game that doesn’t have some kind of issue associated with it. Visuals? Repetitive asset-reuse that makes every single level feel pretty much identical. Sound? That would require using more than a dozen sounds at a time. Mechanics? Every single one is implemented in a rudimentary, unoptimized way. Story? Don’t make me laugh.

Elementium is the kind of game I expect to see on /r/Indie where the developer doesn’t seem to understand why it isn’t selling. The fact of the matter is that this game barely qualifies as such, playing like an early alpha rather than a game you’re paying full price for. These are the kinds of titles that Early Access is designed to help, the ones where the developer has an idea they want to explore but hasn’t got a clue about how to make it fun. Further the extreme lack of polish on nearly all elements makes me think that this game didn’t see any external play testing at all as there’s no way any of these issues made it past even the most forgiving of family members. I tried to keep an open mind when I was playing Elementium, figuring that there had to be a point somewhere along the lines where it started to really come into its own. That time never came and here I am, 4 hours in the hole without much to show for it. Honestly Ignite Studios, if you’re reading this, email me: [email protected], you sound like you need the help.

Rating: 3/10

Elementium is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 15/01/2018 to 21/01/2018

Celeste: We All Have Our Own Mountain.

Ever since I gave myself new, unknown forms of RSI playing games like Super Meat Boy I’ve had an aversion to twitch based platformers. The challenge can certainly be rewarding but the games can be exhausting to play, needing to be put down after an hour or so. Trouble is when I feel forced to put a game down, rather than feeling like I’ve come to a good place to stop, they tend to not get picked up again. That is the unfortunate tale of Celeste for this old reviewer as whilst it’s a very competent platformer I simply haven’t had the drive to go back to it after I last decided to give it a rest.

You play as Madeline, a young woman out on a quest to conquer the mighty Celeste mountain and, in the process, confront her own inner demons. The journey to the summit is fraught with all sorts of fantastical dangers that will push you to your limits. There will be those who belittle you for daring to take on such a challenge, some who support you and those whose intentions aren’t particularly clear. The reason as to why you’re climbing the mountain isn’t particularly clear but one thing is for sure: Madeline will make it to the top no matter what.

Celeste takes its artistic inspiration from fellow low detail pixel art platformers, emulating the style of games of yesteryear that weren’t capable of pushing more than a handful of pixels at a time. The attention to detail is impressive though, using each pixel to convey much more information than would otherwise be from say larger images that had been downscaled. The higher resolution images have that old Flash game feel about them which isn’t surprising given the developer’s heritage in making games on that platform. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard pixel art affair.

As I alluded to in the opening paragraph Celeste is a platformer, one that takes much of its inspiration from the bevy of similar games that have been released over the past decade. Its signature mechanics are simple: a dash and the ability to hold/climb on walls for a limited amount of time. Each level will have its own unique additional mechanic which it will make use of to provide additional challenge, leaving your in-built abilities unchanged. Each of the levels ends with what you could call a boss which typically takes the form of something either chasing you or making your platforming journey just that extra bit more difficult. Scattered throughout the levels are dozens of collectibles, all of which are trapped behind harder than usual platforming puzzles. All in all, from a base game perspective, there’s not much I haven’t seen before and this doesn’t feel like a case where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

The platforming mechanics are crafted well enough, rarely did I find myself in a position where the journey from beginning to end of a particular puzzle wasn’t clear at the outset. Indeed Celeste does a pretty good job of demonstrating the mechanics to you, ensuring you have all the tools at your disposal. Of course using them correctly is where the challenge comes in as, if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to forget which finger does what when you’re in the middle of a complex puzzle. Thankfully all the harder challenge puzzles are completely optional so I never really felt like I was being put up against an unfair challenge. No, instead where I started to lose interest in Celeste was in how it ramped up the challenge.

You see there’s really only so much you can do with a simple bag of mechanics that are augmented with a single additional one per level. So instead the challenge typically comes from extending the puzzles length, meaning the distance between checkpoints progressively gets longer and longer. This means that the later puzzles are more difficult not because they’re more complex but because it takes longer to get to the point to retry that particular section. This is especially true for the boss sections which are the longest by far and include another additional irritating mechanic that makes completing those puzzles just that little bit harder. Sure the sense of accomplishment is very real when you finally complete a level but I could never really push myself to attempt more than one level in a sitting.

