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.

        Friday, 7 July 2017

        Edgy swords and calibured souls

        Retroactive review: SoulCalibur II HD Online


        Back in the early 2000's I'd heard so many good things about SoulCalibur on the Sega Dreamcast, the sequel to SoulBlade (SoulEdge in Japan). Jokingly referred to as "Tekken with weapons". It was the first game that not only got a perfect arcade port, but also had been extensively upgraded for the Dreamcast. The days of superior arcade graphics had passed, now the consoles were better.

        I could hardly wait when SoulCalibur II was announced for my platform of choice that generation, the PlayStation 2. Released in 2003 for the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox, one year after the arcade, it was the fighting game I learned to love on my PS2. Finally putting my other beloved Namco produced PS2 fighter into it's DVD case for a rest; Tekken Tag Tournament. SCII felt fresh, different and more exciting, much thanks to it's 3D orientated 8-way movement and exciting weapons to battle with. But also because I had never experienced the franchise before.


        Although I somehow never care to think of the 2000-years as "a long time ago", seeing the introduction video and hearing the sounds of the main menu in SoulCalibur II HD made me realise it's ages since I played it. I remember battling it out with a friend who also had the game, aggressively debating which character was the best one and comparing how far we'd reached in the main story mode. Every fight was about trying out new tricks and strategies, but perhaps even more importantly; learning how to stop them from damaging you. Wonderful memories that give me that warm nostalgic feeling, even though I never settled into the PS2 library as fondly as I did with the PS1. I guess retrogaming nostalgia is picking up for that console now too as it's such a long time ago.

        Going back to the story mode I mentioned, I cannot avoid the subject of how excellent it was, called the "Weapon Master" mode. I'd always thought that fighting games were a tad shallow in their content before SCII. Discussing this topic and agreeing with my SCII rival friend; we'd love to see a fighter with some sort of grander story content than a simple arcade mode back in the early 2000's. Behold when SCII arrived then, we missed out big time on the Sega Dreamcast and the first SC with exactly the same mode here in Norway, which offered just what we'd hoped!

        In Weapon Master you embark upon a story of a traveller seeking the mighty Calibur sword. Each location give you, while simply presented as text, a small back story and description of where you are and why. Fights will typically be multiple battles with one life bar, some sort of boss or scenarios where the ground is slippy or your life decreases rapidly. These mission-like tasks give the game more depth and lifespan to the singleplayer, an unusual feature for fighters back when SC1 and SC2 released. Granted the story was simple and completely alike regardless of which character you chose, but it at least felt refreshing and far more ambitious than the competition, and that meant a lot for my opinion of the game.




        Let's not completely forget the arcade mode though, it's the standard affair of a series of fights, followed by one main last boss fight and then a short ending to watch. Nothing new, but it's standard affair when fighters are concerned and  a fast and fun way of collecting endings. Costumes and new weapons though, have to earned and bought through points earned in Weapon Master. Kind of forcing players that wanted stuff unlocked to play the main offering of SCII. Something everyone that plays this game really should!

        There's a fairly large and varied number of fighters too. Each with unique weapons and moves. Learning the moveset and most of important of all; the range of your weapons key to becoming more skilled at SCII. That range gives you the knowledge of knowing when you can strike with a vertical or horizontal blow and knowing when you can approach and avoid the enemy's weapon. Be it nunchucks, a fighting stick, a samurai sword or a long whip you are up against or using, you need to know how far it could reach or how fast it could hit to become skilled. It still is very fun, and was a huge change for me back then from fighting with fists and legs like in most other fighters at the time.

        SoulCalibur II HD Online is a faithful conversion of the old console game. Everything looks just how I remembered it, although the jaw dropping graphics look incredibly simplistic by today's standard. This time though, it's not running through the infamous horrible video output of the PS2 (even the Dreamcast which predates the PS2 with two years has much better image quality output), which hampered many games from showing their best side, but in glorious 1080p at 60fps! Smooth, sharp and still pretty nice looking in it's upgraded resolution.

