Call of Duty: World at War – Review – Xbox 360

Call of Duty: World at War holds the dubious honour of being the last in the series to be set during the Second World War. It is is remembered with fondness by those who still see Military Shooters as a historical genre, but forgotten by an audience that felt Modern Warfare catapulted the old war horse into a new league. Contemporary reviews spoke of a weary reluctance to return to fighting Nazis, and now the 360 version is playable on Xbox One, what better time is there to see how the game feels today.

Call of Duty

World at War is a game of two halves. It features a campaign of roughly ten hours, and a multiplayer mode that feels more like the star of the show. I am, at heart, a single player sort of guy so I started there. This was a mistake. World at War’s campaign eases you in to the game’s mechanics, but it soon outstays its welcome. It is divided into two locations, the first follows a squad of US troops as they fight in the Pacific campaign. It gets off to a good start, as you fight to escape the heart of Japanese controlled territory. These segments are filled with environments that you just don’t see in war games that often; swamps, fields of flowers, Eastern looking temples. It captures a look and feel that is evocative of the War, but feels fresh.

Unfortunately, that’s about the only strength. There is no narrative to speak of, no characters to get to know. Before and after each level, narration rolls out to tell you what you’re doing next, but it never feels like you’re playing a story where one event leads into another. Each mission is simply a cycle of break down this stronghold, destroy this target, repeat. This wouldn’t be so bad if the level design weren’t so frustrating, but much of the pacific campaign involves running through tunnels or bunkers, clearing hunkered troops, and moving on. Often enemies in these rooms will spawn infinitely in easily defensible posts and progression becomes a case of repeatedly running the same gauntlet until you get just far enough down the tunnel to trigger a checkpoint. I suppose it’s accurate to 20th century war to just throw enough young men at a problem until one side runs out, but I can’t say it’s much fun as a game. There’s no sense of progress to it, no thread running between each stage, it is simply a case of repeating the same types of encounter over and over until you win.

Call of Duty world at War

The European Campaign is much better. You play a Russian soldier who is wounded during of battle of Stalingrad. You are rescued and mentored by your commanding officer, Reznov, who guides you from the rubble of Stalingrad and eventually to Berlin. Here is where any and all story in the game seem to hide. It’s hardly Gone Home, but there’s real emotion to Reznov’s desire for revenge; his insistence that the Nazis suffer for Russia’s pain at Stalingrad. One memorable encounter sees you silently observe an argument between two officers, one who lived through Stalingrad and wants to make the Germans pay, another who was not there, and can not understand the other’s brutality. It was a genuine moment in sea of grey and featureless tedium, but it was enough to open up the European campaign in a deeper way.

The gameplay is better too. Dugouts are swapped from real buildings, open squares and city streets lay in ruins, while soldiers from both sides seem lost in the confusion. Everything about the European campaign is stronger but it still suffers from the same fundamental problems.

All satisfaction in the game comes from progressing to the next checkpoint, and when the game decides to throw the brakes on that progression, the gameplay isn’t satisfying enough to preserve the fun. It feels more like hammering nails. It’s fiddly, you hit your thumb a bit, and every so often you get a slight feeling of pride as one goes straight in to the wood. The difference is when you’re done hammering nails, you’re usually left with some tangible evidence of progress.

The shooting works well, particularly the old bolt-action rifles; they don’t cut through enemies quite like the automatics but are incredibly satisying. There’s an authenticity to the look and feel of everything which is to be expected of the series by this point, but is still one of the highlights. Getting shot is less fun, not simply because it knocks back an unreasonable chunk of progress each time, but because its often unavoidable, and unsolvable. You are dead now. You know you were probably shot, but from who or what direction isn’t so easy to find out. I’ll happily concede this might just be that I’m terrible at it, but there are a lot of games utilise frequent deaths and still come off feeling like a worthwhile experience. This isn’t one of them. Each death knocks you too far back, and the route between death rooms (those bits every 3-4 minutes where they decide to put all the enemies) aren’t fun enough to make it worth the time.

