There are some rules of thumb in game development that can help ensure a studio is successful. The first is once you’ve discovered a successful formula, whether that’s an original title or say a deal with a publisher to make a certain type of game, stick with it and iterate on it. Another is to never build your own engine, lest you spend the majority of your budget developing it and not the game itself. Finally if you’ve got a publisher it’s likely best to stick with them, especially if you’ve had success with them previously. So for Asobo Studios to ignore all those rules in developing A Plague Tale: Innocence many would’ve thought them down right crazy, given the line of successful (albeit not exactly groundbreaking) titles they’d released in the past. The gamble has paid off in spades however as this game stands out as one of the more unique experiences of 2019; bringing together a beautiful world and great storytelling.
Set in 1349 France A Plague Tale: Innocence puts you in control of Amicia de Rune, a young noble in the rural province of Aquitaine. The plague grips the country but has thankfully yet to make its way to your lands. Things take a dark turn when the English Inquisition invades, taking your father hostage and demanding that you hand over your brother. When he refuses the Inquisition brutally murders him and anyone who stands in their way as they search the property for your brother. Your mother urges you to escape and seek out Laurentius, a doctor friend who has been treating your brother for a mysterious illness that has long plagued him. This begins your long and tortuous journey to find out why the Inquisition is after your brother and what they intend to do with him.
Asobo Studio developed their own in-house engine to power A Plague Tale: Innocence and I have to say the results are absolutely stellar. Building an engine capable of graphics like this from the ground up couldn’t have been easy, especially considering that this is also a cross platform release. Suffice to say the screenshots in this review speak for themselves, all of them taken from directly in game. Performance is also rock solid to, even when you have what appears to be thousands of rats on screen at once. The game does demand a bit of your hard disk though, enough that I moved it onto my SSD in order to play it. Still all things considered I’ve seen many more well funded development houses attempt to build engines and get nowhere near as good as what Asobo has put out here so hats off to them.
From a core gameplay perspective A Plague Tale: Innocence is a kind of stealth action game, starting off initially as a kind of stealth walking simulator before graduating more into a typical action-oriented game with largely optional stealth elements. Unlike other games which reward you more for taking the harder option (I.E. stealth) this game doesn’t really seem to mind if you go all out against every enemy, save for a few choice voice lines. Indeed the game’s progression system, whilst having a myriad of different options, heavily favours enhancing your combat abilities rather than your stealth. That being said whilst there’s a couple different routes to be taken for each level they are, for the most part, linear experiences that have a distinct right and wrong way of completing them. There are times when you can create some emergent gameplay opportunities but they’re rare and usually ill-advised. Overall it’s not a mechanically deep game but it doesn’t really need to be, the focus much more on the story and its telling.
Combat revolves around Amicia and her sling which is unfathomably accurate and ludicrously deadly. Once your combat abilities are unlocked you can one shot any unhelmeted guard which makes the stealth aspects so much easier. There’s a host of different types of ammunition you’ll be able to craft later on that unlocks the ability to get guards to take off their helmets, sick rats on them and all sorts of other abilities which have both combat and puzzle functions. About two thirds of the way through the game you’ll have all the required ammunition types and enough of them crafted to be able to take out all enemies in a level and, honestly, there’s no reason you shouldn’t. Most games would punish you severely for doing this so it’s pretty refreshing to play a game that has an obvious bent towards stealth but doesn’t really mind if you go on a murderous rampage. I’m not sure if that fits with the theme of the whole game but hey, it was fun.
Upgrades come through crafting, driven by finding various different kinds of materials around the world. Most of the upgrades rely on “blue” materials which aren’t particularly common and are shared with some of the more high end consumables. The game does try to play this off as some kind of a trade off, I.E. if you want to have that consumable (which usually gives you a second life, effectively) you might not have enough for that upgrade you’re lusting after. In my experience though you’re better off not crafting those consumables at all as all the times when you’d end up using them are encounters where you shouldn’t be needing them anyway. Hunting for these materials feels a little hit and miss as quite often most of the upgrade materials are clustered near the workbenches. There are some hidden elsewhere in the world but they’re mostly stuff you’ll already have max of anyway. I don’t think there’s enough materials in the game to upgrade everything but there’s certainly enough to get all the upgrades that matter.
It’s through these upgrades that the game slowly transitions from a game that requires stealth to one where it’s completely optional. Initially you have to be pretty tactical about who you take out and how with your limited ammo supply and the long time it takes to wind up the sling. However after a few choice upgrades you’re basically unstoppable as there’s more than enough ammunition and crafting materials around to keep you fully stocked pretty much all the time. I had figured that there might be some consequence to just taking out everyone I saw but as far as I can tell there wasn’t one. Perhaps it was the Dishonored-esque setting and gameplay setting that was making me feel that way.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is largely bug free and didn’t have any performance issues once I got past the incredibly long load times due to my RAID 10 array playing up. As I mentioned before there are some instances where you can do what appears to be something that wasn’t intended by the developers although most of the time that leads to breaking the encounter completely. The game also doesn’t do a great job of letting you know when you’re attempting something that is 100% impossible, leading to a few instances where you can think you’re doing the right thing and just failing at it when, in actual fact, you’re breaking the encounter completely. Thankfully there aren’t too many of these but there could be a few more dialogue cues or other things that would indicate when you were barking up the wrong tree completely.
The story is one of the stand out features of A Plague Tale: Innocence as it’s all fully voiced (save for a few bits of flavour text here and there) by some great voice actors. It’s somewhat confusing to begin with as the game doesn’t reveal much to you early on, leading to some slow pacing to begin with. However in the last half or so things really start to pick up and it became quite enjoyable to play through. I’m not typically one for period pieces like this but the story gave all the characters enough air time to build them up enough for me to care about them. I might not have come to like Hugo as much as other reviewers did, but I can at least see where they’re coming from.
A Plague Tale: Innocence was a nice surprise, coming out of left field in the middle of a deluge of AAA titles and standing out among them as one of the more well crafted experiences of this year. The graphics are phenomenal, brought to us by an in-house engine that I hope Asobo continues to make use of for future titles. The gameplay is an eclectic and evolving beast, one that transitions from a kind of stealth walking simulator to an almost full action RPG by the end. The story brings everything together, starting off slow but building up to a great ending that wraps everything up without committing the cardinal sin of teasing a sequel. There’s a few rough edges but nothing that’s beyond patching. So if you’re looking for a narrative focused game that doesn’t ask too much from you then A Plague Tale: Innocence could be right up your alley.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 9 hours play time and 57% of the achievements unlocked.
The Resident Evil series and I go a long way back. I started playing the series with Resident Evil 2, skipping the first because I don’t think we had a PlayStation until long after it was out (we were a Nintendo household, dagnabit). For some reason though the series stuck with my brother and I, the game getting numerous replays as we sought to master its every aspect. I even remember going as far as doing a no-save run, a feat which saw me playing through until midnight, netting me the infinite ammo gatling gun. However after Resident Evil 3 (which I am very much looking forward to seeing a remake of now) my interest in the series waned I went to greener gaming pastures. It was impossible to ignore the wide critical acclaim that the remake was receiving though and, after being prompted to play it by my brother, I found myself back in the zombie infested world of Racoon City. Suffice to say if all remakes were done this way I think we’d all be far more welcoming of developers pillaging old classics.
You play as either Claire Redfield or Leon S. Kennedy, both of whom are venturing into Racoon City for their own reasons. The story starts when both of you stumble into a petrol station on the outskirts of the city, seemingly abandoned with no signs of any humans around. It quickly becomes apparent though that everyone here has turned into zombies and thankfully you bump into each other before making your escape into the town proper. As you journey towards the police station, in hopes of finding shelter and help there, you become separated and so your journey begins to escape Racoon City and, possibly, save a few others along the way.
