Publishers will try their hardest to time releases right, something that’s become inexorably harder due to the sheer volume of games that are released these days. It’s not uncommon now to hear of several titles, all ostensibly vying for the same market, releasing within a short period of each other. Last year’s hat trick of Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is the perfect example of this, something which you would assume was to the detriment to them all. However it seems that timing might not be everything as all of the games did respectably well. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s launch, coming in just before Zelda: Breath of the Wild, would have similarly seen foolish but it’s success says differently, its sales even eclipsing that of Zelda in its opening weeks. The reasoning for that is simple: it is an absolutely spectacular game, one that many will point to as a reason to own a PlayStation 4.
In the far future humanity has regressed back to its tribal roots. The ruins of the Old Ones are all around them, a reminder of the time when the world was dominated by metal rather than by nature. You play as Aloy, an orphan who was put in the care of Rost, a tribal outcast. He teaches you how to survive in this world but will not speak of your past, his banishment from the tribe or why you were entrusted to his care. However he does tell you of a way to learn all these things: you must win The Proving to become a brave of a tribe and win a boon from the matriarchs. This begins your journey of self discovery, one that will take you deep into this world’s past and will put you in control of its future.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is an absolutely stunning game, setting the bar for what’s possible on the PlayStation 4. This is saying something considering that I’m still playing on an original PS4, which doesn’t have all the added goodness that’s available to pro owners. As the screenshots in this review will attest to you can see just how big, expansive and detailed the environments are. They are then lavished with all the modern effects you’d care to name, making them some of the most immersive graphics I’ve seen to date. Surprisingly none of this comes with inherent performance problems either, the main game able to maintain a stable 30fps for the majority of the game. Interestingly the UI does render out at 60fps but the game itself is locked at 30fps, even on the Pro. This is all thanks to the Decima engine which has powered similar spectactular titles such as Killzone Shadow Fall and Until Dawn (it will also be bringing us Death Stranding, which is rather exciting). Suffice to say after the low-fi experience I had with Zelda it was great to have a graphical marvel like Horizon: Zero Dawn to go back to.
From a core game perspective Horizon: Zero Dawn is a traditional open-world RPG, taking inspiration from other similar AAA titles. There’s the campaign missions which will be the main source of story progression coupled with dozens of side missions, errands and various other quests to help you progress Aloy. Completing quests and killing monsters earns you XP which will level you up and grant you skill points to spend in one of 3 different trees (ostensibly combat, stealth and crafting). The crafting takes a leaf out of the Far Cry book, requiring you to hunt down certain animals for rare components to upgrade your inventory. Additionally, whilst you can purchase weapons and armour from vendors, you’ll need to hunt down certain beasts in order to be able to buy them. There’s also the usual open world trappings like climbing towers to reveal areas, hidden collectables hidden around various areas and random encounters that appear to change slightly as the game progresses. In terms of scale it might not be quite as big as Zelda was but it’s still definitely big enough to satisfy even the most hardcore open world completionist.
Combat sits inbetween Zelda and Dark Souls, being somewhat approachable but still requiring a base level of skill to get things done efficiently. Unlike some games where you can just blast your way through Horizon: Zero Dawn is much more focused on finding an enemy’s weak points and exploiting them. This can be as simple as figuring out which points to hit to give extra damage all the way through to complex mini-games that involve figuring out which component you can blow off, removing it without damaging it, then using said component against the enemy that you’re fighting. This can be somewhat frustrating at times as you might not get the opportunity to scan an enemy for its weaknesses before it engages you, leading to a drawn out engagement where you try to figure out what you need to do. Other times however the fights can be incredibly satisfying as the biggest of enemies can be felled easily should you know the right sequence of events to do in order to take them down.
One part where the combat does fall down a bit is with the camera. There’s no lock-on in Horizon: Zero Dawn, meaning that you are always going to be hunting around to ensure your enemies are within your vision. Sure, you can tag enemies to make this a bit easier, but that doesn’t save you from problems like the camera doing an about face if you dive head first into a boulder. The reasoning behind the lack of lock on is due to the focus on targeting weak points at range, rather than trying to beat your quarry into submission. A good fix would be a “snap to tagged target” button which would still require you to aim properly but would alleviate rather irritating camera wrangling that you have to do. Still it’s far from a game breaking issue and it can often be overcome by taking a more stealthy approach.
Stealth is done superbly well with most missions able to be done completely via stealth. There’s no non-lethal option here and the game won’t reward you for avoiding taking out enemies. Most small to medium sized enemies can be taken out in a single blow, although the animation is relatively long and so requires a decent amount of precise to pull off properly. Larger enemies need some more diverse tactics in order to take them out stealthily but it’s certainly still doable for some enemies. Indeed I managed to take out a bunch of shell walkers by silent striking them then disappearing behind a rock, saving me the trouble of dealing with their shields. The biggest enemies unfortunately still require a head to head fight but those are probably the most fun fights and would be a waste if they could be done via stealth.
Progression comes thick and fast in Horizon: Zero Dawn, ensuring that you’re never too long without some kind of improvement coming your way. Levels and skill points are plentiful; so much so that about half way through the game I couldn’t find a single mission that I hadn’t already out levelled. Taking the typical “take all the things” approach works a treat, ensuring that you’ve always got enough supplies to upgrade everything and for trading with vendors to get awesome gear. The RNG can be a little unforgiving at times, leaving you to constantly hunt down certain animals or machines in order to get that one part you need. However if you’ve saved basically everything you can carry you’ll often be able to craft a bunch of upgrades all in a row. Unfortunately your main spear can’t be upgraded like your other weapons can be, save for a few talents and a single upgrade that comes late in the main campaign. It’s a bit annoying since everything else goes up significantly in power, leaving the spear a feeble option in late game.
Before I get into the story there’s one weird quirk that I think bears mentioning. For some reason the facial animations seem to be a bit hit and miss in some areas. Every so often characters will appear to completely lose control of their eyebrows, something which is both hilarious and disconcerting. Additionally some character’s upper lip animations seem to fail to apply which makes them appear to be talking through gritted teeth. Most of the time it’s not particularly noticeable but it can be an immersion breaking occurrence once you notice it.
The plot of Horizon: Zero Dawn is fantastic, starting out from simple roots and slowly building up to a crescendo that you’d be hard pressed to predict from the outset. All of the characters are given ample opportunity to develop through on-screen events with little additional flavour given by the numerous journal entries you can pick up everywhere. The pacing of some of these elements could use some work, like when you’re exploring the old metal ruins and there’s numerous audio logs around. Often in those areas I’d just end up standing still for ages whilst the audio played as otherwise it got too hard to listen to it and the normal in game dialogue. Putting that part to one side however you have a story that’s deep and rewarding, especially for those who take the time to uncover all the additional items scattered around the world.
This is only made better by the absolutely stellar cast of Horizon: Zero Dawn who do a great job of bringing the script to life coupled with the fantastic sound work. The cast consists of some big names, both from within the gaming community and from Hollywood. The soundtrack of Horizon: Zero Dawn ebbs and flows at just the right time, providing punctuation to the game’s pinnacle moments. There is one grievous fault however: it unabashedly screams sequel right after the game’s closing credits roll. Whilst I am excited at the prospect of revisiting this world there was no need to seemingly ruin the game’s ultimate climax with that post credit scene. It’s still worth experiencing but they could have done a better job at that point.
Horizon: Zero Dawn takes the mantle of queen of the PS4 exclusives now that the Uncharted series has come to a close. It’s visuals are second to none, making great use of all the power the PlayStation 4 has to offer and further amping that up for Pro owners. The game is deep and complex, it’s mechanics not offering anything particularly new but certainly showcasing an implementation that others should take note from. The story is likely to be one of the best for this year, setting up the IP for a good long time to come. There are a few small issues that bring the game down a peg or two but none of which are beyond being fixed in a future patch. Horizon: Zero Dawn is this year’s first must-play title on the PlayStation 4 and one I think many will come back to for years to come.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 20 hours with 20% of the achievements unlocked.
4 years; that’s how long it’s been since the last instalment in The Witcher series. Back then I felt The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings was a serviceable RPG though the various issues that plagued it, along with the rather mediocre story, meant it wasn’t exactly game of the year material. However that assessment was way out of line with the general public’s who lavished it with praise. It should come as no surprise then that it’s sequel received the hype it did with a dedicated fan base that was hungry for the next instalment in this franchise. Try as I did to avoid the hype the perfect review scores and relentless enthusiast press meant I knew what the community was thinking long before I first delved into The Witcher 3 and, whilst I’ll reserve my position for later in the review, I believe much of the praise is well founded.
The Witcher 3 takes place immediately after the events of The Witcher 2, with Geralt free of those who’d seek to use him for their own purposes and set off to return a life that he is in charge of. Geralt has spent the majority of his time pursuing his long lost love Yennefer, chasing stories and tales of her appearance throughout Velen and beyond. All the while he’s plagued with dreams of his adopted daughter, Ciri, being snatched away by The Wild Hunt, a troubling vision that means she’s in danger. His instincts prove correct as not long after his first contact with the Nilfgaardian the Emperor sends for him and tasks Geralt to find his daughter. Whilst this comes with the reunion of Yennefer it’s short lived as they split up to follow the leads that the Emperor has found for them. It is then up to you, dear Witcher, to scour the land for any trace of Ciri and to protect her from The Wild Hunt.
