There aren’t many games that can get away with providing essentially the same experience over and over again whilst still being successful. Rarer still are long running IPs that, when they try to change up the formula, get lambasted for deviating from their core experience. So it seems is what has drawn the ire of many a gamer with Just Cause 4 as it’s move away from the core destruction mechanic has seen many long term fans unhappy with the direction that the game has taken. Once again though I find myself on the opposite side of popular opinion as Just Cause 4 managed to keep me engaged far longer than any of its predecessors did. Not that that means a whole lot given that many of the issues that plagued the past instalments are still present in this most recent instalment.
Once again you take control of Rico Rodriguez, former Agency operative and freedom fighter who’s been liberating dictatorships for most of his adult life. After the events of Just Cause 3, you are approached Mira Morales who convinces you to come to Solís to uncover the truth about Project Illapa, a weather weapon that Rico’s father had a hand in creating. What follows is the usual tale of fighting back against the oppressive dictatorship using any means necessary, picking apart their power structure whilst bolstering your own.
The Just Cause series has never been known for being graphically advanced and the latest instalment is no exception. Whilst the open world environments can certainly have their moments that all fades away rather quickly when you get up close, revealing previous generation graphics that are focused on performance more than anything else. There’s good reason for that of course as you’ll be taxing the physics and rendering engine constantly with all the random chaos you’ll be creating as you play. You’ll also need to do some tweaking as some of the more modern settings will do nothing but highlight the flaws in the graphics, like the motion blur and level of detail settings which can make everything look truly horrific if set incorrectly (which they are, by default). You will encounter performance issues but this is largely expected for games like this, ones where the whole point of the game is to get the physics engine to freak out and do some impressively crazy things.
Just Cause 4 retains many of the features of its predecessors whilst changing the fundamental progression mechanic (much the chagrin of its fans, so it seems). Instead of simply causing chaos by blowing this up and being a general nuisances now you’re the head of an army and you’ll need to gather troops in order to liberate areas. You still earn troops by increasing your chaos level but it’s painfully slow and other mechanics provide a much faster route to progression. Other than that the game is the same as you’ll remember it from previous instalments including the grappling hook (which now has a bunch of mods built in), leaderboards for feats that let you battle with friends and a whole raft of open world missions for you to do in order to unlock upgrades for your gear.
The combat in Just Cause 4 feels like it did in the past: chaotic, awkward and mostly enjoyable. The main issue is mobility as there’s no sprint, instead you’re suppose to grapple your way around. This is equal parts fun and frustrating as its quite easy to get yourself into awkward positions in the heat of battle. Thankfully the combat is pretty forgiving, only requiring a couple seconds of not getting shot to get you back up to full health. The weapons are also a bit samey and many of them are really ineffective against the higher tiers of enemies you’ll face. There are, of course, some absolutely ludicrous guns which are a bunch of fun to use, one of which (the lightning gun) can be both the best and worst thing for you and your enemies. After the first few fights though there’s not much variation in the encounters, the challenge instead coming from increasing numbers of enemies and waves. All in all it’s a very middle of the road experience.
The progression mechanic, where you need to acquire troops to push the front line forward and unlock a new area (giving you access to new things in your supply drops), is honestly quite laborious at first. In the early days the only way to get more troops is to increase your chaos level and this is painfully slow. I vaguely recall there being increasing multipliers in previous instalments that went up as you chained more destruction together. In Just Cause 4 there’s only one, when the “heat” is on, which is 2X and doesn’t seem to make much of an impact. This means that for the first couple hours you’re basically going to be grinding chaos in order to progress and, honestly, it was at this point that I almost put down the game.
After the first few areas though you’ll be able to unlock areas that give you troops rather than use them and you’ll quickly have more than you can use. Most areas will still require you to complete an in-region mission in order to unlock them and they are unfortunately quite repetitive, all requiring you to perform a multi-stage task in order to unlock the region. If you’re a fan of well laid out progression paths, as I am, then this is something that will keep you coming back as you’ll know how much effort you need to put in to unlock the next thing. If you were a fan of the previous system however it’s likely to be a right pain in the ass as the free form “just blow shit up” progression is gone, replaced with a repetitive grind. As someone who’d previously cheated his way through the game to unlock the campaign missions I actually prefer the way Just Cause 4 does it but I completely understand those who aren’t exactly enamored with the change.
Of course it wouldn’t be a proper Just Cause release without it being riddled with bugs, glitches and crashes galore. I had the game crash on me multiple times, sometimes when I was deliberately testing its limits and other times when nothing particularly special was happening on screen. The physics engine is as complete as any other Just Cause game, meaning there’s going to be a lot of interactions that don’t make a ton of sense. For instance I tied two of the large round fuel tanks together with the pull grapple and they started rolling towards each other. Instead of exploding in a glorious fireball they instead rolled through each other which was both disappointing and confusing. I also won’t delve into what a mess the vehicle system is, nor the default control scheme which circumvents all major game conventions for its own brand of weirdness. All of this won’t come as a surprise to fans of the series but if you’re new to it be warned, this is a high budget game that comes with high levels of jank.
The story has thankfully shed much of its borderline racist parts whilst still retaining its rather light on approach to character and plot development. It’s certainly built for long time fans of the series, bringing back the usual cast of returning characters whilst attempting to flesh out Rico’s backstory a little more. The rest of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, serving really only to support the cliche action movie style plot that’s common to the Just Cause franchise. Of course no one is playing Just Cause games for the story, although it seems a few reviews don’t seem particularly happy with the new tact that Avalanche has taken here, but if you were hoping that the narrative here would be one of the things that’d keep you engaged you’d be sorely mistaken.
Just Cause 4 is more of the same from Avalanche Studio’s flagship IP with one small difference which seems to have gain the disapproval of many of its fans. For myself I did manage to find more enjoyment in this instalment than I have in previous ones, however many of the core issues that have plagued the series for almost a decade now are still there. It’s certainly a fun distraction, likely worth picking up on sale, but if this is going to be your first time in the Just Cause series your money might be better spent elsewhere.
Just Cause 4 is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 13 hours play time and 32% of the achievements unlocked.
Back in the day when computer graphics weren’t as capable as they are today the inclusion of full motion video was a pretty standard affair. As time went on it faded away and was mostly relegated to being a novelty for the few games that used it. The last few years have seen a resurgence of these mixed-media titles with some great examples like Quantum Break and The Late Shift showing what is possible when the line between games and movies begins to blur. Then you get the horrific messes like The Quiet Man which makes all the mistakes you could possibly think of when it comes to crossing media bounds; both in terms of how it tells a story from a cinematic perspective and how to deliver an actual, functional game.
I’m just thankful that no one but the most avid of game reviewers is likely to ever come across this.