Resident Evil 2 is based on the same RE Engine that powered Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and the visuals have definitely improved since then. The level of detail has improved significantly, the game no longer relying on the dark setting to hide away the lack of detail in certain areas. Some of this is out of necessity, given that a lot of the areas are a lot more open and bright than they were in 7. There’s also a lot of nice visual touches like the animations that play when you’re using an item and the subtle changes in colour temperature for different rooms that are lit by different sources (moon light vs incandescent lights, for example). The cutscenes are probably the only sections that highlight some of the lesser graphical aspects, the animations sometimes getting out of sync with the sounds or even the animations themselves not being quite right. Overall though I’m glad that Capcom made a concerted effort to improve upon what they delivered previously with this engine.
Capcom was vehement that this was a remake, not a remaster, and that’s certainly true of the game’s core gameplay. Gone are the fixed cameras (thank goodness) replaced instead with a third person, over the shoulder view. This in of itself is a major change to how the game plays out, no longer are you limited to small, awkwardly framed sections that made even the most benign task a challenge. Instead you now have this almost open world in front of you, one that’s littered with many of the same challenges that the original had. Beyond that the game sticks to its survival horror roots, giving you precious little ammo to take on the numerous zombies that will be coming your way. This makes choosing your path through the world critical as you won’t be able to simply blast your way through everything. Stacked on top of this is a heavy focus on item management, forcing you to make decisions about what to take with you and what to leave behind. Lastly there’s a rudimentary crafting system, adding a another layer of complexity in deciding how you’ll tackle the problems at hand. All of these mechanics are, in the truest sense, the essence of what made the Resident Evil series great back in the day and their modernisation some 20 years later has proven the formula can still be successful.
Combat is, as it always is in survival horror games, a frustrating affair of never being sure if you have enough to make it through to the next stage. Zombies never really reliably go down, often just falling over and getting back up at some later stage (save for a few weapons which guarantee kills like the magnum). You’ll also be faced with situations that will make you panic and drain your reserves rapidly, leaving you with few options but to try and run past whatever is trying to kill you. Realistically the only thing in common it has with other third person shooters is the perspective you play from, everything else is more a game of strategy to minimise the use of your consumables whilst maximising the amount of distance you can cover. So whilst it might be a frustrating, seemingly random system there are a number of things you can do to increase your odds of getting through unscathed and with only a few bullets loosed.
If you’re playing on anything but the easiest mode you’ll also have to deal with the health system which retains the originals Fine/Caution/Danger levels which roughly translate to how many zombie bites you can sustain. Other things seemingly do part damage, like some boss attacks or other smaller sources of damage, but they won’t register on the inventory screen. Similarly healing items seem to indicate that they’ll have varying levels of effectiveness but they all seem to be roughly the same, either repairing you 1 level or 2. I’m sure there’s some deeper level to it, probably one that speedrunners are intimately familiar with, but for your average player there doesn’t seem to be more subtly to it than that.
The inventory system is one of the game’s core mechanics, making it hard for loot rats like myself who by default pick up everything in sight. Sometimes it can mean just having to loop back later to pick up some more crafting materials but often it can mean coming across a crucial progression item that you’ll then have to leave behind. Thus you play an optimisation game, scanning the room for everything in it and then deciding what you can and can’t take with you. It gets easier later on as you expand your inventory space, although then you’re usually carrying around more guns to deal with the game’s increased level of threat. I’d typically chide a game for making inventory management such a ballache however it’s clear that it was a core part of the game design, not something that was simply neglected. So whilst I might have been annoyed at the multiple trips I might have had to make to get everything in a room I understood that this was part of the challenge laid out before me.
Now I’m not sure if it’s my 2 decades of experience as a gamer since I played the original but the puzzles of the remake feel a lot more straightforward than they previously did. All the clues you need will come to you without the need for studious exploration and those that don’t can often be worked out with a little logic or brute force. There was only one time when I got stuck and that was due to me legging it out of a room without fully exploring it, something a second trip through fixed up immediately. I was playing on the Standard difficulty so I understand some challenges are a little harder on the top tier but even then I don’t think most seasoned gamers would struggle. For those who do there’s the easiest difficulty level which I think would cater to even the most casual of players.
It’s hard to tell what’s janky in Resident Evil 2 and what’s meant to be a core part of the game. For instance the zombies’ ragdoll physics constantly goes haywire, even when they’re not completely dead. On the one hand this could very well be deliberate as ragdolling in games often means the enemy is completely, 100% dead; something which this game really doesn’t want you to be sure of. Additionally the enemies AI breaks down around doors, sometimes they’ll break them down and follow you through whilst others will instantly forget you’re there the second you close it. Again, could be a game mechanic or could be a glitch, I really can’t be sure. It’s true to the nature of the genre somewhat, frustrating controls and random mechanics that always keep you guessing, which is also one of my biggest gripes with games like these. So either it’s part of the challenge or a frustrating lack of polish, you decide.
The story remains true to the core events of the original and retains the same ever present tension that the Resident Evil series was always so good at generating. Now I’m not typically a fan of the horror genre but it’s hard to deny how well Resident Evil 2 executes it. The game does have some rather severe pacing issues, something which I think is part due to its true to core nature and the assumed multiple playthroughs (which I have not done), but it does seem relationship progression between most of the characters happens way too fast given the time that would’ve passed (less than one night). A lot of it made sense to me given my history with the original game but for those who never played it I can imagine things might have seemed a little weird. Indeed the story seems to be the thing that recieved the least polish which is a shame but it’s still at least enough to carry you through it.
All this being said RESIDENT EVIL 2 / BIOHAZARD RE:2 sets the bar for what remakes of classic titles can be. Changing up the mechanics, completely rebuilding the environments and thoroughly modernising nearly everything about it brings about a new experience that keeps the essence of the original whilst still doing something new. Even for single playthrough gamers like myself there’s a lot to love here, from the well laid out puzzles to the min/max strategy, ensuring that there’s always a challenge at had to keep you occupied. There are some parts that could either be a lack of polish or a deliberate design decision, something that has always irked me about the survival horror genre. Still, all things considered, if all remasters or remakes were like this I think we as a gaming community would be far more welcoming to them. We may get to see more of it with a possible Resident Evil 3 remake on the horizon and I, for one, am definitely looking forward to it.
RESIDENT EVIL 2 / BIOHAZARD RE:2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $89.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.
I couldn’t tell you why I never got into the Hitman series. It’s not something I’ve deliberately avoided, no I think it’s more that I’ve always had something else to play at the time it was released and, by the time I’d finished whatever I was playing, it was on to the next biggest and best title. However I have one particular friend who is…quite fond of the series and has been relentless in his pursuit to get me to try it out. So, with January not providing any much in the way of new games to play, I figured it was finally time to give the series a go, starting with Hitman 2.
This seems to have been a pretty good place to start because the story of Hitman 2 (which for the purposes of this review also includes Hitman since I played through all of those missions as well) fleshes out a lot of the background of the characters. You are Agent 47, a world renown assassin who works for the ICA: a shadowy contract killer organisation who works at the behest of the board. You and your handler Diana Burnwood are tasked with eliminating targets who pose a threat to your clients in one way or another. However as you complete your missions a pattern starts to emerge and it seems that your assassinations may be playing part in a larger game.
There really is no other game that can compare to the extraordinary amount of detail that’s crammed into each and every level of Hitman. Not only is every place bustling with numerous NPCs, many of which have their own dialogue and action sequences, the environments themselves will likely require multiple playthroughs in order for you to explore them completely. It really is quite incredible to just simply wander around the map to figure out all the different avenues that you have available to you, including the ones that may not have been intended by the game designers. On a purely visual basis the graphics aren’t exactly top tier however that’s made up for in spades with the attention that’s paid to every detail. Performance is also quite good, the game never missing a beat even on my now 4 year old PC.