As of writing there is simply no other game that can compare to The Witcher 3 in terms of graphical fidelity. I cannot tell you how many times I found myself taking a moment to soak in the scenery, marvelling at the incredible level of detail in all aspects of the The Witcher 3’s graphics. It would be one thing for it to simply be a beautiful world, ala the original Crisis games, but it’s so much more than that. The trees sway softly in a light breeze, storms can brew and then rage on with unrelenting force and fields can be blanketed in mist in the early morning as the peasants go to work in them. The world genuinely feels alive, more so than any other game I’ve played. The Witcher 3 has now set the bar to which all future games like this will be compared as it has handily swiped the crown away from Crisis as the most beautiful game to play on PC. Of course to enjoy all that splendour you’ll need to have the requisite hardware but, in all honesty, the rewards for having it are worth every dollar spent.
The sheer scale of The Witcher 3 is something that simply cannot be understated. When the creators, CD Projekt Red, said that it was 30 times the size of The Witcher 2 they weren’t kidding as the size of the maps is staggering. It’s one thing to create a huge world though and another to fill it with things that make it worthwhile to explore it, something which the developers have most assuredly recognised. So whilst the mainstay of The Witcher 3 might be the same 2 sword and sign combat that its predecessors championed there’s countless other things that are peppered throughout the world to keep you interested. The crafting system makes its return and includes scavenger hunt quests that grant you some of the most amazing gear in the game. Many of the various mini-games that were in previous Witcher titles make a return, alongside a new card game called Gwent that proves to be a great distraction (and potential source of income). The talent system is revamped and simplified, allowing you to craft Geralt’s abilities how you see fit. Underlying all this is the numerous storyline quests, side quests and Witcher Contracts that you can try your hand at to get better items, more gold or just for the fun of exploring the world. Combining this all together results in a game that can take well over 100 hours to fully explore and appreciate, something that’s sure to delight Witcher and RPG fans alike.
Whilst the introduction to The Witcher’s combat system is improved significantly over the original non-tutorial that its predecessor had there’s still something of a learning and power curve to overcome before the combat becomes engaging. The combat system is somewhere between the Souls’ series of telegraphing/dodging and the usual action RPG hack and slash fest. In the beginning it was, to be blunt, incredibly frustrating however once you start to treat it like a Souls game you begin to figure out their move set, the telegraph that leads to a certain move and what you can do to dodge it. The fight that sealed this for me was the first werewolf fight which, if you don’t figure out how to dodge properly, becomes an exercise in frustration as he whittles your health down as his regenerates. After that point however most enemies were either a complete cakewalk, like any humanoid with a sword, or simply a matter of time and me whittling them down. You’d think that’d mean the challenge was gone past a certain point, and to some extent it was, however it was more that I had a bigger arsenal of tools at my disposal to recover from any mistakes.
To put this in perspective I was primarily a combat Witcher, favouring the fast strikes over anything else. As you can see my build was tailored towards that pretty specifically with only a handful of points in the signs to beef up Axii (for the dialog options) and Quen (as that’s the only way to regenerate in health in combat bar consumables). Whilst at the beginning this build felt somewhat underpowered, likely owing to the balance of points I spent in 2 trees, it didn’t take long for it to really come into its own. There’s a great deal of min/maxing going on here too, like the Cat School Training which doubles your DPS if you’re wearing all light armour (which I did) and the various talents to boost up the benefits gained by adrenalin points. Probably the one skill that made the most change to how the game played out for me was the whirlwind ability which, if the first strike landed, enabled me to relentlessly wail on whomever I felt like, often shredding their health in a fraction of the time it’d take otherwise. As an added bonus it meant that I never got swarmed again as the whirlwind ability is able to strike any enemy before they get to you. Had I done similar min/maxing with the other talent trees I’m sure I could’ve come up with similarly broken builds although I’m not sure any of them would be as fun.
The Witcher 3’s crafting system is as deep and rewarding as any others I’ve encountered although some of the issues that plagued it’s predecessor’s remain. You’ll find crafting materials everywhere, from the numerous fields and forests that are littered with herbs and fruits to the dozens of crafting components that drop from the monsters that you’ll slay. Whilst you can happily go along picking up basically everything in your path for a long time before inventory management becomes an issue once you hit that barrier you’re going to be forever wondering if you should vendor an item, break it down for materials or simply drop it on the ground and forget about it. Once you make your way into Novigrad you can (mostly) solve this problem by purchasing yourself a set of what I assume is the largest saddlebags in the game, giving you another 100 weight to mess with, although if you’re a confessed RPG kleptomaniac like most of us are that will just delay the inevitable. If you’re so inclined the modding scene has already come up with a solution to this issue if you’d rather not have to worry about it.
However if you stick with the crafting system the rewards you get are most often far better than any other gear you’ll be able to obtain either through killing monsters or buying from vendors. The scavenger hunts, which start when you find the first schematic for one of the Witcher school’s armour (you start off with the Wolf School set, but there are 3 others available) and each are tailored to a specific playstyle. If you, like me, favour quick strikes and massive stamina regeneration then the Cat School set is for you. The Bear School is for those that like to take enemies head on and soak up insane amounts of damage. The Griffon school is the in-between set, catering for a more balanced playstyle. These sets have several versions with the improved ones requiring the previous set to continue crafting them which means the final pay off is quite an investment in both time and materials. It is completely worth doing however as each upgrade of gear means you’re fully equipped to tackle all the challenges that the next few levels will bring and you never have to worry about where the next upgrade will come from.
The various mini-games are much better done this time around, being much more optional than their predecessors in previous Witcher games were. You can try your hand at a bare fisted fighting tournament that will take you through all the areas with an ultimate fight against the current world champion. You can try your hand at Gwent with nearly every vendor you encounter and, should you best them, you can take one of their cards away from them. If you’re so inclined there’s also a sort of tournament you can play with Gwent although where that leads I couldn’t tell you. There’s also a few other strange mini-games like the contract price negotiation thing, where you barter with a NPC over the cost of the contract they want you to undertake, but that’s mostly just an exercise in finding out what the maximum price has been set before you piss them off too badly. I was very thankful that these mini games took a back seat in The Witcher 3 as they felt like an inescapable tedium in the previous instalment, something which didn’t do much to endear me to it.
The sheer depth and breadth of all the quests within The Witcher 3 is staggering. Quite often you’ll be riding to your next objective only to come across someone with an exclamation mark over their head and it’s impossible to tell if you’ll be done with them in 10 minutes or 2 hours. You can still do the “get all the quests!” thing that most RPGs allow you to do, stuffing your quest log with dozens of quests that you can complete at your leisure, however they all have their own level at which they should be done. Even if you’re like me and favour doing the campaign missions above anything else you’ll likely find yourself quickly out levelling most quests which, on the one hand, makes them a lot easier but also takes away a lot of the incentive to do them. However there are a certain number of them that you’ll want to go and do regardless of how far below you they are as they’ll shape the world in which you’re playing. Whilst there are only a couple options which influence the ultimate ending should you be passive in the world there are many things that might not go as you wish, sometimes stopping you from doing something you may have wanted to do.
There’s also numerous encounters, caves, dungeons and other things that you’ll find on your travels throughout the world of The Witcher 3. In the beginning it’s probably advisable to stick to the roads as it’s hard to predict what level the monsters will be, however after a while it’s far more rewarding to take the straightest route to where you’re going. This is because you’re far more likely to come across a hidden stash, guarded treasure or the beginning of a quest line that could ultimately lead to something awesome when you’re traversing the country. After a while these things become somewhat secondary as the rewards start to taper off as you approach the later levels however it can still be pretty fun to stumble across a monster infested cave that triggers a quest in the nearby village from time to time, just to break up the monotony of following a single quest for so long.
The original release of The Witcher 3 was, to be brutally honest, was a total mess of bugs, glitches and crashes that would make you think Bethesda was the developer. Adding the Steam overlay to the GoG version of the game caused the text to glitch out profusely and would often result in the graphics driver crashing and recovering, leaving the game running but without any video output. This comes hand in hand with numerous performance issues which no amount of twiddling with the graphics settings seemed to fix. It was only after I trudged through numerous forums, Reddit threads and useless advice posts (telling me to update my drivers is not helpful, guys) I found out that most issues stemmed from things like the GeForce Experience program or the NVIDIA Streaming Service and HD Audio device. After disabling numerous things I finally got The Witcher 3 to a state that I could consider stable and thankfully it also resolved many of the performance issues that came with it. There were still however some rather irritating glitches that persisted which just added to my frustration at times.
Some good examples of these glitches were things like Geralt jumping incessantly with nothing that could be done to stop him. I tried pretty much everything I could think of from getting into combat, triggering dialogue to getting on my horse but nothing could stop his jumping. Similarly every so often my stamina bar would simply stay at zero, refusing to refill even after I had reloaded the game or another save. That particular bug usually meant I had to backtrack through saves to a point before the issue happened and then replay that entire section again, something which could result in an hour or so’s worth of lost effort. There were also numerous times where the hit detection got super squirrelly, with enemies able to hit me even though their models where no where near me at the time. Many of these issues seem to have died down in the most recent patch that was released last week however that doesn’t detract from the fact that numerous glitches still persist or that they were still present upon release.
