Monday, 14 December 2015

Lara rises to raid some tombs

Rise Of The Tomb Raider



Platform tested: Xbox One

Bigger and better, they're the words that often follow a sequel of a game. A cliché perhaps, and not always for the better considering how large games are these days, however for Rise Of The Tomb Raider it hits the nail on the head. I really enjoyed the last TR reboot in 2013, scoring it a whopping six stars, and amazingly enough this game surpasses it in every way! Read my TR2013 review here and 2014's Definitive Edition review here.

Lets make it clear form the start here though; if you're a fan of the classic old-style TR, and did not enjoy the previous reboot, well, then this will game will probably not do much for you. However before you dismiss it entirely, it goes more classic TR than the last game, and has far more rewarding exploring going on. It's less about being stranded and surviving, and far more about raiding tombs and being and adventurer. ROTTR has returned to it's original roots, the introduction of Lara's beginning was done in the previous game and this time it's about rising the Tomb Raider up to it's old self again.






To put a perspective on how this game, from the first minute, pulls the player straight in and holds a firm grip. Proving strongly that it's worth every penny you spent buying it, and to give a scale of how much grander and different ROTTR is to TR2013's dark and dungeon-like introduction. We need only look at the first hour being played:

First we climb a huge mountain, dangerously crossing a glacier and preventing yourself from falling down to your certain death in a dense snow storm. Swiftly the game switches over to a boiling desert-like Syrian landscape, via a cutscene depicting the incredible motion and face expressions the game offers in an ingame cutscene at Richard Crofts (Lara's dad) apartment. In Syria we are introduced to a whole palace ruin set in stone in a valley mountainside, traversing it's tight, dusty and scary tunnels beneath it, before discovering our first tomb. Beautifully lit by sunlight from the cracks in the roof, set in the middle of ruins of an ancient civilization.

Then, once again, it shifts back to icy Siberia. Returning to a snowy and open landscape, following the treacherous glacier climb, where you are left cold and isolated and have to make up a camp fire and hunt animals to survive the night.

The sheer variation in this hour alone is incredible and it's literally one of the best first hours of any game I've played ever. It sets the bar sky high and thankfully it keeps it risen throughout it's 45 hours of playtime. That's right, it's a huge game if you plan to collect and explore everything, making the last TR look almost small in comparison. The open areas are larger and there's just more of them, though luckily it strikes a perfect mix of open and restricted environments, stopping the game falling into just another sandbox game with a random game world built around it. Every spot on each map feels detailed and well thought through.


"...it's literally one of the best first hours of any game I've played ever."

There's not just more land to traverse, there's loads more stuff to do. There's a deeper level system to everything, there are abilities to earn, stuff to buy, gun parts to find, tons of secret buried treasures, languages to decipher and a bunch of hidden tombs. Exhausted? How about animals to hunt and crates to find resources for: ammunition, bombs, pouches, outfits and arrows to build? At times I felt I was playing an open RPG game, not the latest adventures of Lara. 

Exploring the hidden tombs, instead of simply giving you XP like in the last game, actually gives new abilities Lara can master. It makes the exploring even more rewarding and being an actual tomb raider pays off. Speaking of these hidden tombs, I felt they were much better implemented this time around. Their locations often wander quite a distance off from the main map and a larger and more complex to solve. Avoiding them and you are really missing out on some of the finest Tomb Raider moments in the game, they really bring back the nostalgia of the older games. Without the time consuming frustration they often brought to the player back in the 90's. Call gamers today lazy, but retrying and failing challenges with hardly any save points isn't something I have nostalgic feeling about.




ROTTR's story also feels improved, accompanying the larger game it feels more bold and grand, yet it sadly contains some typical Hollywood clichés. I really liked some of the set pieces shown at Lara's mansion, filling in the back story further and giving variation to talking scenes. There's definitely more dialogue going on, and I felt it was like being in a large movie playing it. There's tons of extra stories to dig into to, old manuscripts, radio conversations and diaries, though these are optional if you want to find or listen to them.

The game just has this perfect balance going on  between exploration, fighting action and traversing  and surviving the actual environment. It shifts subtly between them, back and forth, never leaving the player tired of repetitive tasks, a perfectly balanced game if I ever saw one. For more veteran Tomb Raider players, like myself, there's just a lot more exploration to do this time around, but it's never anything you have to do and as such the game caters for all audiences.

Sure it might not always keep it's framerate solid, and yes it keeps itself close to the last games winning formula, but the whole package just comes together as this years best game for me. It takes used elements and goes an extra mile with them. It's just a quality game through and through and it keeps you engaged for hours on end. Not only is it this years best game for me, it's also be one of my favourite top three Tomb Raiders of all time. Yes, it's that good.

Rating

★★★★★

    + Plus points

    • Bigger, more beautiful and just more content everywhere compared to TR2013.
    • More exploration and tombs for TR veterans.
    • Side missions, more comprehensive level systems and interactions with NPC's are a welcome addition.

    - Minus points

    • Framedrops in some visually crowded areas, though nothing too bad.
    • Too aggressive hinting and tips from the game itself.
    • The main villains are a bit cliché, and one dimensional.

