Holy Mackerel! It’s the Top 5 Games of 2014.

Good Morning games fans, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Farmville dabbler, a hardcore gamer, or a gamer gate kook, the end of the year is that special time when we look back and see what games managed to make it through the toxic grip of the industry’s incompetent publishers without completely falling apart. (Prayers for our fallen comrade, Assassin’s Creed Unity, grievously wounded in this year’s struggle.)

What follows is a list of the games that I found most satisfying this year, presented in no particular order. There were a few games I really wanted to include, but couldn’t. I had a great time with Unity, but I just couldn’t put a game so broken on my list. Much love also for Infamous Second Son, but it just got bumped by some titles that kept me coming back for more. Honourable Mention goes to Wolfenstein: The New Order, which was a great title but I didn’t finish it due to personal stuff and the second half could have sent killer bees flying out of my console or something. With that in mind, read on for my super special Top 5 this year:

Peggle 2

peggle2_update_ss4Yeah, I know, I left a space on my Top 5 for a casual Popcap game that your Mum likes to play. How could it be in the running, when so many games on my list cost a trillion dollars to make a were designed in a secret lab by secret government agents.

Fuck that.

Peggle 2 deserves all the praise it gets for being every bit as awesome as the first, and for not being Plants Vs. Zombies 2. (Thank God for that.)

I’m not going to pretend you haven’t played the first Peggle, and it’s fair to say that Peggle 2 just replicates the gameplay for a new set of levels and a few bits of DLC. It’s a testament to how good that core gameplay is that it’s still an immensely satisfying game. Peggle is great fun, and with Peggle 2 employing a new roster of Masters, complete with their own powers, musical cues and visuals, it does feel freshened. Clearly money has been spent bringing things up to date a little bit, and the whole thing has a more consistent, clearly focused look and feel to it than before. Add in that it has been so long since the first game hit the shelves, and you have a title that has been very welcome on my PS4.

Popcap haven’t skimped on the new levels, there are a lot of them and they’re all fairly well designed. As before, their are challenges and special objectives, but they have now been integrated into each level, giving you the option to complete them as you play through the game. As a result, you’ll probably clear a lot of the content in Peggle 2 faster than the original, but there’s still a hell of a lot here.

I really enjoyed this game the first time I played it, and I’m still heading back regularly for another blast. I’ll probably still be playing it five years from now, as I am the original. You can’t make games better than that.

Assassin’s Creed Rogue

acrogue-gi-02_161295*Gasp!* Yes, Rogue made this list in place of Unity. It’s a controversial choice, but I’m sticking by it.

Ubisoft made the unusual decision to release two major Assassin’s Creed titles this year, with Unity heading to next gen consoles and Rogue providing those poverty stricken individuals with more sense than money something to play on their Ps3 and 360’s. However, it almost feels like Rogue is the game Ubisoft didn’t want you to play. It received barely any marketing, even to the PS3/360 audience, and pre-release copies weren’t sent to reviewers. All indications were that this was going to be terrible. How wrong we were.

Truth be told, comparing the two is like apples and oranges. Unity is a new engine, new storytelling style, new gameplay feel, new everything. Rogue is a refinement of everything Ubisoft have been working on since Assassin’s Creed 3. It’d be a toss up if Unity’s game breaking glitches didn’t almost overshadow every good decision it makes. I love Assassin’s Creed so much, one of them was always going to find their way on to this list, Unity’s failing left a pretty big space for Rogue.

Rogue isn’t a new experience, it is for the most part a reskin and expansion of last year’s Black Flag. You play the part of Shay Cormac, a young Assassin who gets caught up in one of the Brotherhood’s most ambitious schemes. After the Assassin’s plans lead to disaster, Shay defects to the Templar order, and embarks on a mission to save the world from the Assassins’ unintended consequences. It’s a great plot and while Unity chose to sever a lot if its ties with the series’ continuity, Rogue revels in them. There’s a lot of fan service, but it works.

On top of that, while gameplay is mostly carried over from Black Flag, there are some great innovations related to playing as a templar. Your opponents are Assassins, which means you’re often tasked with fighting an enemy as capable as yourself. Young recruits will jump out of haystacks, drop on your from above and wait around corners for you to appear. It’s challenging, but there’s a real sense of seeing things from the other side for a change. It’s fabulous. Better yet, Shay’s arsenal of weapons seem geared to making the player approach things less like an Assassin and more like a templar. The hidden blade is still with you, but you’re also equipped with a long distance air rifle and a primitive grenade launcher. Stealth is still your best tactic, but the game is happy letting you be a little more blunt in your approach.

Rogue never quite reaches the heights of Black Flag, and it’s a very different approach to Unity, but it’s a solid, refined experience that always feels confident and controlled in what it wants to achieve.

Super Smash Bros. 3DS

super_smash_bros_Nintendo_3ds_04-pc-gamesMost people have dropped Smash Bros. on Wii U and 3DS together this year. That makes sense, gameplay between the two is identical and they share most of the same fighters and stages. Nintendo haven’t really gone in for multi platform titles across their handhelds and consoles before, but this is the closest they’ve ever come. However, I’m sticking with the 3DS version for this list. Firstly, because while I have spent some time with the WiiU version, I’ve only had it in the house since Christmas and I can’t speak about it’s own quirks much. And secondly, because while the WiiU Smash Bros is a great game, Smash on 3DS is a bloody miracle.