The story of The Witcher 3 gets my vote for most improved out of any series that I’ve played of late. Whilst The Witcher 2’s story felt serviceable, being above average in many regards, The Witcher 3 has had a great deal of effort put behind crafting a narrative that can evolve with the player’s choices whilst still being coherent with a clear direction in mind. Whilst the time between The Witcher 3 and its most recent predecessor likely means that the nuances of the previous story are a jumble to most of us each of the characters is given enough time to flesh out their backstory, their history with Geralt and where that might lead you in the future. Many of the ancillary characters from the previous instalment make a return and, for the most part, they’re not just a token gesture with many of them having deep quest chains that quite often have an impact on the world around you. Suffice to say that, at a base level, The Witcher 3 presents one of the most deep and engrossing narratives to cross our path in a long time.
ENDING SPOILERS BELOW
I managed to get the good ending where Ciri becomes a Witcher and whilst many sites point to the White Orchard ending as the “ideal” one I honestly couldn’t disagree more. Throughout the game Ciri makes no mention of wanting to take over as Emperor of the Nilfgaard and from the short I’ve seen of the ending it doesn’t appear like she’s all too happy with the situation, despite what she says. Apart from that however I was incredibly pleased with how everything wrapped up in the end as the side quests I had done and the decisions I made resulted in the outcomes that I had desired. There were one or two which I didn’t really remember which quest it wast that would’ve led to the outcome I got but that’s more of a testament to the breadth of The Witcher 3 more than anything else. Suffice to say whilst CD Projekt Red might say that this is the end of Geralt’s story I don’t believe they’re done with the world that The Witcher resides in at all as there’s still plenty of stories that they could follow.
The Witcher 3 sets a new standard for RPGs, open world games and graphical marvels. The absolutely staggering breadth and depth of the world that The Witcher 3 is set in means that there’s just so much to keep you occupied that you’re never wanting for things to do. The combat system, whilst retaining its steep learning curve, becomes incredibly rewarding as you level up and learn all the tricks of the trade. The crafting system is highly rewarding. giving you a reason to explore some of the vast reaches of the earth in search of better patterns and materials to bolster Geralt to the highest levels of power. The story is a huge improvement over its predecessor, giving each character enough screen time to really build out their back story, motivations and place within the massive world. My experience was marred somewhat by the initial teething issues that the release faced but it’s a testament to the game’s underlying quality that I continued on for as long as I did. The Witcher 3 will be the game to which I compare so many others for a long time to come and, whilst I will shy away from giving it the perfect score that so many have lavished upon it, I cannot deny just how great a game it is.
The Witcher 3 is available on PC, PlayStation4 and XboxOne right now for $53.99, $109.95 and $109.5 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 45 hours of total play time with 46% of the achievements unlocked.
The last couple months have been a little barren in terms of releases which, whilst it gives me some time to plunder the vast depths of the numerous indie releases, does leave me hungering for a more traditional type of experience. During my usual stumble through the new releases on Steam I happened to come across Bound by Flame, an action RPG that managed to impress me on its trailers alone. However it was hard to miss the rather damning Metacritic review score on the store page that indicated that this title was probably less than stellar. Still the short bits I had seen seemed to indicate that it was worth playing and so I sat myself down to see if I was right.
The world is under siege, a massive army of the undead shambling its way across the land and devastating everything in its path. Each battle with this terrible army, under the command of powerful magic wielders called Ice Lords, only serves to swell their ranks even further. There is not much hope for humanity however a group of scholars called the Red Scribes believes they have a way to turn the tide of the war. You are Vulcan, member of the Free Born Blades, a mercenary group who has been hired by the Red Scribes to protect them while they attempt to complete the ritual. However not everything goes as planned and suddenly you find yourself being far more involved in this conflict than you’d first anticipated.
Visually Bound by Flame has the look that many similar previous gen RPGs did with an extremely muted colour palette and somewhat simplistic looking graphics. The screenshots are a little misleading as on their own they look quite good but once you see everything in motion it becomes apparent what the limitations are. Indeed the whole thing feels like a fantasy version of Mars: War Logs, which shouldn’t be surprising considering it’s from the same developer, but this means that all the issues that plagued that game are present in Bound by Flame as well. Considering their close release dates I’m assuming that they didn’t have much time to take the lessons learned from their previous title and apply it to this one, which is rather unfortunate considering they seem like a studio who wants to make a decent game.
Bound by Flame is an action RPG at heart, taking the majority of the traditional mechanics and wrapping them up in a real time combat system in order to keep the pace up. All the usual elements you’d expect are there: levels, a skill tree system that you use to get new skills and improve old ones, various perks that can be unlocked, loot galore and a crafting system to augment items you’ll find. There’s a main story quest that will be your main way of progressing forward but there’s also a handful of side quests to do should you feel the need. You’ll also have a variety of party members to choose from, each with their own set of skills and story lines which you can pursue at your leisure.
The combat is reminiscent of Mars: War Logs as you’re just whacking on an enemy until they try to attack, at which point you’ve got to block or somehow get out of the way. Bound by Flame differs through the use of “stances” which are essentially different ways of doing combat. The warrior stance lets you use your 2 handed sword but stops you from being able to quickly dodge attacks. The ranger stance on the other hand is focused on quick attacks but the ability to parry incoming attacks is greatly reduced. Just like any RPG you’d better focus on one or the other as trying to mix the two will likely lead to a sub-par experience. There’s also the pyromancer abilities which are essentially augments to the other two as the game doesn’t seem to have the itemization to support someone being a full time mage.
Unfortunately the wild flails in difficulty that plagued Mars: War Logs remains in Bound by Flame meaning that you’ll likely struggle at the start of a section until you find an upgrade or two at which point the game becomes a breeze again. The bosses are also on a completely different difficulty scale to the rest of the encounters you’ll have meaning you’ll likely blow through most of your stash just to get past them. I understand the need for challenging the player, hell I’ve criticised games for not being able to do this, but the disjoint in difficulty isn’t a challenge to overcome, it’s poor game design. This is made all the more obvious by the final boss fight which is, in all honesty, an absolute travesty as unless you’ve built your character specifically for that fight you’ll likely be unable to do it without sinking an disproportional amount of time into it.
The crafting system seems well thought out on the surface however it only serves to highlight just how little differentiation there is between most items in Bound by Flame. In the beginning you’ll have to carefully choose your upgrades in order to get the maximum benefit however about half way through you’ll be drowning in materials, allowing you to get the best upgrade for each of your items. The game seems to hint at the idea that you should change your gear constantly to fit the situation but even if you do that you’ll still find yourself with more materials than you know what to do with. Honestly if they had a crafting system that let you make weapons and armour I think the amount of materials that drop would be justified. Maybe then I could craft myself a pair of boots (seriously, I had to buy an upgraded pair of boots in the second to last chapter because I never found any).
Bound by Flame is also riddled with bugs and strange quirks that mar the whole experience. I had several occasions where, if I dragged a NPC out of their normal roaming area, the enemies would flit between being invisible and invulnerable to being visible but disinterested in me. Other NPCs would sometimes inexplicably face the walls or get stuck on things which would incapacitate them. This is not to mention your party members AI which is beyond useless most of the time, even when you use the order commands to try and modify their behaviour. Reading over my Mars: War Logs review reveals that many of these issues were present in that game as well, something that Spiders needs to fix lest they be forever labelled as a B grade RPG developer.
I could forgive pretty much all of this if the story was passable however it’s not. The core idea is solid, you’ve got to choose between your humanity and power, but the execution is sorely lacking in character depth, motivation and just general coherency. Hell even the developers themselves can’t get it completely straight as I note several differences between the story on their main site and the one in the game. Worst still are the romances, if you can call them that, as many of them come down to just choosing one right dialog option at one point, rather than actually cultivating any kind of meaningful depth between the characters.
Bound by Flame continues Spiders’ unfortunate history of producing B grade RPGs, seemingly being unable to learn their past mistakes to make their future releases better. It has all the makings of a good RPG, the combat system works most of the time (despite it’s wild changes in difficulty), the levels are meaningful and the crafting system is halfway to being worthwhile. Still the story is well below mediocre and Bound by Flame has numerous glitches and behaviours that do nothing but ruin the experience. I’d love to say I’m looking forward to what they’re doing next but it seems that they have no interest in learning from their mistakes.
Go on Spiders, prove me wrong.
Bound by Flame is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4 and Xbox360 right now for $39.99, $79.95, $89.95 and $79.95 respectively. Total play time was 10 hours with 54% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve had a few people ask me how I come across some of the games that I review here and the answer is pretty simple. If I haven’t seen something that’s been on a lot of review sites (I don’t read the reviews, but if a game keeps popping up that’s a sign it might be worth a look in) then they usually come from me trawling through the new releases section on Steam. From there I work my way through the titles, looking for something that can capture my attention with just a few screenshots and possibly a short video. Mars: War Logs was one of these although it was more for the dev story behind it as Spiders isn’t a particularly large studio but they seemed really dedicated to creating a good game.
Mars: War Logs takes place in the distant future where humans have successfully colonized Mars. A hundred years ago however there was a great upheaval which devastated the colonies and lead to the rise of two opposing factions: Aurora and Abundance. Ever since then they’ve been locked in an ongoing battle for control of the world’s water supply, by far the most valuable resource. You play as Roy Temperance, a prisoner of war who’s caught between the two factions, trying to hide from his past that continues to haunt him.