    Friday, 4 December 2015

    Guardians of the fifth halo

    Halo 5: Guardians




    Platform tested: Xbox One

    There's no Xbox generation without a Halo game, and while Halo: The Master Chief Collection last year put the Spartans on Microsoft's latest console, it was only a remastered collection of previous games in the series. Halo 5: Guardians then, is a brand new entry, following closely to Halo 4, both visually and presentation wise. Once again 343 Industries aims to deliver a Halo experience worthy of Bungie's efforts that ended with Halo: Reach.

    Let's divide this review into two parts; the single and multi player modes. But before going more in depth on each, let's visually comment the game as these are a common nominator. It's a beautiful game and reminds me a lot of Halo 4's artstyle, only with far larger scale and a rock solid 60fps framerate (remember that the original Halo 4 on the Xbox 360 only was 720p@30fps). Halo 5 achieves it's performance by scaling it's resolution on the fly, a technology used in the latest Wolfenstein.

    I appreciate that they went for the high framerate, it makes gameplay seem so precise and smooth. Much like how the Halo MCC collection proved this series needs it. While the arenas in multiplayer are sharp and detailed, the visual excellence of the game really shines through in the single player. Vast and beautiful areas with sharp textures that not only work as backdrops, but look really good close up too. It's the best looking first person shooter for the Xbox One to date.





    Singleplayer

    Halo 5's storyline follows closely to Halo 4, and sets you in the role of two different fireteams; Osiris and Blue Team. The latter is led by the legendary Master Chief himself. The player changes control of each fireteam as the story progresses. It's a great way of showing the story unfold from two sides and quickly shift from one location to a completely different one. There are many returning characters from the Halo lore too, such as "Buck" (voiced by Nathan Fillion) from Halo: ODST. Often revisiting old cast throughout the Halo games gives the whole universe a good sense of continuity.

    The story is conveyed with extremely well crafted cutscenes scenes and excellent voiceacting, also following the narrative style of Halo 4. Though I do wonder why they went from ingame rendered scenes and have opted for CGI instead. I always prefer that custscenes are rendered in-game to give a cohesive visual appearance throughout a game. The actual story though, is a mixed bag for me. I felt the end and the build-up towards it became confusing and sadly the inclusion of Cortana once again feels unnecessary. Even though I really liked her character in Halo 4.


    "The large canyon locations are perhaps the most impressive, featuring some incredible design and awe inspiring scenery."

    Back when Halo 4 released I felt that the size of the locations had been sacrificed for the graphical upgrade compared to Halo 3. Halo 5, luckily, feels like the combination of Halo 4's stunning visuals and Halo 3's map sizes. We are treated to some large areas to roam.

    These areas have multiple routes and angles to attack the enemies in, some are even many stories in height, putting vertical depth into the combat. The large canyon locations are perhaps the most impressive, featuring some incredible design and awe inspiring scenery. Overall the variety in environments are diverse, but I felt the more minimalistic and futuristic design of the later levels became somewhat bland. Kudos though, for having secret paths and areas to find by smashing through walls in many areas. 

    While I enjoyed the large and more free roaming feel to combat. There is nothing actually to do in these open areas when they appear in non-battle sections. Take mission 9 for instance; I'm in this grand canyon sort of base with lots of red tents and covenant soldiers walking about. But I can't really interact with anything. They could have added a store or somewhere I could level up, customize or buy weapons. Maybe some dialogue that lead to some side-missions to multiplayer maps against bots for instance. Just small things that would have given the game some more depth and lifespan. Instead I get a marker telling me to go speak to someone, and then the game moves on, leaving the area and not really utilizing it for the potential it could have had.




    Multiplayer

    Probably one of the most popular franchises for multiplayer, Halo continues it's huge popularity online with Halo 5. This time multiplayer is divided into arena mode and warzone. Arena mainly consists of small maps where team deathmatch, free for all, capture the flag and elimination types take place. They are incredibly fast matches, often lasting no more than 12 minutes. It's a classic take on multiplayer and a well proved formula. At times it reminds me of Unreal Tournament with the small and more chaotic maps.

    Warzone is the new large, I would like to say Battlefield inspired, multiplayer mode. There are only a tiny handful of maps, but these are gigantic in size. Each team tries to take over bases and hold key buildings in their possession to earn points. Individual points for kills can be used to require more powerful weapons and vehicles to outgun the opposing team with.

    While I initially was intrigued about this mode it quickly just ended up as a standstill at the buildings in the middle of each map, like a frozen trench war. Even adding some bots in the mix, which Titanfall did in a way better manner, just falls short. One can't shake an empty feeling of an oversized map. The intensity only builds up if somebody drives in with a tank or large vehicle.

    What I really miss, are medium sized maps. Especially a team deathmatch mode with a few vehicles, but not on the huge scale warzone offers. I was a huge fan of the big team playlist in Halo 4. In Halo 5 you either have the small arena maps or the gigantic warzone maps. There's no middle ground that should have been catered for in my opinion, like the size of the classic Halo 3 map Valhalla for instance.