Putting Hitman into a genre is a bit of a challenge as it borrows elements from many. The core mechanics are essential stealth, challenging you to find ways into various areas without being detected. Whilst I never really tried it there also seems to be a rather well developed third person shooter in there as well, at least that’s the only reason I can think of for the developers to include so many varied weapons in it. There’s also a puzzler element as well as whilst you can likely conclude most missions by simply shooting your target in the head there are many more nuanced ways to eliminate them but doing so will likely require a little digging and out of the box thinking in order to accomplish. There’s also a bunch of different modes in the game that I never tried either so there’s likely other mechanics as well that I personally haven’t experienced. Suffice to say there’s a lot to unpack in Hitman and I can see why it’s one of the few games that’s managed to do well with the episodic model: there’s just so much damn content in each mission.
The stealth is done exceptionally well, even if it is comically unrealistic with some things. NPCs will generally react negatively to behaviour that’s out of character for your current disguise, whether that be walking into places you shouldn’t be in or performing an action that wouldn’t be expected of you. There’s the typical awareness meter which functions as you’d expect it to: enemies further away taking longer to recognise you and those close up being able to recognise you instantly. There’s also the usual mix of stealth mechanics mixed in (hiding in bushes, distracting them with items, etc.) which all work well. Your main challenge is usually hiding the bodies of people whose clothes you’ve stolen which is easy enough, if you can find a place to hide them. Of course you’re very likely to stuff these things up so saving and reloading constantly quickly becomes the name of the game, that is if you’re chasing a high score of course.
Most of the time the system seems fair however it’s not immune to glitching out and behaving in strange and unpredictable ways. Certain actions can seemingly be traced back directly to you even if there’s no witnesses. One mission in particular I hid out of view and shot some gas canisters to eliminate my target. Apparently everyone of the guards nearby was able to trace where those shots came from instantly, altering everyone. There’s also times when NPCs will walk into areas that they’ve never pathed into before, all for the purpose of finding that body that you didn’t hide in a dumpster or closet. Some actions also count as murdering someone when they probably shouldn’t, like dragging someone through a small puddle or pushing them over a small railing. Of course once you know about these nuances of the stealth system you can work around them but it can be rather frustrating to have a Silent Assassin run ruined by some behaviour that you couldn’t predict and can’t fix since you didn’t save before you committed a certain action.
I predominantly played the mission stories and I have to say, whilst there’s probably a lot more to discover in replaying it without them, I had a great time just following them along. To be sure it can make some of the supposedly most difficult missions trivial but they provide a good introduction to the mechanics of the level, it’s layout and how you might go about certain things. Of course not all of them are completely straightforward and you can often find yourself in the middle of completing one without even realising it. There was one level (the Swedish banker one) where I stumbled onto the cameraman mission story without the game telling me I was on it. So what ensued was my own take on it which, honestly, was just as much fun as the other directed ones. I didn’t go back and replay any of the missions though, nor have I done any of the elusive targets, as there was more than enough content for me in just a single play through alone.
The stealth system isn’t the only thing to glitch out unfortunately as there are numerous other things that can go belly up if certain conditions are met. NPCs routines can get messed up for any number of reasons, which can sometimes mean locking you out of a particular mission objective. I had one of my targets get stuck in a loop pathing up and down a set of stairs constantly and no amount of reloads could bring him around. I have to assume that this was because I’d set up for one mission whilst attempting to complete another one which sent the AI spare. I eventually worked around it by luring him out with a trail of coins and guns, but even after that he didn’t resume his original routine. I was still able to complete the mission, just not in the way I wanted to. It’s somewhat understandable given each level’s size but it can still be frustrating to have your run ruined by glitchy mechanics.
Even though this is my first Hitman game I quite liked the story and the developers did a great job of providing background for all the characters. To be sure there are bits I’m likely missing (although my friend did give me a little insight into some of the earlier games) but even coming in at this late juncture I didn’t feel the need to reach for Wikipedia articles or plot summaries in order to understand everyone’s motivations. I was a little disappointed that they didn’t have the budget for cutscenes in between the Hitman 2 missions, instead opting for animated still shots, but they at least kept the same amount of dialogue and character development in them meaning the story could still progress. It’s a slightly cliche plotline but it’s still quite enjoyable, heck it’s likely because it’s cliche that it’s so much fun.
Hitman was a series I’d left on the shelf for a long time but I don’t think I will be any longer. The game’s flagship feature is its incredibly well crafted levels, brimming with detail at every corner. This goes hand in hand with well designed stealth mechanics, ensuring that not two playthroughs of the same level are likely to be the same. The mission stories are great for people like me, ones that tend towards wanting a guided experience but also love to experiment every now and then. The cliche story is thoroughly enjoyable, even to someone like myself who has no history with the franchise. Overall I have to say I wasn’t expecting to enjoy playing Hitman as much as I had enjoyed watching people play it on YouTube but I very much welcome the surprise.
Hitman 2 is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $84.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 15 hours playtime and 20% of the achievements unlocked.
Eastern styled RPGs have a bit of a… reputation. The most notable part of this reputation is their penchant for horrendous grinds, forcing you to spend hours upon hours drudging your way towards that next level or shiny purple. They’re also renowned for being mechanically dense, often with multiple interwoven systems that all need to be understood and exploited fully if you want to live out your power fantasy. My first brush with these kinds of games came almost a decade ago with Aion: Tower of Eternity, a game so grindy and dense that I gave up when I reached level 30, which is saying something from someone who levelled 2 characters to 60 in vanilla World of Warcraft. This was why I originally passed on Monster Hunter World when it first came out as it looked chillingly like the eastern MMORPGs I’d played in the past. However with few good titles out at the time I figured I had nothing to lose and so I gave it the old college try. Unfortunately in this instance I didn’t find a whole lot to like about the Monster Hunter experience, the depth and complexity of the games numerous mechanics lost in the seemingly endless grind that I’d have to go through to exploit them.
You are a Hunter who is traveling to the New World as part of the Fifth Fleet. As part of the Research Expedition your job is to help out in determining why the Elder Dragons migrate to the New World every ten years as part of an event called the crossing. However on your way there your fleet is attacked by Zorah Magdaros, an elder dragon the size of a mountain that was making its journey to the New World. Thankfully you wash up on shore and are able to make it to Astera, the Research Expedition’s main base of operations in the new world. From here you begin your quest to understand the elder dragons, the reason behind the crossing and how to survive in this new land filled with monsters looking to make a meal out of you.
Monster Hunter World has that distinct, eastern RPG art style to it which (for whatever reason) tends to favour slightly worse graphics that are made up for with lavish amounts of detail. Honestly it feels like a game that would’ve came about at the end of the PlayStation 3’s development cycle, not a current gen title. Part of that is likely due to the multiplayer components with the potential for a lot to be going on at any one time. Still there are current generation MMORPGs with higher player caps that have managed far better visuals so I’m guessing that this was a stylistic choice more than anything. This all aside Monster Hunter World is a visually diverse and detailed game, overflowing with colour and visual spectacles. The areas might not be large in scale but they’re full of hidden paths and secret areas, making them feel a lot larger. If this kind of game appeals to you though the visuals aren’t really going to matter, it’s the grind you’re really here for.
Monster Hunter World embodies the eastern RPG archetype to a T, favouring deep mechanical systems that give the player seemingly endless choices in how you approach the game. There are no classes or talent trees to speak of, instead your progression is tied to your weapon of choice and armour set, both of which you’ll upgrade numerous times over the course of the game. The core of the game’s progression centers on the various crafting and upgrade systems, most of which require you to go out and hunt certain monster types to get the items required. Sprinkled over the top of all this is your usual RPG flair with town hubs, vendors and side quests galore that are certain to keep the completionists out there busy for hundreds of hours. Combat comes in the form of a kind of dark souls-esque type experience although it feels thoroughly less refined than its FromSoftware counterparts. In all honesty in the 16 hours I was playing it I still felt like I hadn’t scratched the surface of the game with many of the game’s mechanics still left untouched. Monster Hunter World certainly demands a lot from its players and unfortunately, for this old gamer, I just couldn’t find the strength to keep going back.