The aesthetic of Mars: War Logs is reminiscent of many current gen third person titles with infinite shades of brown and grey colouring the world. Although this time around it kind of fits thanks to the world that it’s built in even though it has the unfortunate effect of making every place you go feel a little samey. The graphics are good but not great, which becomes quite noticeable when they’re combined with the rudimentary lip synching and low resolution motion capture. Honestly I’ve seen worse from other recently released titles so I won’t be too harsh on it for that but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the many other, astoundingly better looking games.
Surprisingly though there’s quite a lot under the hood of Mars: War Logs in terms of gameplay, something you don’t usually expect from smaller RPG titles. The combat is mostly whacking other people with metal poles until they fall down with the added strategy element of blocking/dodging incoming attacks. There’s also a stealth system which allows you to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies, although how crouching down counts as stealth is beyond me. They’ve even incorporated a talent tree, crafting system and character perks allowing you a pretty decent amount of customization to how you play Mars: War Logs. This is a lot for a small dev studio to cram into a game and that unfortunately means that there’s a lot of depth lacking from many of these mechanics and some of them are still plagued by bugs that should have been picked up in QA.
For starters the combat, whilst somewhat engaging and enjoyable at certain points, varies wildly between being so easy that its almost pointless to being so hard that you’ll spend the majority of your time rolling around just so can whittle enemies down a couple hits at a time. This is because there’s no dynamic scaling of enemy difficulty and it only increases at certain points, usually at the start of a new section. The pacing of the game then becomes highly disjointed as you can be breezing through the last half of a particular section only to hit a brick wall at the beginning of the next, rather than having a gradual ramp up in the challenge. Some would argue that this is part of the strategy but in all honesty it’s just sloppy design, especially when “challenging” means that you lose the majority of your health in a couple hits.
The stealth system is a complete joke as whilst you can sneak around the benefits of doing so are minimal at best. When you’re first introduced to it stealthing up to an enemy and hitting them doesn’t take them out, it just takes away a good portion of their health. Of course that means that after doing that all the enemies close by will aggro forcing you to go toe to toe with them anyway. Now I didn’t invest any points in the stealth abilities so this could be somewhat improved by that but that tree is also the weakest out of the 3 when you consider that, no matter how well you stealth, you will eventually have to fight everything. I think Spiders would’ve been much better off skipping this feature altogether to focus more on the core of the game as it really adds nothing in its current form.
Although there’s a talent tree with 3 different styles to choose from only 2 of them are available to you from the start, with one of them being the aforementioned weakest of them all stealth one. This means that you’re kind of shoe horned into spending points into one specific tree (melee combat) and thus can’t take full advantage of the third tree (technomancy) until much later in the game. However even if you wanted to I don’t think it’d be very viable as the amount of damage output you need later in the game can really only come from charged melee weapons, unless you want to spend 20 minutes running around waiting for your fluid (mana) levels to regen.
The crafting system is equal parts good and complete crap thanks to the massive overabundance of materials that you’ll find in every area. Essentially you can craft a couple things like health packs and ammunition but the real power of the crafting system comes from upgrading your armor and weapons. Now not all weapons and armor can be upgraded so that really expensive top tier armor might look great but it’s in fact completely inferior to anything that comes with upgrade slots. This has the unfortunate consequence of making the vast majority of items irrelevant as anything that lacks upgrades is most certainly not worth it.
After the first section you’ll almost never be out of materials for crafting things you need, especially if you’re a veteran RPGer and seek out all the free stuff like I did. What this meant was that whenever upgrades became available (usually after having to run the gauntlet at the start where everything is stupid hard again) I was able to purchase them and then instantly upgrade them to their maximum. There are no rare items to be found or obtained from quests so literally the highest damage/armor item you can buy from the vendor is the best item you will ever see. If you’re low on serum there’s a good chance you have a ton of materials that you can pilfer for serum in order to get the upgrade and in fact you’re probably better off doing that then trying to convert resources as typically you’ll get more if you sell said items to the vendor then buy back the ones you need.
Most of this would be forgivable however these are just some of the more obvious structural flaws that Mars: War Logs has. The interface is confused and doesn’t operate as you’d expect with fun quirks like: doors mostly requiring left click but sometimes pressing R, the attack button (left click, again) is also the loot button, pressing quick buttons for things like menus twice doesn’t minimize them and whilst you can assign 0~9 for powers you can only ever see the first 4 unless you go into the power wheel again. This is not to mention the issues with the incredibly stupid AI, both for your companion and the enemy, which routinely gets stuck on all sorts of terrain. Not only that many of their abilities are capable of friendly fire, leading to some incredibly frustrating moments where they inadvertently kill you. I’m hoping that it was intentional otherwise it’s yet another point where Mars: War Logs differs from the norm and not in a good way.
As always I could forgive nearly all of this if the story was worth anything but sadly, it’s not. Most of the lines are delivered completely flat in rapid fire fashion which, combined with the poor lip synching, makes for a jarring experience. It also doesn’t help that the characters have as much depth as a children’s pool with many of them changing their motivations on a whim. My particular love interest, Mary, went from murderous rage to sympathetic follower in less than 4 sentences and the resulting relationship could not have been anymore shallow. Indeed the game’s one attempt at invoking emotion feels incredibly cheap and only serves to anger the player.
Objectively Mars: War Logs is a decidedly B grade game with fundamental flaws riddling the core mechanics which, combined with the many other problems can make for a frustrating experience. There were times I had fun with it, especially when I got my build up to the seriously broken level, but unfortunately that wasn’t enough to make up for the numerous flaws. I commend Spiders for trying, I really do, but it just goes to show that sometimes you need to cut back on your ambitions a bit in order to solidify the core aspects of the game. I totally understand where they wanted to go with this but unfortunately it falls short of that goal, leaving us with a game that feels like it was halfway towards something great.
Mars: War Logs is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation3 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty setting with 9 hours total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.
For someone who’s stated repeatedly that open world games are not my thing I sure have played a lot of them this year, from 38 Studio’s swan song in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning to Prototype 2 and Sleeping Dogs. I’ve come to appreciate the genre more since then as I really did enjoy Sleeping Dogs even if I avoided many of the repetitive side missions in favor of the more engrossing story missions. I had been planning to do a review of Far Cry 3 for a while now on the recommendation of several friends who have dozens of hours invested in it and, if I’m honest I wasn’t looking forward to it. I remember the original boring me rather quickly and the second was just such a mess I didn’t make it past the first hour. However this latest installment is a vast step up from either of its predecessors and I’d even go so far as to say it was rather enjoyable.
Far Cry 3 goes back to the original’s roots, putting you on the fictional Rook Island located somewhere between the Indian and Pacific oceans. You play as Jason Brody who, with a group of close friends including a couple of children of 1 percenters, have been enjoying a tropical vacation. The group decides to go skydiving together but they all land on different sections of an island which is controlled by the pirate lord Vaas. They’re then taken hostage and ransomed for their return but your brother is having none of that and breaks you both out. The ensuing escape goes terribly awry with your brother being gunned down by your captors and you falling unconscious in a river. You are rescued by the Rakyat, a group native warriors, and then swear vengeance against Vaas and his entire operation.
Whilst Far Cry might never have been the PC destroyer that Crysis was it did have a reputation for being on the upper end of the graphics scale and Far Cry 3 certainly doesn’t disappoint in this area. On first glance I was convinced that it was one of the Crytek engines but as it turns out it’s Ubisoft’s own in house engine called Dunia, made by a former Crytek employee. It features all the things we’ve come to expect from high end games like motion blur and depth of field but it also includes other impressive features like day/night cycles, dynamic weather and realistic fire simulation (which makes starting huge fires rather fun). One minor complaint I have about it is that enabling v-sync (I hate tearing) seems to make any system struggle. Taking it off and cranking up the anti-aliasing worked well to combat tearing however so its more of a FYI than a complaint.
Unlike the majority of open world games Far Cry 3’s core game play is good old fashioned First Person Shooting with an arsenal of weapons at your disposal. The whole combat system has a lot of polish to it with all the main weapons behaving how you’d expect them to and none of them glitching out in strange ways. There are a few quirks like the knife swings having a queue so if you mash the key a couple times he’ll keep on swinging that knife when you’re not pressing it. The aiming can also be a bit weird as like in say Call of Duty aiming down the sights guarantees the bullet will hit where the sites are targeted but that doesn’t appear to be the case in Far Cry 3. Everything else seems to work well though, especially the take down system.
Far Cry 3 includes a rudimentary stealth system that works on line of sight, distance and the amount of time you’re visible to an enemy. For its intended purpose it works well, allowing you to sneak up on people and take them out silently with your knife. However there are also silencer attachments for your guns that supposedly allow you to take people down without alerting others but I never found that to be the case as anyone who was shot down immediately triggered every guard to go into a panic. Realistically I get the feeling that it was primarily designed for the take downs with the weapons being something of an afterthought. This could possibly be due to my preferred weapons being assault rifles and SMGs as I didn’t really bother with sniper rifles at all.
