You can’t really call souls games an acquired taste as it’s not like you can train yourself to like them. No they have to speak to you on some level, tickling a competitive part of your brain that urges you to go on despite the unrelenting challenge that lies before you. It took me a good while to understand that and I’ve come to enjoy the challenge that they provide ever since I got started with Bloodborne. I’ve even enjoyed some of the more off-brand souls experiences like The Surge which, I heard, had many a souls veteran throwing their hands up in frustration. So I feel somewhat odd saying that my experience with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has been…less than stellar. To be sure the essence of the souls series is there but there’s just something missing from the experience; that little thing that keeps me playing despite my numerous failures. It’s a shame because I was kind of looking forward to this one, if only because it was another From Software title.
Set in 16th century Japan Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice puts you in charge of Wolf, an orphan who was trained in the ways of the shinobi by his master, Owl. The Ashina clan is on the brink of collapse due to a combination of the now elderly Isshin having fallen ill and the clan’s enemies steadily closing in from all sides. Desperate to save his clan, Isshin’s grandson Genichiro sought the Divine Heir Kuro, who you have sworn to protect, so he can use the boy’s “Dragon Heritage” to create an immortal army. In the ensuing showdown you lose your left arm while failing to stop Genichiro. However instead of perishing in the field where you were struck down you awake in an abandoned temple, an aging sculptor watching over you. Your purpose remains unchanged however, you are driven once again to seek out the divine heir and protect them.
I had never really understood why the souls games always looked like a generation behind but, as it turns out, there’s a pretty good reason for this. Under the hood it’s powered by the Sony Phyre engine, something that was developed originally for the PlayStation 3 and was only given a revamp for the PlayStation 4 in 2013. Sekiro certainly has its moments though, making the very most of what that engine is able to deliver, but there’s no denying that most current gen games have looked a lot better for a long time. Still the one benefit that comes along with somewhat dated graphics is the buttery smooth game play that you’re going to enjoy regardless of how busy things get on screen. As with any souls game that’s going to be key to ensuring that the game is challenging without being frustrating, something that a lot of the souls clones typically don’t get right.
The essence of the souls franchise is strong in Sekiro with many familiar mechanics remaining but a lot more being thrown into the mix to shake up the formula. It feels a lot closer to the traditional souls game than Bloodborne did, however. The biggest change is the lack of a stamina bar and enemies health bars not being as meaningful as they once were. No instead the posture bar is what counts now and if you wear that down, whether by attacking, countering or doing other special moves, you can then perform a one hit kill on them. Stealth also plays a larger part with enemies having a detection bar rather than simply knowing/not knowing that you’re there. Movement is also a bit more varied thanks to the grappling hook, meaning you’ll spend a lot more time maneuvering around than you would have in previous souls games. The traditional upgrade systems are also gone, replaced instead with a more regimented progression based around collecting specific items to increase your various attributes. There’s also a bunch of other minor systems around, as there always is, but given I didn’t spend as long in Sekiro as I usually do with a souls game I couldn’t tell you what they are. So overall it’s very much the format that we’ve all come to know and love, for better and for worse.
Without a stamina bar to hold you back combat is a lot more fast paced than you’d first expect, allowing you to really go ham on enemies should you so desire. Of course any mechanic in a souls game that invites you to be reckless is likely to cause you issues and Sekiro does a great job of lulling you into thinking this could be a beat ’em up title before ratcheting up the difficulty significantly. After then it’s back to the usual routine of figuring out how to pull the smallest number of enemies, deal with them, and then keep moving forward. There’s a greater variety of enemies earlier on than I remember in other souls games which initially threw me a bit, especially when I hadn’t picked up the requisite special moves to deal with a particular enemy that I was coming up. There also doesn’t appear to be any delineation between normal areas and boss areas like there are in previous games, something that kind of throw you off when you encounter what looks like a regular enemy but then turns out to be a boss. It does help keep the pace of the game up though.
A particularly large deviation from previous souls games is the heavy defocus on gear and stats. Whilst the souls games were never particularly loot bound to begin with there was always certain combinations or particular pieces of gear which could make your life a lot easier for certain encounters. Instead you’ve now got various shinobi implements which you can swap around giving you a bunch of different abilities. Some of them are a necessity for certain enemies, like the axe for the shield enemies, but others are your run of the mill damage/status modifiers like the gun that lets you set oil covered enemies on fire. This certainly one of the parts of Sekiro which I think I didn’t enjoy as much as whilst I’m a huge fan of loot fests (The Division 2 felt exhausting at times) I did like the min/maxing or cheese builds you could do in the souls games that made you feel stupidly powerful, right up until you got pummelled by something of course.
The game loop plays out much the same as it does in other souls games: follow the path, usually die, optimise the path you follow until you either find a shortcut or fast travel point, repeat until end of game. With the ability to come back after death though you have some options available to you, like legging it through a bunch of enemies, dying, and then waiting for them all to wander off before you continue on. Given that you’ve got a few more movement options at your disposal this can be quite a viable strategy some times, indeed that’s how I found my way to a second boss after failing hard at the first one I came across. Sekiro is pretty open in comparison to other souls games from memory although there are a few hard and fast blockers which you’ll need to do in a particular order to keep on progressing. Indeed it was one such blocker that made me put Sekiro down for good as I just didn’t have the will to keep on with it.
Honestly I couldn’t pinpoint one thing which led up to that feeling. To be sure it’s probably the hardest souls game I’ve played, partly because it’s different to the others but also because there’s a much, much higher reliance on player skill rather than items or levels. But mostly it was that I just wasn’t getting that same rush I used to get from souls games when I’d found a shortcut or beaten a boss. Even the boss battles didn’t feel as engaging as they used to. I used to feel like they tempted you in initially, usually soft balling you with some easily dodged moves and whatnot, before changing it up with a second boss phase or something that’d then dash your confidence all over again. This time around I just felt woefully underprepared for the boss fights when they finally did come along. I did eventually get around to beating one of them but only by cheesing it. Whilst I usually wouldn’t feel too bad about that, this is a souls game after all, this time around it just felt really hollow and I think that’s what killed it for me for good.
Layered on top of that is the story which, whilst being far more direct in its telling than any other souls game I’ve previously played, just wasn’t particularly engaging. There are some cool elements to it, ones I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed exploring further, but it just didn’t hook me in enough to make me want to keep playing. Reading a few wiki articles shows that it’s as deep as any souls game that’s come before it so I’m sure fans of the genre will find a lot to love there. It just wasn’t there for me.
It’s a right shame that I haven’t found joy in FromSoftware’s latest title as I figured that, given the numerous souls games I’ve played before, it’d be a shoe in for something I’d enjoy. All the right ingredients are there and whilst I don’t like some of the new changes I don’t think they’re all to blame for my lack of engagement with Sekiro. Whatever it was it means that Sekiro: Shadows Die twice will go down as one of the more average games of me for this year, being neither terrible nor one that I’ll recommend. It’ll be interesting to compare and contrast this to The Surge 2, due out later this year, as if I find myself enjoying that one I’ll really not know what to think.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4 hours play time and 3% of the achievements unlocked.
The FPS games of the noughties were almost exclusively set in the World Wars, an era that has seemingly endless stories to tell. However as time went on and year after year brought yet another World War based FPS to the table I grew tired of the setting and, for the most part, left the FPS genre behind. When the settings began to move towards the modern era towards the end of that decade I found myself coming back; my interest in the genre reignited by the utter ridiculousness that the Call of Duty franchise offered. From then on every year I found myself coming back, my obsession with the series peaking with Black Ops 3 with some 150 hours sunk into the multi-player. So when it was announced that the next instalment would return the series to its roots I was a little sceptical as the original Call of Duty wasn’t the one I fell in love with.