I have been raving about this game since I first played the demo. The 3DS is a very find little handheld, and Smash Bros is a great series, this was never going to be a bad game, but it has been put together with the kind of love and attention that is surprising even for Nintendo. This is an amazingly well made little game. From a technical standpoint, it is flawless. Character models and stages look clean and appropriate for the game, Things are a little scaled back from the WiiU version obviously, but it looks absolutely fantastic. The visual style is typical Smash, with a clean, not too stylised approach that lets a range of characters from very different worlds inhabit the same levels comfortable. Cartoony characters like Mario settle in reasonably well with more realistic heroes like Link, and even odder figures like Pac-Man don’t look too out of place. Unique to the 3DS version is an adjustable black outline that gives the game a slight comic book look, and helps the fighters stand out on the small screen. It’s a beautifully well thought out decision that I’d like to see more handheld developed thinking about. Better yet, the game runs at 60fps even with the 3D enabled and includes anti-aliasing when the 3D is off. Every possible step has been taken to make the game look great, and it does.

More importantly, it plays great too. It feels like Smash Bros. through and through, and with a wide range of fighters, stages, moves, sound effects, extra modes, it’s just unbelievable. Lumping this together with the WiiU version is selling Smash Bros. for 3DS short, on a home console this amount of content is expected, and handheld it is enormous. Nobody but Nintendo puts this amount of effort into a handheld game, and it’s a reminder of why the company survives in the modern gaming world.

And speaking of Nintendo…

Mario Kart 8

Thwomp_RuinsOh come on, you knew this was going to be on here. Who doesn’t love Mario Kart? Only Nintendo could release the 8th game in a series, on a console comparable to eight year old hardware and have it feel as fresh and beautiful as Mario Kart 8.

The old Mario Kart tropes are all here. Mario and a range of characters from his loosely associated games are go-kart racing through a series of Mario inspired tracks. Along the way they will throw shells at each other, drop banana peels and destroy friendships because of they stupid lightning bolt that nobody enjoys. However, this time they’re doing it in HD and there’s some DLC in which Mario drives a Mercedes. Sold!

It feels weird putting games like Mario Kart and Smash on best of lists. Not because they’re bad games, but because so often there’s a sense that they don’t really qualify as new games. It’s sad that in a world of annualised titles like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, Nintendo’s restraint with their titles isn’t more respected, but it’s understandable. These are, after all, first party exclusives that usually lack a unique single player campaign. However, they are always exceptionally fell made and enormously popular multiplayer games. Mario Kart is a game that keeps me coming back for more, and Mario Kart 8 maintains that. I don’t have a lot else to say except this game also has Thwomp Ruins, and if that isn’t the best Mario Kart track ever, then I don’t know what is.

Alien Isolation

1390105674-7So this is it. My favourite game of 2014. The title seems unfair, Alien Isolation is my favourite game in years. And I don’t even play horror games. This is just such a good game.

Cards on the table. I’m a big fan of Alien. I know, I know, everybody loves the Aliens franchise, isn’t James Cameron great, Ripley is awesome. Shame about Resurrection. I can get behind all that, but what I really love is that original, creepy horror masterpiece, Alien. I love that it’s equal parts hard sci-fi and monster movie. I love that it takes so much influence from Star Wars in its set design and visual style and yet feels completely different. I love that it puts a guy in a rubber suit and never looks like it. I love the acting, the music, I love everything.

Alien Isolation is a perfect tribute to that film. It is, in my opinion, not only the best Alien game ever made, but probably a better sequel to Alien than any of the films that followed. It is groundbreaking in its game design and its visual style, and it is as close to perfect as any big budget video game I have ever played. I love this game.

We follow Amanda Ripley, a young engineer working jobs in deep space. Her mother, lost during the events of the first film, is a constant presence in her life despite her absence. She works in the same part of space where her mother disappeared, hoping for news. When a representative of the company comes to her and tells her they have found the black box from her mother’s ship, she joins the retrieval crew as they travel to Sevastapol station. Once they arrive, they find a station that is practically derelict. The inhabitants were in the process of dismantling the station to be decommissioned, logs scattered around tell the story of a hopeful population trying to make a life on the station before economic facts brought it down. Something has gone wrong, however. The authorities are locked down in one part of the ship, roaming bands of armed survivors control other sections, and something is working its way through the vents hunting them down. Ripley has to work her way through the station, repairing systems as she goes to find her way to the answers she seeks and get off the station alive.

The whole thing has a real Bioshock vibe to it, while being true to the universe of the film. It’s a gripping experience from the start, and when the Alien does appear, the game knocks it out of the park. Using a combination of scripted moments and very well developed, unscripted AI, we are introduced to the Alien as every bit the perfect hunter we knew from the films. The game’s Alien is a single, intelligent, learning animal that is always stalking you through the corridors of the station. Work too loudly, double back the wrong way or even spend too long lurking in the vents and you’re likely to bump into the Alien. And if you do, you’re dead. The one bright side, of course, is that if anyone else bumps into the Alien, they’re dead too. You can use that to your advantage, but if you toy with the creature too much it’ll start to figure you out and trust me, you don’t want that.

Alien Isolation is my game of the year. It’s a lot of other people’s game of the year too, and it’s so well deserved. AAA Gaming is a hit and miss affair, publishers are often cowardly and prone to play it safe, but after the disaster that was Colonial Marines, Sega needed to restore credibility in the franchise. Alien Isolation is both back to basics and very forward thinking. It is a largely linear story which tells the story of Amanda Ripley’s quest for closure, but within that it presents wonderful unplanned moments, and genuinely frightening gameplay. It looks and feels like it was taken straight from Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, but always remembers to be a great game rather that just imitating a great film. I will remember my time on Sevastapol forever, even if I daren’t go back.

Why I don’t like Fighting Games, and Why I Love Injustice.

The cover art really sets the tone, as Superman and Batman duke it out beneath the world's worst pop-group.
The cover art really sets the tone, as Superman and Batman duke it out beneath the world’s worst pop-group.

It’s dark outside. I don’t know what time it is. I am Green Arrow, and I’m fighting Solomon Grundy who is trying to prevent me from staging a daring raid on the Batcave. I suddenly become aware that I am experiencing one of the most engrossing video game narratives in ages from a game I had all but written off a year ago. These are the sort of moments that keep me playing games.

