Rapid Fire Reviews 5-16-15

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

I haven’t done one of these in a bit. Here are some games I’ve been playing.

(Image courtesy of Codemasters)

Dirt Rally (Early Access)

I caught myself getting pretty excited when Codemasters decided to stealth drop Dirt Rally into Early Access on Steam a few weeks ago. I’m a pretty big fan of the Dirt series even though Dirt 3 and Showdown, the two most recent entries prior to Rally, missed the mark by a pretty wide margin. Thankfully, Dirt Rally represents an extremely strong return to form for the series, even in the feature limited Early Access version that is currently available.

Perhaps return to form is a bit inaccurate. Dirt Rally is, by all accounts, the most sim-like of all of the games in the Dirt series, so its more like a return to Codemasters’ earlier Colin McRae titles. Dirt Rally, with the default level of assists and AI set to the easiest difficulty, proves to be a decently challenging experience for several hours of play. The handling model in the game is generally more realistic than past titles and will require some getting used to. Not to mention the fact that the tracks are often more hazardous than ever with roadside debris, hairpin turns and slick surfaces all looking to fuck you over. Dirt Rally required a decent amount of studying before I ever felt like I was even a little in control of my vehicle.

Dying Light Review

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Dying Light – Developed by Techland and Published by Warner Bros.

Purchased on Steam and reviewed on PC

Dying Light feels like a much more complete version of the ideas that Techland posited back in 2011 with the extremely flawed Dead Island. The latter felt like a budget title the instant that you booted it up which, while giving it a decent amount of charm, wound up being the killing blow for Dead Island in my eyes. The myriad of technical issues, cringe inducing story moments and questionable gameplay decisions sapped the enjoyment from the title regardless of its decently creative and fun gameplay systems. Dying Light, on the other hand, at least gives off the initial impression that it is trying to appear to be a AAA title, complete with snazzy little intro cutscene and a tonal shift towards the more serious end of the spectrum. However, it quickly shows its true hand when the plot absurdities and horrible voice acting reveal the camp beneath it all.

This is decidedly for the best. My patience for overly dramatic and self serious zombie related media have run dry long ago and a sillier approach is always welcomed. This is not to say that Dying Light doesn’t have its somber moments, but there is definitely more of a b-grade horror movie tone present throughout that lends well to the main character’s constant “Oh, fuck this” attitude. The protagonist is far from silent, often chiming in with thoughts that mirror the player’s own, and shit very rarely goes his way. And, in the end, this means Dying Light’s tale is considerably more human than many experienced in modern games. Don’t get me wrong, the plot is still pretty much terrible, complete with supposed twists and major character deaths that pack no meaningful punch, but by the end I had really come to sympathize with the plight of whatever the main character’s name is.

Dying Light takes the already enjoyable basic gameplay concepts from Dead Island and tweaks them to fit with the new parkour elements which are now a primary focus. Gone is the analogue melee combat which made accurate weapon swinging possible by giving the player full directional control but, honestly, I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would. In its place exists a system to make melee combat feel much quicker which falls in line with the idea that the player should constantly be on the move. Dying Light feels more like you’re taking potshots at zombies as you sprint by whereas Dead Island felt more like an actual straight up fight. The parkour takes a lot from Mirror’s Edge (including the smart notion of making a shoulder button the jump button), feels great and is surprisingly satisfying thanks to a smartly crafted world to traverse. I just wish there had been a little more variety, as roughly 75% of your total play time is spent in one of two environments. That said, the parkour is easily the most successful part of the game as it ensures getting from point A to point B is always an immensely enjoyable experience, which is great because you’ll be doing a lot of that. Not to mention that Dying Light pretty much lacks any form of fast travel for a majority of the game.

Space Marshals Review

Mobile, Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Space Marshals

Developed by Pixelbite Games

Reviewed on Retna iPad Mini

I know about as much about iOS gaming as I do about the current state of affairs in Lithuania but I definitely know when I like something, and I really like Space Marshals. It’s a gorgeously rendered top down iOS shooter with a particular focus on using stealth to engage enemies tactically and some beautifully realized touch controls that make the whole affair pretty painless to get into. It’s satisfying, and damned fun to boot, but it’s held back by some poor encounter design and the occasional overpowered enemy.

