Survival sandboxes have never really been my cup of tea. I get the appeal, crafting your own story however you see fit, but if I’m going to engage in the kind of repetitive activities that most of them make you do I’ll go back to my MMORPGs (at least I can get those SWEET SWEET PURPLES). However I’ve long had a large group of my friends pester me to play some of them and whilst I’ve inevitably left most of them behind one managed to get its hooks deep into me. As you’ve likely guess that game was Subnautica, one I had avoided for its entire life until it came up in conversation once again. With my dumpster diving in the Steam new release section wearing me down I figured it was time to try something that had a better chance of capturing my attention. Boy, did it ever.
Subnautica takes place in the far future, putting you in control of an unnamed protagonist (well I never figured out his name, but apparently it’s Ryley Robinson) aboard the spaceship Aurora. As you’re approach a planet your vessel is struck by an unknown energy pulse, sending it tumbling down to its surface. You manage to escape aboard one of the ships escape pods and upon landing find yourself stranded in a vast ocean. The aurora crashed close by, its reactor heavily damaged and spewing untold amounts of radiation into the surrounding environment. Your life pod has all the basics to keep you alive but you’ll have to draw on the resources on the planet if you’re ever going to make it off. What follows is a tale of survival that you’ll largely define yourself although it’s clear that this planet is hiding a secret that you’ll need to understand if you’re ever to get off it.
For a Unity based game Subnautica sure is a pretty one, making full use of all the features available to the engine. The level of detail could be tuned a little better as quite often you’ll see a lot of asset and texture pop-in. This wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t so reliant on those details to navigate yourself around and locate the things you’re looking for. There’s also quite a lot of simulation going on, even for stuff that’s no on screen, which means as your time in game stretches on your performance is likely going to start taking a bit of a dive (pun…yeah intended). I definitely enjoyed the slightly simplified, stylized art direction that they took for this game though, especially with the huge variety of different environments you can find yourself in. That’s only made better by the great voice acting, sound track and substantial foley work that went into rounding out the rest of the experience. Overall, whilst Subnautica might still have a few Early Access rough edges to polish out, it’s definitely one of the better looking games I’ve played this year.
In the heavily oversaturated sandbox survival simulator genre Subnautica stands out as the one that went full in on the nautical theme. Sure you’ve got the standard things that you’ll need to take care of like food, water and health, but all the progression mechanics are based around diving to deeper depths in the ocean world you find yourself stranded on. All the things you craft will either help you stay underwater for longer, move faster so you can explore more or craft vehicles that will allow you to go on longer and longer journeys. You’ll also build yourself a base (or twenty) to generate and stockpile resources, build upgrade stations and serve as a place of respite between your expeditions. All of this is in aid of exploring as much of the map as you want and by golly there’s quite a lot of it. More impressive is that it’s all hand crafted too and often updated so things aren’t always where you (or people on the forums) expect them to be. Driving all of this is a kind of campaign story that also entices you to dive to deeper depths whilst revealing to you the fates of your fellow crew and the efforts that are being undertaken to rescue you. Suffice to say there’s quite a lot to do, so much so that I lost almost 30 hours to it without really trying.
Exploration is the main aim of the game and for the most part Subnautica does it well. The game does a good job of giving you a safe area to explore around in initially, one that isn’t too demanding and gives you a decent intro into the main mechanics. A more directed tutorial would’ve been nice as it’s not completely obvious where you’d go about to find certain materials, making those first few items a bit of a chore to get done. Once you’ve got a few basics completed and some form of vehicle built though things start to progress a little faster and the campaign missions start coming thick and fast. Things can get really non-linear though as somethings will likely be easier for you to find than others. For instance I had a Seamoth fully completed before I managed to get everything together for a Seaglide, including having the blueprints for the powercell charger before I had the respective ones for my batteries. Similarly it took me quite some time to track down the multi-purpose room (yeah I know, I know, I didn’t explore the island enough) which limited my capabilities somewhat for a good few hours.
The crafting system is deep and rewarding, giving you ample things to shoot for throughout the course of the game. It’s almost always worth picking up as many crafting materials as you can carry as you’ll never know when you’ll next need them to craft the next upgrade. Probably my biggest gripe with the whole system is that the various drop rates for different materials doesn’t seem to be inline with the amount you’ll need. For instance diamonds, lithium and gold all drop from shale outcrops but always ended up with more diamonds than I needed and little of the precious lithium which seemingly all the higher end upgrades crave. Things only get worse with higher end materials, especially if you’re like me and built your base in the safe shallows near the escape pod (since that’s where I had all my stuff). Of course I could’ve built another base further out if I so desired but honestly the amount of times I had to dive back out to get more titanium meant that I’d probably be doing just as much travel no matter where I decided to put down my roots. If they ever add something like a mining rig which produces some of the minerals from that depth I think that’d make the whole experience a little better, at least for people like me who don’t really want to grind a lot in a single player experience.
I didn’t spend too much time on building out my base, basically just fleshing out the bare necessities I needed and a few other things to make my life a little easier. It took me a while to understand the whole structural integrity thing and how other modules affected it. I think that’s part of the experience though as there’s a whole bunch of mechanics based around not doing it properly (those who’ve played that will know what I mean and yes, I did do that, multiple times). I did engage in a little mobile base building towards the end of my play time though, keeping enough resources with me to be able to build a single multi purpose room, a hatch, two power cell chargers and a nuclear reactor. I only ever ended up using it once (and discovered a limitation I didn’t know of, you can’t remove the reactor rods) so it was probably not completely needed. Still it was a nice little safety assurance to have.
I almost gave up on Subnautica after I finally built my cyclops as I wasn’t particularly interested in the effort required to kit it out and transfer all my stuff into it for the long journey into the deep. However I just went and did that for a couple hours one night, fully equipping it with everything I’d need to make the long journey down. Honestly I think the amount of effort I had to go through to do it suddenly made the whole thing feel a lot more worthwhile; this wasn’t something that you could just blast your way through. No if you wanted to see the story through to the end you’d have to equip yourself with all the things you’d need as coming back might not be possible. Whilst I didn’t go as crazy as some people did I had more than I ever needed for the long journey down and boy, that was some intense gaming.
Going from piloting the Seamoth and Seaglide the Cyclops is an exercise is slow, steady precision. Of course the first thing I did was to put it up to full speed to see what it was capable of and promptly caused massive cavitation, damaging my propeller and causing a fire. It was then I realised that this vessel wasn’t built for speed but endurance and I’d have to be very careful how I handled it going forward. Once you get a handle for it though the cyclops is very maneuverable and is nigh on invulnerable to you bashing it around. Creature attacks are a different story however and once you’re in the deepest depths it becomes a real balancing act of movement speed, damage from creatures and how much charge you’ll lose if you don’t find all those fscking Lava Larva that have attached themselves to the outside of your ship.
Given that Subnautica has been out for about 4 years now most of the egregious bugs have been fixed but a few still remain. Lockers and other interactable items can glitch out on you if hit a hotkey when you’re interacting them, preventing you from interacting with anything and hiding your HUD from you. This can usually be fixed by walking away or just spamming buttons but it is rather annoying when it happens. Hitboxes can also be a bit iffy, like when you’re trying to say interact with a part of the Seamoth and end up entering it instead. Base building too can be a little weird, like when you place 2 multi-purpose rooms on top of each other. The green indicator would make you think that everything is fine but no, there is actually a wrong way to do it which will prevent you from putting in a ladder between them. There’s also the performance and LOD detail issues I mentioned before, something which I would have expected to be fixed by now. None of these things are game breaking experiences and all of them are things I think will be fixed in due course.