    The end result is that multiplayer becomes very divided in either a chaotic and very intense small-mapped deathmatch multiplayer or a huge scale Battlefield-ish one. I'm guessing people will be sticking to one or the other much more than jumping back and forwards between them, 

    Conclusion

    On the technical and gameplay side Halo 5 delivers a fantastic end result, it's a beautiful and incredibly smooth game to play, but the content and story are disappointing. A divided multiplayer and a singleplayer that simply walks the safe path from beginning to end, pull down a product that could have been far better. I just would have appreciated more substance and variation in both single and multiplayer.

    That being said, it's still a solid game and it's a welcome release to finally play a Halo that takes full advantage of the Xbox One. Nothing groundbreaking, but a safe release, for good or worse that's up to you.

    Rating

    ★★★★

      + Plus points

      • Visually rich and with a solid 60 fps framerate to boot.
      • Multiplayer is a fast and well presented affair.
      • Story now supports four player coop and features large open areas.

      - Minus points

      • The actual storyline is confusing and ends rather disappointing.
      • Multiplayer either has tiny maps or very large ones, no in-between.
      • Singleplayer could use more depth, like leveling and customization of weapons.

      Friday, 20 November 2015

      Nobody expects the dragonish inquisition!

      First off, I must apologise for the timing of these reviews. They've arrived far too late. I completed them early summer this year. I just haven't got around to actually reviewing them!


      Dragon Age: Inquisition




      Platform tested: PlayStation 4

      Be noted that I have no previous experience of the Dragon Age series. I have only watched briefly people playing the earlier gamess. I have played hours of the whole Mass Effect trilogy from the same developer, BioWare, if that accounts for anything?! With that in mind, here's my view of the third Dragon Age game.

      While I found only a few dragons, I did find an excellent story, presented in a cinematic and well voice acted fashion. From being released as a prisoner with no rights at the beginning, but mysteriously possessing an ability to stop huge green rifts opening in the skies, right to the long travel through requiring power and becoming the grand inquisitor; DA:I is an incredible journey through abeautiful fantasy landscapes and battles.




      Much like it's sci-fi stall mate, Mass Effect, DAI not only looks incredible but also boasts an impressive diversity in locations. There are open farmlands, lush woodlands, snowy mountains and boiling deserts to roam. While not directly connected in one single open world, like let's say Skyrim, the size of each map is very impressive. Take the first large map you encounter, The Hinterlands, for instance. This map alone is the size of a huge free roaming game, with a tons of side-missions and tasks to complete. I literally couldn't wait to see what the next location was, so I could go off exploring again! There's tons of detail.


      "While not directly connected in one single open world...the size of each map is very impressive."

      The description "great diversity" doesn't just cover the large maps though, there's great variation in classes, including numerous specializations within, weapons and visual appearance for you character. Just like in the ME series you are usually surrounded by a gang of three teammates. What I like about Dragon Age though, is that you can just switch to play any of these four at any time. Which means that if you fancy trying yourself out as a mage or perhaps a rogue, well simply switch to a character with this class! Giving you a chance to test out other classes without restarting the game entirely.

      Speaking gameplay though, my impression is mixed. While I appreciated the large roster of enemies to combat and the numerous techniques to combat for defeating them, the actual fighting quickly felt stale. It's mainly about holding R2 to engage your character into combat. I played the game on normal and always made sure I levelled up properly before progressing. Perhaps I should have played the game more tactical, using the paused overhead combat cam. The acutal controls for walking around, riding a horse or exploring are absolutely fine though!




      To elaborate some more about the overhead tactical camera control; it pauses combat when initiated giving you a birds eye view of the battlefield. Here you can assign your four characters to attack certain enemies, then simply hold a button for the game to start rolling again and watch the fight. Or you can get down and dirty and fight with your main character from third person. I ended up mainly doing this, and simply using only a few of the special abilities that are assigned to various buttons. The tactical view I used mainly for very large enemies, like dragons, to attack one part, like a leg, in particular.

      Levelling up lets you unlock more abilities, though I ended up levelling the ones that didn't require button input as I often forget to use them. Especially the ones that required me to navigate the ability menus to engage them. Perhaps I played it too simply, but I never really used the tactical overhead fighting style other than very large enemies like trolls and dragons. Nevertheless though, gameplay is addictive and I very much enjoyed making my characters more and more powerful through levelling and equipping and crafting superior armour and weapons.

      I must admit, with no expectations or experience in this series previously, I enjoyed my playthrough immensely. It's stunning environments and exciting exploration pulls you into a beautiful fantasy world. I spent hours exploring every corner of each location, upgrading weapons and armour and interacting with the diverse cast. The story progresses and builds up perfectly throughout the game with some truly spectacular moments. RPG fans and those that are fairly interested in the genre, really should play this game!

      Rating

      ★★★★★☆

        + Plus points

        • Huge, colourful and diverse looking worlds to explore.
        • Excellent menu system that easily compares armour, weapons etc.
        • Story is well presented, with a large amount of great voice acting.

        - Minus points

        • Combat is repetitive, more tactical fighting should be encouraged to the player.
        • Like most RPG's a lot of the side quests are tedious time fillers.
        • Learning curve goes too fast into the overwhelming open and extremely large landscape that is the Hinterlands.