There’s a plot in here somewhere however you’re not likely to understand what it is, I sure as shit don’t, because apart from a few breadcrumbs of dialogue at the start the game’s audio is all weird muffled sounds. Now this wouldn’t be an issue usually, I’ve played my fair share of games without a lick of dialogue, but the problem here is that much of the story is bound up in that dialogue. The game tells you at the start that subtitles will only appear for stuff you’re supposed to know but even that’s not consistent as you don’t even get subtitles when your own character is talking. So what you get is a bunch of FMV vignettes interspersed with short game play sections that appear to tell some kind of story but without any scraps of that dialogue making it through to you what you get is really a horrendously confused mess.
The Quiet Man has the audacity to bill itself as a game that(and I’m quoting from the Steam page here) “delivers an immersive story driven cinematic action experience seamlessly blending high-production live action, realistic CG and pulse-pounding action gameplay”. If you would care to cast your eyes down to the screenshot below you’ll see an example of their “realistic” CG which is honestly about 5 years behind what I’d consider passable for good graphics these days. Even worse than this is all the animations are horribly stiff and unrealistic, making the below par visuals stand out even more. Honestly I would’ve given them a pass on it if they hadn’t lauded it in their opening statement on the sale page but, come on guys, when you say realistic CG and then deliver this you deserve to get criticised for it.
Now mixed-media games, depending on how they blend the various elements together, aren’t renowned for having in depth game mechanics. Still that doesn’t usually matter as long as whatever is there is in aid of the story (since most games like this tend to be narrative-first) but The Quiet Man’s beat em up mechanic is simplistic, repetitive and worst of all terribly inconsistent. It definitely takes inspiration from other games like Batman: Arkham Asylum but it lacks any shred of refinement. There’s a bunch of fight mechanics in there that are available to you however the game never tells you how to use them, nor does it introduce challenges to you in such a way as to demonstrate how they should be used. The only way the challenge increases is that the game will throw more enemies at you in one go which just invites the already janky mechanics to start spazzing out with reckless abandon making even the simplest fight a real chore. Again I was almost willing to forgive this until the game threw about 10 fights in a row at me that were basically all the same and then the game crashed, forcing me to replay all of them again as it only checkpoints at the start of scenes.
All of this isn’t the game’s greatest sin however, that lies in the horrendous approach they took to building a story around the fact the main character is deaf. Instead of building a game (and the associated FMV sections) up from the point of view that your character can’t hear, making use of other storytelling mechanisms to convey its meaning across, they did the opposite. This means that they essentially finished a full game and move, sound design and all, then bastardised the thing into a muddled mess by removing a critical piece of the narrative structure. It wasn’t even done in a way that makes logical sense, I.E. I don’t understand when people sign at me nor do I even understand anything when the character I’m playing is speaking to others.
If this was some experimental, indie project it’d be one thing but this is Square Enix publishing something from Human Head Studios, you know the ones who gave us the original Prey. That means this entire experience, end to end, made it through various levels of testing and review before it was dumped on the market. How they didn’t pick up on the fact that this was such a hot mess is beyond me. Of course there’s a possibility that they did and just wanted to make whatever cash they could but honestly, the people involved in this should have known better. They had aspirations of doing something like Quantum Break but should have tilted much more towards something like Late Shift as the actual game components add absolutely nothing to the story at all.
The Quiet Man fails to achieve anything that it set out to do, instead providing a frustrating, confusing experience for those who’d dare give it the time of day. The approach and execution of the creative vision is completely backwards, failing to make a compelling narrative or a game with any merit. As a mixed media production this is probably as bad as I’ve ever seen as even the games of yesteryear, with their cheesey overacting and extraordinarily poor writing, still at the very least had a kind of kitschy appeal to them. The Quiet Man lacks any of this and should serve as a black mark against the companies published it. To those who worked on these titles I’m so sorry this happened to you, I know marketing and publishing are likely the cause for this trainwreck (and not your skill as a developer), but that still doesn’t mean that the sins that The Quiet Man commits can be forgiven.
The Quiet Man is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $17.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours play time and 77% of the achievements unlocked.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s release surprised me as I hadn’t really kept track of where the next instalment was at. You’d think then that I’d have no big expectations for it but reading back over my reviews though I think they were set high given the previous game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, rated up there among many of my favourite games of that year. This is always a challenge for follow up titles and it seems that unfortunately the developers just weren’t up to the task this time around. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to like in the newest Tomb Raider game, but like many other long running AAA titles they’ve stumbled and they’re going to have to shake things up considerably if they want the IP to be successful.
Following almost directly on from the events at the end of the previous game we find Lara and Jona tracking down the leaders of the Trinity cult. They track them down to a town in Mexico where they discover that they’re looking for an ancient artifact that can bring about the remaking of the world. Lara then finds her way into an ancient temple and steals the Dagger of Ix Chel, one part of the two things needed to accomplish this. Shortly after however she’s captured by Trinity who take the dagger from her, informing Lara that she’s just begun the end of the world. You then follow Lara’s quest to find the other half piece, the Silver Box of Chak Chel, so she can stop Trinity before they remake the world by purging everyone from it.
I can strongly remember Rise of the Tomb Raider opening with a wide sweeping in-game cinematic that was absolutely stunning, showing right from the start that it was a visual marvel. Shadow of the Tomb Raider by comparison doesn’t, feeling decidedly last-gen with its muted colour palettes and tendency towards tight, closed in set pieces. Now I’ll admit that it’s quite possible some of this is due to the limits of the hardware it’s running on, given my PC is nearing 4 years old at this point, but even looking back at my old screenshots they just look so much better than the ones I have here. Rise of the Tomb Raider still has its moments, some of them which can be improved dramatically by using the built in photographer mode (not used for any of these shots), but on the whole it feels like a step back in visual quality. Given that this was supposed to be the biggest budget Tomb Raider game yet, up to $100 million possibly, it does make me wonder why the graphics took a bit of a back seat.
Where Tomb Raider reinvented, Rise refined and Shadow, unfortunately, simply copies most things wholesale from its predecessors. The game play will be familiar to those who’ve played the previous two instalments with a handful of new mechanics being thrown in. You’ll start off with a lot of abilities now I vaguely remember requiring skill points to unlock previously, many of which were necessary quality of life improvements. The upgrade and crafting system is much the same, requiring a mish mash of different items gathered from both humans and beasts in order to get the best items the game has to offer. There’s also a bunch of outfits and other weapon types available for you to find if you’re into exploring every inch of the maps that the game has to offer. Many other reviews have criticised the game for becoming stale and it’s a valid point as Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t bring enough new things to the table to make it feel truly distinct from its predecessor.