Call of Duty: WWII follows the story of the 1st Infantry Division’s Red Daniels, a first-class private who’s military career begins at the bloody Normandy landings. It’s there that you come face to face with the grim realities of war as bear witness to many of your fellow soldiers cut down in front of you. From there you continue your campaign through the western front, pushing back the axis line as you march steadily towards the centre of their war effort. It’s never easy however and the strain begins to wear on you and your commanding officers. Do you have the strength to continue on, after all the horrors you’ve witnessed?
The previous generation of games was dominated by the muted, drab colour palette that just so happened to be perfect for the World War 2 setting. This helped with the technical limitations of the time, the constrained visual diversity serving as a bit of a fudge to make things more realistic than they’d otherwise appear. As time went on the visuals became cleaner, crisper and the colours became much more vibrant as a result. The return to the WWII setting brings that drab colour palette back but with the visual fidelity of the current generation. The result is a game that, on first blush, feels like it’s a step behind due to low visual variation. However the game does manage to surprise you at times, especially when it comes to the in-game cut-scenes. The automatic graphics settings wizard doesn’t do a particularly good job however, erring on the side of performance over visuals a little too heavily. Even on my near 3 year old rig I could push pretty much everything up to maximum @ 1080p and still maintain a consistent frame rate.
WWII is innovative in the sense that it takes the series back to its roots, ditching the past 8 years or so of a trend towards modern and futuristic, at times fantastical, warfare. Gone is the infinite health regeneration system, instead returning to the health bar and first aid packs system of yesteryear (for single player only though, however), The two weapon system remains and your selection of armaments is your typical WWII affair. The campaign is a set of relatively linear missions containing the usual mix of straight up corridor shooting, vehicle sections and the tried and true tacked on stealth sections. Unlike the previous 3 or so COD games there’s no upgrade or progression system to speak of, just you and whatever armaments you can find on the battlefield. Multiplayer is still the same core experience with levels, loot crates and weapon progression but there’s a few new things thrown in the mix to make things interesting. Overall it feels like a return to basics for the Call of Duty franchise, for better or for worse.
Unfortunately that return to basics seems to have brought with it the unrefined combat mechanics that we left behind a decade ago. The Call of Duty series has always set the bar for fast paced, highly polished action but WWII doesn’t meet the standards I’ve come to expect. Sure the action is as fast paced as ever and the sense of scale is still there but when it comes to actually taking down enemies the guns feel ineffective and the controls sluggish. This is most certainly a design choice, wanting to emulate the real world weapons and combat more accurately, but it does mean that the overall game experience feels more clunky than it has in previous instalments. Indeed for someone like me who’s enjoyed the trend towards utterly ridiculous, almost fantasy level combat, this feels like a big step backwards.
One positive thing to come out of this return to basics is the simplification of the campaign. It’s your standard play one mission, advance to the next deal with a handful of collectables scattered throughout the mission for you to find. Each of the missions also has a set of “heroic acts” for you to complete which are usually taking out an enemy who’s about to kill one of your squad or dragging a fallen soldier back to safety. Some of the missions have stealth sections which are, for the most part, very simplistic in their implementation. The few vehicle sections are a nice way to break up the combat and, unlike previous COD games, aren’t overdone to the point of being monotonous. All said and done the campaign will probably only take you 5 hours to get through which is close to what used to be the standard for the COD franchise. Honestly I quite like that length, especially with it broken up over 10 missions or so.
The plot of the campaign is your typical WWII affair with a heavy focus on you and your fellow war buddies. Sure they dip into the main character’s history a bit, even trying to throw you for a loop by pitting him as an unreliable narrator, but the story is pretty predictable. It does try to touch on some of the pertinent issues of the time such as gender and race equality but, this being a WWII game, the heroes are still your typical American GIs fighting the good fight against the Nazis. Honestly this setting has been done to death so much that I really don’t find much to enjoy in it anymore, especially in the medium of video games. Perhaps one day that will change, I’m always open to a compelling story, but for now the story that Call of Duty WWII presents is nothing above what I’ve come to expect from the series in a setting that I personally find uninteresting.
The multiplayer didn’t undergo the same return to basics that the rest of the game did with the new system staying true to the current norms. The difference comes from how the usual COD perks are acquired which are now part of Divisions. At the start you’ll pledge to one Division (you can unlock the rest later with an unlock token) and as you level them you’ll unlock certain benefits. Those benefits are all broadly aligned to a certain kind of playstyle but you’re no longer able to mix and match to the extent you were in previous titles. This means there’s a little less variety in how you build your load out but it should make balancing things a lot easier. Loot crates are still a thing and, like always, can be purchased using in-game currency or cold hard cash. Thankfully it seems to be limited to cosmetics only so you won’t be going up against people who’ve splashed cash to get a leg up on everyone else.
There are differences of course, the main one being an interactive social area where you can go to get missions, try out score streaks or weapons and open up your supply drops in front of everyone. Unfortunately it’s not an optional area, you will have to go there to do all these activities whether you like it or not. Personally I much preferred the older, more streamlined systems which didn’t require me to drop out of the matchmaking system. There’s also a few new game modes although most people are still playing team deathmatch or domination, just like they always are.
I’ve spent a few hours in the multiplayer and honestly I can’t see myself spending much more time in there. The same sluggishness present in the singleplayer is there in the multi as well which, when coupled with the P2P networking (which has always been a little iffy), makes for some not so great online play. It’s a shame really as it looks like the new loadout system could be something of a winner but I just don’t have the patience to keep on playing when the core mechanics just don’t feel as crisp as they used to.
Call of Duty: WWII takes the series back to its roots and in doing so loses many of the things that drew me back into the series. Gone is the highly polished, fast paced combat which it was known for, replaced with a system that feels deliberately sluggish. The campaign’s simplified nature is certainly welcome although without the solid FPS combat to back it up it’s just not as satisfying as it could be. The slight change ups in multiplayer are interesting but not enough to the carry the game on its own. Indeed whilst fans of the setting or early COD games might find something to love here I simply can’t see it. My only hope is that Treyarch can pull this franchise out of the ditch it’s found itself in as the last 2 instalments have been nothing short of disappointing.
Call of Duty: WWII is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours in single player and 2 hours in multi with 43% and 7% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s nothing like a World of Warcraft expansion to instil feelings of both excitement and dread. My long and sordid history with the venerable MMORPG has been well chronicled here over the years and, whilst I very much enjoy revisiting this world, it’s always something of a bittersweet reunion. Thankfully these days I know my time with World of Warcraft is limited and thus I endeavour to make the most of it before I move onto greener pastures. The developers over at Blizzard seem to be well aware of this fact and every expansion seems to cater more and more for players like myself; the ones who want the full experience but rarely have the time to commit to it like they used to. Legion, the latest expansion for World of Warcraft, is no exception to this and the few weeks I’ve spent with it post launch have been some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had.
That’s saying something for a game that’s now over 12 years old.
Legion takes place 2 years after the events of Warlords of Draenor and sees you returning to Azeroth. Guldan, after the defeat of Archimonde at Hellfire Citadel, has returned to the Broken Isles to open up yet another dark portal to allow the Legion to invade, this time at a scale to rival the War of the Ancients which raged some 1000 years prior. Your quest, as the champion of your chosen faction, is to travel to the Broken Isles and master the numerous artefacts of power that lay within there in order to defeat the Legion once again.
