Overwatch Review – PS4

Overwatch Review – PS4

Overwatch is a refreshing example of high production values and solid gameplay overcoming traditional expectations of what a big budget game should be. It features no in-game narrative, no single player worth mentioning, and aside from its large cast of characters, a relatively sparse amount of content, but it makes up for it with focus and a level of polish that makes you forget you’re playing the same selection of modes and maps over and over again. Even when you do notice, you’re having so much fun it’s not really an issue.

While fundamentally a multiplayer shooter, it borrows liberally from MOBAs, delivering an array of distinct characters that all feel unique and occasionally genre-breaking. Shooter fans will feel at home with gunslingers like McCree or Soldier 76, but might find ninja robot Genji or mad-bomber Junkrat to be a bit of an adjustment. There’s enough variety that most players will find a play style that suits them, and despite this range of approaches, balancing feels finely tuned and appropriate. Each character comes with a unique weapon, special skills, and a powerful ultimate attack, but no character has the best of everything; often you’re forced to choose between a weapon you really like and a devastating ultimate, but it always feels like a willing concession, not a compromise.

Lucio doing special attack

A big part of the fun comes not just from trying new skills, but after each death you’re treated to seeing exactly how someone downed you. It’s good for stealing strategies, as well as learning which skills you want to try next. Even after you’ve been playing a while it’s possible to see someone do something you hadn’t even thought of, sending you scurrying to the character select screen to give it a go. The game rewards this by incentivising all skills, not just kills. Handling objectives, healing damage, eve blocking damage, are all considered worthy of score at the end of the game, and as such the community at large seems less fixated on maintaining their Kill / Death ratio and actually on switching it up and having fun. There’s an experimental camaraderie to it all, and this cycle of charging ultimate attacks, forcing your enemies to change character, and changing your own in response, keeps every game a revolving door of changing tactics that can provide endless variety. Almost.

All this takes place in a series of fifteen maps that represent futuristic interpretations of real world cities, and seem ripped right out of a Pixar movie. They play a massive part in setting the scene, with little consistent details popping up over and over like hidden machinery, hover cars, and skyscrapers towering over historical buildings, hinting at a deeper lore, Blizzard has hidden away in short films and other merchandise. Each does a great job of showing off how colourful the game is, and disguising how samey the game modes can be. It’s great to zip up to the roof of a Buddhist temple and pick enemies out from below, or surprise someone from behind the British postbox, but most of the maps are basically linear zig-zag paths between two bases. Even the game modes are largely indistinguishable from one another, with heavy objective based modes that see you claiming and reclaiming control points until time runs down.

Reaper being Badass

Overwatch is the most fun I’ve had with an online shooter in years, but it’s hard to shake the feeling the content is a little thin on the ground. The character roster is huge and will take hours to play through properly, but once you’ve picked a character you can play most of the modes and maps in less than a day. The lack of single player or story don’t hurt a game that feels so well developed for multiplayer, but it does make it feel, on consoles at least, a little expensive compared to other big budget games offering the whole package. And yet, the experience is so addictive, and so well designed that it’s hard to really feel this complaints while you’re in the game, all you want to do is jump in for one more round.

8/10

Overwatch is a solid, and compelling multiplayer game that hides a sparse amount of content behind a huge roster of characters. It’s great fun and will keep you coming back for more, but after a few hours you’ll have seen everything there is, even if you’re still having a great time. 

All Amazing – The Amazing Spider-Man #3: Review

This is part 3 of my quest to read and review every issue of The Amazing Spider-Man from start to finish, the first two issues were hit and miss, but this time we’re introduced to a really famous foe.


The Amazing Spider-Man #3

In the first couple of issues of Amazing Spider-Man, we’ve really seen Peter Parker take shape from a slightly goofy, classic nerd archetype to more of the wise-cracking, down trodden hero we’ve come to know and love. Issue 3 actually takes a lot of the ideas Stan Lee and Steve Ditko have been working through, and puts them together into the first really great book of the run. It’s probably as good as anything we’ll see for the next few years too, and most of this success is down to Doctor Octopus.