Subnautica was sold to me as the kind of survival game I’d be able to get into because of the story and, by and large, I’d agree with that. To be sure the first 8 or so hours were quite engaging because there was always an objective for me to go to, one that would show me a bit more about the world. After that though things started to get a little thin on the ground. Sure there were a few tidbits here and there but for the next 14 hours or so I was in something of a narrative hole. That picked up swiftly towards the end of the game with the last 6 or so hours filled with a lot more excitement, especially towards the end. If I was playing more efficiently I’m sure the story would have felt a lot better paced but even for a min-maxer like myself, one who was routinely consulting with the wiki and forums, I don’t think a genuine first playthrough could be done much quicker. With that in mind I’d like to see another 4~5 hours worth of story content to help drive things along as I’ve heard a lot of people drop the game as they get their cyclops which usually coincides with the dearth of story elements. All that being said though I thoroughly enjoyed Subnautica’s story and would happily recommend it to people who’d traditionally shy away from games in this genre.
Subnautica was one of those games I went into thinking I wouldn’t like it and was gladly surprised to be proven wrong. There’s always this sense of just needing to go a little deeper to find that next thing, whether it be story related or that item you need to make your life that much easier. The story that plays along helps to keep you engaged as you scrape together the upgrades you need to get to the next chapter. There’s still a few rough edges from its Early Access days, including a glaring lack of story for a good half of my time spent in it, but these aren’t things I think are beyond fixing. So it seems my friends were right, this is the kind of game for people like me who’ve given the whole survival genre a miss because we do like a good story that we don’t craft ourselves. Subnautica seems to strike the right balance here, giving you ample room to craft your own tale whilst giving you a trail to follow if you so wish. Whilst the AAA drought is soon to be over it’s still probably worth giving Subnautica a look in as it really is worth the time, especially if you can get through to the end.
Subnautica is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $24.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 29 hours playtime and 82% of the achievements unlocked.
I haven’t spoken about it at all on this blog but I’m something of a DIYer. Whilst I had humble beginnings, fixing doors and replacing light fixtures, it soon graduated into a full on crusade culminating in my wife and I building a large workshop in our backyard. So when I stumbled across House Flipper, a game that essentially simulates what I’ve been doing IRL for the past couple years, I figured it’d be worth giving a try. The game is both strangely accurate in some respects whilst wildly off base in others which, honestly, isn’t out of line for games in this genre. Whilst it might not replace The Sims as the home building game of choice for many just yet it certainly does do a good job of emulating the painful yet rewarding experience that is renovating a home.
You play as a general contractor who’s looking to make a name (and fortune) for themself. You start off with humble beginnings, cleaning up trashed homes and doing minor repairs, but soon your skills graduate into full blown home renovation. You’ll be painting walls, laying flooring, replacing broken outlets and all sorts of other fun tasks that you’ll need to do to transform a run down hovel into a home. You’ll have to figure out the whims of your buyers and create the perfect homes for them so you can extract the maximum amount of profit from the houses you flip. One day you may even be able to upgrade your own place, doing away with your run down shack for something a little more fitting of someone of your stature.
House Flipper is a Unity based game that uses a lot of stock assets and so has that trademark “Unity Game” feel to it. There’s some noticeable performance issues with it however, most of which I think comes from the destructible wall simulation as it seems to get a whole lot worse when you’re swinging a sledge hammer. Still the amount of flexibility that the developers have put into it is commendable as you’re able to change pretty much anything you can see in the house. Probably most interesting is the fact that it also has full simulated night/day cycles, requiring you to turn on the lights if you want to continue renovating in the dark hours of the night. Honestly whilst it has the same trademark janky appearance that many of these simulator games has once you dig beneath the surface it’s actually quite impressive what they’ve managed to get done.
All the mechanics of the game are tasks that you’d be doing if you yourself were going to renovate a house IRL. The initial tutorial missions give you an insight into the various mechanics like cleaning, painting, tiling and adding/removing walls. You can keep doing those for quite a while if you want and it doesn’t take long for you to be making a decent amount of cash with each job. From there the next stage is flipping houses where you’ll spend time fixing up the place and then tailoring it to your buyer’s desires. Whilst you’re renovating a list of potential buyers shows up on the left hand side and they’ll comment on the changes you make. The one at the top is the person who will eventually buy the place and so it’s key to pay attention to what they’re saying. However many of the things you can do in renovating a house don’t mean anything to the potential buyers which, honestly, irks me to no end.
The initial missions are actually quite enjoyable as you have a fixed outcome you need to achieve before you can get paid. The devs have obviously had a great time setting up the various scenarios, like the college student party house where the tenants stole all the radiators, and completing all the tasks is a rather relaxing affair. You’ll quickly level up the various skills doing these missions as well and it quickly becomes obvious that not all of the upgrades are created equal. For instance the upgraded mop is far, far better than the increased cleaning speed and painting multiple walls at once is great only if you have the upgrade to not use paint on already painted surfaces. Once you’ve got that all mastered it’s time to flip some houses which, if you’re playing to the game’s mechanics, is actually boringly simple.
You see your potential buyers have in-built traits for things they want and things they don’t. As you go around fixing things up they’ll likely make a comment on what they like/hate and that can help you hone in on who you’d prefer to buy that particular property. However it gets weird really quickly as it’s not so much about what they lke but what they hate. For instance, in order to make one house attractive to the student I had to fill it with children’s toys to make sure that the other buyers wouldn’t like it. Similarly the only way I could figure out to discourage the old couple (who apparently likes multiple bedrooms but was just fine with a tiny house with only 1 room) was to leave empty paint cans around since they hate mess. Worse still the most time consuming things, like painting walls or replacing the siding on the house, seem to have absolutely no effect on what the buyers want. This leads to a weird game of cat and mouse where you try to figure out the right combination of dumb things to add in whilst ensuring you only pay attention to a select few items to renovate.
Of course in the end it doesn’t matter who buys the place (unless you’re going for achievements), the person at the top will pay the most and it seems that unless you really go wild with the renos you’ll always make some kind of profit. I’m sure there’s people out there who’ll enjoy doing up a place nicely just for the sake of it, heck I even did that a bit in the first place, but if you’re playing to the game’s core mechanics then there’s not really a lot of point. I’m sure the buyers AI will get tweaked at some stage to be a little more discerning as I really don’t want to have to play a game of “fill the house with things other buyers hate” every time I want to flip a place.
At the moment it I’d probably class this more as “interior decorator simulator” more than anything else. Whilst all the things you do here are most certainly realistic when it comes to home renos there are some omissions which make it fall short of a true renovation simulator. For instance you can’t seem to change the place where the plumbing runs for the sink, even though you can absolutely move the shower around as much as you want. Similarly the wiring for lights and switches seems to just be for whatever room they’re in which, IRL, isn’t always the case. It’d be great if they had something like a structural view which allowed you to see all the pipe and electrical runs in the walls and you had to contend with them when you were doing demolition. Maybe in a future update something like that will come.
House Flipper certainly isn’t for everyone but if you, like me, are one of the few who have feet in both the gamer and DIY camps then it’s definitely worth having a look at. Whilst it is unmistakably an indie Unity game that belies the huge amount of work that went into developing the simulation engine to support it. The core mechanics are solid and the initial jobs you take are a great way to get into it. The house auctions are a little too weird and unpredictable for my tastes and ultimately that’s what made me put the game down for now. However this is one of those games that I’m sure will mature over time and, if the devs open it up to Steam Workshop, there’d be an endlesly supply of new content for it going forward. If another trip to Bunnings isn’t in the budget then maybe a copy of House Flipper might be on the books.
