Saturday, 3 February 2018

The Legacy of the precursor platformer duo

Retroactive review: Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy

Platform tested: PlayStation 4
Release year: 2017
Original release: PlayStation 2 (2001)

Review: I remember that summer when the very first Jak and Daxter was showcased at the E3 expo in June 2001. I remember reading about it in a newspaper, highlighted as one of the games that grew out of the second wave of PlayStation 2 releases. Games built on more experienced software development for the PS2's complicated architecture. Finally developers began to become familiar with the hardware and left the bland launch line-up behind. From here on, the big PS2 titles just started rolling in. J&D was one of the first truly spectacular titles for the system. Developed by the people behind the successful Crash Bandicoot series on PS1, they had a legacy of platformers behind them and were finally going to give Super Mario 64 a worthy 3D platformer competitor for a new generation of consoles.

Sure, we'd had Crash trying his best on the limited 3D power of the PS1, thus being more 2D than 3D. Spyro the Dragon had attempted even more so, Sega Dreamcast's Sonic Adventure had kickstarted it on this new generation and Rare had done their share of 3D platformers on the N64, but still Super Mario 64 managed to be the perfect blueprint. For me, it's legacy and first time playthrough amazement has never really been surpassed and truly testifies how perfect and revolutionary SM64 was, but we're not here to speak about that game now. However, it has to be mentioned as a backdrop as there have been a couple of titles outside of Nintendo's own that have given SM64 a run for it's money and J&D is one of these. Perhaps the best attempt too.

J&D truly nails a colourful, cartoony and a Pixar-like artstyle, combined with lots of humour, to make a unique style of it's own. Artistically it works perfectly for the platformer genre and PS2 finally delivered the hardware needed to make that Pixar influence even more possible. Gone are the strict limitations of PS1 hardware for large 3D worlds and J&D utilises this to the fullest.

The worlds and levels are huge, with an incredible draw distance for it's time. Distant enemies, platforms, machinery and puzzles can be seen for miles. The open ended structure of the game allows the player to just run towards what he or she wants to explore next. I recall walking down to the beach the very first time I played it back in the early 2000's and just seeing tons of stuff I wanted to do far into the distance. I was really impressed back then by the rich visuals and beautiful artstyle. There's obviously a linearity to the levels being connected, but there's always an option to walk back and collect more stuff you missed the first time around.

J&D cleverly connects it's large areas by hiding loading and transitions with lifts, hoverbike rides or small paths leading from one visual styled area to the next. In fact, you can play the whole game without experiencing loading screens at all, it's an impressive feature for such and old game. I love the variety of the worlds you discover too; sandy beaches by the sea, snow covered mountains, an underwater city and a boiling, orange clad lava area. Each environment is truly memorable and bring out how diverse this game engine was. 

Having recently gone back to the game I was also was reminded that the game has a day and night cycle! It gives every level a chance to show itself in bright light, yellow sunsets and dark moonlit nights; just a treat when it comes to incredible lighting at the time it released. Very few games did realtime lighting at all when this game launched and to think it was combined so well, it makes the game world even more immersive when playing!

J&D plays incredibly well too, even today I had no problem controlling the game. It's fast, precise and fun. While I got frustrated at some of the grabbing mechanics, it feels unprecise and results in unfair and cheap deaths, the rest of the control system is great. It's kind of the ultimate test of time if the game holds up or not; does the game still control in a fashion that doesn't annoy or limit the player from performing the tasks needed or having fun. J&D controls just as well as modern platformers, it's joy to traverse the landscape. The balance between platforming and enemies is perfect too, unlike Ratchet &Clank overuse of enemy encounters, J&D relies much more on it's platform side. After all, that's what a platformer is about.

While the return to this PS2 classic release was a warm and welcome one, the PS4 port has it's issues. The most obvious is bad performance occurring frequently, we're talking lots of framerate drops. Sometimes they are so severe they actually hamper the gameplay, crowded scenes with lots of effects sets the player out of pace and makes controlling Jak a pain until it settles. It's sad to not see this fixed and a missed chance for a version that could easily run at a locked 60fps on such powerful hardware. The other letdown is the low resolution bump over the PS2 game, putting this at a measly 1024*768 resolution. While it's a clear visual boost from running the game with a PS2 on a HDTV, I would have liked a stronger visual boost to such an old game. It should easily have been a 1080p@60fps game.