Like most games these days there’s a talent/specialization system that allows you to craft Jason into the kind of character you want to play. There’s 3 different styles ranging from complete stealth to all out combat and many of the talents are synergistic across trees. Initially the points you choose will make a big difference to all your encounters as some of them will make certain situations a breeze whilst without them you’ll find yourself struggling to accomplish certain tasks. However as the game goes on you’ll find that most of them are more convenience factors than anything else, either allowing you to do things slightly faster or simply blunder your way through without having to think about the risks you’re taking.
The reason I say this is that whilst you can’t unlock all the talents from the get go (you can’t simply ignore the main story line and get everything) the pace at which next tiers are unlocked seems a bit off as I always found myself with extra points spare before the talents I wanted were available. Now this isn’t because I’m some kind of crazy quest nut, far from it, I in fact ignored many of the side quests in favor of the story line, only stopping to get radio towers and the occasional safe house so I didn’t have to drive so far. Still by doing that I was able to max out one tree (shown above) and was only 6 or so levels away from maxing all the others.
I guess where I’m going with this is that in Far Cry 3, like with nearly all the open world games I’ve played, the bevy of additional side missions and activities available are simply not required. Whilst some of them might be a fun distraction from the main plot line they are, for want of a better word, fluff that doesn’t really need to be in the game. Now I know that this is part of the appeal for a lot of people, being able to wander around to do whatever you want and I admit that not being on rails is quite refreshing but I’ve yet to see a game where these side missions aren’t repetitive wastes of time that don’t bestow any real benefit for the player. This is especially true in Far Cry 3 when you can make all the weapons free in a rather short space of time and upgrade all your other stuff through crafting.
That’s one thing that Far Cry 3 does do rather well actually as the upgrades really are completely optional but taking the, admittedly small amount of, time to go and find the right animals, skin them and then craft your upgrades is pretty cool. It does start to get a little ridiculous if you’ve got the fervent RPGer mindset though as there’s animals and herbs everywhere and your loot sack is only so big, usually meaning you end up with a lot of left overs. There is a quick sell button for the trash loot but it unfortunately doesn’t extend to skins that you have no use for anymore which can sometimes leave you with a surplus that you don’t need but don’t have an easy way of knowing that. This is only made worse if you get the double harvest talents so some inventory management is required.
Far Cry 3 also loses points for this kind of bullshit that Ubisoft has been renowned for: highly connected games that shit themselves whenever your Internet connection drops or the Ubisoft servers have a conniption. This particular error was coming from their end however as I was able to Google search and Steam chat with all my friends whilst it was deciding what to do and then when it timed out it said I could keep playing anyway. Now I’m not a professional coder but I definitely know that if you have a mechanism for allowing players to keep playing offline you can certainly do that check in the background without putting this prompt up in front of them. This is on top of the fact that even the Steam copies of the game come bundled with Ubisofts Uplay social gaming network thing which is just as bad as any game that bundles Games for Windows Live in the same fashion. Seriously just stop doing it guys, the “rewards” you offer us for playing your games aren’t worth the precious seconds we have to waste clicking past your crappy social networks.
Far Cry 3’s story is somewhat confused in its execution, starting off strong with Jason being a bewildered upper-middle class boy stuck in a woeful situation to this kind of fever dream sequence where its hard to understand whats real and what’s not. It’s not in a good way either as there are many sections where these dream sequences seem to happen only as a way to gloss over how things actually happened in that situation (the final knife fight being a great example of this). I’ll admit that one interpretation of this could very well be some kind of Fight Club-esque idea but in reality it seems more like there were many great disparate ideas that are linked together in really tenuous ways and just ends up feeling like a jumbled mess. At least the ending didn’t scream sequel, which would’ve had this review being a lot more ALL CAPS ragey.
Far Cry 3 is a beautiful game that pays homage to its roots, making up for the mistakes of the sequel in spades. Open world games aren’t usually my forte but I definitely enjoyed the majority of my time with it and this soared to new heights once my character achieved that broken state where I felt like I was invincible. There are still some niggling issues however with the pointless side quests, half baked stealth system and a story that does more to confuse than anything else. All that being said however it’s still a pretty good game, one that deserves much of the praise that’s been leveled at it and for those who love titles like Grand Theft Auto et. al. I’m sure there’s a lot for you to love in Far Cry 3.
Far Cry 3 is available on PC, Xbox360 and PS3 right now for $69.99, $68 and $68 respectively. Game was played on the PC on the Survivalist difficulty setting with 14 hours total play time and 60% of the achievements unlocked.
16 years, that’s how long its been since the first release of Diablo yet I can still remember some of the moments with it fondly. I can remember the first time I wandered down to that level and physically leaping out of my seat when the butcher first growled “Aaaahhhhh fresh meat!” when I dared enter his lair. I spent many hours attempting to get further and further into the dungeons and only after pairing up with people I had never met before online was I able to progress further and ultimately defeat Diablo. My time with its sequel released 4 years later was a much more social affair with many LANs dedicated to pushing our characters through the 99 levels that it offered to us. Today I find myself back in that same world again, playing through a world that’s been with me almost all of my gamer life. One that I’ve become very fond of.
Diablo 3 takes place 20 years after the events of Diablo 2. Deckard Cain and his niece, Leah, are investigating an old prophecy that’s foreboding a great conflict between man and the terrors of hell. During his investigation a star falls from the sky towards Deckard and his niece and destroys much of the cathedral leaving only a hole into which Deckard falls. You, known only as The Nephalem, have come to investigate the falling star and arrive at the town of New Tristram to find it under siege from the undead. So begins your long journey, one that draws many parallels to the past releases.
There’s something to be said about Blizzard’s approach to the visual and auditory nature of all of their games. They’re never on the cutting edge of graphics (which I was very thankful for as half of my time with the game was spent on an almost 2 year old MacBook Pro) but they never feel as dated as other games who attempt the same style do. Their heavy use of stylization, clever lighting effects and heavy use of perspective makes the low poly graphics feel like they’re a lot more detailed than they actually are. This also means that in heavy battle situations even those with modest computers won’t be playing through a slideshow, something that has always worked in Blizzard’s favor.
Like all their games the accompanying music, foley and cinematic cut scenes help to elevate the Diablo experience further. Blizzard really are no slouch when it comes to making cut scenes that are tear-inducingly beautiful and the ones in Diablo are no exception to this rule. Russell Brower, the man behind nearly all of the music in Blizzard games of the past decade, has done a fantastic job with Diablo 3’s music which aptly sets the mood for the entire game (bar one level, but I’ll get to that later). The voice acting is also done well although I felt the dialogue was a bit of a let down in some parts but that’s no fault of the voice actors.
Combat takes wild swings from being a breeze where you feel like an unstoppable killing machine to the disastrous lows where you spend 10 minutes and many deaths trying to beat a single enemy or elite pack. Granted for the vast majority of the game (everything up to Act III/IV hell for me) you probably won’t struggle bar getting a pack/elite with a rather nasty combination. Even then it’s usually a quick change of skills and a repair away from being a walk in the park again. Failing that all you’ll need to do is take a quick trip to the auction house to be able to elevate yourself out of the current rut you’re in, so long as you’ve got the requisite cash of course.
The itemization in Diablo 3 seems to work well in the beginning with upgrades dropping left, right and center. However as you progress through the levels you’ll notice that upgrades start to come further in between, leaving you wondering what the deal is. For the most part its because up until Inferno difficulty most items that drop will be below your level and thus won’t be much of an upgrade. The auction house goes a long way to mitigate this, as does the fact that there are no soulbound items, but that also means you’re somewhat reliant on it should you want to progress at a reasonable rate. Granted this isn’t that bad since semi-decent upgrades can be had for a pittance if you’re willing to search and wait but it is starkly different to the way it was in the previous installments in the Diablo series.
The gem system is back but instead of relying on the Horadric cube to do all your combining and upgrading of gems you instead have your very own artisan that can do the upgrades for you (for a fee, of course). To get better gems you have to pay to train him and as you progress further you’ll need to seek out additional items in order to upgrade him and the gems he creates for you. Gems are also infinitely resusable which is a welcome change as now you can spend quite a lot on crafting good gems and not have to ditch them when you get a gear upgrade (or delay that upgrade because of the gems). This also means that the secondary market for gems is somewhat non-existent as all you need is a friend who’s run Inferno once or twice to come into your game and shower you gems they don’t need but are godly to you.
The crafting system starts off as being a wonderful alternative gear path allowing you to convert unwanted items into crafting materials that can then be used to craft items. All of the items are random however meaning that there’s a very high chance that you’ll create a piece of equipment that you’ll have no use for (which can then be turned back into mats again, if you so desire). Since the investment cost at the lower levels is, funnily enough, low you can quite easily create multiple items and usually get a hit that’s an upgrade. Additionally you can also train the blacksmith to create items that are a higher level than what you can current use, giving you something to look forward to as you level. I did exactly this all the way up to level 30 or so, and that’s when crafting started to fall apart.
The investment cost at higher levels starts to consume all of your available gold should you chose to keep pursuing it. Additionally the material requirements start to ramp up as well meaning that you can craft fewer and fewer items the further you progress. This means that chance starts to play a much bigger factor in whether crafting is worth it or not and in my experience it stats to lose its luster very quickly after level 30 or so. The base idea of the crafting system is sound what it needs is some finessing to make it less prone to rolls of the dice when the investment required for crafting each item is so high. If you’re an action house wunderkid this might not be so much of a problem, but not everyone who plays this game is.
