Posts Tagged‘story’

Dreamfall Chapters: Book One: The Balance has Shifted.

I can remember 8 years ago when Dreamfall first came out and my collective group of friends all talking about playing it. This was just when my love of cinematic styled games was starting to bloom with titles like Fahrenheit only just having graced the shelves. However I was told with no uncertainty that if I was going to play Dreamfall I had to play its predecessor, The Longest Journey, before I could dive into it. Considering that game is some 40 hours long (or more, depending on how long you got stuck on the rubber duck puzzle) it would be no small investment but suffice to say I’m glad I did. After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign Red Thread Games is finally continuing the story of Zoe Castillo and her journey to save two worlds from the impending darkness.

Dreamfall Chapters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Betrayed by a mother she only just found out was still alive Zoe has been trapped in the story time, a place which exists between the twin worlds of Stark and Arcadia. Her body lies motionless in the real world, hooked up to a machine that ensures she stays alive but makes no attempt to bring her back. She has found purpose in this world however, saving those who’ve become trapped in their dreams by the Dream Machines by guiding them back to the light and warning them of their danger. This is not what was intended for her however as the darkness that threatens to engulf both worlds still spreads even in her absence. It is time for Zoe to make a return to the real world and to return to her journey.

Dreamfall Chapters looks decidedly previous gen in terms of graphics as it lacks much of the graphical fidelity of its current gen brethren. Primarily this is a function of its use of Unity and cross-platform ambitions which limit the amount of eye candy you can use. However that being said it’s far from an ugly game, with lovely expansive environments that are just brimming with details. It’s definitely best played with an expansive view (both figuratively and literally) as the bigger picture is so much more than the sum of its constituent parts.

Dreamfall Chapters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Storytime

Dreamfall Chapters takes inspiration from the Telltale style of story based games, stripping away all but the essential mechanics and instead placing a heavy focus on the story and player agency. You’ll be following the stories of 2 individuals, the first being Zoe Castillo, the main protagonist from the first Dreamfall game and Kian Alvane, another one of the main characters from the previous title. Dreamfall Chapters retains its adventure game roots, giving you all manner of puzzles to solve in order to progress the story, however it now also includes choices, both major and minor, that will affect the outcome of story. It’s a formula that’s worked well for Telltale for the past and to their credit Red Thread Games have managed to take the essence of it and make it their own.

In terms of game play this first instalment (Dreamfall Chapters is now an episodic game) feels a lot like an extended tutorial coupled with a reintroduction to all the characters, worlds and stories that exist within them. A lot of the mechanics you’ll encounter, like shining a light on things to reveal something that can’t be seen otherwise, are mostly things you’ll only encounter once in the game but are obviously being set up for use again later down the track. You’ll be able to pick up the vast majority of them without too much hassle especially if you’re a long time adventure game player. There are a few puzzles which feel like they’re an homage to the ridiculous puzzles of yore (the pillow on a broom is one example of this) however for the most part you likely won’t find yourself stuck at one point for an inordinate amount of time.

Dreamfall Chapters Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Path Before Us

The dialogue choice system is probably Dreamfall Chapter’s stand out feature as it’s leaps and bounds above what’s in most other story-first games. Instead of being given a bunch of options to choose from with just a small blurb to go on you’re instead treated to the inner monologue of the character as if they’re making that decision. This has two benefits, the first being that you’ll always be sure that the decision you make is in line with what you choose. Secondly you can get a feel for how Zoe thinks her decision will pan out which can sometimes change your mind on how you want a particular situation to play out. On the flip side however this does require you to go through the options fully before making a decision as the dialogue that follows is usually brief and provides no further insight that what can be gleaned from listening to their musings prior.

Mechanically the game is pretty much bang on with performance being great and not a crash to be seen throughout my playtime. However the look to select system feels a little wonky, often requiring you to shift your character and camera around multiple times in order to be able to interact with something. This can be rather frustrating when you notice something pop up (a little eye indicates you can interact with something) only to have it disappear the second you stop to try and click on it. It’s not something that will prevent you from progressing within Dreamfall Chapters, but it does feel like it happens more than it should.

Dreamfall Chapters Review Screenshot Wallpaper A Disturbance in Arcadia

Dreamfall Chapters does a good job of setting up the world that the rest of the game will take place in, reintroducing many of the characters from the previous games and filling in their stories of the past year that Zoe’s been out of action. Whilst the majority of the story is exposed to you directly there’s a fair amount of detail crammed into Zoe’s journal which can be a little bit of a chore to read through. Given the time between the previous game and this one though it almost feels like it’d be worthwhile playing through it again as some of the larger story elements rely heavily on the back story that was built back then. Indeed Dreamfall Chapters isn’t designed for those who are just becoming familiar with the franchise as it leans heavily on what came before it.

In terms of the story of this instalment it’s clear that the primary focus was on setting up the initial world that the following chapters will build upon. Considering the wealth of background that’s available in 2 other games they can somewhat get a free pass for not developing the characters much however if you’re looking for the story of Dreamfall Chapters to go places quickly you’ll unfortunately be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong though, there’s a lot to love in here, you’re just not going to be cemented to your seat from the second you click play.

Dreamfall Chapters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Stark

Dreamfall Chapters fills a hole that’s long been in many gamer’s hearts, continuing the story of Zoe Castillo that felt like it was cut abruptly short at the end of the previous game. It might not have next generation graphics or play as smoothly as some other adventurers other there however it makes up for it with one of the best dialogue systems I have seen in recent times. It will be interesting to see how the player choices pan out in the greater story as they’re making a big deal about player agency and I hopeful that they will be able to deliver on it. Dreamfall Chapters really is only for fans of the series but should your interest be piqued I would heartily recommend making the investment to play through its predecessors.

Rating: 8.75/10

Dreamfall Chapters is available on PC right now for $29.99. Total play time was 3 hours with 86% of the achievements unlocked. The writer was a backer of the Dreamfall Chapters Kickstarter at the $500 level.

Valiant Hearts: War, War Never Changes.

A game based around any of the world wars is usually an instant turn off for me. The number of games that have been based around those events are so numerous that there really doesn’t feel like there can be any more angles to tackle it from as pretty much every story from it has been done to death. The alternate reality and fantasy versions of it, like those in Wolfenstein, get away with it since they’re not wholly dependent on war stories for inspiration but they’ll still need a little something extra to pique my interest. Valiant Hearts, which comes to us care of Ubisoft Montpellier, has been receiving wide praise for it’s touching story. As someone who’s just come off 2 rather lacklustre story based titles I wasn’t hoping for miracles but Valiant Hearts managed to surprise me, bringing this writer to tears as its conclusion.

Valiant Hearts Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

The year is 1914 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused Germany to declare war on Russia. France, anticipating that this war will escalate far beyond those two countries, deports all of its German citizens back to their home country. Karl is one of those citizens, torn away from his wife and young son he is sent to the frontlines of the war to fight for his home country. Not long after his wife’s father, Emile, is called to duty as well and sent to fight for the French army. What follows is a tale of how the war drives families apart and the never ending quest for them to be reunited once again.