J&D still stands as one of the best 3D platformers made in my opinion, between the groundbreaking and excellent Super Mario 64 and this game, nothing truly has engaged me as much in the 3D platform genre until perhaps Nintendo's own Mario games of recent years. While it may be visually dated for new and young gamers, it's still an experience I would recommend. Especially gamers from the 90's that missed it's initial launch should check this out. The gameplay and exploring is addictive and fun, it truly is one of the PS2's finest moments and should be remembered as such!



    Friday, 12 January 2018

    Back to the origins of assassinations

    Assassin's Creed Origins

    Platform tested: Xbox One X

    Review: There's been a Assassin's Creed break for two years now, following the rocky debut of their new engine in Unity and Syndicate. Both those games failed to impress the audience in new ways and Ubisoft felt the need to pull back and give the series a longer development cycle. Leaving the more modern times of revolutionary France and Victorian England behind, Origins is about going back to the series roots and finding out where it all began. This time around we are going way back in history, over 40 years before B.C. in fact, to the ancient Egypt. Have Ubisoft revolutionised the series after a short hiatus one wonders.

    Well, there's no doubt that this is a AC game. The distinct feeling when walking around, fighting or climbing is very classic for the series. The larger open world this time around reflects itself in the recreation of ancient Egypt where there are cities, but also vast areas of lush vegetation, endless deserts, huge mountains and large areas of water. There's less focus on a dense cityscape, and more about huge nature areas to explore. Not only are the enemy soldiers dangerous, but there's wildlife to consider too. Ubisoft has kind of ended up where they began with the first AC; deserts to roam and cities to discover in the middle east.

    In this adventure we follow the Egyptian medjay Bayek, a sort of mercenary, in his revengeful task to kill his son's murderers. Along the way he is accompanied by his wife Aya, both on a mission to kill all the people on their list of cruel and corrupt Egyptian leaders in their aim to also set Cleopatra on the throne again. The game is divided into land areas with famous cities and sites from the ancient times; including the pyramids and the lighthouse of Alexandria. The whole map is traversal, but the areas give a hint about which level you should be at before entering them.

    Origins relies heavily on leveling your character and equipment. I would say it's the closest to an RPG that the AC series has ever been, only without the magic side of that genre. Each level up grants you points to further enhance Bayeks abilities. There are ordinary, rare and legendary weapons to find, plus your armour and equipment can be upgraded with resources you find. This gives the player a purpose to take on side missions and go hunting for materials and animal skins required to craft equipment. I found this whole character leveling system really good, and the resources fairly easy to collect. it also helps that the combat feels satisfying, with proper hit detection and less scripted animations. Sword fights feel intense and the bow shooting is very satisfying, especially the first person bow with controllable arrows!

    One of the cooler new additions to the game is Senu, Bayeks pet eagle. At any time you can hit the eagle button and bring up a birds view as you control Senu from high above. He can scout for enemies, transports, animals, treasures and mission objectives. Each climb up to a high synchronisation point grants Senu better spotting abilities, a real neat feature. Flying around and taking in the sheer size of the environments is a really welcome addition to the game and fun one at that. It really makes the game engine shine, the sheer size and amount of detail from above is jaw dropping.

    Which brings me to Origins strongest point; it's incredible immersive world. I'm playing the game on Xbox One X and while the first part of the game feels a tad generic, it's when the game opens up and lets you explore it's vast and detailed world it amazes. The thickness of foliage, fields covered in thousands of flowers and strands of grass, tons of buildings, lakes, open seas, huge mountains and endless dunes of desert sand; just all come together and blow you away. It's truly a beautiful world to immerse yourself into. The sheer density of all the detail in such high resolution when playing it on the Xbox One X is incredible at times, every little corner of the world seems to be filled with detail. I fell in love with the Egypt setting.