The stealth/combat is almost identical to Rise of the Tomb Raider with really only two new notable mechanics: covering yourself in mud and hiding on leafy walls. They’re introduced early but they don’t really make much of an impact in how combat plays out. It’s only towards the end when the enemies get infrared goggles does the mud mechanic make some sense but even then it’s not a huge change in the way stealth sections play out. So the combat flow follows the same pattern that a lot of games do: stealth around and take out as many enemies as you can before you inevitably trip up and have to go full gunslinger mode. There doesn’t appear to be much (if any) penalty for just shooting up everything in sight either so if you’re not really a fan of the stealth sections then you can simply blast right past them all. This would be more glaring if there was the same amount of combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider as there was in previous games but I probably spent less than half of my total game time in combat.
There’s definitely a much heavier emphasis on platforming this time around with a lot more of the environments explorable. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does make that most annoying choice of showing you parts of the map you can’t access until you get a certain item, something which always gives me the shits. This was especially annoying given that the fast travel system never seemed to be available for me, preventing me from going back to places even after I had unlocked the requisite gear. There also appears to be some gear that you don’t get from completing the campaign missions as well (the rope ascender being the first that comes to mind) and I never saw it at any vendors either. So I’m not sure what happened there but even at the end of the game I didn’t have all the tools I needed to explore every part of the game. I’ll admit that towards the end I was starting to lose interest quickly so I might have missed some important side quest or some such which might’ve given me those tools I needed. Still my point stands: showing a player somewhere they can explore but forcing them to come back later is crap and I don’t like it.
Progression comes at a pretty steady pace throughout the game with basically every action you take giving you XP. There’s still a lot of skills which aren’t particularly useful and some that honestly shouldn’t be there at all. For instance the one that allows you to buy bigger resource bags from vendors feels a bit shit, it should just increase the one you have already. In fact the steady levelling is offset somewhat by the rather high cost of items bought from vendors and the fact that you have to buy the lesser version of something before you can buy the bigger one. Had I known that going in I might’ve been a little more strategic with how I spent my cash. Still it’s not like anything I bought from the vendors make a great deal of difference to how I played. The different bows and other types of weapons all feel basically the same, none conferring any real advantage or disadvantage over the other. Indeed you’re probably best placed just fully upgrading the defaults as you won’t really need much else.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider has a few rough edges, most notably in the platforming sections when Lara doesn’t respond to inputs as you’d expect her to. Quite often I had her leap in an unintended direction because I wasn’t angled in exactly the right way, causing her to leap to her doom. There’s also a few sections which, for some reason, instantly kill you when they shouldn’t, like the big tower which you can explore if you take one path down but will die instantly if you jump to it (even though it’s a fully survivable jump). The aiming also feels a little unrefined with a lot of shots that should have connected whiffing their target completely. None of this is game breaking but it does feel a little more rough than an AAA title like this should.
The story dives deeper into the Lara’s family history and the ties it has to the Trinity organisation which is, on the whole, not bad. It does jump around a fair bit with events unfolding a bit too fast which makes some plot points a little unbelievable. This has nothing to do with the mystic elements either, more you have character relationships developing too fast, events taking place in weirdly accelerated time frames and a lack of moments to let the story breathe. Indeed a lot of the flavour of the game is hidden in the collectibles which are all fully voiced but will only play if you stay in the inventory screen. It’s a big missed opportunity to have them playing in the background as you walk around as some of them are quite interesting. It’s not like they didn’t do that for other parts of the story too, like when you sit around the camp to upgrade your skills and Lara will either chat with people that are around or go through her internal monologues. Overall I think the story was probably one of the stronger elements of this instalment, it was just let down by the so-so game play.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be a fine game by any other standards but it seems small compared to the shoulders of the giants it stands on. The game feels like a step back for the series as a whole, with a lack of innovation and refinement in nearly all aspects of the game. It’s still very much the kind of game that rekindled the IP over 5 years ago, which might be great for some, but I’d want to see a lot more for the kind of investment the developers have made in it. To be fair it would’ve been hard to continue going from strength to strength, the weight of the hype train always weighs heavily, but for this reviewer Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels to be the weakest in the series. I still have hope for the franchise but at this time of year, when competition for a gamer’s attention is never greater, these kinds of missteps can be lethal.
Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours of total playtime and 52% of the achievements unlocked.
Games that utilise hand drawn animation are few and far between, with good reason. Whilst the tools to make games have gotten exponentially better, allowing many to try their hand at it, there’s a non-trivial amount of work involved in hand drawing all the frames required to make a game playable. So whenever I come across a title like Forgotton Anne I’m always intrigued as the effort that goes into creating a title like it is always far greater than similar indie games. Whilst this first release from ThroughLine games might not hit all the right marks mechanically there’s no denying that it was created with a lot of passion for the story, artwork and overall experience.
The Forgotten Lands is a place where all the lost and forgotten things end up, from that sock you lost under your bed all those years ago to the couch that was left on the side of the road. These forgotlings live in a whimsical world powered by anima, a magical essence that gives these objects life and a will of their own. You play as Anne, one of only two humans who’ve managed to find themselves in this world. Master Bhoku, your father figure and teacher, has been working on a way to get you both back to the human world called the Ether Bridge. However a rogue faction of rebel forgotlings will stop at nothing to curtail his plans, culminating in a brash attack on the factory just when it was scheduled to be completed. Anne must now go on a journey to find the culprits and bring them to justice.
The Ghibli-esque art style with the majority of the animation being hand drawn isn’t something you see every day and certainly speaks to the level of dedication the developers and art team had in creating Forgotton Anne. Most animation sequences are pretty low frame rate however, something which is quite noticeable on a high frame rate monitor. Still a lot of care was paid to the small details, like Anne’s skirt fluttering as she runs, making it easy to gloss over the lack of animation frames. It’s not all hand drawn however as many sections make use of lighting and particle effects from the Unity engine that powers it. Backing the entire game is a wonderful orchestral score which brings everything together beautifully. For the first title from a new studio Forgotton Anne certainly sets the bar high.
Forgotton Anne is an adventure game at heart, keeping the mechanics simple so that it tends more towards letting the story push forward rather than bog you down in puzzles. The core mechanic is the arca, a magical device on Anne’s hand that can extract and infuse anima. Essentially it allows you to operate devices at range and most puzzles involve trying to figure out which levers you need to pull in what order to open the next door. It also functions as a plot device, allowing you to drain anima from forgotlings which can persuade them to talk or, if you feel like you have to, kill them outright. Of course you may not want to do that as the choices you make will have a meaningful impact on the story and some forgotlings are better off alive and useful rather than dead and out of the way. The simple mechanics will mean that Forgotton Anne should be approachable to a wide audience however there’s a few rough edges (like the platforming) that could do with a bit more attention.
