Posts Tagged‘post-apocalyptic’

Horizon: Zero Dawn: By All Mother’s Grace.

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.

Rating: 9.5/10

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.

Lone Survivor: The Kind of Sort of Survival Horror.

I’ve mentioned in the past that whilst I may have been playing survival horror games for a long time I’m not exactly their biggest fan. Sure some of the most memorable moments I’ve had whilst gaming have been in survival horror titles but they are very much the exception for me rather than the rule. Still I like to revisit the genre from time to time to see if there’s been any innovative changes that capture my attention much like the Nemesis did in Resident Evil 3. The latest survival horror game to cross my path came care of the latest Humble Indie Bundle and is called Lone Survivor. Thanks to my past wins with the Humble Bundle titles I figured it was worth a look in and gave it a full play through on the weekend.

Lone Survivor takes place in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a virus outbreak. You, only referred to as You for the entire game, finds himself as the lone survivor of this outbreak having a really fuzzy memory of the events leading up to this point. You start off in an apartment complex and whilst you don’t know much about it you do know that the place you currently live in is not yours. The game then follows your quest to get out of the apartment complex and hopefully escape the town entirely.

Like many recent indie releases Lone Survivor’s graphics are of the pixel art form, paying homage to the gaming roots that many of my generation will be familiar with. Additionally whilst all of the art is done pixel by pixel there are a lot of modern effects laid over the top. Indeed the engine feels like its more modern as unlike other pixel art games I’ve played recently it was able to scale itself out fully and play in full screen windowed mode. Whilst this isn’t a big factor in the core game it does show that this game is very well coded which is surprising considering the majority of the work on it was done by a single person.

Now I know I shouldn’t judge a game by its name but you’ll quickly find that whilst you character thinks he’s the lone survivor in this world there are in fact a lot of other people around. Whilst its debatable whether or not most of them are actually there since your character seems to flit between fever dreams there are at least 2 other people around who don’t appear to be part of them. There’s also the monsters, of varying types, that wander the landscape and if the assesment of You is anything to go by they are the final forms of humans who were infected by the virus.

I will level some criticism at Lone Survivor’s choice of showing you the monsters extremely early on in the piece. After seeing them the anxiety about what you’re coming up against is gone and instead you’re just left with another challenge to face. In fact apart from 1 all the monsters are shown to you in an initial safe setting, allowing you to get comfortable with how to deal with them before you have to. I may not enjoy survival horrors as much as the next guy but the good survival horror comes from tension and knowing what I was coming up against long before I had to took away any real sense of urgency.

The core game play is divided into two sections: point and click adventure and a simplistic combat system. The first aspect, a traditional point and click (although “move and X” is probably more appropriate here) is your standard affair sending you all over the place to gather up items in order to progress to the next stage. Quite a lot of this aspect is optional as the required items to progress are rather easy to come across and if you’re good at the combat you won’t need to be hunting around for food to restore your health. Indeed since there’s a not-so-secret mechanic to get you both unlimited food and ammunition this side of the game is somewhat moot but can be rewarding if you like hunting out all the little extra pieces hidden around the game.

Combat is similar to that of other point and click style games like Gemini Rue. You have a revolver which you can shoot at enemies and you can aim in 3 different directions: low, mid and high. Capping enemies in the head means they go down slightly quicker and shooting at their feet makes them back off for a little bit. Realistically the enemies are just organic progression blockers serving as another puzzle for you to solve. Given that you have essentially unlimited ammunition there’s really no point to not waste every enemy you come across since you’ll be back tracking a lot, especially if you want to seek out all the items.

It’s not said to you explicitly until you finish the game but there is a kind of score being tracked whilst you make your way through Lone Survivor. Now a little Googling will find you ways to improve said score but I felt kind of cheated when I found this out as if you play the game without doing any research on it you’ll be completely unaware of it until the end. Those optional things you can do then seem to take on a whole lot more importance rather than just being an ancillary part of the game. I hate to say it but the inclusion of achievements, if the game was integrated well into Steam say, might have made me feel more compelled to actually do these things without having to reveal the hidden score. Maybe I’m just feeling bitter because my score was pretty terrible, but I feel my criticism is valid.

I can usually put aside technical faults of a game if the story is good but for Lone Survivor I can’t feel I can make that concession. The disjointed nature of the story and the complete lack of relatability of the main character didn’t really make me feel anything for those people in the story. Since the whole thing seems to flit between what appears to be reality and fever dream sequences I can’t help but feel there’s some deeper meaning to it that I’m just not getting. It’s not the same as I felt with Braid though where speculating about it was an area of intrigue, I’m more than happy to leave this one alone.

Lone Survivor is a game that is equal parts good and bad. The combination of pixel art graphics with modern tweaks makes the game visually pleasing and the coding behind it feels top notch. I also enjoyed the choice of music for the opening and closing scenes as it seemed to be quite fitting for the scenes in question. However the game fails to be an actual survival horror with there being unlimited resources at your disposal and the threats in the game really posing little danger to you. There are some satisfying moments in it like when you figure out how to make coffee or complete a puzzle without having to backtrack for ages but apart from that I didn’t find much else to like in Lone Survivor.

It’s very possible that my gripes are the result of my bias against the survival horror genre and I can’t not recommend the game because of that. Since it’s part of the Humble Bundle the cost to trying it out is exceedingly low, especially when you get so many other great games bundled along with it. For me personally though I don’t believe I’ll ever play through Lone Survivor again to see the alternate endings as I just don’t feel that there’s anything else in it for me. Whether it works for you though is an exercise that I’ll leave up to the reader as I don’t feel my rating can truly reflect the game’s experience, even if I adjust for my internal biases.