Now I’m not one to shy away from the kind of combat that Monster Hunter World puts forward but it honestly felt incredibly unrefined in its implementation. The Dark Souls inspired combat system brings with it a good set of mechanics but utilising them feels like a real hit and miss affair. For starters a monster’s hit box seems to be a finicky affair, sometimes registering as a hit on you whilst at other times simply moving you out of the way. Similarly the target lock mechanic flails wildly whenever there’s more than a few places you can target, often whipping you between different parts of the monster (or other monsters in the vicinity) as you try to position yourself around it. Getting on a monster’s back also doesn’t seem to work as it demonstrated most of the time, often failing to latch when I landed directly on the monster’s back but inexplicably working when I’d barely brush the top of their head. Even the resistance/weakness system felt really ineffective as I ground specifically for a set of weapons to fight one beast only to find that they didn’t make a lick of difference in the actual fight. Maybe I’m just not getting it, but if you can’t understand a game’s combat system after 16 hours then honestly I fault the game, not the player.
I’ll partly lay the blame of that at Monster Hunter World’s utterly glacial pace of progression. Even the most basic of upgrades requires gathering a substantial amount of materials and then, when you do craft it, the benefits are slim at best. In typical min/maxer fashion I tried dumping all my mats and time into crafting a decent set of starter gear (the bone set you see above) and honestly I couldn’t really tell you how much of a difference it made. I even tried grinding out some of the higher level sets of gear but with each monster kill taking 20 minutes or so to complete (if the fucker didn’t “leave the area” right at the end) getting a new set of gear would likely take hours. It got so bad that in the end I simply crafted a hodge podge set made up of the best crafting mats I had and even then that didn’t seem to reap any kind of benefit. Again I’m happy to admit that this is likely a failing on my part to understand the greater complexities that are hiding within Monster Hunter World’s various mechanical systems but if 16 hours of gameplay and intense Googling can’t get me there I’m really not sure what can.
Credit where credits due though, Monster Hunter World does have one of the deepest and most integrated crafting systems I’ve seen in quite some time. For most games there’s going to be a stock standard build that you can head straight for that will ensure your victory. For Monster Hunter World though there’s really no one-size fits all build that’s guaranteed to turn you into an overpowered god. Instead you’ll need to tailor your gear to your weapon choice, play style and prey that you’re chasing. This results in a near infinite number of builds, all of which appear to be viable (at least from what I can glean from various Reddit threads). I can definitely understand the appeal of such a system, heck I myself have invested many hours in games that had similar deep mechanical roots, it’s just unfortunate that I wasn’t able to find that hook to keep me playing.
There are some pretty notable issues with game on a technical level, some of which I think are inherent and others that are most certainly due to the porting process. The game’s graphical performance was horrendous when I started playing, something which I found out was a known issue. This was mostly fixed by using the Special K mod developed by Kaldaien which also allowed me to run the game in borderless windowed mode (although the game still seemed to have some teething issues with that). The netcode also seemed extremely fragile, something which is wholly attributable to Capcom. This is because there’s no native network framework for Monster Hunter World to make use of like it does on consoles (think PSN and Xbox Live) which mean they had to develop their own. When I first started playing it seemed to work fine but however after a week or so I found myself unable to get into any online games at all. Then, inexplicably, it started working again with no changes made on my end. I then foolishly decided to try a multiplayer quest only to have my teammates drop from my game session halfway through a monster fight. Honestly whilst its admirable that Capcom didn’t want to outsource the porting I can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe someone else could have done a better job.
This isn’t also mentioning the various game design issues with the game’s core being focused on controller based play that doesn’t translate well to the PC platform. The default layout that’s chosen for you isn’t exactly congruent to keyboard and mouse play and even the MMORPG styled layout isn’t a whole lot better. The various menus are also incredibly obtuse with numerous different options hidden in random areas, necessitating a whole lot of flipping around in order to find the thing you’re looking for. I’m sure given enough time I could remap the keys or find mods that would make it better but honestly it’s not like UI design for games like this is an unsolved problem space. I managed to stumble my way through, to be sure, but honestly it feels like a game made for a different kind of gamer playing on a different kind of platform. If it’s any consolation I’m happy to admit I’m likely not Capcom’s target demographic for this particular title.
I figured that I’d at least play the campaign through to completion just to see how the game’s story pans out. I didn’t manage that as the overall plot is just too shallow and the use of a mute protagonist just served to highlight all of its flaws. I certainly liked the premise, travelling to a new world to understand a phenomenon that has eluded everyone so far, but there just wasn’t enough character or plot development to keep me that interested. Some of the things also don’t make a terrible amount of sense, like the fact that the various fleets don’t appear to talk to each other very much or why parts of the island are seemingly inaccessible despite you being able to fly everywhere. Again maybe the story depth is buried somewhere I didn’t look but if the game can’t at least tempt me in that direction then I’m more likely to conclude nothing is there.
Once again I find myself on the opposite side of popular opinion, gazing at a wildly successful title and wondering what everyone sees in it. I can certainly appreciate the depth of game play that Monster Hunter World presents, embodying (for better or worse) the stereotypical JRPG grindfest that so many people enjoy. However for me I just couldn’t find the appeal, even after ploughing in more hours than I typically would in an attempt to find that hook. I’m willing to admit that there might be something in there that I’d enjoy but I just couldn’t find it. Perhaps playing with friends could have changed my opinion as I’ve enjoyed many a trashy online experience so long as I had my mates by my side. Maybe the game is just for a different demographic than the one I fit into, I don’t know. It’s quite possible you’ll look at all the gripes listed here and chide me for my opinion, thinking that’s the whole reason you should be playing Monster Hunter World. If that’s the case then you’ll likely find the enjoyment I missed in Monster Hunter World.
Monster Hunter World is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 16 hours play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.
Dontnod almost didn’t make it to where it is today. Whilst I quite enjoyed their first game, Remember me, the wider gaming community wasn’t as enthused. To be sure it sold well enough, some 2 million copies or so, but it was Life is Strange that brought them the commercial and critical success they needed to survive. Not one to rest on the laurels it seems they quickly got to work on Vampyr with many of the Life is Strange team moving across to work on their next major title. It’s most certainly an aspirational title for them, yearning to be included alongside other RPG greats like the titles from BioWare, Bethesda and CD Projekt Red. However much like other developers with such aspirations (I’m looking at you Spiders) Vampyr falls short, including too much of some things and not enough of others.
The Spanish Flu grips London, striking down even the strongest in mere days and forcing much of the city into quarantine. You are Dr. Jonathan Reid, recently returned from the front lines of the war to help London overcome this gripping epidemic. However before you can make it all the way home you’re murdered by an unforeseen foe, only to rise once again stricken with an insatiable lust for blood. You are so blind with bloodlust that you don’t notice you first victim is your sister who came looking for you after you didn’t return home on time. After being chased through the streets of London by vampire hunters who saw your first feed you stumble into a local bar and try to make sense of what has happened to you.
Vampyr’s development began just after the release of current generation consoles so it surprises me that it looks as dated as it does. The Unreal 4 engine that powers it is capable of some quite impressive visuals (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and LawBreakers are two recent examples) so it’s most certainly not a failing of the platform. My best guess is that it was a deliberate choice due to budget constraints with much of their resources spent on other aspects of the game. Honestly if it was from some small time indie studio or a Kickstarted game I’d understand but Dontnod has 10 years of experience in the industry. Heck even Remember Me looks better than this and that game is 5 years old at this point. The upside of this is that it’ll likely run like it was a game from that long ago, giving some reprieve to those who’ve put off buying a new graphics card for the last few years.