Valiant Hearts reminds me of the flash games of yesteryear, albeit with production values far exceeding that of any of its predecessors. It was developed on the same framework that powered Ubisoft’s recent release Child of Light and it’s easy to see just how heavily the choice of that platform influenced the art work. In contrast to Child of Light however Valiant Heart’s art style is far more dark and monotone with infinite shades of brown and grey being the primary colour palette. This does mean that when colour is used it’s quite striking and the art team does a fantastic job of using it to great effect. This also extends to the beautiful soundtrack that accompanies the game, ebbing and flowing at all the right moments.

Valiant Hearts Review Screenshot Wallpaper Pipe Puzzle

In terms of actual game play Valiant Hearts is much like other story-first games in the sense that it usually takes a back seat to progressing the story. For the most part you’ll be doing elaborate fetch quest missions that require you to find one item in order to progress through the next session. Sometimes you’ll have to make your way through various different people in order to get to the final objective and try as you might there’s no clever way to bypass certain things. There’s also a bevy of quicktime-esque events that will require you to either guess correctly or simply memorize the sequence in which events happen in order to move on to the next part of the story.

Thankfully Valiant Hearts didn’t fall into the trap of putting far too much game play in between sections of the story like both the recent titles I played through did. In all honesty I didn’t think it was a major hurdle for games of this nature to get past as many of them are done by indie developers and so ancillary mechanics are usually on the bottom of their to do list. However with 2 games falling prey to the same problems I have to commend Valiant Hearts for getting the pacing right which helps immensely with keeping the player interested in the story. There were some sections that could use some tuning but compared to my recent experiences it was heaven.

Valiant Hearts Review Screenshot Wallpaper Down The Dusty Road

Most of the puzzles are fairly intuitive as your inventory space is limited to a single item, limiting the amount of complexity that the game can throw at you significantly. There’s a pretty good variety of puzzle mechanics so you won’t be redoing the same thing over and over again but most of them shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes or so to figure out. A couple of them will require you to think laterally about what you’re doing as some of them lack obvious cues as to what might interact with what. This did lead to a couple confusing moments when I wasn’t quite sure if I was doing the right thing but most of the time you’ll get there through trial and error.

One issue I did find with Valiant Hearts was that since there’s not a lot of visual differentiation between different parts of the environment it can be sometimes hard to find a path you’re meant to go down or what elements are interactive. This meant that in some of the more visually busy sections I was wondering just where exactly I was meant to go as I couldn’t find the particular path to go down. I also had some deaths that felt like they were more due to visual confusion more than anything else. This might just be a fault of the writer however but it’s still an issue that should be pointed out.

Valiant Hearts Review Screenshot Wallpaper OMG TANK

Of course what really makes Valiant Hearts worth playing is the story. Overall it’s a pretty typical story of a family torn apart by war, almost Romeo and Juliet like in the star crossed lovers from different houses idea, and the story of them trying to reunite with each other. The main characters all receive the background and development they deserve, which helps immensely when it comes to scenes that rely on engaging your sense of empathy with them. Some of the elements of it are a little on the fantasy side, which can be a tad distracting from the overall message that the game tries to put forth, however they’re only there as aides to the plot so they’re easily pushed aside.

I’ll have to admit that for probably the first half or so of Valiant Hearts I wasn’t too emotionally invested with the characters or story. Whilst the opening was gripping enough to draw me into playing the game further there’s a bit of dearth in the early game as the characters are seemingly just going through the motions. However as each of their back stories is developed in detail you find yourself becoming attached to them and each tragedy that befalls them starts to cut into you. The final climatic scene is by far one of the most bittersweet endings I have endured in recent memory and whilst it might lean on the cheesy/predictable side that didn’t stop me from bursting into tears, overcome with a sense of grief.

Valiant Hearts Review Screenshot Wallpaper Zepplin Down

Valiant Hearts is a beautiful story masterfully told through the medium of video games. The art style and music direction are some of the best I’ve experienced in their category, taking the traditional flash styled game and ramping it up to the next level. The game mechanics are simple, enjoyable and thankfully stay out of the way of the story, leaving the player to enjoy Valiant Hearts for what it truly is. Finally the story is by far one of the best examples I’ve come across this year with all the characters receiving the right amount of screen time and development required for it’s ultimate emotional climax. If you, like me, have been feeling let down by the offerings of story based games of late then I can wholeheartedly recommend Valiant Hearts as the cure to what ails you.

Rating: 9.25/10

Valiant Hearts is available on PC, PlayStation3, PlayStation4, Xbox360 and XboxOne right now for $14.99, $22.95, $22.95, $19.95 and $19.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time.

Always Sometimes Monsters: Life’s a Bitch.

It used to be that telling a story through the video game medium was an impossible task for those who weren’t versed in the multitudes of skills required to pull it off. However the development of game making tools like, funnily enough, Game Maker have enabled many brilliant stories to be told. Such games are often very simplistic in nature however complex game mechanics aren’t a requirement for a good story and the indie game industry has flourished by embodying this principle. Always Sometimes Monsters is one such game, putting the player in numerous morally ambiguous situations and letting the player decided their ultimate fate.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

This is it, your big break. Ever since college you’ve known that you want to be a writer and finally you’ve landed a deal with a big name publisher. With the love of your life by your side it seems that nothing can go wrong and the future you always dreamed of is within your grasp. Fast forward a couple years though and everything has fallen apart, you still haven’t finished your novel and your soul mate is marrying someone else. What do you do? Do you wallow in self pity, pining for the future you could have had? Or do you risk everything to be with them, abandoning what remains of your life to pursue that dream you once held in your arms? Your decisions will shape your destiny and, ultimately, what kind of person the world thinks you are.

Always Sometimes Monsters was created in RPG Maker which has brought us other amazing based story games like To The Moon. Due to the limitations of the RPG Maker engine Always Sometimes Monsters has a similar visual feel to that other games based on it although it does have its own distinct style. The animations are extremely rudimentary with a lot of the actions just being the walk cycle repeated. It’s hard for me to judge Always Sometimes Monsters harshly on its simplistic nature as that’s not the reason you’ll be playing it but after playing so many similar titles it was one aspect that stood out to me.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Shooting Star

At its heart Always Sometimes Monsters is an adventure game, one where you’re forever on the quest to get enough cash to move you along to the next location. There’s numerous ways for you to scrounge up the dough you need from taking odd jobs at the employment office, doing favours for people or even more nefarious means. Along the way you’ll meet many of your long time friends who fill in the backstory of your life and how you interact with them will determine how everything pans out. For the most part there doesn’t appear to be an outright good and bad choice, leaving it up to you to determine where your moral boundaries lie.

