Friday, 13 October 2017

The fall of futuristic racing

Retrospective review(s): Four futuristic, generation six, racers


The futuristic racing genre was beyond doubt at it's most popular peak in the fifth generation of consoles. The popular wipEout games by Psygnosis inspired many other developers to jump on the bandwagon, with various results. WipEout lead the way as it focused on a more mature age group, blending in the music and visual style from the rave culture, with a dark and gloomy futuristic vision of racing.

The true beginning of the genres popularity though, began a whole generation before on the 16-bit Super Nintendo with F-Zero. A technical showcase for the SNES' Mode 7 pseudo 3D graphics and an incredibly solid anti-gravity racer to boot. With it's fast pace, catchy music and fun, but unforgiving gameplay, it inspired titles like wipEout and the racing genre in general, immensely.



While the 32/64-bit consoles in the fifth generation offered a F-Zero sequel, four individual wipEout games and other classic series like Rollcage and Extreme-G. The rumours of a new generation of consoles built excitement for how the next step in the genre would be. How would these fast futuristic racers look on far superior hardware and with developers being far more familiar with 3D games? One could only imagine.

Yet, when they arrived something happened, while some failed to deliver good quality in general and others were highly praised titles, they failed to create a huge impact. The commercial success of the genre fell from grace. Gone were the system sellers, launch day specials and technical marvels that were F-Zero for the SNES and wipEout for the PS1.

This write-up is about four of the main titles in this time period, that grew out of the rise and craze of the 90's. Wishing to build the popularity and push the technical envelope further into the early 2000's, but ultimately sparked the fall of that very genre they wanted to progress. While there are other examples in the sixth generation, I've picked out four I feel represent the genre the strongest in their own ways. Spanning across the three main consoles from that generation.


The bargain bin gem: XGIII: Extreme G Racing



Platform tested: Sony PlayStation 2
Release year: 2001

Beating all the other three titles I feature in this article to the finishing line; XGIII: Extreme G Racing was the first released. WipEout Fusion had been postponed a year after an intended PlayStation 2 launch game schedule, opening up an opportunity for this fairly popular Acclaim racing series from the Nintendo 64, to slip in and take it's throne as the first true futuristic racer on the PS2.

The two previous Extreme G titles had risen as competitors to F-Zero X on the Nintendo 64 during the huge wipEout craze on the PS1. They featured futuristic motorbikes rather than anti-gravity ships like the competition. The first game even predates wipEout 64 and as such became N64 players alternative option to the genre and with a wide range of titles in it, made the N64 a fine futuristic racing home if you didn't own a PS1. While the Extreme G games received fairly positive reviews, they were always looked on as slightly b-list third party titles.

XG3 delved onto the PS2 early on then, most likely aiming at capturing all those early console buyers seeking for a similar experience on new hardware. XG3 would later see a release on the GameCube too, keeping to it's Nintendo roots. This early PS2 release was a smart move, and one that I would miss entirely as I waited for my wipEout fix. As such, I played this game for the first time recently, without those thick, rose tinted, nostalgia glasses on.

I found the game visually appealing from the get go, especially considering it's such an early PS2 release. It has a sharp picture quality and what seems like a fairly okay 60fps framerate. The tracks are large and scale into huge bends far into an impressive draw distance. There's this orange and purple colour scheme with a neon-lit city going on in the first track, which pulled my attention in quickly. really like the flame and heat effects behind the motorbikes as you race too! Since XG3 is based on motorbikes, the camera tilts a lot in first person view, working much like how most motorbike racers do. I found the outside camera more appealing though and easier to race with, especially when the motorbikes and their flame effects look so cool!

Accompanying the pleasing graphics are probably the best designed menues of the bunch of games I'm reviewing here. They look stylish, are easy to navigate and read, plus they have some of that flair games like this need. Although they don't quite hit the design highlights of The Designers Republic's WipEout 2097/3 menues, but then again they were in a league of their own. Hired in for the soundtrack are the electronic music gurus of the time; British record label Ministry Of Sound. Sporting a thumping techno soundtrack to accompany the fast gameplay, rivalling one of wipEout's most prominent features: quality licensed electronic music.

XG3 controls nicely with the analogue stick on PS2, letting you lean the motorbike at various angles into the corners. I tried the d-pad but found it too twitchy and less precise, so extra points for the developers making those loose PS2 analogue sticks work well. Turning in XG3 is unforgiving to begin with, requiring you to hit some air brakes to tackle the more challenging bends of the later race courses. Yes, there are air brakes here, something that seemed to become a genre standard since the first F-Zero. Rather than pulling the craft in a direction though, they send the bikes into a sliding motion. A tricky manoeuvre to perfect.

Racing rules reminds me somewhat of F-Zero; there's a sort of recharge lane with a glowing colour at various points of the track. You must drive over it to regenerate the motorbikes shield, and in a typical dilemma of usage; it's also your boost meter. Boost is needed to tackle those steep hills in each track, otherwise you'll slow down considerably. However, XG3 offers weapons too, so along a typical course there's at least one recharge lane with weapons aswell as the shield recharge. Shield lanes are green, weapon ones are purple. The tracks are incredibly long, so using boost and weapons tactically is advised.