The talent system has been streamlined extensively, taking heavy cues from the improvements that had been made in the upcoming World Of Warcraft Mists of Panderia expansion. Instead of the typical talent tree with 3 different play styles segmented neatly by the different tabs they dwell on Diablo 3 instead goes for an ability based system, allowing you to pick and choose the abilities you want to use and then augment them in specific ways. This streamlined approach appears at first glance appears to be a vast simplification of the traditional RPG system, one that had the potential to remove a lot of the diversity from the game. The actual result is far from that with Blizzard reporting that the most common build is only used by approximately 0.7% of players. Even with my extensive amount of play time in this game I’m still finding myself experimenting with different skills to see if they’ll give me an edge in damage or survivability, something that I had only thought would be possible with traditional talent systems.
Many of the set pieces feel like they are done either for the fans or in spite of them. Much of the game feels a lot like its predecessor with the progression through levels (town/rural -> desert -> keep -> heaven/hell) being eerily similar. Thankfully the environments feel fresh and distinct from their counterparts in Diablo 2 so it doesn’t feel like they’re just 3D renderings of the former 2D sprite based environments. The rainbow unicorn level (I.E. the not “cow level”) is one that was obviously done in reaction to fan’s bellyaching around Diablo 3 being too colourful when compared to its predecessor. This is the one place where the music is just plain wrong but that’s just part of the whole experience of this particular level.
The story of Diablo 3 is definitely above the level I’ve come to expect from most AAA games that only have it as a side note to the main game of multiplayer but somewhat lacking in what I’ve come to expect from Blizzard. The Diablo world, and its current incarnation, is not short of lore and back story for nearly every main character and NPC that you come across. However, and this may be because of the character class I played or not, I never really felt any empathy for the characters apart from Deckard Cain (the only one who I can remember being in past Diablo games). I also never really felt any driving motivation for my character either, mostly because of the way he interacted with the main protagonists.
Whilst a lot of the NPCs would show fear and doubt my character never showed a lick of hesitation when it came to talking down to prime evils or even supposed members of high society. After a while it started to sound more like bravado than anything else which was only compounded by the fact that many of the other characters acted somewhat irrationally towards him (like Azmodan saying at every turn that I would fail, even after I had completely decimated his army). The other classes might have been better but this combined with the lack of empathy for any of the characters meant that I didn’t really care that much for the story. I don’t hate it, I’m just indifferent to it.
So it’s at this point in the review where I look back at the game and ask myself “well, was it fun?”. The beginning stages of Diablo are very enjoyable especially as you get your first rare drop or you completely kit yourself out in blues for the first time. It gets a whole lot better with friends too as the multiplayer experience has been streamlined and integrated perfectly. Still I couldn’t help that feeling I had in the back of my mind, one that I used to get when I was playing World of Warcraft at max level. Sometimes I feel compelled just to do things for the sake of doing them and towards the end as I was approaching 60 I started to wonder why I was doing it. Granted this was at the end of a probable 20 hour binge over the course of the last 4 days, so I was probably just burnt out on playing.
Diablo 3 feels like a game that was made for the fans. The settings and the gameplay instantly dredge up that nostalgia feeling whilst keeping the experience fresh and exciting. Whilst I don’t believe there’s nothing in this game for those who haven’t played before their experience won’t be the same as that of long time fans of the series. I’m not sure if I’ll roll another character but I’ll definitely be joining my friends when we set out to conquer Inferno mode.
Diablo 3 is available on PC right now for $89.99. Game was played through the Normal, Nightmare and Hell difficulties with the Monk class reaching level 60 with around 32 hours of total play time.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning isn’t a game I thought that I would be playing. Out of all my gaming friends only one of them had played it (and didn’t care for it) and I, as always, avoided the hype for it just in case I did end up wanting to play it. However after reading the AMA on Reddit from the writer behind it there seemed to be an awful lot of fans of his work so I figured the title would be worth the look, even if I hadn’t heard of the developers or writer behind it.
Kingdoms of Amalur starts with your unceremonious death on what appears to be a battle field, felled by a race of corrupted immortal elves called the Tuatha. You’re then taken to a mass grave to be dumped and forgotten along with all the other soldiers that have fallen in the war. However despite your apparent death you come back to life shortly after being dumped amongst the dead. It is soon revealed that you were used in part of an experiment to duplicate the immortality of the elves with the mortal races of the world and you are the first one to succeed. Your resurrection also granted you freedom from fate, a power that you’ll make great use of throughout the entire game.
Despite the heavy stylization that Kingdoms of Amalur makes use of the graphics are still heavily dated, being far more appropriate for something like a MMORPG than a single player game. As far as I can tell there are 2 reasons for this: the first being the obvious point that this is a dual release on Xbox and PC and we’re limited by its dated graphics potential. The second is that this particular engine is more than likely going to end up being used for an upcoming MMORPG based in the same universe. I can understand that this makes sense from a business point of view but in comparison to all the other titles that have been released recently Kingdoms of Amalur won’t win any prizes for cutting edge graphics. There are several “ooooh pretty” moments (like the one below) but they’re the exception rather than the rule.
What Kingdoms of Amalur does have going for it though is its unique approach to the traditional elements of a RPG. Whilst it’s a RPG at heart with all the levelling systems, talent trees, loot and so on it’s the unique take on each of these aspects that makes Kingdoms of Amalur stand out from its counterparts.
For the vast majority of RPGs, including Kingdoms of Amalur, you’ll begin by choosing your race and what your character looks like. Usually then you’ll also pick your character class which will determine how you do combat (and various other things) throughout the game. Kingdoms of Amalur has a much more flexible system: you put points into one of three talent trees which determines what kind of class you’ll play as. The 3 trees are your typical archetypes (warrior, rogue, mage) but you can mix and match between them and once you reach a certain number of points in a tree (or several of them) you’ll get a buff that corresponds to your choice. Should you not like the choices you’ve made there’s NPCs who can reset your talents everywhere, an absolute godsend in a game where the freedom to choose your class can have you making some decidedly bad choices early on.
Combat in Kingdoms of Amalur is a strange mix of hack ‘n’ slash mouse mashing with elements of strategy chucked in so the game didn’t get thrown in the same bucket as other titles like God of War. Initially, when you have very few other abilities, you’re pretty much stuck with clicking the left mouse repeatedly and attempting to dodge any incoming blows. As you progress further though your options become much more open, leading you to be able to execute long combos on enemies that end with devastating force. After a while though it gets to the point where the only challenge comes from times when the game deliberately throws multitudes of enemies at you and even that is mitigated by Diablo-esque potion swilling. I think the main issue here is one aspect of the combat that’s simply assumed that you’ll use whenever something difficult comes across: reckoning mode.
As you defeat enemies you’ll fill up the Fate bar, the purple looking one in the screenshot above. When that hits full you can enter Reckoning Mode. What this does is slow down time for everyone else but you and also sends your damage output through the roof, making you nigh on invincible. This doesn’t last forever though, about 30 seconds at my count, but that’s usually enough for you to dispatch most enemies (and bosses) before the timer runs out. Should you not have the fate meter full at a critical point though you’ll have to struggle through the fight, chugging potions and trying to stay alive long enough to fill the bar up. Once you understand this it’s quite easy to judge when you’ll need it but the one fight where I didn’t have it and it was obvious that the encounter was designed to for me to use it there wasn’t exactly a pleasant experience.
What Kingdoms of Amalur does get right is the inventory system. Whilst you don’t have an unlimited inventory with which to stash the incredible amount of loot that drops they have taken out the laborious inventory management that usually plagues RPGs. Your main inventory of potions, usable items, weapons and armor are limited to a certain number of slots. However you have 3 unlimited crafting bags that hold components for you. What this means is you’ll never have to worry about having to clear out your inventory to pick up that reagent and you can keep carrying those reagents with you everywhere. What this means is that you’ll actually want to pursue the crafting options in Kingdoms of Amalur rather than ignoring them and then power levelling them when its worth it.
The crafting system also deserves praise as it’s a worthwhile pursuit in Kingdoms of Amalur. Blacksmithing for instance can break down all the items you pick up into their various components which you can then use to build better armour and weapons for yourself. Alchemy has the awesome mechanic of experimentation where potion recipes can be discovered by randomly mashing ingredients together and seeing what comes out the other end. Sagecrafting, in essence making gems for socketed equipment, has a similar mechanic but you’re able to see the outcome before you commit the ingredients. High levels of blacksmithing allow you to combine gems into your crafted equipment, making it on par with many of the best drops you’ll find whilst questing. Overall I was very pleased with the way the crafting system was implemented, much more than I have been with other RPG/MMORPGs.
Now I have to say that for the first few hours, indeed probably the first 6~8 hours, I was incredibly bored with Kingdoms of Amalur. At the beginning there’s really no feeling of tension, nothing that’s really driving you forward. Your resurrection as the Fateless One has stripped you of your memory and whilst there are several characters that recognise you it’s not until you’re near the end of the main quest that they’ll tell you anything about your past. The open world doesn’t do anything to alleviate this lack of drive either as you’re completely free to ignore the main quest and just simply do whatever the hell you want to. This is one of the times where the possibility of reviewing the game kept me going, that was until after I passed the 8 hour mark.
