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Grand Theft Auto V: Lessons Rockstar Needs to Learn (Article)

February 10, 2013 Leave a comment

GTAV-Protagonists

Let’s get this out of the way: I don’t like the Grand Theft Auto series. Whoa now, before you start writing that highly offensive comment telling me how wrong I am, hear me out. I don’t like the GTA series, but I really really want to. I’ve tried so hard to like the games; I’ve played almost every title in the series to some extent, I completed GTAIV, I’ve even enjoyed many aspects of the series and had a ton of fun with them.

That being said, I think when it comes down to it, the Grand Theft Auto games could be so much more than they are.

Since GTA IV is the most recent entry in the series, the one I’ve actually played all the way through and the game which GTA V will surely be building on, I’ll be using that as my reference point.

GTAIV-Niko

Grand Theft Auto IV starts off so strong. You’re introduced to Niko, a fairly likable character with a dark past, and his cousin Roman, a man who clearly likes to think he’s more successful than he actually is, but remains endearing despite that. Niko wants a new life, one like Roman’s–free of death and crime. Unfortunately for him, it’s not to be, as Roman’s life has its own paths into the underbelly of Liberty City.

This sets up the game wonderfully, and as you play, you forgive the fact that the shooting isn’t all that great, climbing is clunky, moving Niko around is awkward and numerous other faults the core mechanics of the game have. You overlook those because the story hooks you, because Liberty City feels like a real place–a dense, populated, living city. Evidently, this seems to be the part that garnered the game such rave reviews. Whenever people talked about GTA IV, they always mentioned the amazing feeling of the city, never the actual gameplay.

Fifteen hours later, you are less forgiving. Now all those faults you were overlooking are infuriating; they’re prolonging this game which already feels too long. To top it off, the story starts to go off the rails. You’re given supposed moral choices, which you are seemingly meant to be invested in because they involved characters who are “friends.” But they aren’t, they’re just characters who have been around a while, and proximity to someone, of course, doesn’t make you invested in them. Just because I’ve completed five missions for this character, and seen them in 20 minutes worth of cutscenes, it doesn’t mean I care about them. Niko starts protesting that he’s just doing all this deplorable stuff for the money, so he can have the better life he wants, he doesn’t want to kill anymore. While you look to the corner of the screen and see he has more money than many people make in a year. Then you go murder 100s of men for a few grand, cause Niko really needs that money. Maybe it’s to decorate the several different apartments he now has? Who knows.

GTAV-Pest-control

For some reason, Rockstar has it in its collective head that GTA needs to be a 30-40 hour game. With GTA IV, they made an attempt to go almost completely into a more serious tone, but it didn’t quite work out. At best, the narrative begins to meander off on tangents, at worst it barely makes sense and ends up painting Niko as a complete psychopath  Perhaps it’s because they build this huge world for you to inhabit, and they don’t want all that work to go to waste–the shorter the game, the less exposure to the environment. Whatever the reason, GTA games need to be shorter, or they need to find a solution that allows them to be 30+ hours while not suffering for it. Hopefully GTA V‘s three protagonist route will help to alleviate this. Could that mean we get three super-tight, 10-hour stories? We can but hope.

There’s reason to believe Rockstar can and will improve on this, though. Since GTA IV, we’ve seen them release Red Dead Redemption, a game with a far more coherent and enjoyable story. It managed to tell a long-form story that didn’t overstay its welcome, even if it did trail off a little. Of course, Red Dead also has the benefit of being set in a completely different time period, one in which character motivations are far easier to simplify and make believable. John Marston rarely lost sight of why he kept doing the awful things he was asked to, he wanted his family back, pure and simple. The old west setting, and his background as an outlaw made his actions believable. He was reluctant but didn’t mope about it

One of the most recent and arguably best examples of a story-focused open world game, Sleeping Dogs, proves that you can make a 12-15 hour open world story immensely interesting and satisfying. The story of Wei Shen is intriguing and gripping while also serving up interesting gameplay scenarios, which take him all over the dense city. The narrative and characters do not fall to the same contradictions we see in GTA. Wei does not start complaining about lack of money despite having an abundance of it, he does not start bemoaning all the killing he is being forced to do. In fact, in Sleeping Dogs that last aspect is actually dealt with, as we see Wei start to become affected by what he’s forced to do while undercover.

GTAV-Trunk

Of course, as previously mentioned, the problems with stretching the narrative aren’t the only issue with GTA. There’s also the clunky gameplay, which is pretty unforgivable when you have to deal with it for almost 30 hours. Looking at GTA IV now, it looks downright archaic. When it released it wasn’t great, but in a world with Saints Row: The Third and Sleeping Dogs, the gameplay mechanics in GTA IV feel unplayable. That may be a bit harsh, but the core mechanics are certainly lacking in polish. The driving is probably the most robust part of the game, with shooting and general traversal mechanics being clunky at best.