Space Marshals actually reminds me quite a bit of 2014’s Counterspy, both in good ways and bad. Counterspy was, of course, pretty strictly 2D whereas Space Marshals is more isometric, but the minute to minute gameplay isn’t all that different. Simply running headlong into a room full of enemies will only serve to get you straight iced in Space Marshals due to the fact that you are frequently both heavily outnumbered and outgunned. This leads to the utilization of stealth elements in order to tactically position yourself in the environment to give yourself an upper hand in combat. This is the modern equivalent of stealth gameplay boiled down to its simplest elements. Sneak around killing dudes just out of earshot or sight of other dudes and continue doing so until you’re spotted, then just start mowing guys down until things return to status quo. Rinse and repeat.

Sunset Overdrive Critical Analysis

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

I’m officially referring to Sunset Overdrive as my “Pleasant surprise of the year” because, man, I really didn’t expect to like it at all. Insomniac’s favor with me fell off pretty drastically during what I considered to be a run of pretty mediocre PS3 exclusive FPSes, uninspired Ratchet and Clank sequels, and then whatever the fuck Fuse was. This heartbreak and subsequent loss of faith in Insomniac’s ability to consistently put out quality, fun, and charming products really made me skeptical of Sunset Overdrive even if its concept had a lot of potential. Then came the abysmally unfunny ad campaigns which tried way too hard to get across that silly, anti-authoritative punk tone. The odds were pretty heavily stacked against Sunset Overdrive for me but, almost as if to simply prove me wrong, I think Sunset Overdrive is some of the most fun I’ve had playing a video game this year.

The premise is simple but with an interesting stylistic twist. What if the apocalypse was brought about by an energy drink that causes violent mutations in human beings and the corporation responsible for the drink would go to any lengths to contain and cover up the incident? The result, according to Sunset Overdrive, is the “awesomepocalypse”. A version of the apocalypse in which silliness and fun often trump whatever horrid acts occur during the collapse of society. The story, while always entertaining, really doesn’t have too much to it aside from the stock standard reluctant rise to heroism that your character pursues. The game has cliches in spades but it comes across as definitely purposeful thanks to the game’s overt self awareness. So, there really isn’t much of a plot to speak of but at least there are some relatively charming characters along the way.

The writing is decent enough but is mostly held back by some pretty forced hit or miss humor early on in the game which feels much more natural after several hours. It’s like they stopped trying to be funny and just started being funny, which works very well in the game’s favor and does an excellent job of upholding the lighthearted tone. And I really think that it’s that tone, which permeates everything in Sunset Overdrive from the art style to the music, that helps prevent the game from becoming stale across the numerous hours it takes to complete. But it’s the gameplay that truly sets it apart from the rest of the AAA titles as of late.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Critical Analysis

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Do note that this review is only of the campaign and does not take into account any of the multiplayer features.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is at least better than the low point found in last year’s entry, Ghosts, but more importantly, it manages to actually recapture a little bit of what made Call of Duty such an enjoyable series in the early years. That is to say Advanced Warfare is strange because while it certainly attempts to push the franchise into the future through both the setting and, subsequently, the mechanics, it also feels more stuck in the past than ever.

Advanced Warfare is extremely faithful to the established Call of Duty formula, however, exactly which version of that formula may be the most surprising part. It feels most at home when compared to Modern Warfare 2’s flavor of action movie insanity, especially when you consider the sense of scale both of these games have. The release of Black Ops in 2010 signaled a full on departure from the large scale warfare prominent in previous entries and started to focus more on smaller, more intimate and secretive conflicts. More spy movie shit, if you will. Modern Warfare 2 had its fair share of spy movie shit as well, but much of it was in the background of a much larger conflict, and the player often participated in both types of missions.

Similarly, Advanced Warfare consistently switches between small and large scale battles throughout its campaign, ensuring that the pacing shifts enough that things never really feel stale. This return to the feel of older Call of Duty games is welcomed initially but it might be too little too late because, regardless of how good the game is, it’s still Call of Duty. The sense of excitement and wonder that used to permeate the release of a new Call of Duty is noticeably absent, as it has been for years, and really only serves to hinder Advanced Warfare in the long run. I definitely enjoyed myself while playing the game, but I also couldn’t help but feel like Advanced Warfare’s attempts to recoup the status quo that was lost in the last few games only made its formulaic mechanics outshine any potential amazement from the new stuff.