Of the two core mechanics the platforming is by far the weaker of the two, feeling somewhat unrefined and cumbersome. Due to the way that the animations play out it’s hard to judge just exactly when you should jump as she may or may not jump exactly when you command it. Worse still it’s hard to know sometimes if you engaged either her sprint or wings before you jump, leading to a lot of missed ledges or even overshooting it completely. Thankfully the platforming sections are typically pretty forgiving, allowing you as many retries as you need, but when a game demands precision but doesn’t provide it to you it can be a little frustrating. I don’t believe this is beyond fixing however it may demand changes to the way animations work so I’m not sure if it will get fixed any time soon.
The puzzles themselves aren’t particularly challenging, usually just a series of levers or switches that need to be activated in a certain order to get things working. The only challenging ones are those that come with timed aspects, mostly because you’ll have to fight with the platforming mechanics a little bit in order to complete them. The simplicity in the puzzles is, I believe, done so that they don’t get in the way of story progression something which a lot of indie games are guilty of doing. This means that the story continues at a steady pace for the entire game with no part feeling too rushed or too slow. Considering that my play through clocked in at about 6 hours total that means there’s a good chunk of story to get through.
Like adventure games of old Forgotton Anne rewards those who explore with a litany of collectibles scattered around that provide some additional flavour text to the story. Whilst I didn’t personally hunt down every single item I did manage to find just over half of them in my travels. There’s no secret ending for collecting them all or anything so there’s no reason to track them down beyond the little bits of story and an achievement or two. If you were to look for them all I’d guess you’d probably spend another couple hours doing so which isn’t too bad, all things considered.
The story of Forgotton Anne is a complex tale that ebbs and flows based on the decisions you make. The main storyline is immutable as far as I can tell but how the dialogue plays out, how characters react to you and what options you have available all depend on the choices you make. However some choices feel like their antithetical to what Anne’s character was before you start playing the game. When you start out it seems you have a reputation for being a stern enforcer of the rules with many forgotlings treating you with fear rather than respect. However throughout the course of the story you’re able to reshape that significantly and, should you do that, many of the characters will change as well. At the start it feels a little weird, like Anne is spinning on a dime if you play a certain way, but once you’ve started to shape the story a bit it starts to make sense.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The way the story plays out is somewhat predictable due to the way the mechanics are laid out. Since you know that anima powers everything and your arca can extract it from forgotlings it follows that you’d have to be committing murder on a massive scale to get the anima you’d need. So it follows that Master Bhoku is the real villain, something which takes a little too long to reveal in my opinion. Picking your ending also feels a little hollow, especially for a game that based itself so heavily on player choice. Indeed looking at a blog post from the developer they alluded to no less than 6 possible endings sprouting from 3 different story trees however, as far as I and many others can tell, there’s only the 2 presented at the end. I’m not at all unhappy with those endings mind, indeed the “good” ending is a tragedy done exceptionally well, but it seems like in the months between that post and today several endings were lost, which is a shame. Overall the predictably didn’t diminish my enjoyment of Forgotton Anne at all.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Forgotton Anne is a rare gem of a game, one built with an incredible amount of dedication to the experience and story. The hand drawn art and animation is a gorgeous tribute to the anime that inspired it with the modern game engine embellishments providing that extra dash of visual flair. The platforming is probably the game’s weakest part, suffering from a lack of polish and limitations likely born out of the animation engine that mar the experience. The puzzles are simple, meant not to block you but give the story time to rest between sections. The story itself, whilst predictable, is still thoroughly enjoyable especially given the amount of influence you choices have. ThroughLine games first release is an exceptional one, showing that the team has the requisite skill to build unique experiences right from day 1. I’m very much looking forward to where they go next.
Forgotton Anne is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 45% of the achievements unlocked.
When I reviewed Inside last year I remarked that Playdead had modernised the formula they pioneered with Limbo many years prior. With Limbo it took many years before other games seeking to emulate the style would come out and I had expected similar with Inside. However here we are barely a year later and we have a game that, on first glance, seems to be heavily influenced by Inside both in terms of aesthetics and mechanics. Indeed even digging into the game’s development history you see how heavily Playdead’s games influence Black the Fall, with the original bearing an uncanny resemblance to Limbo and the subsequent versions looking a lot more like Inside. Of course emulating greatness doesn’t mean that you’ll attain it and whilst Black the Fall is good simulacrum of a Playdead game it fails to attain the same heights as that developer’s titles do.
Black the Fall transports you back to an alt-history communist Romania, putting you in charge of an old machinist who’s lived in the oppressive regime for decades. However today he decides that enough is enough and it is time to make his escape. Along the way he discovers an unlikely companion: a small robot who was caged up and left behind to rust. Will their quest to escape their oppressive leaders be successful? Or will the world devour them before they ever get the chance.
Black the Fall has the unmistakable Unity game feel, lacking the finesse that other titles have in hiding the telltale signs that the default engine configuration leaves behind. The low poly/cartoony look is very reminiscent of Inside, as is the use of a fixed camera that pans around the environment for cinematic effect. Truth be told the Inside-esque visuals were what drew me to the game in the first place and whilst they might not be up to the same standard they are most certainly a step above similar Unity based titles. What could really use some love is the animations, especially the main character. Looking at them closely they all have the signs of hand-animation, something which is honestly a rarity to see these days. Considering that all you need is a Kinect to get decent motion capture data I’m not sure why you’d go the manual route these days.
Unsurprisingly the game play of Black the Fall is a side-scrolling, puzzle platformer. Pretty much all the puzzles are single rooms with everything required to solve them available in the one spot. None of them are very complex and thankfully the time limited puzzles are limited. The tutorial for mechanics are cleverly hidden in various signs and artefacts that make up the game’s background, meaning that every time a new mechanic is introduced you should have a general idea of how it functions. For myself there were a few instances where the developer’s logic didn’t gel with mine however most of those could be put down to me misinterpreting various visual cues. There’s really not much more to Black the Fall than that and for the most part it’s executed well.
There is some issues with the hit detection however which can cause an incredible amount of frustration. One section in particular, the one in the factory where you have to avoid being cut into strips by big spinning blades, stands out in my mind. At the end it’s obvious you have to jump onto an overhanging bar to proceed. However just jumping straight up isn’t sufficient, you have to do a running jump. “That’s obvious!” I hear you say, well it’s not when your character’s jump height doesn’t appear to visually change between a running and standing jump, but it does in the code behind. Other sections had similar issues with my character not latching onto ledges, refusing to interact with objects and other slight annoyances which made otherwise simple sections horrendously irritating. I’d like to say that a little more dev time could have polished over these rough edges but Black the Fall was already released 2 years after their original Kickstarter promised delivery date.