Mechanically Vampyr is an action-RPG with a heavy focus on dialogue, both in terms of narrative as well as a core part of the game play. There’s all the usual trappings you’d expect in a modern action-RPG: levels, talent trees, crafting, items and a combat system that took some inspiration from the Dark Souls games. The levelling system isn’t a straightforward kill things/get XP/get levels deal however (although that is part of it) as to make any meaningful progress you’ll have to feed on people, all of which play a part in the story. This ties into the game’s larger emphasis on player choice, giving you a lot of control in how the larger story plays out. Indeed this appears to be where Dontnod spent the vast majority of their resources in building Vampyr as the game can play out vastly differently depending on what you do and what you don’t.
Combat is a little unpolished, suffering from many of the same issues that other games have when trying to replicate a Dark Souls-lite type experience. It’s set up much how you’d expect, with your main combat resources being stamina and blood (to power your abilities). Enemies telegraph their moves pretty openly although their movesets are much more random than I’d ever encountered in a Souls game. The hitboxes act a bit weird at times, with hits that shouldn’t have connected managing to land and vice versa. Locking onto enemies is a bit of a mixed bag too as it seems to limit your movement options somewhat, making dodging a lot harder than it should be. The jumps in difficulty are also area dependent and not at all smooth so you’ll likely find yourself going from competent to struggling at the drop of a hat.
All of this is a bit of a shame as when you’re extremely overpowered the game actually becomes quite fun, allowing you to run through areas without a care to who might be in your way. Whilst I understand that the game wants to make the choice of levelling up impactful (I.E. you can only be that powerful at the cost of others) if you, like me, didn’t enjoy the large amount of dialogue that the game throws at you then it’ll be hard to find a lot of enjoyment in Vampyr. Indeed this is one of the few games where I felt like the heavy amount of dialogue was getting in the way of the larger game; bogging me down in meaningless interactions that didn’t add much to the overall story.
This is probably my biggest gripe with the game as it takes quite a long time to churn through all the dialogue options with all the characters. Indeed past the first 2 chapters I simply stopped bothering with the majority of it. Sure, I probably missed out on some quests and some other bits and pieces, but honestly finding all the clues to unlock all the dialogue options just didn’t feel worth it. I mean it’s great that they endeavoured to give nearly everyone in the game a backstory but most of them only exist within the confines of the area you find them in. Only the campaign missions seem to build the story in any meaningful way, the others are just there as flavour text. I’m sure there’s probably 40 or 50 hours worth of game in here but honestly I would’ve preferred a solid 15 with better mechanics, tighter story and maybe a little more time spent on the visuals.
The other parts of Vampyr are similar to the combat in their implementations: rudimentary implementations of otherwise good ideas. None of the choices in the talent tree will impact the game in a major way (I.E. no abilities will unlock otherwise hidden parts of the map, say) but there are some cool things in there. I ended up with a simple build relying on the blood spear and the shadow ultimate as Vampyr tended to only throw a few enemies at me at any one time. My weapons were focused similarly, using a hacksaw for my main and alternating between the blood knife and stun focused gun for my offhand. Given the steep cost for levelling abilities there wasn’t much room for experimentation unfortunately. That is unless you decided to go on a mass murdering spree.
Which I did once, after I was able to clean out the hospital when my mesmerise level was high enough. That bumped me up around 12 levels in one sitting and was enough to ensure that I didn’t need to do it again for the rest of the game. However whilst there weren’t any direct consequences in the game doing so meant I was locked out of all but one of the endings, something I wasn’t aware would happen until right at the end of the game. Now the game does mention that it’s up to you to choose how difficult the game will be, indicating that feeding on London’s residents will lead to very bad things, however in the grand scheme of things I didn’t chow down on that many people. To be sure I devastated the hospital but the rest of London was untouched and that gave me the absolute worst ending in the game (although, to be honest, I liked it). Reading more into it you have to be very strict with your feedings to get the other 2 endings and the “best” one can only be obtained without feeding at all. The latter is especially devious given the game essentially guides you into feeding on the first one, making it look like a tutorial rather than an actual choice.
Credits where credit is due though the amount of effort put into crafting the story elements is quite phenomenal. Should you want to dive deep into this world and its inhabitants you can, even going as far to have some modicum of influence over it should you want. Although it’s not always exactly clear what your decision will lead to and often you won’t find out that until it’s far too late to undo it. I didn’t mind that so much as it meant that some of the throwaway choices I made did come back to bite me in some of the most interesting ways. It’s reminiscent of older BioWare games in that way with dialogue being the main mechanic by which the game revealed itself to you.
Unfortunately I found it quite hard to engage with the overall story for a number of reasons. The greater story moves far too slow at the beginning with the major questions getting basically no air time until the final couple hours. I couldn’t really empathise with the main character at all and the fact that all the NPCs would spew forth their life story at the drop of the hat just didn’t feel that believable. Towards the end I simply ignored all the ancillary dialogue and quests and, honestly, the game started to feel a lot better. Perhaps my completionist tendencies worked against me in this instance, my want to min max everything I could being at odds with my actual enjoyment of this game. I will never know but if you, dear reader, find yourself in much the same position hopefully that may help you.
Vampyr is an aspirational title from Dontnod and, unfortunately, it didn’t pay of well for this time around. Released some years ago it may have found itself among good company but in today’s market it feels two steps behind the norm. The graphics, combat and other mechanics are all simplistic in their implementation with the vast amount of effort spent on the dialogue and interaction with NPCs. It strives to be among games from the RPG greats but fails to do so, maybe not as badly as others have, but still fails nonetheless. I honestly had zero expectations going into Vampyr (only finding out it was made by Dontnod after I bought it) and have come away from it wanting more. I applaud Dontnod for experimenting as much as they have but, perhaps, in future they could limit their vision a little bit in order to make a stronger overall game.
Vampyr is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC with 17 hours of total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.
There are two distinct types of stealth games. The first are the ones built around the mechanic, designed in such a way that stealth permeates throughout the game. The second, and sadly much more common, is where stealth is added on as a mechanic at a later point. The difference between these two types of stealth games couldn’t be more stark, with the latter feeling out of place. The former however usually results in a much better experience as stealth is an incredibly hard mechanic to get right, if your game isn’t built around it. Aragami thankfully falls into the former camp, nailing the stealth mechanics beautifully.
You are an Aragami, a spirit of vengeance summoned by Yamiko, a young girl who has been imprisoned by the Kaiho. Her captors are adepts of the light, able to control it with deadly effects. Yamiko tells you that the Kaiho are oppressors of her people and have imprisoned her Shadow Princess along with her. It is then up to you Aragami to free her and take down the Kaiho army to free the shadow realm from oppression. How you go about this however is your choice, although sticking to the shadows is likely a wise choice.
At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Aragami was coming from Telltale as its visual style is very similar. It’s based on the Unity engine however (not Telltale’s aging game engine) and the look is generated by good old fashioned cel shading. Overall the visuals are simple and clean, with little extraneous detail thrown about. Performance on my current rig was perfect, as you’d expect, however I think it’d run perfectly fine on current generation smart phones with little change. The only complaint I’d have is that it starts to get a bit repetitive after chapter 7 or so. It does get better towards the end though as the environments get a little more varied, however.
Aragami, as I mentioned before, is a stealth game. You’re put in an area, given a goal to reach and are left up to get to the other end. Combat is non-existent as one hit from any threat will instantly kill you however you are able to dispose of your enemies, if you deem it necessary. Whilst you’ll initially have to rely on your wits to get through each level you’ll find scrolls that grant you talent points along the way. These will give you a smattering of different abilities to deal with the various situations that the game presents you with. The puzzles are pretty basic however, varying little beyond disabling barriers. Mechanically it’s a simple game but the difficulty comes in how you choose to play it.