House Flipper is available on PC right now for $19.99. Total play time was 4 hours with 17% of the achievements unlocked.
With the core essence of a Far Cry game perfected Ubisoft has turned to a couple other items with which to differentiate each instalment in the franchise. Most notable is the wide variety settings, each of them driving the narrative and mechanical stylings of the game. This particular choice of location, that of rural Montana in the USA, was an interesting one, generating a lot of conversation of how Ubisoft would approach many of the delicate political topics that are top of mind today. Strangely though little of the conversation focused on what the game itself would be like which, I’m happy to report, is still as enjoyable as ever. There are some choices I’m not a huge fan of however, taking away some of the depth that this franchise was famous for.
You are the Rookie, a new junior deputy in the Hope County sheriff’s department. You arrive at Eden’s Gate to serve Joseph Seed, the leader of a local cult, with a federal arrest warrant on charges of kidnapping with the intent to harm. Although Joseph offers no resistance, he claims that God will not allow him to be detained. As you escort him away the cult members lash out at you, downing your helicopter and your team along with it. You learn that the sheriff’s department has been infiltrated by the cult and they’ve prevented the National Guard from responding. It’s now up to you, deputy, to free Hope County from clutches of Eden’s Gate and rescue your team.
Far Cry 5 continues the series’ use of the Dunia engine, a highly modified version of the CryEngine. The visuals are stunning with obvious improvements in lighting, textures and the attention to detail. This is probably one of the few games, especially in the open world genre, that manages to look good both at distance as well as up close. This does come at a price however and my rig, no longer the towering beast able to take all comers, was brought to its knees more than once. A few tweaks here and there ensured that I was able to get smooth performance but some sacrifices had to be made. Most notably was the draw/level of detail distance which, whilst on foot, wasn’t much of an issue but was readily apparent when I was say flying in a helicopter. All things considered though I think it’d be safe to say that Far Cry 5 is likely to be one of this year’s best looking games.
As I alluded to in my opening paragraph Far Cry 5 maintains the formula that the franchise has perfected over the last 14 years. Whilst the long held tradition of climbing radio towers to uncover parts of the map has (thankfully) been removed you’ll still be liberating outposts, picking up various side quests and working your way up to taking down the Big Bad Boss of the day. Many of the core mechanics and progression systems have been streamlined significantly which, depending on your point of view, could swing either way. One of the most notable additions is the Arcade Editor, allowing you to craft your own levels and experiences within this Far Cry world. The less notable, more notorious, addition is microtransactions allowing you to bypass the built money grind if you so wish. For this old player it has raised an interesting conundrum as I’m typically a fan of streamlining games but in this instance I think it’s taken something away.
All Far Cry games start off with you being someone who really doesn’t have the skills to survive in the situation that find themselves in. Then, over the course of your play through, you begin to build yourself up through the various trials and tribulations the game throws at you. Part of this included a rather in-depth and daunting perk tree which progressively allowed you to build out your character along your desired path. In Far Cry 5 however many of the skills that you would’ve had to previously unlock, like say heavy takedown, are given to you by default. This does mean that you’re far more capable earlier on than you’d otherwise be, something that does help to speed up the pace of the game, but the downside is that the perk tree no longer feels as impactful as it once was.
Many of the talents are simply incremental upgrades to things you already have and a good quarter of them are dedicated to reducing the respawn times of your companions. To be sure there are a few that make a huge difference in how you’ll approach certain challenges the game throws at you but rarely did I feel the same power increase as I did in the previous games. Quite often I was left with a bunch of points and no real desire to spend them on any of the perks as I couldn’t see what advantage I’d get out of them. In fact the biggest power increase I ever got was when I finally got myself a helicopter with machine guns, something that takes a whole lot of pain out of the games more laborious moments. I’d forgive the lacklustre perk system if the other means of progression felt a lot more impactful but, honestly, they seem to suffer from the same sameness problem.
The power of your weapons feels largely determined by the type so that guns in the same category are largely as effective as each other. The higher tier weapons, which you unlock from increasing resistance levels across the board, usually come with more quality of life perks rather than an increase in overall effectiveness. The sniper rifles, for instance, go from bolt action to semi-auto, the rifles semi to full-auto and so on. The bow, unlike other Far Cry games, feels pretty damn useless once you get yourself a silenced gun of any description (which isn’t rare either, pretty much everything can be silenced). The prestige guns are also just unique skins rather than more effective versions of their common counterparts meaning any cash spent on them is ultimately wasted. Once I’d settled on my loadout (pistol, rifle, LMG and sniper rifle) I didn’t change it for the rest of the game.
What this leads to is an overall combat experience that, for a while, is somewhat varied but quickly deteriorates into a repetitive slugfest. It’s a shame really as the slow increase in my character’s power level was something I always enjoyed in the Far Cry series. Being almost untouchable at the end always felt highly rewarding, allowing you to breeze through challenges that were once a complete showstopper. In Far Cry 5 however it feels like after maybe 4 hours or so you’re basically at the limit and there’s little more that will change how you play. Of course it’s still fun to strafe an outpost with a chopper or sneak around with your cougar companion but the lack of variation does start to wear on you after a while. Thankfully the game recognises this and campaign progression gets faster the more you complete, allowing you to blast through the last area in about half the time when compared to the first.
Crafting has been radically simplified and decoupled from the progression system. No longer will you be hunting down rare game in order to craft a new wallet, instead they’ll form part of your cash flow that you’ll funnel into the upgrades of your choice. All you’ll be crafting now is consumables including all your explosives and “homeopathics” which include the usual foray of decreased damage taken, increased speed and so on. This does mean that the progress system is a bit more universal, alleviating the previous Far Cry game’s issue where you could have all the talents in the world but could still only hold 5 arrows at a time. Materials are found everywhere, including on enemies you defeat, so it’s rare that you’ll ever be wanting if you need to crafting something. Overall I think the changes are good from a quality of life perspective but does take away something that was kind of a signature of the series.
Far Cry 5 still retains many of the issues that Ubisoft’s open world games are renowned for like the incredibly janky physics and an AI that’s dumb as dogshit. As /r/gamephysics will attest to there’s a bunch of whacky physics interactions with vehicles, people and the environment. None of these are game breaking and many are great fun to watch. What’s less fun is the AI which, when it’s being used to control your companion, routinely goes completely off the rails. I had one instance when I was in a helicopter (which the AI was piloting) where it would randomly land for 30 seconds before taking off again. It didn’t even seem to understand that it shouldn’t land in the river and proceeded to so, almost killing us both. Similarly characters that are leading you or part of an escort mission get horrendously confused if anything out of the ordinary happens like, say, a fire happening near them which they caused. Of course that also leads to some rather fun times when you can really screw with the enemy AI but with the lack of a quick save/load system it’s not nearly as fun as it could be.
All of this being said though, for all its flaws, Far Cry 5 is still very much an enjoyable experience. Ubisoft has obviously taken a line to make the series more approachable to a wider audience, cutting down on a lot of the elements that would’ve been overwhelming to players just jumping into the franchise now. Whilst long time fans of the series, like myself, may not enjoy those changes I can recognise that a lot of reviewers are seeing these as positives. I couldn’t point you to exactly what made the game fun for me but I certainly don’t regret the time I spent in it and I’ll attribute part of that to the game’s story.