The story likely has more of an impact for those who lived under such regimes but for someone like me there wasn’t much to appreciate. Sure, I can understand the oppression that these regimes imposed on their people but Black the Fall doesn’t provide a new perspective on the matter. Instead it’s your run of the mill escape the oppressive regime story, one that doesn’t have anything unique or interesting about it. In this case the addition of a narrator or something else to give a deeper insight into what was happening on screen could have done much to improve player immersion and the emotional impact of the story. As it stands Black the Fall doesn’t do much of anything, at least not for this writer.
Black the Fall pays homage to Playdead’s masterful side-scrollers but does little to push that genre forward itself. The graphics, whilst retaining some of the default Unity engine’s branding, are a solid emulation of the Playdead style although the animations could use some work. The mechanics are simple, and, for the most part well implemented save for some hit detection issues that plague certain sections. The story may resonate for some but does little to show an unique perspective on well trodden ground. Overall Black the Fall is an adequate game but one that stays firmly in the shadows of the games it seeks to emulate.
Black the Fall is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with 3.2 hours of total playtime and 43% of the achievements unlocked.
It is rare to find games that manage to blend all of their components together into a cohesive whole. Even the most well resourced project will still suffer from the pains of integrating everything together, often leading to one or more parts just not feeling right. Games that do manage to do this however set the standard for those to come, showing that mechanics, story and sound can all be joined together to become greater than any one component. Such is The Turing Test, a near perfect combination of all its elements that makes for one of the most enthralling gaming experiences of this year.
You play as Eva, a pilot put into hibernation in orbit around Europa to act as a safe guard for the ground team on Earth. You are awoken to find out that your station AI, Tom, has lost contact with the ground team and needs you to re-establish contact with them. Upon landing you find that the entry to the base has been reconfigured in such a way that Tom cannot make his way past it alone. It is now up to you to make your way deep into the base to find out what happened to the crew and, hopefully, bring them back under the watchful eye of Tom.
The Turing Test does quite a lot with very little, the graphics erring towards visual simplicity more than anything else. It’s very reminiscent of Portal with all of the set pieces feeling like they were born out of the same design team. In puzzle based games like this such simplicity is definitely a plus, drawing your focus to the challenge at hand. The game definitely has that Unreal engine feel to it with its trademark visual flairs like its specularity mapping. It should come as no surprise then that The Turing Test ran flawlessly on my current rig and I’d suspect it’d run just fine on run of the mill hardware.
Mechanically The Turing Test is just your typical first person, physics based puzzler. Each room contains within it all the tools for you to progress through to the next challenge which is always just getting to the next room. The puzzles start off simple, requiring you to just find the right combination of what goes where, but quickly ramps up after that. In the end you’ll be facing timing puzzles, non-linear progressions and various other challenges that all seem impossible at first until you look at them from the right angle. The simple mechanics means it’s very quick to pick up and, honestly, not too hard to master either.
Now for some this might be seen as a downside as the satisfaction in puzzlers comes from the challenge in solving them. However in The Turing Test’s case the simple puzzles are part of the game’s overall rhythm. They’re designed to be solved at a certain rate, one that allows the story to progress at a steady rate. Indeed even with perfect knowledge of how to solve them I believe you’d still only just get through one puzzle before the dialogue dried up. Too often developers would include other time-wasting mechanics to extend the game’s play time but The Turing Test doesn’t. This means that both the story and game progress together, ensuring that the neither one gets in the way of the other.
This is then all brilliantly amplified by the sound track which ebbs and flows in sync with the game. Too often game soundtracks are overlooked, left as just something that needs to be there rather than an integral part of the game. Indeed for many of the recent games I’ve played I couldn’t really tell you if I enjoyed the sound track or not, it simply left no impression on me. The Turing Test however does a wonderful job of integrating the background music into the events happening in the game, amplifying all of the game’s pivotal moments.
The story itself, whilst not original nor inventive by any stretch of the imagination, is aptly paced and perfectly in sync with all of The Turing Test’s other elements. That is on the proviso though that you only play through the main areas and don’t go to the sides however. If you do unlock the secret rooms (which aren’t hard to find nor solve) the story has a very weird disconnection between what your character should know and what they appear to know. Whilst I’m sure there are some great theories as to why that could be due to the way the game’s world is set up that’s a conversation for another day.
Each of these elements, simple and concise in their own right, would only make for an average game if simply thrown together. The real beauty of The Turing Test is how well these are all worked together, the various elements integrated so well that they are much more than they are separately. Had this game been released in a world that was bereft of Portal or The Talos Principle it would be a shining star of inventive, thought provoking game play. Even in the shadow of those titles The Turing Test still stands out as an excellent piece of craftsmanship, one that should be lauded for aspiring for greatness that it easily achieves.
The only real niggle I’ll have at this otherwise exceptional game is that, due to the nature of its physically based puzzles, emergent game play can sometimes lead you astray. I’m quite sure there were several puzzles I solved in ways that wasn’t intended, mostly because I ended up at the exit door with more puzzle pieces than were required to solve it. Depending on how you swing though this might be part of the charm as I’m sure there’s numerous ways to break the puzzles. It should say a lot that that’s my only complaint about this otherwise fantastic game.
The Turing Test is a brilliant, well crafted example of what games can accomplish when all of their elements work with each other. Each element on its own is simple, from the visuals to the mechanics to the sound track, however together they form a cohesive whole that’s very much greater than the sum of its parts. The total game time doesn’t run long, maybe 3~5 hours depending on how much of a puzzle nut you are, but that entire time could be easily done in a single sitting. The Turing Test is one of those games that I will wholeheartedly recommend to any gamer as it really is worth the time.
The Turing Test is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total playtime and 93% of the achievements unlocked.
Tomb Raider’s reboot of 3 years ago was a successful one, reinvigorating a franchise that had been sidelined by newer IPs in the same genre. Indeed it was the first Tomb Raider game I had played in many years as the bug ridden Underworld was simply unplayable. The reboot was enough to spark my interest in the IP again and since the sequel was announced about a year later I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next instalment. The (thankfully short) timed exclusivity to the XboxOne was a little annoying, since I had to dodge more reviews and articles than I usually do, but finally last week I spent a good chunk of time playing through the latest Tomb Raider.
Rise of the Tomb Raider begins about a year after the events in the preceding instalment. Lara, after witnessing many supernatural occurrences on the island of Yamatai, seeks out answers in her father’s research notes. There she finds his white whale: the lost city of Kitezh which supposedly holds the key to immortality. Her quest sends her to Syria where she seeks out the lost tomb of an ancient prophet linked to the legend of Kitezh. It’s there however that she comes face to face with an organisation called Trinity: an ancient order dedicated to seeking out the supernatural and taking it for themselves. Lara is undeterred however and travels to Siberia where she believes the lost city of Kitezh resides.