Speaking of the games premise, here's the more interesting part though; money earned in races can be used for upgrading motorbike parts and weapon systems! A nice touch and it's quite well made, offering a lot of items in the shop to purchase.

To my surprise I quite liked XG3. I regret not picking it up back in the day. For the best futuristic racer option on PS2, this is it in my opinion. It takes a lot of lessons from what made the original wipEout trilogy great, understands them and takes it's own style on them based on the Extreme G series own style. The use of flashy visuals, stylish artstyle in the scenery, modern menues and licensed music makes XG3 one of the stronger contenders in the genre for the sixth generation. A solid game to play if you're into the genre.

Rating


★★★★

The last-gen king: WipEout Fusion



Platform tested: Sony PlayStation 2
Release year: 2002


My expectations after the ever-improving and fantastic WipEout trilogy on the PS1 was sky high for it's debut on the PlayStation 2 system; WipEout Fusion. Such a crushing realisation then, when Fusion turned out to be a sloppy and broken title. While it indeed on paper brought a healthy amount of new ideas to the table; larger and wider tracks, loops, ship upgrades and three track layouts for every location. It seemed to be the game WipEout fans had long been waiting for on paper. The problems however, lay waiting for the release day. Blind as fanboy, I instantly went to buy it on day one.

I still fondly remember the longest track of the first location in WF, I specifically remember this one because it was featured in a screenshot from a gaming magazine prior to release; it depicts a large mountain with the track climbing steep up it, then the track drops down into a foggy dip in the middle, out of sight and then up again from the fog far away into the distance. I was blown away by the immense draw distance, rounded edges of the track and mountainsides, plus the sheer scale of the screenshot. This particular environment and it's tracks, turn out to be alongside the orange and purple coloured ones with the underwater tunnel, the best the game has to offer. But that's about it, the problems lay plenty ahead.

Firstly, the issue of making wide tracks with open areas; it simply takes away the intense and claustrophobic feeling of passing other opponents in tight spots from the earlier WipEouts. The open sections are particularly badly made; like a comical scene of letting twelve Bambi's out on plain ice. Instantly the ships are just all over the place, ramming into terribly placed obstacles and hitting the edges. They quickly become the dreaded and hated parts of each track.

There's a sensation that the sides of the tracks seem covered in magnets, the nice side scraping from WipEout 2097/3 nowhere to be found; many races simply lead to ripping your ship apart as your are crushed against the sides, desperately trying to manoeuvre into the middle of the road. The horrible open area design truly highlights the lack of precise ship control, as if the physics engine is immediately broken in these sections. In generalm the controls feel extremely floaty and become evidently more so in the fast classes.

Secondly, it's all the small issues; the loops feel nothing like being on a roller coaster of any sort and are just visually bland to race through. The ship upgrading system is a meaningless affair, the controls areso floaty the upgrades mean nothing. The super sharp, air brake control from the old WipEout games are completely altered for a slower and much looser control scheme. Going straight from any of the PS1 WipEout games to this just immediately strikes you as a inferior controlled game with loose controls and odd physics.

The visuals, while far more detailed than before and running closely to 60fps, suffer from slowdowns and look muddy on a lot of the later and ugly designed track environments. All in all though, Fusion is ambitious in it's visuals, especially with it's huge draw distance and scale to tracks, but at what cost? Often I would encounter game breaking bugs too, like the ship falling through the track into oblivion or suddenly speeding off the track as it gains some weird momentum bug.

I could literally have bled disappointment way back in 2002 as the dark realisation quickly sank in; this WipEout was a broken mess of it's former self.

How is it to revisit now? Well let me just get it out of the way and say that it's as terrible as ever. If not worse. Even more apparent are WF's problems when compared to more refined control schemes through the years gone by and better performance in general among console games. The floaty ship handling and annoying track layouts bother me just as much. There's no nostalgic love covering over it's flaws either, and that's from a person who still loves playing the original WipEout trilogy to death on the PS1. Hell, even the less impressive Wipeout 64 offers far more fun, but Fusion? Fusion is just a mess and feels like someone tried to make a cheap WipEout game clone and failed miserably. It's definitely the one to skip if you plan on revisiting the entire series.

This might be a slight stretch; but I still believe Fusion is one of the main reasons the futuristic racing genre began it's downfall. It promised so much, it became a delayed development hell and held the dangerous torch of being best at what it did prior to it's release; ultimately revealing itself as a badly controlled, buggy and just broken sequel in general. It disappointed so many fans and for whatever reason, I can only imagine was too little playtime by reviewers back then, actually managed to get a bit of unworthy praise. Only Edge Magazine coming to mind as being the more sceptical one, and good thing that was; because this is WipEout's darkest hour and just plain bad.