While Saints Row‘s gunplay and general gameplay are arguably no more robust than GTA‘s, as Volition has iterated on the series it’s learned to put fun first. Which is why we have things like the so-called “awesome” button, which allows players to modify their actions and execute crazy but satisfying moves like jumping through a windshield to steal a car. Then most recently we saw Sleeping Dogs raise the bar by bringing in robust action-game mechanics to the open world genre, with satisfying melee combat, akin to an Arkham Asylum or Assassin’s Creed, and shooting mechanics you might expect to see in something like Max Payne. That’s not to mention more than a few ideas from the underrated Wheelman implemented into to the driving portions of the game. Wouldn’t you much rather have fun while also experiencing a well crafted story? Rather than trudging through mediocre gameplay in the hopes that the fumbling story gets good again.

There’s no arguing the Grand Theft Auto franchise is important. After GTA III especially, the gaming landscape changed. We wouldn’t have those Saints Row: The Thirds and Sleeping Dogs in the world without first having GTA. But it’s a series in danger of forgetting what games are about, so here’s hoping Grand Theft Auto V can manage to be as fun and entertaining as it deserves to be.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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Categories: Games, My writing Tags: , , ,

Deep Black: Reloaded (PC Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Deep Black ReloadedOne of the first things you’ll notice, and never forget, about Deep Black is its lack of a run button. That might seem like an odd thing to mention first, but it’s the prime example of the many bad design choices that hinder enjoyment throughout the game. In itself the inability to run doesn’t sound like a huge issue. Surely if there’s no run button that means the game has been designed with that in mind, right? But a few hours into this third person shooter you’ll begin to wonder who said they didn’t need it.

The main characters default movement speed on land doesn’t feel especially slow on its own. When facing a group of enemies and trying to get to cover however, it feels like the most casual of walking speeds. A fact that is compounded by the extremely poor feedback on just how much damage you are taking. It’s remarkably inconsistent, leading to countless frustrating deaths when you suddenly die with little indication as to what killed you. It also doesn’t help that the button layout on a 360 controller is horribly unintuitive, requiring middle fingers on triggers and all sorts.

Shooting feels fine, if you’ve played any other third person shooter with cover in the last five years you’ll have no trouble getting a handle on it. The weapons themselves sound relatively beefy but they don’t feel it; with enemies taking a good 10 seconds to go down on the Normal difficulty setting. Then there’s the issue that cover often doesn’t fully protect you from gunfire. In a game where damage feedback is essentially broken, this leads far too many situations where you can do almost nothing to prevent death.

Checkpointing is poorly implemented too, resetting the action long before and tedious boss fight or cutscene. This situation is made worse by the fact you are often encouraged to explore, with ammo caches and weapons hidden away in side rooms or a branching path leading to a dead end.

If you do take the time to explore these areas, you will be rewarded with a path full of enemies upon going back the way you came. It’s a baffling design choice that will quickly discourage players from straying from the main path, for fear of repeating another annoying shootout.

Deep Black’s unique hook is in its underwater sequences, the cover system carries over here too. The Default movement speed underwater is immediately faster, on top of that you also have a boost. This allows you to get through some tougher currents and solve the occasional puzzle, as well as giving increased manoeuvrability during combat.

If there’s any fun to be had in Deep Black, it’s underwater. Swimming around feels great and your manoeuvrability leads to some much more fast paced and exciting fights than any of those on land. The maddening part though is that the underwater areas make up only about 30% of the game.

If one good thing can be said about Deep Black it’s that it looks great. Underwater sections especially are beautiful, again making it confusing why they aren’t the primary focus. Light passes through water beautifully, and seeing missiles streak through the water is a fantastic if mildly terrifying sight.

Gears of War with an underwater twist is clearly what developer Biart was going for here. Unfortunately a lack of polish, uninteresting combat and a long list of poor design choices mean they fall a long way short of that lofty goal.