After that many of the stories that I was following started to develop and began to become interesting rather than just an impediment to me levelling my character. Even some of the side quests, ones that you could simply pass by and never do, had interesting stories to them that spanned over the course of an hour or more. Thankfully the quest log is unlimited so that you can pick up pretty much every quest in sight and then complete them at your own leisure. Doing so would put your total play time somewhere north of 100 hours however, something which I’ve never really done outside of MMORPGs.
So taking that all into consideration how does Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning stack up as a game? It definitely has its fun moments, especially towards the end when you can take out legions of enemies without breaking too much of a sweat. The story, whilst lacking at the start, is incredibly detailed and the multitude of side quests reveals a depth much greater than its appearance would lead you believe. They also got the loot system right as whilst I was drenched in epics and set pieces by the end I still got a thrill every time I saw a purple drop and an even bigger one when it was an upgrade for me. There are however some issues that can’t be overlooked despite the rational explanations for their choices. The graphics aren’t that great even when compared to other stylized games like World of Warcraft. The barrier to the meat of the game is incredibly high, rivalling the lengths of many AAA titles.
Thinking about it more I feel the same way as I do about Skyrim. All the elements of the game work well together, as long as you give them enough time, but the sheer size of the game means that eventually you’ll get to a point where everything starts to feel the same and there’s really no getting passed that. Indeed just as I did in Skyrim before I did in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I got to a certain point where my character was pretty much unstoppable and then just powered through the main quest line. After that the lack of motivation sets in again since there’s nothing driving you and it’s best to leave the game as is.
With all that in mind however I still feel that Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a solid game and I look forward to the upcoming MMORPG version.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is available right now on PC and Xbox360 for $59.99 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on PC on the Hard difficulty with 21 hours of total play time and 39% of the achievements unlocked. If you have any questions about my reviewing process please feel free to leave a comment or consult this guide.
This might come as a surprise to some but I never really got into The Elder Scrolls series. Despite their games being around for as long as I’ve been a gamer my first introduction into the series was back in 2006 when Oblivion was released. Even then I didn’t much care for the game, feeling overwhelmed at the amount of choice I had in almost every respect. That and the world was filled with people who seemed to be suffering severe birth defects and the camera zooming up to their faces whenever you interacted with them didn’t do much to alleviate that issue. However upon seeing the trailers for Skyrim I knew I couldn’t write off the series based on my one bad experience, especially if the reactions of my friends were anything to go by.
Skyrim takes place in, funnily enough, Skyrim a section of the larger Tamriel world that has encompassed the entire Elder Scrolls series. You find yourself, much as you did at the start of Oblivion, prisoner on the way to your execution. You’re not alone on this trip however and those accompanying you include Ulfric Stormcloak, one of Skyrim’s jarls, who’s responsible for assassinating the High King of Skyrim as he wants Skyrim to secede from the ruling Empire. Just as you’re about to lose your head however a dragon appears and lays waste to the surrounding town, giving you an opportunity to escape. You are then thrust into the huge world that is Skyrim with but a single quest in your log and the entire world as your playground.
As the screen shots can attest to the world of Skyrim really is something to adore. I’ll admit at first I wasn’t impressed, mostly due to the constant close ups of the opening scenes which never do any favours, but once you’re left to your own devices the amount of detail in the worlds is just staggering. The screen shot above was the first time I found myself stopping mid-quest and just staring for a good minute or two, loving the view as much as I would a similar vista in the real world. It wasn’t the big picture that did it for me, it was all the little things (like my character standing on the slope properly, rather than standing dead straight up) that culminated in a moment that just encompassed me completely.
It’s that attention to detail that really sets Skyrim apart from any other RPG that I’ve played. If they’d just gone and made a beautiful environment that would be one thing, but they’ve also included things like weather simulation, day/night cycles (with a moving sun and proper shadows) and environmental events like the aurora borealis (or australis? Anyone know which hemisphere Skyrim is in?) shown above. What this creates is a world that’s thoroughly immersive as it feels so much more alive than anything else I’ve ever played. Skyrim really does set the bar for all other RPGs that follow it, especially any of them that dare to describe themselves as open world.
The game mechanics contained within Skyrim are so wide and varied that I’ll need an entire paragraph just to introduce them all. Like all games there’s a combat system but depending on how you choose to play your character you’ll either be an in your face warrior (like myself), an archer able to pick of foes with a single shot or a mage adept at slinging spells indefinitely. The levelling system is also quite unique in the fact that it’s not advanced in the traditional way, relying instead on your progression through certain skill traits. The crafting system is also quite in depth with you being able to craft the most powerful items in the game, as long as you know where to look. Then there’s also the unique idea of “shouts”, basically magical powers that are innate to you and can be unlocked through finding hidden words of power and using the souls of dragons to master them.
Combat in Skyrim is a pretty straightforward affair, at least from the perspective of a 2 hander warrior like myself. Unlike other RPGs there is no skill bar (replaced with a favourites quick menu) and the skills you perform are either straight up equipped, like spells and weapons, or are used through a combination of mouse clicks and keyboard presses, like weapon attacks. At first I struggled with this system as the lack of skill bar meant that every time I wanted to change between say, my 2 handed weapon and healing spells, I had to trudge through 3 levels of menus before I could do so. This was alleviated somewhat when I was told of the favourites menu but it still takes you out of action whilst you make your selection. Perhaps this is just a style preference as I’m much more inclined towards the Dragon Age style of doing things that favours flowing combat, although I will admit that Skyrim’s UI is much less busy which counteracts this somewhat.
This is not to say that the combat isn’t enthralling however, far from it. Much like the first Ogre in Dragon Age was a battle that burns vividly as a memory for anyone who played it your first Dragon in Skyrim is sure to be another experience that everyone who plays Skyrim is sure to remember. Some of the encounters are quite enthralling too, especially when you’ve spent the better part of an hour getting engrossed in the lore that’s been leading up to said fight. My only gripe would be that the combat is somewhat simplistic in its implementation, especially if you shy away from the path of magic.
The levelling system is unique in that it’s far more simplified than its predecessors were. Instead of having the usual spread of Dungeons and Dragons based attributes and skill trees Skyrim instead has you choose one of three attributes to increase on each level (health, magicka and stamina) as well as giving you a point to spend on a particular skill tree branch. Those branches are directly related to skills in the game such as armour proficiency, crafting skills and combat skills. Levelling up those particular skills is how you progress your character throughout the game so your level is actually kind of arbitrary as you can quickly master certain skill trees but you’ll need to do that more than once in order to progress any further.
This kind of levelling system then makes progression rather uneven especially when you’re power levelling a certain skill. For instance I had had my eyes on the Daedric armour set for quite a while and for crafting skills it doesn’t matter what kind of item you create it will always level you the same amount. Figuring this out I set about making as many leather bracers and iron daggers as I had material for and was able to jump a solid 2 levels in just under 10 minutes. The same can be done with alchemy, enchanting and even with combat skills if you do it correctly. It’s really neither here nor there in terms of affecting game play (I.E. if you need to get a skill point you’re never far off getting it) and is probably more a testament to Skyrim’s open ended play style more than anything else.
The Shouts, whilst realistically being nothing more than another spell in your spell book, are an interesting little aside to the regular magic system in Skyrim. You don’t unlock them by simply reading a spell book (like you can do with every spell in Skyrim, regardless of level) instead you unlock them in a two stage process. First you have to find the words which are scattered throughout the land of Skyrim. Secondly you will need to defeat a dragon in order to unlock the word of power and make it available for use. All shouts have 3 words total and each additional word you unlock in a shout increases its power. There are some unique shouts that will really help you out in certain encounters, especially early on when fighting tougher enemies like dragons and giants.
Crafting in Skyrim is a process that’s sometimes laborious, bordering on MMORPG levels, but the payoffs for doing so are quite significant. As I mentioned earlier the Daedric armour had my eye for quite some time but the investment to get there is quite steep. Not only do you need to get 90 smithing (something I achieved by crafting hundreds of other items) you also need to get some of the rarest ingredients of the game: ebony bars and daedra hearts. This quest which I set myself took me no less than 2 hours to complete even when I knew exactly where I needed to go in order to get everything in order. The same can be said for enchanting an alchemy as the process of levelling them can take quite a while but the end result are items that can break the game completely.
For instance there’s a skill that increases the effectiveness of new enchants by 100%. Combine this with the enchant that reduces the cost of say destruction spells you can actually enchant your armour enough so those spells are free. Couple that with the enchanting perk of being able to enchant any item twice and you can craft a character that is literally indestructible. Whilst I didn’t go down this particular path myself I did end up creating a character that was able to 2 shot dragons with his sword rendering even the toughest encounters almost trivial. I can’t fault Skyrim for this as for almost any RPG you’ll reach a point where your character becomes nigh unstoppable and realistically that’s part of the fun. Still it leaves you wondering whether this was intentional or not, especially considering the ludicrous number of exploits that are present in Skyrim.
Like any Bethesda game Skyrim is littered with bugs, exploits and quirks that can either make or break the game for you. Bethesda has a rule about not fixing the “fun” bugs as they believe they’re part of the game and realistically with a game this expansive it’s hard to judge them with the amount of emergent behaviour that’s possible. Indeed many of the moments I’ve found myself discussing with my friends have been around those times when something hasn’t gone the way you’d expect it. I didn’t encounter too many game breaking bugs though which shows that Bethesda was committed to making the core game stable, even if it was at the cost of dragon skeletons occasionally raining from the sky.