Indeed Always Sometimes Monsters prides itself on the ambiguity of the decisions you’ll be making and how they affect the final outcome of the story. You do have a lot of power to alert the story how you see fit however the mechanics of how it works is somewhat cumbersome. There are numerous points where you’ll be asked a question you would have no idea what the actual answer was (like how you and the love of your life broke up) and the answer you give actually determines what happened. I’d feel better about it if there was a “true” reason and the difference between that and your response determined how some characters reacted to you but actually determining what happened with a single response just didn’t feel right.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper DISPENSE PORK

There were several moments in Always Sometimes Monsters where I felt myself being drawn in, where the characters started to feel real and their problems echoed with those I’d encountered in my own life. However those moments are few and far between as Always Sometimes Monsters seems intent on beating you over the head with repetitive, menial tasks in order to further the story. The long quest for getting money at each section often leads you to taking on jobs that are incredibly boring and take up an inordinate amount of time. Then, by the time you actually get to another one of these nuggets of brilliant writing, you’re either angry or bored and the impact is lost on you. It got so bad that I tried to find a way to crack open the save files to give myself unlimited funds, just so I could actually enjoy the game.

However the numerous choices in the game unfortunately don’t add up to a cohesive story and the ending feels like a grab bag of the results of the various events you were involved in over the course of the story. Indeed probably one of the worst things is when you go through your journal and are asked, explicitly, how you feel about every single event in the game. The heavy reliance on choice is obviously done to make the game experience more personal to you, as everyone’s experience will be different depending on so many factors, however it just makes Always Sometimes Monsters story feel confused, disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying. For a game that has not much else to rely on messing up the story means the core experience unfortunately falls flat on its face.

Always Sometimes Monsters Review Screenshot Wallpaper Sunrise

Always Sometimes Monsters strived to provide an experience where the player was in control of their own destiny but unfortunately delivered an experience that fell short of its ambition. I wanted to like it, I really did, as those moments where the story shone through were truly great but they were so few and far between that the larger flaws of the gameplay and storyline are what leave a lasting impression. Your mileage may vary however, as many fellow reviewers have noted, but unfortunately for this writer Always Sometimes Monsters isn’t a game I can recommend.

Rating: 6.5/10

Always Sometimes Monsters is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 7 hours with 100% of the achievements unlocked. 

Journal: An Emotional Coming of Age.

Ever since I played Dear Esther I’ve been on a quest to figure out why it rubbed me the wrong way. It’s not like I don’t enjoy exploration games, indeed I’ve played numerous since then and typically found them to be quite entertaining, and you don’t have to look far to figure out that I’d favour a good story over game play. Dear Esther then should’ve been right up my alley but something about it just made me hate it in a way that I haven’t felt for many other games. Playing through Journal though revealed where my frustrations came from: the deliberately vague and abstruse way the story was delivered. Where Dear Esther frustrated though Journal used to great effect, although not without some initial frustration.

Journal Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

You wake up one morning to find your journal, the precious record of all your thoughts and experiences, mysteriously blank. Venting your frustrations to your mother seems to lead to no where and as far as you can tell everything else seems to be going on as normal. However it becomes clear that more things are happening outside the world that’s being presented to you, things that are having a big impact on everyone around you. It doesn’t seem to be changing you however something which seems to be equal parts weird and strangely welcoming.

Journal’s art is interesting as it feels like you’re playing through a cartoon of someone’s drawings in their diary. I can’t say that it’s hugely impressive, especially with the rudimentary animation and effects employed, but that’s not the kind of thing you’d expect from a game of this nature. The small circus sections serve as a visual break between sections, a good inclusion that heaps alleviate the fact that Journal heavily reuses nearly all the scenes throughout the entire game.

Journal Screenshot Wallpaper Confused

Mechanically Journal is a puzzler, requiring you to figure out who needs to be talked to, what needs to be said and which outcome you’re looking to achieve. In this respect it’s pretty simple as all you have to do is figure out who you haven’t talked to yet and go through the motions with them. Indeed even if you manage to forget exactly what it is you were supposed to be doing one of the characters will likely turn you around in the right direction which makes the pacing of Journal much more steady than other games in the genre. You’re also given a wide selection of dialog options to choose from which will shape what the story ultimately becomes.

Unfortunately Journal feels a little awkward mechanically as the main ways of interacting with it are always a little off. Things like the inclusion of a jump mechanic, which seems to have no other function but to give you something to do between scenes,  make you think there are more puzzle elements than there actually are. Additionally the dialog options are hidden by summaries that are way too short to predict how your character is going to react and you’ll often find yourself wondering how the option you chose lead to the things your character said. This might be intentional (as I’ll talk about in a bit) but it still feels like this is a known anti-pattern in game design, one that needs to avoided at all costs.

Journal Screenshot Wallpaper Hospital

From the onset it’s clear that the game isn’t telling you everything as there’s references to things that have happened or are in the process of happening that you don’t see. This is fine when it doesn’t involve your character, you can’t be there for every little plot detail, however since the whole story is centred on you this means the initial parts of the story are thoroughly confusing. Indeed even whilst you’re given control over how all the conversations play out it’s quite clear that one of the options is the “true and correct” one while the others lead to situations that just don’t quite to fit with reality. This also leads to your character being almost completely unrelatable for the majority of the game only coming together right at the end.

POTENTIAL PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

It’s obvious after the first couple days that this is a fantasy world, one that’s being recreated to fit an idealistic world created by the main protagonist, but the lack of critical information means that the majority of the initial story is just plain confusing. Whilst I was able to relate to the character’s struggles after the big reveal I could in no way do that before I knew what could lead someone to act in such random and unpredictable ways. To be fair it does represent the struggle that teenagers face, dealing with adult emotions yet not having the tools to both express and understand them completely, however that doesn’t mean it makes for good story telling. The pay off somewhat makes up for this but that doesn’t stop the majority of the game from feeling like a chore.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Journal Screenshot Wallpaper That's Just Who I am

Journal is an incredibly personal story that reflects upon life’s greater themes through the eyes of someone who is not yet equipped to deal with them. The concepts are great however the game falls short of delivering a good experience with the main character obliterating any sense of relatability early on and the story remaining utterly confusing until the very end. Journal is a game that I want to like a lot more than I do but it’s incredibly hard to look past the faults even if the story will strike a chord with many of us. I bought Journal on the back that it was made by the man behind Kairo and, honestly, I can only recommend you do the same if you are also a fan.

Rating: 6/10

Journal is available on PC right now for $9.99. Total play time was 1.7 hours with 60% of the achievements unlocked.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II: Suffer With Me.

One of the things I really like about reviewing games is going back over my reviews when a sequel or another instalment in a franchise comes out. The Call of Duty series takes the top prize for being my most reviewed franchise with not 1, not 2 but 3 previous reviews which I can draw on directly for comparisons. For someone who used to avoid any game that was based around one war or another it’s interesting to see how quickly I came around once I started playing the Call of Duty series, being hooked after a single game. Call of Duty: Black Ops II is the latest instalment in the franchise from Treyarch and I must say that they’ve really outdone themselves this time, firmly placing themselves on the same level as Infinity Ward.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II takes place in the not too distant future of the USA in 2025. The story centres around David Mason, son of Alex Mason the main protagonist from the original Black Ops, who’s tracking down a known terrorist called Raul Menendez. Much of the story is recounted in flashbacks from an ageing Frank Woods who David Mason consult with to try and find out where Menedez is and what he might be up to. It’s through these flash backs that you start to make sense of some of the events of your past and understand why things certain things have happened and why you’re still alive to see them.