Rating


★★


The expensive newcomer: Quantum Redshift



Platform tested: Microsoft Xbox
Release year: 2002


New to the console wars in the sixth generation was the Xbox console, filling the vacuum left by Sega as it's Dreamcast crashed and burned. Microsoft realised the popular futuristic racing demand of the late 90's and set off to create it's very own, expensively so, title. Though it would end up only being this one release, as it failed commercially, it's a forgotten title nowadays. Built by a newly hired team from many of the old WipEout series veterans, it set off to bring anti-gravity racing home to the Xbox as the better alternative to PS2's WipEout Fusion. Is it a hidden gem though?

I had never played QR previously, or heard of it for that matter, discovering it by accident on a Twitter post. As a huge fan of the genre I immediately bought a used copy to run on my Xbox 360, as it's backwards compatible with that console. It's a fairly easy title to get hold of on Ebay and a cheap one at that. Just look past it's horrendous box art though!

Much like WF, QR also offers a more wide track approach and boasts some great looking visuals that only the Xbox could deliver in it's generation; being the far more powerful console. It looks like a game built on a large budget graphically, while the overall artstyle, game layout, menus and racing ships lack a design flair that do the visual quality of the graphics justice. The game looks great and the tracks are spectacular, but the art design is bland.

So with it's wide tracks one could imagine we would be looking at WFs similar problems, but QR actually seems to succeed where WF did not. It's the one game of the four represented here that doesn't rely on airbrakes, but a standard brake button. That may sound like a negative, however for QR it actually helps the anti-gravity ships navigate the open tracks more easily and precise. It's nice to see the open approach actually work if the controls are right. The ships feel distinctly like their floating above the ground even with normal braking, giving it the right sensation of a anti-gravity racer.

As I mentioned, QR has some fantastic looking tracks, and it's visually where it perhaps takes the throne here. The textures on track surfaces are bump-mapped and look very impressive for their time. There's a lot of visual diversity for each track and the lighting is well done. Tracks range from dark and neon lit cities to orange clad sunsets in industrial areas. They're huge, often with multiple routes throughout.

Weapons are featured in QR too, being large energy balls in blue, yellow and red spread around each track to pick up. Blue gives energy to your front firing lasers, red energy lets you fire up to two heat seeking missiles. The yellow energy will power a temporary shield. It's a simple weapon system, that can offer you are large advantage if used right. However it feels a little sparse with only three types of pickups, and there's perhaps a tad too many energy orbs lying around to make any tactical use of them. Their design sadly have this early 2000's cheapness. I found the whole weapon system a bland and forgettable affair.

QR came out of the unknown for me and delivered a solid experience, in some areas it excels the competition. But the overall gameplay, especially the weaponry, and design is a little stale. It would have been nice to see a sequel fixing these issues, but as it stands it's just a generic game with nothing really standing out as remarkable or memorable. I do recommend people that like this genre to check QR out though, if only to see how they visually pushed the genre of the time and have a few hours of fun with. The faster racing classes, coupled with learning and obtaining a nice flow to racing around the pretty tracks, gave me at least a pleasurable adrenaline kick when playing it.

Rating


★★★

The classic old timer: F-Zero GX



Platform tested: Nintendo Gamecube
Release year: 2003


The latest release of the games I feature here is of course Nintendo's answer to the genre; a new F-Zero, titled GX. Built from the new software focused Sega, showcasing how fast Sega switched away from it's failed hardware attempt at the beginning of the six generation to being a software-only company delivering a ton of titles to both PlayStation 2, Gamecube and Xbox.

GX boasts a solid and sharp 60fps, unlike the other games featured here. Running at high speed with impressively styled tracks. Visuals that finally gives an F-Zero game the edge to stand out. While it's not technically as advanced with textures and visual effects like QR, or as large scaled, it has a more well rounded graphical approach focusing on speed and an overall more consistent design. The environment detail is on the sparse side, feeling more like a backdrop to a floating track than actually being connected with it. This isn't half as bad as the previous F-Zero games, but it still separates the actual track from the backdrops. The design of the tracks however, is varied enough and look flashy when you're speeding along.

Right from the bat the controls are the least daunting of all the games mentioned here, instantly you realise there's a far more solid feel altogether. Combined with superior quality and stiffness of the GameCube analogue stick compared to PS2's cheap ones. You can move the stick quite a ways with a more weighty sensation to the racing craft. It's a nice break from the twitchy controls in the other games mentioned here. Don't get me wrong here though, the ships move super fast and sharp, but the controls feel solid and precise.

Much like XG3, F-Zero holds back the use of boost until one round has passed of the race. For me it's a strange decision. Perhaps it's meant to create a more stable race start and remove some of the randomness that occurs in WF and QR as weapons are fired immediately. Removing any advantages in the first lap helps avoiding running into a terrible accident that puts you in an unfair disadvantage right from the very first seconds of a race.

FZGX has in fact no weapons, much like the SNES original, though it has a ramming move which was introduced in FZX on the N64. I mostly used my shield energy for boost personally and never really utilised the ramming. Boost can be restocked at certain refuelling strips lighting up in neon pink strips along each course. The strategy, much like how XG3 and the third WipEout game on PS1 did; lies in utilising the energy at the right moments to gain speed ahead of your opponents. Using it too much puts you in a dangerous position of emptying your shield and exploding when rammed by competitors or crashing into the track's sides.

