Sunday, 31 January 2016

XCOM: The New One (meaning the reboot, not the sequel which is coming out soon, why is this so difficult, maybe they should have named it something else? At least it's not as bad as Prince of Persia)

A long while ago, I played the XCOM reboot. If you were to look back through the various posts on this blog, you'll perhaps notice one of the first games I played through was in fact X-COM, or UFO: Enemy Unknown, the first and best game in this long-running and now rebooted franchise (at least until the reboot sequel comes out, in which case I'd have to consider that one, but let's be honest I'm probably going to always prefer that classic version from my youth).

The "ant farm"
What I meant to say in that previous paragraph was that I'd covered the first X-COM, and I've played through Xenonauts more recently too. The reboot XCOM was less appealing to me, and although I also did play it, I gave up on it a long while ago. Well, this past few weeks I decided to reinstall it and try to finish it before the reboot sequel comes along. I really feel like I should give it a fair chance, since it's very popular apparently. Word is that XCOM2 is much better and so on, but XCOM1 was widely praised at the time.

Building up your base
Unfortunately I've hit the same point in it as I had previously, and begun to really lose interest again. It has a bunch of small, mildly annoying features which just do enough to affect my thoughts on the game, and I expect I'll go through those in such a way which will annoy fans of the game and to many it will seem like I'm nit-picking about nothing. Perhaps I am, but I'm always going to compare it to the older games, and in my mind it doesn't quite hold up to them.

I'll preface the rest of this piece by saying that I'm fully aware that this is a reboot aimed primarily at new players, and that there's a strong board game influence and the developers are experienced strategy gaming people, and so on. There are loads of reasons why people love this game, and perhaps I'll find that love when I inevitably play the sequel at some point in the near or distant future. There's also a modding scene, which perhaps would slightly improve things or alter things to my preference, but I haven't tried any of that, nor have I tried the DLC/expansion Enemy Within stuff either.
The useless SHIV. A soldier is always better
So the game begins with the formation of XCOM to combat the unknown enemy invading the world: Extraterrestrial life! Those pesky aliens are abducting our citizens and livestock, laying waste to our cities and cornfields, and generally being a right nuisance. The opening (tutorial) mission shows "first contact", which inevitably ends with lots of shooting and death.

This opening section also loves to pull the camera out of your control for its tutorial bits and introduces the "cinematic camera" which gives a more "exciting" camera angle when you see an enemy group, or fire a shot or whatever. Needless to say, I turn as much of this off as I'm able to, because I much prefer the overhead tactical view, so that I can properly consider the terrain and enemy placement.
The classic alien autopsy
You also get your first taste of the two-move system. Except it's not really a two-move system, because if you shoot in your first move, you can't move with your second move. It's not a terrible system, and is one of the big "board game" style things of this game, but I do prefer the old Time Unit system, even though that was sometimes hard to grasp. With Time Units, you had a certain granularity to things. You could move a little, shoot, then move away again. You could spend lots of TUs for an accurate shot, or in desperation try using fewer TUs to spam attacks in the vain hope of hitting something.
The Heavy Floater, during interrogation
I can understand the change, and it allows them to add various special skills to your soldiers, some of which give them bonus moves under certain conditions. But I'll get on to soldiers and specialisation later. The other thing to get to grips with is the cover system, which is handled generally pretty well. You usually have plenty of things around (walls, cars, rocks, and so on) which can provide cover, either partially or fully. Of course there's not quite such a thing as full cover, since you can still be shot at, but it reduces the chance of your soldiers being hit to such a degree that you'd be mad not to have them in cover basically all of the time. This makes it even more annoying if you're in an area with very little cover, or if the stuff you're hiding behind is fragile or perhaps not in a good position for you to be able to return fire.

Resource management is a key concern in this new XCOM, as you'll only get meagre amounts of loot from your excursions. They've made enemy equipment destruct upon death, so the only way you'll be able to use their weapons is to build your own or capture the aliens alive. This is mostly a good decision, as it means you'll be using normal or laser weapons for longer than in the original game (which had you swimming in alien equipment by mid-game). I did find myself short on materials several times in my playthrough, and I can't quite decide if it was well balanced or not but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. My only concern is the way the missions occur, which can limit your ability to acquire certain specific things.