For those who enjoy platformers though these things are likely to be what makes a game like Celeste worth playing in the first place. There’s certainly a lot of content packed into Celeste with the strawberries, b-sides and what have you scattered around. I simply don’t enjoy chasing those kinds of rewards and so, when I put down Celeste on Sunday for the final time, the compulsion to go back simply vanished.

STORY SPOILERS BELOW

Had the story found its legs earlier I may have played it through to completion however. In the beginning the game doesn’t do much to build out the greater narrative except for hammering home the fact that Madeline is flawed. There is one incredibly touching moment when Madeline has a panic attack in the cable car, something I think anyone who’s dealt with anxiety before can relate to, but that comes over halfway through the game. Perhaps the story develops at a much faster rate in the sections which I haven’t played yet but unfortunately there just wasn’t enough to keep me engaged to want to see if that was the case. Perhaps I’ll watch a run through on YouTube or something one day but, sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever see it of my own volition.

STORY SPOILERS OVER

Celeste is a competent platformer that is sure to delight fans of the genre. Whilst none of its features stands out as the main reason you’d play it what they have done does fit together well. For me though this is probably one game where my biases against this type of game are showing through as I simply didn’t find enough reward in its challenge. To be sure it’s a well designed platformer, carefully guiding you through each of the level’s signature mechanics before hitting you hard with more challenging puzzles. Good design does not guarantee a fun game, however. Perhaps if I sunk another hour or two into Celeste I may sing a different tune, especially if the story manages to find its feet beyond that point, but for now it shall join the rest of the platformers I’ve laid to rest.

Rating: 7.0/10

Celeste is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.5 hours of total play time and 20% of the achievements unlocked.

The Red Strings Club: Freedom to Feel.

I’ve been staring at this page for far too long trying to figure out how to open up this review of The Red Strings Club. Sure I could take the easy route and direct you my review of Gods Will Be Watching, the previous game from Deconstructeam, but that feels disingenuous given how different this title is. I could mention that this is the first 2018 game I’ve played although that really means little in the grand scheme of things (except that I should probably do my Game of the Year post sometime soon). Even the fact that I was drawn to this game just on the mention of “cyberpunk bartending” doesn’t seem like good opening fodder. So instead you get an opening ramble of all of those things combined with my one line summary for this game: it may not do anything new but it is one of the more interesting adventure games I’ve played of late.

You’ll take control of several different characters throughout the game however you’ll mainly be playing as Donovan, the proprietor of The Red Strings Club. On the surface it’s simply a bar with amazing drinks, ones that are said to be tailored to your emotions. Under the surface however Donovan is a powerful information broker, holding secrets on anything and everything that goes on in the city. When a broken down android stumbles into his bar one night he becomes privy to some information that no one outside of an elite group of people inside Supercontinent megacorporation had seen before. This sets off a chain of events which will see Donovan pulling all the little red strings he has tied around his clientele in order to advert the subjugation of all mankind.

The Red Strings Club’s visuals are a blend of more traditional pixel art styles and the more modern high resolution versions of the same. It’s definitely a step up from the art style of Gods Will Be Watching which used the very low resolution style which I think was born more out of the game’s Ludum Dare roots. Under the hood it’s powered by GameMaker which honestly surprised me as games made using that platform typically have a very distinctive look and feel to them. Given that it’s been nearly 3 years since their last release I’d hazard a guess a good chunk of time has was dedicated to getting the artwork right and I’m glad to say it was time well spent.

Unlike its predecessor (which I’m very grateful for as I didn’t want to pray to RNGesus again) The Red Strings Club is more of a traditional adventure game affair. The game is primarily dialogue focused with most of the puzzles based around getting information from someone or influencing them to act in a particular way. The two interesting mechanics that the game brings with it are the bartending and what could be best described as bionic pottery. The former is the main mechanic of the game, allowing you to influence the mood of a person in order to pump them for the right kinds of information. The second is only done right at the start but cements some of the core aspects of the game, changing what options will be available to you. There are a few other mini-games but none that are different from your usual adventure game affair. Overall it’s a pretty stock standard experience which means most of the value comes from how well these things interact with the story.