Like most stealth veterans I immediately chose the no-kill, complete stealth route. Surprisingly though this is probably the easiest (or second easiest, possibly) route to choose as all you have to contend with there is making it through in one piece. So for the next chapter I attempted to kill everyone which proved to be a much more challenging task. Not only do you have to avoid being spotted you also have to ensure no one finds the corpses you leave behind. I eventually gave up doing it as it always seemed like someone would stumble across the bodies, no matter how well I thought I had cleared out a particular area.
Of course doing that becomes a lot easier if you invest a few points in the right talents, one of which allows you to completely remove bodies. There’s enough scrolls about the place that you could easily max out most of the useful talents in a single play through. Of course there’s a few quality of life ones you probably want to go for first, like the one that reveals where all the scrolls are. Others like the invisibility one are quite useful for just blazing through otherwise laborious sections, something that becomes a life saver later on in the game. There’s definitely a good amount of replayability in Aragami because of these talent choices, something which I’m sure the completist crowd will enjoy.
Aragami is mostly mechanically sound, however there are a few quirks which can trip you up if you’re not careful. It’s clear there’s certain places you’re not supposed to be able to shadow step to, but you can if you get the angles right. Things like tree branches, leaves or other semi-odd geometry provide ample places for getting yourself stuck or completely bypassing an otherwise mandatory challenge. Additionally the invisibility power, with its upgrade to make you apparently completely silent, doesn’t seem to work that way 100% of the time. There were a couple times I ran past someone only to have them alert the entire place I was there. Whilst I can understand that happening if I ran directly into them I can remember not even being near them when it happened on more than one occasion. Overall these issues aren’t massive, but are annoying when they happen.
The lack of variety in the layouts and mechanics does start to wear on you after a while. Around the halfway point I found I could really only play a chapter or two before getting bored. Towards the end things started to get a little more interesting but the first 3 hours or so felt like they dragged on quite a bit. Since the game announces to you just how many things you’re going to have to do (get 5 talismans! yay!) it instantly makes you feel like you’re on an extended fetch quest. Couple that with trying to find the scrolls and you’re probably not going to enjoying yourself that much. Indeed I think the middle couple hours could’ve probably been removed without much impact to the game or narrative.
The story is, unfortunately, quite mediocre. It’s clear pretty early on what the twist is going to be which is only made worse by the weirdly out of place dialogue. The writing wouldn’t be out of place in say, a modern anime or something similar, but Aragami seems to want to be taken seriously. However that’s just not possible with the way the main characters interact with each other. Towards the end things start to work out a little better but since there’s really no build up it’s all quite hollow. It also appears that there must’ve been a big rewrite of the story at some point as the final lines, which allude to the game’s previous name Twin Souls: The Path of Shadows, reveal information that had not been spoken of or alluded to at all. Considering this is Lince Works’ first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.
Aragami is a competent stealth platformer with beautiful cel shaded graphics and a great backing soundtrack. Taking the notion that the no-kill, full stealth route is the hardest and turning it on its head is a great twist on the regular stealth idea. Aragami is however let down by its repetitiveness and lacklustre story, a mistake many first time indie game developers make. Still for those of us who enjoy a good stealth-first game there are few titles like Aragami and fewer still from indie developers. If you’re looking for something to bridge the gap between the next bout of AAA releases and need a stealth fix then Aragami might just be for you.
Aragami is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time and 67% of the achievements unlocked.
There are some games I play for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes it’s to reaffirm certain biases (although there have been titles that have changed my mind) but other times I just want to play something horrendous to remind me of how good some games are. Here enters the developer Spiders, a French developer who routinely puts out B-grade games that always aspire well beyond their station. Their two previous titles, Bound By Flame and Mars: War Logs, both tried ever so hard but failed in almost every account. The Technomancer, set in the same universe as Mars: War Logs, again aspires to be an AAA title but fails in such a delightfully horrible way.
You are Zachariah Mancer, a young cadet aspiring to join the ranks of your fellow Technomancers. Your quest begins as you are initiated fully into the rank of lieutenant by journeying to an old settlement dome with your master, Sean. There you learn of the secret that Technomancers have kept ever since their founding: your powers are born out of genetic engineering that caused mutations in your body. Such a secret would see all the Technomancers enslaved like the rest of the mutants are and you are sworn to keep the secret. However one colonels obssesion with learning the secret forces your hand, pitting you against the very corporation that has been your home since birth.
The Technomancer’s graphics are a generation behind in most aspects, lacking any of the graphical enhancements that many games of this generation now have as standard. The environments have a decent amount of detail in them but it’s all relatively low poly work. The lighting effects help to hide the more egregious faults but they aren’t enough to wash away that previous gen feel. Considering other games that use the same engine (like Unravel) seem to do a lot better in this department it does make you wonder just what modifications Spiders made to the engine and if it was really worth the development time.
The Technomancer is a mostly standard RPG affair; taking inspiration from other, better games in this genre and attempting to make its own special version of it. There’s 3 different fighting styles, each of which roughly equate to something from the RPG holy trinity. Each of them has a talent tree to match with an additional 4th talent tree for your Technomancy (read: electricity) spells. There’s also an additional 2 talent trees which are used for further character customization, focusing on what gear you can use and what ancillary abilities (like crafting) you have. There’s a mediocre crafting system which appears to be half done which coupled with the mediocre loot system makes for a repetitive and lacklustre gearing experience. You can also bring along 2 companions with you as well, each of which will mimic one of your fighting styles. Honestly there’s a surprising amount of stuff in The Technomancer but, unfortunately, that’s probably why it has so many issues.
Combat is unintuitive, confusing and worst of all unreliable. I can’t tell you how many times I’d appear to hit an enemy with my staff only to have it whiff through them completely without a hint of why. No damage meter saying “Miss!” or “Dodged!”, just the sound of my staff sailing through the air like it wasn’t touching anything. The combat is a half hearted attempt at recreating the Dark Souls system but unfortunately fails miserably. It doesn’t help that most of the stats appear to be totally meaningless, like when I had 140% disruption but still wouldn’t disrupt enemies when hitting them. Maybe there’s an explanation somewhere about how these stats work but they’re not explained in the game at all, not even in the stats spreadsheet that lists all these things off. So in the end you’re left to simply flip the coin at most encounters, hoping the RNG swings in you favour this time around.
Loot and crafting are similarly disappointing. The loot you’ll get will be all the same based mostly on which chapter you’re in although it seems that old areas have a high chance of yielding old loot when you revisit them. Strangely it seems like there was supposed to be more variety to this since there are some named items in the game but no where near enough to build a full character out of. Worst of all is the fact that you’ll be flooded with mats, most of which become entirely useless once you move up to the next level of crafting. Previous Spiders games allowed you to combine lower mats into higher ones, and indeed there’s text in the game that implies that this can be done, but there’s no way to do it. This wouldn’t be so bad if the system to sell the mats wasn’t so annoying to use, requiring a single click to increase the quantity you want to sell. This means that if you want to sell 200 mats, you’ll click 200 times.
Questing is also pretty unrewarding with nearly all the quests simply awarding XP and maybe some serum (cash). There are some multi-part quests which span chapters, something which you would think would lead to some awesome quest reward. Unfortunately that never happens which is a real disappointment, especially for the more involved side quests. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were amazing items that you could only buy from vendors but there aren’t and so you’re just left with a pile of serum and nothing else to show for it.