On a mission (actually I think this was the Alien Base assault)
You get missions one at a time, ranging from a solitary UFO, a council mission, a terror mission or abductions. They arrive at about one every few days (not sure if difficulty affects this), and although you get a choice sometimes to ignore a mission, you really can't afford to do it. The UFOs are your prime source of certain specific materials, including key plot items. To avoid (or fail) what few there are, would set you back quite considerably. Similarly, failing other missions will increase the panic levels of the host country, which can mean they withdraw permanently from XCOM. The abduction missions are the biggest problem for me.

Gaining ranks means gaining skills, some are hugely useful and others a bit crap
You will occasionally get a choice to make, usually between three missions in three different countries. You must pick one, and each gives you a different reward (new staff or cash), but you can only pick one. The other two will have their panic level raised, and there's nothing you can do about that. This is another "board game" style inclusion, and it can be frustrating. The random nature of the three countries to pick from can mean that they are all "high panic" ones, and no matter which you choose you'll probably lose a country from funding you. At other times, you might want to choose a specific reward (a new soldier, or some cash), but you are forced to pick another reward (2 scientists) because that country has the highest panic level. There are so few ways to reduce panic, that this can badly affect your playthrough.

Onto the base, that is constructed in an "ant farm" style, and is lacking both in looks and utility. You end up interacting with your base almost entirely from the menu at the top of the screen, making your base nothing but background. The individual rooms are not that interesting, so it would probably have been better to have a different system. You have a limited amount of space, and must excavate new areas before building rooms and so on. There are sometimes also steam vents (the most cost-effective power generation) but they appear in random locations and vary in number, so you can't always rely on those.
Colour coded soldiers, ready for a mission
Finally in my list of complaints (don't worry, I'll get to the good parts in a minute!), it's the soldiers. There are options in the game to make their stats more random, to make their damage more random, and to make their stat improvement more random. Under normal settings, these things occur with predictability. What is always random is their specialisation, and their psionic ability. The second I think everyone is OK with, but the first is infuriating at times. In my recent playthrough, I ended up with a large number of Heavy and Sniper classes. The Heavy is the absolute worst possible class, and the Sniper is the best. Both the Assault and Support classes are very good (Support just edges it for me). The problem with all those Heavy soldiers is that inevitably, most of my PSI abilities were with them also.
Your second key mission: Assault, capture and destroy the alien base
I don't want to dwell too much longer on negatives, so let's just round up the other complaints quickly: Soldier customisation skills are sometimes a bit crap, other times you have to choose between two good ones. Classes are limited in their equipment loads, sometimes to their detriment, Soldiers can usually only carry one item/tool/grenade, which feels needlessly restrictive. Soldiers all speak in the same American accents no matter their supposed nationality. Scotland is a separate nationality from United Kingdom (perhaps the independence referendum result was different in this universe?). They reduced the number of soldiers per mission to a max. of six (This does kinda work though, but you start with four and that feels very stingy).

Perhaps one final paragraph to say that I found Ironman mode particularly annoying when I tried it (back in 2012 or whenever), because to lose a mission or even to lose high ranking soldiers is a big setback. Not to mention the way it used to crash (No crashes at all in my recent playthrough, a much smoother experience). A lowly new recruit is awful compared to a high ranking soldier, not just because of stat increases but mainly because of those all-so-precious skills that can really turn the tide.
Mission briefing en route
Anyway, that's enough complaints for now (I've started a game of Enemy Within so I might have new ones later). The game does get a lot of things right, and once I'd come to terms with my initial apprehensions and annoyances, I got a lot of enjoyment from it. I felt a little bored with it at one point (at the alien base, same as previous times), but once you kick on from there the game steps up a bit, and can be completed relatively quickly, but gives you plenty of opportunity to hang back and build up your forces. I thought I was in for the long haul, too many repetitive crashed UFO encounters, but in the end the game didn't outstay it's welcome.

A little taste of late game troops entering an alien craft
Another positive is with the alien design. with the re-imaginings of the monsters from the original generally being excellent. The Muton design is a little over-bulky (the same can be said of the male soldiers), and the Thin Man lacks threat after the early stages, but they all provide a slightly different offensive capability and a different challenge to the player. In particular I would single out the Floater (which gets two variants, as does the Muton) as being the best of the lot. In the original the Floaters weren't very interesting, and their flying didn't provide them with much advantage. The new Floater and Heavy Floater are a genuine threat, and have a lovely bio-mechanical design.