    I found little I disliked strongly in Origins when it came to gameplay and a technical point of view, only a few small issues; the environments seem to have opened up so much that it's not really built for traversing it a high level above the ground with tons of connected buildings. Also the combat has a terrible lock-on mechanism that seems to target the enemy furthest away from you rather than the guy hitting at you, with an axe. As usual some side missions are boring and repetitive, but this is very common in RPG styled games anyway.

    No, Origins main problem is not the game itself, it's the storyline. It feels bland and non engaging. Bayek seems uninterested in the political changes that Aya cares for and wants Bayek to take part of. His only motivation is to avenge his sons killers, as such the main story with Cleopatra working her way to the throne seems trivial and sidelined. I felt Bayeks pain for his son, but I also felt his indifference towards the larger historical picture. Making the ending feel rushed too late into the game to tie itself with the whole Assassin's Creed main plotline.

    The build up of the actual secret organisation should have been a larger focus, much earlier in the game. It's sad to see a clear five star game, fall down to a four for me, but the story just brings the whole package down. It's just there with no motivation to take properly part in it, even Bayeks personal goal of revenge towards his sons killers is brought down with some unsatisfying ending cutscenes for their assassinations. I wanted to care for the story, but I didn't and the game didn't make me want to either.

    Origins is a warm and welcome return of the AC series after it's short two year hiatus, the gameplay is satisfying and it returns to some of the right design choices; the world is huge and stunningly recreates an ancient era. While it's perhaps not a revolution of any kind, it's an extremely polished AC experience this time around. Sad then, that the storyline is such a let down, but as a videogame alone it's a fantastic game. Newcomers to the series can easily drop in here and play too, it requires no prior knowledge of the lore and gameplay is probably the best of all the AC games.



        Wednesday, 3 January 2018

        Back to doing your duty in the war

        Call Of Duty: WWII

        Platform tested: Xbox One X

        Review: I've skipped two whole Call of Duty games of recent time, the shift from a more classic warfare to sci-fi settings have put me off in the long run. A great relief when COD WWII was announced then, Slegdehammer games have gone back to the "boots on the ground" warfare. To see people wanted this to happen can be reflected in the eager way Activision has advertised it as a "boots to the ground" COD game. It's been a long while since there's been a large triple A production of a second world war game. I was excited to get my hands on this game to say the least. Plus the game was enhanced for my new Xbox One X! 

        The main singleplayer story for WWII is simple; you follow a U.S. soldier from his landing at the bullet inferno that was the Normandie beach landing, all the way through Netherlands and France, finally reaching Nazi-Germany. It's a linear structure where each mission is set in a new location. Following the whole allied campaign into the depths of Germany is quite exciting, but fairly standard storyline for a game featuring this war. I really like that they've focused on a lot of nature locations this time, with warm and sunny french farmlands in the sun, to dark and cold woods near the borders of Germany. It's a nice departure from sci-fi settings.

        I must just make a footnote that my review is about the singleplayer, my playtime has not been enough to dig into the multiplayer. But the interactive battlefield hub as a menu for the multiplayer mode, the boots on the ground gameplay with traditional weapons and the large nazi-zombie coop mode gives way for a lot of value for money here. The singleplayer lifespan is a fairly okay length, but all the additional content in multiplayer and zombie mode make up for it. Anyway, lets dig into my singleplayer experience some more.

        The game is divided into a mission structure with cutscenes before and after, there's a lot of variety in each mission and a lengthy size to each. I loved seeing all the different locations along the way as I made progress through firefights in forests, villages and military fortifications along the way. A lot of the scenarios in the missions are based on famous WWII battles. There's also some variation going on with the gameplay too, tank missions are thrown in, sniping battles and a cool undercover stealth mission. The latter brings me back to fond memories of something similar in the old Medal of Honor games. While it's hardly reinventing the wheel, it's nice to have throwback to the more classic structure of WWII games from the past.