I would never have bought Injustice. Oh it tempted me, with its siren song of a strong license, cool artwork and a plot that borrows heavily from my favourite Justice League episode. It was the game made just for me in so many ways, except it wasn’t. I don’t play fighting games. I try to be open minded, really I do, but fighters and I just don’t get along. We should, I suppose. Mine is the generation of Street Fighter II, passionate debates about Mortal Kombat’s green blood on Sega and the golden age of Arcade fighters. I’m terrible at all of them. The last fighter I bought was Super Street Fighter IV on the 3DS. It came bundled with the console and I was terrible at that too.

Now, before you start imagining me as some hideous five thumbed mutant with the dexterity of a tricycle, I’m fairly sure this is mostly about patience. Fighting games are about timing, memorising button sequences and going face to face against a skilled opponent. I can pick up a controller, blast against the CPU or a friend and have some fun, but I just don’t enjoy the games enough to really take time on any kind of mastery. I like my games, I like ’em a lot, but learning combos bores me to tears. I’m the guy who plays Spider-Man games by loading all my upgrade points into health and mashing the punch button. (Yes, that applies to pretty much every Spider-Man game since 2000.) There’s a place for intricacy in game design, but if it were up to me, button sequences isn’t where you’d find it.

The fighter I got with my 3DS! (Not Pictured: The Ridge Racer port that spent a lot more time in the console.)
The fighter I got with my 3DS! (Not Pictured: The Ridge Racer port that spent a lot more time in the console.)

This is a subjective thing, of course. I’m the guy who mashes buttons in Spider-Man but I’m also the guy who spends hours mastering the perfect swinging technique. I’m the guy who liked the sailing in Zelda. I’m the guy who keeps playing a park in Rollercoaster Tycoon after the level has been won. I’m the guy who plays Halo for the story. (C’mon, you knew we existed. Why else would they keep putting it in there.) Fighting games lose me because for all the attention to detail they put in character design and traits, the gameplay strips all that back to mechanics. Narrative is limited to opening and closing cutscenes, character motivation and behaviour is largely irrelevant, setting is little more than an excuse to include something better than a blank screen. They offer an experience that is about learning the game’s functions and exploiting them in the most efficient sequence. It is challenging, it is a great platform for competition, and I’m sure it’s a lot of fun, but it’s not an experience that I’m interested in.

Which is why Injustice has been such a surprise. Arriving as one of this month’s Playstation Plus games on PS4, I finally got a chance to try it out without risking £40 on a game I might only play for five minutes. Going in, I had some expectations. I knew I would see a wide roster of well designed DC characters, I knew I’d see familiar settings reproduced as detailed stages. I got all that, but there’s a lot more too. This is a fighter that is every bit as challenging and intricate at its core but it comes in a package that transcends its mechanics. It’s clear the developers have spent a lot of time making the game competitive to other modern fighters, but they also understand that the DC license gives them an opportunity to bring in a wider audience. Injustice’s story mode plays a big part in that.

I guarantee you this screenshot is more exciting than the Man of Steel sequel will be.
I guarantee you this screenshot is more exciting than the Man of Steel sequel will be.

Unlike other fighters, the core single player experience places a big emphasis on story in this game. After a quick tutorial, the game begins on an intricate story that plays out like one of DC’s own straight-to-DVD animated features. The plot involves a small group of heroes from the Justice League transported to a parallel dimension in which Superman has declared himself ruler of Earth. Joining up with Batman’s resistance, they fight to free this alternate earth from the Man of Steel’s iron grip. The story plays out through some exceptionally well voiced cutscenes, that feel deliberately paced to absorb you into the plot, not just carry you to the next battle. When a fight does break out, you take control and duke it out. It’s a compelling format that transformed the experience for me. I enjoyed watching the cutscenes as much as I enjoyed actually fighting, and it succeeded in removing that sense of detachment fighters usually create in me. It was everything I needed to keep me invested, keep me playing to the end, and I can safely say that I am now more adept at this game than any other fighter I have played. I actually beat someone online; that was a big moment for me! It took me right back to being nine years old and being the only kid who could use a special power in Mortal Kombat II. (It was Baraka’s knifey arm slash thing. Lame, I know.)

There’s more to this than just the story though, so much of Injustice seems to be tweaked towards drawing new players in. The S.T.A.R Labs missions, for example, are a sequence of smaller, objective based battles for each character that push you to learn a lot more about each of the fighters in order to accomplish specific tasks, while the Battle Mode includes options like Classic Battle which is a more traditional campaign through a sequence of more difficult opponents.

Go Baraka! You flea-market Wolverine!
Go Baraka! You flea-market Wolverine!

Injustice is still a fighter, of course. It will never be my favourite genre, and Injustice will never be my favourite game, but this is one of those very rare games that has real cross market appeal. It uses the DC license as an inspiration for its mechanics, but it respects that audience by making sure fans of the comics are all welcome regardless of their experience with the gameplay. Why do I love Injustice? Because it was a game I should have hated, but it went to such great lengths to make me feel included. At every step of the way, Injustice reminded me that this was a game for me too. And it didn’t do it by simplifying the gameplay or by changing the format, it did it by reinforcing strong core gameplay with a presentation that kept me wanting to play. I think I would play any fighter that offered me the same.

Review – Typing of the Dead: Overkill

Typing Of The Dead CoverTyping of the Dead was probably the stupidest Dreamcast game ever made (and that is from the console that gave us Seaman).   It remains the standout title in the Zombie Shooter / Typing Tutor genre solely because nobody else would be stupid enough to replicate it, and since the dizzy heights of the Dreamcast era, very few consoles come with their own full QWERTY keyboard and Sega Arcade hardware. Still, it was the sort of game that felt designed for Sega’s doomed console. Quirky hardware, a corny Japanese import, and a gameplay concept that was borderline office work. A cult take on what was already a cult arcade conversion, Typing of the Dead should have been the House of the Dead 2 port nobody in their right mind would ever want to play. God, did I love it. Combining the campiness of the original title with the 90s “Edutainment” feel and the bizarre non-sequiturs the game asked you to type up created an experience that had to be played to be believed. Typing of the Dead has been gone for a long time now, but it has returned to a PC near you, with a conversion of the Wii’s excellent House of the Dead: Overkill.