The story progression is quite light, with small progress made at each key event and then a grand finish. I was surprised there was only one alien base, they could be quite common in the original game (they appeared wherever you let the aliens gain a foothold), and while I captured a few Outsiders, only one was required. Similarly, you only need to capture one Sectoid commander and one Etherial to gain the appropriate information to proceed to the final missions. It takes a lot more missions though, in order to build up your troops for the final assault.

An Etherial, flanked by two Elite Mutons
The final mission reminds me a lot of classic beat-em-up games. In games like Streets of Rage, you often get a final stage where you face off against a series of foes that were bosses of previous stages. You have to prove that you're better than them, before you take on the big boss. In this case, the Mr. X is yet another Etherial, but before facing him you have to face up against the "rejects". He tells you (or rather the "volunteer", that is exposed to the psychic link), that they tried many times to help life forms evolve to a higher state. Each one failed for different reasons, giving rise to the soldiers and monsters you face. Humanity is the next in line, and they have high hopes for you.

The Endgame: The Etherial Overlord
Of course, instead of joining their culture, we do what humans are wont to do and destroy it. All the intelligence that they have, and yet they don't foresee that the soldiers we sent would do anything other than kill all the aliens on board. Needless to say, it finishes with a big bang, and the world is saved! At least for now. As for what happened to "the volunteer"? Well, I guess that's a story for another day.

I feel a lot more positive about the prospect of a sequel now, and already the previews have started to roll in. It won't be long before I have to make the decision about whether to buy the game at launch, or wait until there's a sale much later on. It is apparently PC only, but since the previous one was released on a variety of platforms I wouldn't be so sure it will stay that way. I guess since I'm replaying it already to test out the Enemy Within changes, I can recommend this one at least!

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Star Wars: Dark Forces

Since seeing The Force Awakens, I was reminded of the rich history of Star Wars games on PC. As well as various X-Wing and TIE Fighter games, the stand outs also included the Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series. So I figured it might be a nice idea to reacquaint myself with these slices of classic gaming.

I began with Dark Forces, a 1995 first-person shooter, where you are first introduced to the series hero: Kyle Katarn. A gruff mercenary, he works for the rebels on a freelance basis, and ventures where they cannot. The game itself plays in a very similar way to Doom, which had been released a couple of years prior. As such, I played it entirely with the keyboard, which was an odd experience after so many years of using the mouse to freely look around.

It's the Star Wars elements which raise this beyond an otherwise good Doom-like. Saying that, it takes a lot to re-acclimatise to the old-fashioned nature of the game. FPS games of this era were big on maze-like levels, puzzle sequences and plenty of platforming/jumping, and Dark Forces was no different.

The levels are tied together with a reasonable story about a new line of super-stormtroopers, called Dark Troopers. You have to investigate these rumours and then destroy each section of the production, concluding with the Imperial officer in charge and his ship. I enjoyed the Star Wars plot, the cameos (in cutscenes anyway) of Star Wars characters (including Darth Vader), and the music and atmosphere (nothing beats hearing "Stop right there, rebel scum!" before you gun down an imperial officer).

The gameplay way very much of its time though, and I grew tired of the mazes and hunting for keycards and buttons. I was never much of a FPS fan, and I would never have been bothered to complete this without being able to cheat (ah, the days when games had a list of cheat codes you could type in at any time...). Next up: Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight.

Obviously the first game had no lightsabers, no Jedi vs Sith, and this was considered a bit of a let-down by some fans. The sequel rectified this with gusto. You still controlled Kyle Katarn, but rather than being set before/during Episode IV, this time it's after Episode VI and there are new Dark Forces to worry about rather than the Empire.

It turns out your father was murdered by a Dark Jedi, and so seek the name of the murderer, where he is, and why he did it. It turns into a race towards the Valley of Jedi, a powerful, hidden place where the souls of the Jedi are located. After a visit home to decipher a code-disk, you receive a message from your father and a lightsaber, which obviously you decide to use immediately.

This game has probably aged worse than the first one, primarily because it's at that point (1997) where 3D graphics were still in their relative infancy. So everything is rather chunky, and low detail. It also has similarly maze-like levels as the first, so hasn't really improved on that point. Levels are designed with challenge in mind first, and logic is basically thrown out of the window.

