Posts Tagged‘arkane studios’

Prey: Know Thy Self.

The original Prey was a stand out title for many reasons, if not for it’s good but not great critical success. Mechanically it debuted a couple novel new concepts which quickly went onto to become standard affair in many comparable titles. Additionally its story, with it’s respectful treatment of the Native American mythology, was one of the more interesting and memorable experiences of its time. The sequel set the gaming hivemind on fire with the idea of making you an alien bounty hunter but, much to the disappointment of many, it was cancelled unceremoniously 3 years ago. So when Bethesda decided to reboot the IP many were cautious, especially given the circumstances surrounding the cancellation of the previous title. Now that I’ve had the chance to play through the new Prey in its entirity I can say that, whilst it might not let you indulge in your alien bounty hunter fantasies, it is a solid title in its own right.

You are Morgan Yu, a scientist working for the TranStar corporation. In this alternate timeline president John F. Kennedy survives the assassination attempt and this pushes him to funnel more funding into the space program. As a result humanity has pushed far further into space than it has in our world and has even established lavish space based like Talos I. Today will be your first day with TranStar and before you take the rocket up to Talos I you’ll meet your brother and run through a few tests. However things don’t go exactly as planned and you begin to discover the dark secret that this space station has been hiding from everyone.

Prey uses Crytek’s CryEngine 5 and, as you’d expect, looks fantastic. Aesthetically it feels very similar to the recent Deus Ex titles, albeit without the distinctive yellow tone. Instead Prey takes on a darker theme befitting it’s survival horror aesthetic. The environments are richly detailed, something which forms a core part of the game’s mechanics. It’s hard to do the game justice in a few screenshots, especially with the low-light that’s present in nearly every area, but suffice to say it’s one of this year’s better looking games. To top it off performance is good save for a few areas which are obviously suffering from some poor optimisation. This is likely to be fixed in upcoming patches as it’s not just me having these issues.

Prey plays very similarly to the BioShock games of old, equipping you with an array of weapons, powers and choices with how to approach the game’s various challenges. The environments are littered with numerous different pathways to your objective, each of them rewarding investment in a certain set of skills. You can be the stereotypical stealthy hacker, the modern day necromancer who has an army of others at his disposal or your standard run and gunner. Some of the skills are quality of life improvements (I.E. just saving you from having to do something the long way) but there are, of course, certain sections that will be unavailable to you without the appropriate talents. The stealth system is done well, allowing you to ghost through many encounters without having to waste a single bullet. The crafting system is also well done, feeding into the RPG packrat mentality well whilst also ensuring that making items isn’t a total chore. Altogether whilst this Prey doesn’t bring with it original ideas like its predecessor it does execute its concept, ideas and mechanics well.

Depending on your build combat will either be a rare event or just another fact of life. For me, whilst I took a stealth-first approach, there were many times where my patience would start to wear thin and I’d just want to blast through a particular section. The combination of a few choice powers (bullet time plus enhanced wrench damage) ensured that I could usually pick off a few enemies without having to expend much in the way of consumables. Some of the other powers didn’t work as well as I’d hoped however like the mind control power that got other enemies to fight for you. Sometimes it’d work well, allowing me to clear a room without much effort, other times the enemy would just stand there, dumbfounded and not doing anything at all. Like other, similar action RPGs constant quick saving/loading is a necessity whenever you’re engaging in combat as it’s little quirks like that which can be the difference between breezing through a section and getting stuck on it for quite some time.

Progression comes in a couple forms, most notably through Neuromods (which are akin to skill points) and weapon upgrades. Neuromods can be found throughout the game in all the usual places: tucked away in hidden areas, after critical points in the story or given to you by NPCs. You can also craft them using in-game materials although that caps out at one point and necessitates a quest to unlock an infinite crafting recipe. These are then spent on the various talent trees which are broadly split into 2 categories: human and alien abilities. Whilst it’s entirely possible to finish the game without installing any mods, or only mods from one branch (there are achievements for doing all of those), you’ll definitely be best placed by choosing those that best match your desired play style. For me I went a long time before installing any alien ones, due to some in-game commentary about what that would entail, but at one point I felt like I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to continue playing the way I was. That, to me, was a great way to make non-story based choices mean something in the greater narrative of the game.