My thoughts on Civilization: Beyond Earth

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

“My Thoughts On” is a new series that I’m doing where I just expand on some notes I jotted down while playing the game rather than doing a full on critical analysis.

Plus, Civ is a massive game and I’m already a long-winded writer as is.

The general formula of Civilization remains the same in Beyond Earth, particularly the more streamlined ideas introduced in Civ 5. Start out with a single city and slowly grow your way to a major power through the use of a combination of technological research, social policies, and militarization. This is an extremely simplified explanation of how it all works, of course, but I’m trying not to take all day here, so let’s just talk about the changes of note.

The Setting

The setting is obviously quite different. Rather than forming a civilization on Earth, you are colonizing another planet in an attempt to expand humanity beyond our own dying world. There appears to be some lore and backstory to go along with the game which is present in flavor text for the loading screens, victory conditions, and various quests (more on quests later), but I’ve not really bothered to read any of this. The alien life on the planet takes the place of the barbarians this time around and they are much more varied and significantly more powerful, actually posing a pretty big threat until the mid – late game. Currency has been changed from Gold to Energy, as the gold coin does not carry much weight in alien markets. Construction materials have also been changed to mostly fictional ones to reflect the sci-fi structures and units. Aside from aluminium, which is apparently the metal of the future.

Playable Races

This is perhaps an inaccurate term as some of the Civilizations you can play as aren’t exactly segregated by nationality or culture. Some are amalgamations of previous cultures or nations like Polystralia (a combination of Australia, Polynesia, Thailand, and Indonesia if Civ Wiki is to be believed), and some are just mega corporations like the American Reclamation Corporation. Regardless, they are highly unmemorable and uninteresting. Visually, nothing really sets them apart from one another as you are playing them and the characters chosen to represent the leaders are not particularly interesting either. Gone is the fun of wanting to play as a particularly cool historical figure which was, of course, difficult to allow with this installment of the franchise (Although, how cool would it have been to play as their clone or something? This is sci-fi after all, Firaxis. Get creative!). The only thing determining your interest in playing a particular Civilization now are the different gameplay bonuses each one has. Perhaps some distinguishing visual characteristics would have been nice, but that might have fucked with one of their biggest gameplay additions to Beyond Earth, which I’ll talk about next.

Affinities

Perhaps one of the most interesting changes to the standard gameplay formula is the Affinity system. There are three Affinities: Harmony, Purity, and Supremacy, and each one drastically changes the way your Civilization evolves over time. Harmony is a focus on coexistence and adapting to the alien world naturally rather than attempting to shape it to the needs of Humanity or reshape Humanity to better live on the world. Purity attempts to retain the old Human ways through maintaining our old Earthen culture and forcing the planet to change to better suit Humans. Supremacy puts a major focus on technology and using it to alter Humanity to better suit Human survival on the alien planet. By researching certain technologies your Civilization will increase in the level of one of these Affinities and will reap various rewards related to each. There’s nothing stopping you from leveling up multiple Affinities in a single game but I’ve often found it best to focus on a single one in order to become the most powerful and have the best chance at accomplishing a victory condition.

Changes to units

Explorers play a much more integral role to the game this time around as they can initiate expeditions on ancient ruins, crashed satellites, or abandoned settlements, which may provide anything from free tech to energy or even certain pieces of a victory condition. Attaining higher levels in an Affinity will upgrade your units in specific ways and, in some cases, unlock units that are exclusive to a certain Affinity. There are still land, sea, and air units, as well as ranged and melee units, but all have a sci-fi twist to them that increases in severity as you progress in a game, level up Affinities, or research new tech. For instance, in a Harmony playthrough, my marines evolved from standard looking Earth astronauts to bug eyed, green armored cousins to Stormtroopers over time. These changes naturally bring additions to the power of a unit as well as an aesthetic overhaul. But perhaps the most interesting change is the addition of orbital units which, as far as I’ve experienced, are sort of overpowered.

Orbital Units

You research the tech to launch satellites and other orbital units pretty early on in the game and most of them passively provide buffs of various kinds to the city that you launch them over. One, for example, may increase the amount of energy you receive from generators by a set amount. The catch is that these orbital units are only temporary (usually 30 turns or so) and you cannot have more than one in the same area at any given time. There were some instances where I was given an orbital unit by performing an expedition on some ruins or an abandoned colony, but I never found myself building them because they took a while and I was pretty unimpressed by their effects overall. That is, until I realized you can build ORBITAL LASER CANNONS. These things are able to be deployed anywhere near one of your cities, have massive range, and are extremely powerful. I found myself straight cooking fools who dared come anywhere near my continent and, from what I can tell, these orbital units are unable to be shot down.