The production values of Rise of the Tomb Raider are exceptionally high with every aspect of the game above the standard I’ve come to expect for AAA titles. Visually it is incredibly impressive with the environments being rich and detailed, ranging from wide open valleys to deep cave systems. There’s no one thing I can point to that really makes it so well crafted, more it’s the numerous small details like the trails you leave in snow or the way Lara’s gait changes after she’s had a fall. Unlike the previous instalment (which suffered from inflated expectations due to it following Crysis 3) Rise of the Tomb Raider felt impressive from the very start, a rare achievement in today’s torrent of AAA titles.
Rise of the Tomb Raider retains the same core game play that its predecessor did, being a combination of 3D platformer, 3rd person shooter and semi-open world exploration. The platforming functions pretty much the same as the last one did, giving you the same leeway when it comes to grabbing ledges or landing that jump perfectly. The 3rd person shooter mechanic functions largely the same although the upgrade system allows you to unlock some rather cool abilities that can change it dramatically. The semi-open world stylings mean that there’s much more to the world than just the campaign missions and, should you go exploring, you’re quite likely to be rewarded for your efforts. Overall it’s not a massive change from the previous Tomb Raider game and honestly, with the extra layer of polish this game has, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.
The puzzles and platforming sections are frequent but are, for the most part, easy enough to understand and complete without being too frustrating. In the beginning, with a limited number of mechanics at your disposal, it’s pretty easy to see how things need to be done. The difficulty starts to ramp up when you’ve got several other potential mechanics at hand, some of which aren’t explained as well as they could be. Still there was only one time when I find myself reaching for a walkthrough guide as all the other puzzles could be solved in a manageable amount of time. The platforming was a little less satisfying however as, whilst you have some leeway, it can be a little finicky about when it will pull you right or just let you fall to your death. Once you’ve worked out the quirks though (like not hitting jump if Lara is still shimmying across something) you can make up for those little quirks.
Combat, again, feels largely the same with the game favouring head shots and thus any weapon that allows you to make them rapidly. The bow once again is the stand out weapon especially once you get the skill which does automatic head shots on up to 3 targets at once. Similar to its predecessor though there comes a time when the enemies start wearing helmets and you’ll have to land several consecutive head shots to take them down. This time around however it doesn’t feel as cheap as it did before as the increased number of stealth options provides much more opportunity to take out the heavy hitters before dealing with the rest of them. Overall the combat feels a little more streamlined with a little bit more variety on the side, should you wish to make use of it.
The skills, upgrades and crafting system is back with a few improvements to keep the pace of the game up. You can now craft arrows, other special ammo and healing on the fly if you have the required materials to do so. The mechanic of finding parts for major upgrades is still around and if you want those weapons you really will need to go exploring to complete them. The skills are interesting as early on I went for the additional XP traits something which meant that I was levelling up maybe every 20 minutes or so. Probably about halfway through the game I had all the skills I could ever want and so from there I was just unlocking things that were mildly interesting. It certainly helped to keep driving me forward as there was always a sense of progression but it did seem like I was maybe completing things a little faster than was probably intended.
Like its predecessor there are few rough edges on Rise of the Tomb Raider although none of them are particularly game breaking. You can quite easily glitch yourself through terrain if you roll, jump or sprint near say a set of stairs or similar. I had more than one occasion where I found myself stuck in between trees or falling forever when I jumped into a particularly cramped area. There’s also the aforementioned finicky-ness of the platforming system but once you know its limitations it’s a little easier to work around. Thankfully though many of the combat related issues are long gone although some of the enemies do seem to do wildly different amounts of damage during the same encounter.
Rise of the Tomb raider brings a much more developed and polished plot, one that dives further into the backstory of Lara and the Croft family. Thankfully the torture porn has been dialled back somewhat, instead focusing more on the trials and tribulations of Lara trying to come to grips with her father’s past and the impact it’s having on her current situation. The introduction of a big bad “thing” in the form of Trinity is a not-so-subtle hint there’s going to be several sequels to come but they at least function decently as an antagonist. Indeed they’ll likely be the focus point of the next instalment as they go after the next supernatural artefact that they’ll use to take over the world. The supernatural themes are better done this time around be less wrought and more subtly woven in the larger narrative. Indeed it seems that the writers behind this instalment in the Tomb Raider franchise have matured significantly since they wrote the last plot.
Rise of the Tomb raider accomplishes what many sequels don’t: improving on their predecessor whilst still retaining the core aspects which made it great. The production value is extremely high with attention paid to every little detail. The game play is as solid as ever with several streamlining changes that keep the pace of the game up for its entire duration. It might not be the picture of perfection with a few rough edges still poking through but overall the experience is so well polished that it’s easy to write off those few moments. For both fans of the Tomb Raider IP and those who just love a good action game Rise of the Tomb Raider is well worth the asking price.
Rise of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, XboxOne, Xbox360 and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $99.95, $79.95 and $79.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 12 hours of total play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.
Ever since I had my first taste of a story first game all those years ago I’ve been hooked on finding that same experience again in modern titles. Whilst Quantic Dream has always managed to deliver a solid experience in this regard newcomers to this field are very hit or miss, often not achieving what they set out to do. The struggle between just how much game makes it into the final product is what usually trips up most first time developers with the story suffering because of it (or vice versa). Murdered: Soul Suspect treads carefully enough to avoid some of these potential pitfalls whilst unfortunately falling prey to many others.
In the sleepy town of Salem, Massachusetts a murderer walks in the shadows. The killings seemingly have no relation to one another except for the victims always being young girls. The case has become something of an obsession for one of the local officers, Ronan O’Connor, a reformed criminal looking to make up for his questionable past. When he gets word of the Bell killer’s location he disregards all calls to wait for backup and pursues the criminal himself. However things don’t go as planned and in an instant things take a dark turn with Ronan thrown out a window and his life unceremoniously ended by his own weapon. Now, as he lies trapped between this world and the next, Ronan is compelled to find out who his killer is.
Visually Murdered: Soul Suspect is a dark and dreary place with the whole game taking place during the course of a single night. The graphics are about average when you compare it to similar titles of its time, a lot of the style still rooted in the previous generation’s console limitations. This might also be partly due to the use of the Unreal 3 engine which always seems to have a similar visual feel no matter the art styling. The styling of the UI elements seems to be of much poorer quality than the rest of the game, to the point of being quite distracting. I understand that at least some of this was done to enhance the “supernatural” feel of the game but since it’s not consistent throughout the various elements it just ends up sticking out more than anything.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is a puzzle game, one that requires you to gather up all the clues you can find and then use them in order to piece together what happened at a particular scene. Typically the clues are just things lying around the room, waiting for you to interact with them, although some will require a little more detective work in order to unlock them. Whilst the world isn’t particularly big you are free to explore pretty much all of it at your leisure although some places will be unavailable to you until you’ve unlocked some of your ghost abilities further down the line. There’s also numerous side quests and collectible missions which unlock various other stories that aren’t related to the main campaign, something which bolsters Murdered: Soul Suspects otherwise drastically short play time.