Call of duty Reznov

Worst of all are the grenades, which developer Treyarch would have you believe the Japanese used more often than bullets. I know the game wants you to feel surrounded, truly at war and under attack from all sides, but somewhere around the millionth grenade death it starts to feel a lot more like there’s no way avoid them. The only solution is to back off and let the squad take care of most of the work. Too often the game sent me scurrying away from the fight as the explosives landed, trotting back just in time to see another one hit my feet. Worse still, you’ll often be trapped in cover, your only choice being to run over the grenade and hope you clear it fast enough or just put your fingers in your ears and accept your fate. I know, I know, it’s war. Grenades happened like that in war. But war isn’t fun, and this is supposed to be.

By the end, it starts to make sense why Call of Duty fans prefer the multiplayer. Here the mechanics feels put to better use. The barrage of grenades stops, and instead you’re free to wreak havoc in open maps. If some of the environments in the game had felt as open, and as varied as the multiplayer maps do, it would have salvaged the experience for me. As it is, Multiplayer feels like the only section to receive extensive play testing. The game modes are all old standards but, the rank and perk system that started in its Call of Duty 4 is still a strong meta game that keeps you coming back for more. Call of Duty has had so many imitators in the multiplayer arena since Modern Warfare, it will very familiar to anyone who has played an online shooter in the last nine years , but it really is as solid and as fun as its reputation suggests. The gameplay is good, but seeing your XP tot up after a game and feeling that “just one more match” effect kick in leaves the player will feeling like they got their money’s worth.

Lastly, it’s worth mentioning the Zombies mode, which sits third on the menu like a bonus feature, but is probably the highlight of the package. In my entire time with World at War I spent more time with this mode than the rest put together. It’s a simple wave-mode shooter that tasks the player with picking of Undead Nazis before they break into your shelter, and yet in execution the balance and depth of it all is so solid that it deserves to be a game in its own right. It’s fitting that in the years since this released, Zombies has gone on to be one of the franchise’s main selling points.

In the end Call of Duty: World at War didn’t break the mould, but for this reviewer, it barely filled the mould. The gameplay works, this is a good engine and a good set of mechanics, refined through years of releases. But it works best in multiplayer where good maps and decent controls are all that matters. The campaign feels empty; hollow and lacking any kind of polish. It was difficult, but it was challenge without fun, just chugging away at the same rough spots ad nauseum. I was glad when the credits rolled, and I could go back to playing Zombies.

5/10

(The requirements I set myself for this review were a target of over 1000 words, and a retro-review style that acknowledged the review was being written some time after release.)

The Bethesda Situation is Gross, but Vindicates the Gaming Press

skyrim on youtubeThe gaming press is up in arms today after Bethesda announced they would no longer provide early copies of their games to reviewers. This began with Doom back in May and prompted many at the time to speculate they were trying to sweep a dud under the rug. While the game exceeded expectations, it left a lot of sites rushing to get reviews out the door. The news that this will be the way of all Bethesda games from now on is understandably concerning for publications whose stock and trade is prompt reviews. Bethesda’s reasoning for this is, allegedly, a desire for reviewers and customers to experience the game at the same time. The problem with this is firstly, that games reviewers and general consumers have entirely different reasons for playing the game, and secondly, Bethesda is already busily handing out early copies of Skyrim Special Edition to influential Youtubers

 

 

jim-sterlingThis leaves only the disappointing conclusion that Bethesda is withholding review copies to maintain greater control over their sales and avoid any bad press that might jeopardise those precious pre-orders. As pre-selling becomes a greater part of the industry’s marketing strategy, publishers grow more risk averse when it comes to the press. Only this week, Jim Sterling of thejimquisition.com is reporting that publishing giant EA has effectively blacklisted him because he is perceived as a “wild card”. Both publishers want to remove that unknown element, a reviewer whose opinion they don’t already know.