Tech Web

One of the smartest changes made to Beyond Earth is the overhaul of the tech tree, creating more of a tech web. Now, Firaxis has never been terribly great at designing clean UIs that provide all of the relevant information in smart ways, and this tech web is one of the biggest examples of this fact. Put bluntly, the damned thing is an eyesore upon first opening it up, and really only serves to befuddle on the first attempts to navigate it. That said, it does become much less problematic over time, and the true genius of the tech web really begins to shine. The web really forces your civilization to specialize in certain tech paths pretty early on, creating much more interesting games where the evolution of your civilization appears much less linear.

Victory Conditions and Quests

Victory conditions are also much more interesting and varied this time around, allowing for a larger number of different playstyles. That said, the removal of a social policy victory is disappointing if seemingly necessary in order to better preserve the tone of the game as one of a generally scientific focus. They’ve also added Quests, which take a couple different forms. One of the quest types are objectives of various types presented to you at the beginning of turns which, in my opinion, manage to spice up the standard pattern that one eventually falls into in any Civ game by making you go out of your way to accomplish objectives. Not to mention the fact that the rewards that quests provide are often very worth the time spent to do them. The other type is a text box that presents a small scenario and asks you to make one of two choices presented at the end which may effect what type of rewards you receive from the quest, increase your Affinity level, or even enact a permanent bonus for your Civilization, like a permanent waiving of maintenance costs on certain types of structures.

Overall

Positive: I really like the gameplay changes presented in Beyond Earth. To me, the franchise is more interesting than ever with the fascinating change of setting, as well as the inclusion of Affinities, Quests, and the Tech Web. Whether you approve of the general streamlining the franchise has seen over the last few entries or not, you can’t deny that the mechanics are refined to a mirror shine by this point. It’s also the same old addictive formula of “just one more turn” that has made the series so enjoyable to play.

Negative: The visuals appear to have not seen much of an improvement from Civ 5 at all and, in many cases, seem more drab and lifeless than ever with an extremely unimaginative color palette. Religions have been removed entirely but are no doubt planned for an expansion of some kind. Playable Civilizations are dull.

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments Critical Analysis

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Something made me take a sixty dollar chance on a random Sherlock Holmes game that I’d heard extremely little about prior to release. Well, actually… Boredom. It was probably just boredom. But it wasn’t long after booting the game up and methodically picking my way through the first case that I realized it was an extremely solid adventure game with a great deal of charm and not the ill-fated, franchise abusing drivel that I’d assumed. Chalk that one up to complete ignorance.

It was then that I’d done a bit of research and found that this turned out to not be much of a chance at all, as Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is actually the seventh primary game in a long running series about the titular detective on Baker Street, which has been the flagship franchise for primarily Ukranian developer Frogwares since the series’ inception in 2002. Then my brain decided to dredge up this old youtube video that I’d seen ages ago which poked fun at the fact that Watson, in the 2007 release Sherlock Holmes: Nemesis, has no walking animation but instead appears to just creepily teleport alongside you, eternally transfixed on you with his steely gaze.

So, I actually had been familiar with the series in passing. And during this research I read that these games had pretty much always been quite enjoyable little adventure titles. I dunno, man. I guess I’ve just never been the guy eagerly eyeballing the list of upcoming releases under the “niche adventure games” category.

The presentational quality is decent enough but, judging by the earlier games in the franchise, has seen a pretty drastic increase in some of the latest titles. That said, there are certainly still some quirks. Tonally, Crimes and Punishments is all over the place. The menu screen features Holmes in the foreground of a moody backdrop of rain or a fireplace while seemingly appropriate orchestral music booms in the background and the game sometimes embraces the tone set by this initial impression, but it is interspersed with a feeling of silliness that often comes from the sheer idiocy of those around Sherlock.

Inspector Lestrade is portrayed here as not even a basically competent officer of the law and, at worst, a lazy and bumbling moron whose position of authority raises many questions about those in charge of promotions at Scotland Yard. Even Watson is not saved from the apparent brain damage that has taken hold of the cast of Crimes and Punishments, as he is often merely along for the ride and very rarely says or does anything even remotely useful. I suppose I’m a little too used to the 21st century BBC representation of Sherlock Holmes where they make the detective seem smart by showing how decently intelligent everyone around him is, and then showing the fact the he’s so far beyond even that. This game attempts to accomplish the same by simply making everyone stupid which doesn’t really feel right.