Spider-Man fights crime

As the book opens we find a more confident Spider-Man taking down cheap thugs with ease. In keeping with Parker’s penchant for bringing his biggest problems down on himself, he starts to wish he could actually go up against a villain with a bit more oomph, which kicks off Doc’ Ock’s origin story.

He’s pretty complete here too; a brilliant scientist who conducts research on nuclear power with the aid of four robotic arms, he goes mad after an accident damages his brain and fuses the arms to his body. He becomes fixated on using his new appendages to finish his research, holding a hospital full of staff hostage while he does it.

Otto Octavius is a goofy concept for a character but he’s pure gold here. They enjoy the fun of the character completely, but there’s a sadness to him too; his brilliance is completely destroyed by his madness and power but he still isn’t driven by greed or self interest. He wants to complete his work. Spidey doesn’t fall short in the drama too, and after getting soundly thrashed by Octavius the first time they fight, we see the first of Peter Parker’s many doubting moments. He’s convinced he can’t defeat Doctor Octopus, until Johnny Storm gives a pep talk to the local school and Peter decides to get back on the horse. We also see a little of the classic Parker genius, as he synthesises a new chemical to help him out by fusing Doc’ Ock’s arms together. It doesn’t go quite to plan, but he’s already using that scientific genius to get the job done.

Doc Ock and Spider-Man's first fight

The story is full of tropes we’d revisit in this book for years to come, but it pulls it off so earnestly here it’s hard not to like it. Peter’s on-again, off-again, love affair with his crimefighting career begins here, but we also believe his pain. He really hasn’t fought a villain like this before, and when he loses there’s nobody he can turn to for support. Octavius himself is something new for the book too. Sure, after the accident he gets a little cliche, but there’s never any question of his brilliance, or his capabilities. The Vulture, the Tinkerer, and The Chameleon were all great villains, but they were usually brought down by some failing or underestimating of the hero. Doctor Octopus isn’t like that, he’s a passionate scientist and a strategic thinker. He isn’t beaten until Spider-Man ups his game.

Peter’s personal life takes a back seat here again, although we do see some more of Jameson and Aunt May. The cast of supporting characters is being reinforced bit by bit, but the book is definitely taking a back seat to the villains. It’s rare to see an early run of a book so full of familiar faces, with every major villain faced so far still a player in the current Marvel universe.  This is a good era for the company, and it’s not hard to see why. They really set up a tone and stuck to it. No wonder forty years later, Sam Raimi didn’t see the need to change much.

Peter Parker inspired by Human Torch's speech

Probably my favourite feature of these early books is Spider-Man as the growing hero. This isn’t a perfect, generic, costumed avenger archetype. It’s a character who is new to the job, knows he isn’t one of the big fish yet, and makes mistakes. He beats The Human Torch to the punch in the story, but he makes it clear he’s still a minor player compared to the Fantastic Four, and that’s something that will stick with Spider-Man as the years go by. It’s something DC have got wrong over and over with Batman, insisting that because he’s a major player on store shelves, he needs to be a top-dog in the DCU continuity too, and it’s so much less interesting than a character who’s popular in fiction, but less well liked in his own reality.

These books continue to be fantastic, and hopefully it’s as good next time when we meet The Sandman!

Why I Bought Vanilla Destiny, and Why I Don’t Regret it.

I was never really sold on Destiny.

It’s a personal thing, I guess; I never loved online shooters. I play ’em today, sure, Battlefront, Overwatch… Destiny, but it’s a pretty recent development. Online games only started to resonate with me when they adopted more narrative and structural elements the modes fresh, and I was pretty behind the times. I can play a few rounds of Deathmatch but it was only Battlefront’s Walker Assault mode last year that sold me on the concept. (Say what you like about the lack of a campaign but when those AT-ATs drop, you really feel the Star Wars.) Overwatch does the same, putting gameplay front and centre but building narrative into the environment; multiplayer shooters really upped their game while I wasn’t looking.