        Wolfenstein: The New Order




        Platform tested: PlayStation 4

        The Wolfenstein games have been around for years and while the original game revolutionised the industry with it's first person shooter genre, the sequels have had various degrees of success and quality. The first game became in retrospect overshadowed by Doom that followed from the same developers, id software. Nevertheless I've always felt the franchise carries weight with it, as a famous brand name within the gaming community. Both the Wolfenstein games from the two last generations have been lacklustre, however this new entry proves it's welcome to stay.

        Wolfenstein: The New Order is built on the same engine as Rage was, John Carmack's last id Software engine, with it's huge mega texture system and variable resolution to keep it's solid 60 fps framerate. Although this engine looks a little dated, New Order makes up for what it lacks in pure detailed graphics with it's smooth framerate, large open areas and fast paced gameplay. Don't get me wrong though, in a lot of areas WTNO looks great, I especially enjoyed the more futuristic settings graphically.




        The Swedish developers, MachineGames, have opted to make Wolfenstein a much stronger title storywise than the traditional games in the shooter genre. Especially considering this is a typical old-school shooter, with lots of hip firing and requiring movement skills rather than just relying on quick aiming like many newer shooters do. While I won't spoil some of the suprising and rather amazing plot twists and locations this game offers, I can safely say: If you think this game is just another WW2 shooter set in a Nazi castle, then you are in for a huge surprise! Quite a few in fact. Some of the locations you visit will really surprise you.

        What further strengthens the quality is that MachineGames have opted to give players a choice gameplay approach by allowing, and rewarding, the player to play the game with a stealthy approach in mind or run and gun action style. Each playstyle is catered for through the level designs and work very well together. I mixed things up and used both throughout the game. Levels are typically fairly large and offer open areas and various routes through them.

        Enemy AI gives an aggressive challenge, quite tricky in fact, but you always find a better way to take them down. Killing enemies in certain ways, or using certain weapons for a set amount for kills and headshots will unlock skill progression. Skills will in turn unlock abilities and strengthen your character. I ended up unlocking quite a few by just playing normally, although on some occasions I went after certain ones by looking at the skill tree to see what was needed to unlock them.




        What perhaps brings the game down is that on one side it does a lot of new and interesting ideas, but on the other side it never really digs down into them. At the end of the day it's just about shooting the hell out of nazis, and while the characters personalities offer great variety, they may come off as cheesy for others. You need to play the game with this in mind, it's typical 90's stereotype videogame tough guy you play.

        This is a shooter and a game that depicts cliché WW2 with overdone nazi experiments. It's about entertaining the player, not being grounded in reality or losing itself into new types of genres. For more causal gamers this tongue in cheek humour and cheesy dialogue may not come over as funny and easily misunderstood for being a b-movie style game. The thing is though, it's deliberate and thus makes it funny at times, even though the story is quite gruesome.

        "WTNO will most likely end up as sleeper hit...but it truly deserves to get more attention."

        Although you actually can play this game stealthy, WTNO really shines in it's "back to basics" old-school gameplay; large enemies, insane guns and just really quick and brutal shooting, requiring you to be more fast with your movement than simply the trigger. While it in no way reinvents the wheel, it does prove there's room for it to continue with a lot of uniqueness and originality in an otherwise crowded genre. WTNO will most likely end up as sleeper hit alongside chart toppers like Call of Duty and Halo, but it truly deserves to get more attention.

        If you like the Wolfenstein games or simply want a different type of shooter, or even perhaps you dig an alternate reality of WW2 with overdone technology, then The New Order is perfect for you. Prior to the game I did not expect to enjoy the game as much as I ended up doing!

        Rating

        ★★★★

          + Plus points

          • Story is surprisingly strong in a game like this
          • Lightning fast and super smooth 60 fps gameplay.
          • Stealth and action approaches are both rewarded and satisfying.

          - Minus points

          • Textures and geometry can look a bit rough in places.
          • Towards the end repetitiveness kicks in, making it perhaps outstay it's welcome.
          • Characters either humour you or come off as extremely cheesy.

          Thursday, 5 November 2015

          God-like puzzle solving

          Pneuma: Breath Of Life



          Platform tested: Xbox One

          This month's Xbox Live Gold game is Pneuma: Breath Of Life. An Unreal Engine 4 powered puzzle game played in first person. I gave it a go last evening and ended up completing the whole game!

          While perhaps going a bit too far with it's meta references and ensuring you that you might not be in a real world but *shocker* playing a game, through an energetic voice, Pneuma puts you in the role of a god. Introducing you with a walk through various rooms as the graphics become more elaborate along the way, you are introduced to the games simple controls and mechanics. I felt mostly that the narrated story felt like meaningless babble.





          The game is played from a first person perspective and the main goal is simply to progress through rooms in each of the games chapters. Puzzles are scattered along your way, hindering your progression until solved. A narrator hints vaguely solutions and keeps the walking around parts interesting. The actual puzzles are mainly based on viewing the environments and using your eyes to manipulate objects. Rooms often contain visual puzzles that need solving too, centred around using your field of view. There's actually hardly any moves you can do; the analogue sticks are for moving, X is used to interact with buttons and levers, and there's a jump button!