        While impressively depicting the d-day landing with it's beach and bunkers, WWII doesn't truly shine until the second mission and throughout. It's a beautiful game depicting the countrysides you pass through in France and Germany on your way to liberating Europe. Especially the foliage is impressive and the levels have a fairly open structure to them, although they sadly still rely on the classic "walk from A to B" structure. Everything looks so smooth in the solid 60fps framerate and in the super high resolution on my Xbox One X version, making everything look so free of jaggies and shimmering objects. WWII goes for a slightly more soft approach to it's picture quality, but I think it goes well with the more natural environments and setting of the second world war era. There's a ton of detail in the texture work with muddy and stony countryside paths looking absolutely amazing in sunsets and in the light of dark nights moon light. 

        Perhaps this pretty visual experience brings the sound impression to such a low for me. COD has always suffered from a tinny and bass-less sound, WWII continues this trend. It's like they just have added the sounds of the couple of soldiers next to you and throw in tank or airplane here an there as a background layer. It's sounds so thin, no rich sound picture with lots of background noise from guns, explosion and a heavy bass as you'd expect. The sound really puts the franchise a mile behind competition like the Battlefield series. I want heavy sounding guns, explosions with lots of bass and tons of background noise in my war games, not a tinny bb gun and a few sound channels on top!

        WWII has some other issues I wish to mention apart from the bad sound design. The actual structure of the game, while welcome to it's more old-school approach, feels scripted and linear. You are asked to go to a certain location, do a certain task, then move on and each event will trigger enemies attacking and so forth. It's like a old COD with a new coat of paint and luckily without the infinitive spawning of enemies. A sort of equipment management for the singleplayer would have been nice too, I'm stuck to getting a default setup for each mission and having to find and replace guns I prefer using on the battlefield. All in all, I would have perhaps liked a more dynamic battlefield, less linear level structures and perhaps longer battles where more of the environment could be destroyed. Would it also have been to much to ask for a coop possibility in the singeplayer too?

        After taking a futuristic approach for years, it's nice to see the Call of Duty franchise return to some actually historic events and more grounded gameplay. While I enjoyed the classic WWII approach to a game, it could have done with even more modernising in it's structure and level layout. I guess the COD franchise just isn't up fro taking huge chances. I enjoyed the impressive singleplayert playthough and it leaves me hoping that COD is going more back to it's roots from now on. I'd love a take on the Vietnam or Korean war for instance. WII is a solid shooter which maybe takes a little too safe and familiar path.



          + Plus points

          • Beautiful visuals in singleplayer at 60fps, with especially impsessive depiction of nature and foilage.
          • COD is back to "boots on the ground" tgameplay, finally.
          • For those delving into all three main modes; single, multi and zombie mode aree included, it's a solid package.

          - Minus points

          • Sound design is bad, weak weapon punch and very little environmental depth.
          • Very few innovative ideas going on, a standard and linear WW2 game.
          • Shortish singleplayer experience, like most COD games you are just moving along from A to B and thus the lifespan is limited.

            Tuesday, 2 January 2018

            Leaving 2017 behind

            My favourite ten games of 2017 kinda deserve a list, in no particular order. Some I will post reviews of soon, but for now here they are:

            • Resident Evil 7
            • Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands
            • Forza Motorsport 7
            • Mass Effect: Andromeda
            • Assassins Creed Origins 
            • Call Of Duty WWII
            • Sonic Mania
            • Halo Wars 2
            • Uncharted: Lost Legacy
            • Horizon Zero Dawn

            The absolute favourite this year, and a big surprise at that, is Resident Evil 7. It reinvented the series in a fantastic fashion, taking it's roots back to horror and even more so than ever before. Scary as hell and inspired by more modern indie styled horror games, Capcom outdid themselves and dares make the game complete new and in first person. A fantastic title.

            Second place would be Mass Effect: Andromeda as I felt it really made my dream of finding distant planets to terra form and colonise come true, I felt it received a stupid amount of negativity by the press and gamers in general, suffering from simply becoming a internet meme with no substance in what the game actually offered. I'm still hoping this title receives a Xbox One X update.