There are negative issues in FZGX too though, the difficulty level is insane. I only managed to even complete the lowest Grand Prix types, never mind the story mode which was just impossible in my opinion. It's beyond the point of entertaining and challenging difficult, it's just dialled too high. The extremely high number of vehicles on track is somewhat questionable at times too. 40 racers seems like a over-crowded number, especially when failing to get anything but 1, 2 or 3 place just seem pointless as you badly need the points to win the Grand Prix in total.

All in all, F-Zero GX is probably the best game of the four here, the solid ship feeling and the precise controls combined with fast and pretty visuals make the game stand out as the one with the most polish. While the brutal difficulty really pulls down most players from enjoying all it's features, the amount of modes and content should keep you coming back. I just wish I could play it with a super easy setting!


Rating


★★★★

Summary


I'm kind of glad that F-Zero GX became that last major release of futuristic racers in the main waves of the craze, it's deserving of it's praise and makes the genre go out with a fairly large bang. While I may not quite understand the huge hype GX has since recieved, it's still a solid title.

We have later seen efforts of games like Konami's mediocre Fatal Inertia and the attempt at return to 90's glory with the PSP wipEout games and wipEout HD, Fury and 2048 of more recent years. Though, I find they've all belonged more in a more niché market, with only the latest wipEout releases making any sales impact worth noticing and even then it's nothing spectacular. The glory days  of futuristic racers being on top is well and truly over.

I'd recommend going back and checking out some of these games out if the genre interests you, they're all fairly common games to find for a low price. F-Zero GX is the best one to check out, it'll run on a Gamecube or the first Wii model. if you really want to see it shine though, you could always check it out in Dolphin emulator for a PC, running it at high resolution to really bring out it's best side!

Until a futuristic racer ones again thrones the top of the charts; have fun playing the good old ones!

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Lost in the female legacy

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy



Platform tested: PlayStation 4

Review: I enjoyed my playthrough of last years Uncharted 4 and Lost Legacy was intended as a singleplayer DLC expansion. However, it grew into a small standalone title of it's own. Having bought it on launch, I played through it quite intensively on it's first weekend after release. I'd read some previews that indicated the approach this time around was less linear than UC4's. Therefore my interest sparked me into a pre-order deal which included another Naughty Dog favourite of mine; Jak and Daxter. More on the latter in another review! Now lets talk a bit about how the ladies of Uncharted do a better job than the men!

My main complaint about UC4 and that goes for quite a few of Naughty Dog's story driven and cinematic focused games; is that they tend to be extremely linear. There's basically a game going from A to B, and while the travelling and varied locations is a positive experience, it also brings down the need to explore. For a series that's heavily inspired by Tomb Raider, missing the exploration freedom is a downer for me. The newer TR games have shown that larger, less linear and more exploration focused hub worlds work quite well with the formula. Luckily, Lost Legacy has taken the complaints about UC4 to heart and perhaps the delivered the best Uncharted experience I have come over.




ULL takes place after UC4 and leaves Nathan and Sam Drake to focus on Chloe Frazer from UC2 and Nadine Ross from UC4. Unlikely partners in personalities, they find themselves needing to help each other out to retrieve an artefact named "the tusk of Ganesh" in India. Chloe is the master thief and archaeology expert, while Nadine is the weapons specialist. Their conversations bring some really memorable and funny moments to listen to, much like how Nathan and Sam chatted away together in UC4. Although you only control Chloe, you are often in need of Nadines help. It's a great sense of frienship building up along ht way, with small story pieces of the their earlier lives. Chloe and Nadine are some fantastically written, strong female leads. 

Apart from the opening cityscape of an Indian town set at night, the game is set in one location the rest of playtime. While this is a slightly more budget title, with a large reuse of visual environments from UC4, it makes up for itself by introducing a fantastic open-ended gameplay structure midway. It opens into a fairly large open area with a large tower in the center. Here you need to explore different locations surrounding it and activate triggers to gain access to an ancient door. This open structure leaves lots of hidden places to find and tiny tombs to be solved. It's a small but wonderful nod towards the two last Tomb Raiders. This part alone made up for the linearity that brought UC4 down for me.

While the open-ended structure doesn't last through-out, there's enough breathtaking places to find in the latter, more linear, half of the game to make up for it, for one reason alone; the game focuses on solving ancient puzzles in a larger degree. ULL understands where it's heritage evolved from and embraces it. Focusing less on generic shooting and more on good old tomb raiding without an obvious linearity. With this focus on exploring freely, the gunfights actually felt more welcome this time around.




Don't get me wrong here though, this is not a full sized game unlike UC4, the vast location variation and grander build up of story is at a lower end of the scale here. Look at it more as an indie sized title with a triple A budget in development. In fact, it's a generous one at that, clocking in at around 8-10 hours of gameplay. UC4 was about 16-20 hours in comparison. ULL lasts longer of course if you go searching for secrets, and in fact it rewards you so in a better way. The exploring in the open-ended area is highly recommended and kind of the essence of this expansion. I would recommend playing UC4 first in any case though, to get your head around the UC4 world and gameplay, but this is a absolute must-buy afterwards.