Whilst initially the game felt like it’d hit close to home on a lot of hot button issues the game draws a rather well crafted line straight down the middle, ridiculing both sides as much as the other. Many have criticised the game for not taking a stance one way or the other but, honestly, did anyone expect Ubisoft Montreal to make a political statement on the current state of the USA? Instead many of the side quests and throwaway parts lampoon the stereotypes of both sides with your redneck preppers on one and your new age hippie vegans on the other. Is that a missed opportunity? Sure, but I’m not looking to big name publishers and developers to make a statement. I’m looking for a fun game experience that I can switch off the higher order parts of my brain to. When I want to be stimulated I’ll take a deep dive into the world of indie titles.
Personally I started with John’s area before moving onto Faith’s and finally Jacobs. Out of the three I felt Faith’s was the strongest as it drew me in with a believable tale of how she came to be the person she was. John’s comes in at a close second for his portrayal of your stereotypical televangelist with an empowering catchphrase. Perhaps due to the order I played them in Jacob’s felt incredibly weak, lacking anything to draw me in. Of course it’s a highly predictable narrative (all the way up a certain point, which I won’t talk about) but that’s one part of the Far Cry formula which I didn’t expect to get touched. Overall the narrative and its pace of delivery are well done enough that I was able to forget about the other flaws, at least for a little while anyway.
Far Cry 5 is certainly another solid instalment in the franchise, even if the streamlining of some of the games more iconic features didn’t sit well with this reviewer. The game retains the series penchant for high end graphics which are sure to delight fellow eye candy enthusiasts. The progression system, whilst more concise than it ever has been before, feels like it takes away some of the core aspects which drove the growing power fantasy aspect which I felt was core to the Far Cry experience. Couple this with the other lacklustre progression mechanics and the core of the game, whilst still retaining the things that make Far Cy good, just isn’t as enjoyable as it once was. However the game is still worth playing, maybe even more so for those who haven’t played the series before. The narrative, whilst missing the mark for many due to its fence sitting nature, is enjoyable for what it is. For Far Cry fans this instalment is still a must play but it falls short of reaching the same heights as some of its predecessors did.
Far Cry 5 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 16 hours of total play time and 45% of the achievements unlocked.
The survival genre and I have never really gotten along. I can appreciate the challenge you can create out of just existing but for me these kinds of games just never satisfied me. The act of survival is typically one of repetitive tasks and if I wanted to do that I’d go back to playing MMORPGs. Still enough people in my gaming circle had said that The Long Dark’s story mode, Wintermute, was worth the look in, with many comparing it to Firewatch. I’ll have to strongly disagree that the experiences are comparable but, at the very least, it’s reaffirmed my aversion to this genre.
Set in the present day The Long Dark takes place after a great “geomagnetic disaster” which wiped out the power grid for many. You play as Will Mackenzie, a pilot who services many of the remote towns in the Canadian wilderness. After a brief reunion with Astrid, his ex-wife, you agree to take her to where she needs to go without asking too many questions. On the way there however you hit rough whether and your plane comes crashing down long before reaching its destination. Stranded in the isolated wilderness you have to survive and, if you can, try to find Astrid before its too late.
Aesthetically The Long Dark opts for stylized/cartoony visuals much like that of Firewatch and games from Telltale. This does mean that the visuals are relatively simple and uncluttered, something which is a blessing when you’re scrounging around for things to help you survive. Interior buildings are a bit more detailed but then it’s more clutter than anything, which can make scavenging buildings a little more challenging. Fitting in with the simple visual theme is the lack of in-game physics on a lot of things, something which I think many of us have simply grown accustomed to seeing everywhere. Back when The Long Dark was first released I’m sure this visual style would have been quite impressive however, this being 2017, they do seem a little dated. I don’t expect that to change though.
Given The Long Dark’s 3 or so years in Early Access the survival game play is quite well developed. You’ve got a number of attributes that you need to keep up including food, water, heat and sleep. At any time you could be affected by any number of conditions ranging from things like food poisoning to wolf bites to good old fashioned hypothermia. Should you not manage your attributes properly your “condition” will start to deteriorate and, should it reach zero, you will pass into the long dark. Everything you need is available in the wilderness but it won’t be easy and you’ll have to make sure that you can survive long enough so you can…keep on surviving. This is all happening whilst you’re following the story line which, for the first hour or so, serves as an extended tutorial of sorts. Past there it becomes somewhat optional, although following it does have its benefits.
Just like in real life the business of just plain surviving in The Long Dark isn’t exactly a pleasant one. You’ll find yourself doing the same basic tasks time after time just to make sure you have a fire that will last, enough food to not starve and a small stash of emergency supplies should you fall down or get attacked by wolves (or worse). It’s these kinds of activities that turn me off these kinds of survival/sandbox simulators as I’m really not interested in having to gather firewood for the hundredth time or trying haphazardly to hit a rabbit with a rock so I won’t starve. Additionally, and I’m not sure if this was a limitation of the story mode, it seemed like I didn’t have a lot of options to improve my ability to survive beyond scavenging. Certainly the crafting menu was never populated with any beyond some simple things, despite me finding all sorts of materials.
Credit where it’s due though as the game really does a great job of simulating all the various things that drastically alter your chances of surviving. It didn’t take me too long to realise that venturing out at night was a fools errand, especially if I didn’t have a torch in my hand. I learnt this after following what I thought was a road for some time, only to find out it was a path to literally no where. Trudging along the same path during the day I could see where I went wrong and it became all too clear how easy it would be to get lost in the dark in bad weather. From there on I’d often spend just as much time indoors waiting out the time so I didn’t have to expend a ton of resources just to stay alive out in the night.
The Long Dark’s story starts off well however as the time between major events starts to draw out I started to become disinterested in it. The longest part of the story arc that I played (which is Episode 1, I gather) consisted mostly of fetch quests for a NPC, something which I’m not the biggest fan of even in the MMORPG genre. This means that the main story kind of stalls at this point and the ultimate conclusion to it doesn’t feel particularly satisfying at all. Firewatch by comparison had great pacing for both the main arc and the sub-plots ensuring that you always felt like whatever you were doing was leading somewhere. The Long Dark, at least in its first 4 hours, doesn’t have that and I’m not enough of a fan of the survival genre to forget that.
The Long Dark’s time in Early Access has resulted in a well crafted game but it’s unfortunately just not for me. I can appreciate the simplistic aesthetic it’s going for, especially when it produces something as gorgeous as the screenshot above, but it is erring on the dated side now. The survival mechanics are deep, requiring a lot of effort on the part of the player to make sure your character doesn’t simply freeze to death on the first day. The story’s strong opening fades relatively quickly and, should you not enjoy survival games as a rule, there won’t be much else to carry it on past the first few hours. Overall I can appreciate the craftsmanship of The Long Dark but it’s simply not a game for the likes of me, but it could very well be for you.
The Long Dark is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $34.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 4 hours playtime and 10% of the achievements unlocked.
If you cycled back a decade or two the generally held definition of what constituted a game was fairly rigid. Today that definition is far less defined with the indie explosion bringing us all kinds of experiences that dance on the edge of what could reasonably be called a “game”. Whilst I’ll leave that debate to one side (nestling it close by the “are games art” discussion) the games which have kindled that debate are undoubtedly some of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a gamer. Everything, which comes to us care of the developer of Mountain, is an exploration of the idea that everything is connected and how we define nebulous concepts such as self and identity.
You are something, but so is everything else. How do you define what is you and what is everything? The definition of you can change at any time as you journey through space and time. Wherever you go there is always something which is made up of something else. The worlds you explore are infinite, built upon and under one another. If this is all sounding incredibly nebulous then you’re right, it is, but that’s the beauty of the story that Everything tries to tell. As you explore you’ll be many things and each of those things will give you a new perspective on what this world is.