          Pneuma features visually stylish environments to walk through, with large and bright rooms decorated with marble walls and paintings. Much like the Greek god the game inherits it's title from, the style of the game has a Mediterranean palace feel to it. The artstyle has a bright and clean appearance which works beautifully and keeps the puzzles free of visual clutter.

          While I enjoyed the graphical effects like reflective surfaces and realistic lighting, the overall visuals being nothing ground breaking in my opinion, do sometimes look a little too much like an Unreal Engine 4 demo reel for my liking.





          Although I enjoyed my playthrough, Pneuma is an extremely short experience. It takes around one to two hours to complete, so keep that in mind if you plan on buying the game at a later point when it's no longer available free for Gold users. There's basically no replay value here as the puzzles are the same each time. It does offer some easy 1000/1000 achievement points if that's your thing though. I must mention that the loading times, which only occurs between chapters, are terribly optimised and feel like an eternity.

          All in all I had a short but fairly entertaining puzzle experience. Some of them really took a chunk of brain twisting to solve, but never feel unfair or insanely difficult which I appreciated. Recommended for free with Gold indeed, otherwise only if it sells at a bargain price.

          Rating

          ★★★

            + Plus points

            • Clean and simplistic visuals and controls.
            • Nice setting.
            • Smart and original visual puzzles.

            - Minus points

            • Way too short with no replay value at all.
            • Loading times from hell.
            • Looks like an Unreal Engine 4 demo.

            Friday, 9 October 2015

            Because racing never tires on me!

            Forza Motorsport 6


            Together with Forza 6, I bought the Forza Special Edition controller, with a nice shade of blue and racing stripes!

            Platform tested: Xbox One

            With a two year release cycle, the Forza franchise is ready to release the next instalment of it's Motorsport simulation series. Forza Motorsport 6 is here and, as always, is made by the original developers since the first game, Turn 10. Perfectly in time for the ten year anniversary of the franchise! What did I expect since 2013's (that's early 2014 for Tier 2 countries) visually pretty, but content wise thin, Forza Motorsport 5 that launched alongside the Xbox One? Mostly just more of everything, so lets take a look at FM6 and see if they actually do deliver a stronger title this time around.

            Apparent from the beginning are the stylish menus and excellent guidance from a female announcer, making FM6 the slickest looking FM game menu wise so far. The presentation is top notch and brings players at an ease into the world of Forza. It's perhaps a little too gentle for experienced Forza players with it's unskipable introduction race on the brand new Rio track, which is stunning by the way. Luckily the announcer leaves you for yourself after a few mandatory races. I really appreciate the introduction to car types, cups and special events, explaining what they are and complimented with small historical facts about the cars.

            It's quite obvious that FM6 is a far larger and more content packed title than the launch title of FM5 ever was. Going from FM4, that was jam packed with content, to FM5 on the Xbox One always felt kind of disappointing in this regard, even though the visuals in FM5 were stunning. FM6 contains far more cars, arce types and tracks to speed around, making the singeplayer playthrough a much improved and varied affair. Mods to enhance your car and XP earnings are added for the more arcadey players and the prize wheel from FH2 is added, mixing things up on a positive note. A racer needs content and FM6 delivers this in quantity and quality.







            A huge change for the series, and one that has been often requested, is the addition of night and rain effects to the the FM games. Last years Forza Horizon 2 had both, and as such, players expected the weather variety to hit the mainline series too. Although they're sadly not dynamic like in FH2 or the recent Project Cars, in other words rain can't break out at any time or daylight can't change to a darker night etc. However, although they are just static, they're a welcome way of adding variation to existing tracks. A track feels very different both at night or in the rain. I love how well these effects look too, especially the rain effects look stunning, and would love to see them added to every track in the game, not just selected ones. Night racing has a huge amount of light sources and each cars headlights shine up there own spot of tarmac. Impressive stuff.


            "A racer needs content and FM6 delivers this in quantity and quality."

            Once again the sheer dedication from developer Turn 10 to make this game run at a rock solid 60 frames per second is incredible, and at 1080p to boot! It's just what a simulation racer needs and the framerate proves itself as a must-have in my opinion when racing really fast cars later in the game. It just helps keep high speeds more controllable and clear. It's further technical impressive when the game has upped it's cars per race from 16 to 24. Seeing all the cars bunched up, without a single hiccup in the framerate, is very impressive.

            All the tracks look extremely detailed and the upgrade from last generation is obvious in the amount of trackside detail and the detailed textures. I love how they've added falling leaves, dust clouds, fog and other small effects to spice up and upgrade the visual variety from FM5. Tracks like the new Rio track, or FM5 introduced Prague, look absolutely stunning. There's a nice mix of real racing circuits and more fictive ones. I perhaps miss Forza classics like Maple Valley and Camino Viejo, lets hope they arrive as a download soon!