Shadow of Mordor Critical Analysis

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor is an interesting beast indeed. When broken down into its simplest ideas, the game really is nothing more than a collection of tried and true mechanics from various other franchises. You’re bound to see numerous familiar elements if you’ve played Arkham, Assassin’s Creed, Infamous, Far Cry, or really any other open world game in the past few years. That said, these mechanics often manage to feel as though they were implemented better here than even in the games that inspired them. Thankfully, a consistently high level of polish, as well as the inclusion of the much touted Nemesis System and some absurdly satisfying gore, ensures that Shadow of Mordor transcends its seemingly average trappings, making it some of the most fun I’ve had in a game all year. This is an honest example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Knowing as little as I do about the Lord of the Rings as a franchise, I am completely unqualified to judge the game’s narrative as a part of the greater context, so I’ll leave that to the experts. As a standalone story to drive the game forward, it feels both uninspired and uninteresting. It starts out strongly enough; humanizing both Talion and the people important to him in an interesting tutorial sequence before The Black Hand of Sauron mercilessly rolls up and cuts everyone’s throats, including Talion’s. Death claims his wife and son but fate apparently has other plans for Talion and he is resurrected to become the human vessel for a wraith named Celebrimbor, who, funnily enough, also has the objective of fucking Sauron’s shit up. Together you go and do this and…. Gollum is there for some reason before he just decides to peace out randomly. Objectives that distract needlessly from the overall goal and abhorrent pacing throughout really sink the plot before it even gets off the ground.

You find out about Celebrimbor’s forgotten past by way of lost artifacts and these flashback segments prove to be the most interesting bits in the entire story, which is especially sad considering that they are really just backstory and not immediately relevant. The story missions are a glaring weak point that weave you through an absolutely fascinating tale of Talion fucking around in Mordor with characters so absurdly uninteresting that I legitimately cannot remember any of their names. Many of these missions aren’t exactly enjoyable to play either, as they shine a particularly bright light on any one of the aforementioned borrowed aspects present in this game for a span of time long enough to incur boredom. It’s also quite unfortunate that the story wraps up in such a poor manner, as it really just leaves a bad taste in your mouth by ending suddenly and without closure, only serving to continue the story’s trend of abject pointlessness.

If you can forgive Shadow of Mordor’s grave narrative missteps then you’ll find a game fun and compelling enough to not even really need a story. In fact, much of the purpose of the Nemesis System is to ensure that each player crafts a tale unique to them through emergent gameplay born from randomly generated, high ranking members of the Orc army that populate the world in a seemingly natural manner. Spoken plainly, your objective is to hunt these Orcs down, however, it becomes much more complex in practice. Each Orc officer is given a unique name, personality, appearance, and a set of strengths and weaknesses that are pulled from a rather large pool of possibilities. These Orcs react to you in a relevant manner to your actions in the game as a whole and, most interestingly, to the Orcs themselves. For instance, if you fled the scene of a battle that a particular Orc Captain was present at, he will make a point of commenting on the fact that you ran away from that fight like a big, smarmy jerk.

Rapid Fire Reviews: 9-28-14

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

A semi-regular segment in which I am too lazy to write full reviews of various games I’m playing so I instead write a couple of shorter ones.

D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die

I like Swery. Based entirely on his work, he seems like an intriguing fellow and no doubt would be a cool guy to grab a drink and chat with. I think he’s extremely talented when it comes to intentionally non-nuanced humor about genre cliches and conventions. That said, his games are not fun to play. So, I really didn’t care much for Deadly Premonition. I got exactly what the team was trying to accomplish with it and I really enjoyed the absurdly over the top story aspects. It just sucked that those things were trapped behind an impenetrable wall of disastrous game design decisions. But yeah, I suppose that’s the point.

Rapid Fire Reviews: 9-20-14

Opinion, Video Games

By William Chandler

A semi-regular segment in which I am too lazy to write full reviews of various games I’m playing so I instead write a couple of shorter ones.

Pay no mind to the fact that both of these ended up being pretty long this time. But, fuck it man. I dunno.