Crafting is a big part of the game and is a two stage process. Like any RPG you’ll gather a lot of cruft along the way but instead of having to find the exact right material to make something you’ll instead put it into the recycler. It then turns everything into component materials which only take up a single inventory slot. Those materials can then be used in crafting basically anything you’d ever need. This also makes inventory space a meaningful commodity as you have to decide if 10 banana peels (not joking) are worth as much as another item. One little niggle I have with the crafting system is that you can only craft one item at a time and you’ll wait for the crafting to finish before making another. When you’re say, chugging out 10 neuromods after unlocking the unlimited recipe, it can be a bit laborious. That’s nothing that’s above a simple patch to fix, however.

I wasn’t afflicted by the save corruption issues that plagued many however there are still a few rough edges on Prey that could do with sorting out. The aforementioned areas that absolutely torpedo your performance are a big issue as any fights in there quickly turn into a slideshow. From memory I only had a single crash although others have reported numerous repeat crashes throughout their playthroughs. To be sure these are the kinds of teething issues would could have been solved prior to the official launch day if review copies were provided to the usual suspects so Bethesda’s “no review copies” policy does seem to be somewhat detrimental here. The game’s UI could also do with a little bit of tweaking to be more PC friendly but that’s a minor issue comparatively.

Prey’s narrative is one of the more interesting ones of late, even if some of its elements do seem to draw heavily on BioShock’s ideas. The choices you make in the game do heavily affect how the game progresses and it does a great job of clouding which ones are more important than others. If it wasn’t for some of the achievements popping up as I was playing through I wouldn’t have had any idea that was I trucking down the “good” path, especially considering some of the less-than-stellar things I did. The culmination of everything was very satisfying as well and, whilst I’ll always bemoan games that scream SEQUEL at the end, I am encouraged that the IP is being set up for future instalments. Overall whilst Prey isn’t a game you’d play just for the story I’m glad to say it isn’t one of the detracting elements.

Prey’s rebirth was one that was met with trepidation from its fans but I think it’s managed the reboot well. It may not be fuelling the inspiration of current game designers with new mechanics and ideas but what it does do it does well. The subtle emphasis on choice is a welcome departure from the current overt approach, allowing you to make a meaningful impact on how the story and your character progress. Wrapping this all up in an engaging narrative makes for a great experience that had me wanting to come back over multiple sessions. The execution was still a little rough around the edges in a few spots which, whilst not detracting heavily from the overall game, did leave a few black marks. Overall Prey is a successful reboot of the now decade old IP and one I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of in the future.

Rating: 8.5/10

Prey is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 17 hours play time with 48% of the achievements unlocked.

Dishonored 2: The Crown Killer.

Dishonored was a breath of fresh air for many. Stealth games of the time were anything but; their stealth mechanics nothing but tacked on features that weren’t given the love they so desperately needed. Whilst it had its faults Dishonored was a pivotal release for Arkane Studios, catapaulting them into the limelight. It’s been 4 years since the release of the original Dishonored and expectations were high that Arkane would be able to deliver yet another solid stealth based title. Dishonored 2 brings with it all of the things that made the original great but also many of the shortcommings. Indeed whilst some of the design choices are commendable it begs the question of whether or not the effort would have been better spent elsewhere, possibly addressing some of the mistakes of the past.

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Dishonored 2 takes place 15 years after the events of the original with Emily Kaldwin taking her place on the throne, succeeding her late mother. The city of Dunwall is no longer the rotten town it once was, prospering greatly under Emily’s rule. However a serial murderer, dubbed The Crown Killer, has been dispatching Emily’s opposition, leading many to conclude that Corvo is responsible for it. During a ceremony in remembrance of her mother’s assassination, Delilah Copperspoon, who claims to be Jessamine’s older half-sister and the true heir to the throne, assaults Emily in her throne room. The story from here is determined by who you choose to play as: either Emily or Corvo.