Initially the bartending mechanics are simple, making it rather easy to figure out which emotion is the “best” one to use (it was usually the one that was hardest to mix up). However as more and more options are added it starts to become a lot more involved and it gets quite a bit harder to both make the drinks and judge which one you need to serve. There’s really no way to utterly fail, it seems there are certain pieces of information you’ll get regardless, but the better you do in these things the easier time you’ll have towards the end. There’s also a couple achievements dedicated to unlocking some special things through this mechanic but I couldn’t figure them out in my playthrough. It’s quite possible that some of my early choices precluded them happening however.

There are a few little annoyances in the 1.0 release of The Red Strings Club that I hope are addressed in future patches. Sometimes bottles won’t pour their contents for you, even if they’re tipped upside down. This appears to be related to how close the bottle is to other bottles, the shaker or the glass and if more than 2 of those kinds of objects are in the way it will refuse to pour. Additionally there seems to be something finicky with the “no spill” mechanic as I completed at least one drink without spilling a drop but did not get the achievement for it. The shaker will also sometimes mix drinks into a single one of their components, forcing you to redo it. None of these are game breaking but they can be a little frustrating. I’m sure these can be easily fixed in the next few updates.

All of these things are simply an aid to the overall narrative which, whilst thoroughly thought provoking, didn’t elicit much of an emotional reaction from me. The game does a great job of revealing information to you in a slow and respectful way, giving you just enough information to figure some things out whilst you have to guess at others. However whilst Donovan is given enough of a build up the rest of the characters don’t receive similar treatment, making it hard to empathise with them when certain events take place. Thinking about it more though the characters might be secondary to the overarching narrative itself which is why they don’t receive as much attention as you’d otherwise expect they would. It feels weird to say that the story is a great thought provoking narrative that has little to no emotional impact as that’s typically the basis upon which such stories will cement themselves in your mind.

Perhaps I just need a little more time to digest it.

The Red Strings club was a great game to open up my 2018 list to. Deconstructeam has evidently gone through a lot of growth over the last couple years, bringing everything that was good from Gods Will Be Watching and leaving everything else behind. At a technical level the game isn’t anything to write home about, feeling like a very traditional pixel art adventure game, but the overall experience feels well above par. This is most likely due to the strong narrative, one that manages to intrigue and provoke a lot of thought whilst, strangely, failing to drive a heavy emotional impact. If you had asked me after I played Gods Will Be Watching would I look forward to the next game from this developer I would’ve told you no but now, having played The Red Strings Club, I’m very keen to see where Deconstructeam goes from here.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Red Strings Club is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was approximately 3 hours with 37% of the achievements unlocked.

The Division Patch 1.8: The Game We All Wanted on Release.

The 1.0 version of The Division was a pretty great experience although its end game content was somewhat lacking. Indeed at the time of writing the review I was some 37 hours in and I only racked up another 8 before calling it quits altogether. Soon afterwards the incursion patch released but, frankly, there wasn’t enough in it to bring me back. Ever since then I’ve heard rumblings of the changes they’ve made, the content that’s been added and how all of that has resulted in a very well rounded game. With a couple of my friends recommending that I come back to give it a go I figured it’d be worth a shot and, honestly, if Massive Entertainment released this back in 2016 they would’ve been staring down the barrel of several game of the year awards.

The numerous patches since then haven’t expanded the story directly per se, however with the addition of new areas, encounters and whatnot the narrative world of The Division has expanded significantly. There’s a small amount of story explaining the background of the new additions to the game but you’ll likely miss most of it if you’re not paying attention. Like before a lot of the greater world building is done through the various kinds of collectibles you can find around the place, most of which will just build out the backstory of the main campaign a little more. It’d be nice to see some story focused DLC as I really did enjoy the campaign back on initial release but honestly with the rest of the changes that have come through I can see why it was probably left on the todo list.