The graphics have definitely had a bump up from the previous expansion with the environments being far more detailed, the weather systems more varied and the number of graphical options available for you to tweak bumped up significantly. The engine is starting to show its age however, not being able to make use of the full amount of grunt my PC has available even when the frame rates start to drop. In the past this wouldn’t have been too noticeable but with my 144Hz, G-Sync enabled monitor any drop below 60fps is readily noticeable. I’ve managed to get it running reasonably well after tweaking numerous settings however when there’s no frame rate difference between 2xMSAA and 4xMSAA I know there’s some optimisation issues at play. There’s also a rather weird bug that sometimes creeps up whereby I can’t run in 144Hz mode in fullscreen windowed, usually necessitating a restart of the client to fix it. Overall though it’s still a great visual experience, even if I spent more time in the config menus than I thought was appropriate.
Legion takes many of the core ideals from Warlords of Draenor and streamlines them significantly whilst also adding in a few more changes of its own. The garrison system has been revamped and stripped down into the far more manageable class Order Hall which functions both as your base of operations and a good source of character progression. To replace what was lost by the garrison system Legion introduces World Quests, essentially randomly spawning quests that occur all over the Broken Isles that reward all sorts of loot, faction reputation and resources for your Order Hall. Weapons will no longer drop from any mobs in Legion, instead you are gifted with an artefact weapon to suit your character’s talent specialisation (in my case, the GODDAMN ASHBRINGER!!!!) which will grow with you as you play. Professions have also been given a revamp, now requiring much more investment in time completing quests rather than grinding out materials and items that will be destroyed or vendored. At its core though Legion remains true to its World of Warcraft roots and the fundamentals will be familiar to long time veterans of this game.
Combat, by and large, feels the same as it always has. Before I really got started with my Paladin I spent a good chunk of time researching which talents to go for, what the rotations are and what gear I should be looking out for. Upon logging in I was greeted with the usual cacophony of out of date interface add-ons, skills which no longer existed still hanging around on my action bars and all my macros no longer working. It didn’t take long to work everything out and the result was, once again, a very slimmed down action bar. Whilst I always enjoy levelling as Retribution it quickly becomes clear that it’s not a top tier spec anymore and so halfway through I switched to Protection. Since then I’ve quite enjoyed being able to pull numerous mobs, easily soloing up to half a dozen or more without having to break out one of my longer duration cooldowns. Tanking in dungeons feels largely the same too although it seems like I’ve lost some of the more medium-length cooldowns that I used to have, ones that would get used for those rotational boss abilities that would otherwise require a lot of healing to live through. Indeed I’m no longer the self-healing god I used to be which I think is good given the fact that I could sometimes go entire boss fights without needing a healer. All in all it feels much the same, just a little more streamlined.
The World Quest system is probably my favourite addition in Legion as it provides a relatively steady, predictable source of gear upgrades if you’re willing to put in an hour or so per day. I have to admit that initially I cracked and bought a few items from the auction house to step up my ilvls a couple notches only to quickly replace them over the next few days. After running only a couple heroics and a single mythic dungeon I find myself at a healthy 839 ilvl, more than enough to tank the upcoming raid. Casting my mind back to Draenor this was most certainly not the case, with a solid month of grinding just barely enough to get me ready for the LFR version of the raids. The upgrades have, of course, started to slow down but that’s allowed me to focus on other areas of advancement. Thankfully the potential month between gear upgrades that I faced back when I was playing Draenor seems to be a thing of the past although I am now placing my faith in RNGJesus to give me the upgrade quests I desire.
The Order Hall system is really quite fantastic, giving you meaningful and tangible progression at every stage through the levelling process and beyond. Gone are the days where I’d have to spend an hour or two getting my garrison affairs in order before I could step out into the wider world. Instead it’s a quick trip to make sure everything is chugging along (even using the app if I don’t want to login that day) before I head out to complete my world quests for the day. Even better is the fact that there’s catchup mechanisms in place if you decide to leave World of Warcraft for a while, meaning players like me could still be competitive even after taking an extended break. It’s a possibility I really hadn’t considered in any other expansion before and Legion may be the first to bring me back before another expansion comes out.
The artefact weapons are great, giving plebs like me the feeling that I really have something truly powerful that doesn’t require months of grinding raids hoping for that one damn drop. Indeed after I came back I realised that I was still sporting a blue shield despite the numerous raids and dungeons I had completed in the previous expansion. Now I have a well levelled Truthguard filled to the brim with relics that bolster my character even further. My Ashbringer might be sitting in my bags, horribly disused now, but I can’t tell you how damn cool it was to finally have such a legendary weapon in my hands after lusting after it for so long. Indeed it was one of the few reasons I kept playing through the torturous hell that was original Naxramas, hoping beyond hope that I might get a Corrupted Ashbringer that one day might turn into the venerable weapon of World of Warcraft lore.
Legion predictably suffers from launch day issues (although thankfully most are resolved now) but the game client does still have some perplexing issues that don’t have a clear solution in sight. For instance Legion seems to load most assets incredibly slowly, even on my RAID10 array which is capable of some pretty high bandwidth. This has led to some interesting situations where all I can see is the ground plane and nothing else, sometimes up to 10 minutes at a time. Crashes are thankfully few and far between however, although I would recommend against changing settings whilst something is happening on screen (like say riding a griffon to the next flight point). I mentioned the optimisation issues previously and I think they bear mentioning again as, really, a game like this should not struggle on my i7-5820K lavished with 32GB RAM and a GTX970 powering it. Perhaps there’s a setting or two I’ve missed which is causing my grief but it’s not obvious as to what it is.
Legion’s story is your typical World of Warcraft affair, great if you know much of the lore that proceeds it and downright confusing if you don’t. The trash quests are barely worth reading as they’re all some simple premise that will require you to do X thing Y times for a reward. The larger story arcs are more interesting, like the Paladin order hall campaign which sees you travel to Exodar and the Priests’ order hall, being engaging enough to keep you going but little beyond that. If you’re already deep into the World of Warcraft lore then there’s going to be a lot to love but otherwise there might not be much for you. Not that many of us need much motivation to go and grind relentlessly for purples, however.
World of Warcraft: Legion is everything I’ve come to expect from Blizzard’s expansions. The core game remains mostly the same, keeping the winning formula that has seen World of Warcraft remain the king of MMORPGs for so many years. The new Order Hall and World Quest mechanics completely pander to players like myself, giving us easy progression paths that don’t necessarily require the giant time sink that they used to. The biggest let downs are in the sub-par optimisation of the now decade+ old engine and the so-so story but neither of these things really comes as a surprise to a veteran player like myself. Still I’ve very much enjoyed my time with Legion and will likely hang around to complete the newly released dungeon a couple times before I call it quits once again.
World of Warcraft: Legion is available on PC right now for $69.95. Total play time was approximately 36 hours at 110 achieving an ilvl of 839.
As a long time Protoss player I can’t tell you the disappointment I initially felt when I heard that they’d be the last race in the StarCraft II trilogy. After the amazing experience I had with Wings of Liberty (and subsequently Heart of the Swarm) however I was far happier; knowing that having the Protoss bring about the ultimate conclusion of this near 2 decade long franchise. Whilst I may have snoozed on the actual release date, meaning my collector’s edition trilogy will have to be completed with a trip to eBay, I’ve since spent a good chunk of time with Legacy of the Void and I’m glad to say many of my expectations have been met.
Legacy of the Void takes place some time after the events of Heart of the Swarm with Zeratul following the trail of the Xel’Naga prophecy. His quest has led him to the home world of the Tal’Darim, a brutal race of Protoss loyal to the dark lord Amon. Upon destroying the void catalyst, a crystal which allowed the Tal’Darim to commune with their dark lord, he is shown a vision of Tassadar who instructs him to retrieve the Xel’Naga keystone. With this information he returns to Artanis who is beginning the raid to retake his home world of Aiur. Zeratul warns him against this however the young Executor proceeds anyway, playing right into Amon’s hands.