        It's perhaps the last graphical effort the arcades pushed before disappearing as home consoles became extremely powerful and far more advanced. In a time just before the dawn of online console gaming too. To modern eyes it may look a little sterile and empty, but it's clean and sharp presentation without tons of clutter onscreen feels kind of a refreshing change compared to modern games. Plus it also has this colourful arcade, 90's Sega-like flair to it's visuals that I can't exactly explain. Colourful and vibrant then, showing off it's high polygonrate and impressive 3D models of it's time.




        The game still plays fast and responsive, it's fairly simple control scheme captivates even today. Perhaps the appeal of a simpler game is breath of fresh air as many fighting series these days take for granted you're familiar with them in advance. The variation in fighting styles are quite impressive as each character feels distinctly different. Be it long range weapons or close combat ones. As a minus though, which is not an issue for me since I was playing the game as a singleplayer one, I don't believe this game has received any of the patches the arcade version did. As such, I'm guessing there are ways to cheat with certain characters not being balanced enough. This will leave hardcore players annoyed, it was a chance to make the definitive version of the game and they still missed that mark. Sadly.

        Can SCII still hold up though, besides nostalgia in a clean presented and high resolution package? Is there anything to get here that younger gamers can't receive through a far more recent fighting game? Well, I felt the SC series after this release became a little cluttered with ideas and new directions that perhaps weren't well planned out. As such I feel SCII still offers a more pure Soul Calibur experience, just before the series went a bit overboard. The Weapon Master mode still stands out as a fairly unique idea, that rarely has been touched since in a similar fashion. There's also a ton of unlockable content here, further showcasing these were the days before paid DLC cluttering any extras you would want to obtain.

        All things considered though, it's probably a purchase that values itself best for nostalgic players rather than newcomers. Back in the day I'd give this five stars without blinking, these days it falls back a star compared to more modern iterations. Plus they missed the mark on making it the go-to definitive version by not including patches from the arcade version.

        Rating

        ★★★

        Summary


        I've thrown hours of hours into SCII through my teenage years and I replayed the Weapon Master mode once again now. I feel it's kept it's charm well and would recommend others with fond memories of SCII check it out on either Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Xbox One. If the Dreamcast was your scene though, don't worry there's SC1 available too in HD (only on Xbox 360 & One mind), though it hasn't retained it's weapon master mode sadly, but it's an excellent port nonetheless.

        A fighting game classic then, a ton of great memories and a fun reunion! If I were to pick one of my favourite fighters through the years alongside Tekken Tag Tournament and Dead or Alive, I'd pick SCII each time. Just like I'd pick Ivy each time to be my fighter!

        Let the nostalgia battle commence!

        Monday, 3 July 2017

        There are zero horizons at dawn

        Horizon Zero Dawn



        Platform tested: PlayStation 4

        Moving away from their Killzone franchise, Horizon Zero Dawn is Sony's dutch, first party developer Guerilla Games, first take on an open world game with perhaps one of the worst and non-descriptive game titles in years. Set in an overgrown post-apocalyptic fantasy landscape blended with high-tech remnants of buildings and robotic animals. You play as red headed Aloy, all the way from her childhood where she is taught by an outcast of a large tribe that rules the lands you roam. She finds a hologram remnant device which allows her to learn special abilities and connects her to the past technology of the ancients. Continuing in her adulthood, you learn to explore the world and the secrets it contains, not only about the present tribe conflicts, but the how significant the story and decisions of the ancient modern technology was.

        It plays as a typical third person game with a foot in many genres; blending action, stealth and adventure combined with many role playing elements. It's a bold change of landscape for the developer, coupled with a lot of daring ideas put into the mix; being an almost stone age setting, with stealth action gameplay featuring bows against robots. It's different alright. Does it succeed though, especially at it's ambitious scale and incredible visuals shown in it's preview trailers prior to release?

        The short answer yes, a technical quality game through and through, but the longer, playthrough answer perhaps dampens the experience somewhat from becoming a perfect masterpiece. HZD delivers what it promised; breathtaking visuals and scope, plus strong gameplay, but it falls into the dangerous pit that plagues a lot of open world games: outstaying it's welcome with repetitiveness in a empty shell of a vast landscape. Don't get me wrong from the start here though; it's one of the finest games this year, and a real PS4 system pusher. Let's take a closer look though.