Originally published on Square-Go.com

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Shad’O (PC Review)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

ShadO

The tower defense genre has exploded over the last couple of years and for whatever reason, gamers just can’t get enough of building towers to stop those endless waves of bad guys. It’s even infecting AAA games, with elements popping up in last years Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and Gears of War 3. So it goes without saying that to stand out these days, you need to bring something unique to the table. With Shad’O, Okugi Studio brings a very cool and unique visual style but never strays too far from the established norms.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Enemies wander down predetermined paths, and within those paths are predefined places to put your towers (or companions in this instance). Each of the towers have different purposes and properties – some shoot projectiles at regular intervals while others attack with a sustained beam. Then there’s the hammer-like companion that smacks the ground and slows enemies down, which is a tower that can vary in effectiveness depending on timing and placement. It only takes a few levels for the difficulty curve of Shad’Oto take a very, very steep incline. You’ll be surprised just how quickly you decide to repeat a simpler level on Nightmare mode (unlocked after completing a stage), as doing so allows you to unlock extra upgrades.

ShadO-Screen-1

Those upgrades are definitely a requirement, as this game is tough with a side-order of really quite hard. There are two types of upgrades, first of which are tower/companion upgrades that open up the ability to boost towers to the next level during gameplay. Powers are the second upgrade, and as enemies are killed, they will drop a mysterious material which is a currency of sorts. It can be spent to activate any unlocked powers, with their effects ranging from boosting resources gained for a certain period of time to healing damaged towers.

To be clear, unless you are some sort of tower-defense savant, Shad’O will kick your ass. You will fail, and you will fail hard. Strategy, speed and a certain amount of trial and error are required to best the shadow beasts that casually stroll down your lanes. Deciding build orders, when and where to use powers or upgrades becomes an essential part of level prep very quickly. It unfortunately means that most players will have to do some grinding to make any headway, and makes picking those early upgrades a pretty nerve-wrecking task. A little more direction in the beginning would certainly not have gone amiss, as some players will feel overwhelmed very quickly.

ShadO-Screen-3

Shad’O is dripping with atmosphere, as the visual style and sound design really pull you into the world. Every level has a different abstract theme, with the action taking place on a floating platform, mostly shrouded in thick purple mist. It’s a striking motif and makes for a very emotionally evocative background to the gameplay. Sadly, the same praise can’t be given to the writing and voice acting, with the former clearly being written by a non-native English-speaker and the latter sounding amateurish at best. It’s a shame, too, because the story is intriguing, telling the tale of William who finds himself trapped in a dangerous shadow world where his memories are under threat.

It’s safe to say Shad’O isn’t for everyone, but if you just can’t get enough tower defense and a super hard experience with great art and an interesting story conceit sounds up your alley, it’s hard to see you being disappointed here. This is a solid entry in the genre, but the punishing difficulty and almost required grinding make it tough to recommend to all but the most hardcore fans of the genre.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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Along came an indie: FTL: Faster Than Light (Article)

December 23, 2012 Leave a comment

FTL-Logo

My spaceship, Quorra, has lost three of her four crew members in a pirate attack. Shields are down, life support is dead, weapons are at half power and there’s a fire in the engine room. Oh, and she’s venting atmosphere. My last crew member, a human pilot named Emily, leaves the bridge and rushes to life support. Without it, there will be no oxygen to replace the air currently being vented into space to combat the engine room fire.

She successfully repairs life support, but oxygen is dangerously low. Thankfully, the fires are out. But, before the air lock doors can be closed, the still attacking pirates hit door control with a powerful laser blast, knocking it offline. Emily tries to get there before it’s too late, but the oxygen is gone and she perishes while making her way through the engine room. With her crew dead, Quorra is left to drift lifelessly through space.

That story comes courtesy of the last few minutes in a game of FTL: Faster Than Light. Developed by Subset Games, it’s one of the first games to launch after being successfully funded through Kickstarter. FTL is described by its developers as a “spaceship simulation roguelike-like,” and if you’re familiar with Roguelikes at all, you’ll know that means you won’t beat FTL the first time you play. You’re not meant to. Heck, I’ve played 45 games so far, and I only got to the end boss when I bumped it down to Easy. In a way, it’s not about beating the game – it’s about playing and experiencing a new story every time.

FTL-Screen 1

In FTL, you take control of a spaceship and its crew. You only have one shop choose from at first, but you can unlock more by meeting certain requirements throughout the game. Each ship has a different layout, sometimes completely different systems and varying numbers and species of crew. Once you’ve selected (and of course renamed) your ship, you must set out on a mission to deliver important data to the Federation fleet while a huge Rebel fleet is hot on your tail. You’ll jump from system to system, exploring nav points along the way. Each nav point will potentially contain a random event – anything from a pirate ship attack to a Rebel ambush in an asteroid field. The encounters themselves are scripted, of course, and you’ll see the same ones pop up, but when and where you experience them is entirely random.