Everything uses a stylised, low-poly, simple texture aesthetic. It’s a procedurally generated game with various different biomes defined covering everything from lush forests to galaxies to 1D sub-atomic structures. Whilst this does meant that that there’s not much variety within a biome there’s enough of them to keep you interested in exploring for hours on end. For the most part it runs very well however once you get a bunch of entities together on screen performance starts to take a noticeable dive. That’s mostly of your own making though so it’s easy to avoid performance issues if you don’t go overboard. All said and done whilst Everything’s simplistic visuals are a nice backdrop to the game’s music, narration and core game play.
Exploration is the core mechanic of Everything as it puts you in a large world for you to explore. The mechanics of how you do this are a little esoteric and not all of them will be available to you at the start. Initially you can just move around and see the thoughts of other things as you walk past. After a while you’ll be able to become other things and then explore the world from their perspective. From there you’ll then learn about ascending and descending, essentially exploring the next “layer” in the realm of existence. There’s also a bunch of other mechanics in there like herding, dancing and a few other things but they’re essentially distractions from the main exploration mechanic. In terms of an overall objective there’s really none as Everything is meant to be experienced more than played, as evidence by the inclusion of an auto-play system which turns Everything into an overgrown screensaver.
When I first saw a demo of Everything I honestly thought it was a joke. The animations are laughably simple with animals rolling around and the various “thoughts” you come across are typically nonsense cobbled together using an algorithm. However there’s something strangely relaxing about it all, watching a big herd wander across a landscape with the soothing backing music playing away. Once you get a handle on the ascend/descend mechanics then the game starts to take on a sense of purpose as you look around you environments for new places to explore.
If I had one gripe it would be that the exploration mechanics of Everything are so obtuse, even after the tutorial, that it can be hard to feel like you’ve got a sense of control. Initially you’re limited in what you can do, which is fine given the broad scope of the game. However even after unlocking all the mechanics it can still be a bit hard to understand how to ascend or descend, what certain UI elements mean or how to direct yourself to the place you want to go. Of course you could avoid all this frustration by just letting the auto-play do its thing but, realistically, I think that’s really only meant for when you’ve become tired of doing the exploration yourself. Still if you can get past this initial barrier the experience of Everything is quite rewarding.
The story, if you could call it one, is to listen to Alan Watts‘ lecture on his theory that everything is connected. The ideas are presented in a highly consumable way and often enough that you won’t go long without stumbling across another audio log to listen to. Whilst I’ll leave the philosophical debate to the reader the ideas presented are interesting and wholly in alignment with the ideas the game wants to present. I’d be interested to know how this particular lecture played into the creation of Everything as the developer has noted that in creating Mountain he saw the potential to represent more of the world through an experience like this. Either the game was somewhat inspired by the ideas presented or they were retrofitted into the game afterwards. Either way it would be interesting to know the creator’s perspective on this.
Everything is a brilliant exploration of ideas through the use of simple graphics and mechanics. Whilst they’re a little obtuse on first glance after a while they start to make sense and that’s when you can truly take control of your journey through this game’s procedurally generated world. After slogging my way through numerous AAA titles and text adventures of late it was great to be able to sit back and simply explore without a goal to achieve. It’s not a game for everyone but, if you’re suffering epicness fatigue from the last couple months barrage of AAA titles then this might just be the unicorn chaser you need.
Everything is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 44% of the achievements unlocked.
Spurred on by the success of Far Cry 3 Ubisoft seems intent on transforming the series from its once long development cycle into a yearly release event. Whilst fans of the series are likely to relish this in the short term it does make one wonder just how long it can be sustained before it becomes as derided as other yearly franchises are. For now though it seems like Ubisoft haven’t yet run out of ideas to work into the Far Cry mold with the latest being Far Cry Primal. Whilst it retains much of the IP’s stylings Primal does manage to stand on its own, even if it’s still troubled by the same issues that come with all of Ubisoft Montreal’s open world titles.
You are Takkar, member of the Wenja tribe who has been travelling for many suns to reach the promised land of Oros. It has not been an easy journey, with your brother falling to a sabre-toothed tiger mere days before reaching your final destination. Upon arrival you learn that Wenja of Oros have been scattered to the wind, terrorized by another tribe who seeks to cannibalize the Wenja. It is up to you Takkar to unite the Wenja together and protect them against the Udam.
The Duna Engine 2 is as capable as ever, bringing with it the impressive visuals that are becoming a trademark for the Far Cry franchise. The graphics are at their most impressive when you’re up high, surveying the surrounding landscape and taking in the expansive views. The wide and varied environments, whilst being completely unrealistic (seriously you can walk between a temperature tropic environment to snow capped mountains in under a day), are great a keeping the visual variety up even after hours of game play. The experience loses its sheen somewhat when you’re up close but that’s part for the course in these large open world sandbox games. It might not be a huge upgrade over its predecessor, even with my new beast rig powering it, but at least this time I was able to enjoy it in high frame rate G-Sync-ed goodness.
Far Cry Primal follows the series’ formula for the most part whilst brining in some new mechanics to make it stand out. You’ll still be assaulting outposts (stealthily if you have the patience), crafting using materials you gather along your journey and unlocking skills using the tried and true levelling system. On the flip side you now have a village to take care of, one that will provide you with numerous benefits as the population grows. You’ll also be quickly empowered with the ability to tame many of the animals you’ll stumble across, many of which will provide you with some additional benefit. These changes, coupled with the new setting and the limitations that come along with it, make Far Cry Primal feel familiar to those who’ve played the series before but different enough to keep you interested.
Combat keeps the same basic mechanics from the previous Far Cry titles however it’s limited by the array of weaponry you have at your disposal. Previous games usually threw dozens of weapons at you to use, allowing you to pick the perfect gun for any encounter. Primal, by contrast, is limited to a few types of weapons with each of them having 1 or 2 variants for you to unlock. This means that, for the most part, combat encounters will play out along a very similar line depending on which weapon you choose. Sure you can switch up at will but you’re either arrowing people from afar, jabbing at them with a spear or swinging your club wildly in the middle of a group of enemies. This limitation is born out of the setting, for the most part, and its admirable that Ubisoft stuck to it by not letting you build a crossbow or something equally out of place.
The taming mechanic is definitely Far Cry Primal’s stand out feature, allowing you to have a predator by your side to take down enemies and provide a number of other benefits. It’s quite satisfying to find a rare animal, track it down, tempt it with bait and then claim it as your own. The master beast hunts, of which there are 3, are also quite enjoyable and provide you with a companion that feels completely overpowered. Indeed soon after I unlocked them I went straight for the sabre-toothed tiger quest which had the highest stats of all of them and, as a side benefit, is also rideable with the appropriate talents. Suffice to say most of the other beasts I tamed past that point didn’t really get much of a look in as the tiger is simply too good at what it does. This might be because it ties into the way I found myself playing (running in, bow blazing) so I’m sure the other beasts have their uses. Still it’s an idea that I’m sure Ubisoft could expand on, either in the Primal world or in other future Far Cry instalments.
The level and talent systems are well designed with talent points coming at you thick and fast. This means you’re never wanting for progression, ensuring that if you want to unlock a particular skill you shouldn’t be far off getting it. I favoured crafting/gathering skills mostly as that seemed to be the main roadblock but you could just as easily focus on other ones that improved your quality of life in other aspects. The better talents will require far more points than the lesser ones, something which does slow down progression a little towards the end. Still though there’s enough missions, encounters and random events around the place that it’s just a question of how much time you want to put in before you get bored.