        NZD's gameplay is based on a melee and a bow shooting mechanic. Stealth is heavily emphasised by the game, taking down the pace one would think this game was about in it's open world. You are forced to scout the environments, lure enemies into one on one fights and take them down without bringing too much attention to yourself. There's a lot of extra skills to unlock with XP points and varied selection of bows for close, fast combat, sniping and bomb throwing to aid the player. There's human enemies too, however they seem more of an after-thought and work as stupid cannon fodder. The animal robots bring the much needed variation and are the stars of the show here. Each animal attacks in different ways, some are even peaceful until you engage them. Others are so huge you need to climb them to scale them, a breathtaking experience the first time you try!

        There's no doubt that HZD is a visual treat for the eye; the engine beautifully renders extremely detailed characters and close up details of nature and metallic animals. Wind blowing in the trees and the dense foliage makes for the most impressive parts, epsically when the sun bounces it's reflections off various surfaces. It's an impressive scale to the world too, with lots of detail far into the distance. Clearly, most of the detail is best shown up close, but the game successfully balances the landscape depicted into the horizon too. It's one of the prettiest games on the system, especially considering the 1080p resolution, double that for PS4 Pro owners, and the sheer size of the play area. Another example that exclusives for both the PS4 and Xbox One end up looking a step above the multiplats.

        I really appreciate how detailed they have made small features like Aloy 's hair and face too, it looks mind blowing detailed up close, as do all the characters that appear in cutscenes. The only visual gripe I have though, which kind of ties in with the actual enjoyment of the game, is that the world looks a little barren at times. There's a lot of repetition going on; that red sneaking grass repeats itself everywhere and there's basically desert, snow and woodland as scenery settings. The latter two blend so much into each other they basically feel like the same are at times.

        Often areas just feel like barren and empty shells with a few robot dinosaurs thrown in. I guess this isn't unusual in these type of games, Far Cry 4 had some of the same issues, but it sticks out at times. Especially when there's little actual interaction with the world, you sort of just walk through it to reach places. I wouldn't have minded some more climbing and exploration like in a Tomb Raider game to ground Aloy into a more believable and interactive world, but I guess this isn't that kind of game.




        NZD is quite challenging, at times it can get quite frustratingly so. If you for instance plan on simply brute forcing your way through and only sticking to main missions, you will most likely hit a wall at some point. The enemies will be at a far to high level, it's positive to see a game that at least tries to reward the player to do some grinding and side missions to level up. It luckily never feels like you need hours on end with XP grinding though.

        A hard game, yes and that's fair, but the forced stealth gameplay, which although brings the pace of the game down, becomes unforgiving and repetitive when enemies become alert of your presence. It goes from a sneaky, bow shooting precision to a repetitive melee mashing chaos as you desperately try to dodge roll over and over to avoid attacks and smash the enemies with your fighting stick. I wish the enemies could've been less arrow sponges too; some require tedious amounts of shooting to take down. Amidst a chaotic dodge rolling fight, I found the traps and trip wires difficult to use. As such I had to take them down one standard arrow at a time, a painfully slow process. As I progressed the ability tree eased at least some of the frustration as I became powerful enough to survive even the chaotic brawls. The boss fights though, man I hated them, they just throw everything you learned about stealth out the window and feel incredibly unfair.

        Overall I really enjoyed NZD, it's a game that pushes a lot of new ideas into a truly ambitious setting. A likeable, strong female protagonist and a blend of high tech futuristic elements set into a sort of stone age era makes for a very unique fantasy world. The storyline takes you across icy mountains, dense woodlands and rocky deserts with enough variation within the main missions to keep you interested for it's roughly 25-30 hour ride. While I did enjoy playing through the story for the most part, I found the world elsewhere to slowly become repetitive and lacking depth. As mentioned there's no real exploring or climbing around the environments to actually give the world a more engaging experience to make me stay for the long run.

        The complaints however, don't outweigh the fact that Guerilla Games have truly developed a great new series here which I really enjoyed playing for hours. It's unique artstyle, setting and enemy design really intrigued me; I really couldn't tell how the game would span out. If comparisons should be made, I would still recommend Rise Of The Tomb Raider over this, ROTTR being a little more linear and tightly structured with better variation. For this year though, I doubt any exclusive for PS4 will surpass Horizon: Zero Dawn!