Once again, like UC4, ULL delivers some of the most beautiful visuals in the genre around- Showcasing that Naughty Dog are some of the best when it comes to character animation especially. This game is a welcome surprise and a fantastic experience that fixed that itch for a new Tomb Raider game. I guess exploration is just better when women take the lead role!

Rating

★★★★


    + Plus points

    • Less linear than UC4 and a welcome open world approach.
    • Fantastic main characters, Chloe as a newcomer in the UC4 universe is a great heroine throughout the game.
    • Breathtaking visuals and locations to explore, this game engine is just incredible visually.

    - Minus points

    • New designed areas, but lends a lot of the visuals directly from UC4.
    • Shooting mechanics and enemy AI still feel simple.
    • Climbing still feels a too automated at times.

      Friday, 1 September 2017

      The kind of Ex you don't mind returning

      Deus Ex: Mankind Divided



      Platform tested: Xbox One

      Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution caught me by surprise back in 2011 on the good old Xbox 360, with vibes from Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell combined with great stealth based, shooter action in third person. Unique atmosphere and gameplay I gladly rewarded with five stars out of six. I actually didn't realise how much I missed the original until I replayed the first level prior to diving into it's sequel; Mankind Divided. To my great surprise the new game retains all what I loved in the previous game, but somehow still manages to be uniquely different from anything else, putting Deus Ex in a kind of style of it's own.

      There's a nice twenty minute summary video of Human Revolution you can watch prior to playing the actual game in Mankind Divided, recommend for newcomers and veterans alike. It gives you a nice way of coming up to date with the story. You can dive into this game without prior knowledge of Human Revolution but I recommend playing it first though, it's even backwards compatible with the Xbox One! If you have a good gaming PC though; both games in 60 fps must make them even more fun, fast and precise to play!





      Mankind Divided throws you into a sniping mission in Dubai with it's first area. This whole scenario and layout teaches you the basic controls along the way. Easing new players into the rather heavy control scheme. This first mission even ends in a quite challenging "boss" fight, perhaps throwing new players a little into the deep end. However, this mission perfectly sums up everything that's good about the modern Deus Ex instalments; blendning stealth and action perfectly. From here on the game moves to a slightly more open ended approach in Prague, reminding me of City 17 from Half-Life 2 visually. This small hub world lets you take on side-missions, which I recommend strongly as there aren't that many, as well as the main story missions.

      Much like in HR, the main missions sometimes take trips outside of Prague to distant locations. I love these little field trips and they really help mix up the variety. It's a smart way to offer some vastly different visual areas too! Completing missions, shooting down or stealthy knocking out enemies, hacking computers and locating hidden areas rewards the player with experience points. These points carry on to upgrade points for the game hero's augmented body. Adam Jensen, as he is named, has a large set of skills he can learn and upgrades to his augmentations. There's also crafting parts to find, these can be used to upgrade weapons with new sights, larger magazines, silencers etc.

      I enjoyed the more open reward system for taking down enemies this time around; gone are the stealth-only rewards, and it's it's place are experience points for both loud and stealthy approaches. It helps the game feel less linear and welcomes all kinds of players. Personally I don't mind some stealth in small doses, but I'm a little impatient to do so all the time, as such this new rewards system for both was a very welcome feature. Don't get me wrong though, it's still a slower type of third person shooter, but then again Deus Ex isn't about guns blazing. The enemies are few in numbers, the fighting takes place in confined spaces and it's difficult to succeed in a full on firefight, it's a perfect balance for this kind of game.





      On one hand I really appreciate Mankind Divided for being so much like the Human Revolution experience, there really aren't many other titles like them. On the other hand I feel there's things that could and should have been improved for the sequel. Controls are still stiff and kind of clunky, I would also have liked to see far more improvement to the button navigation. Swapping weapons, using power ups, going in and out of cover etc. feels cumbersome; sure there are shortcuts but they're too many and they feel unsatisfying. There's also nasty slowdown occurring when running through the open hub world, as if the game can't cope with streaming fast enough. A glaring issue that should have been resolved by now through patches.

      I'd still put Human Revolution over Mankind Divided. HR just felt more memorable in places, the complete removal of boss encounters, and the fewer distinct locations make Mankind Divided somewhat forgettable at times. Sure the locations look great and ooze atmosphere, you'll be hard to find more detailed indoor environments crowded with so many small details, but it could do with more unique gameplay moments. I truly enjoyed playing through it though, and it's a title that deserves far more attention. Even to this day HR and MD are very unique experiences that very few games compare to. If you loved HR, go for this game, it's more of the same and prettier, if you haven't though; begin with HR.

      Rating

      ★★★★

        + Plus points

        • Equally rewards stealth and action approaches, opening for more styles of play.
        • Environments are cleverly designed, tons of depth to small areas and optional routes throughout.
        • Unique game style that offers something few other titles do.