I won’t speculate about what’s coming from Bethesda, bugs aside their games have been unfaltering high quality, it’s folly to suggest this implies a lack of confidence in their products. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for studios like Warner Bros. or Ubisoft, that have much more shaky records, and would benefit greatly from getting the likes of Assassin’s Creed Unity or Arkham Knight out the gate without any reviews. When they follow in Bethesda’s footsteps, and follow they will, it’ll take one more chip out of consumer confidence.

This has been taken by some as a death knell for the gaming press; the final blow to an industry that got too clever. There is a passionate and vey entrenched crowd who were much more comfortable in the days of “Planet Quake” when everyone had a fanpage, everyone liked everything, and the press only existed to hype sequels and host patches. Youtube shares some of that pioneer spirit of the early web, with small creators carving up uncharted territory and discovering fertile ground. But the gold rush has started, the big companies want a piece of the action too, and they’re not afraid to buy it. While much ink has been spilled about how Youtube is the new media; consumer and critic all rolled into one, it should be concerning to Youtube viewers and gaming press doubters that those same Youtubers are regarded as consistent producers of positive coverage by big companies who want your money.

 

While it’s true the balance of the media is changing, I’d like to suggest a more positive interpretation for the gaming press. The field has grown up. It has been a difficult few years, but in the last decade it has matured with the artform. As games like Bioshock and Deus Ex talk more about art, and ideas, and emotion, so does the press. Similarly, as digital media becomes more intricate, it begins to affect how we play games, and how we pay for them. In the era of DLC and micro-transactions, the business side of the industry is influencing the player in more and more direct ways. In recent years the press has become much more comfortable discussing how the business of video games works, and why we should care.

We like to talk about video games like they’re a young medium, a new art form, but that isn’t really true anymore. Video games are going through their difficult adolescence. As creators fight with consumers about what games should and should not be, the indie market is freed the death grip from the old studios. We see greater signs of an industry in crisis. The future has never been brighter for games, and never worse old companies who aren’t interested in games as an art form and never were.

doom 2016

 

Bethesda might seem untouchable, their games are great sellers and critical darlings and they own some of the most successful franchises of all time. In an industry where critical success seems as random as a toss of the dice, they’re one of the few studios that doesn’t seem to be wandering blindfold. Yet they must confront the same crisis. The bubble is at bursting point, the pre-order gravy train is one more No Man’s Sky away from derailing, and to squeeze one more analogy into this sentence, the boot will soon be on the other foot.

Five years ago when Skyrim launched it got rave reviews. It cleaned up on Metacritic and went on to be one of the most successful games that year. In fact, during its launch window it received only one modestly critical review, from the UK’s Official Playstation Magazine. I don’t have a copy of a five year old print magazine to hand, but here’s an extract neatly saved by Metacritic. (sans author, unfortunately.)

“I love this game, I really do, but I can’t give it the score I want in its current state. That would be unfair to anyone forking out £40 for a something that might work. It might not. The most amazing game of the year is in there somewhere. I really hope Bethesda can get it out.”

This is the only review that discovered the infamous Skyrim PS3 bug, a game crippling error that gradually reduced the framerate until the game was unplayable. All outlets would be on the story after launch, but only one caught it in time to warn PS3 owners not to buy the game. Why did it go unnoticed? Bethesda only sent out review copies on Xbox 360. This didn’t stop a huge number of outlets publishing the same review for both platforms, of course, and despite the fact that OPM got a PS3 copy there’s no evidence anybody else seriously considered it necessary.

This lack of scrutiny is a large part of the reason trust in the gaming press has been eroded. In 2011 publishers could rely on this lack of scrutiny. They could rely on a press that was more concerned with early coverage, and exclusive screenshots than on effect, implications, and influence. Things have changed. It has been slow and divisive at times, but the results speak for themselves. While Bethesda has always tried to play the press, they’ve lost confidence in their ability to guarantee a good story, even without getting that bad review they fear so much. This is a sign that games journalism is living up to its responsibilities; for the first time in a long time it feels like the medium is truly necessary. And when the next Arkham Knight or No Man’s Sky rolls around, the press can say what it thinks without worrying about embargoes or getting blacklisted in future.