Rating: 5.0/10

Lone Survivor is available right now on PC for any price you wish through the Humble Indie Bundle. Total game time was around 4 hours with the Blue ending and a rating of F.

Rage: A Beautiful Tech Demo.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a good 7 years since we saw a release from the famous id Software developers. For a company that had regular releases every 2 to 3 years for almost 2 decades prior the silence from them was rather unusual, sparking rumours that they were in a Duke Nukem Forever situation. Still their tech demos of the new id Tech 5 engine that was powering their next game showed that they were making progress and that has culminated in their next game release: Rage. After a good 12 hours or so with it over the past couple weeks I’m in two minds about id’s latest game, or more aptly their latest engine.

Rage puts you about 130 odd years into the future into a post apocalyptic world that’s been ravaged by the 99942 Apophis. Now the space nerds amongst us will recognise that that is a very real asteroid and whilst we’ve since eliminated the prospect of it hitting earth in 2029 as the game predicts it was none the less a gripping hook to get me into the story. You play as Daniel Tosh, one of the chosen few to be buried in a capsule with other survivors in cryogenic suspension, only to wake a century after the impact has occured in order to rebuild humanity. When you wake however you find that the pod malfunctioned and you’re the only survivor out of your particular ark and the world that you’ve come out in is a desolate wasteland.

Now Rage has copped a lot of flak for the absurdly broken release that it had on PC and when I first played it I was no exception. There was massive amounts of tearing, models glitching in and out of sight and textures not rendering properly or at the incorrect level of detail. The first patch plus a new round of ATI drivers fixed most of those problems making the game playable but it wasn’t until a friend of mine linked me to this post on the steam forums that Rage actually began to shine. After applying the new config the game was absolutely beautiful, both visually and performance wise with my computer running everything at absolute maximum settings I never had an performance problems. Rage still didn’t like to be alt-tabbed however as that would bring back tearing with mad vengeance. Such problems did not plague the console release however, so their launch day experience was probably much better.

Rage is very much like Borderlands in that it fuses RPG elements with FPS game play. The main story line is driven via quests given to you by various NPC characters and there’s a multitude of side quests that won’t further the plot but will get you things to help you along your journey. There’s no skill trees or levels per say but you will acquire various upgrades that will help to make the game easier. Most of the weapons have some form of upgrade but they’re usually not that useful, especially once you pick up certain weapons like the sniper rifle or the Authority Machine Gun. There’s also a crafting system that allows you to concoct all sorts of interesting things and, thankfully, there’s no limit on the amount of stuff you can carry so you can always have what you need when you need it. 

The game play in Rage is divided into 2 distinct categories: the vehicle sections and then your typical FPS run and gun. The vehicle sections, as pictured above, serve as being a break between quests where you’ll be accosted by bandits in the wasteland. There’s also a series of jump challenges scattered around the place for you to attempt, but since they give no reward apart from possibly an achievement there’s no real incentive to go for them. Your vehicle can also be upgraded with “Race Certificates” won from races or given as rewards to quests. Some of these races are fun (like the rocket races, where you get to blow your opponents up) where as others just feel like a chore. I only spent the bare minimum amount of time on the races however as once you’ve got the few key upgrades there’s no incentive to keep doing them.

The FPS component of Rage is a pretty typical affair, being a somewhat cover based shooter with the added advantage of you being able to heal and also revive yourself should you end up being overwhelmed. For the most part its quite servicable as you can choose to either strut out into the open and keep yourself healed with bandages (of which you can make an almost unlimited amount of) or pick people off from behind cover. The additional secondary weapons like the wingsticks (basically a bladed boomerang) and sentry bots help to keep the combat interesting and can be the difference between making it through alive or reloading your save for the nth time.

There are however a couple glitches in the combat system that need mentioning. If you’re say unloading shell after shell into an enemy whilst they’re doing a particular animation there’s no indication as to whether you’ve killed them or not. This becomes rather irritating when the death animations for some NPCs closely resemble that of them stumbling after taking a big hit, leading you to waste countless rounds in order to just make sure that they’re down. There’s also the fact that headshots, even with the sniper rifle, don’t usually one shot enemies like they usually do. This isn’t a glitch per say more of an annoyance as that one carefully lined up shot has to be two carefully lined up shots which you don’t usually have the luxury of taking.

The story that had such a gripping hook at the start is unfortunately quite thin on the ground with your character’s motivations for doing what he’s doing coming from other people telling him what to do constantly. Although the world is meant to feel open ended the story, and all of the missions, are completely linear with no real options for going at something another way. Rage’s storyline also suffers from major pacing problems as well, especially towards the end when you’re suddenly plonked onto the final mission with little more notice than the title of the mission indicating that it might be a one way trip. The end boss fight, if you could call it that, also pales in comparison to some of the other boss fights in the game leaving you feel like you’ve missed something along the way. Ultimately the intial hook that got me in was the pinnacle of the storytelling in Rage and that’s very disappointing.

Rage has its moments as a game but ultimately it feels more like a 12 hour tech demo than it does a fully fledged game that took 7 years to build. I would usually let id off the hook on this one since they’d be licensing their engine (which is a technical marvel) and thus the game wasn’t their main focus but outside of Zenimax companies (id’s parent company) the id Tech 5 engine won’t be available for licensing. Thus for the foreseeable future the only 2 games that will use this engine will be Rage and Doom 4, which is a shame because once it’s set up right it’s quite spectacular. Rage then as a game is a FPS/RPG hybrid that manages to deliver sometimes but suffers from multiple problems that detract from the technical beauty that it contains.

Rating: 7.0/10

Rage is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $108, $108 and $88 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 12 hours of total play time and 46% of the achievements unlocked.