It’s that random element which makes FTL so exciting, while also being the thing which makes it immensely frustrating. Not knowing what you’ll encounter next, and judging from how little I’ve unlocked there’s still plenty I’ve yet to see, is thrilling, but it also means you can’t really prepare for specific encounters. Your next jump could just as easily lead to a fairly easy battle with an automated drone as it could to a well-armed, well-shielded Rebel ship sitting next to a volatile star emitting solar flares. If you were wondering, the survival rate of that second encounter is about 60/40. Solar flares tend to set your ship on fire, and if luck isn’t on your side (which it isn’t), it’ll hit your most vital systems first.

FTL doesn’t often feel unfair, but it does on occasion. On Normal, it may place you in seemingly unwinnable situations or tedious battles of attrition. Even on Easy, there will be scenarios which just seem to pile on as many issues as possible. Important systems will be attacked by enemy crew who have beamed aboard, most likely those crew are of a species which is especially adept at combat, making them very hard to get rid of. So, you’ll soon find yourself with a crippled ship, dead crew and a couple of very dangerous intruders still at large. It’s a scene you’ll see play out far too often, and it’s especially frustrating when you’ve just spent 15 minutes flying around improving your ship. With each game only really taking about 20-30 minutes, though, it’s hard to get too annoyed.

FTL-Screen 2

Actually playing FTL is a deceptively simple affair. Aside from a few hotkeys assigned to the number keys and space bar, it’s entirely mouse driven. Your ship, and those you encounter, are presented as bird’s-eye view cross sections, allowing you to see the full layout of your ship and its systems. The controls are so simple because things very quickly become complex when you’re under pressure. It’s at those times that controlling power distribution, crew placement, weapon targeting and dealing with the inevitable fires and system repairs can start to become overwhelming. Thankfully, a quick hit of the space bar allows you to pause the actions, giving plenty of time to formulate a strategy and even allowing you to issue commands. As you get further in and upgrade your ship’s systems, strategy becomes key. Diverting power from the rarely used medbay to shields or weapons will become second nature, as well making the quick decision of which system of an enemy ship to target first.

While FTL is not without its issues, they are very easy to overlook. Usually because they happened an hour ago and you’ve played three more games since then. Even as you curse your last defeat, you will find it very difficult to ignore the temptation of just one more game.

Originally published on StickSkills.com

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For the love of… Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (Article)

December 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Broken SwordBroken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars, on the surface it’s a fairly standard point and click adventure game, like your Monkey Islands or Day of the Tentacles. You collect various objects, which you’ll use to solve puzzles, ask people questions or just keep in your pocket for posterity. That said, since I first played it almost 15 years ago it has remained one of my favourite games. A wonderful tale of intrigue, conspiracy and adventure told via a beautiful cartoon style, Shadow of the Templars is a true classic in my mind.

For those unfamiliar with the game, Broken Sword tells the story of George Stobbart, an American tourist traveling across Europe. When we join him he is relaxing outside a quaint little cafe in Paris. Things quickly start to go wrong as a creepy clown playing some suitably menacing accordion music shows up. Swiping a fellow cafe patron’s briefcase and leaving his suspiciously beeping accordion in its place, as he quickly flees down an alley. Before anyone can react, a thunderous explosion erupts from the cafe. Thankfully, George survives with barely a scratch and quickly sets about investigating just why a clown would want to bomb a Parisian cafe.

This opening is all presented in a colourful but simple animated sequence, which remains one of my favourite game intros. Accompanied by the elegant orchestral score of Barrington Pheloung [who wrote the cracking Inspector Morse theme too – Ed], the scene sets up the tone of the game perfectly. We quickly go from a gorgeous sweeping vista of Paris to a playful moment in front of a cafe, only for things to take a nasty turn as the explosion rips through the scene. Broken Sword keeps this feel throughout the game, a fun, joke-filled adventure that at the same time can be dark and mature.

The writing is exceptionally witty, George has a brilliantly sarcastic and dry sense of humour and his narration of events is filled with hilarious one liners. Characters outside of George and Nico (the other main character) are painted with broad strokes, all simple archetypes; the dopey policeman, misogynistic workman. This might sound like a bad thing but it works surprisingly well here, thanks again to the fantastic script. Broken Sword is a rare game in which a large bulk of it’s cast of side characters are eternally memorable. Emboldened by some pretty good, if occasionally hammy, voice acting.

Then there’s the overall plot, which sees George follow the mystery of the Knights Templar all over Europe. Don’t worry if you don’t know much about the (very real) Knights Templar, the game isn’t afraid to give you a history lesson or two. An excellent mix of real historical events and a gripping modern conspiracy, there are plenty of twists, turns and revelations to enjoy throughout. This isn’t a short game either, it’ll take around ten hours to finish, more if you are someone who likes to click on every single interactive object. A perfectly acceptable thing to do just to hear what George has to say.