The Division has retained its dedication to filling the world with incredible amounts of detail, something I had completely forgotten about in the near 2 years since I last played. Indeed that detail extends beyond just throwing random stuff everywhere as the level design itself is incredibly complex as well. I couldn’t tell you how many times me and my crew managed to get ourselves lost (in areas that we must have been through dozens of times before no less) when we’re on the hunt for an objective or similar. I’d usually chalk this up as a negative but it’s actually helped keep those same areas feeling fresh for much longer than you’d otherwise expect. Unfortunately I haven’t upgraded my machine since I last played (that’s probably coming next year) so I couldn’t really bump up any of the settings from their previous defaults. Maybe next time.

The amount of different activities that have been added, as well as the ones that have been revamped, are so numerous that returning players are likely to feel pretty overwhelmed. The good news is there’s really no required activity that you have to do, nor will you find yourself struggling to progress thanks to the tweaks to how enemies (and the loot they drop) scales. Essentially you have the ability to set the overall world’s difficulty as well as the challenge of the encounter itself. The first sets the level of the loot you’ll get and the latter the amount. This is great for gearing up as you can tweak the settings to get the most out of pretty much any encounter you’ll be doing. Loot drops aren’t restricted to any particular location either, meaning no matter what you end up doing you have a chance of getting the best gear. Of course the harder, higher end activities have better guaranteed loot to entice you to take on the challenge rather than just mindlessly farming.

Like all good loot treadmills the gear which allowed me to steamroll basically any encounter was made completely redundant upon logging in. My mix of high end and purple gear nowhere near the maximum attainable power level and so the loot grind began again in earnest. All in all though it only took me about 10 hours to get to the 270 range and from there it’s all about finding the gear with the right rolls to fill out whatever build you may be going for. Of course everything is about the sets and their bonuses now and whatever bonus takes your fancy will dictate the rest of your build. For now I’m still running with the best of what I have for the most part (I was lucky enough to get a Ninjabike bag which has made things easier) but am hoping to complete a full Predator’s Mark set in the not too distant future.

Thankfully not everything is left to just pure RNG and there are various ways in order to get the gear you want or, and this is definitely something I think all RNG loot games need, a way to optimise a drop to its ultimate potential. The Division isn’t shy with lavishing you with loot however it only does so because getting the right combination of stats and talents is infinitesimally rare. The recalibration station allows you to reroll a single talent on guns and a single stat on armour which sometimes can be enough to turn it from useable into a must-have. However the optimisation station means that a perfect set of stats with bad rolls can be brought up to the top tier rolls with enough farming. Sure, you don’t want to have to do this for every item, but for that one item which amps up your build significantly it’ll be worth the price of admission. Sadly I only realised that Ninjabike didn’t work for classified sets otherwise I wouldn’t have wasted my Division Tech on it.

However even with a rag tag bunch of armour pieces and weapons you’ll likely find that pretty much everything in The Division is available to you. Whilst my friend and I have been playing for a duo for the most part we only started to really hit the challenge wall past the 10 hour mark. At that point most of the higher end activities don’t appear to scale with group size and so are balanced for full teams of 4. Unfortunately it seems matchmaking at the moment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as we’ve often gone through whole missions with it active before someone eventually joins. Still we’ve managed to farm in other areas without too much hassle so it’s not like we’re cut off from getting those shiny teal and red items.

The Dark Zone, which used to be this weird PVE but kind of PVP area, has now found its feet with the new changes to the zone. Previously it was pretty much just a high end gear farming place, one where someone going rogue was considered rude rather than part of the game. Now rogue agents are a real threat, one you have to be cautious of if you want to plunder the sweet loot in the area. I had many great encounters in the DZ, most of which ended with me and my team dead on the floor. However nothing is sweeter than the revenge you can take on them when they try to extract out with your loot. It might not be the most efficient way to farm items, especially if you’re actively looking for trouble, but it is one of the more enjoyable ones, especially with all the stories you’ll tell afterwards.

Some things haven’t received much love in the last 2 years though, namely the UI. Whilst I still love the aesthetic and simplicity of the UI when you’re run and gunning inventory management is something of a nightmare. Scrolling through dozens of items and trying to compare them to what you have is a real chore and the gear score really only tells half the story. If you’re min-maxing a particular build it’s easy to figure out what you need but even then you’re still likely to be carrying around a bunch of other items “just in case” you want to try a different one. There’s also other parts of the inventory that aren’t well described in-game (I have 6 different types of grenades? What do I need water for?) and honestly I can’t remember if they were even explained during the campaign. This doesn’t affect the overall enjoyment of the game too much but, given the amount of polish the rest of the game received, these parts do stick out more than they otherwise would.