Worst of all is the endless retreading of ground you’ll do throughout the game. Sure you’ll visit new areas as the chapters roll on but the vast majority of the game takes place in the first town, Ophir. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that enemies will respawn pretty much every time you traverse through there, necessitating a laborious 10 minute trudge to get to where you’re going every time you go there. There’s no fast travel system to speak of either, so once you’ve finished what you needed to do you’ll have to walk (and likely wade through respawned enemies, again) back to your rover to return home. I can understand that creating new levels is one of the most expensive things developers will have to do (something even legendary developer Bioware got raked over the coals for) but setting more than half the game in one area is just…boring.
As always I could forgive the majority of this game’s sins if the story was passable but, frankly, it’s not. Whilst it is interesting to see the world that was set up in Mars: War Logs continued in The Technomancer there’s just not much about it that is captivating. This is probably not helped by the fact the lines are delivered in a flat and lifeless way by pretty much all of the voice actors involved and the poor quality of the lip syncing with the character models.
Realistically all these issues are symptomatic of one thing: trying to do too much with not enough resources. All of the ideas that are implemented in The Technomancer are solid however their execution is sorely lacking. It smacks of a development team that simply didn’t have enough people or time to get the things done that they wanted to. With the average game completion hovering around 26 hours or so they could have easily cut it in half and still had a great length RPG on their hands. Instead however Spiders chose to try and pack as much in as they could and the overall quality of the game suffered as a result. Whilst this should be unsurprising (since this is kind of their thing) if Spiders ever wants to drag themselves out of the B-grade hell they’ve found themselves in they’re going to have to change the way in which they approach building games.
The Technomancer is another unfortunate swing and miss for Spiders, once again aspiring to the greatness that it never achieved. Whilst The Technomancer has all the trappings of an AAA RPG none of them are implemented well or fully, leaving the resulting experience feeling half-baked at best. To be sure though this is Spiders’ best effort to date but the mistakes that they’ve made before still seem to haunt them even to this day. I can really only recommend this if you’re as twisted as me and like playing a train wreck from time to time, just to remind you how good most games are these days.
The Technomancer is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $45, $57 and $57 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 14 hours of total play time and 40% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve had a few people ask me how I come across some of the games that I review here and the answer is pretty simple. If I haven’t seen something that’s been on a lot of review sites (I don’t read the reviews, but if a game keeps popping up that’s a sign it might be worth a look in) then they usually come from me trawling through the new releases section on Steam. From there I work my way through the titles, looking for something that can capture my attention with just a few screenshots and possibly a short video. Mars: War Logs was one of these although it was more for the dev story behind it as Spiders isn’t a particularly large studio but they seemed really dedicated to creating a good game.
Mars: War Logs takes place in the distant future where humans have successfully colonized Mars. A hundred years ago however there was a great upheaval which devastated the colonies and lead to the rise of two opposing factions: Aurora and Abundance. Ever since then they’ve been locked in an ongoing battle for control of the world’s water supply, by far the most valuable resource. You play as Roy Temperance, a prisoner of war who’s caught between the two factions, trying to hide from his past that continues to haunt him.
The aesthetic of Mars: War Logs is reminiscent of many current gen third person titles with infinite shades of brown and grey colouring the world. Although this time around it kind of fits thanks to the world that it’s built in even though it has the unfortunate effect of making every place you go feel a little samey. The graphics are good but not great, which becomes quite noticeable when they’re combined with the rudimentary lip synching and low resolution motion capture. Honestly I’ve seen worse from other recently released titles so I won’t be too harsh on it for that but it’s hard not to draw comparisons to the many other, astoundingly better looking games.
Surprisingly though there’s quite a lot under the hood of Mars: War Logs in terms of gameplay, something you don’t usually expect from smaller RPG titles. The combat is mostly whacking other people with metal poles until they fall down with the added strategy element of blocking/dodging incoming attacks. There’s also a stealth system which allows you to sneak up on unsuspecting enemies, although how crouching down counts as stealth is beyond me. They’ve even incorporated a talent tree, crafting system and character perks allowing you a pretty decent amount of customization to how you play Mars: War Logs. This is a lot for a small dev studio to cram into a game and that unfortunately means that there’s a lot of depth lacking from many of these mechanics and some of them are still plagued by bugs that should have been picked up in QA.
For starters the combat, whilst somewhat engaging and enjoyable at certain points, varies wildly between being so easy that its almost pointless to being so hard that you’ll spend the majority of your time rolling around just so can whittle enemies down a couple hits at a time. This is because there’s no dynamic scaling of enemy difficulty and it only increases at certain points, usually at the start of a new section. The pacing of the game then becomes highly disjointed as you can be breezing through the last half of a particular section only to hit a brick wall at the beginning of the next, rather than having a gradual ramp up in the challenge. Some would argue that this is part of the strategy but in all honesty it’s just sloppy design, especially when “challenging” means that you lose the majority of your health in a couple hits.
The stealth system is a complete joke as whilst you can sneak around the benefits of doing so are minimal at best. When you’re first introduced to it stealthing up to an enemy and hitting them doesn’t take them out, it just takes away a good portion of their health. Of course that means that after doing that all the enemies close by will aggro forcing you to go toe to toe with them anyway. Now I didn’t invest any points in the stealth abilities so this could be somewhat improved by that but that tree is also the weakest out of the 3 when you consider that, no matter how well you stealth, you will eventually have to fight everything. I think Spiders would’ve been much better off skipping this feature altogether to focus more on the core of the game as it really adds nothing in its current form.
Although there’s a talent tree with 3 different styles to choose from only 2 of them are available to you from the start, with one of them being the aforementioned weakest of them all stealth one. This means that you’re kind of shoe horned into spending points into one specific tree (melee combat) and thus can’t take full advantage of the third tree (technomancy) until much later in the game. However even if you wanted to I don’t think it’d be very viable as the amount of damage output you need later in the game can really only come from charged melee weapons, unless you want to spend 20 minutes running around waiting for your fluid (mana) levels to regen.
The crafting system is equal parts good and complete crap thanks to the massive overabundance of materials that you’ll find in every area. Essentially you can craft a couple things like health packs and ammunition but the real power of the crafting system comes from upgrading your armor and weapons. Now not all weapons and armor can be upgraded so that really expensive top tier armor might look great but it’s in fact completely inferior to anything that comes with upgrade slots. This has the unfortunate consequence of making the vast majority of items irrelevant as anything that lacks upgrades is most certainly not worth it.
After the first section you’ll almost never be out of materials for crafting things you need, especially if you’re a veteran RPGer and seek out all the free stuff like I did. What this meant was that whenever upgrades became available (usually after having to run the gauntlet at the start where everything is stupid hard again) I was able to purchase them and then instantly upgrade them to their maximum. There are no rare items to be found or obtained from quests so literally the highest damage/armor item you can buy from the vendor is the best item you will ever see. If you’re low on serum there’s a good chance you have a ton of materials that you can pilfer for serum in order to get the upgrade and in fact you’re probably better off doing that then trying to convert resources as typically you’ll get more if you sell said items to the vendor then buy back the ones you need.
Most of this would be forgivable however these are just some of the more obvious structural flaws that Mars: War Logs has. The interface is confused and doesn’t operate as you’d expect with fun quirks like: doors mostly requiring left click but sometimes pressing R, the attack button (left click, again) is also the loot button, pressing quick buttons for things like menus twice doesn’t minimize them and whilst you can assign 0~9 for powers you can only ever see the first 4 unless you go into the power wheel again. This is not to mention the issues with the incredibly stupid AI, both for your companion and the enemy, which routinely gets stuck on all sorts of terrain. Not only that many of their abilities are capable of friendly fire, leading to some incredibly frustrating moments where they inadvertently kill you. I’m hoping that it was intentional otherwise it’s yet another point where Mars: War Logs differs from the norm and not in a good way.