Like all sandbox games though Far Cry Primal starts to get repetitive after a while. The encounters, non-campaign missions and even the outposts all play out very similarly. The enemies naturally progress up in toughness in the way you’d expect them to: gaining one-shot headshot protection, more armour, ability to call reinforcements, etc. Gathering becomes a chore when you have to track down rare animals or ingredients, something which the game does not really help you with at all (the map and scent trails rarely lead you to what you actually need). The one thing that Primal does have going for it though is that it’s a much more succint experience, clocking in at a couple hours shorter than most titles if you play it like I do, focusing on the campaign.
The main campaign is unfortunately a little confused, lacking the overall cohesiveness that previous titles had with the single arch-nemesis plot line that ran throughout the entire campaign. Instead it’s split into 3 different enemy tribes that threaten the Wenjas. There’s a semblance of continuity between them however upon beating what appears to be the “final” boss you’re simply sent back to your village to continue on. It was honestly very confusing as all the other titles, whilst having similar mini-bosses along the way, was always building up to a big final battle. Primal lacks that and unfortunately feels worse off for it. The individual stories are still interesting, it’s just that there’s nothing to combine them all together into one whole that’s larger than the sum of its parts.
Far Cry Primal shows that yearly franchise releases can be done whilst still bringing fresh ideas to the table. The base game elements will be instantly familiar to long time fans of the Far Cry series with enough new elements to keep you coming back for hours on end. The taming mechanic is the best feature, adding in a new layer of game play that none of the other instalments have had. However it’s still not able to break away from the issues that plague sand box style games, which is only made worse by the lack of cohesion in the main story and campaign missions. It was a fun 12 hours though but definitely not a game I’d want to invest enough time into to 100% (which, by my rough calculations, would take about 36 hours). Far Cry Primal is definitely worth a look in however, both for Far Cry fans and general gamers alike.
Far Cry Primal is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $77 and $77 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 12 hours of total play time and 37% completion.
The past year of releases has really changed my perception on what sand box style games could achieve. I must admit the only thing I enjoyed about sand box games was the fact that once I got bored with the main story line I could unleash hell for another 15 minutes or so before I quit the game without saving. Red Dead Redemption and Minecraft were two examples of games where my inner jerk stayed in his cave for the vast majority of the game and so when I started seeing seeing some of the screens from Rockstar’s newest game L.A. Noire I figured that it would be yet another step away from their traditional Grand Theft Auto style sand box, and thus very worthy of my attention. What followed was an incredibly interesting experience on multiple levels, both for its accomplishments and its faults.
You play as Cole Phelps, a veteran of the second world war who’s come back to being a cop in downtown Los Angeles. L.A. Noire wastes no time in getting you into the action, setting up Phelps as a man with an incorruptible dedication to seeing a case through to the very end. You start out knowing very little about the man himself at the start but as the story progresses bits of his past, retold in flashback scenes and with dialog with other characters, come to light. It can be a little frustrating not understanding your character’s motivation for certain actions, especially when he’s prone to reacting wildly to certain things. I can understand the reason for keeping much of his past hidden for the majority of the game, however even a few more bits of insight into his past would’ve made his character a whole bunch more believable.
There are several distinct categories of game play within L.A. Noire. The first is the investigation mode where you look around a crime scene for clues, where upon your controller shakes when you stumble upon something potentially interesting. Not everything will relate to the case however, so you might find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time picking up cigarettes and empty bottles. Thankfully they’re kind enough to alert you when you’ve found all the clues so you don’t spend hours going around in circles looking for a potentially missed bit of evidence. These clues will then lead you onto people of interest who you can then interview to get a better idea of the details of the crime.
The next core game play mechanic, the interviews, relies heavily on the extremely lifelike motion capture technology that L.A. Noire uses. You have a list of questions which you can ask the person of interest and based on how they respond you have to choose whether you believe they’re telling the truth, lying but you have no evidence (doubt) or if they’re outright lying for which you’ll have to provide proof. I’ll be honest and tell you that this mechanic frustrated me to no end as whilst the truth and lie were relatively easy to tell the doubt option was a tad ambiguous. It’s explained exactly as I said before to you in the game however the option can also mean “They’re telling the truth but not everything” or “This guy isn’t going to give you anything useful no matter what you say”. It’s also confounded by the problem that Phelps seem to fly into a rage whenever you choose the doubt option so whilst you might think that there’s more to the story (and there always is) Phelps’ behavior seems to make the more softer targets shut down completely. You do get better at picking it towards the end but it can still lead to some incredibly frustrating times.
It’s made somewhat easier by the introduction of “intuition points” which are gained by leveling up your character in the game. These points let you either remove one wrong answer (which isn’t as helpful as it could be) or ask the community which shows you the percentages of how everyone else answered those questions. You can store a max of five and there’s only 20 levels in the game, with a few of those levels giving outfits and not intuition, so they’re best used sparingly.
Additionally whilst the facial capture is down right amazing in how realistic it appears it’s rather comically strapped to good old fashioned motion capture bodies that were filmed independently of the voice actors. What this means is that whilst from the neck up they appear quite lively everywhere else is your usual rigid clothes and rather awkward flailing about, especially when interacting with other objects. Whilst it’s not noticeable most of the time there are a number of occasions when it looks like the character’s head is trying to move independently of its body. Hopefully the technology they used to capture the stunning facial features will soon trickle down to doing full body motion capture and we won’t have this strange world of bodies with alien head syndrome.
During your investigations you’ll be alerted to street crime that’s happening in Los Angeles. Should you respond to it you’ll be pointed in the right direction and receive a short cut scene when you arrive detailing the situation. These little side quests can be anything from chasing down wife beaters to full blown car chases that end up with a shoot out with dozens of individuals. Primarily they’re there to break up the monotony of driving and give you a little break from the case you’re working on (which can stretch for over an hour). They also serve to help you level up your character as it’d be nigh on impossible to reach the level cap otherwise.
The same sort of action scenes that are played out as street crime also form part of the investigations themselves. It would seem that everyone’s gut reaction when confronted by the police in Los Angeles is for them to run for the hills which whilst fun get’s a little repetitive after the 20th time it happens. This isn’t helped by the fact that your case is judged not only by how many clues you found and questions got right but also by how much damage you do to your car, people on the street and the city itself. Since these action scenes tend to be rather reckless you’re more than likely going to rack up a large bill chasing down all these scoundrels. It really doesn’t mean that much overall, but when the game actively encourages you to do it (like your partner telling you to ram someone off the road) and then punishes you for it does leave you feeling a bit mixed up.
Like any Rockstar sandbox game the city in which you play L.A. Noire feels very alive when you’re playing through it. However it’s probably more appropriate to equate it to a movie set: it’s made to look that way. In this game’s predecessors like Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV you could engage with the NPCs in varying ways (playing cards, buying clothes, visiting clubs and what have you) there is simply none of that in L.A. Noire at all. You’re more than welcome to drive around Los Angeles whilst you’re on your way to the mission but there’s no intermission where you’re free to do as you will. You really have no choice but to pursue the cases constantly as sometimes no matter how long you drive around for you just won’t get a street crime to go and solve. So whilst L.A. Noire has the feel of a sand box game it’s really nothing like that at all.
But just like a movie set the pieces that you’re meant to see are set out extremely well. I was a bit disappointed when I saw that it implemented the same cover based shooting style that’s present in nearly every game these days but unlike shooters where the combat areas are obvious they blended in quite well in L.A. Noire. The camera work, music and use of the environment is also done quite well, setting the mood almost perfectly throughout the game.