            Are there issues with the game? Well, there are some actually, apart from the non-dynamic weather for example. I don't really care for the system of first, second and third place pass they introduced in FM5. It's basically that you must place one of these places to advance. It seems strange when the main game mode consist of various events with multiple races to complete. Why not just let us get points for placings in each race? If I mess up a race, let me get low points, but at least let me continue! This makes the main game feel slightly restrictive, especially when you are forced to certain car types and class. I can understand that they have done so for more inexperienced players, but for racing fans it feels cumbersome and restrictive.

            In each race you start in 12th place, why? It leaves the twelve remaining cars behind you kind of redundant, unless you mess up badly. There should be some qualifying or a way to auto-qualify like in Project Cars. Considering the AI is based on other players driving style, they have all the info they need to auto generate you a placing in each race! I love the Drivatar concept of "real" AI, based on players driving behaviour, but they need polishing and balancing, they still drive quite aggressive like in FM5 and FH2, which use the same statistics engine. Luckily they have added a low aggression option for the drivatars this time around!

            One could argue that each Forza game doesn't bring a revolution with it, and that they perhaps don't dare to push large boundaries with each iteration, but the thing is; I much prefer to have a really solid and great quality title with small upgrades for each version. Rather than having them sacrifice framerate or overall quality for new stuff like dynamic weather, lighting etc. After all, the hardware dictates the limits of the game and Forza perfectly stays safe to deliver the solid framerate it's famous form while still looking visually striking.

            The Forza Motorsport series is about evolution, and it really does evolve. Not in huge leaps, but with smaller steps, and it pays off. FM6 is, without doubt, the best console simulator to be purchasing now, even topping the mighty Project Cars in my opinion. Simply because the overall quality is just more consistent all over the board, and the amount of tracks and cars really give players a fantastic racing package. A must-have purchase, and together with last years more arcade styled title, Forza Horizon 2; there really is no reason at all the you shouldn't own a Xbox One if you love racing games!

            Rating

            ★★★★★☆

              + Plus points

              • Incredible visuals at a rock solid 1080p@60fps
              • Night and rain races add lots of variety.
              • A more complete and beefy package than the previous effort, Forza 5.

              - Minus points

              • Single player seems restricted and linear.
              • Random weather and day cycles would have been nice.
              • The "win the race as top three or bust" system is not a favourite of mine.

              Friday, 2 October 2015

              Gearing up for the ultimate

              Gears Of War Ultimate Edition



              Platform tested: Xbox One

              Xbox 360's flagship game of 2006 is remastered on to the Xbox One. Bring on Gears Of War Ultimate Edition!

              I bought the original Gears back in 2007, shortly after purchasing my Xbox 360. I instantly fell in love with this classic. I loved the world design, controls and fantastic cover shooter mechanics. The series quickly grew to a trilogy through the 360's lifespan, and even gave way for a spin-off. The developer, of the latter, are the guys behind this remake and the up and coming Gears of War 4, due out next year.

              Instead of opting for a simple remaster  by running the original game in 1080p@60fps, developer The Coalition, have opted for a remake approach. Bringing the graphics up to a modern level, while retaining the distinct look and feel of the classic. The music score and voice overs are kept untouched, while some of the cutscenes are altered for an improved and dramatic effect. As such it falls in the remake category, rather than being a simple remaster.





              Replaying the game, I must admit that the decision to upgrade the graphics subtly, yet incredibly pretty, is a great one. It gives the impression of looking like how I remember the original. This gives the player a really strong nostalgic feeling of playing the game back in the day. Like I said, subtle, ye retaining the very typical Gears style in the level design with far improved graphics.

              Playing this Ultimate Edition I realize how much I've missed the Gears world on my Xbox One, and I have truly enjoyed my replay of this gem. In my opinion the game itself has withstood the test of time, with many classic scenes and gameplay that still feels incredible tight by today's standard. Few third-person shooters, even today, come close to the quality of gameplay this series offers. Movement and aiming feels responsive, precise and smooth.


              "...the decision to upgrade the graphics subtly...gives the impression of looking like how I remember the original"

              I love that they have added the exclusive fifth chapter from PC version in 2007, further beefing out the length of this otherwise fairly short game. The more recent Gears sequels fixed the lifespan issue, but the original game on 360 always felt too short, though with many memorable moments. Replaying the game also reminds me that this first game was far darker and more horror-like than the sequels and series in general became. This may change though as the E3 trailer this proved that Gears 4 seems to be going for a darker and more scary style again.

              If there's a complaint to be made, it's definitely missing the 60 frames per second framerate for the singleplayer, though I guess they opted for more detailed graphics in the end. Luckily though, multiplayer is 60 fps! It really makes a difference. Proving even further how tight the Gears gameplay is, with the added smoothness and precision of 60 fps. Here you get all the classic multiplayer maps and gameplay from the first Gears. It pulls in some cool elements and movement styles from Gears 3, like the excellent (and my favourite) mode; King Of The Hill and multi directional rolling.





              Being reunited with Marcus, Dom, Baird and  Cole eight years later has been a pleasant experience in this Ultimate Edition. While I would perhaps have enjoyed some new areas, a 60 fps singleplayer, and perhaps a remake of all the Gears games, it has positively kept itself very true to the original. Going down in history alongside Tomb Raider Anniversary and Resident Evil Remake as excellent remasters of already excellent originals.