Overkill was a remarkable game in its own right. The first title in the series to head straight to consoles, it was a game that really felt at home on the Wii. It took the series’ trademark violence and gore and partnered it with a well written parody of Grindhouse cinema to create a game that really feels like it knows its audience. Where House of the Dead in arcades was often unintentionally hilarious, badly translated and goofy, Overkill deliberately tries to cultivate the same feeling that you’re indulging in a low budget piece of crap. I was thrilled to see that this all carries over to its keyboard equipped cousin.

The Typing of the Dead Overkill PhrasesTyping of the Dead: Overkill is a very complete port of the original game, built around a different central mechanic. Instead of shooting zombies, you must crack out your secretarial skills and type a series of phrases to achieve total zombie explodification. This is better than it sounds, you don’t just type line by line, but instead are attacked by zombies in waves identically to the original game. Each zombie comes with its own hovering phrase, start typing to start shooting, complete the phrase to kill. Backspace to cancel and attack a different zombie. There are, of course, different types of zombies with different attacks; the difficulty of the opponent is changed by altering the complexity of the phrase. Early on you’ll encounter simple, ravenous foes that can be dispatched simply by typing “Nom.” Later you’ll be asked to tackle more complex phrases and sentences that are often hilarious in their construction. Some of the best moments come when the phrases you type reinforce the story, such as boss battles, where character motivations and feelings are often thrown up on the screen.

The change in mechanics comes with a few necessary drawbacks. The game is an On-Rails shooter anyway, when your central mechanic is typing, there are times when it feels like the game isn’t that interactive. It’s a lot more exciting that Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, but it’s hard to deny that most of the time you have no control over events. Type well, things move forward, type badly and the game stops. Hitting TAB in time will collect your power ups, but the rest of the time this is just about your skills hitting the keys. It’s to the game’s strength that it disguises how limited this experience actually is. In wears a bit in long sessions, becoming obvious that this is less of a interactive experience than the original game, but in short blasts I never lost the fun. It also necessitates a toning back of the game’s opponents. Maybe I’m misremembering the Wii original (it has been a while) but I never really felt like the enemies attacked me the variety or ferocity that they did in the original. I’m sure this is partly because your methods of response are limited, but there seems to be a lack of imagination in it too. Zombies rarely throw things, or charge the player, there are less trials of accuracy (for obvious reasons) but these could all be replicated on keyboard pretty well.

Typing of the Dead OverkillThe only other criticism probably isn’t going to bother most people. Typing of the Dead: Overkill is a great game, but not a very good typing tutor. I know it’s marketed more as a kitsch take on the series, and I feel silly picking on the game for something it never really claims to be, but if you’re going into this expecting to be given some tutorials on touch typing first then you’ll probably be disappointed. This game will help your typing skills, I’m sure, just through the addictive gameplay and practice typing unusual words and phrases, but it will only build on the typing abilities you already have, not teach you any new ones. One nice feature, however, is the ability to add custom dictionaries so you can type themed phrases or foreign languages or just different regional dialects.

Typing of the Dead: Overkill is available on PC via Steam and probably some other retailers too but who uses them? It retails at around £15, but is on sale pretty often. This is an odd game to recommend, because I had a great time with it, but it’s not for everyone. I can’t say it’s the best way to play Overkill, but if you’re a fan of Grindhouse movies and zombie flicks, but not a big shooter fan, this might be a better way to enjoy it. All the content is still here, and the game plays as well as it ever did. If you’ve played Overkill before though, this is an easy recommend. It’s cheap and cheerful, a goofy way of experiencing the game again without the hassle of setting up a lightgun or playing with mouse. Better still, the typing mechanics and weird phrases actually make replaying a very different, entertaining way of replaying.

Typing of the Dead: Overkill might be a weird, cheap title, but it’s also a solid game that makes the most of the franchise’s history and the strangeness of its gimmick. It is what it is, and it’s hard to find fault with that.

Assassin’s Creed Unity, or Why I Can’t Pre-Order Games Anymore.

Arno UnityI love games. I probably love games too much; they’re a massive time sink sometimes. I can attribute a lot of my slow progress this NaNoWriMo to the arrival of Assassin’s Creed Unity. Unfortunately, while I love a lot of games, I love few as much as I love Assassin’s Creed. This blog isn’t really about games, but my obsession has peeped through a couple of times even here. Assassin’s Creed is a divisive series, for everyone that loves it for its historical settings, it sense of atmosphere, the size of the game world, there’s somebody who hates it for its occasionally awkward gameplay, bugs or odd story lines. Me? I’m usually there Day One.

The series has had its ups and downs, but despite publisher Ubisoft’s ever decreasing reputation, they have earned my loyalty in the past. I happily signed up in advance for the latest entry and, loaded up on caffeine, got ready to play at midnight on the dot. A new Creed arrived every year, and yet I enjoy those opening moments as much every time. This year Ubisoft takes us to Revolutionary Paris, promising beautiful graphics, giant crowds and a fully developed cooperative multiplayer element. And as the story begins, everything is going fine. We begin in a palace in Versailles, everything looks beautiful and the narrative carries the player to Paris, where it throws open the gates and says “The city is yours!”