Also after five or six real dogs get through, maybe the consumers will finally learn to stop pre-ordering games.

Slashy Hero – Review – PC / Mac

Reviewed on Mac, copy provided by publisher. 

Slashy Hero is a well made game, tarnished by its origins on mobile. It arrives on PC and Mac with gorgeous art, fun music, and some really clever gameplay, but is hobbled by its touchscreen centric design, and sloppy porting.

Slashy Hero Intro

The setup is brief, but cute. It’s Halloween; a possessed house has sucked up all the Trick or Treat candy. You must enter the Haunted Mansion and reclaim the stolen goods. Inside you’ll encounter a run of short stages, each culminating in a portal to zap you to the next. These are inhabited by various spooky themed baddies who must be taken down to collect the precious candy.

This is where things get tricky. To perform all attacks, the player has to draw a line on the screen across the enemies, once completed your character will rush the line, attacking anything in its path. These lines can be any shape, and can be used to dash traps or make quick escapes too. The problem is, neither mouse or controller work as well as a finger on a tablet would. While the game boasts full controller support, trying to draw a precise line with the right stick feels pretty awkward. Mouse is a little better, but it’s a constant reminder that you’re not playing the game as the developers intended. By the end it’s easier to drop clever sweeping lines and settle for just nudging the stick into foes like a glorified attack button.

Worse still are the bugs. The game frequently breaks, often quite dramatically. Getting killed is often enough to send you to the desktop. Upon death you can trade your candy for a revive. This soon becomes less of a choice, and more a basic tactic to avoid crashes.

screen-shot-2016-10-25-at-10-55-43It’s a shame too because if you can get to grips with it the game works. The variety of enemies is nice, and switching tactics to handle each one is rewarding. Drawing a neat spiral line and watching it blast a swarm of ghosts is an air punching moment, particularly if you can trail off your line and drop your character off at a safe vantage point when you’re done. You can also possible to lure enemies into traps or use the layout of the stage against them, making the whole experience feel more varied and thought out than it would.

At every stage, Slashy Hero feels like time and effort went in to making it a complete experience. From item vendors on the menu screen who will swap candy for upgrades, to a whole range of unlockable Halloween costumes that will give you permanent stat boosts. On your phone, this would probably be one of the most satisfying purchases you could make. Unfortunately so much of this time and effort has gone to waste on a poorly thought out and rushed port to Steam. It never feels quite right and breaks too often to get yourself accustomed to it.

5/10 – A good game, but some serious problems get in the way of fully enjoying it.

 

(As this blog exists, in part, to train myself up for a paid writing career, I try to set myself reasonable requirements and restrictions before writing. For this piece I gave myself a 500 word target length.)

Why Are Remasters Tampering with the Source Material?

Remasters are a solid part of any publisher’s release schedule these days. Starting last generation with the God of War Collection, the “HD Remaster” was a way to bring older titles to modern platforms while increasing image quality. In Sony’s case it minimised the effects of cutting Backwards Compatibility from the Playstation 3 and provided a bridge from the PS2 crowd that had defected to Xbox 360. In recent years it has given companies like Nintendo the chance to recoup investment on games developed for less successful platforms like the Gamecube. Now they focus less on “HD” but improving performance, and packaging hits together for a second shot at the charts. They’re also cheap to outsource and can keep a franchise alive between big releases. Unfortunately a disturbing trend is starting to creep in; they aren’t just updating the technology behind scenes, but altering stylistic and creative choices too.

A prominent example of this is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD on the WiiU.