For a primarily console game I wasn’t expecting a major update in graphics from any of its predecessors as I believe they were tapping out the capabilities of the Xbox360 some time ago. Compared to Modern Warfare 3 this seems to be largely true with them both having similar levels of graphical detail. However if you compare it to Treyarch’s previous release there’s most definitely a step up which they’re to be commended for. If I’m honest whilst the graphics aren’t a massive improvement over Modern Warfare 3 they are a hell of a lot more smooth, especially when there’s a lot of action going on. For a game that is almost entirely fast paced action this is a very welcome improvement, especially when it comes to multiplayer (which I’ll touch on later).

If you’ve played any of the Call of Duty series you’ll know the basic breakdown of the game play that I’m about to give you. It’s a First Person Shooter and so you’ll spend the vast majority of your time running around, letting bullets loose at varying arrays of enemies and utilizing your additional equipment (like grenades, flash bangs and remote C4) to tip the scales in your favour. Thanks to the ability to customize your load out before starting a mission you can also tailor your experience somewhat by say favouring sniper rifles over close range spray ‘n’ pray type weapons. For what its worth I usually played with assault rifles and SMGs, preferring to run carelessly into battle while unleashing torrents of bullets at my foes.

Black Ops II, like nearly all other titles in the Call of Duty franchise, has their trademark FPS experience that’s so well polished that it just flows with an effortless grace. All the actions (running, jumping, shooting) just plain work like you expect them to. Whilst many other FPS type games will draw my ire for one core game play issue or another I really do find it hard to find fault with the fundamentals of any Call of Duty game. Arguably this is due to the ongoing success of the series which has been allowed to refine every element over the course of so many games but it still doesn’t fail to impress me, even after seeing it for the 4th time in as many years.

Treyarch has recognized that simply running from point A to point B and shooting everything along the way does get a little boring after a while and has included many different distractions along the way to break up the repetition. Shown above is just one of the many little set pieces they include (this one was actually fairly early on in the game) which was an extremely fun way to start the mission off. They have also included a second mission type called Strike Force which is very different from the usual missions and is more akin to a game like Natural Selection, blending RTS elements with FPS game play.

The Strike Force missions put you in control of a squad of marines, robots and flying drones that you will use to accomplish a mission. They’re all different, ranging from a defend the objective to rescuing and escorting someone out, and whilst you can treat it like a regular mission by taking control of one of the units directly you’ll need to issue orders to the other AIs constantly if you want to finish it successfully. If I’m honest I didn’t enjoy them that much at the start but after a while I really started to get into them, employing varying tactics and just loving being able to play with reckless abandon.

After all this praise I feel its appropriate to mention the few minor issues with Black Ops II that can lead to you having a bad time. Like nearly all FPS games that lump you with AI friends to help you out they are, for the most part, completely useless and will likely cause your death more often than they’ll save it. For instance I’ve seen my AI buddies run around corner and proceeded to think it was completely safe however since most of the other AIs won’t target them, only you, this can often mean that there’s someone hiding around the corner but they won’t trigger until you run into their line of sight. This is in addition to them getting in your way every so often which can cause your death when you’re trying to take cover or, more comically, fail a mission when they put their head in front of your sniper rifle (“Friendly fire will not be tolerated!” apparently).

I also had an issue with some of the triggers not going off, causing the game to get stuck at a particular point. The one I can remember clearly was when I was in the bunker just before the Celerium device. I walked in and reprogrammed an ASD to fight for me but after doing so my crew just sort of stood around, not doing anything. Try as I might to get them to move I simply couldn’t and since there’s no “restart from last checkpoint” option in the menu I opted for the tried and true jump on my own grenade to get back to my last checkpoint. After that everything worked as expected but it wasn’t an isolated incident and its something that’s been present in previous Call of Duty titles.

In a very surprising change to the Call of Duty formula you actually have quite a bit of agency in Black Ops II with the game playing out very differently should you make different choices at different times. They are, for the most part, unfortunately binary but there are other softer choices like completing the Strike Missions which will have an influence on how the last hours of the game plays out. The Black Ops II wiki page (SPOILER WARNING on that link) informs me that there’s no less than 5 separate endings available to you which is far more than you average FPS. That, combined with the fact that they’re not presented to you in Endotron 3000 style means that Black Ops II is quite a step up in terms of story.

The story in and of itself is quite enthralling too, even if the beginning confused me somewhat (although that’s somewhat typical for me in Call of Duty games, if I’m honest). I was nicely surprised by how progressive it seemed as well with many characters being female, including the President, and subtle references to current social ideals like the 99% vs the 1% and so on. After my good mate’s take down of the last Call of Duty’s story and lack of agency I had a much more critical eye on Black Ops II’s story than I have for any other game in the series and it makes me very happy to say that they’ve stepped up their game and my expectations were more than met.

The multi-player is pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Call of Duty games bringing back all the classic match up modes along side the newer ideas like Kill Confirmed. Unlike the original Black Ops which allowed you to choose a server Black Ops II instead uses the same match making system that Modern Warfare 3 did. Usually I’d make a note here about how this sucks (and there are still reasons why it does) but since it works and can usually find me a game in under a minute it’s hard to complain about it. Treyarch has also brought back the much loved Nuketown map which has been revamped for the modern era. They also took it away which led to quite the uproar from the community (many of whom preordered just to get said map) but they’ve since brought it back so kudos to them for listening.

There’s really not a lot that’s new or inventive about the multi-player in Black Ops II that I’ve seen yet with the experience system, upgrades and challenges all being very reminiscent of both Modern Warfare 3 and the original Black Ops. It’s kind of hard to improve on that formula since it works so well but those who are looking for a wholly new multiplayer experience ala Battlefield 3 will find themselves disappointed. However for those like me who love the fast paced, spammy action that maps like Nuketown bring you it’s more the same thing we’ve come to love and I still can’t get enough of it.

Call of Duty: Black Ops II catapults Teryarch up from the doldrums of being Infinity Ward’s poor cousin and firmly places them right at their side, showing that they’re quite capable of delivering a game that’s every bit as epic and enjoyable. The graphics are a great step up, the game play smooth and polished and the story is very fulfilling, a rarity in the FPS genre. The multiplayer might not be much different from its predecessors but it works well and is just as addictive as its predecessors which will see me spending many more hours on it. I thoroughly enjoyed my time both in the single and multi player parts of this game and should you be in the market for some top notch, AAA FPS action then you really can’t go past Black Ops II.