The puzzles that you’ll solve really aren’t that difficult at all considering that you’re told what area you need to look in to find them (moving out of an area where a clue might be removes the clue counter, indicating you’ve wandered too far) and that relevant clues typically come with a “memory flash” of what happened. These flashes sometimes come with another word puzzle element which has you choosing a few words to describe the picture you’re seeing. The hardest part then comes from selecting the right clues to complete the investigation or figuring out how to influence someone in order to get the clue you need. Indeed the only time I struggled to finish investigations was when the game decided not to spawn the required objects for me to interact with, something I’ll touch on later.
There are open world aspects to Murdered: Soul Suspect as well, allowing you to run around Salem looking for collectibles and helping out other ghosts that find themselves trapped in this realm. You can also posses people and read their minds, which sounds fun to begin with, however after a while you start to find that many NPCs are reused throughout the game and, despite their different circumstances in which you find them, they always have the same few lines to say. I feel like there’s something of a missed opportunity here as it would’ve added a little something more to the world to be able to influence the random people on the street or if there was another story you could unlock by reading enough minds. Sadly there isn’t and so after the first hour or so you’ll likely find yourself skipping all non-essential ghost power use.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is also rather glitchy as the screenshot above will attest to. There are numerous times when NPCs just won’t spawn or will spawn but won’t be visible or in the location where the game wants them to be. You can often resolve this issue by restart from a checkpoint but other times, like during an investigation, you’ll be left wandering around in circles wondering where the last clue is or clicking on clues you’ve already discovered hoping they’ll trigger something else. For a game that struggles with pacing at the best of times this isn’t a great glitch to have and it definitely had a negative impact on my experience.
However Murdered: Soul Suspect’s greatest failing is that the story just fails to captivate you in any way. On the surface the concept sounds pretty amazing, you’re a ghost detective solving your own murder, however I simply failed to empathize with the majority of the characters. There was massive potential here to give the characters incredible depth using the mind reading mechanic which unfortunately seems to be used to pad the game time out. Worst still the characters that were seemingly given the most attention, in terms of backstory development, are the ones with the least amount of presence in the actual game, being constrained to journal entries. Honestly my hopes weren’t that high for an emotional rollercoaster but I have to say that the overall story felt very lacklustre which is only amplified by the sub-par mechanics.
It’s a real shame because the side stories, typically the ones you unlock from collecting a bunch of artifacts in a particular area, are actually quite good. This was probably the only reason I pursued most of them down as they are the shining moments in Murdered: Soul Suspect, both in terms of their stories as well as the voice acting behind them. Again it feels like another one of the game’s missed opportunities as these stories are a part of the history of this game’s world and yet they’re limited to 5 minute reading sessions that are only unlocked through a tedious collecting mechanic. I don’t have a good idea as to how they could be worked in but suffice to say that Airtight Games would do well to replicate what they did in those stories in the main campaign.
Murdered: Soul Suspect unfortunately fails to achieve the goals it set out to do, delivering a mediocre story behind trivial puzzle mechanics whilst hiding its best aspects in a tedious treasure quest. I won’t deny that I had my hand in this as when I heard about the concept I immediately started drawing comparisons to Heavy Rain in my head and there are few games, in my mind, that come close. Still even taking that into consideration Murdered: Soul Suspect feels like a decidedly average game, failing to evoke the kind of emotional investment required by a game of this nature.
Murdered: Soul Suspect is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.95, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 83% of the achievements unlocked.
The gold standard for stealth game play has, and probably always will be, the original Thief series. It wasn’t that it was one of the first games to get stealth mechanics right, I believe that title belongs to the Metal Gear series (even though I’ve never played any of them), more that the blend of mechanics, cues and emphasis on finesse rather than force made the series stand out amongst its peers. It’s been a very long time between drinks for the series though with the last title, Thief: Deadly Shadows, being released almost a decade ago. The latest instalment, Thief, is an attempt to reboot the series for a modern audience something which may be at odds at the long time fans of the master thief Garret
After taking a job from Basso, Garrett’s only friend and contact for all this nefarious and underworldly, you find yourself atop a glorious manor accompanied by your former apprentice Erin. However something doesn’t feel right about this particular job as you witness something strange, an otherworldly ritual that shakes the very world. You’re just about to pull out when Erin, who was watching the ritual from on top of a glass dome, falls. You try to save her but it’s too late and she falls down right into the middle of the ritual, disappearing from sight. Suddenly it’s a year later and you have no recollection of what has happened.
Thief certainly impresses graphically as all the environments pack in an incredible amount of detail, something which is key to the core game play mechanics. There’s atmospheric and lighting effects everywhere which can turn some of the most dull environments into wonderful screenshot bait. Having said all that I feel like it could’ve been better as whilst they’re definitely on the upper end of the scale there are some sections where it’s obvious that sacrifices had to be made for the large number of platforms that were targeted. This did mean that I rarely had any performance issues but I’m usually happy to sacrifice that for a little more eye candy.
Unsurprisingly Thief is a stealth game, one where the objective of your current quest can be completed in a variety of different ways. The tools you have at your disposal are wide and varied, ranging from tools that will help keep you concealed to weapons of massive destruction. There’s also two different upgrade systems that allow you to tailor Garrett’s abilities to your play style of choice allowing you to become the master of the shadows or a brutal predator that lurks around every corner. Indeed whilst Thief’s pedigree is in stealthy game play either play style seems viable, even a mix of both if either one of them starts to wear on you.
In terms of retaining the trademark feel that all Thief games have this latest instalment does it quite well. Whilst the environments aren’t exactly massive open world sandboxes like Assassin’s Creed there’s enough back alleys, secret pathways and rooms with tantalizingly locked doors to make the maps feel a lot bigger than they actually are. Thief certainly rewards players who take the time to go over everything with a fine tooth comb which I’m sure a lot of players will find rewarding. On the flip side it never feels like this is a necessary part of the game as you’ll find more than enough resources to keep you going if you just meander off the beaten trail once in a while. Whilst this might annoy the purists the inclusion of a custom difficulty mode turns this optional but rewarding task into a necessity, something which should keep them at bay.