Wind Waker Gamecube Ghoma Fight

Wind Waker made quite a splash when it launched on the Gamecube. One of the first Cel-Shaded games, the look was divisive but it’s part of the reason the game aged so well. Link often looks entirely two-dimensional, rendered in thick acrylic with heavy and flat shadowing that merges beautifully with the environments and hand drawn puffs of smoke. The game was ahead of its time, launching when the industry was all about realism. When Zelda returned for Twilight Princess, Nintendo adopted a style closer to Ocarina of Time.

Now let’s look at Wind Waker HD.

Wind Waker HD lightingThe same character models and general design remains, but there’s a modern lighting model here. The entire cel shading effect has been reduced by the presence of softer lighting and shadows. It might be a mistake generated by the remastering process, but given Nintendo’s admitted disappointment with the public’s response to Wind Waker, it’s likely they intentionally softened the effect for the re-release. The problem is that by destroying the flat cartoon look of the game, it exposes the age of the character models far more. Wind Waker HD is technically superior to its WiiU counterpart, but there are frequent moments where the original looks cleaner and bolder, despite its limitations.

Bioshock Textures FloorA more recent example is The Bioshock Collection, which contains a remastered Bioshock 1 and 2. Great effort has been put into revising the original game’s geometry, increasing the polygons in a lot of character and environment models. Texture quality is also massively improved over the original console releases, while time has been spent preserving the way classic Bioshock gameplay should feel. Unfortunately, one small artistic change has a surprisingly dramatic effect on the tone of the game. Originally, scenes in Rapture were flooded. Everywhere you looked, the floor was coated with a layer of seawater. These have been mostly removed in the remasters. Water still flows from pipes and appears at inopportune moments, but the feeling of water and the ocean everywhere has been stripped from the environments. Everything looks a lot drier.

Bioshock Remastered TexturesThis might seem like a petty complaint, but it represents an important part of the look and feel of the setting that no longer exists. And this is Bioshock. A game revered not just for its graphics, but for its overall visual design, and its perfect unison of look, feel, and narrative. It is one of the most respected and beloved games of the modern era, and the first game on most people’s lips when you ask the question “Are games art.” It raises serious questions for the archival of digital media, and the ability to keep playing these games in their original form in years to come, when even Bioshock can’t survive untweaked.

Even now, with the launch of the Return to Arkham Collection, we see similar retcons taking place. One of the more subtle changes, the collection is showing tweaks to the colour grading that mostly affect Arkham City. Asylum is graded and rebalanced, but largely in keeping with the game’s original look. City isn’t so fortunate, and a great effort appears to have been made to make the two look more consistent. The biggest change affects Batman himself who, after appearing in a tradition Black cowl and cape in Arkham Asylum, took on a blueish tone in City. While the blue toned Batsuit from City was the source of some complaints, it was in keeping with the look of the game, and the tone of the game which was lighter and drew more from source material in Batman’s 70s era. On the surface, it’s another small change, but it represents another classic game being altered to meet someone else’s creative vision, years after the fact. In this case it makes the games less distinct also, removing creative evolution that occurred between the two releases.

These changes are in some respects, understandable. Warner Bros. aren’t just thinking of Return to Arkham as two individual games, but a foundation of a franchise. A franchise that didn’t have a lot of luck on its last outing. Both Bioshock and Wind Waker suffer from a problem of keeping up with modern technology. Lighting and particle effects have come a long way, the temptation to tweak is very real, particularly if the tweaked is easier to implement than faking a lighting model from the early 2000s.

As long as we avoid a Star Wars Original Trilogy situation and the unaltered releases are still available in some form, changes are acceptable. Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is probably going to outlast the PS3 versions by quite some distance, but it is a very authentic port. This isn’t the case for all games. Wind Waker HD is, for most consumers, the only way to play that game right now. In time this will be true of Ratchet and Clank, God of War, and many other console exclusive remasters. That’s why we need to step back and ask what Remaster releases are for. Do they exist to respectfully convert the titles, to preserve and future proof them so future generations can share the experience, or do they exist to improve and edit the source material like a second draft. These are very different approaches, and they have very different implications for games as an art form.