            Third goes to Horizon Zero Dawn with it's captivating story and fantastic open world. Very different in it's approach to setting, blending almost middle age life with futuristic technology and intriguingly weird robot animals to fight. I drowned myself in this beautiful game and look forward to checking out it's Frozen Wilds add-on.

            Well, we're now in 2018 and here's hoping there's lots of new and exciting games for the months to come. Happy new year!

            Tuesday, 12 December 2017

            Seven laps of 4K motorsport

            Forza Motorsport 7

            Platform tested: Xbox One S & Xbox One X

            Review: This review will be kind of unique, as it's been released prior to the release of the Xbox One X, Microsoft's new and world's most powerful. Thus I have played it a while on my Xbox One S and then have waited to play it further until my Xbox One X arrived. I can then compare the two, and it will probably be my only review doing this, considering I'll be playing titles from now on with the XB1X.

            Last year saw the Forza franchise reach perhaps it's highest critical acclaim with the arcade thrills that was the Horizon series third game. FH3 delivered a truly fantastic racer and gained a lot of well deserved popularity, even outside of the typical motorsport enthusiasts too. As for the Motorsport series, the change from going from the pretty, but barebones launch title FM5 to the fleshed out and huge FM6 was a big jump. FM6 was a game I put a serious amount of time into, probably one of my most played racing games in the last ten years. Lots of tracks, night and rain weather added and tons of cars. Going from FM6, and the recent FH3, was always going to need a large change to impress. Lets take a look and see if FM7 delivers this.

            Homologation. It's a word you'll get familiar with in FM7, albeit it's aggressive wish to homologate your car; basically auto-tune your motor to meet a racing cup's rules. Luckily the amount of variation in leagues and racing genres make FM7's main singleplayer less forced and one-sided than FM6's. This time you can choose between lots of different cups to enter with a variety of car types within FM7's impressive 750+ cars. It's a huge amount of motors that has been built up an added to the total number throughout Xbox One's Forza games. These racing cups allow the player to play at their own difficulty and assist level. In other words, it's about winning cups to earn points towards unlocking new cars and even more cups to join.

            The lack of awarding a player for not activating rewind, using no ABS brakes, no racing line etc. is a little disapointing though. I really liked the added bonus of extra XP for those willing to risk more for a difficult approach. The only difficulty you can earn more points in here is to adjust the AI level up. It's a sad omission and coupled with the forced homologation to enter a cup makes FM7 restricted in it's own way, as if adjusted towards more casual players. I don't mind all the assists and the gradual learning curve for casuals, no please do try to get more people interested in traditional driving on race tracks, but don't hamper down experienced players. They could easily have had a casual/veteran option to allow one or the other, plus rewarding players wanting to play the game more realistically.

            There's a few very welcome additions outside of the varied singleplayer though, when compared to FM6; dynamic(ish) weather and new race tracks. Real life circuitss that are new for this iteration is the Japanese favourite Suzuka Circuit and Italy's Mugello, plus Virginia International Raceway, which was a DLC to FM6, have been added. Fan favourite fantasy track Maple Valley does a very welcome comeback to the series from way back in FM4 and a brand new Dubai circuit, winding it's way over deserts and into speedy motorway tunnels under Dubai Int. airport is a nice and beautiful looking addition. Where Prague was FM5's showcase race track and Rio was FM6's equivalent, Dubai is FM7's showcase, stunning circuit to speed around!

            FM7 really has a nice balance between real racing circuits and fantasy ones, plus the weather can now be partially dynamic in singeplayer races. Going from nightime to early morning, sunsets rise, rain starts pouring and goes away again etc. It's nice additions to make a race feel varied and exciting to play after endless races. I would have liked fully dynamic weather though and options to add any type to custom races, as it stand the dynamic weather is mostly locked to the singleplayer cups.

            Xbox One/Xbox One S vs. Xbox One X

            It would only be fair to have a little comparison here since I've played the game on both systems. Firstly FM7 on the One/One S benefits from getting an anti-aliasing solution applied, probably carrying over from the Horizon series. Jaggies appear less harsh and the picture gets a softer look. Amount of grass and texture quality though, seems to be somewhat downgraded if I went all the way back to FM5. I'm guessing its just a matter of priorities and nothing you'll notice much when racing. FM7 is otherwise a fantastic looking title on the stock hardware and impressively has dynamic weather while maintaining that rock solid 1080p@60fps.