The combat in Thief is understandably lacklustre, mostly because it’s obvious that out and out fighting isn’t the game’s preferred way of completing objectives. This is in stark contrast to other similar stealth games of recent memory (most notably Dishonored) where both paths were somewhat viable. You’ve still got the choice of killing or knocking people out to achieve your objective but should you find yourself discovered there’s really no way to get yourself out of that situation without finding a nearby hidey hole. I don’t necessarily count this against Thief as out and out combat is not what the series, nor the genre itself, is usually about. The option is there but its a blunt instrument in comparison to all the other tools you have at your disposal.
The stealth, on the other hand, is quite marvelous. With the highly detailed maps peppered with vents, corridors and passageways it’s guaranteed that every obstacle you encounter has multiple ways to bypass it. Indeed every time I found myself struggling with a particular section it was always because I wasn’t noticing the alternate path that was right before me, opening up options I didn’t know I had previously. There are some situations where trade offs have to be made though which can lead to some frustration but realistically it’s just about making the choice that’s right for your particular playstyle.
The game is well executed for the most part with no major bugs or glitches to report however the control scheme does feel a little bit awkward. Using the lean out ability can be a real exercise in frustration, especially if you wanted to pick something up from a chest or box instead of peeking around it. The same can be said for cancelling things, which can be right click or another key, leading to some heat of the moment confusion. Additionally dropping off a rope can’t be done with space if there’s no nearby ledge and instead must be done with X. It just feels like the interface lacks consistency and makes the more routine parts of the game harder than they need to be. This is somewhat excusable in survival horror games but it’s also one of the reasons that I have a tendency to dislike that genre.
Thief’s story is decidedly middle of the road sharing some similar threads to those of previous instalments in the series (secret society conspiracies laced with bits of magic) but there’s nothing particularly memorable about it. The initial build up in the opening scenes is far too short for us to have any emotional investment in the main characters and seems to rely on our previous experiences with the series to derive most of its impact. It simply doesn’t work as the vast majority of people playing this game haven’t been involved with the Thief series for the better part of a decade and much of the detail is lost to the ages. I’m a firm believer that a good story can make up for nearly any shortcomings that a game might have but unfortunately for Thief that isn’t the case and it’s lucky that it’s so strong mechanically.
F or a series that hasn’t seen a release in 10 years Thief delivers a solid game play experience, modernizing many mechanics without incurring the usual penalty of simplifying them too greatly for mass adoption. Thief doesn’t rely heavily on its pedigree in order to deliver a good experience, being able to create its own distinct identity through it’s well executed game mechanics. Unfortunately the story is the giant black mark on an otherwise highly polished experience, leaving this and many other reviewers wanting. Still it’s hard for me to recommend against playing Thief as it really is a solid game, just don’t play it for the story.
Thief is available right now on PC, Xbox360, XboxOne, PlayStation3 and PlayStation4 right now for $49.99, $79.95, $99.995, $79.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC on the Thief difficulty with 11 hours of total play time and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
The advent of cloud computing, or more generally the commoditization of computer infrastructure, has provided us with capabilities that few could have accurately predicted. Indeed the explosive growth in the high tech sector can be substantially attributed to the fact that businesses now do not require heavy capital injections in order to validate their ideas, allowing many ideas which wouldn’t have been viable 5 years ago to flourish today. Of course this has also led to everyone seeking to apply the ideals of cloud computing wherever they can, hoping it can be the panacea to their ills. One such place is in the world of gaming and in all honesty the ways in which its being used is at best misguided with most solutions opening us up to a world of hurt not too far down the track.
I’ve gone on record saying that I don’t believe the general idea of Cloud Gaming, whereby a service runs hardware in a central location and users connect to it with a streaming device, isn’t viable. The problem comes from the requirements placed on that infrastructure, specifically the requirement for a low latency which means a user can’t be too far away from the equipment. That would mean that for it to have global reach it would likely need some kind of hardware in all capital cities which would be a rather capital intensive exercise. At the same time the consolidation ratios for gaming level hardware aren’t particularly great at the moment, although that may change in the future with both NVIDIA and AMD working on cloud GPU solutions. Still the fact that OnLive, a once $1 billion company, failed to make the idea feasible says a lot about it.
That hasn’t stopped companies from attempting to integrate the cloud through other avenues something which I’ve come to call Cloud Enhanced gaming. This is where a game can offload less latency sensitive aspects of the game to servers elsewhere so they can do the calculations, sending the results back down the wire. In theory this allows you to make your game better as you don’t have to worry about the limitations of the platform you’re running on, using more of that local grunt for pretty graphics while all the grunt work is done offsite. The latest entrant into this arena is Square-Enix’s Project Flare which they’re marketing as a technological breakthrough in cloud gaming.
On the surface it sounds like a great idea; consoles would no longer suffer from their hardware limitations and thus would remain viable for much longer than they have in the past. Indeed for a developer that’s looking to do something that’s outside of a consoles capabilities offloading processing into the cloud would seem to be the only way to accomplish it should they want to use a specific platform over the alternatives. However doing so binds that game to that backend infrastructure which means that the game’s life is only as long as the servers that power it. Considering the numerous examples we’ve had recently of game servers and services disappearing (including the infamous Games for Windows Live) the effect of turning off an integral part of the game would be far worse and likely without an easy path for remediation.
The reason why this would be such a big issue is that when compared to traditional game server infrastructure the requirements for a cloud enhanced game are much, much greater. You can happily run dozens of virtual servers that service thousands of clients from a single dedicated box, however try and run physics calculations (like in one of the Project Flare demos) and the number of people you can service per server drops dramatically. This means the time in which those servers remain fiscally viable is dramatically reduced and it’s far more likely that the service will cease to exist much sooner than other game servers would. Moore’s Law goes a little way to remedy this but you can’t really get past the fact that the consolidation ratios achievable with this are a couple of orders of magnitude lower than what developers have traditionally come to expect.
This is not to mention how the system will handle poor Internet connections or overloaded servers, something which is guaranteed to happen with more popular titles. Whilst its not an unsolvable problem it’s definitely something that will lead to sub-par gaming experiences as the two most likely systems (stopping the game to wait for the calculations to arrive or simply not simulating them at all) will be anything but seamless. I’m sure it could be improved over time however the way this is marketed makes it sound like they want to do a lot of computation elsewhere so the console graphics can be a lot prettier leaving not a whole lot of wiggle room when the inevitable happens.
Whilst this idea is far more feasible than running the entire game environment on a server it’s still a long way from being a viable service. It’s commendable that Square-Enix are looking for ways to make their games better, removing restrictions of the platforms that the majority have chosen, however I can’t help but feel it’s going to come around to bite them, and by extension us, in the ass in the not too distant future. As always I’d love to be proven wrong on this but the fact is that farming out core game calculations means that the game’s life is tied to that service and once it’s gone there’s nothing you can do to restore it.