Destiny Moon Horizon

When it launched most folks kept describing Destiny was “an MMO… sort of.” So I skipped it; as time went on however, it never fully fell off my radar. The game was starting to sound pretty good too, my buddy (and podcast co-host) Jon would entice me with stories of a complex but subtly told narrative, story based events and online matches seamlessly integrated into an MMO style structure, and shooting that was somewhere between Halo and Borderlands.

I wanted in, but I hit my next hurdle.

By the time I was really interested, The Taken King expansion was out; it looked great, but the changes it made to the game were considered sweeping and transformative. Word was it just wasn’t worth getting the game without it, and bundles including The Taken King replaced the main game on the PSN store; the price went back to a full RRP game. Used copies were cheaper, of course, but I’d still be without the DLC and the word was The Taken King updates had actually taken the radical step of removing content from vanilla players all together. I was stuck.

I’d like to remind you of something you don’t see in gaming press that often. Games are expensive, often unreasonably so. I have my channel, my podcast, and my blog; I play a lot of games, but I’m not an industry insider. I buy the vast majority of my games, and I’m living on a youtuber’s budget. Truth is, DLC or otherwise, I couldn’t jump in on the budget The Taken King wanted. I skipped it, and as they have continued releasing expansions regularly enough to keep a bundle on the store at new-game price, Destiny’s business model has kept me from ever being able to buy the game in the form they want me to. As much as I was interested, I can’t justify paying £60 for a game I might not like.

The Tower in Destiny

So I went to a used game store and bought a vanilla disc for £5. I figured DLC be damned, the tiny demo was long gone from the store, and whatever content was still there would give me something to go it. It was one of the best gaming decisions I ever made. If you haven’t played it, I think you should do the same.

I like Destiny. I don’t know how much I’d be liking it if I paid full price, but I’m enjoying the base game immensely. In fact, it might be the most fun I’ve had with a multiplayer game in years, and I’m playing it completely solo, totally out of date, and happily from my DLC free disc. This isn’t going to be a path that would work for everybody, if you’re primarily in it for the multiplayer you’ll be disappointed. Most other players are higher level than me, and I’m locked out of a good two thirds of the content, but what I can do is play through the same story new players did back in the day, and get a feel for it without putting down a huge sum of money. I can still jump in with other players if I want to, and despite the fact that the DLC I’m locked off from is right there on the map, I don’t feel like I’m getting a crippled experience. I’m playing through a lot of the early missions again with a friend now, and we”re both experience the same surprised satisfaction. Destiny’s standalone disc is dirt cheap because they’ve done such a great job sell the DLC that nobody wants it, and yet there’s a full fat, big budget game in here that is still perfectly playable.

I still have issues with Destiny, I think the pricing model creates a situation where new players and old players both lose, I think the removal of content people paid for through updates is pretty crummy, and I think the hyping up of the DLC as essential (to the point of removing cheaper, older, base copies from sale) is quite misleading, but this is the surrounding business and doesn’t change the fact that the original package is actually great.

If I were putting the game out, at this point I’d probably just make the vanilla game free and get new players on board. As cheap as  used copies are, it couldn’t hurt, and the model works. I’m already seriously considering the DLC some time in the new year, and I’m a lot more positive about Destiny 2.

 

All Amazing – The Amazing Spider-Man #2: Review

Welcome to All Amazing, a series in which I review every issue of Marvel’s flagship title, The Amazing Spider-Man. Last time Spidey was all about the cash, today he does some real heroics both in and out of a sewer. 