            So how does it look on the X? The first and most apparent change is the extremely clean native 4K image, gone are the jaggies and flickering on edges and objects in the distance. Fences with lots of tiny details look clean all the way into the distance. Cars don't change their level of detail in the distance either, which is important when the viewing distance is so much sharper into the horizon in 4K. There's also a new texture set making all the environments and road surfaces look super detailed and sharp. Grass effects are boosted too. The lighting just shines better in 4K, allowing for tiny details like reflections on various surfaces seem much more pronounced, best example of this is how all the small individual stones in the tarmac reflect.

            So it's all about the sharpness and cleaner picture, especially in the tiny details on screen. In 1080p they just blur into each other, in 4K they shine individually.  Everything from the tarmac beneath your car to rich of details like the cockpit with outstanding detail to it's material surfaces. 4K is perhaps most pronounced when you go closer to your screen, at a distance afar it isn't as clear apart from the vast reduction of shimmering and jaggy edges compared to 1080p. It's all about the viewing distance and size of TV really. 4K benefits strongly if you are close to a screen and have a big TV.

            Going back the game review, regardless of system:

            When it comes to downsides in FM7, my opinions may come down to slight franchise fatigue, or the fact that I played so much FM6 and FH3 that I feel FM7 doesn't really engage me as much as it should have. Sure, this is the version to go for if you have none of the previous Motorsport titles on your XB1, plus a showcase for your XB1X and 4K TV, but otherwise it just didn't blow me out of the water. Played yourself tired of FM6? Well then there isn't much here for you if you're still on a One/One S console.

            Missing stuff like the coop option, custom numberplates or fully customisable cups from FH3, disappoints me too. I would have enjoyed being able to activate a more pro setup to the singleplayer modes, letting me build cars from scratch myself. Focusing on choosing the right parts to tune the most out of a standard car rather than be forced in to homologation. I'd also have liked to see more new car models, not previously seen in Motorsport or Horizon games, but I guess they are locked away in DLC car packs. They might all be small complaints, but as a eager Forza player, they are ones I wish they'd took into consideration. Oh, and I need to mention the loading; it's terrible. Although it's slightly faster on the XB1X, they are just so long. Navigating menues during the loading doesn't really negate the fact that the loading is beyond acceptable.

            Although the most obvious jump from FM6 to FM7 will be on the XB1X version, it still offers a nice racing package for those on One/One S platforms. The added AA helps keep the game from looking aliased and the new tracks and dynamic weather are a welcome sight, the jump in resolution, draw distance and texture quality though make the XB1X version the most desirable for console owners. It helps give the game a sense of a technical jump from FM6 too, while the standard version doesn't do this as much, though this is expected being the third game on the same hardware platform in a series.

            FM6 was going to be a hard game to surpass, thus perhaps dampening my excitement a little for FM7. It's by no means worse or a bad game compared to FM6, in fact I'd recommend this over it any day. But it doesn't feel like a significant jump other than the extra technical improvements the XB1X brings to the table. A must-have for new X owners for sure, I mean it's a beautiful looking native 4K game running at 60fps locked which is mighty impressive when looking the competition like Project Cars 2 or Gran Turismo Sport, but for One/One S owners there are other cheaper options to purchase if you look at the older Forza games.



              + Plus points

              • Singleplayer is a lot more meaty and varied this time around, the number of cars and tracks is huge.
              • Although limited, the dynamic weather brings visual variety and excitement to races.
              • Super sharp and rich 4K graphics for those that upgrade to a Xbox One X, stunning detail for those with a base One and One S too. 

              - Minus points

              • Very strict vehicle rules to races, homologation feels more limiting than necessary.
              • Not a huge upgrade for One/One S owners over FM6.
              • Insane load times, there's a ton of waiting around for each race to begin.