The Division as it stands today isn’t the game I stopped playing all those years ago. The amount of diversity in terms of items, builds and activities is an order of magnitude above the game I remember. The core game play, which I quite enjoyed, remains mostly the same with the variety coming from the numerous gear sets which change the way the game plays out dramatically. Loot is plentiful but still a pain to manage, something I had hoped would have been improved over the years. All in all though it seems the rumours surrounding The Division being a game worth playing now are well justified and if you, like me, left it long ago now is definitely the time to jump back in.

Rating: 9.25/10

The Division is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.95, $99.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 60 hours of total playtime (15 in patch 1.8).

State of the Game: 25/12/2017 to 31/12/2017

They Are Billions: Just Survive Somehow.

The RTS genre, once the king of all PC games, has been relegated to the sidelines for the past decade or so. You’ll still see its roots in the new genres that it spawned, like the MOBAs and Tower Defense games that are now ubiquitous, but an honest to goodness RTS is few and far between. Indeed the last true RTS I reviewed was almost 2 years ago now and since then there hasn’t been anything that has caught my fancy. However that changed when They Are Billions caught my eye when it popped up as one of the top games in my State of the Game post series. Now I typically steer clear of Early Access titles, reviewing before 1.0 always feels a little premature, but given that the hubbub surrounding the game didn’t seem to be dying down I figured it was probably worth a look in.

17 hours later I can report that it is, even if it still has the rough edges that comes with Early Access.

They Are Billions is set in the distant future where a great zombie apocalypse has destroyed almost all of civilisation, leaving but a few thousand behind. Your job is simple: survive 100 days in this world by building up a colony that can withstand the raging hordes of zombies that will come after you. To do so you’ll need to gather food for your workers, gather materials to build defenses and buildings, and train an army to fend off the dead. It all sounds easy right? Everything does until there’s a horde of zombies kicking in your door.

The game’s visual steampunk aesthetic has a slight dream like feel to it, I think partially due to the fact that it’s all hand drawn and animated. Make no mistake though the hand drawn part doesn’t mean a lack of detail as you can zoom in ludicrously close if you want to try and pixel peep on your units. The engine powering it is a custom one developed by Numantian Games and is apparently capable of handling quite a lot of units on-screen. Certainly the game didn’t miss a beat on my PC, handling the larger zombie invasions without breaking a sweat. Those hoping for Linux and OSX versions will be disappointed though as it’s a .NET based engine and the developers aren’t particularly interested in trying to optimise it for those platforms in the near term. For us of the Windows PC master race however we can get this in up to glorious 4K resolution, if that’s your thing.

They Are Billions is a combination of RTS, city building and roguelike game elements. The game takes place in real time and the base building, whilst comparable to your typical RTS affair, feels a lot closer to city builders like Banished than it would a true RTS. The roguelike elements come mostly from the random map generation which, depending on what seed you get, can make your life incredibly easy or frustratingly hard. Of course there’s nothing stopping you from playing a map for 5 minutes, seeing what you’ve got to work with and restarting if you don’t like what you see. There’s upgrades to be researched, tech trees to unlock and various different types of army units all of which have their own set of advantages and disadvantages. All in all it’s a pretty competent RTS, something I didn’t expect given the fact it’s PVE only.

The game currently has no tutorial to speak of so after selecting your map preferences (more on that later) you’ll be dropped unceremoniously into a game with a command center, 5 troops and a whole lot of questions. The basics are relatively easy to figure out: there’s primary resource categories like wood and stone, secondary resources like workers and food and the ultimate limiting factor: gold. Anything you build will draw from all 3 of these resource pools and different tiers will have different requirements. Bases have a power grid which can be extended through the use of Tesla Towers which limits where you can build things (even unpowered defenses, for some reason). This usually means that you’ll be able to expand aggressively up until a point where you’re short of a critical resource. It’s at that point you have to figure out what you need and whether or not your current territory can provide it. If not you need to expand and thus you must venture forth into the unknown.