Rating: 9.5/10

Call of Duty: Black Ops II is available on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 right now for $89.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on Veteran difficulty with 7.3 hours in single player unlocking 71% of the achievements and 2 hours in multiplayer. A review copy of the game was provided to The Refined Geek from Activision for the purposes of reviewing.

The Unfinished Swan: To Paint, Perchance to Dream.

I’m increasingly falling in love with games that push back on the traditional ideas of what constitutes a good game in favour of experimenting with new ideas. Back in the golden era of gaming the only metric that seemed to matter was how long a game lasted for with things like story telling and game mechanics taking a back seat. This was the reason behind Nintendo, and many other games developers, making their games so incredibly difficult as to draw out the game experience over a longer period of time. Sometimes it worked, like in Zelda, and other times you got Battletoads, a game that still haunts me to this day. The Unfinished Swan is another in a long line of exploration/story telling games to be released this year that are the antithesis to those ideals and are, for what its worth, incredibly enjoyable to play.

You play as Monroe, a recent orphan who’s just been relocated to an orphanage. Your mother was an avid painter but she was terrible at finishing her work, leaving behind 300 unfinished canvases at her passing. When you were taken to the orphanage you were told that you could bring one, and only one, of the paintings along with you. Out of all the works you choose your mother’s favourite, the swan that was still left unfinished. One night however you awake to see the swan has disappeared from the canvas and there are swan prints leading up to a door that wasn’t there before. Upon entering you’re transferred to a completely white world and your adventure begins.

The Unfinished Swan’s art style is one of incredible simplicity with your first actual game play experience being thrown into a completely white room with no indication of where you are or what you can do. It was quite a jarring experience as I attempted to run around with no indication of actual movement. When I stumbled on the throw paint button (it’s the L/R buttons) I was greeted with a completely black wall. Moving back I then discovered the game’s main mechanic, your ability to throw paint around. For the first level this is your means of discovery but as the game goes on it morphs from simple discovery to all manner of interesting mechanics.

From a technical standpoint the graphics are quite simple with most things being fairly rudimentary models that aren’t textured. It fits in well with the larger narrative and if I’m honest I’m glad that you don’t spend the entire game lobbing paint everywhere to discover where you should be going as I found myself experiencing forms of snow blindness on more than one occasion. That being said the incredibly bare bones style works exceptionally well, drawing your eyes to details that you’d simply ignore otherwise. I might be a little biased though as I have a thing for black/white contrasts like this but my wife seemed to enjoy it as well.

As I mentioned before the main game mechanic is your ability to lob globs of paint at every surface around you. Initially this is how you find your way around but as you progress the game world will evolve to have proper lighting and shadows at which point your paint changes. The game is, at its heart, an exploration title so lobbing paint at every surface in your reach is usually worth it as you can never be sure when there’s something hidden in plain sight, especially with the lack of colour detail to help you discern when something looks amiss.

One example of this that sticks in my head is when I was walking down a corridor that was lit from the outside so one side was completely illuminated and the other side wasn’t. Since it was semi-long I was doing the usual thing of flinging paint right in front of me just for laughs when I noticed that the resulting spray didn’t look like it should. Turns out there was a corridor on the unlit side that was completely black which, had I not been carelessly painting everything in my path, would have been invisible to me. It wasn’t necessary to finish the game (it was one the ancillary aspects of it) but there are dozens of other examples like that throughout The Unfinished Swan.

The balloon system is the carrot that The Unfinished Swan dangles in front of you to tempt you into exploring every nook and cranny within the game world. The balloons can be used to buy toys in the main menu which help you in various aspects of the game. None of them are required to complete it, indeed I finished it with 33 balloons in my pocket, but some of them would have made things a lot easier. Their locations aren’t always obvious like the dark hallway in a dark corridor example I just gave but you can find a good deal of them by simply looking around and then sometimes taking the semi-creative path to the ultimate solution.

The later stages of the game introduce block construction as another mechanic which is very simplistic but does require a bit of nuance in order to get right. As you can see from the screenshot above I wasn’t particularly neat with my block construction, usually creating one and finding it was too high and then remaking it, and many of the solutions I ended up making worked out of sheer brute force rather than being an eloquent solution to the problem put before me. Still the developers behind The Unfinished Swan understand how to pace their games well and the introduction of new mechanics like this one was always done right at the point where the old one was starting to get tedious.

The story is quite magnificent as well, rating as a great children’s story that has enough subtext for adults to enjoy as well. Whilst its only told in fits and bursts between you finding letters on walls and then lobbing paint balls at them the way that the story ties directly into the environment you’re playing through makes it all the more enthralling. The ending is bitter sweet and satsifying and is something that I can feel myself sharing with others both young and old.

The Unfinished Swan is yet another great example of a game that can eschew complicated game mechanics in favour of a simple idea that’s used to its utmost ability. I came into this expecting a wildly different game since I hadn’t read much about it before plunging in and I was pleasantly surprised with what I got. My only minor complaint is that for a 2 hour game it runs $20 (at least here in Australia) which, while I feel is semi-reasonable for this game, will be a barrier to entry for many who may want to play it. Still for those who love a good story or a game that wouldn’t be out of place with Peter Molyneux’s name on it The Unfinished Swan is definitely worth a look in.

Rating: 9.25/10

The Unfinished Swan is available on PlayStation 3 right now for $19.99. Total game time was approximately 2 hours with 33 balloons collected overall.

Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving: Hyper-Accelerated Story Telling.

It may come as a surprise to long time readers who’ve followed my near clockwork routine of one post per weekday for the past couple years that I can be rather awful at scheduling, especially under certain circumstances. This week I had genuinely intended to review Sleeping Dogs however I completely underestimated how much time would be required to blast through the main story line and thus when Tuesday night came around and I had no indication I’d be done within the next couple days I started looking for alternatives. I did grab a copy of Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet as  I heard it was relatively short and well received but I didn’t manage to get enough time on that either. Thankfully my bacon was saved by an intriguing set of games that promised intense story telling that rivalled AAA titles.

Gravity Bone puts you in Blendo Game’s Citizen Abel world, a place where everything is stripped down to its most simplistic representation. You are Citizen Abel, a spy who’s been sent to perform a mission in this particular section of the world. The first mission acts as a kind of tutorial, showing you how the game operates and setting up the main character for the second (and final) act.

Usually I make comments about the graphics here, commenting either on the how advanced/dated they are or how the choice of stylization worked or didn’t work. It almost seems redundant to comment on that here as the graphics really are the bare minimum required to carry the story forward with the most advanced thing in there being a couple particle effects. It’s not bad mind you, both Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving make good use of such a simplistic format. Indeed I don’t think this kind of game would benefit from advanced graphics in any way, it would just be more distraction from the real core of the game.

The actual mechanics of the game are also pretty secondary to the visual story telling aspect of these games. If I was to classify it in any particular way it’s like a traditional platformer/puzzler but instead of the story being progressed by lengthy dialogue or massive walls of text you’re instead treated to environmental clues, flash backs and weird jump cuts that allows you to piece the story together as you go along.