Under the hood Dishonored 2 is powered the new Void engine, developed in-house by Arkane. The engine is based on id’s Tech 6 platform and brings with it many improvements. However like its predecessor Dishonored 2 is probably about half a step behind current generation titles in terms of graphics, something that is painfully obvious when you’re up close to NPCs or bits of the environment. The world does feel a lot more full than it used to though, with more characters on screen and much more detailed environments. The initial release was unfortunately plagued by horrendous performance issues on PC, indicating that the engine hadn’t gotten enough optimization love. This was fixed rather quickly and by the time I got around to play it I didn’t see any issues at all. This couldn’t come soon enough though and is likely responsible for the game’s mixed review status on Steam.

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Dishonored 2 stays true to the original’s ethos, providing you with mutliple avenues to complete a mission that can make use of any number of powers, abilities or gadgets. What’s available to you depends on whether you choose Corvo or Emily although there’s a core set of non-power abilities availble to both. If you choose Corvo the abilities will be instantly familiar to you with Emilies being completely different in all aspects. The upgrade systems are largely the same, you’ll still hunt down runes and charms to upgrade your powers, however there’s also the opportunity to improve your character further through crafting runes of your own. There’s still a multitude of things to discover in any one level with numerous side missions and hidden items for you to seek out. If you were a fan of the original there’ll be a lot for you to love in Dishonored 2, perhaps even more so if you’re an achievement hunter.

Combat is largely the same as it’s predecessor however the choices you make in building your character have a much bigger impact in Dishonored 2. Unlike previously where I could stealth or shoot my way through a level Dishonored 2, where I primarily built my character as stealth, I couldn’t take on more than one enemy at a time. Personally I liked this aspect as it meant that my choices had a real impact, no longer could I be both the stealth master and combat warrior. This did mean that the mechanical upgrade system went largely unused through my play through but it did make the rune and bone charms that much more valuable. Indeed I spent much, much more time exploring to make sure I got every power upgrade I could, lest I find myself wanting.

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The stealth system works as you’d expect it to although I have to admit I think the detection rate of NPCs is a little too fast for my liking. Indeed if you don’t notice the meter immediately, like if it’s at the bottom of your screen, you will likely be detected.  Some of the power upgrades help you get around this, like the stop time part of blink, but it still leaves you very little time to react. It does feel a bit more realistic in that sense, you can’t hover around in front of enemies and have them not detect you, but it does detract from the enjoyment a bit at times.

The crafting system, whilst basic, was probably one of the more rewarding aspects of Dishonored 2. With the right combination of talents and a lot of farming for the right runes you can craft yourself a set of incredibly powerful boosts. In the end I was rocking around 8 quad bone charms (the other 2 taken by specific power upgrades) that amplified my power abilities significantly, like being able to essentially sprint in stealth mode if I was crouched and my weapons sheathed. Of course I save-scummed my way to perfect bone charms without any negative traits on them but hey, even if I didn’t do that I think a grand total of 2 of them would’ve been cursed. One point of note, which I wished I had known earlier, is that not all runes are simply somewhere in the world. For some missions a certain NPC will hold 2 of them, something which can make your life a little difficult if you want to get them all. Thankfully those ones aren’t usually ones you can break down for crafting anyway, but they’re still worth seeking out.

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Overall Dishonored 2 is well polished (bar the initial teething issues) however it makes one horrendous design misstep that I’ll never forgive any game for doing. There’s one level that, if you’ve chosent to take powers, you’ll have them stripped away from you. For those, like me, who’ve invested heavily, in their powers this strips you of all the tools you had available. The resulting mission is a tedious mess, the time-switching mechanic that it was designed around becoming a nusiance more than anything else. The hour or so I spent on that level was the most frustrating section of the game by far and completing it was a relief more than a reward. I can understand the rationale behind it, wanting to challenge the player in a new and inventive way (like many of the other levels do) but taking away their investments is a cheap trick that does nothing to endear the player to the game.