Unfortunately, things start to fall apart soon after. In my first couple of hours with Unity, I encountered some very unpleasant things. A few were tolerable. The game performs badly, but is playable. A few were worse, the game has numerous bugs that will often send you falling to your death while walking along a rooftop or something remove people’s faces entirely. The worst bug I encountered involved a feature called Assassin Rank. The game tracks your progress using a simple experience point to ranking system. You are supposed to progress through ranks like Initiate, Apprentice, Soldier before topping out at Legend. Unless you check your ranking in the Assassin’s headquarters, at which point the game promptly sets the player to Legend and all the multiplayer features break.

The single player campaign in similarly hampered. A big part of the series is exploring cities, climbing rooftops in search of collectibles. Unfortunately, you cannot collect everything in Unity without signing up for three separate services. Uplay (Ubisoft’s own gaming network), Assassin’s Creed Initiates (a sort of Achievements website for the series), and the Companion App (a lousy side game that is time consuming and dull), and all three of these services were either broken or failing to communicate correctly at launch. Ubisoft have fixed some of these problems, and promised fixes for the rest, but for a £55 product to be in this condition at launch is unbelievable.

The extent to which this stops someone enjoying Unity depends on the individual. I still had a great time playing through the single player story, as a lot of others will. I found the setting enjoyable, and as the most egregious problems have been corrected, I find a game that might not be the best in the series, but still entertains. The question is not whether or not Unity is a good game (It is, when it works) but why this information was concealed from the consumer. For Ubisoft, the answer is obvious; pre-orders are a big win for the publishers these days. Getting committed buyers before the product has launched helps publishers to gauge interest and helps retailers organise their launches, but the system is open to abuse. And abuse the system Ubisoft has. By enforcing a strict review embargo, preventing the press from reviewing Unity until Noon release day, Ubisoft has turned reviewers into accomplices into an attempt to defraud.

Some will say I am being hyperbolic, but before the game’s US release, I had no idea this was a game containing micro transactions. I had no idea this was a game requiring signup to separate services to fully enjoy. I have no idea this game suffered from even minor performance issues, let alone seriously crippling bugs, and if I had known it, I wouldn’t have bought it. I would have waited until Ubisoft corrected their own mess, and in the meantime I would have enjoyed the other Assassin’s Creed that came out on the same day and doesn’t have these problems. Ubisoft knows I feel that way, and they’ve never even heard of me. I know they know it because they went to such lengths to hid information from the consumer. Unity is a game sold through misinformation and deceit. I can think of no better word than fraud.

And if it’s that easy, then everyone who plays games is screwed. That’s why I can’t buy pre-orders anymore; I’m not sure I can even buy games in the first week anymore. It’s why I no longer feel comfortable banking on any games in a post-Unity industry. Because we’re living in a world where the third largest video game publisher is happy to release a broken game. We’re living in a world where the third largest video game publisher wants to sell  their flagship game for £55, and charge you  extra to progress through the game faster. We’re living in a world where the third largest video game publisher in the world wants you to sign up for three separate services to get the most from your £55 game, but won’t pay to make those services work. And we’re living in a world where the third largest video game publisher in the world wants to do all that and hide it from you until after your bought the game.

What does a word like trust mean in an industry where this is possible? Unity isn’t even a bad game (when it works), but where Assassin’s Creed III made me lose a little faith in the franchise, Unity destroys any trust I had in the industry to be honest and accountable. A pre-order is, in a way, a promise. A promise is meaningless in a world without trust.

Paris looked pretty though. It’ll make a nice advert, I’m sure.

Batman: Arkham City – Review

I’ve had some nice responses/hits for my Assassin’s Creed reviews, (here, here and here,) so I thought I’d copy a few more reviews across from my account on Dooyoo.co.uk for you. Batman: Arkham Asylum was one of my favourite games in 2009, I snapped up the sequel immediately. Here’s what I thought of it…

BatmanCatwomanArkhamCityBatman: Arkham Asylum was something of a surprise hit back in 2009. Developed by little known studio, Rocksteady, the game managed to combine original gameplay with a very authentic interpretation of DC Comics’ darkest hero into one of the finest games produced this generation. A sequel was inevitable, and when the first whispers of Arkham City started to appear people began to wonder if Rocksteady could make lightning strike twice. The final game is here now and we can see how well it lives up to its predecessor.

Arkham City picks up loosely where Asylum closed with a large section of Gotham City fenced off and turned into an open prison for all the thugs and crazies that make up Batman’s rogue’s gallery. Though, funnily enough, the neighbourhood also seems to house most of Gotham’s famous landmarks. The so-called Arkham City has become a political and legal nightmare which is brought to a head when Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne is arrested in the middle of a peaceful protest and locked up with the rest of the baddies. This is not entirely unwelcome however, as Batman can now investigate the city from the inside and find out exactly who’s pulling the strings behind the whole shady affair.

BatmanArkhamCitySkylineWithin Arkham City, you’ll also find some subplots involving a lot of the supporting cast from the Batman comics. The Joker has a major storyline that interweaves with the overall plot which is tied to the plot of the first game, but you’ll also see some faces we missed last time. The game features are great take on both the Penguin and Mister Freeze, you’ll also spend a lot of time solving the Riddler’s puzzles once more. Each of the characters feel like they were written and designed by people who read and love the Batman comics. For anyone familiar with the comics, it’s very much like returning to that world of plot twists and interlocking characters, and it’s nice to see a Batman game that takes this source as its inspirations and not the films or cartoons.

ArkhamCityJokerThe game has made some changes from Arkham Asylum. Where the first was a tightly scripted affair, walking you through the Asylum building by building, Arkham City is an open world game. You are free to make your way around the city as you please, but the story will guide you to various locations such as the old police station or the abandoned steal mill. These sections are more tightly controlled and feel much more like the previous game. This creates a nice balance between the exploration sections that let you really feel like a superhero, and the more plot driven moments that give the game a stronger sense of narrative. One of Arkham’s Asylum’s biggest strengths was the feeling of authorship, of being guided through a really well constructed story. This is a double edge sword however, as the game occasionally felt on-rails and restricted. In Arkham City, the balancing of these two factors does have the consequence that the story feels like it has been placed on the back burner a little. The effect when you finish the game is a little less grand, the whole experience less gripping, but it feels necessary. A sequel could not have returned to the setting of the first game, nor performed the same tricks in a similarly structured location. It’s a step forward, but a little is lost in the process. Still, Rocksteady do a lot with their transition to open world. There is a lot to find in the game, ranging from in-jokes and trivia for comics fans, to whole sideplots you might not discover until you’ve completed the main game.