Before I dive into the stories of these two games however I will make a note of a couple issues I had when playing. At the end of both games I inexplicably couldn’t exit them, being left with a black screen and an unresponsive game. I’m not sure if this was a quirk of the engine (it uses the Quake 2 engine) or something on my end but the first time I was willing to write it off as a quirk, the second not so much. I also had a crash when I was playing through a second time with the developer commentary on when it tried to load the second half of the game.

Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving’s true strength comes from its ability to tell a story in the extremely short time frame. Both of these games are incredibly short, 15 minutes each give or take, and this doesn’t leave any time for extended periods of dialogue, cut scenes or any other forms of traditional story telling. It’s quite similar to Unmechanical in that regard as all the game world is the narrator, showing you various bits and pieces allowing you to pick up on bits of the story and draw your own conclusions as to what it’s all about.

Comparatively though the way in which the stories of these two games play out are very different beasts with Gravity Bone being pretty linear in its progression whilst Thirty Flights of Loving being much more of a jump cut fever dream that forces you to make connections between the disjointed scenes. The contrast is actually quite stark when you play them back to back and shows that the developer behind Blendo games has grown considerably in the interim between releases (approximately 3 years).

The enjoyment from these games comes from noticing all the subtle environmental clues and then using your imagination to draw the connecting dots. This kind of story telling isn’t for everyone, indeed the developer notes that many players will simply breeze past key sections without a second thought, but there is definitely a lot of people who like drawing their own conclusions about how the story fragments join together. I personally found it highly confusing at the beginning (as was intended, I believe) of both of the games but the utlimate conclusions are pretty damn satisfying and they wrap up the story quite well.

Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving then are a real oddity, even in light of the massive influx of weird and whacky games that have come out of the indie scene in recent times. I quite enjoyed them and it was great to run through the latter with the developer comments on to get a feel for how my experience of the game lined up with what the developer was trying to craft. Considering that these will only take up less than an hour of your time combined I highly recommend giving them a play through, even if you’re only doing so to say you’ve played them.

Rating: 8.0/10

Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving are available on PC right now for free (on the developer’s website) and $4.99 on steam.

Diablo 3: Truly A Game For The Fans.

16 years, that’s how long its been since the first release of Diablo yet I can still remember some of the moments with it fondly. I can remember the first time I wandered down to that level and physically leaping out of my seat when the butcher first growled “Aaaahhhhh fresh meat!” when I dared enter his lair. I spent many hours attempting to get further and further into the dungeons and only after pairing up with people I had never met before online was I able to progress further and ultimately defeat Diablo. My time with its sequel released 4 years later was a much more social affair with many LANs dedicated to pushing our characters through the 99 levels that it offered to us. Today I find myself back in that same world again, playing through a world that’s been with me almost all of my gamer life. One that I’ve become very fond of.

Diablo 3 takes place 20 years after the events of Diablo 2. Deckard Cain and his niece, Leah, are investigating an old prophecy that’s foreboding a great conflict between man and the terrors of hell. During his investigation a star falls from the sky towards Deckard and his niece and destroys much of the cathedral leaving only a hole into which Deckard falls. You, known only as The Nephalem, have come to investigate the falling star and arrive at the town of New Tristram to find it under siege from the undead. So begins your long journey, one that draws many parallels to the past releases.

There’s something to be said about Blizzard’s approach to the visual and auditory nature of all of their games. They’re never on the cutting edge of graphics (which I was very thankful for as half of my time with the game was spent on an almost 2 year old MacBook Pro) but they never feel as dated as other games who attempt the same style do. Their heavy use of stylization, clever lighting effects and heavy use of perspective makes the low poly graphics feel like they’re a lot more detailed than they actually are. This also means that in heavy battle situations even those with modest computers won’t be playing through a slideshow, something that has always worked in Blizzard’s favor.

Like all their games the accompanying music, foley and cinematic cut scenes help to elevate the Diablo experience further. Blizzard really are no slouch when it comes to making cut scenes that are tear-inducingly beautiful and the ones in Diablo are no exception to this rule. Russell Brower, the man behind nearly all of the music in Blizzard games of the past decade, has done a fantastic job with Diablo 3’s music which aptly sets the mood for the entire game (bar one level, but I’ll get to that later). The voice acting is also done well although I felt the dialogue was a bit of a let down in some parts but that’s no fault of the voice actors.

Combat takes wild swings from being a breeze where you feel like an unstoppable killing machine to the disastrous lows where you spend 10 minutes and many deaths trying to beat a single enemy or elite pack. Granted for the vast majority of the game (everything up to Act III/IV hell for me) you probably won’t struggle bar getting a pack/elite with a rather nasty combination. Even then it’s usually a quick change of skills and a repair away from being a walk in the park again. Failing that all you’ll need to do is take a quick trip to the auction house to be able to elevate yourself out of the current rut you’re in, so long as you’ve got the requisite cash of course.

The itemization in Diablo 3 seems to work well in the beginning with upgrades dropping left, right and center. However as you progress through the levels you’ll notice that upgrades start to come further in between, leaving you wondering what the deal is. For the most part its because up until Inferno difficulty most items that drop will be below your level and thus won’t be much of an upgrade. The auction house goes a long way to mitigate this, as does the fact that there are no soulbound items, but that also means you’re somewhat reliant on it should you want to progress at a reasonable rate. Granted this isn’t that bad since semi-decent upgrades can be had for a pittance if you’re willing to search and wait but it is starkly different to the way it was in the previous installments in the Diablo series.

The gem system is back but instead of relying on the Horadric cube to do all your combining and upgrading of gems you instead have your very own artisan that can do the upgrades for you (for a fee, of course). To get better gems you have to pay to train him and as you progress further you’ll need to seek out additional items in order to upgrade him and the gems he creates for you. Gems are also infinitely resusable which is a welcome change as now you can spend quite a lot on crafting good gems and not have to ditch them when you get a gear upgrade (or delay that upgrade because of the gems). This also means that the secondary market for gems is somewhat non-existent as all you need is a friend who’s run Inferno once or twice to come into your game and shower you gems they don’t need but are godly to you.

The crafting system starts off as being a wonderful alternative gear path allowing you to convert unwanted items into crafting materials that can then be used to craft items. All of the items are random however meaning that there’s a very high chance that you’ll create a piece of equipment that you’ll have no use for (which can then be turned back into mats again, if you so desire). Since the investment cost at the lower levels is, funnily enough, low you can quite easily create multiple items and usually get a hit that’s an upgrade. Additionally you can also train the blacksmith to create items that are a higher level than what you can current use, giving you something to look forward to as you level. I did exactly this all the way up to level 30 or so, and that’s when crafting started to fall apart.

The investment cost at higher levels starts to consume all of your available gold should you chose to keep pursuing it. Additionally the material requirements start to ramp up as well meaning that you can craft fewer and fewer items the further you progress. This means that chance starts to play a much bigger factor in whether crafting is worth it or not and in my experience it stats to lose its luster very quickly after level 30 or so. The base idea of the crafting system is sound what it needs is some finessing to make it less prone to rolls of the dice when the investment required for crafting each item is so high. If you’re an action house wunderkid this might not be so much of a problem, but not everyone who plays this game is.