It might just be the fact that I’ve upgraded my PC significantly since I last played a game of StarCraft but Legacy of the Void is an absolutely stellar looking game. For the most part the in-game graphics appear to be largely the same, possibly a little more textured, but the graphics outside that are just stunning. Blizzard’s trademark lower poly, highly stylized aesthetic is in strong force here, done so well that their in-game engine cutscenes feel on par for many pre-rendered scenes in other games. This does come at a cost however and even my relatively beastly machine started to struggle when I hit 200/200 supply and started moving my deathball across the map. The game ready drivers from Nvidia did improve this noticeably however, something I had been neglecting to update for far too long.
Once again the core game of Legacy of the Void is the trademark RTS game play, putting you in control of vast armies which you’ll be using to slay countless hordes of enemies. You’ve got your regular build your base and throw your army at the enemy style maps whilst others are focused on small teams or more strategic ones that focus on hero units. The unit upgrade system makes a return, allowing you to choose from 3 different factions which imbue a unit with additional powers and abilities or grant you an entirely new unit to build. The real difference in Legacy of the Void however comes in the form of the Spear of Adun, your arkship which can be upgraded with all sorts of abilities that will aid you in combat. Overall it’s the kind of game we’ve come to expect from Blizzard, exactly what all of us fans were wanting from them.
I’ll have to admit I struggled at the start to get engaged with Legacy of the Void as the missions (and the story, more on that later) just simply failed to grab me like the last 2 instalments did. I think this is partly because at the beginning there’s not a whole lot going on and you spend a decent amount of time building up your cast of characters that will join you along the way. Past a certain point though it’s easy to lose long periods of time, the missions flowing into each other seamlessly and the desire to get more solarite (to upgrade the Spear of Adun) forcing you to try and retry missions to get it right. Towards the end though things start to drag a bit and I think this is probably Legacy of the Void’s biggest flaw for me.
Unlike the previous 2 instalments (and this may just be me looking back on them with rose coloured glasses) Legacy of the Void doesn’t provide the same kind of rewarding challenge at higher difficulties. Indeed there are many missions where higher difficulties (and I did test this) just means more enemies, like any one of the “protect your ally’s base” missions. In those particular missions it doesn’t feel like you’re being challenged so much as worn down by near insurmountable odds, forcing you to cheese encounters or, if you’re just done with a particular encounter, cheat. Since I’ve always played on hard and found the challenge rewarding it was odd to feel this way with Legacy of the Void but it was definitely one of those things which soured my experience towards the end.
The Spear of Adun upgrade system is great, allowing you to select a variety of abilities and passive bonuses that you can use during the missions. For the economy focused missions things like the chrono warp (1000% faster building/upgrading) are amazing whilst others, like the warp in reinforcements ability, make resource constrained maps a breeze. It’s definitely not a one size fits all kind of upgrade system as you’ll be trading off between other potentially valuable upgrades. The encounters are built around you actively using the abilities however so whilst the benefits are awesome it does add another layer of complexity onto this already intense game.
You’ll be making similar trade offs for your unit choices as, whilst some of them are noticeably more effective than others, sometimes the situation will call for a switch. The Zealots, for example, are typically best placed to be upgraded with the stun however there are numerous AOE situations where the others are better suited. The one unit which I don’t think has an equal among the other choices was the Havoc as extended range and +30% damage is just impossible to beat. Other than that though I found myself often switching between different combinations for whatever the mission called for. This is most certainly a departure from the previous 2 instalments which had a very clear “best” option for pretty much everything. It shows that Blizzard has put a lot of effort into making all the choices viable which makes for a far more interesting single player experience.
As I mentioned before the story takes some time to get on its feet, mostly because it’s introducing a lot more plot elements which aren’t exactly interesting when you’re first playing through. However they start to rapidly build on each other as the game progresses and there are some really enthralling moments both in and out of the missions. Whilst they kind of reveal the ending early on in the campaign it’s still interesting to follow it along to its ultimate conclusion. Indeed it’s something I still feel like I’m processing as this is the conclusion of a story that’s been running for almost 20 years. Thankfully though it finishes well, not leaving any loose ends that scream sequel. I’m sure we’ll see more in the StarCraft universe as time goes on though.
StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void is a brilliant conclusion to the story of Blizzard’s flagship RTS, bringing with it the kind of polished experience that they’re famous for. The game play is exactly how you’d expect it to be with the RTS experience just oozing polish at every corner. The upgrade system, along with the Spear of Adun, are great additions to the game, adding another layer of variety and choice that allows you to play out each mission in incredibly unique ways. The story may take its time finding its feet but once it does it ramps up quickly to an ultimate conclusion that’s predictable but enjoyable all the same. It’s always bittersweet seeing a long story arc like this come to its final conclusion but I can say wholeheartedly that I enjoyed the journey that brought me here.
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is available on PC right now for $54.95. Total play time was approximately 15 hours with 46% of the achievements unlocked.
The 3 year, 3 developer cycle that Call of Duty switched to has meant that it’s been a little longer between drinks for Treyarch, once considered the poor step child to Inifinity Ward. For players like me, who enjoyed Treyarch’s slightly more story oriented style for the single player, it’s been a bit of a wait but all hopes were that the extra polish would be worth it. After spending the last week with Call of Duty: Black Ops III I can definitely say the wait has been worth it, although Treyarch might need to come down from the giant ivory tower that they’ve crafted themselves.
The year is 2065 and you’ve been sent to rescue hostages from the NCR, the latest terrorist organisation to begin its war against the western world. You, along with your partner Hendricks, have been sent to Ethopia to rescue hostages and a VIP who’s been captured by this group. Whilst the extraction was a success you were left behind and mortally wounded by one of the NCR’s combat robots. You’re transported back to the Coalescence HQ for emergency medical treatment, bestowing upon you cybernetic abilities that elevate your combat capabilities far beyond that of any normal soldier. What follows is your exploits as a CIA black operative following a terrible conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.
Considering that Black Ops 3 was released on nearly all platforms (including 2 last gen ones) it’s great to see it able to use all the grunt of a modern PC to render some truly stunning graphics. On first release though this was unfortunately at the severe cost of performance as smoke and other particle heavy systems would drag an otherwise buttery smooth experience down to a slideshow. Thankfully this was a bug and was fixed in a patch last week, allowing me to once again ratchet all the settings up to maximum. Unlike other Call of Duty titles though you’ll rarely have any time to stop and take in the view as the game is all about action all the time (save for the last section which I’ll dive into more later).
Black Ops 3 is the definition of a corridor shooter, putting you in tight spaces with hordes of enemies that you’ll need to mow down in order to progress. Like Advanced Warfare before it though there’s a few extra mechanics thrown into the mix to keep things fresh, most of which come in the form of various powers granted to you by your cyber augments. Also, unlike most Call of Duty games where your load out is specified for you, Black Ops 3 gives you the option to build out your own kit for each mission. You’re even given a briefing panel which allows you to judge which kit would be best for each engagement. Apart from that (and the multiplayer, of course) there’s not much more to say about Black Ops 3 as it really does feel like Advanced Warfare with the trademark Treyarch psychological twist.