The Amazing Spider-Man #2

Issue 2 of any book is a difficult task, you need to keep the momentum going from Issue 1 while offering something new to keep the readers hooked. Amazing #2 does a pretty good job of balancing out some of Issue #1’s weaknesses, while contributing two pretty significant villains to the Marvel universe, but the tone is still very episodic and comedic. Today this would be a parody comic, and yet it really feels pretty true to Spider-Man as he’ll go on. I think this is a stronger start than Issue #1, but it’s pretty goofy at times…

The Amazing Spider-Man Issue 2As before, the book is divided into two stories, with the first introducing readers to The Vulture. Here the character is a lot simpler than he’ll become, and he’s mostly played for laughs. A comical, bird themed thief who taunts the police with his intended target before swooping in and stealing the goods from underneath their noses. There’s something genuinely amusing in the sheer joy the old man takes from just being a good thief. At one point he tricks the police by popping up from the sewers instead of down from the sky, and then flies off down a particularly large sewer pipe to make his escape. The entire time he seems just thrilled to be the Vulture. I miss villains like this.Spider-Man Vulture sewers

 

It’s also fun to see Spidey go up against an actual super villain for the first time. This issue kicks Peter Parker off on his photojournalism career, and while trying to get the perfect shot of the crook, he gets roped in to some real heroics. He’s also developing more of the sense of humour and chatterbox nature we’ll come to know. It’s nice to see that Peter is still a new hero here too, who is still learning how to fit his life and crime fighting career together. When his first run-in doesn’t go quite to plan, he takes time to rethink his approach and really nail the complexities of being a photographer and superhero at the same time.

Despite the Vulture, the second story is actually the goofier of the two, and introduces perhaps the weirdest origin story to an established character. While picking up a clock from a very cheap repair store, Peter is introduced to The Tinkerer, a modest little man who just happens to set off his spider-sense. Later he figures out that The Tinkerer has been hiding cameras in the clocks to spy on crucial targets around the city. He goes to confront the inventor, only to find that The Tinkerer is an alien spy who’s planning on taking over the world. He beats the crap out of them and they leave in their spaceship, and for some reason decide never to return.

Amazing spider-Man issue 2 Tinkerer

This is such a goofy plot and even when it’s obviously hamming it up it never quite works. The Tinkerer has become such a mainstay in the Marvel universe, and I’m sure the origin has been retconned today, but his first appearance as a little green man from space was totally absurd. Worse still, Spider-Man spends quite some time in this story trapped in giant snowglobe, masterminding an escape so specific and convenient that those Adam West Batman gags start to seem a whole lot more accurate.

I was also pretty intrigued by how undeveloped the Spider-Sense is here, it responds less to danger and more to general paranoia and ‘whatever-Peter-needs-to-know-right-now’ moments. It’s pretty early for the character so some development is to be expected, but it’s occasionally a little too convenient here.

Special mention goes to the first example I could find of Spider-Man actually making a joke. It was terrible.

Issue 2 escape from aliens

Final Thoughts

All in all, Issue #2 is stronger than the first. We still see a lot of Peter’s personal life, but he gets the chance to really be a hero here. The tone is still pure comedy, but the art is fun and nostalgia carries you through.  The second story looks great, but not once does the Vulture look threatening or exciting. Still, the classic characters are coming fast and thick, and it’s pretty much the Spider-Man we know and love already. Next week, Doctor Octopus!

VR Works, and I’m as surprised as anyone about that.

PSVR Shark AttackBefore I bought my Playstation VR I had one burning question about the tech l that I just couldn’t find an answer to. I’d scour reviews, watch play throughs, read previews, everything, but they were really sparse on details relating to my specific question…

Does VR Really Work?

The problem is this means a different things to different people. Does the 3D look real? Is the head tracking responsive? Are the games fun? All little pieces of the experience that come together for the final effect. What I wanted to know was more than that. I wanted to know if the fundamental promise of VR, that you will feel like you’re actually their in the game, was hype or reality.

This is a claim I’ve been skeptical of since 3D TV spectacularly failed to impress me and flopped completely in the games market, but the hype has been very similar. You will feel like the game is really there in the living room with you. With 3D I didn’t, and so I put off diving in to the VR for the longest time because of that. I even made a little video about why I was pretty sure VR wasn’t going to be the next big thing, citing the discomfort and artifice of 3D displays as a major concern. I still stand by a lot I said in that video, VR is expensive and cumbersome and won’t be replacing the TV any time soon.