        - Minus points

        • Controls are over complicated, with one too many shortcuts.
        • Nothing fundemantally new here, very alike the previous game.
        • Fewer memorable moments and locations than previously.

        Sunday, 20 August 2017

        Wild Bolivian recon holidays

        Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands



        Platform tested: Xbox One

        Ubisoft catered a lot for the open world aspect of coop shooting games with their excellent The Division last year. TC's Ghost Recon Wildlands takes this coop multiplayer even further. If you really enjoyed the coop parts in Far Cry 4, you'll love to learn that TCGRW is even more of this, only with ton more options. In fact it's a huge game solely about four special soldiers completing tasks in a gigantic open world, slowly taking down a huge narco cartel in Bolivia. Played either alone with three other AI soldiers to command or with friends, you are in for a massive task. The problem is, does it outstay it's welcome?

        The Ghost Recon franchise has had varying types of shooters in it's franchise through the years, no previous back story or replay of these are needed for TCGRW though. It's an entirely standalone title as such. It plays as a third person shooter with precise gunplay in first person to take down the enemies when shooting. There's a large amount of stuff to do here and a game to really dig those grinding skills into. Let me share some of my experience.




        The storyline is a pretty standard Ubisoft Tom Clancy affair; some military introduction babble from a high ranking officer, a huge enemy operation needs taking down and some real life setting to fit in nicely, making it feel more authentic. It's hardly a story that engages much emotion or atmosphere with the player, but the narrative introduction of each gang leader is at least exciting in it's movie style presentation. It's about the "not so distant" future of warfare with top end equipment for you to play around with.

        The first mission eases you into the controls; the spying aspect of the drone, marking enemies, setting up sniper syncing and silently taking down enemies. It's about being ghosts, stealthy as best you can, but luckily it's a game that allows you to go loud if you are spotted. The noisy firefights are indeed tricky to survive rather than sneaking your way around, but at least it opens for different approaches. I really hate stealth games that stop the player after they are seen by the enemy. What's stopping you here is more about the survival of tons of enemies engaging you in combatt once you're spotted.

        The gameplay feels solid, just what you'd expect from a Ubisoft shooter, I instantly settled into the controls and really enjoyed covering behind objects, popping my iron sights out and shooting the bad guys in first person. It brings me back to the glorious gameplay hours spent in Rainbow Six Vegas, with switching between third and first person being incredibly fun! In fact, I'd say the game is a combination of Far Cry 4's coop mode, think an open world with dense foilage where sneaking up to enemy bases and taking down everyone in it silently is key, combined with the controls of the RB6 Vegas games.

        The main point of the plot is taking down the head of the narco cartel, however he has tons of leaders working for him, each controlling a set area of the huge map. Arresting or killing these leaders gives you clues and intel towards taking down the next and so on. It's a fun way of portioning the game into more bite sized segments avoiding overwhelming the player completely. The sheer size of the game's map is unbelievable though; think of Far Cry 4's two huge map parts, TCGRW has twenty and will take you nearly four and half hours to walk across by foot. Exploring each map segment gives you access to new weapons, experience point for upgrades to your soldiers and gun parts to further enhance your favourite weapon of choice. There's even a local rebel group, which you can call in for backup in form of soldiers or artillery, to upgrade too.

        The upgrade system is a way of rewarding the player for grinding themselves up level ladder. So big is this game, that although you set out to play this game for tens and tens of hours; well I doubt your're going to see it right to the ending credits. Much like The Division, this is about making soldier classes, leveling them and enjoying the cooperative part. I must stress though, if you don't mind a generic story and simply enjoy shooter games, I really did enjoy playing it on my own with the help of AI soldiers. Just be warned it gets very lonely and repetitive on your own





        Visually the game is an impressive one for the eye, considering the vast landscape and draw distance it's fantastic engine tech running the graphics show. Right up there with The Division level of detail;  there's tons of foliage, mountains and varied terrains making TCGRW a fun game to explore. To aid help in this huge playfield there are vehicles to drive and especially the helicopter gives a lovely birds eye view and showcases the diversity of the engine, looking good even at a distance. The close up details are good too, hiding in blowing grass and branches everywhere. My playthrough was on an Xbox One, where the game is 900p (vs. PS4's 1080p), still it looks very clean. Here's hoping the Xbox One X version running 4K will look super sharp. All in all a solid visual package for such a huge scaled game.

        TCGRW does suffer in some departments though; the game is incredibly repetitive, although it never has sold itself as anything other than a big open world, grindy type of coop shooter. Just be aware if a deep story, lots of cinematics and a linear singleplayer game is your thing, there's nothing to find here. I found the missions felt very auto generated in structure, areas previously stumbled upon would be reset if a story mission suddenly took place there. There's only a handful of mission types too, so expect repetition in the truckload. I also encountered, numerous times, a bug where I simply fell through the ground of game. Annoying, especially if I was in the middle of a mission. I also found the AI only to be tough in large groups, however their AI intelligence leaves somewhat to be desired.