I also found the story to be quite enthralling as did my wife who sat by my side and watched me play almost the entirety of the game. Whilst the story line suffered initially from the lack of an overarching plot line, just like Dragon Age 2 did before it, the unveiling of Phelps’ back story slowly begins to tie everything together with the ending wrapping it all up. If I’m honest though I felt the ending was slightly hollow with some of the events happening right at the very end serving only to try and make one last emotional impact on the player, rather than adding anything else to the overall plot. Still I must commend them for going with an ending that didn’t scream “SEQUEL SEQUEL”, a downright rarity these days.
L.A. Noire feels like yet another step towards gaming become a mature medium, becoming more of a medium to tell a story rather than just a distraction for kids. It’s also a technological step forward as well with the facial capture they did for it being nothing short of jaw dropping and I’m sure it’s not going to be long before we see that kind of realism extended to other aspects of the game. Whilst it might not stay true to the sandbox roots from which it was born L.A. Noire delivers a solid game experience that I’d have no trouble recommending to anyone, especially for those who enjoy their games more on the cerebral side.
L.A. Noire is available for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $89 and $89 respectively. Game was wholly played on the PlayStation 3 with a total of 22 hours played with approximately 75% total game completion according to the in game stats recorder.
Sandbox games and I have a sordid history. Whilst I often enjoy them it’s not usually because of the engrossing story or intriguing game mechanics; more it’s after I’ve finished the mission at hand, saved my game and then promptly engage Jerk Mode and go on whatever kind of rampage the game allows me. Long time readers will remember this being the case in my Just Cause 2 review where I grew tried of having to do everything within the rules of the game and modded my way to Jerk nirvana. Still there have been some notable exceptions, like Red Dead Redemption, where the combination of certain elements came together in just the right way to get me completely draw in an engrossed in the story.
Minecraft, whilst sharing the sandbox title, has almost no elements of a traditional game in this genre. Having more in common with game mods like Gary’s Mod Minecraft throws you into a world where the possibilities really are only limited by your imagination. Over the past few months I have watched the news around it go from a single story to a media storm and I was always fascinated by the way it managed to draw people into it. Up until a couple weeks ago however I hadn’t bothered to try it for myself, not even the free version. However after watching a few videos of some of the more rudimentary aspects of the game I decided to give it a go, and shelled out the requisite $20 for the full (beta) version.
That’s a deep mine…
The premise of the game is extremely simple. You’re thrust into a world where everything is made of blocks and at night time hordes of zombies and other nefarious creatures will emerge from the wilderness, baying for your blood. The tools you have at your disposal are only your blocky hands but the world of blocks around you can be used to your advantage. By cutting down trees you can make wood which can then be converted into a whole range of tools. The race is then on to create some kind of shelter before nightfall comes, so that you might have a place to hide when the horde arrives. As you progress deeper however you’ll begin to discover other rare and wonderful materials that can make even better tools and weapons, leading you to delve even deeper underground in order to find those precious resources.
However whilst the basic idea extends to only surviving through the night there’s the entire meta game of creating almost anything you can think of within the Minecraft world. The world’s resources are pretty much at your disposal and their block like nature means you can build almost anything out of them. This has lead to many people building extremely ornate structures within Minecraft, ranging from simple things like houses right up to the Starship Enterprise. As with any sandbox game I took the opportunity for absurdity as far as I could imagine it at the time building a 1 block wide tall spire high up into the clouds where I mounted my fortress of evil.
All that’s missing is an Eye of Sauron.
The basic game mechanic of Minecraft has a dinstinctly MMORPG feel to it. You start out by cutting down trees for wood so you can make a pick axe to mine cobblestone. You then use the cobblestone to make better tools in order to mine iron. You then use the iron to mine other resources like gold, diamond and redstone. Much like the gear grind that all MMORPGs take you through before you’re able to do the end content Minecraft gets you hooked in quickly with the first few resource levels passing quickly. Afterwards it’s a much longer slog to get the minerals you require to advance, usually requiring you to dig extremely deep to find them. Like any MMORPG though this mechanic is highly addictive, leading me to lose many hours searching for the next mineral vein so that I can craft that next item.
After the first week however I started to grow tired of the endless mining that didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I had dug all the way down to bedrock and had found numerous rare resources but seemed to be lacking the one mineral I needed to harvest them: iron. Googling around for a while lead me to figure out that I was digging far too deep to find much iron and that the best place to find resources was in randomly generated dungeons or caves, basically pre-hollowed out sections of the map that were always teaming with resources (and zombies). After randomly digging for a while I started hearing the distinctive zombie groan and I followed it to the ultimate prize.
Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff!
Exploring this find lead me onto a string of caves all containing the resources I needed to progress further and I was hooked again. Whilst the last few hours I’ve spent with Minecraft have focused more on extending my fortress of evil and the surrounding area I still find myself often taking a trip down into the mines in the hope of coming across another cave or mineral vein as the excitement of finding one is on par with getting some epic loots in a MMORPG. I also set about setting up a Minecraft server so that I could play along with some of my more dedicated Minecraft friends although with a server fan dying I’ve had to put that on hold until I can ensure that it won’t overheat with more than one person playing on it.
Would I recommend this game? Most definitely, especially if you’re the type that enjoys sandbox style games that allow almost unlimited creativity. I was the kind of person who lost hours in Gary’s Mod, making whacky contraptions and using them to unleash untold torment onto hordes of Half Life’s NPCs. The tables are very much turned in Minecraft’s world but it’s just as enjoyable and I have no doubt that anyone can lose a few good hours in it just exploring the retro world that Minecraft generates for you. The game is still technically in beta but for the price they’re asking it’s well worth the price of admission.
Minecraft is available for PC and web browser right now for a free trial or AU$20. Game was played on a local single player instance for the majority of game time with an hour or so spent on a multiplayer server. No rating is being assigned to this game as it’s still in beta.
At first glance Red Dead Redemption was a game that wasn’t up my alley at all. For starters whilst I love open worlds and the opportunities they allow for emergent gameplay I’m always cautious when it comes to sandbox style games. Rockstar has arguably mastered the format with their Grand Theft Auto series but even their most compelling release to date (GTA IV) failed to capture me long enough to play the game all the way to the end. Additionally I’ve never been much of a western fan instead finding myself engulfed in science fiction and pure fantasy, finding the genre to be a little too bland for my tastes. Still the hype and critical acclaim that Red Dead Redemption managed to garner itself was not lost on me and not having delved into a good console game in a while I set myself the goal of playing through this title to the bitter end. What followed was a highly engrossing tale that ultimately left me with feelings that I’m still working through as I write this post.
The story begins with you playing a grizzled cowboy named John Marston who appears to be forced onto a train against his will by some upper class looking folks. As the story progresses you find out that he used to run in a gang and the government is using him to track his friends down to either capture or kill them. His initial attempts don’t go so well but thanks to the kindness of some local strangers he makes it through. The tale then leads on from there in usual Rockstar style with story missions appearing on a radar marked with a letter and random missions popping up in the form of strangers asking for help, events happening as you ride by and a variety of mini-games to play to pass the time. The free form nature of the game enables you to craft your own unique story for John Marston as he wanders the wild west looking for his pals of a life he’s trying to leave behind.
Now credit here were it’s due. Rockstar have created a world that feels alive, open and deceptively real. There are vast, breathtaking vistas around almost every corner and even though you could ride across the entire place in less than half an hour you still have this undeniable feeling that you’re in a world that’s a million times bigger than yourself. The NPCs whilst extremely shallow in their depths of interactivity make the areas come alive with their sound bites of commentary and, once you hit a certain point, make you feel like a living legend. The addition of NPCs in the form of wildlife that form the basis of many mini games add that extra bit of flavour that make you feel like you’re actually out in the west, able to make your living off the land.