Here is where the game sets out its first challenge for you. The map is littered with zombies, some by themselves and others in groups. Some of them wander around and, when you’re unlucky enough, one of them will stumble into your colony. If you’ve got some defenses around you’ll know but often it’s not possible to have every approach guarded or fenced off. So the first dozen or so games are likely to end in tragedy because a single zombie got through, managed to infect one tent or other structure and the infected multiplied out of control from there. If you’re also unlucky enough to stumble across one of the zombie towns (which look like theme parks for some reason) you could also unwittingly bring a horde of zombies down on yourself with your only hope being that they stop chasing you once you’re out of vision range. This by itself would provide enough challenge to keep most players interested for a good while but They Are Billions doesn’t stop there.

Oh sweet jesus it doesn’t stop there.

Every 10 days or so you’ll be treated to a wave of infected coming at you from an area of the map (north/east/south/west). It’s up to you to guess which side of your colony they end up on and you’ll have a limited amount of time to ready your defenses before they get there. The first few waves can be easily dealt with by your original troops and a wood wall but the numbers get exponentially larger from there. The size of these hordes can be changed by a setting when you set up the map (as can be the number of zombies that are scattered around) but even then if you misjudge where they’re coming from or don’t have the proper defenses in place when they get there it can be all over quicker than you’d think. Indeed several of my games ended because the horde figured out that one section, even though it was a much longer route to get to, was much less defended than my other parts and blasted through my woeful defenses. I’m sure the waves get absolutely terrifying beyond the 70 day mark but I honestly couldn’t tell you because I never got there.

I did eventually manage to get a good strategy in place but the problem is that, in order to endure the later waves, you must expand in order to tech up sufficiently. This increases your attack surface and thus, the more defenses required to keep it in check. There is, of course, an equilibrium point but I only managed to reach that after numerous failed games and several difficulty notches down from the standard. It was at this point where I started to grow tired of the game and decided to leave it at that. Honestly with 17+ hours in the game I don’t think that’s a bad thing, indeed I’ve put down higher budget titles much quicker and for less than what They Are Billions has done to me. I guess I want to mention that to say that whilst there is a lot of replayability here it’s not infinite and the rough edges of Early Access are likely to start wearing on you after a while.

Those rough edges are quite numerous too. Army management is a chore as the hitboxes on the zombies are so small that trying to micro units is a complete waste of time. Similarly upgrading buildings with hot keys will sometimes work, sometimes it won’t which means its usually quicker to just click to make sure that it will work. Double clicking units and buildings will select all of those types of units, even those out of your current vision range. This can be problematic when you’re trying to say, upgrade a wall before a horde as you could inadvertently end up selecting all the walls and upgrading the ones on the other side of the map. Crashes aren’t common thankfully but alt-tabbing did cause it to lock up on occasion and I did have it refuse to start a game sometimes for whatever reason. Finally the pathfinding on units is so bad that you’ll often find groups of your own units getting stuck on each other, soldiers getting stuck in zombie hordes that they can navigate around or even units deciding to take the most absolutely absurd path to get to where you directed them to. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if you could queue up move orders but that doesn’t seem possible currently (this also impacts patrols, which can only have 2 points currently). Of course these are the kinds of things that you expect to see in an Early Access title, and I’m sure they’ll be made better over time, but if you’re thinking about diving in now caveat emptor.

They Are Billions brings a new experience in the RTS genre that I don’t think anyone was expecting. The combination of RTS, city building and roguelike elements blend together into an experience which has quite a lot of replay value in it. I certainly didn’t set out to spend as much time in it as I did and so there definitely is something there that many will enjoy. The Early Access tag is well earned given the numerous issues that need to be ironed out, including content related things like a tutorial and the inclusion of a campaign. In its current form though They Are Billions is definitely worth it for those who, like me, have been craving a new RTS experience but have been left wanting by the offerings that have come to the table over the past couple years.

Rating: 8.0/10

They Are Billions is available on PC right now for $24.99. Total play time was 17.4 hours with 6% of the achievements unlocked. Game was played during Early Access.