It also employs FMV cutscenes, rather than the animated ones of the previous game. These are a bit of a mixed bag, as the special effects and acting are very variable from scene to scene. Again, without the Star Wars content, and the lightsaber fighting, I doubt this game would have been remembered so fondly!

There's a very interesting mission towards the end though, in which you have to escape a falling spaceship. It's very disorienting, and the use of alternate angles is welcoming, but confusing. This is yet another maze-like level, and it has a time limit to boot. What this game gives with one hand, it takes away with another!

The missions are occasionally punctuated by lightsaber duels, which I found a rather frustrating experience. The idea is very good, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Using the lightsaber is simple enough, but it really doesn't feel that powerful. You also lack free movement with it, and instead you can direct your attack in a limited sense by using the direction keys whilst using the primary attack.

The rogues gallery of Dark Jedi is varied enough, one particularly troublesome fight involves a pair of opponents attacking simultaneously, one large and one small. It really requires you to be on your toes, and know your force powers well.

On that note, one major positive point towards this game is the choice between Light and Dark sides of the force. This is governed by your actions, but basically boils down to how many civilians you murder as you progress through the game. You then get to choose your powers, with a different selection for light and dark. The dark ones seem a bit better for combat purposes, I chose the light side (of course) and felt a bit under-powered.

Jedi Knight also has an expansion: Mysteries of the Sith, but as I was having trouble with getting it to display in a decent resolution I decided to give that a miss. Not sure I could have faced many more levels of this sort of game so soon either!

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Fallout 4 - Plotting it's own downfall

picture from
The game begins with a lengthy introduction sequence, in which your chosen character and their partner and child are home on a sunny and pleasant day. No time for relaxation, household chores or bringing up baby, as you soon have to make your way to the local Vault to hide from the oncoming nuclear apocalypse.

There's no need to acclimatise to the vault and underground living, because you are all to be kept in suspended animation until the situation above-ground improves. At some point, mysterious people invade the facility, kill everyone except you and your son, and kidnap your son, leaving you back on ice.

You wake up an undetermined amount of time later, with a singular quest: to find your son. You have very little clue on how to do this, and as you awaken into a horrific and ruined country, scarred by war and still in a state of chaos after 200 years, the trail seems quite cold.

Home sweet hoome
As an opening, this is actually rather good. It gives you a clear objective, and good motivation. What parent wouldn't want to find their son? Unfortunately it quickly breaks down, as you get drawn into a world filled with needy people and flawed factions vying for control of the region.

The open world is filled with so many locations, often with their own self-contained stories. These are often the best parts of the game, as you stumble across recordings, notes or computer logs that tell a story about the area. Even better are the ones like the USS Constitution, a tourist attraction that has rebelled against it's mundane programming.

These little stories provide an additional reason to wander the wasteland, beyond the mechanical scavenging and hoarding that you'll likely do anyway. They add a real character to the ruined shell of this once prosperous area, and took up the majority of my time as I played through the game.

Father and son (deliberately made as ugly as possible)
It's the factions which get in the way, and you'll most likely meet your first quite early on. I rescued the Minutemen from a raider attack, and then was swiftly made "General" and put in charge of uniting the Commonwealth under their banner. They don't really affect the main plot at all though, which I found to be quite an oversight. They merely provide a way for you to avoid allying with a couple of the other factions (initially at least).

In Diamond City, the major city at the heart of Boston, you learn your son was kidnapped and taken to The Institute, and you need a way inside. You have to construct a teleportation device, and that requires help from at least one faction. Once there, you find your son is old and eventually find out that he wants you to take over as head of The Institute.

Your main quest choice becomes to side with The Institute and your dying son, the Railroad who want to destroy the Institute and free the Synths (Bladerunner-esque artificial humans), and the Brotherhood of Steel who want to destroy the Institute and the Synths (and any other non-humans, or anyone who abuses technology). At this stage, all the work you've done with the Minutemen becomes inconsequential.
Fellow Vault 111 members fared less well than I
The main problem here is that all of the factions are unpleasant in one way or another, and the biggest two (The Institute and The Brotherhood of Steel) are arrogant, controlling and basically evil. Diplomatic solutions are very thin on the ground, and after I made my choice to side with the Brotherhood of Steel (more because I had done in previous games in this series), my options were to completely destroy The Railroad and The Institute, and it was made clear that all synths, ghouls and supermutants were to be destroyed, despite those which you find around the wasteland who are no more dangerous than the hundreds of violent and aggressive humans you find.