ArkhamCityPenguinThe combat system returns, with very few tweaks, from the first game. This is easily one of the best fighting styles in games at the moment and the gameplay is so strong that the game is comfortable making set pieces entirely around one of Batman’s martial arts battles. Essentially combat is divided into only two controls, Attack and Counter with more complex moves arriving later in the game. The goal is not to unleashed complicated attacks on enemies, but to fight multiple opponents gracefully. Moving from next to next without getting hit yourself. It has to be played to be understood really, but it remains one of the series’ best features.
Also returning are the stealth sections. These take the form of rooms or locations patrolled by prisoners with serious weaponry. These fights are generally impossible to win when attacked head on, instead you are required to pick off opponents one by one using stealth attacks. The combination of the flowing martial arts sections and the slow stealth rooms really add to the feel of being Batman that make these games so unique.

ArkhamCityFreezeWhere things have changed from the previous game, they have mostly changed for the better. Batman is equipped with “Detective Vision,” a sort of x-ray vision, computer mode that highlights enemies and strategic objects. In the previous game, this was criticised as having no restrictions. It would be too easy to simply leave it on permanently and play the game with super-sight. Arkham City however places clever restrictions on this that feel natural. Essentially, while the new detective vision highlights enemies and weapons, it obscures the environment somewhat. Leaving it on all the time will make it significantly harder to discern the room’s details further away. You also can’t view other directional info with detective vision enabled. This forces you to be more tactical and is a definite improvement.

Most of the gadgets from the first game return, with many of them unlocked from the start of much earlier in the game. There are even a few new ones. The game adopts the Legend of Zelda model, and uses the gadget progression model to lock you out of certain places earlier in the game, keeping you moving through the story to explore further. You can use the in combat also, but they’re mostly superfluous and unless you’re trying to get your trophies/achievements, you’ll probably never use them.

Arkham City is a definite step forward from Arkham Asylum. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is better in every way. It is an excellent game, but Asylum offers a more tightly scripted experience that moves from scene to scene with precision and timing. City looses a lot of that by going open world, but what it gains in return is a sense of forward momentum, a real reason to play the sequel. Most importantly, Batman: Arkham City is not a game to be overlooked by those who aren’t necessarily Batman fans. It’s a really great game that would appeal to all kinds of players.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – Review

Once again I’m reposting one of my Assassin’s Creed reviews. As with my review of the first and second games, this was originally posted on Dooyoo.co.uk and lingered there long forgotten until I decided to ressucitate them here. Rereading these reviews has got me thinking about the storytelling elements in these games and I’m considering writing some of these thoughts up as a blog post. We’ll see. This time I am discussing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, probably my favourite in the series, but my response at the time was a bit more muted. Enjoy!

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood Cover It is rare that gamers are treated to a franchise as original or well developed as Assassin’s Creed. Arriving on consoles in 2007, the series has manifested in six incarnations on four different systems and each time it has surpassed expectation. The world Ubisoft Montreal are building is fleshed out with every release while the story becomes more captivating without become incomprehensible. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is probably the finest entry in the series so far.

For all the newcomers, Assassin’s Creed is a cross between period adventure and futuristic science fiction. Each entry follows the journey of Desmond Miles, a drifter from the not too distant future. A man with a distinctive pedigree, Desmond is the latest in a long line of significant, historical assassins. Using a device known as the Animus, he is reliving the memories of his ancestors, searching for clues to a puzzle unfolding in his own time. Eventually both Desmond and the player will discover an ancient conflict between the Assassin’s Order and the Knight’s Templars, each side fighting since the crusades over some oddly anachronistic technology. It’s a compelling setup that allows the series to approach both narrative and gameplay in ways quite different to many modern games.

Ezio Air AssassinationBrotherhood presents itself as an epilogue to Assassin’s Creed II. Once again we follow Desmond’s renaissance ancestor, Ezio Auditore and return to the rooftops of 15th Century Italy. Where Assassin’s Creed II turned some significant pages in the series’ overall story, Brotherhood really is a case of “what happened next?” As Assassin’s Creed II was drawing to a close, the game strongly hinted that Ezio’s role in larger events was finished. Brotherhood supports this with a story that is more concerned with Ezio’s personal struggles and the time he is confined to. Coming into conflict with Cesare Borgia leads to the destruction of his home and a revolution in Rome, while there are still secrets to uncover that will affect Desmond’s future, it basically amounts to little more than “where did Ezio leave the keys?” While the contribution to the series narrative is minimal, within Ezio’s life the game deals with much larger things; tasking you with bringing about the downfall of an entire city. Ezio himself has grown as a character. Much older than when we first joined him, he seems somewhat weary of his life in charge of the Assassin’s. A greater sense of responsibility has replaced his recklessness and while it’s a somewhat cliché development, it’s still a rewarding feeling to watch a familiar character develop. While the contribution to the series narrative is minimal, within Ezio’s life the game deals with much larger things; tasking you with bringing about the downfall of an entire city.