The story, and its delivery, suffer the same issues as its predecessor. Whilst you have control over how the narrative develops, both through direct choices and how you actually play the game, it’s still predictable and not particularly rewarding. The voice acting again falls flat, a complaint that was levelled at its predecessor which I had hoped would be addressed in the sequel. Again there are a few standouts like The Outsider and the manick mechanical creator Jindosh, but they aren’t enough to carry everything forward by themselves. Honestly I was hoping that I’d feel differently this time around, I really was.

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Dishonored 2 is a solid follow up to the original, retaining everything that made it great (and some things that didn’t). The stealth and combat is well done, the choices of how you build your character now more impactful (for better and for worse) than they were before. Crafting is a welcome addition, one that helps you craft your character further down your desired path. Unfortunately some poor level design choices and the continued flat delivery of Dishonored 2’s script means that the game doesn’t reach beyond its predecessor in terms of overall quality. Still I did enjoy my time with Dishonored 2, the stealth game play unparalleled in today’s market. Hopefully future instalments in this IP will address these core issues which would elevate Dishonored 2 to the same level as the games that inspired it.

Rating: 8.75/10

Dishonored 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99, $77 and $77 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 16 hours of total play time with 36% of the achievements unlocked.

Dishonored: Trust No One.

There are few games where I feel confident in saying that the stealth aspect was done well. For recent titles it has often felt like something tacked on at the end after everything else had been done; a mini-game that serves to break up the monotony. It’s a real shame as many of the games that I played during my formative gaming years like Deus Ex, Thief and the like, had stealth sections that were superbly done. It seemed as if the game developers who were behind those titles just simply up and vanished, leaving behind those with only a modicum of understand of how to make stealth games enjoyable. Dishonored isn’t one of these titles and it makes me incredibly happy to put it in the same category as those seminal stealth titles.

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Dishonored takes place in the Neo-Victorian steampunk world of Dunwall, a city that’s been ravaged by a plague of unknown origins turning many of the city’s districts into wastelands infest with rats and those on the brink of a gruesome death. You, as Korvo Attano, serve as the high empress’ body guard who was sent on a mission to get aid for the suffering town. However upon return the empress is murdered in front of you and her daughter taken away, leaving just you to take the fall for that horrendous deed. Dishonored then follows your story after your fall from grace as you fight to recover the empress’ daughter and clear your name.

To be completely honest I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed with the graphics of Dishonored. Whilst I had abstained from watching any gameplay videos so as to not taint my first impressions of it from the announcement videos I remember watching my expectations were built up around the idea that it would be a pretty modern looking title. This is not to say that they’re terrible graphics, far from it as you’ll see in many of the screenshots that follows, there were a few things that were so jarring that my immersion was broken completely. Talking to the NPCs comes to mind, although that could be from the camera locking to their face Oblivion style and having them death stare you down whilst you talk to them.

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As I alluded to in the opening paragraph Dishonored is one of the games that does stealth right. Realistically there’s actually 2 completely different games to be played here (maybe 3, even): the first is your typical hide in the shadows and make your way to the objective and the second is a RPG/FPS hybrid where you can run and gun your way through it (the third type would be a varying mix between the two). Both of these play styles are completely viable too and in fact it would seem that you’d actually have a much easier time playing as the run and gun style rather than taking the stealthier route. That being said I found the stealth to be far more rewarding than hacking my way through everyone, but at no time did I feel forced into taking one option over the other.

Stealthing around is quite fun as whilst you’re not given a completely open world to explore like in Thief the sections you’re let loose in are quite detailed with multiple pathways to goals and endless places to explore for additional treasure. The magical abilities you can unlock as well (by searching out runes scattered across the levels) can enable you to do some really amazing things like taking possession of rats and then using them to get into places that would be otherwise inaccessible. It’s also quite thrilling to be hiding just inches away from enemies, watching their movements, moving in to strike and then later hear their allies remarking about where they might have gone.