              Even if you are fan of the Gears or never played the series before, you really should give this game a playthrough. Time has proven it as a classic and what better way is it to play it in upgraded graphics and full HD?! If you are really looking for an even greater time with this title; I urge you to play it through cooperatively with a friend, online or offline in splitscreen. A great coop experience and tons of fun!

              One could only ask yourself; would it not have been better if they had ran all the four Gears games from the 360 in 1080p@60fps, without the graphical update? A kind Halo MCC style, called Marcus Phoenix Collection on the Xbox One. It's an interesting thought, but luckily the end product is a fantastic one nevertheless.

              Rating

              ★★★★★☆

                All four 360 classics of the series are available as a free download, if you play the game before the year ends online, they become available for download when backwards compatibility arrives later this autumn!


                + Plus points

                • Remastered graphics.
                • 60 fps multiplayer.
                • Fifth chapter PC bonus levels finally added for Xbox players.

                - Minus points

                • 30 fps singleplayer.
                • Only the first game remasted.
                • Would not a 1080@60fps version of all four Gears game been sufficient?

                Thursday, 24 September 2015

                Fighting in the streets!

                Retroactive review: The Street Fighter Zero series


                I never was into street fighting. 

                It was just too brutal. 



                Especially for a newbie like me to Capcom's famous fighting game series at least! To be honest I was never really struck on this genre until it went 3D with Virtua Fighter, and even then it took me until the first Dead or Alive on the PS1 to get me interested. Although I loved beat 'em ups like Streets of Rage and Final Fight, the 2D fighters never really caught my interest in any noteworthy degreee.


                Back story


                I remember a close friend introduced me to the genre and the series in general with Street Fighter II on the Super Nintendo. I completely sucked at it, and gave up quickly on trying to compete in versus matches against him. I did however watch him play the game to controller wrecking annoyance, desperately trying to beat the bosses on the harder difficulty settings. I even remember him getting his hands on Super Street Fighter II (if my memory serves me right), where some of the bosses now were playable characters. The rest just looked the same to me. The young me was not impressed.



                Since those long gone 16-bit days I never really followed the Street Fighter franchise. I vaguely remember actually seeing an arcade cabinet of the ill-fated first SF game on a car ferry some summer holiday long ago. SF2 probably serves as one of those games where the sequel changed everything into a far better and enjoyable experience, surpassing everything the original had done badly. SF2 moulded it's genre, and would influence it in years and years to come.

                So SF1 did nothing. SF2 revolutionised a genre and influenced a generation. SF Zero (confusingly called Alpha in the West) was a prequel storywise and continued to set the SF series at the top of the 2D fighter scene, with a younger looking roster of it's famous fighters. SF Ex series dabbled early in 3D. Then followed a lukewarm welcomed SFIII series, which would prove it's perfection in the competitive environments like tournaments.

                A long hiatus later and the more recent cel-shaded SFIV arrived, which once again jumped to 3D, albeit still 2D gameplay, much like Ex had done years before with varied success. Nowadays we have an Unreal Engine 4 powered SFV under development. A long series of games, that is famous for the many revisions released. Today though, I'm focusing on the SF Zero/Alpha trilogy.


                Why Zero?



                SF Zero made me open my eyes for this series and actually enjoy it, and it didn't happen back in the mid-nineties but in 2015(!). I jumped in at the deep end and purchased the third in the series, on my PS Vita (originally a PSP game). I was pleased with the fantastic 2D art and colourful look of the game. However, it proved to be extremely hard and overwhelming. So I decided to start at the beginning; with the first Zero game, using my Sega Saturn.

                Before we look at each game, why go with the Saturn versions? Well because until the much later re-releases the Saturn versions were the best arcade conversions for home use. Much thanks to the consoles large video memory and excellent 2D capabilities. As such, Zero 1 & 2 have more frames and smoother movement for character animation than their PlayStation counterparts. Zero 3's Saturn version, believe or not, even outperforms the Dreamcast version(!). A statement on how well Sega's 32-bit console performed with 2D sprites and a way to be pleased that the console ended up to be what it was, even though it commercially failed outside of Japan.

                Let me not forget to mention the superior Saturn controller for 2D games, the d-pad is miles above anything the PlayStation controllers have given us through the years. Feel insulted as much as you like for that statement, but the PlayStation d-pads are simply four buttons inside it's controller shell. Making rolling inputs on the d-pad way more cumbersome than on the Saturn pad.

                Any how, that was the why. Now let us look at my thoughts on each Zero game. Thoughts from a true newbie and a terrible Fighter on the Street.


                Street Fighter Zero



                From the first fight, it's clear the Zero games have a visually different appearance than the Street Fighter II series. The characters are larger, more detailed and have lots of tiny animations like clothes moving etc. The colour palette is just more colourful and diverse, but the overall contrast in them are more subtle than the harsher colours of SFII. I'ts got a distinct soft toned colour scheme going on, for lack of better words. For console-only players the upgrade from the 16-bit versions of SFII on the SNES and Mega Drive are obvious, finally the series gets a home version running on the benefits of 32-bit hardware. It's closer to it's arcade brother, than the home versions of SFII were. 