The Minutemen seem like the most inclusive of the lot, but I was unable to side with them in the end, despite having claimed large amounts of territory in their name. The game seemed to neglect to tell me what would happen now that the Brotherhood had total military superiority over the area, nor what that would mean for the town of Goodneighbor, a town run by a ghoul and home to various miscreants, criminals and drifters.

A quick dialogue with your son glosses over the death of your partner and why you were left alone in the Vault. Your main motivation reduced to the whims of the previous director of the Institute and the heavy-handedness of his hired goon. The synth problem itself seemed to have no resolution at all either that I noticed (aside from the Brotherhood vowing to hunt them down and execute them, of course).
The Silver Shroud is a particularly good side-quest
Throughout the game you see and hear about synths replacing normal humans. The motivations for this seem unclear, especially since they seem to get no benefit from it other than spying on other groups, and since they spend their days hidden underground unreachable by normal means, this seems to have little value. The Institute's grand plans all seem rather vague, and siding with them seems bizarre given what damage you find out they've done to the world.

Not only did they apparently try and take over the Commonwealth with Terminator-like Synths, but you later find that the Supermutants in the area are entirely their fault. The chaos above-ground which they seem so keen on controlling is largely of their own making. The Brotherhood, for all their fascist tendencies, at least seem to have a coherent plan.

I suppose I should have picked The Railroad, but at the time I met them I had barely scratched the surface of the other factions, and didn't realise how unredeemable they would be. By the time I acknowledged that I was supposed to pick The Railroad as the "good" ending, I encountered a bug which meant I couldn't access their base (or perhaps I'd gone too far with one other faction? It wasn't clear, but I couldn't enter the church that the Railroad use as their base).

Christmas in Diamond City
So rather than creating some sort of reasonable peace, trying to find people on all sides with clear heads and sit down to find a solution, instead I had to resort to mass murder. My final act was to detonate the nuclear reactor beneath The Institute's base and cause a massive nuclear explosion that would further scar the Boston area. My journey from being a vengeful parent in a crazy post-apocalyptic world to becoming responsible for the deaths of thousands took me around 97 hours.

I haven't even touched on the two other main factions found in the Boston Commonwealth. These are The Gunners and the various raiders groups. They have huge numbers, control various locations, and yet are hostile to you at all times. They are a wasted opportunity to add depth to the Minutemen questline, adding a proper adversary to fight against rather than allowing the growth of your settlements turn into busywork.

Similarly, integrating the other factions (and including Diamond City and Goodneighbor) into the settlement system could really have made an interesting change. That way, your main quest could have been to take a faction and conquer the wasteland by fair means or foul. This would probably mean dropping the "find your son" quest, but that could also be handled differently.

I found many models on my travels, but no use for them
To make the Synth threat more acute, perhaps after you are the sole survivor of your vault, after a certain point you encounter a Synth that looks identical to you. After you defeat the synth, this would provide adequate motivation to discover what is actually happening and the plans of the Institute.

Removing your son from the equation would also help with the conflict between the main quest and the urge to explore and wander the wasteland. Without the apparent urgency to find your son (you can actually ignore this as long as you like), it allows you to take on the wasteland at your own pace, and discover all possible factions before you make any decisions about which side to favour.

I'd also like a way to progress through the game without involving yourself directly with a faction at all. In Diamond City you find Nick Valentine, a Synth who has left the Institute. He's working as a detective, and it would make for a very interesting alternative path if you could become a detective partner and explore the wasteland with the intention that none of the factions should gain prominence (or at least without your help).
The USS Constitution in flight
Writing a plot for a game of this scope is always going to be a struggle though, but so often with Bethesda they want a big grand story to tie things up, no matter if it fits in with the rest of the game. Skyrim and Oblivion both also had their main plot seem urgent and yet the more interesting stories were the smaller, more focused ones that were scattered throughout the games.

Fallout 4 - Frankenstein's Monster

Image created using Bethesda promotional media (
I have abandoned Skyrim for Fallout 4, perhaps only temporarily, but there is a chance I'll never go back. That's not to say I'll stick with Fallout 4 forever, just that the games are so similar in nature and Fallout 4 has a bit more fun to it, and so going back to the lesser of the two seems pointless.