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Going toe-to-toe with every enemy you meet is surprisingly viable, something I didn’t really expect from a game that marketed itself primarily as a stealth based action game. The primary means of dealing out damage is a good old fashioned sword that comes hand in hand with the awkwardness that always plagues FPS games that try to include them. However you’re also given a great selection of other weapons to use such as a gun, crossbow, grenades and things that are essentially proximity mines that fling shrapnel everywhere. Considering the ridiculously plentiful ammunition that’s available everywhere you could very well play this entire game without having to bother with stealth at all and one of the achievements, Mostly Flesh and Steel (complete the game without any additional supernatural powers), seems to encourage this. There is the fact though that the more people you kill the more devastated the city becomes (and the darker the ending will be) so playing run and gun will have some consequences, but it does give Dishonored a decent amount of replayability.

There’s a 2 sided upgrade system that functions as Dishonored’s levelling system and up until a point it works quite well. The primarily upgrade system are runes which allow you to unlock and upgrade supernatural powers. Most of them are incredibly useful and primarily geared towards the players who prefer stealth over brawn. The second upgrade system is the mechanical one enabling you to improve all your non-magical powers as well as doing things like reducing the amount of noise your steps make. In the early game these upgrades can be the difference between finishing a mission and struggling with it endlessly but past a point there’s not much return on investment in tracking more runes or gold down.

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For instance  since I was playing as a stealth character nearly all the mechanical upgrades were pointless to me and since they use gold instead of runes I ended up having a pretty big surplus for most of the game. This is not because I tracked down all the gold I could find, far from it, its just that once you know what play style you’re going you can min/max your upgrades to make you perfectly fit for such objectives. For me this happened about half way through but a determined player could craft the ideal character after the first 3 missions or so. Sure I still invested in upgrades after that but they didn’t make a huge difference in how the game played for me and I could have just as easily left the runes and gold unspent.

Which brings me to another point. When I was first doing research on Dishonored (mostly looking for average play times) I found an article that said a direct run through would clock in at about 12~14 hours but also that players looking to explore would probably double that as there’d be a lot to find. Whilst the play time is incredibly inaccurate there is some truth to the exploration aspect as you can find many unique encounters if you’re willing to run, blink and jump all over the place. However most of the time the reward isn’t particularly worth it, usually being potions or ammo, and after a while I just stopped seeking them out as I was always maxed out on nearly everything and the only thing I couldn’t find I could buy in unlimited supply anyway. I’m sure there are many people who will get heaps of enjoyment out of seeking all these things out but for me it just didn’t feel worth it after about halfway through Dishonored.

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The story of Dishonored is better than most games of similar calibre even if it’s something of a rehash of the typical falsely accused man who’s out to clear his name and make everything right. You at least have some form of agency in that your choice of actions influences both the world around you and how certain characters react to you which is what puts it above other games in the same genre. That being said I didn’t really feel anything for the characters or have a deep emotional involvement in the plot and I think that’s because of one simple thing: the terrible voice acting.

Nearly all of the lines delivered are flat, read in an almost emotionless monotone. It’s rather confusing as the written passages and notes scattered everywhere are quite good, so the writing itself isn’t bad, just the delivery. This is made worse by the canned questions and responses that are obviously heuristically lined up (“Shall we meet for whiskey and cigars tonight?” “Indeed, I believe it is so.”) but never seem to work quite right. There are some stand outs like Lady Boyle’s playful banter and the final soliloquy by the captain but apart from that everyone else could just as easily be a text to speech generator given their delivery. I’m not asking for L.A. Noire levels of emotional craziness but a little more emotion in the lines might’ve made me a bit more involved in the story than I was.

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I was asked my opinion of the game several times over the course of playing it and it was interesting to see how it changed over the course of my play through. Initially I was disappointed, I had gotten swept up in the hype again and the initial impressions didn’t match up to my expectations. However as the game went on I found myself enjoying it more and really got into the stealth aspect of Dishonored. It’s probably not game of the year material as many of the major review sites would have you believe but it is an incredibly strong title and in a world where new IP is the hardest thing to market it’s really refreshing to see something like this come to market. For those of us who yearned for the return of the Thief era stealth games Dishonored pays excellent homage to them and is well worth the price of admission.

Rating: 8.75/10

Dishonored is available on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 right now for $79.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on the second hardest difficulty with around 8 hours played and 40% of the achievements unlocked giving the Low Chaos ending.