The buttery smooth, fast paced FPS combat that’s a hallmark of the Call of Duty series is back once again in Black Ops 3. The additional enhancements you’re given as part of your cybernetic upgrades goes a long way to alleviating some of the issues that plagued previous instalments in this series. Notably this includes things like target highlighting, “danger zones” shown on the floor to give you an idea of what might happen if you go there and the vast array of powers you have to devastate your enemy. However one piece of advice I’ll give is that, if you’re just looking to enjoy the single player, avoid the higher difficulties. Instead of making the enemies tougher it essentially makes you weaker with the hardest difficulty allowing any enemy to one shot you. Sure that does provide some form of challenge but, honestly, it’s just more tedious than anything.
For all its polish though there are still some rough bits in the single player. Quite often enemies will be able to shoot through or glitch through walls which, if you’re playing on anything above normal difficulty, will mean your instant demise. This became painfully clear on the final mission when you’re storming the last building and mechs, flying drones and anything else would just pass through terrain to get to you. I can handle getting nailed by unseen targets, that just means you need to be aware of where they are for next time around, but when you literally can’t do anything to stop them it really does grate on you.
The story retains Treyarch’s signature psychological thriller style, this time around with a sci-fi twist. To begin with it’s interesting as the characters deal with the implications of technology and the enhancements it brings them. Things start to come unstuck a bit as they dive deeper into the (highly predictable) conspiracy aspects of it and it comes completely unglued towards the end when the symbolism gets dialled up to 11. Probably the worst part about it though is that, if you read a couple specific things in game, the whole thing is basically naught anyway. In all honesty it started off strong before it tried to M. Night Shyamalan everything and completely disappeared up its own ass with that one piece of text.
The multiplayer is your mostly standard Call of Duty affair with levels, unlocks and customizations galore. It uses the familiar “choose 10” system, allowing you to create a character that fits your play style perfectly. The biggest change that comes with Black Ops 3 is the inclusion of “specialist” classes which are essentially base character models that come with abilities. These can be either a weapon, which can be incredibly devastating when used right, or an ability which usually gives you a tactical advantage over the enemy. This combined with Call of Duty’s typical huge array of weaponry makes for some incredibly varied combat, something which can be a bit overwhelming when you first start out.
Probably my only gripe is that the levelling is a bit too slow for casual-core players like myself. I’ve played about 4 hours at this point and my main weapon, the Kuda SMG, is no where near unlocking all the mods that I want to use. This means that, for nearly all of my current multiplayer time, I’ve been using the Vanguard starting class since it has a fully customized Kuda as part of the loadout. Treyarch is aware of this and is making up for it by making this weekend a double XP weekend but that feels like a bandaid solution on the problem honestly. Having a rested system or something similar would make the experience a lot better for players like myself as otherwise the longevity of the multiplayer will be severely limited.
Call of Duty: Black Ops III maintains the level of quality we’ve come to expect from the series, adding the Treyarch signature psychological thriller style to the future combat motif that has permeated the last few instalments. The single player is pretty much as you’d expect, maintaining the same fluid FPS experience even if it does overstay its welcome a little bit too long towards the end. The multiplayer, whilst suffering from a rather slow levelling system, is just as good as it ever was. As always the Call of Duty series might not be for everyone but for those of us who enjoy a spectacle, along with a few solid hours of multiplayer fun, then there’s really no other title to turn to right now other than Black Ops III.
Rating: 8.75 / 10
Call of Duty: Black Ops III is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $79, $59, $79, $59 and $79 respectively. Game was played on PC with a total of 43% of the achievements unlocked.
World of Warcraft stands out as an exception in the MMORPG world. Where nearly all other titles have either faltered or drastically altered their business models in order to survive World of Warcraft has remained steadfast to its subscription based system. This has made it the most successful MMORPG ever, making it a multi-billion dollar business all of its own. However its heydays are long behind it, with subscriber numbers slowly dwindling over the years. The more regular release of expansions have helped to keep the number up somewhat but the downward trend was still easily noticeable. Blizzard, obviously aware of this, has decided to stop reporting subscriber numbers altogether after their last quarterly report yesterday.
The last subscriber count pegs World of Warcraft’s player count at about 5.5 million, the lowest it’s been in 10 years. Whilst that number might sound like the first rattles of World of Warcraft’s death knell it’s likely anything but as many long time MMORPGs have survived on much smaller subscription numbers. For Blizzard it does present a challenge as dwindling numbers can often have a runaway effect; reaching a critical point where the majority of the playerbase abandons the title for greener pastures. That point is probably still some time away and indeed if the last subscriber peak (from the last expansion) is repeatable then I see no reason for World of Warcraft to go away any time soon. However the change in what (Activision) Blizzard communicates, as well as their recent purchase of King, is indicative of some of the other issues the company is facing in their attempt to stay relevant.
It was around this time that Blizzard was planning to announce their next MMORPG based on an entirely new IP. This was known internally as Project Titan, a name which got more than a few people fired when it was made public. Unfortunately the game simply didn’t work in the way it was originally envisioned and it was scrapped late last year. Whilst Overwatch may have arisen out of its remnants it meant that many who were looking towards Blizzard’s next MMORPG were left wanting and thus began to look elsewhere. Had project Titan been released around this time the demise of World of Warcraft might have been fully sealed but it would have been a greater win for the company overall.
This has led many to call for World of Warcraft to change their subscription model to be more inline with current trend of switching to free-to-play. To be sure the transition can be made as The Old Republic and other titles have shown however there’s little incentive for Blizzard to do so when their monthly revenue rate is still in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Until they’re really hurting for numbers, and I mean really hurting, such a transition would likely devastate their revenues to the point where World of Warcraft wasn’t sustainable. However I think Activision Blizzard recognises this as a potential possibility and that’s where the acquisition of King comes into play.
King, for those who don’t know, are the developers behind the incredibly successful Candy Crush saga. Activision Blizzard is paying a cool $5.9 billion for the company which isn’t a bad deal if their current profit rate of $127 million per quarter is anything to go by. They are undoubtedly one of the leaders in the free-to-play model and there’s every chance they’re buying them with a view to revamp the business models for some of their products. This isn’t limited to Blizzard titles of course, but the timing of the two announcements certainly makes it feel like they might be related.
This definitely feels like a pivot point for Activision Blizzard as they muse through their options for future growth. There’s definitely a trend for their newer IPs to be done differently to those of the past and how Overwatch is positioned will be strongly telling of how they see game development in the future. Right now it points to a free-to-play future, one that could very well make its way into already established IPs. If any company can make the transition work, and work well, it’s Activision Blizzard but no change of this magnitude is without risk.
I have something of a soft spot for the Call of Duty series, a trait which I think is highly evident given the fact that I’ve been reviewing their games for the past 4 years. This primarily extends from their highly cinematic single player experiences where the actual game play borders on being more like an action movie rather than a traditional FPS. However I also found myself inexplicably drawn to the multiplayer, finding myself being one of “those people” who just couldn’t get enough of the fast paced, super spammy Nuketown map. I also have to admit that I did feel pretty special to be invited to come and preview their games way back when (something I’ve been unfortunately unable to repeat lately) and the fact that they sent me copies to review was a kind of validation that I hadn’t got before. Whilst that trend didn’t continue this year I’m still a fan of the series in general and have spent the better part of 2 weeks gorging myself on everything Call of Duty: Ghosts has to offer.
Call of Duty: Ghosts takes place in the not too distant future in an alternate timeline to the rest of the Call of Duty series. You primarily play as Logan, the son of a lifetime military man Elias who regales you with the story of an elite unit who faced down overwhelming odds and came out the other side. They called themselves the Ghosts, known for never giving up until their mission was completed and always ensuring that all their men got out, dead or alive. The story is unfortunately cut short as it quickly becomes apparent that the USA is under attack however the origin of the bombardments isn’t quite clear. What is for certain however is that the new world superpower, The Federation, are behind it and they need to be stopped.