Fallout 4 is the latest gargantuan open-world RPG from Bethesda. It's look and feel can be traced back to Oblivion, continued through Fallout 3 and Skyrim. They are related in terms of the engine (whatever you want to call it), the animations, the world creation, the quests, obnoxious UI... and so on. Each new game brings it's own improvements, changes, additions and subtractions, but to a certain extent I always feel like they're built upon the same foundations.

The Fallout universe is certainly the more anarchic and fun setting, or at least it is if you take almost exclusively from the more zany aspects of Fallout 2. With Fallout 3 though, Bethesda decided to retain large chunks of the older games and stitch them into or on top of their previous best-seller, Oblivion. A new location, packed to the gills with old familiarities for long-time fans and more action-packed gameplay to appeal to a wide audience.

Their next project, Skyrim, borrowed a few ideas from their experience with Fallout 3, most notably the perk system. In turn, Fallout 4 borrows a little from Skyrim, and no doubt this will continue in future games. For a Bethesda fan, they are doing everything right. For me, it's a little bit more complicated. The close relationship between the two series makes them far too similar in my eyes, and despite the quite different settings the actual gameplay feels so similar sometimes that I grow tired of it (although that does take many hours).

My last hiatus began after finishing Fallout: New Vegas, which while admittedly isn't a Bethesda game (Obsidian taking the reigns there), was using the same engine as Oblivion and Fallout 3. Before New Vegas had been Fallout 3, and before that Oblivion, and I really had felt like I'd had enough of it all.

This year I finally felt differently, and decided to jump in with Skyrim after it having been sat in my Steam account for quite a long time. However, all the buzz around Fallout 4 drew me in, and since it seemed like everyone was talking about it I just couldn't wait any longer (my original plan being to wait until long after finishing Skyrim, which is something I might not even do now).

Many, many hours later I come to write about it, and somehow I end up feeling much the same way as I do about most other Bethesda games that came before it. A patchwork quilt of locations, each with it's own little story, and a more ephemeral main plot that is meant to draw you in but merely becomes another set of markers in your quest log.

The world itself is a Thunderdome of violence, with a variety of enemies desperate to attack the player without provocation. The friendly settlements are an oasis of calm by comparison (with the odd exception for various reasons), and yet even some of those are prone to being attacked, thanks to the new settlement system.

Ah, the settlement system. A time sink that makes a hoarder out of all of us who play it. All those useless junk items that are strewn about the wasteland now have an actual value. That value is the homes, farms, defences, decorations and entertainments that you can provide for your cowardly, miserable and ungrateful settlers.

At first I enjoyed the system, but I quickly grew to resent the different locations that it places the available settlements (usually a stones throw from raiders or similar). They all require your attention, and yet you lack any useful capacity to create well-maintained, strong, safe buildings and instead can only gather junk to create shacks.

Thankfully this same junk can also be useful for upgrading your weapons and armour, which is far more important (because being selfish is the best way to get enjoyment out of this game). The weapon modifications are varied and often interesting, and supercharging your weapons in one way or another makes the endless combat more bearable.

The combat itself is probably the best Bethesda has ever done. Enemies will actually hide behind cover, throw grenades and in the early game they provide a real challenge. This somewhat goes out of the window if you get yourself some nice power armour, better guns and choose from a variety of perks. It's also diluted by the fact that you will face so many bad guys, so many red marks on your compass, that it can become quite dull, just routine.

The legendary enemies are a nice touch, much tougher and with special loot. I found a couple of nice guns which had an added explosive damage effect, which made them obscenely powerful compared to their normal versions. There are also certain giant enemies, which provide a sense of spectacle if nothing else. These include Mirelurk Queens and Super Mutant Behemoths, and are a nice change of pace from the rest of the game.

I mentioned the explosive effect in the previous paragraph, and I feel this needs special mention. Those grenades that raiders and others love to throw? The missiles and Fat Man launchers? Anything with an explosive effect seems to be massively overpowered. In the early game it means that a single grenade can end your game prematurely, despite being able to shrug off the vast majority of other attacks. Of course by the end I could laugh in the face of every enemy, but that's a slightly different (and less important) issue.

The early scavenging through wrecked buildings, hoarding junk for your first settlement, reading notes and computer logs and all the rest, is very rewarding and I was happy for that to take up my time. Unfortunately that's only one part of a much larger and disjointed experience. The main quest (to find your son) is pushed as a driving force for you, and yet of course you're also free to wander and do menial tasks for minor rewards as this sort of game allows.