                Zero has a fairly small roster of characters, and when comparing to some of the later alterations of SFII, it feels a little lacking and disappointing. Sure, there are new characters, as well as old favourites like Ryu, Ken and Chun-Li, but there's a feeling there should have been more. I do understand though, the close race in releasing games for the arcade and at home at the time. Understandably, Capcom thought it could release sequels down the line in the same series. Perhaps a rather devious plan to sell lots of versions of basically the same game, but keep in mind this is way before anything could be updated with online patches. Fighting games need fine tuning and balancing.





                Although it's not exactly full of content, I felt the move from going straight onto Zero 3 and then moving down to this version, helped me understand the series more. I actually could beat the game on easy, and get a feeling on how the max bar works. Basically it's a bar that fills when performing moves, taking damage or defending yourself, thus allowing you to pull off some powerful super moves.

                Compared to Zero 3, Zero 1 felt a little slower, less overwhelming amount of options, characters and fighting styles, thus letting me really enjoy what the Zero games are really about.

                Street Fighter Zero 2




                Zero 2 is probably my favourite in the series. Where the first lacked in new characters, options and animation details, Zero 2 delivers more of everything in a more finished package. In a way it's what the first game should have been at release.

                Even better is if you buy the Street Fighter Collection on the Saturn, basically it's a 2CD compilation of SF games. CD1 has arcade perfect conversions of two SFII variants (forget the slow animated SNES games) for those who never played the "proper" arcade versions. CD2 has SF Zero 2 Gold, confused? Well Gold fixes a few balancing issues, and adds Cammy as a training character. It's really just for the very interested, and yes the ordinary Zero 2 is just fine to play!





                Of all the SF games I've tried recently, this game just stood out and "clicked" for me. It balances detailed, beautiful 2D visuals, with a clean and simple design and easy to grasp gameplay to dig yourself into. For anyone looking to test out the Zero series, this is the place to be. 

                I love the smooth and nice paced fighting, complete with the varied and really cool looking characters. The backgrounds all look fantastic and truly show how pretty the 2D art of it's time used to be. It's probably one of the most fun fighting games I've played and truly enjoyed!

                Street Fighter Zero 3



                At times I feel Zero 3 maybe went a bit overboard on new characters, the amount of added stuff from Zero 2 is jarring. For newcomers it feels slightly overwhelming, and I felt it wasn't the best version to use as a entry to the Zero games. The X,Y and V-ism bars open up countless ways to combat with super moves, but they seem unexplained and more hardcore for newcomers like me. The game's default setup is with the power bar maxed up for each fight and the game running in Turbo 2 speed, which kind says enough. It's about speed, action and kind of going over the top.





                Technically Zero 3 is probably one of the best looking 2D games made and a true statement on how much more the 32-bit consoles could deliver than the 16-bit consoles even for sprite based graphics. Something the arcades proved again and again. The backgrounds look incredible, and the animations for each character never seizes to amaze when you consider it all being hand drawn.

                So while I do like some of the character additions; like bad-ass Cody in his black and white striped jail outfit, hand cuffed in each fight from Final Fight fame or double ponytailed bubbly-blonde wrestler R. Mika, of recent Street Fighter V reveal fame, I found it very overwhelming playing with all these characters. It's like it's blending out the uniqueness of each character by having so many. So play at least Zero 2 before dabbling in this game, and even then it might not suit you. It feels more like a standalone SF entry.

                Other versions


                Are there any other ways to play the Zero/Alpha games today? Without investing in a whole Sega Saturn, especially considering the Japan-only Zero 3 is insanely expensive? 

                Luckily there's a arcade perfect port of Zero 3 on the PSP/Vita! Titled with a Max at the end. This version retains all the frames and animation from the arcade version and has much improved loading times. It also includes a World Tour mode, which actually is quite good. You can dig yourself into levelling and fighting through a long tournament with increasing difficulty, small challenges along the way and options to choose which fights you will join.

                Another fairly easy option to play the series is the PlayStation 2 game, SF Alpha Anthology. It's cheap and wildly available on ebay, even factory sealed. It contains all the arcade games, each version, in perfect conversion. The only thing missing really is the singleplayer World Tour mode from Zero 3 Max on the PSP/Vita.  Anthology is a perfect collection if you just want the arcade modes of each game though.

                The only problem I have with versions outside the Saturn, unless you have a arcade stick, is the six button and d-pad superiority on the Saturn pad. SF games have six buttons and using SNES/PlayStation/Vita etc. pads always feels wonky as you have to have two of the fighting buttons on the shoulder buttons. It feels off, and doesn't give the same precision of the six buttons layout on the Saturn pad. The Saturn d-pad is also much easier to do rolling moves with, which are often needed to perform special moves like a Hadouken for Ryu, Ken and Sakura.


                Fight Over


                Well that's an insight into Street Fighter's sub-series; Alpha/Zero from a SF beginner like myself. Although this old series is strong even today with new iterations, I highly recommend you to check out at least SF Alpha/Zero 2. It really is an amazing 2D fighter almost 20 years after release!

                They don't make 'em like this anymore!