Ghosts is one of the first titles to make it onto the next console generation (although its still available on current gen) and the improvements to the graphics that they enable are quite impressive. Whilst the difference between Black Ops II and Ghosts is as great as you’d expect to be, especially with this being the first next gen Call of Duty title, there’s still been a dramatic improvement since the last Infinity Ward game. All of the screenshots were taken in game and I think they speak volumes to the amount of effort put in to the set pieces that Infinity has created. It’s also probably the reason why the game comes in at 28GBs, by far one of the largest downloads I’ve ever had for a single player game (the multi is a separate 4GB download of its own).
The game play is your standard corridor shooter with you being guided from point A to point B by one or more NPCs with different kinds of objectives along the way. Saying that for most games would be a jab at their originality or banality but the Call of Duty series does it so well that it’s hard for me to criticize them for it. Still if you were looking for something innovative or different about the single player campaign you’re going to be disappointed as it really is just a scenic tour through a whole bunch of impressive artwork with action movie style combat thrown in so you don’t get bored walking everywhere. That being said it is quite the ride with you rarely being given more than a couple moments to catch your breath before the next unbelievably epic moment occurs.
The combat is, as always, polished and refined to the point where it’s smooth as glass. The only variation from previous games is the weapons and equipment that will be made available to you and for the most part the differences are largely cosmetic as they’re all guns that shoot bullets. There is a little variety in the way the guns act in different environments, like when you’re in space or under water, but the standard assault rifle will be your mainstay for the majority of the game. If there’s one thing I’ll criticize Ghosts for it’s the use of sniper accurate enemies who seem to be able to hit you from almost any angle, leading to long periods where you have to peek your head out, get hit, figure out where they are and then try to pick them off before they or their friends do the same to you. This is made somewhat more annoying by the unpredictable nature of the NPCs who sometimes charge ahead or seem to get stuck in one position until you do the charging, but then again I’ve yet to find a game where I’ve felt the NPCs were truly useful additions.
Considering the amount of hype and focus the dog got prior to Ghosts’ release I’d be remiss if I didn’t give my perspective on it. Riley (that’s his name) is essentially another mechanic for them to throw at you with his main function being that of a kind of single target grenade that you can point at anyone and have him take them down. There are also some more weird sci-fi sections where you’re able to control him directly, making him sneak behind enemy lines and even take down people from a remote console. It fits in with the overall game, although why such a big deal was made of it I’ll never quite understand, and there’s a particular heart wrenching moment when he gets shot and you have to carry him through the battlefield. Conveniently they also provide you with an insane machine gun at that point, allowing you to go full rambo on the assholes who shot your dog which was probably one of my favourite parts of Ghosts.
I’m somewhat thankful that Ghosts took a new route as the previous storyline was starting to get a little long in the tooth, especially with all the various sub-plots that I just couldn’t seem to keep track over between instalments. They’ve taken a break from the traditional clandestine unit saving the USA from imminent attack, instead putting you in a world that’s been devastated by the newest superpower. It’s best not to think about it too deeply though as it tend towards more being an action movie than a psychological thriller, hoping that you won’t think and instead enjoy the ride. If you do that the story is passable and is more than enough to keep you motivated from one objective to the next.
The multiplayer breaks away from Infinity Ward’s traditional way of doing things (where most things are locked until you level up enough to get them) and instead adopts a Squad Point system for upgrading your character. Unlike the the cash system that the original Black Ops had Squad Points aren’t earned in troves by simply playing. Whilst you will get points for levelling up the system is obviously more geared towards you completing challenges, both grand ones that require multiple games to accomplish as well as field orders which grant you a bonus during the game. Because of this all the guns in the game are available to you from level 1 and all that’s required is that you grind out a few points to unlock them.
The perks, however, are hard locked to your level with the more powerful ones being reserved for the later stages. This does mean that particular play styles are just simply not feasible until you get to that stage as you won’t be able to have your pick of the perks until you hit level 60. For someone like me who’d developed a distinctive play strategy (I’m a rusher style player) it meant that I had to change the way I played in order to get anywhere in the game. It doesn’t take too long to adjust as you can still do the traditional assault rifle style play but I did feel a little miffed that I couldn’t engage in the insane runabout shenanigans that I did in previous games.
Indeed it seems that Infinity Ward is trying to encourage a slightly different style of play with Ghosts as there are now many more open maps that are more conducive to sniping than there was in the previous games. You can imagine how annoying this is to a rusher like me where my style of combat relies on getting in people’s faces, but it means that you just have to adapt or die. There are still a few crazy small maps however it seems that they’re no where near as popular as the Nuketown of old as there’s rarely more than 100 players in the Ghost Moshpit game type with most staying on Team Deathmatch or Domination. This is probably not so much of a problem on the consoles however as there’s an order of magnitude more players around at any given time.
For what its worth I feel that the multiplayer of Ghosts is weaker than previous instalments as it just doesn’t seem to have that same pulling power on me that it used to. I’ve still racked up about 7 hours on it after taking about 2 to find my feet again but I just don’t have that same sense of compulsion pulling me back. Maybe its the lack of Nuketown, maybe it’s the lack of my spammy akimbo style of game play but whatever it is it just isn’t the same as it used to be. Activision said that they were expecting lower sales this time around due to the console switch over and that seems to be reflected in the multiplayer. Hopefully the next instalment won’t suffer because of it.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is another highly polished instalment in the franchise, showing that Infinity Ward is capable of delivering a highly cinematic experience that’s thoroughly enjoyable to play through. Whilst the stories and setting are always different the core game play remains the same and it’s commendable that they can still make it enjoyable this many years on. However the multiplayer experience is definitely a step down from previous games, lacking the same addictive power that compelled me to become a fan of the series all those years ago. Overall it’s still a solid game experience but they’re going to have to aim higher next time around if they want to recapture their original glory.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is available on PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360, XboxOne, WiiU and PC right now for $78, $78, $78, $78 , $99.95 and $89.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 5.4 hours in the single player campaign and 7.1 hours in multiplayer.
Long time readers will know that Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty has long held the crown for the highest rated game here on The Refined Geek. It’s not an undeserved title either as they managed to capture in my attention in a way few games have been able to and indeed only one (DOTA 2) has been able to do so since. From the start I knew it was set to be a trilogy carving the game up into 3 separate installments each of which would focus on a single race. Heart of the Swarm, the second game in the Starcraft II trilogy, continues the story started in Wings of Liberty and as the name implies focuses primarily on the Zerg race.
Heart of the Swarm picks up not too long after the final events that take place in Wings of Liberty. Kerrigan has been locked away in a test facility run by prince Valerian who is eager to see how much control she retains over the Zerg. Shortly after the final test is complete (which had resulted in Kerrigan using the Zerg to destroy much of the test facility) Dominion forces attack, forcing them to evacuate. However in the confusion Raynor is unfortunately left behind and Kerrigan refuses to leave without him. After waiting for him to contact her she reads a news report that he was captured and summarily executed, causing Kerrigan to swear brutal vengeance against Mengsk yet again.
As always Blizzard has delivered an incredibly beautiful game, one that will run well on nearly any system built within the past 4 years. Whilst the in-game graphics haven’t changed significantly, apart from higher-resolution textures and better lighting (which you could say is significant, I guess), the whole game feels a heck of a lot more polished. The in-between mission cut scenes, dialog sequences and cinematics have all seen improvements which are very obvious when comparing them side by side.
From a core game perspective Heart of the Swarm doesn’t change much with the standard real time strategy mechanics applying throughout the game. However like Wings of Liberty not every mission is simply a build army, send at enemy, rise and repeat deal with most of the missions being rather unique in their implementation. Of course there are your standard base/army building type missions however most of them have an unique twist to them which can make them more complicated or provide opportunities to make them far easier, should you be willing to take the risk.