I'll go into the plot and factions in another post because this is long enough already, but it will be familiar to anyone who's played other Bethesda games, where there's almost a segregation between the minor and miscellaneous quests and the main/faction ones.

I don't want to be overly harsh on the game, it provides entertainment and I played it for an unbelievable 97 hours according to Steam, and while I feel like I experienced everything it had to offer, there were still many hours of side-quests and other things I could have done. It is a behemoth of a game, and has vastly improved on Fallout 3, Skyrim and Oblivion.

However, when you spend so long with a game, the flaws, mistakes, bugs and everything else become so readily apparent. Bethesda's remarkable achievements only serve to highlight those parts which are so inexpertly stitched together.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Metal Gear Solid V: A Real Diamond Dog

I would say I'm predominantly a PC gamer, and probably always will be. However I do own a PS4, and get good use out of it for games which I currently wouldn't be able to run well on my current PC. Metal Gear Solid 5 is one of these games, and a game I bought based on the huge swell of positive reviews and comments. I went into this game knowing almost nothing about the Metal Gear series, having only a very brief experience with one of the games many years ago.

As a game it captures both that "cinematic" quality that so many other games are so desperate to achieve, but it does it without significantly affecting the gameplay. The opening section does seriously try your patience though, as your wounded protagonist can barely move his head initially and it takes some time before you are able to move freely.

I feel unsure about the storyline of the game even after many hours of play, with the prologue feeling almost like a fever dream. Some elements feel very grounded in reality, but other parts of this alt-history 1980s are pure sci-fi. It does feel like it's drawing heavily from 80s action films too, with the backdrop of a Russian-occupied Afghanistan reminiscent of Rambo 3.

The initial mission is set in a hospital, where you are recuperating after nearly dying. I have no knowledge of the backstory, but the game explains later that you'd created a personal army on a Caribbean oil-rig or similar structure. You get betrayed, and the base is destroyed, and now it's all about revenge.

Those that want you dead arrive at the hospital before you have fully recovered, so you have to slowly (so very slowly) crawl out of your room and hide. You gradually gain the ability to move more freely and defend yourself, but it's a long wait. Amongst the soldiers there's the sight of a man on fire, seemingly indestructible. I had thought this part might be a hallucination, but I'm not so sure now.

The game opens up when you've made it to Afghanistan from your base in the Seychelles. Here the game excels itself, offering a large open world in which to roam. This being set in the 80s, the are is occupied entirely by Russian forces who have driven the locals from their homes (this thankfully prevents you from worrying about accidentally killing civilians, although there are occasionally prisoners or other friendly folk to worry about).

Your approach to each mission, side-op or when you're just wandering about can be widely varied. The primary avenue is stealth, which can be augmented with a variety of gadgets and such. There's a hefty variety of weaponry too, with both lethal and non-lethal options. The enemy will also try and thwart your tactics by rolling out new equipment: body armour and helments, night-vision goggles and sniper rifles, amongst others.

The game is a challenge though not because it is necessarily difficult (although some missions are), it is because there's the personal challenge to get the best rank, to collect the most resources, to acquire the best staff and perhaps to be a ghost, unseen and unheard as you complete your objectives. Of course, if all else fails you have your guns, explosives and more to keep things in your favour, and the brilliant "reflex mode" which allows you to quickly take down enemy soldiers if you get spotted while sneaking around.

Building up your base (Mother Base), requires resources found in the conflict zones and plenty of cash. This opens up various services, including intel (to indicate where enemies or resources are nearby) as well as medical, base development and so on. After a certain point you also gain the combat unit, which can go on missions of their own.

The base building and side-ops give you plenty of work to do outside of the normal missions. The side-ops in particular allow you to test yourself in the field without having the consequence of getting a bad mission rating (or failing a mission). It's a great time for testing out those new gadgets, like sleep grenades or decoys, and getting used to the different buddies.

The "buddy" system gives you assistance on the ground from a helpful person, thing or animal. These are limited, and begin with a horse to get around the Afghan wilderness. Later on you can get three other helpers with different abilities and usefulness.