Ezio Climbing in RomeSeries regulars will find themselves to be on familiar territory here. Many of the series’ fundamentals remain totally unchanged and you will still spend most of your time leaping from rooftops, dodging guards and sneaking into buildings to chase down your target. It feels identical to Assassin’s Creed II and rarely breaks from your expectations in this respect. As before, the series is largely centred around climbing and free running. This is fairly simple to perform, holding down a couple of buttons puts you in free run mode. Run at a wall and you’ll climb it. In the past the series has taken some criticism for this control method, the suggestion being that it removes control from the player. Rather, it is about emphasising a different form of control. The player doesn’t necessarily tell the character when to jump, however the player does find the next ledge or foothold, tracking the right path up or down. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but it doesn’t bother me. Where Brotherhood branches out in new directions is in your gradual domination of Rome. Unlike previous games in the series, you are largely confined to Rome here. This isn’t too much of a restriction as Rome is significantly larger than any of the cities in previous games, however it does change the gameplay somewhat. Your long term goal is to remove Borgia influence from the city, this is done by destroying Borgia landmarks. After this is done you can the purchase businesses and beauty spots in these areas. This will provide you with an income, useful for purchasing assassin’s supplies but also creates areas in the city that are a little like safe zones where allies congregate.

Brotherhood, as the title suggests, also lets you take a little of the Assassin’s burden off your shoulders. As in all previous Assassin’s Creed titles, occasions will arise when you can save some oppressed townsfolk from harassment. Doing so will recruit the individual to your cause and give you backup in tricky situations. You can call in around five assassins at a time, useful if you’re heavily outnumbered or need a distraction. You can also assign them to assassinate specific targets, a handy option if you’re having trouble reaching a victim. Between your own escapades you can send the recruits on missions around the world for the assassins. Here they will help turn the tide against templars around the world while you sit back and collect the loot at the end. The benefit to this (aside from cash) is that your assassin’s will strengthen up and provide much better support the next time you call them in to back you up. The combination of recruiting civilians and buying up the businesses gives Brotherhood a juicy subversive feel. At times you really feel as though you’re building an army and spreading influence. It’s not perfect and I’d love to see it tackled a little more organically, fluid amounts of guards and way of taking territories based on influence and enemy strength would make it feel a lot less like risk. However, it’s a hard feeling to cultivate in a game and works well as an extension to Assassin’s Creed II.

Desmond in BrotherhoodPeriodically the game will take you out of Ezio’s life and plant you in the future. The future is a lot more compelling this time around and its nice to see Desmond and the modern assassin’s taking more action. The story is allowed to build up a lot more than normal and you get the feeling that Ubisoft are setting the stage for an Assassin’s Creed title that involves a lot less animus. When the inevitable flagship of Assassin’s Creed III sails along it’ll be interesting to see if they can bring the series to a natural, satisfying close.

One area I can find no fault is in the graphics. While I would expect no less from this series, it is one of the most stunning games I’ve seen since Assassin’s Creed II. This is partly because a large amount of effort has gone into producing detailed designs and rendering them well, partly due to style. The game reproduces renaissance architecture and then lets you climb all over it. It’s stunning to climb to the top of the tallest building in Rome and just look around. You can see for miles and it’s genuinely breathtaking. Something few games can claim.

Lastly, I suppose I should take a minute to mention multiplayer. As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, I don’t much care for multiplayer so I’m not the best person to judge, but I did enjoy it. While I didn’t spend much more than a week with Brotherhood’s multiplayer, it was a fun week. The game essentially asks you to choose a disguise, you will then be placed in a segment of town with various other players. A target will be randomly selected and you must track down that target, who will no doubt look like a lot of the civilians hanging around, and assassinate them. Meanwhile someone else out there will be tracking you down. I didn’t stick with it because after my one week, I felt I’d seen everything there was to see. But then that’s how I feel about all multiplayer so don’t let it put you off. It was fun, original and clever; it even contributed to the plot mildly. It’s definitely worth a look if multiplayer is your thing.

Brotherhood is not a perfect game by any means. Its biggest shortcoming is that it remains, at best, an expansion to Assassin’s Creed II. In its defense, it is huge, but with all that extra content it does so little. The building of an underground resistance is absolutely enthralling and I’d have loved to see more done with it but I suppose we can’t get everything. It’s absolutely beautiful, as usual, and the voice acting and writing is all to a good quality. It delivers what it promises, more Assassin’s Creed II, and I would argue that’s worth the price. Just don’t expect a revolution.

Assassin’s Creed II: Review

I’m currently playing through Assassin’s Creed III which arrived as a very well thought out present from Santa. It’s not  a bad game, but it has got me thinking about the highs and lows of the series so far. I posted my review of the first Assassin’s Creed a few weeks ago and had some nice feedback, so I thought I’d share my review for the sequel. As with the first review, this was originally written for Dooyoo.co.uk in 2010, and I’d like to say my writing has improved a little since then. My opinions haven’t changed however, so here they are.

Assassin's Creed IIAssassin’s Creed II

If I were running my own little award ceremony for video games, Assassin’s Creed II would have to be a strong contender in the “Most satisfying creative development in a sequel” category… it would also probably be the only contender.

In my review of the first game I praised it highly for being an original, interesting game that had a strong sense of being developed by invested and enthusiastic developers. While it had flaws aplenty, it never felt lazy or cheap and it earnt a lot of respect from me on that basis. Assassin’s Creed II continues down that path excellently while really taking time to correct some of the flaws of the first game. The final product is a game with great characters, an entertaining story and unique, addictive gameplay. Because of this it is easily one of 2009’s best titles.

The games framing narrative takes place in a future where protagonist, Desmond, is using a device known as an animus to relive the memories of his ancestors. While the first game placed you in control of 12th century assassin Altair, the latest outing sees you controlling renaissance Italian, Ezio. Part of the noble Auditore family, Ezio moves from one iconic city to another, fighting against a sinister conspiracy. The Knight’s Templars return as adversaries though the story is significantly more exciting this time around.