        Rating

        ★★★★

          + Plus points

          • Beautiful visuals, lighting and setting. The game handles close and distant detail in a remarkable fashion.
          • Gameplay is solid, feels exciting to sneak up and kill the robotic animals.
          • Unique setting and story, with excellent quality in cutscenes.

          - Minus points

          • The open world feels barren and empty at times.
          • The huge focus on stealth makes the pace tedious for an open world game.
          • Repetitive in the long run when the campaign ends.

          Friday, 19 May 2017

          A speedy need for a reboot

          Need For Speed (2015)



          Platform tested: Xbox One

          There's no shortage of Need For Speed titles, and within this huge racing franchise. It spans all the way back to the early days of 3D racing in 1994, on the ill-fated 3DO console, there's been a lot of sub-racing genres represented throughout it. This latest instalment, from 2015, aims to reboot the entire franchise into something new. Perhaps a little close in time to the game before it, one can ask ourselves if the series could have needed a longer break, but this reboot turns out to be quite a solid racer under the bonnet.

          NFS's appearance is perhaps it's most innovative "feature" for the genre, while the rest of the structure is a fairly typical for an open world NFS fare. Situated in a huge city, you're a new member of an underground racing league. Rivalling gangs roam the streets and illegal street races are the way to make a statement and climb the ranks. It's not exactly rocket science, and the story within is represented in some cheesy, but intentionally so, movie clips with actual actors in. The cutscenes are so over the top they actually become quite funny, and bring back memories of older 90's EA titles with similar video clips. Tongue in cheek and probably intended exaggeration, they become a nice way of moving the story forward and introducing the characters in the story.




          The actual driving feels very solid this time around, there's a nice meaty sound to the cars and they control with more feeling of actually gripping realistically to the tarmac. The far more arcade approach of recent NFS games have had this floaty drifting mechanic in comparison. This time around the physics engine are somewhere between arcade and simulation but closer to the latter if that makes sense. There's a wealth of tuning and styling options too, more so than most other racers in this half sim category. Letting you dig into setting up the car both visually and mechanically just how you like it. For more casual players though, you can simply tune the car by pulling a bar from drift to grip as your preferred car handling.

          Much like how the Forza Horizon games allow you to drive the type of car of specific model, without forcing you into stuff you don't like, NFS2015 lets you hold on to your favourite car for long periods of racing too. Allowing you to tune it up to compete in faster races. Sure, you need to buy some of the faster models at one point, but it helps get you more familiar with each car. The game takes a more personal approach to owning each car, it's about tuning and styling it into your own personal racer, rather than owning 500 cars in your garage. In fact you can only store a handful of cars at a time in your garage, further emphasising that it's about making unique and personal cars. It's a refreshing approach and while the car selection is fairly slim, it's a varied enough selection across various car brands to cater for most car enthusiasts.

          In fact, this whole game shows a far more direct and clear goal as to where they want the series to go and what it offers. The NFS series has jumped around so many aspects of motor racing it's been difficult to retain a sense of direction and affiliation with the series as a whole. You simply had to try the games yoursellf to see if the style and gameplay suited you. Mostly the previous entries have focused on cops vs. illegal racers, but simply resorting too often to the overused Hot Pursuit formula. This game approaches a dark and gritty night movie scene visually, a cinematic approach to it's presentation and focuses mostly on the actual racing. It does have cops roaming the streets and chasing you, but they're far more toned down and a side show if you're out free driving the map. The main game is down to earth street racing with a raw feeling to each car, combining excellent motor sounds and top notch visuals.




          Sure, NFS2015 doesn't reinvent the wheel, pun not intended, and there's nothing fundamentally new here. There's a fairly generic main map, tons of races set up in a fairly uninteresting manner. However, the cutscenes, graphical style and presentation and more narrow focus on the danger and thrills of street racing brings the game into a far more unique package than previous entries. The fairly small roster of cars makes up for itself by offering lots of variation to cater for most motor enthusiasts and the customisation will really make it into your own personal machine should you want to put hours into it. 