So far the publishers have avoided this topic, choosing instead to prioritise budget. What they really want is to sell the game again with minimal hit to the wallet. This creates a problem, as the ultimate question of how authentic the job should be is then left in the hands of the porting house. By refusing to answer this question, publishers are letting quick-and-easy budget conversion studios make the decision for them. That’s not a professional and respectful way to treat a work of art.

Halo anniversary in classic modePublishers and developers need to take charge of this situation. Remasters need to be given a little more oversight, someone to consider these questions. Studios should feel free to embrace the opportunity to make changes, but when these changes interfere with the creative vision of the original product, preservation and distribution of the unaltered material needs to be a priority too. So far, only Microsoft has met this challenge, with their Halo Anniversary remasters offering both a total recreation and a straight port in the same package.

Early in the life of Film and Television, huge swathes of content was destroyed due to ineffective or negligent approaches to archival. The games industry needs to tackle this problem while the medium is still young, or risk losing some of its history forever

Has the Switch said goodbye to Nintendo’s favourite gimmicks?

Nintendo Switch ConsoleThe trailer for the Nintendo Switch dropped this morning, and while there are certainly unannounced features still to come, a few details were conspicuous by their absence. The Switch could be the first Nintendo hardware in 12 years to launch without dual screen functions, a touch screen, or motion control. While the Handheld, Console hybrid looks like a slimmed down gamepad, touch and dual screen features do not appear in the clip. Neither do motion or gyroscopic controls. While it’s possible Nintendo is choosing simply to downplay the features, excluding them completely is out of character for the company which likes to emphasise the interrelation of its hardware functions.

Take a look at my breakdown of the Switch trailer here:

The company first shook up their hardware with the DS in 2004. It launched with two screens in a clamshell design, and a touch screen operated by stylus. Since then, they continue to be experimental. The Wii kicked off the motion control boom, and the 3DS added some basic gyroscopic motion control’s to the DS’s features. Their last home console release, the WiiU, combined those elements into a twin screen, touch and motion control gamepad. It hasn’t been a success, and critics have grown louder in their calls for Nintendo to return to plain and simple hardware.

Nintendo switch

The Switch isn’t quite that. It has some new neat tricks of its own, however the approach is more conservative than Nintendo has been in years. While the console features detachable controllers and a unit that can connect to a TV via hub or be carried around like a handheld, the emphasis is very clearly on traditional controls and buttons when it comes to playing the games. Nintendo is possibly hoping to capture that “what you always wanted but never realised” feeling that made the DS and Wii such successes.

The removal of these features suggests disappointing news on the horizon for anyone hoping for backwards compatibility with WiiU or 3DS games, but overall Nintendo’s appears confident. Only time will tell if they can pull it off.

When Dragon Quest Steals, it Steals Right

Dragon Quest Builders ScreenshotDragon Quest Builders charmed players this week with its merging of Minecraft style construction and JRPG questing. Reviews have been strong with a Metacritic rating of 83 for the PS4 version at this time. The game is no low budget shovel ware release, with a 40 hour quest line, multiple worlds to build in, and an unlockable sandbox mode that sticks a little closer to Minecraft’s open ended free-building. It still launched without too much fanfare, and little hype for the game before its pre-release Demo last month, but this isn’t the first time Dragon Quest has loosened its tie, and slipped into a more casual genre.

I’m talking of course about Dragon Quest Monsters. Arriving during the Pokemon craze, Monsters shamelessly exploits the public’s desire for tiny battling monsters but never loses its Dragon Quest heritage. You play Terry, a young boy whose sister is abducted by monsters in the night. You give chase, falling down a portal to a magic kingdom in a distant land. There the king promises to help you save her, but only if you win the massive monster fighting tournament that’s coming up.