Ezio Diving Assassin's Creed IIImmediately Assassin’s Creed II benefits from a more interesting setting. The game will take you through cities such as Florence, Venice and Rome and its free climbing gameplay allows you to scale reproductions of some of the most fascinating and beautiful buildings in the world. Coupled with some truly beautiful graphics, the game is almost as inspiring as the cities themselves and it is a joy to look at and a joy to play through. In this world is a collections of characters ripped straight from the memoirs of Casanova as well as real life figures such as Leonardo DaVinci and the infamous DePazzi. The renaissance is not a common setting for a video game but it works excellently and it is one more way in which this game works to define its genre.

Exploring this world is made a little easier this time around with quick travel spots letting you jump back to previous cities, though you can always take a long journey by horse if you’re patient. Smaller towns and settlements are scattered all around and exploring every region would take a long time. Townspeople, thieves, courtesans and messengers populate every city, everyone has their jobs to do and they’ll get on with their lives while you do your thing. It’s wonderful to feel like you’re exploring a living, breathing world and the game accomplishes this moreso than any other.

As before the main thrust of your goals involves hunting down targets for assassination. This time around there is more variety to your missions and more flexibility in accomplishing them. It’s nice to see a game in which failure to complete a mission a certain way will not force you to try again, most of time you need only achieve the ultimate goal. On top of this there are a variety of messenger missions, side quests and collectables. The repetitiveness of the first game is gone and forgotten.

Assassin’s Creed II is my favourite game of the year, I would recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in action games.

Assassin’s Creed: Review

I know I don’t normally talk about video games on this blog much, but with Assassin’s Creed III on my shopping list I’ve been replaying one of my favourite franchises. I originally wrote this review of the first Assassin’s Creed for product review site Dooyoo a while ago, and I thought I’d repost it here. 

Altair Assassin's Creed coverI have a lot of respect for Assassin’s Creed, a game that is far from perfect and yet has been written and designed with originality, care and more than just the cynical desire to shift the product to consumers. While it suffers from the occasional poor decision, there is no sense of haste about it. I never felt shortchanged by the game even when faced with the flaws. Its positives outweigh its negatives and it remains a title I would gladly recommend.

Promoted as a period piece and action title; Assassin’s Creed is actually a sophisticated science fiction tale. The player takes the role of Desmond, a bartender from the not-too-distant future. He is kidnapped by a sinister corporation and thrust into a machine known as the “animus.” This miracle of modern engineering is a DNA analyser, capable of picking out the memories of the user’s ancestors and representing them as a form of virtual reality. From here the game splits into two threads, the exploits of kidnapped Desmond in the future and the adventures of his long forgotten ancestor, Altair. Set during the crusades, Altair is a fully trained assassin of a secret order. Waging a secret war against the Knight’s Templars, Altair must investigate different cities in the Holy Land, kill corrupt officials and generally snoop, sneak and stab. As the narrative unfurls, Desmond uncovers connections between Altair’s investigation in the past and his own kidnapping. It’s a story that serves not only as an original and interesting backdrop to the main game but serves as a setup up for tutorials and in game instructions.

The concept of the animus also relates to Assassin’s Creed’s style of gameplay. Early on it is explained that the animus works on a “puppeteering” concept. This influences how you control Altair, providing him more with instructions to follow than control his every movement specifically. While the player isn’t detached from control, you are not expected to perfectly judge ever jump and climb. Control systems such as the “free-running” mode allow you to merely direct Altair towards obstacles and allow him to traverse them. It’s a mechanic that is new and has the benefit of allow the player to spend less time hammering buttons but does occasionally create a feeling of distance between the player and the character. However, it does create a more flexible, fluid climbing and running effect which is hard to replicate.

Altair is placed inside an open world reconstruction of the mediaeval middle-east. He must take a horse from city to city, ride the road to Damascus and stop occasionally at towers and castles to survey his surroundings, filling out his map. It has a good feeling for an open world game and solid graphics supporting the setting. At times the surroundings can be quite impressive and it’s nice to feel a part of Altair’s world. Gameplay takes you from city to city to perform tasks with each city having a nice range of differences in occupants, streets, styles. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the game.

However, where the game does fall short is undoubtably in mission variety. Most goals in the game are largely similar and require a combination of tedious, repetitive actions such as pick-pocketing or overhearing. These eventually lead you to a target to kill and the mission is over. The only real obstacle to this is the guards roaming around every corner. Far to sensitive, they will chase you down for so little as running in the street and can be torment to escape from when you’re really under pressure. They can swarm and outnumber you far too easily and it is often a frustrating exercise escaping them. Beyond the missions there is far too little to do besides explore the holy land, this gets boring quickly and at times the free-roaming world of Assassin’s Creed feels a little wasted. A more dynamic range of characters, locations and activities would really have turned this from a good game into and excellent one.

From a technical standpoint, Assassin’s Creed is quite reasonable. Released at a time when multiplatform games tended to go a bit limp on the PS3, this title has quite pleasing results. Graphics are clean and clear with no glaring flaws, the look suits the game and it runs smoothly for the most. The frame rate can take a bit of a knock when high up, surveying large areas of the world but otherwise it’s usually solid. The PS3 version features Quincunx Anti-Aliasing, unlike the multi-sample Anti-Aliasing of the 360 version. This does a great job of smoothing out the jagged edges, creating a cleaner picture, but Quincunx does tend too smudge textures a bit. This gives the game a soft focus look that some have been known to object to strongly. However, the PS3’s anti-aliasing performance isn’t brilliant and many developers resort to using Quincunx which is easier to implement. It’s infinitely better than shipping a game with no anti-aliasing (something that is becoming more common, unfortunately) and the soft focus look is a lot harder to notice than jagged edges everywhere, the overall effect is a game with a polished, professional look that the developers should be proud of.

Assassin’s Creed is not a perfect game, it is however and original game. In terms of storytelling it is a pleasurable, entertaining experience and it tries new things. In a time when the industry is clogged with mindless tat and endless sequels, Assassin’s Creed is the kind of game deserving of attention despite its flaws.