The actual gameplay of Red Dead Redemption is actually quite a complicated beast but in true Rockstar form it’s progressively revealed to you over the course of the introductory missions so that it doesn’t overwhelm you completely. The meat of the game lies within the storyline missions which can be activated by approaching any of the giant letters on your map. In addition to the story line missions there are also “stranger” missions where you can help out various people who you’ve only just met. When you’ve tapped out all of these options there’s also the mini games which take the form of various leisure activities you’d expect in the wild west (poker, blackjack, horseshoes, etc) as well as jobs which can include things like breaking horses, herding cattle and chasing down bounties.
Now I won’t lie to you but whilst there is an incredible breadth to the number of activities which you can do after a while they do start to sort of meld into each other. Many of the story line missions are quite similar in that you’ll go to the mission giver, see a cut scene, proceed to ride for about 5 minutes whilst Marston and whoever you picked up share some dialog and then you get to your destination to either shoot up some bad guys or do one of the mini games. It is enjoyable for the first couple times and the trip to the destination is quite reminiscent of what happened in the various GTA incarnations but after a while you get bored having to spend so long riding everywhere just so they can flesh out the characters a bit more. This is where the sandbox genre falls down in my opinion as while you can almost do anything in this world in the end it detracts from the uniqueness of the story line missions making everything feel like just another obstacle that needs to be passed.
Combat in Red Dead Redemption is nothing revolutionary in terms of what it accomplishes but does give enough variety to make sure you’re not left feeling like a one trick pony. Rockstar took the tried and true Gears of War style combat in that you’ll be running and gunning from behind cover whilst having no visible health bar (save for the sound going muted and the screen being covered in blood splatters). Shooters on consoles are notoriously fiddly and to combat this Rockstar added in an aimbot that locks onto a target if you aim in their general direction. Whilst I appreciated the addition (the game would’ve been tiresome without it) when it was taken away for certain things like say, using a gatling gun, I found myself hating these sequences rather than reveling in them. This was wholeheartedly made up for with the ability to be able to lasso and hogtie people in the game, which I used with reckless abandon whenever I had the chance. Strangely though you can’t hogtie any animal, even a hog! Although you are able to lasso them and, in what I assume is a bug, glide blissfully over any terrain as your prey runs scared from you. You can also do this with other people’s horses and is probably my favourite way to travel somewhere random when feeling bored in Red Dead Redemption.
PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW BELOW HERE:
Now as for the story and its conclusion those of you who followed me on Twitter can already guess as to how I felt about the whole ordeal. After spending 20 hours getting to know the man that was John Marston I’ll admit I became sentimentally attached to the former criminal who’s been trying to mend his ways. After chasing down the last of his former gang and riding home to the tear inducing song Compass by Jamie Lidell I fully expected to see the credits role as John embraced Abegail for the first time in what felt like forever. However the proceeding missions felt hollow as they put you right back at the start of the game and strip you of a few key things (like being able to change your outfit). I knew that in the end something bad was coming for him but really what eventuated was worse than I thought of.
You see in the final moments of John’s life where he’s gunned down by no less than 20 American soldiers there was nothing really noble about it. I can appreciate the noble sacrifice for his wife and son (who are now free from his past) and the harsh reality is that it probably rings true to what would of happened back in those days. Still I wanted at least the opportunity to be able to make a last stand that would end in a shoot out that I couldn’t win instead of Marston walking out and being cowardly gunned down. I also admit that my anger at John’s end stems from a real feeling of grief at his loss, as just writing that down has me fighting back a tear.
In the end I do what I always do when that happens, I look for answers. After looking around for a bit I found that there was a stranger mission available after the end where Jack gets revenge for his father. I went and did it and whilst I felt somewhat redeemed in the fact that Edgar Ross finally got what he deserved (with me emptying at least 15 bullets into him) there was still this hollow feeling I couldn’t shake, almost to the point of me loading up my last saved game with Marston still alive in it so I could pretend like it never happened.
In the end Rockstar made yet another great game that has captured the hearts of nearly everyone who’s played it. Whilst I might be uncomfortable with the last few hours I spent with it I still can’t deny the fact I spent a good 20 hours of my life on the game and I don’t regret a single minute of it. The game is not without its issues but if you’re a fan of Rockstar and the sandbox worlds that they create then you won’t feel out of place in the wild west world of Red Dead Redemption.
Red Dead Redemption is available right now on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 right now for AU$88 and AU$88 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 3 with around 21 hours of reported play time and 73% overall completion.
If I’m seriously playing a game I find it hard to take the evil/jerk options if I’m given the choice. Maybe it’s because I like to think of myself as an upstanding member of society and being a total ass in games runs counter to that line but it’s probably because I like being the hero loved by everyone rather than the dark tyrant conquering the world. Still if there’s marked differences between the good and evil choices and the game is good enough to warrant a second playthrough (like Mass Effect 1 did, I haven’t done it with 2) I’ll usually go the other way just to get that experience. However I’ve found that, usually in sandbox type games, once I get bored with certain aspects of the game I have a tendency to switch into what I call Jerk Mode where I start messing with the game and its people in any way possible usually with hilarious results (for me anyway).
I hadn’t really done this in quite a while until I recently began trying to play through Red Dead Redemption. I had fully expected the game to be done in about 15 hours but after spending that long on primarily slogging through the story line missions I started to get a little bored with the world I had been in for so long. What followed was a classic example of Jerk Mode engaging as I began hog tying the entire town of Blackwater, punching up horses and eventually letting off hundreds of rounds in the middle of town just so I could find where the last free roaming citizens were hiding only to add them to my pile of hog tied comrades. Why the in game police take offense when I look at them the wrong way when holding a knife but barely give me a second look when I have a pile of 20 hostages tied up is beyond me, but it was quite comical when they’d walk past saying “Good day Mr Marsten”.
I’ve also found myself in Jerk Mode whenever I’m watching someone play a game that allows you to break things in extremely funny ways. I remember watching one of my housemates play Fallout 3 just after it was released and he remarked on how he could kill anyone in the game, even the core story NPCs. What ensued was an hour of me watching him over the shoulder and telling him to beat up everyone he came across, just because it would be funny. To his credit he never relented although what followed was me installing the game afterwards and acting out my twisted sense of humour on the poor citizens of the Fallout world, much to his dismay.
Looking back at all the games that were privvy to my jerky behaviour I come to realise how much it endeared the games to me. Once I had got to that point of boredom in any other game I would have simply stopped playing them and found something else to fill my time. With the ability to change my playstyle completely and fool around for a while I’d end up spending quite a lot more time with the games than I usually would and, most interestingly, enjoy them quite a lot more. It could be that I’m just supressing my inner jerk and these few times are the moments when he comes out to play but there’s something to be said for a game that allows the player who has lost interest in the game to immediately rekindle it, even if that means toturing the poor NPCs of the game’s virtual world.
My gut feeling about where this behaviour stems from is that open worlds with emergent properties really didn’t exist up until about 5 years or so ago and now that I have the opportunity I’m reveling in a new found freedom. As someone who’s been a gamer for as long as he was able to muster the hand eye co-ordination required to play them I lived through the days when the games were barely able to stray from the linear formula. Today however it seems odd when games don’t incorporate real world physics, meaningful choices and at least the feeling of a big wide world that you can bend to your whim. Sure there’s still great experiences to be had with strictly linear games but I’ll always have a soft spot for games that keep me hanging around for a little while after I’m done with them, unleashing my inner jerk on the world.