The talent system has been streamlined extensively, taking heavy cues from the improvements that had been made in the upcoming World Of Warcraft Mists of Panderia expansion. Instead of the typical talent tree with 3 different play styles segmented neatly by the different tabs they dwell on Diablo 3 instead goes for an ability based system, allowing you to pick and choose the abilities you want to use and then augment them in specific ways. This streamlined approach appears at first glance appears to be a vast simplification of the traditional RPG system, one that had the potential to remove a lot of the diversity from the game. The actual result is far from that with Blizzard reporting that the most common build is only used by approximately 0.7% of players. Even with my extensive amount of play time in this game I’m still finding myself experimenting with different skills to see if they’ll give me an edge in damage or survivability, something that I had only thought would be possible with traditional talent systems.

Many of the set pieces feel like they are done either for the fans or in spite of them. Much of the game feels a lot like its predecessor with the progression through levels (town/rural -> desert -> keep -> heaven/hell) being eerily similar. Thankfully the environments feel fresh and distinct from their counterparts in Diablo 2 so it doesn’t feel like they’re just 3D renderings of the former 2D sprite based environments. The rainbow unicorn level (I.E. the not “cow level”) is one that was obviously done in reaction to fan’s bellyaching around Diablo 3 being too colourful when compared to its predecessor. This is the one place where the music is just plain wrong but that’s just part of the whole experience of this particular level.

The story of Diablo 3 is definitely above the level I’ve come to expect from most AAA games that only have it as a side note to the main game of multiplayer but somewhat lacking in what I’ve come to expect from Blizzard. The Diablo world, and its current incarnation, is not short of lore and back story for nearly every main character and NPC that you come across. However, and this may be because of the character class I played or not, I never really felt any empathy for the characters apart from Deckard Cain (the only one who I can remember being in past Diablo games). I also never really felt any driving motivation for my character either, mostly because of the way he interacted with the main protagonists.

Whilst a lot of the NPCs would show fear and doubt my character never showed a lick of hesitation when it came to talking down to prime evils or even supposed members of high society. After a while it started to sound more like bravado than anything else which was only compounded by the fact that many of the other characters acted somewhat irrationally towards him (like Azmodan saying at every turn that I would fail, even after I had completely decimated his army). The other classes might have been better but this combined with the lack of empathy for any of the characters meant that I didn’t really care that much for the story. I don’t hate it, I’m just indifferent to it.

So it’s at this point in the review where I look back at the game and ask myself “well, was it fun?”. The beginning stages of Diablo are very enjoyable especially as you get your first rare drop or you completely kit yourself out in blues for the first time. It gets a whole lot better with friends too as the multiplayer experience has been streamlined and integrated perfectly. Still I couldn’t help that feeling I had in the back of my mind, one that I used to get when I was playing World of Warcraft at max level. Sometimes I feel compelled just to do things for the sake of doing them and towards the end as I was approaching 60 I started to wonder why I was doing it. Granted this was at the end of a probable 20 hour binge over the course of the last 4 days, so I was probably just burnt out on playing.

Diablo 3 feels like a game that was made for the fans. The settings and the gameplay instantly dredge up that nostalgia feeling whilst keeping the experience fresh and exciting. Whilst I don’t believe there’s nothing in this game for those who haven’t played before their experience won’t be the same as that of long time fans of the series. I’m not sure if I’ll roll another character but I’ll definitely be joining my friends when we set out to conquer Inferno mode.

Rating: 9.25/10

Diablo 3 is available on PC right now for $89.99. Game was played through the Normal, Nightmare and Hell difficulties with the Monk class reaching level 60 with around 32 hours of total play time.

Dear Esther: A Game It Is And So Shall It Be Judged.

Recent years have seen the lines of what defines a game blurred significantly. Games like Heavy Rain eschew normal game mechanics in favour of only minimal interactivity, instead focusing very heavily on the story. Most gamers called titles like these playable movies or cinematic gaming (although the later is now more often used for big budget titles that have a movie feel about them) in order to set them apart from their more traditional gaming ancestors. Dear Esther is another one of these such games, being re-released as a stand alone game after it enjoyed some mild success back as a source engine mod. The game made waves as it recouped its cost in no less than 5 hours after going on sale and with the usual friend recommendation I thought it would be worth a shot.

Dear Esther drops you on an unnamed island, put in charge of an unnamed person. As you move through the world a narrator reads sections of dialog describing one of 3 separate story lines. There’s really no driving goal, the narrator doesn’t prompt you to move anywhere, but there’s enough clues to show that you’re pointing in the right direction. There are no puzzles to solve, no enemies to defeat, you must simply keep progressing forward as the narrator reads and you explore the island.

Graphically Dear Esther isn’t that impressive, mostly due to its source engine roots. Whilst there are some scenes that are quite beautifully created the rest of the game is ridden with over-specularity that makes the objects appear fake. It’s not exactly terrible though as there’s really not that much you can do with a long deserted island to make it visually interesting so overall the graphics are passable but nothing really spectacular.

Now this is where I’d usually start talking about the game play, but there’s really nothing more to say about it. All you do is walk around, look at things and have the narrator read passages to you. There’s no sprint button so you’re stuck walking at the exact same speed every time and the only real secret to the game play is to try and find all the places that you can walk to as the majority of them will trigger another dialogue section.

However doing that is not an exact science either as there are many sections that look like they’re inviting you to come down there for another piece of dialogue when in fact there’s nothing there at all. This wouldn’t be so bad but the achingly slow pace at which the main character walks means that what looks like a short trip can take you several minutes to accomplish. When there’s nothing else to do but walk and hope that the narrator starts talking again this gets quite laborious to the point where I just stopped trying.

What’s worse is that if you do play Dear Esther as a game by say trying to decipher the all the clues that are seemingly littered around the place you’re in fact just wasting your time. Sure they tie into the story somewhat but there’s no rhyme or reason to them, they are just there to break the game up visually. Indeed without them you’d spend long sections looking at nothing but varying shades of brown, green and grey. Even then though after seeing the same pattern repeated over and over again they don’t really even serve that purpose, instead just blending into the background as noise.

All of this then combines into an experience that is, for what its worth, completely and utterly boring. There’s really nothing interesting about the experience at all as the jumbled story (done deliberately, apparently) slow pace and so-so visuals do nothing to inspire enjoyment on any sort of level. It got so boring that at a certain point, where a giant hole in the ground is presented to you, I threw my character in there in the hopes something interesting would happen. Instead I was just catapulted back a couple minutes which just extended the painful time I had to spend with Dear Esther.

Reading other people’s experiences had me questioning whether it was fair to judge Dear Esther based on its merits as a game. Indeed nearly all traditional elements that we’ve come to expect from a game have been stripped away from Dear Esther, even further than that of any of the playable movies that have been released to date. Judging Dear Esther as a game then would seem unfair as it’s more akin to a strange kind of performance art than anything else.