        I went in expecting the game to be what it was, I did my research before buying and did so when the price had fallen. A such, I found the game delivered what it promised. It could clearly have been a much more fantastic experience had it followed a more narrative approach with a focus on storytelling like the Far Cry games of late, but it aims for the online community, simply delivering a single player only for convenience. There's tons of potential here for much deeper experience, but it never aimed for that and so my complaints will just remain as wishlist for a potential sequel.

        Buy the game with this in mind and enjoy some incredibly solid, fun and tactical special forces gunplay mechanics and firefight action. Be warned though, it's repetitive nature will kick in sooner than later.

        Rating

        ★★★★

          + Plus points

          • Massive open world, littered with places to visit and stuff to find.
          • Lots of character and gun customisation options.
          • Coop play is highly prioritised throughout the gameplay mechanics.

          - Minus points

          • Repetitiveness in missions, tasks and collectables.
          • Enemy AI feels a little simple.
          • Very grindy game structure, with little focus on anything else.

          Friday, 11 August 2017

          Remodernised warfare

          Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Remastered




          Platform tested: Xbox One

          One can argue that last gen consoles really didn't begin their huge success until COD4 released in 2007. Unlike the PS3's lacklustre launch lineup and first year of bad exclusives, the 360 had at least had a few huge multiplayer hits pre-COD4 with Call of Duty 2, at launch, Halo 3 and Gears of War. However, COD4 really cemented a significant change in play for console players online. The COD series went from a fairly successful series to a multi-billion business and grew to become the best selling franchises of all time.

          From a singleplayer point of view COD4's story and setting changed the shooter genre fundamentally too. It moved COD from the over-used World War 2 theme over to modern warfare and weaponry. This change of setting would become hugely popular for other competing titles, even though titles like Battlefield 2 had done so years prior to this. The difference here though lay in the story telling, making the setting feel more dramatic and real world like. COD4 would influence a whole industry with it's levelling based multiplayer system, letting you access more weapons and perks as you progressed through XP points gained in online matches. A touch of RPG sprinkled into the mix if you will, another decision that would influence tons of other genre titles as well. Leveling in all types of games is pretty common now, before COD4 it was mainly used in RPG's.

          The fast paced and smooth 60fps framerate combined with incredibly good gunplay would put the COD series into a leading role for many years. So many in fact, it still dominates the multiplayer scene and shooting genre to this date. This generation has seen competing shooters like Battlefield and Halo moving over to 60fps on console too, further proving that framerate over graphics is the better and more popular option for people wanting fast and responsive gameplay in the competitive scene.

          Here I am then, 10 years later, once again playing through COD4. This time in a remastered wrapping, Xbox 360 controller swapped out for a Xbox One since then. How does it hold up today, both in singleplayer and multiplayer?





          There's no doubt that the visuals have received an upgrade, perhaps mostly in the resolution rather than a huge graphical leap. While the 3D models have been redone nicely, especially the characters look much better, the sense of this game looking like something between this gen and the last is somewhat present. While some areas look significantly improved, others look slightly dated. Some even have a more bland colour scheme than the original, which I found to be disappointing. Especially considering this game originally released amidst the grey, brown and gritty era of last gen. As a whole though, the visuals are improved for the far better, albeit some nasty dithering going on with some surfaces even if the textures gave received a huge improvement. Environment geometry feels sparse and more clearly rooted in last gen though, this mostly because the game is a pure make-over and doesn't alter anything about the gameplay or level layouts.

          The story manages to hold up incredibly well in singleplayer, just as intense and perfectly paced as it used to be back in 2007. Prior to playing I thought the presentation and storytelling wouldn't be as exciting ten year later, but I was wrong. The suspense of stopping full out nuclear war between the US and Russian rebels is still very much present and quite frighteningly so. The way both the UK and US special forces are presented, with jumps between controlling characters in each of them feels enjoyable and varied. With a lower action pace than the sequels, combined with the more down to earth and "boots on the ground" gameplay, makes this feel refreshingly simple and more welcome than later COD instalments futuristic style. The back to the 80's sniper mission "All ghillied up" too, feels just as fantastic as it did back then!

          Gameplay holds up, with a less cluttered experience. Especially in multiplayer it's evidently so. Just three simple bonuses for multiple kills, plus far less annoying perks to equip your character with. The fast paced 60fps gunplay, with a precise and satisfying feeling makes this it hold up nicely in both single- and multiplayer. The simplicty would be a nice gawteway into multiplayer shooters if you have never expereinced the genre before, a tip to newcomers to COD.

          The huge letdown to the excellent gunplay however, is the terrible sound. It's just as tinny and simple as it was back in the original. There's not even a heavy bass or meaty sound to any of the weapons. It's hugely disappointing that the sound quality wasn't far more upgraded.





          To say the game hasn't aged would be lying, while the story and progress of the game hold up, the restricted levels, infinite enemy spawning, cheap grenade spamming and bad sound quality don't. This is probably the best way to play the game as a newcomer to COD4, or even to replay it. But I wished it was more fleshed out. At times it feels more of a 1.5 version of COD4 than a true remaster. I understand this was bundled along the deluxe version of the newest COD Infinite Warfare and only recently began selling as a standalone, but I would have enjoyed some more polish.