Despite the somewhat repetitive nature of the missions (infiltrate an area, disable the defences and guards, acquire the objective and leave), there's a real thrill to it all, and I find myself enjoying it even when I've been in the same collection of checkpoints and villages for hours. There's a lot to be said for the feeling of slowly creeping around a base and extracting each enemy soldier in turn.

The extractions are a major part of the game too, all provided by a Fulton extraction system (which has been used in real life, but was never this safe, cheap or successful). You hitch a balloon to a downed enemy (or equipment, or wildlife!), and it is carried into the sky to be picked up by an aircraft and taken to your base.

The staff you extract are then recruited back into your Mother Base staff, with quite a heavy suggestion of some sort of brain-washing. The aim is to gradually increase the number of staff, and to improve their ratings to level-up your various base units. Increasing the level of your units allows you to develop new things to help you in the conflict zones.

While I enjoy my military adventures, the plot continues to evade me. There are endless cassette tapes to listen to and a handful of short cutscenes, but aside from the general "Get Revenge!" storyline, I'm not sure where this is all going. Given the weirdness of previous MGS games (at least those bits I've heard of), honestly almost anything could happen.

Definitely one of the games of the year though, the actual gameplay is fun, accessible and challenging without being frustrating. This is really a hard balance to make, and I'm very impressed by how well they manage it.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim - Introduction

The title screen, sans title for some reason
Ah, Skyrim. This is a game I've been putting off for a very long time. After playing my way through Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, I was very tired of the entire style of these games. I can appreciate their broad appeal though, as each world is crammed with interesting characters and quests that will take you dozens, if not hundreds, of hours to complete.

You can find salmon jumping in rivers
Skyrim is no different, and this time its world is a land of ice and snow, mountains and monsters all inspired by Scandinavian and Nordic mythology. It's a huge world, and certainly feels like the largest of the modern Bethesda games (the older ones having been procedurally-generated). I've barely scratched the surface but it certainly has a lot to offer so far.

Finding my way around Skyrim
As usual, while the game has much of the same look and feel of previous games, there are numerous changes. This time in particular it feels like they were more interested in tweaking existing design rather than wholesale changes, and you can see the influence of their Fallout game on the design. It is to Oblivion what Daggerfall was to Arena, if that makes sense.

Every game needs crafting these days
The game opens with your character on a cart, heading for execution for the minor crime of crossing the border. You share the cart with a couple of other unfortunates, and also one of the major characters: Ulfric Stormcloak. Stormcloak is accused of murdering the ruler of Skyrim, and attempting insurrection. You are talked at by the various characters, filling in the backstory as you make your way to your death.

Getting my first "shout"
Of course when you arrive at your destination, the event is interrupted by a dragon attack, something that hasn't been seen for generations. This allows you to escape with the help of a guardsman, and find your way to safety in the small town of Riverwood. This is by far the weakest point of the game that I've seen so far.
Skyrim looking beautiful at night
The execution seems to involve a handful of people, the town is already ramshackle before the dragon attacks so the damage it does is less than impressive. The exposition is dull and uninspired, and there's not much of a civil war feel even though people do occasionally talk about it. The set-piece issue is a holdover from Oblivion, and I saw it again with a later dragon attack. There's just no way the engine could handle a large number of actors in any scene, which is why the world is so underpopulated.
Little tips on loading screens
It's not as bad as Oblivion, but the limits of the technology (not just the engine, but having to be designed with the previous generation of consoles in mind) do show in such situations. The older games used their limited technology to create a huge world, filled with large towns and cities and plenty of people. However the limitations of that technology mean that it's all a bit of a trick, and every town and person feels crafted from a handful of cardboard cut-outs.

The awful skill menu
The newer games followed a model used by the likes of the Ultima games, in which the majority of characters in the game world have names, homes, routines and so on. The world is more hand-crafted and full of detail, and is generally much better for it. But you have to understand the limitations and work around them. There's no point in having such wonderfully created people when you can only fit six of them into what should be a thriving town.

Pseudo-nordic architecture
A lot of the game world I've seen so far would be far better as a "frontier", full of small colonies trying to newly establish themselves in a harsh environment. It just doesn't look like a world in which there's been centuries of civilization. This would also reinforce just why it's so dangerous to venture off the beaten track, and why there are mysteries and secrets behind every rock. Again, this is less of an issue than it was in Oblivion, but the design remains similar.

Getting my second word of power
Next time, I talk about how the game improves when you're allowed to roam around, and also the user interface.