The thing is though Dear Esther is sold as a game on a platform that deals exclusively in games. It has the same controls as a game, for the most part, and is being talked about almost exclusively by the gaming community. Judging it on its merits as a game then seems fair to me as whilst it might be far removed from even its closest cousins to completely exclude it from that genre is to ignore some of the core aspects which constitutes a game.

As a game then Dear Esther is astonishingly terrible in every regard. It’s (thankfully) very short with my play clocking in at just over an hour and the longest plays barely touching 2. The graphics, whilst capable of producing some decent set pieces like that shown above, are nothing spectular and above all the game play is simply non-existent. Even forgetting for a second that the lack of game play is intentional the story, which is what should carry a game in absence of game play, is boring and uninspired. I felt nothing for any of the characters in any of the stories and the whole idea of giving you random sections of the story so you have to draw your own conclusions is a hacky way of trying to make each game play unique.

Dear Esther then fails to entertain as a game, as an art piece or whatever it set out to be. The added insult is that I paid $10 for the experience, a price which has netted me other titles like Cave Story+ that managed to not only entertain me but also did so for more than an hour. Based on this I can’t really recommend Dear Esther to anyone unless you feel the need to torture yourself with a slow moving game that will ultimately leave you unsatisfied.

Rating: 3.0/10

Dear Esther is available on Steam right now for $10. Game was played entirely on the PC with a total of 63 minutes played.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, A New World Torn From Old.

I’ve played my fair share of MMORPGs since my first introduction to this genre way back in 2004. After falling from the dizzying heights that I scaled within World of Warcraft I set about playing my way through several similar games only to either find them half done, unplayable or have their community boil down to just the hardcore in little over a month. There are only two MMORPGs that I’ve ever gone back to after an extended period of absence: World of Warcraft and EVE online. Both had characteristics that begged me to come back after I had left them for good and both have continued to reinvent themselves over the course of their long lifetimes. Today I want to take you through World of Warcraft’s latest revision, the Cataclysm expansion.

This expansion signals the return of Deathwing, one of the dragon aspects of Azeroth who’s first appearance in Blizzard’s Warcraft line of games dates all the way back to Warcraft 2: Beyond the Dark Portal. His emergence from the depths of Deepholm have torn the world asunder, laying waste to much of the original world and changing the landscape of Azeroth permanently. This expansion differs significantly from the previous 2 in that it did not add a whole new world, it reinvented the old whilst adding a few new zones. This allowed the developers the opportunity to redo the entire old world in order to make the 0-60 levelling experience more fluid as well as allowing everyone the opportunity to use their flying mounts in the old world. This is in addition to the complete overhaul of every class, 2 new races, a dozen new dungeons, 4 new raid encounters, a new secondary profession, rework of the stat system and an overhaul of the badge based reward system.

I had a few choices when it came to exploring this new old world that Blizzard had set before me. Reports from friends told me the levelling experience was quite nice and the new starting zones were of similar quality to that of the Death Knight area, long praised for its intensely immersive experience. Still I had 2 level 80 characters ready, willing and able to experience the new content right away and logging onto one of them I was instantly greeted by some of my long time World of Warcraft buddies. The decision to level my 80 Shaman had been made for me before I knew it and I set about blasting my way to 85.

The first thing I noticed was the vast improvements to the game experience that Blizzard have added since the last time I played. First there’s a quest helper that not only tracks all your quests it also points you in the right direction and marks out an area for you to find the mobs or items required to complete it. Additionally the character panel has seen a significant revamp with many of the stats now providing insight into what they mean, like the amount of hit required to not miss a certain level target. There’s also lots of tiny little additions that make the game experience just that much better, like the little icon that hovers above your head when you get 5 stacks of Maelstrom Weapon as a shaman something which required a whole other mod to achieve. The revamped raid/party bar is also quite good and a testament to how necessary the Grid mod was before Blizzard rolled their own. There are still a few things missing that I still consider necessary like a damage meter and a loot browser but overall Blizzard has shown just how closely they watch the community and listen to what their needs are so that they can include those things into the main game.

The levelling experience from 80 to 85 was incredibly enjoyable, probably the best experience I’ve had out of any of the previous releases. I was never lost for somewhere to quest as part of my usual trips back to Ogrimmar there would always be a quest on the Warchief’s board that would send me to a level appropriate area. Whilst this has left me with a couple areas left uncompleted (like Vashj’ir and Uldum) it did mean that I didn’t spend time on lower level quests that yield significantly lower experience. The usual line is that the levelling time from 80 to 85 was supposed to be the same as 70 to 80 but I found that it was significantly less, probably about half or so. I think this can be attributed to the random dungeon system they added in a while back with the added bonus that instead of having to do long quest chains to get those juicy dungeon quests nearly all dungeons have quest givers right at the start.

Like any of the Blizzard titles what really got me was the depth and breadth of the lore behind each of the areas. Whilst many of the quests are you’re standard kill X of those, gather Y of these type of encounters there are quite a few that really bring you into the world that Blizzard has created. The screenshot above is from one such encounter where after leading a band of goblins up the hill I’ve finally met with Alexstrasza who soon after takes me on a direct assault against Deathwing himself. There’s also extensive use of the phasing¹ technique giving you that feeling of being the hero of the world, even though you’re in a world of heroes. This lead me to follow many long quest chains to their completion as I just had to know what happened next, spending hours battling various foes and gobbling up the quest text at every opportunity.

The end game has improved significantly as well. Back in Ulduar Blizzard began experimenting with teleporters that would take you a fair way to the part of the instance you wanted to be at. They continued this in Icecrown Citadel and they have made their way into every instance I’ve played thus far. The instances themselves are also quite entertaining with new boss mechanics and some instances even having in game cinematics. Sure you’re over them once you’ve seen them for the 5th time but it’s a nice touch and goes a long way to revamp the old dungeon grind.

I’ve spent the last month playing through the level 80 to 85 content and I’m still not lost for new things to do in Cataclysm. It seems every other day I find myself in a new dungeon I hadn’t yet done or a new section of a quest area I hadn’t yet discovered and that’s just what keeps me coming back day after day. I’ve still yet to dive into the revamped old world in the form of levelling a new character but from reports I’m hearing from both long time veterans and first time players the experience is as enjoyable as my level 80 to 85 experience. So for those of you thinking about reactivating your old account or for anyone who’s had the slightest inclination to play World of Warcraft you won’t go wrong by starting now in the new world that was torn asunder in Cataclysm.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is available right now on PC for$39.95. Game was played over the course of the last month on the Oceanic Dreadmaul server as a Enhancement Shaman.

¹Phasing, in World of Warcraft, is when part of a world is in a sense instanced. This allows them to show a different world to different players which is usually used to show the effect of a quest on the world around you. The example given is that if you get 10 wooden planks to repair someone’s house it will in fact be repaired. However anyone who hasn’t yet done that quest will see that house as still damaged.