What will get to you after a while however is the repetition. It’s pretty much the same as every RPG gets to be after a while as there’s only so many ways you can dress up a fetch quests before people start to catch on and start avoiding them completely. Indeed many of my friends began suffering Skyrim fatigue just recently, saying that they’d love to play more but were just couldn’t bear themselves to play any more at least for a little while. I felt the same thing too especially with the near endless stream of quests and distractions on the way to said quests. Truth be told there’s probably well over 100 hours of total game play within Skyrim and with the theoretical level cap somewhere at the dizzying heights of 81 I’m sure there’s enough content to get the most intrepid explorer’s there.
What kept me going through those last bits of drudgery was the story. Whilst there’s enough stories in Skyrim to fill several novels the main plot line was by far the most captivating. It’s you’re typical hero out to save the world kind of stuff but the multiple reveals and little details you can glean from being in the right places at the right time make it quite enthralling. Additionally, true to Skyrim’s openness, your decisions about what to do at certain points will shape the story in certain ways. The ending, whilst intensely satisfying in itself, felt a little hollow when you were dropped straight back into the world. Granted I didn’t play for too long afterwards to notice if there were any major changes but after a journey like that I felt like the game either should have ended or changed in some significant way. I won’t put the game down for that though since it’s a personal thing (and I’m not quite sure I’m explaining my feelings well enough here) and games don’t deserve to be punish for that.
I don’t think I’m entirely done with Skyrim either. Just like other games that get their longevity from multi-player I get the feeling that I’ll come back to Skyrim every so often just because there’s so much there left to do. It’s a testament to Bethesda’s skill in creating a single player world that will have play times to rival that of long running multi-player games. Skyrim’s model doesn’t generalize to all kinds of games easily though (would you play a FPS for 40 hours?) but it does show that a game can have some serious longevity based of its single player experience alone.
If a new comer to The Elder Scrolls series like myself can find so much to like about the world of Skyrim then I imagine that long time fans are just as impressed with it as I am. The graphics are amazing, the world is filled with unimaginable detail and the game itself has enough nuances to keep you interested for quite a long time. In typical Bethesda fashion it’s anything but a bug free experience but they’re usually not game breaking and are more a symptom of a system than can have incredible amounts of emergent behaviour rather than lazy developers. If you enjoy savouring your game experience over a long period of time then Skyrim is definitely for you as its one I can see myself playing for months after this review is done.
The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim is available on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $59.99, $88 and $88 respectively. Game was played entirely on normal difficulty (I only just found out you could change it) with around 36 hours total played and 48% of the achievements unlocked. Got any questions about the review? Read the guide to reviews here on The Refined Geek or leave me a comment here!
I’m a bit of a stickler when it comes to playing games in sequence. If a game comes out that has a sequel I’ll usually have to play the original first before playing any of the others, unless it’s a strategy game or something where the plot isn’t as important. It can be a real chore sometimes when the games preceding the current release have excessive amounts of play time (I’m looking at you, aptly named The Longest Journey) but I figure that should the sequel be any good than so should the original. The Witcher 2 then comes in as one of the few games where I’ve broken this rule, having not played the original game but after many recommendations I decided to give it go. What followed was definitely one of the more interesting RPG experiences I had and confirmation that my general rule for playing games in sequence is the right way to go.
You play as Geralt of Rivia, a “Witcher” which is a person who was extensively experimented on by wizards and sorceresses as a child. As such he has vivid yellow eyes and the ability to cast Signs which are in essence just spells. From what I can gather the original Witcher started off with Geralt completely losing his memory, thus forcing him to relearn all his training once again. This gives people like me a rather interesting in for being able to play the sequel without playing the first since Geralt is still recovering fragments of his memory as the game progresses. Still there are enough characters who appear to know Geralt solely from his exploits in the first game to make it look like playing the original would be worth it, even if they’re inconsequential to the overall plot.
Graphically the game is quite impressive. In fact this was the first game to bring my machine to its knees after turning everything to its absolute maximum, no small feat considering Crysis 2 barely made it break a sweat on the same level. However after re-tweaking the settings and jumping back into the game it wasn’t different visually so I have to assume that the one setting that said “only for high end machines” is actually just a poorly coded feature. Still the game does have some fantastically lush environments ranging from sprawling cities to deep, dark forests all of which are done exceptionally well.
The Witcher 2 is also completely voice acted with every character in the game having a range of dialogue lines. Encounters like the one above have sprawling dialogue trees enabling you to craft Geralt’s demeanour as you see fit. The voice acting is somewhat lacklustre with Geralt’s gravely voice being delivered in a constant monotone and many of the other characters echoing his performance. The idle chatter of non-plot NPCs is unfortunately quite limited often repeating the same lines in response to the same trigger event like when Geralt enters the area. For the most part you can ignore it though except when one obnoxious NPC keeps shouting “Bite his balls!” every 20 seconds.
Combat in The Witcher 2 starts off being extremely tedious as the game relies quite heavily on knowledge attained from the original game. This coupled with a lack of tutorials (lest you have to dive through the in game manual to find what you’re looking for) and incredibly difficult first encounters serves to make the opening scenes of The Witcher 2 rather tiresome rather that enjoyable. Indeed I never found myself playing much longer than an hour or so to begin with specifically because combat was such a chore. Talking over with my friends this doesn’t appear to be an isolated experience although apparently certain unbalanced abilities (Quen) make quite a lot of the game trivial. That’s all well and good but I wanted to play a particular play style (mage path) and using that ability precluded the use of the talents I had heavily invested in. It did get much better towards the end however as Geralt’s abilities became incredibly powerful, able to dispatch legions of enemies before running out of vigor.
Other aspects of the game had me searching for quite a while to figure out how to accomplish certain tasks. The two sword mechanic, steel for humans and silver for monsters, was only revealed after discussing the topic with friends (Of course I hadn’t noticed that the combat log was telling me this the whole time). Crafting is also a bit of a strange beast with Geralt being able to craft his own potions but not anything else, requiring the help of NPCs to craft everything else. There’s also no real indication of what items are useful and which aren’t, leading to your inventory being filled with all sorts of miscellanea that may or may not be helpful for you. I ended up installing a weight reduction mod so that all the crafting crap didn’t weigh anything, making crafting actually worth pursuing rather than a total crapshoot.
The various mini-games in The Witcher 2 serve as something to break up the long quests that the game sends you on as well as functioning as an unlimited money supply. Most of them are quite easy (like arm wrestling and the fist fights) but the dice poker game, since it involves a lot of chance, ends up being a lot more difficult. They seem to be a necessary evil as many items in the game are simply unattainable with the amount of orens you loot or are rewarded with during your stay in the game. Sure most of the best items in the game are crafted but even those require a pretty hefty orens investment, and you’d be struggling to get the required sum without playing numerous mini-games.
The Witcher 2 also takes the crown as being one of the most liberal games when it comes to Geralt getting down with the fairer sex. The opening scenes have him caressing his (naked) main love interest Triss Merigold for a good couple minutes before the plot gets underway. After that point there’s no less than 4 times when women (and demons) will throw themselves at you or, for a few orens, cheerfully take you to their bed. However, apart from some brief interludes with Triss, none of the romping really leads anywhere and for some reason Triss doesn’t seem to care how many women you get with. It then seems that sex is treated more as a reward rather than something meaningful which is unfortunate but is nothing out of the ordinary.
Where The Witcher 2 does shine though is in its action scenes. Whilst the boss fights are few and far between they are all rather intense encounters keeping your heart racing and your gaze fixed on the screen as you do battle with some really fantastical foes. There’s also many 300 inspired slow motion action scenes which whilst cheesy are pretty cool to watch. A few are also quick time events and whilst not entirely difficult (I never failed single one) they are enough to keep you from breaking immersion when an in game cut scene is playing through.
The story of The Witcher 2 is servicable but unlike other chapter based RPGs like Dragon Age 2 it does have some semblance of an over-arching goal to keep you driven throughout the entire game. I’ll be honest though at the start it’s slow going especially when the all other aspects of the game add endless amounts of tedium. Still Chapter 2 felt quite well paced (I chose Iorveth’s path) and whilst Chapter 3 was incredibly short in comparison it also felt a lot better than Chapter 1 did. The ending however was a total cock tease, foreboding to a big battle that is about to come but abruptly cutting you off before you have the chance to join it. For fans of the game this at least means they’ve got The Witcher 3 to look forward to, but I’ll never forgive games that leave plots so open like that.
Throughout The Witcher 2 I couldn’t shake the feeling that my whole experience of the game would’ve been a whole lot better had I played through its predecessor. Honestly the only reason I didn’t was because of Yahtzee’s rather scathing review of it since I hadn’t heard anything else about it (which is an oddity for me). Still on its own The Witcher 2 is a decent game and I could see myself coming back to it during a game draught to play through Roche’s path just so I could get the complete experience. If you’re a fan of the RPG genre The Witcher 2 won’t be a disappointment to you however if you’re like me and haven’t played the original I’d strongly recommend doing so as otherwise you’ll end up like me wondering why certain things are the way they are and forever googling basics of the game that its developers have assumed you already know.
The Witcher 2 is available on PC and Xbox360 right now for $79.99 and $89.00 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on Easy difficulty with around 24 hours of total game time on a single play through.