As always I could forgive nearly all of this if the story was worth anything but sadly, it’s not. Most of the lines are delivered completely flat in rapid fire fashion which, combined with the poor lip synching, makes for a jarring experience. It also doesn’t help that the characters have as much depth as a children’s pool with many of them changing their motivations on a whim. My particular love interest, Mary, went from murderous rage to sympathetic follower in less than 4 sentences and the resulting relationship could not have been anymore shallow. Indeed the game’s one attempt at invoking emotion feels incredibly cheap and only serves to anger the player.
Objectively Mars: War Logs is a decidedly B grade game with fundamental flaws riddling the core mechanics which, combined with the many other problems can make for a frustrating experience. There were times I had fun with it, especially when I got my build up to the seriously broken level, but unfortunately that wasn’t enough to make up for the numerous flaws. I commend Spiders for trying, I really do, but it just goes to show that sometimes you need to cut back on your ambitions a bit in order to solidify the core aspects of the game. I totally understand where they wanted to go with this but unfortunately it falls short of that goal, leaving us with a game that feels like it was halfway towards something great.
Mars: War Logs is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation3 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the Hard difficulty setting with 9 hours total play time and 71% of the achievements unlocked.
The past year of releases has really changed my perception on what sand box style games could achieve. I must admit the only thing I enjoyed about sand box games was the fact that once I got bored with the main story line I could unleash hell for another 15 minutes or so before I quit the game without saving. Red Dead Redemption and Minecraft were two examples of games where my inner jerk stayed in his cave for the vast majority of the game and so when I started seeing seeing some of the screens from Rockstar’s newest game L.A. Noire I figured that it would be yet another step away from their traditional Grand Theft Auto style sand box, and thus very worthy of my attention. What followed was an incredibly interesting experience on multiple levels, both for its accomplishments and its faults.
You play as Cole Phelps, a veteran of the second world war who’s come back to being a cop in downtown Los Angeles. L.A. Noire wastes no time in getting you into the action, setting up Phelps as a man with an incorruptible dedication to seeing a case through to the very end. You start out knowing very little about the man himself at the start but as the story progresses bits of his past, retold in flashback scenes and with dialog with other characters, come to light. It can be a little frustrating not understanding your character’s motivation for certain actions, especially when he’s prone to reacting wildly to certain things. I can understand the reason for keeping much of his past hidden for the majority of the game, however even a few more bits of insight into his past would’ve made his character a whole bunch more believable.
There are several distinct categories of game play within L.A. Noire. The first is the investigation mode where you look around a crime scene for clues, where upon your controller shakes when you stumble upon something potentially interesting. Not everything will relate to the case however, so you might find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time picking up cigarettes and empty bottles. Thankfully they’re kind enough to alert you when you’ve found all the clues so you don’t spend hours going around in circles looking for a potentially missed bit of evidence. These clues will then lead you onto people of interest who you can then interview to get a better idea of the details of the crime.
The next core game play mechanic, the interviews, relies heavily on the extremely lifelike motion capture technology that L.A. Noire uses. You have a list of questions which you can ask the person of interest and based on how they respond you have to choose whether you believe they’re telling the truth, lying but you have no evidence (doubt) or if they’re outright lying for which you’ll have to provide proof. I’ll be honest and tell you that this mechanic frustrated me to no end as whilst the truth and lie were relatively easy to tell the doubt option was a tad ambiguous. It’s explained exactly as I said before to you in the game however the option can also mean “They’re telling the truth but not everything” or “This guy isn’t going to give you anything useful no matter what you say”. It’s also confounded by the problem that Phelps seem to fly into a rage whenever you choose the doubt option so whilst you might think that there’s more to the story (and there always is) Phelps’ behavior seems to make the more softer targets shut down completely. You do get better at picking it towards the end but it can still lead to some incredibly frustrating times.
It’s made somewhat easier by the introduction of “intuition points” which are gained by leveling up your character in the game. These points let you either remove one wrong answer (which isn’t as helpful as it could be) or ask the community which shows you the percentages of how everyone else answered those questions. You can store a max of five and there’s only 20 levels in the game, with a few of those levels giving outfits and not intuition, so they’re best used sparingly.
Additionally whilst the facial capture is down right amazing in how realistic it appears it’s rather comically strapped to good old fashioned motion capture bodies that were filmed independently of the voice actors. What this means is that whilst from the neck up they appear quite lively everywhere else is your usual rigid clothes and rather awkward flailing about, especially when interacting with other objects. Whilst it’s not noticeable most of the time there are a number of occasions when it looks like the character’s head is trying to move independently of its body. Hopefully the technology they used to capture the stunning facial features will soon trickle down to doing full body motion capture and we won’t have this strange world of bodies with alien head syndrome.
During your investigations you’ll be alerted to street crime that’s happening in Los Angeles. Should you respond to it you’ll be pointed in the right direction and receive a short cut scene when you arrive detailing the situation. These little side quests can be anything from chasing down wife beaters to full blown car chases that end up with a shoot out with dozens of individuals. Primarily they’re there to break up the monotony of driving and give you a little break from the case you’re working on (which can stretch for over an hour). They also serve to help you level up your character as it’d be nigh on impossible to reach the level cap otherwise.
The same sort of action scenes that are played out as street crime also form part of the investigations themselves. It would seem that everyone’s gut reaction when confronted by the police in Los Angeles is for them to run for the hills which whilst fun get’s a little repetitive after the 20th time it happens. This isn’t helped by the fact that your case is judged not only by how many clues you found and questions got right but also by how much damage you do to your car, people on the street and the city itself. Since these action scenes tend to be rather reckless you’re more than likely going to rack up a large bill chasing down all these scoundrels. It really doesn’t mean that much overall, but when the game actively encourages you to do it (like your partner telling you to ram someone off the road) and then punishes you for it does leave you feeling a bit mixed up.
Like any Rockstar sandbox game the city in which you play L.A. Noire feels very alive when you’re playing through it. However it’s probably more appropriate to equate it to a movie set: it’s made to look that way. In this game’s predecessors like Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV you could engage with the NPCs in varying ways (playing cards, buying clothes, visiting clubs and what have you) there is simply none of that in L.A. Noire at all. You’re more than welcome to drive around Los Angeles whilst you’re on your way to the mission but there’s no intermission where you’re free to do as you will. You really have no choice but to pursue the cases constantly as sometimes no matter how long you drive around for you just won’t get a street crime to go and solve. So whilst L.A. Noire has the feel of a sand box game it’s really nothing like that at all.
But just like a movie set the pieces that you’re meant to see are set out extremely well. I was a bit disappointed when I saw that it implemented the same cover based shooting style that’s present in nearly every game these days but unlike shooters where the combat areas are obvious they blended in quite well in L.A. Noire. The camera work, music and use of the environment is also done quite well, setting the mood almost perfectly throughout the game.
I also found the story to be quite enthralling as did my wife who sat by my side and watched me play almost the entirety of the game. Whilst the story line suffered initially from the lack of an overarching plot line, just like Dragon Age 2 did before it, the unveiling of Phelps’ back story slowly begins to tie everything together with the ending wrapping it all up. If I’m honest though I felt the ending was slightly hollow with some of the events happening right at the very end serving only to try and make one last emotional impact on the player, rather than adding anything else to the overall plot. Still I must commend them for going with an ending that didn’t scream “SEQUEL SEQUEL”, a downright rarity these days.
L.A. Noire feels like yet another step towards gaming become a mature medium, becoming more of a medium to tell a story rather than just a distraction for kids. It’s also a technological step forward as well with the facial capture they did for it being nothing short of jaw dropping and I’m sure it’s not going to be long before we see that kind of realism extended to other aspects of the game. Whilst it might not stay true to the sandbox roots from which it was born L.A. Noire delivers a solid game experience that I’d have no trouble recommending to anyone, especially for those who enjoy their games more on the cerebral side.
L.A. Noire is available for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $89 and $89 respectively. Game was wholly played on the PlayStation 3 with a total of 22 hours played with approximately 75% total game completion according to the in game stats recorder.