From there the King gives you access to his monster ranch, and a series of portals that will take you to new and interesting realms. Along the way you’ll meet all the famous Dragon Quest beasties, and if you can charm them enough while beating the snot out of them, they just might join you on your quest. If you thought Pokemon was an advert for Stockholm Syndrome, you haven’t seen anything yet. Each world ends in a boss battle that gifts you a unique monster, you can then breed your them to create skill combinations and devastating hybrid soldiers.

Dragon Quest Monsters CoverDid I mention this released in 1998, a year before Pokemon Gold and Silver?

The series has continued with the latest entry, Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 3, on the DS, It has continued to evolve, developing its own mechanics and identity, but it’s remarkable how bold and well formed that initial fusion of genres was. As I played Dragon Quest Builders, I was reminded more and more of Monsters. The legendary hero who takes a different path to the series’ main protagonists, different worlds to save behind each portal, famous monsters put to new purposes. Both games take the mechanics of their competitors, but when they’re done with them, the result is so authentically true to Dragon Quest that it feels like they were meant to be together.

There have been other mergers, of course. Dragon Quest Heroes is the most recent, and represents the latest in a string of Dynasty Warriors crossovers. The Dragon Quest universe hosts this union but it is still, at its core, a Warriors game. Square-Enix themselves have tried this, lending their Mystery Dungeon format to Nintendo for a series of Pokemon crossovers. (Mystery Dungeon itself a Dragon Quest spin-off.) But there’s something unique about Monsters and Builders. These aren’t simple co-licensing agreements, but a reaction to market trends that takes new and exciting mechanics and responds by absorbing them entirely into the franchise and forming an almost perfect symbiosis.

People might go into Builders expecting Minecraft, but by the end of the first chapter, the game rejects that misconception. Crafting is here, but a lot of the genre’s sacred cow mechanics are tossed. Food and health are totally separate resources, the world isn’t randomly generated, and NPCs are frequent and verbose. Most importantly, you aren’t free to do as you please. Monsters attack regularly and your city needs to be ready, the people you meet have needs, quests need to be done before you can even dig crucial materials out of the ground. This is an old-school RPG to the core, what it takes from Minecraft is really nothing more than the structure of the world in which it is set.

three dragon quest slimes
Neither Builders or Monsters are going to go down as masterpieces. Instead they will be relegated to side-title status, funny knock-offs of more popular games that weren’t quite enough for either audience. There’s something criminally unfair about that. The more I play these games, Builders for the first time, and Monsters as an old and much loved favourite, the more I’m inspired by their transformative approach to their inspirations. Dragon Quest Builders isn’t Minecraft, and could never be, and yet takes liberally from it to make a beautiful and different kind of RPG. A kind that will be forgotten largely because it built the wrong kind of expectations.

SOMA – Review – PC / Mac.

SOMA Screen

Few games leave the player with the lingering, sometimes troubling feelings that stick with you after playing SOMA. From Frictional Games, who scared the pants off Youtubers with the Amnesia series, this is a more contemplative game. You play Simon, normal in every way except that he’s slowly dying from a bleed in the brain. While receiving an experimental new scan everything goes dark. When the lights come back on, he’s in Pathos-II, a facility at the bottom of the Ocean. All is not well here. The base’s AI has worked its way into all the electrical systems, machines and sea-life merge in unintended ways, and a few old robots have forgotten they’re robots.

It’s first person and reminiscent of the Amnesia games and their imitators. You can crouch and peek around corners or pick up scrap off the floor and toss it about. Occasionally you’ll need to break a window by lobbing something heavy through it. As you head deeper into the complex you meet with various hideous predators that will make trouble.  Hiding and sneaking play a big part of the game, but SOMA doesn’t ask you to spend hours tucked away in lockers. Instead you’ll need to duck in a corner and wait for the best moment to shuffle past undetected.