          At the end of the day I had fun replaying all the great story moments, plus revisiting the excellent locations both in singleplayer and multiplayer. If you've never experienced this game you really should give this a try, it will give you an exact, but re-polished way of playing COD4. It's simply just a graphical make over, with no alterations at all to actual game. Ageing aside, it still holds up as one of the most groundbreaking first person games and will stand in time as a game that changed the industry through a lot of new and unique ideas. Who says no to this kind of fast and smooth 60fps shooting in a fantastic and tense setting anyhow?!

          Rating

          ★★★★

            + Plus points

            • Textures and 3D models receive a nice upgrade.
            • Story and presentation hold up incredibly well.
            • The more simplistic style to both single- and multiplayer is a nice break these days.

            - Minus points

            • Bad sound and infinitive enemy spawning still haven't been fixed from the original.
            • The actual remastering is somewhat limited, especially the geometry feels sparse.
            • Stands in the shadow as a bait to buy COD:IW, it deserves more attention.

            Tuesday, 1 August 2017

            Norwegian magic festival locked to Earth

            Earthlock: Festival Of Magic



            Platform tested: Xbox One

            Inspiration may very well be a tricky baseline to build a new game on, but done right it can work out most favourable. For Earthlock: Festival Of Magic that inspiration comes in a strong form of the JRPG industry veteran Final Fantasy. It's an ambitious series to follow, but the Norwegian developed game takes a far lower budget and small scale approach to the basic formula. At times it could have easily been a small Final Fantasy spin-off release.

            The music, turn based battles, enemy design, main characters, environments and the text only dialogue; it's all obviously old-school FF inspired. Something that could have gone wrong, luckily it's cleverly inspired and works out fantastic. Fans of FF or JRPG's in general really need to raise their sights beyond Japan and take a close look at this short, but sweet RPG.




            The game jumps quickly into things and introduces you to the main characters after a fairly brief intro. They're all spread apart in a fantasy coastal world, along the way they all somehow become connected together through the story. The game eases you into combat with small battles featuring instances of one to three weak enemies. The introduction even throws you into a little boss fight towards the end too. From here you are introduced to shops, healing items and the world map.

            The difficulty curve can quickly become quite steep though, when the game lets you roam more freely on it's world map. Nudging you towards the areas you're supposed to go in the story, as other routes will brutally end you in over powered battles. I liked the FF13 approach with all enemies being visible before engaging them into a battle scene.

            Earthlock luckily dares go beyond it's inspiration material too, introducing some small clever ideas of it's own. You are for instance rewarded for engaging more enemies than your own party, which actually can be up to four characters. Doing so will reward you with extra XP. Two and two characters are also pitched together as cooperation will fill a super power ability which the paired characters can activate and use to gain even more powerful attacks. There's also a safe haven, frog island, where you can rest up, buy items, make new attack cards and perhaps the most interesting: grow plants. You can level these and use them to make potions and ammunition. If you throw a few hours into this garden, you can really become a strong player with the best kind of ammo and items at your disposal.

            I love the visual artstyle of the game. It looks like something from the PS2 era, only in sharp HD. The colour palette is colourful with a soft pastel palette to it. The characters looks cartoon inspired, reminding me a lot of Beyond Good & Evil visually. There's a lot of visual variation too; with deserts, woodlands, creepy indoor mansions, large castles and underground dungeon crawler like mazes. It's a pretty and visually satisfying game, with a mild and comfy look to it. 




            While it's obvious the game doesn't have the depth of a large RPG like the mainline Final Fantasy series, it doesn't really matter because it's a shorter, more casual experience it's aiming for. Sure, some of the boss battles could have been toned down a little as they often require a big jump in player level and are ruthless, but it's a game that doesn't require too much grinding to hit that max level. If there's a bigger issue to address here it's the story. While it does it's job, it doesn't really blow your mind in any way and feels kind of subtle. It just passes along without really standing out. Although a text based RPG requires you to engage yourself more through reading, they could maybe have thrown in some more cutcenes to pull the player more into it's story.

            For a shorter, back to basics JRPG inspired game with a warm, charming and colourful world to play turn based battles in; this game is warmly recommended. The characters are cute and while the story doesn't blow any minds, it refreshingly straightforward and right to the point without to many diversions along the way. There's enough depth for RPG fans to dig their teeth into some difficult battles too and absolutely worth the 30-40 hours the game takes to complete. Another great example of a strong indie title that deserves attention from an audience only looking for games being shipped out of Japan.

            Rating

            ★★★★★☆

              + Plus points

              • Classic, FF inspired RPG, that brings back memories from earlier 3D RPG's.
              • Fantastic artstyle, with beautiful locations and charming characters.
              • Turn based gameplay is easy to learn and a relaxing pace change.

              - Minus points

              • Story is a little thin with nothing really standing out.
              • Lacks the depth that more hardcore RPG fans will crave.
              • Learning curve is uneven with some of the boss fights.