Whilst this might not be too different from Wings of Liberty (although individually the missions are all very different) the levels do seem to be better designed as I can remember struggling to get into the campaign in the original whilst it didn’t take me long to get hooked on Heart of the Swarm. Indeed since all the missions are so varied and unique I rarely found myself becoming bored with them. This ended up with me engaging in a rather ravenous binge on missions which only stopped when I realised I was playing on into the early hours of the morning. That hasn’t happened to me in a while and is a real testament to the quality of each mission in Heart of the Swarm.
Outside of the core missions you’ll be given the opportunity to upgrade your units, giving them unique abilities that will make them far more effective in game. There’s 2 types of upgrades that will be available for all of your units, the first being a choice of 3 different types of specializations which you can change at any time. The second is a permanent change to the unit itself giving it either additional abilities (like the Raptor Zergling pictured about which can now leap at targets and jump up cliffs) or giving it an evolutionary path (like the Hydralisk being able to evolve into a lurker). Thankfully you’re not making this decision blind as all of the permanent evolutions come alongside a mission that gives you a feel for how the new unit will behave and where it will be effective.
For long time Starcraft players the upgrade paths have a pretty obvious “best” path as certain combinations become almost completely unstoppable. Sure each of them is viable in their own sense and some choices are better than others in some situations however my initial combination of frenzied hydras with roaches that slowed was enough to melt most armies without too much hassle. Once I got respawning ultralisks it was pretty much game over for any large army as they couldn’t kill them quick enough and all their precious siege defences just melted away, leaving the rest of their army vulnerable.
Wings of Liberty included some hero units but apart from the basic in game upgrades (which were only available during base building missions) there wasn’t much you could do to customize them. Heart of the Swarm often gives you direct control over Kerrigan and her list of abilities is quite impressive. The good thing about this is you can craft her to fit your playstyle effectively as you can play her as a big spell nuker, tanky siege destoryer or 1 woman army that can take out bases without the assistance of any other units. On the flip side however this can make it feel like your army is just like an accessory for Kerrigan, something that’s nice but not necessarily required.
For me I went with a tanky building that favoured direct attacks over spells. Her attacks would chain and she would attack faster with each subsequent attack which would allow her to melt armies in no short order. Couple that with a spammable healing ability and she was for the most part invincible and should she get into trouble I could simply walk her out of there whilst healing her every 8 seconds. It did seem somewhat unfair at times as since the heal was AOE I could keep my army going far longer than it should have been able to normally which usually meant once I hit 200/200 I rarely found myself building any further units. I get that she’s supposed to be an immensely powerful being but she does take some of the challenge out of it. Maybe it’s different on brutal (I played on hard, for what its worth).
Although there were no bugs to report, even with the streaming which I thought would cause all manner of strife, there were a couple issues that marred my experience in Heaert of the Swarm. Whilst the out of mission upgrades were good they were often choices between upgrades that were available in multiplayer games. As someone who played Zerg back in Wings of Liberty (well, I randomed for a long time so I played all races) I often found myself missing some upgrades that overcome the inherit weaknesses of particular units. The removal of larva injects also didn’t sit particularly well for me as that was an in-grained habit and its removal relegated the queens to creep tumour/heal bots which, after a certain point in the game, relegated them to units I’d only build when I was running low on larva. These aren’t systemic issues with the game per se, but they definitely detracted from my experience.
Warning: plot spoilers below.
I also can’t praise the story as highly as I did back with Wings of Liberty as Kerrigan starts off strong but quickly degenerates into a character with confused emotions who makes decisions that don’t make a whole bunch of sense. This might be because the over-arching plot is somewhat predictable (the twist about Raynor for instance) and when her motivations don’t line up with the direction you think they’d be going in it just feels…weird. I did like the nods to previous unresolved plot threads from the original Starcraft series (if you can’t figure out who Narud is then your head is on backwards, hint hint) as Wings of Liberty only half alluded to them. The foreshadowing for the final instalment has got me excited for what’s to come however, even if the story might end up being not much more than your generic sci-fi action movie.
Plot spoilers over.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a solid follow up to Wings of Liberty providing a highly polished game experience that is par for the course for Blizzard games. All of the missions feel unique, banishing the usual RTS campaign drudgery and creating an experience that is both challenging and satisfying. Unfortunately I can’t rate it as highly as its predecessor as my many hours in multiplayer set up expectations which would probably never be met and the strange treatment of Kerrigan as a central character marred an otherwise great experience. Still these are comparatively minor nit picks in a game that drew me in and trapped me for hours and I would do it again willingly.
Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is available on PC right now for $48. Game was played on hard with around 12 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
As any Call of Duty player will tell you there was always a good developer and a not-so-good developer behind their franchise of choice. Unquestionably everyone loved all of Infinity Ward’s releases and it’s not a long stretch to say that they are responsible for Call of Duty’s success, thanks almost entirely to the original Modern Warfare. Treyarch on the other hand was always second place to them with their games typically being considered the off years for the franchise with the sales figures reflecting that. Indeed when the original Black Ops was released many of the compliments to it felt backhanded, the best of which I recall as being “the best Call of Duty Treyarch has made” firmly segregating it away from its glorious Infinity Ward brethren.
Still it’s not like they made atrocious games, indeed whilst the original Black Ops might not have held a candle to Modern Warfare 2 it still managed to rake in over a billion dollars in 6 weeks, an accomplishment that not many game developers can boast. It’s still somewhat slower than Infinity Ward who was able to accomplish the same thing in about a third of the time. However after playing through Black Ops II I really felt that the overall quality of Treyarch’s recent release was at least on par if not exceeding that of its predecessors, even those from Infinity Ward. I posited the idea to a couple of my friends that it was possible that Treyarch might take the crown as the better Call of Duty developer and it looks like they might be on track to accomplish that:
Activision may have skipped its annual five-day totaling of Call of Duty sales, but the publisher announced this morning the latest installment, Black Ops 2, grossed $1 billion in 15 days.
The publisher announced shortly after Call of Duty Black Ops 2‘s launch the annual blockbuster made $500 million in 24 hours at retail, eclipsing Modern Warfare 3’s record of $400 million the year prior. The lack of a five-day total, which the company had done for three years running, gave some analysts “cause for concern” that Black Ops 2 wasn’t selling as well as previous installments.
Going from 6 weeks to 15 days to achieve the same target is a pretty impressive feat in the space of only a couple years. You could attribute this to the popularity of the Call of Duty franchise but, coming from someone who’s played all of their recent titles, Black Ops II really is that much better than the rest of them. Indeed checking out the sales stats since then for each of the respective platforms shows (apart from PC still being very much in the minority at around 4%) that it’s on track to outsell all of its predecessors in the space of about 2 to 3 months on each of its respective platforms. Should that happen it wouldn’t be the first Treyarch title to outsell Infinity Ward, but it would certainly cement their position as equal developers.
The question then becomes what this will mean for the Treyarch/Infinity Ward developer duality in the Call of Duty franchise. In all honesty I don’t think it’ll mean much overall, indeed each iteration of Call of Duty for the past couple generations has outsold the last, but the fervour at which fans adopted this most recent title was definitely a surprise for me even if I thought the quality was a definite jump up from Treyarch’s previous games. Indeed as long as the series keeps making money and breaking sales records I don’t think we’ll see any major changes in the franchise, either from an actual game play or developer perspective. For me it’s just interesting to see how the perceptions have changed over the past couple years as I’ve witness the back and forth between the two developers behind the biggest game franchise in the world and how a perceived duality in quality has, in essence, simply disappeared.