While some of it’s visual aspects may not have aged all that well, Broken Sword is still a delight to look to at. Every scene has a marvelous hand-painted background which have all held onto their charm, even if they have lost a bit of fidelity over the years. The character art was never especially detailed but they remain exceptionally well animated and affable, if a bit blurry in their old age. You can still appreciate the craft and ambition that went into making the game look like an animated film.

In my personal gaming history, Broken Sword is the game which showed me games are not only a viable avenue for storytelling but can be bloody good at it too. Having played mostly 2D platforming and action games on my Super Nintendo and Mega Drive, it was quite a revelation. Before I played The Shadow of the Templars I didn’t think game stories got much more complex than King Koopa kidnapping that poor Princess again. Some might argue that there are better ways to tell stories in games. I’d be inclined to agree, but that doesn’t stop me getting engrossed in Broken Sword every time I play it.

A director’s cut of Broken Sword has been released on various platforms in the last couple of years, sadly it made some changes to the game that make one wonder if George Lucas was involved. So if you are interested in trying the game out, I’d recommend grabbing it on Good Old Games, as those lovely chaps have included the original version for free with the less than great director’s cut.

Originally published on Square-Go.com

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MicroVolts (PC Hands on preview)

December 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Take a passing glance at Rock Hippo’s Mircovolts, now in open beta, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for Valve’s Team Fortress 2. While the art style does differ somewhat, the core gameplay of manic cartoon violence is very reminiscent of Valve’s excellent multiplayer shooter. MicroVolts does stand on its own however, not least because it’s entirely free to play. There will be micro-transactions down the line but as it stands right now, everything is free.

MicroVolts is a pretty basic multiplayer shooter, with the expected death match (both team and free for all) modes as well as a variant of capture the flag (with new ones still being added). The range of weapons is as you might expect: a melee weapon, a basic machine gun, a shotgun, rocket launcher and so on. You can buy better versions of these from the in game store but if you use the default versions well you can still hold your own in a fire fight.

A toy story

The loose premise of MicroVolts is that there is a war between toys for the control of the “Micro World”. All the characters you play are toys and the maps are generally real world environments to scale. This gives the game a great scale that you don’t see too much. There’s just something very cool about being overshadowed by a watering can.

But really, it’s all about the shooting and MicroVolts does a good job of replicating the feel of Team Fortress 2′s weapons (they even sound pretty similar). The difference here is that you have access to all weapons no matter which character you play. Most people seem to stick with certain weapons however, only changing when ammo is scarce or someone gets a little too close or far for their weapon of choice. Matches in MicroVolts are fast paced with fire fights often lasting no more than five or ten seconds. The turnaround is just as fast, with respawning only taking a few seconds. The matches as a whole do seem a tad long though.

This is a beta, so these things can and most likely will be tweaked. If the length of matches was brought down by a few minutes the game as a whole would have the same fast pace as the matches themselves. It would certainly make it easier to jump straight back into another game without hesitation. There is however, plenty to keep the dedicated playing. As you level up, you unlock the ability to purchase new weapons or customisation options as well as the points to buy them. It’s a formula that has worked well for many games before and uses the system well.

Free to play

Currently you don’t need to pay for anything in MicroVolts, but the hooks can be seen. The store has a “convenience” section which is currently empty. One can assume this will include items which will help accelerate progress, boosting the experience you get from playing a match and similar perks. MicroVolts has an in-game currency, “Micro Points,” which are what is actually used to purchase things from the store. These points are earned by playing matches. So, in addition to leveling up your character, you will be earning credits to help boost their arsenal.

There are a ton of customisation options for you to purchase in the games store. There are a small collection of guns you can buy as you level up but the majority of stuff you can buy is all about changing the look of your characters. Oddly, the different outfit pieces also have special stats attached to them. For example, that bitchin’ baseball cap you bought might give you 3% extra shotgun damage. It seems strange to tie these stat buffs to aesthetic changes as it means players will have to decide between what they think looks fun and what will help them during gameplay.

That being said, with the amount of modifiers gained from the different pieces of clothing and weapons, it’s not hard to imagine stat lovers creating that perfect build for their play style.

Those not looking to go quite that in-depth could probably get by with just making their characters look cool and buying better weapons and still have some fun. It’s a fine line, but MicroVolts does seem to straddle it well. When the game does officially launch and micro-transactions are added, it will be interesting to see how that effects the flow of things.

Originally published on Square-Go.com

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