Sometimes you’ll escape. If not, the game uses a forgiving second chance system. Getting caught by an enemy once will knock you back, get caught again before reaching a healing station and you’re finished. What’s remarkable is how rarely this happens. The game wants you to be frightened, but it never feels like your obstacles are insurmountable. They are simply part of the unfortunate sequence of events Simon is trapped within. As such, events progress at a pace that feels appropriate to the experience.

Complimenting this, each encounter with an enemy is unique. There are no Goombas here; no enemy feels like a generic “SOMA Monster” haunting every corridor. Instead each encounter feels like a planned moment, designed to frighten you in just the right way. When their time is done, they bow out of the story. It is not unusual to find long periods of time going by without an encounter and yet the game feels no emptier for it. In these sequences the setting, and the science fiction is allowed to breath. It maintains tension, but isn’t afraid to put away the action now and then. SOMA feels like a curated experience, controlled and patient, as if every corner, ever room was tested and retested to make sure events flowed smoothly. I haven’t played something so well managed since Bioshock.

To go into more detail would spoil things. Even so, the game is adept out outmanoeuvring your speculations. If you play expecting to guess the twist, you might be disappointed. Whatever your ideas are, the developers thought of them first. When the truth of Simon’s journey is revealed, it comes neither too early or too late, and is less a surprise than a feeling of immense satisfaction. It is a masterpiece of storytelling.

 

soma-wallpaper-hd
If it has a weakness, it’s in variety. This isn’t a long game, but you’re going to see a lot of airlocks and corridors before it’s over. That’s a consequence of the setting, and they do try to shake it up. You’ll spend time walking across the ocean floor, or riding transport vehicles, but it’s never long before you’re staring at corridors again. This carries across to the monsters too. While each encounter feels unique, the visual style of the creatures themselves is pretty consistent. Rotten flesh and junk in various arrangements. It’s not a bad style and you’ll spend most of your time hiding from them anyway, but non really stand out like a Xenomorph or a Big Daddy.

This isn’t a deal breaker though because SOMA plays to its strengths. It takes its little bag of ideas and polishes them until they’re absolutely sparkling. It grips the player immediately, and confronts them with difficult questions. This is a game about being human, you will explore what it means to be yourself, and what it means to be alive. At times the game does an eerily effective job of breaking down the fourth wall and making you question where the game stops and reality begins.

SOMA is something special. It’s a great horror game, and a tidy little first person narrative experience that makes the most of a conservative budget and a limited scope. That’s an achievement in itself. But it also explores territory few other games have, it opens with a quote by Philip K Dick, and like Dick, it uses science fiction to make you question your fundamental understanding of the world. Here it succeeds too.

Final Score 10 / 10

A Little Light Remodelling

Wow, this place is dead.

I should apologise. I wont because I’ve posted “sorry I stopped posting” posts so many times I made myself promise I wouldn’t do any more.

This is a little different. The blog has been derelict because I’ve been taking my life in a different direction. I’m a youtuber now! No. Really.

This blog was originally to showcase my writing, but last year I faced some hard choices. Writing wasn’t working. I didn’t feel like the same person I was when I started, and I didn’t have passion for fiction anymore. I can’t sit through editing a novel; I didn’t have the discipline. One day I might again, who knows, but what I did know is I couldn’t force myself to be that person. I wanted to try something new, a way to meet people and have fun, and talk about things that excite me.

Also, I was playing a lot of video games. So I made that my thing. I make Let’s Play videos and stuff here: www.youtube.com/owenadams

It’s small but growing, and I love the work I do. It has even got me wanting to write again. I want to script video game reviews and skits, I want to plan the work I do in more detail, but more than that, I want to write criticism, I love talking to my viewers about games. I want to write about them too. If possible, I want to do it for the rest of my life. I need a place to sharpen my skills, so this is becoming that place.

If you’re an old reader, don’t panic. The old posts aren’t going, though you’ll have to hunt for them. I’m just adjusting the front page to be more reflective of the work I do now, and the work I’m known for to most people.

That’s all for now, but I hope I’ll have something more to show for my efforts soon.

Owen.