One of the things I really like about reviewing games is going back over my reviews when a sequel or another instalment in a franchise comes out. The Call of Duty series takes the top prize for being my most reviewed franchise with not 1, not 2 but 3 previous reviews which I can draw on directly for comparisons. For someone who used to avoid any game that was based around one war or another it’s interesting to see how quickly I came around once I started playing the Call of Duty series, being hooked after a single game. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the latest instalment in the franchise from Treyarch and I must say that they’ve really outdone themselves this time, firmly placing themselves on the same level as Infinity Ward.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II takes place in the not too distant future of the USA in 2025. The story centres around David Mason, son of Alex Mason the main protagonist from the original Black Ops, who’s tracking down a known terrorist called Raul Menendez. Much of the story is recounted in flashbacks from an ageing Frank Woods who David Mason consult with to try and find out where Menedez is and what he might be up to. It’s through these flash backs that you start to make sense of some of the events of your past and understand why things certain things have happened and why you’re still alive to see them.
For a primarily console game I wasn’t expecting a major update in graphics from any of its predecessors as I believe they were tapping out the capabilities of the Xbox360 some time ago. Compared to Modern Warfare 3 this seems to be largely true with them both having similar levels of graphical detail. However if you compare it to Treyarch’s previous release there’s most definitely a step up which they’re to be commended for. If I’m honest whilst the graphics aren’t a massive improvement over Modern Warfare 3 they are a hell of a lot more smooth, especially when there’s a lot of action going on. For a game that is almost entirely fast paced action this is a very welcome improvement, especially when it comes to multiplayer (which I’ll touch on later).
If you’ve played any of the Call of Duty series you’ll know the basic breakdown of the game play that I’m about to give you. It’s a First Person Shooter and so you’ll spend the vast majority of your time running around, letting bullets loose at varying arrays of enemies and utilizing your additional equipment (like grenades, flash bangs and remote C4) to tip the scales in your favour. Thanks to the ability to customize your load out before starting a mission you can also tailor your experience somewhat by say favouring sniper rifles over close range spray ‘n’ pray type weapons. For what its worth I usually played with assault rifles and SMGs, preferring to run carelessly into battle while unleashing torrents of bullets at my foes.
Black Ops II, like nearly all other titles in the Call of Duty franchise, has their trademark FPS experience that’s so well polished that it just flows with an effortless grace. All the actions (running, jumping, shooting) just plain work like you expect them to. Whilst many other FPS type games will draw my ire for one core game play issue or another I really do find it hard to find fault with the fundamentals of any Call of Duty game. Arguably this is due to the ongoing success of the series which has been allowed to refine every element over the course of so many games but it still doesn’t fail to impress me, even after seeing it for the 4th time in as many years.
Treyarch has recognized that simply running from point A to point B and shooting everything along the way does get a little boring after a while and has included many different distractions along the way to break up the repetition. Shown above is just one of the many little set pieces they include (this one was actually fairly early on in the game) which was an extremely fun way to start the mission off. They have also included a second mission type called Strike Force which is very different from the usual missions and is more akin to a game like Natural Selection, blending RTS elements with FPS game play.
The Strike Force missions put you in control of a squad of marines, robots and flying drones that you will use to accomplish a mission. They’re all different, ranging from a defend the objective to rescuing and escorting someone out, and whilst you can treat it like a regular mission by taking control of one of the units directly you’ll need to issue orders to the other AIs constantly if you want to finish it successfully. If I’m honest I didn’t enjoy them that much at the start but after a while I really started to get into them, employing varying tactics and just loving being able to play with reckless abandon.
After all this praise I feel its appropriate to mention the few minor issues with Black Ops II that can lead to you having a bad time. Like nearly all FPS games that lump you with AI friends to help you out they are, for the most part, completely useless and will likely cause your death more often than they’ll save it. For instance I’ve seen my AI buddies run around corner and proceeded to think it was completely safe however since most of the other AIs won’t target them, only you, this can often mean that there’s someone hiding around the corner but they won’t trigger until you run into their line of sight. This is in addition to them getting in your way every so often which can cause your death when you’re trying to take cover or, more comically, fail a mission when they put their head in front of your sniper rifle (“Friendly fire will not be tolerated!” apparently).
I also had an issue with some of the triggers not going off, causing the game to get stuck at a particular point. The one I can remember clearly was when I was in the bunker just before the Celerium device. I walked in and reprogrammed an ASD to fight for me but after doing so my crew just sort of stood around, not doing anything. Try as I might to get them to move I simply couldn’t and since there’s no “restart from last checkpoint” option in the menu I opted for the tried and true jump on my own grenade to get back to my last checkpoint. After that everything worked as expected but it wasn’t an isolated incident and its something that’s been present in previous Call of Duty titles.
In a very surprising change to the Call of Duty formula you actually have quite a bit of agency in Black Ops II with the game playing out very differently should you make different choices at different times. They are, for the most part, unfortunately binary but there are other softer choices like completing the Strike Missions which will have an influence on how the last hours of the game plays out. The Black Ops II wiki page (SPOILER WARNING on that link) informs me that there’s no less than 5 separate endings available to you which is far more than you average FPS. That, combined with the fact that they’re not presented to you in Endotron 3000 style means that Black Ops II is quite a step up in terms of story.
The story in and of itself is quite enthralling too, even if the beginning confused me somewhat (although that’s somewhat typical for me in Call of Duty games, if I’m honest). I was nicely surprised by how progressive it seemed as well with many characters being female, including the President, and subtle references to current social ideals like the 99% vs the 1% and so on. After my good mate’s take down of the last Call of Duty’s story and lack of agency I had a much more critical eye on Black Ops II’s story than I have for any other game in the series and it makes me very happy to say that they’ve stepped up their game and my expectations were more than met.
The multi-player is pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Call of Duty games bringing back all the classic match up modes along side the newer ideas like Kill Confirmed. Unlike the original Black Ops which allowed you to choose a server Black Ops II instead uses the same match making system that Modern Warfare 3 did. Usually I’d make a note here about how this sucks (and there are still reasons why it does) but since it works and can usually find me a game in under a minute it’s hard to complain about it. Treyarch has also brought back the much loved Nuketown map which has been revamped for the modern era. They also took it away which led to quite the uproar from the community (many of whom preordered just to get said map) but they’ve since brought it back so kudos to them for listening.
There’s really not a lot that’s new or inventive about the multi-player in Black Ops II that I’ve seen yet with the experience system, upgrades and challenges all being very reminiscent of both Modern Warfare 3 and the original Black Ops. It’s kind of hard to improve on that formula since it works so well but those who are looking for a wholly new multiplayer experience ala Battlefield 3 will find themselves disappointed. However for those like me who love the fast paced, spammy action that maps like Nuketown bring you it’s more the same thing we’ve come to love and I still can’t get enough of it.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II catapults Teryarch up from the doldrums of being Infinity Ward’s poor cousin and firmly places them right at their side, showing that they’re quite capable of delivering a game that’s every bit as epic and enjoyable. The graphics are a great step up, the game play smooth and polished and the story is very fulfilling, a rarity in the FPS genre. The multiplayer might not be much different from its predecessors but it works well and is just as addictive as its predecessors which will see me spending many more hours on it. I thoroughly enjoyed my time both in the single and multi player parts of this game and should you be in the market for some top notch, AAA FPS action then you really can’t go past Black Ops II.
Call of Duty: Black Ops II is available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 right now for $89.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on Veteran difficulty with 7.3 hours in single player unlocking 71% of the achievements and 2 hours in multiplayer. A review copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek from Activision for the purposes of reviewing.