The big question still remained, however. In ideal circumstances, if you could afford one of the damn things and fired up the right game, were the promises true? It seemed the only way to find out was to actually try one out myself. (And since I refuse to pay GAME just to demo a unit, there was only one way to get my hands on one.) I scoured my shelves for long unplayed games and took a wheelbarrow of old discs down to my local Trade-In store and exchanged it all for a PSVR headset.

 

And I’m so glad I did.

If you’re like me, and you found the same questions so completely unanswered by the press coverage of VR, let me help you out. The basic promise of VR is, at least by this headset, fulfilled. When the game is right and the headset is set up correctly you genuinely feel like you exist inside the game. It is effective, exciting, and one of the first genuinely new developments in how games are played for years.

PSVR London Heist GameI don’t want to get too carried away here, VR still has a lot of hurdles for the typical consumer. The resolution is low, the headset are bulky, the cables are a pain; it’ll all work much better when they become wireless, but right now it’s crazy how well the tech works on limited technology. Results vary from game to game. Invasion, a short cartoon in VR, was the first piece of software I booted up and when the credits rolled I was already contemplating packing the bits up and taking it back to the store. Interaction was limited to little more than 360 degree video with 3D effects and I never once felt like I was really there. However the more games I played, the more other games blew that experience out of the water just by adding to the immersion in small ways.

PSVR London Heist GameBoth the Playstation VR Worlds disc and Sony’s packed in Demo disc do a fantastic job with this, featuring menus that place you in 3D space, capable of looking up and down, leaning in around the items you see in front of you, but more importantly they show virtual PS4 controllers that respond to your touch. The PSVR can use basic PS4 controllers for most interaction, and can track them really accurately via the lightbar on the front. This means the virtual controller turns and tilts just like the real one in your hand. This was the last push my brain needed to really believe I was what I was seeing. I had no hands, my mind quickly acknowledged and understood that they were totally invisible now, but my actions, the results of my physical behaviour were rendered there on screen perfectly. This, combined with the 3D and head tracking, seemed to be all my brain needed to calibrate for VR and buy the illusion completely.

The PSVR isn’t very high resolution, or even the most cutting edge VR tech on the market, and yet this simple combination of sensory illusions took me into the game completely. By the time I dropped into my first lengthy experience, Ocean Descent, I was as convinced as I could be while still sat on my office chair.

I could talk at length about sensory tricks. I’d like to, because they’re fascinating. But I’m not going to, I’m going to review more PSVR software in depth in the future and I’d like to save the details for later. I’m not even going to tell you to rush out and buy a VR, because the financial investment, the nausea, the potential discomfort… these are issues that matter and you need to weigh them up on your own. What I can do is answer the question I couldn’t find a good answer to.

Does VR feel real? Yeah, it really does.

It’s fiddly and some games are better than others, but when it’s right, you feel like you’re really in the game.

All Amazing – The Amazing Spider-Man #1: Review

This is a new series where I read and review every issue of Amazing Spider-Man, starting way back with issue 1 in 1963!


I love Spider-Man. Ever since the 90s Animated Series, he’s been one of my favourite characters in jam packed Superhero genre. It was through Spidey that I started to really get into comics when Ultimate Spider-Man hit the shelves, and Spider-Man 2099 was my first experience diving into comics from the archives. Now I’m setting off on a project I’ve wanted to do for a really long time; I’m going to read all of The Amazing Spider-Man, from the very first issue in 1963. This won’t give me the whole story as Marvel launched, The Spectacular Spider-Man, in 1972, but I’m going to focus on just one except when the story requires picking up a few issues elsewhere.

So, let’s get started!

The Amazing Spider-Man #1

Comic buffs will know that this issue is not the first appearance of our beloved Wall Crawler, who launched in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy a few months earlier. While his success hadn’t been enough to save that book, Marvel did have enough faith in the character to give him a series of his own. Amazing #1 begins with a short recap of this origin, before fleshing out who Peter Parker is, and what his story is really about. The cover promises us a hero like no other, and it’s true… while this issue does give us a a classic villain, and a crossover with The Fantastic Four, really this is all about Parker’s money troubles.

Amazing Spider-Man 1It’s split into two stories, the first explores the birth of Spider-Man’s troubles with the press. To help Aunt May pay the bills he agrees to do a live show as Spider-Man, but has a little trouble getting paid. In one great little scene, he insists the promoter write him a cheque made out to “Spider-Man” and is then shocked when the bank won’t cash it. They say Peter Parker is a genius but I suppose everyone has their off days.

He returns the next day to find that Newspaper Editor named J Jonah Jamesonhas been trashing him all over town. Weirdly, Jameson doesn’t seem to think Spider-Man is a criminal at this point, he seems more concerned that kids might copy him and hurt themselves. This is apparently enough to send the city into an Anti-Spidey frenzy and he has to find money elsewhere. Even after he rescues Jameson’s son from certain death in a failed rocket launch, Jameson doesn’t seem interested in cutting Spidey a break. Some things never change.

The other story is the famous crossover from the cover, Spider-Man’s meeting with The Fantastic Four. This is a beat briefer than the cover implies, with the Richards clan basically shipped in to add a bit of credibility to the new character. Spider-Man invades their tower and promptly humiliates them all, insists on joining the Fantastic Four so he can get paid, and when they tell him they’re a non-profit organisation, leaves without even apologising for roughing them up. If you think Spider-Man seems a bit money hungry, later he meets The Chameleon who has deduced that Spider-Man must be hard up for cash, lures him into a really obvious trap by promising him some sweet green, and then frames him for espionage. Early Spider-Man is blinded by the kerching.

Amazing #1 is both refreshing, and bizarre. It’s actually nice to see Spider-Man so completely rendered on the page right from the first issue. Here’s a teenage boy with a life, problems, and all these responsibilities that weigh heavily on him. The kid really can’t catch a break, and he wonders exactly why he’s so different to all those other heroes who just live the easy life. The problem is that his humour isn’t quite there yet. That constant, charming, geeky sense of humour we associate with Spider-Man is nowhere to be seen in this issue, and so Spider-Man just comes off as sort of grumpy. Even the sight of Aunt May pawning in the bling isn’t enough to stop Spidey seeming a bit mercenary at times, and yet it’s so charming. It’s early days yet, but here Spider-Man reads more like a funny book than an action comic, and yet it works. The character and the series will grow from here, but it’s so close already.

The art is a little rough around the edges, it obviously comes from the cheap years, but it’s also pretty impressive how final Spidey’s design is here. The whole look is basically complete, with only the retro armpit webs looking a bit out of place. Parker doesn’t look so much like we’ll come to know him, but everything else is so solid. It’s a great start to a book that’s going to do so well from Marvel in the years to come. It’s hard not to read it with a bit of a cheeky grin about it all.

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Amazing Spider-Man issue 1Uncle Ben’s death doesn’t quite play out as you’d expect. Here, there’s no indication he’s killed by a burglar Peter failed to stop earlier in the day. Peter just seems to blame himself for being too busy at the time. It doesn’t really work as a story, but they’ll really nail it down later.

No love interest. For a comic that was almost like a classic romance book during the late 60s, there’s no Felicia, no Gwen, no MJ. It’s weird to think of Peter Parker without romance, without family. It seems like such a big part of his character these days.

Spider-Man beats the entire Fantastic Four in his first solo issue. There’s lending credibility and then there’s humiliating your flagship characters.

In Conclusion

Amazing #1 is a lot of fun, the character’s almost fully formed right here, and the world Stan Lee is building won’t change much well into the 90s. Still, it’s a little weird to see Peter talking less about Power and Responsibility and more about those delicious, delicious Benjamins.

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