          I'll recommend this racer over any of the NFS games of recent years, it's a great visual treat for those seeking to see the best nighttime cityscapes in any racer to date too. While Forza Horizon 2 and 3 are far more packed with cars and varied races, I highly recommend those games above this one, but if they're already in your collection then NFS2015 is definitely worth checking out! It's a solid racing package and a great effort at making Need for Speed relevant again.

          Rating

          ★★★★

            + Plus points

            • Stunning movie-like nighttime visuals and rain effects with a unique look.
            • Cheesy, but fun  movie cutscenes with real actors.
            • Fast and raw feeling to the racing and meaty sound effects.

            - Minus points

            • The game structure is extremely generic.
            • Day racing would have been nice to change things up.
            • Nothing fundamentally new to the genre here.

            Sunday, 14 May 2017

            Slimming the one

            So I bought a Xbox One S...


            ...while nothing major to report; I thought to give it a little write up!

            Back in early 2014 I purchased the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, within days of each other in fact, both released late in the prior year. You can read my initial impressions from back then of the consoles here. For the first year and half of owning them, my main console ended up being the PS4 for multiplatform releases. Much due to the slightly more powerful hardware, resulting often in a 900p vs 1080p resolution for multiplats. My Xbox One was at the time mostly used for the exclusives on the system. While I enjoyed the early PS4 games like Infamous Second Son and The Last Of Us Remastered, the consistent releases of quality exclusives and more interesting titles for my genre tastes on the Xbox One, turned it into the being the most used console over time.

            In addition to excellent titles like Forza Motorsport 6, Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon 3, Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4, to mention some of the consoles best exclusives, other factors like the backwards compatibility and the superior controller played a main role in the One turning into my most played hardware. The backwards compatibility now features lots of major titles from the Xbox 360 and even makes the games run better. When looking at the controllers I always felt the PS4 controller was an upgrade from the terrible PS3 one, however it doesn't match the Xbox One controller, or even the 360 one for that matter, in quality, functionality and comfort. As a fan of shooters and racing games, those tiny and cheap triggers alone break the PS4 controller for me. They can't match the large, ergonomic, springy triggers on the Xbox One controller with the feedback rumble built into the very tip of them. The terrible analogue stick placement that lingers on as an old and unwelcome relic from the PS1 days further dampen my enthusiasm for the PS4 controller.

            So after last years E3 reveal of the slimmed down One S and a few months back when a very reasonable price cut was given for it here in Norway, I just couldn't resist to purchase an S. Plus, it's got a UHD player built-in!



            From a design point of view the new white and sleek box is simple, yet beautifully designed. Perhaps even one of the sleekest looking consoles to date. It doesn't look like it's bulky and more anonymous father. Sure, the design is still very square, but it looks far better designed and much less bulky. I like all the small round holes covering the big round ventilation hole for the main fan on the top. The tiny holes covering the front of the console look great too. Gone is the scratchable, dust collecting and fingerprint friendly shiny plastic half of the console. The console just subtly blends into your white TV furniture, simply looking like a media or blu-ray player in size and form.

            I like how all the pressure sensitive buttons on the console have been replaced for proper mechanical ones. The console can now also be placed vertically for those that prefer it standing on a desk for instance. The main hardware functional design choice of having one large fan for cooling and thus noise reduction has been kept; bigger and slower fans make less noise than small and fast rotating ones. Although the original One probably will be slightly less noisy when working at full power, simply due to the larger box, external power supply and more space for ventilation. Though this difference is nothing I noticed; the One S i extremely quiet, nowhere near my jet engine sounding PS4 launch model in comparison.

            The one major complaint about the original Xbox One was it's rather massive size compared to the smaller PS4. This issue has luckily been fixed and not only is the box much smaller with this S model, but the huge power brick has now been fully integrated into the main box. Plus the power cord is now a generic and easily replaced figure of eight cord. If you're a Kinect owner, going from One to One S; keep the serial number for all three devices and order a special Kinect to USB cable  that Microsoft offers for free on their website. The One S no longer has a dedicated Kinect connection and thus the extra cable required will disappointingly need an extra power outlet. Though one can question how few really use the Kinect at all any longer.




            What I really appreciate other than the actual slimming of size to the Xbox One is the added hardware functionalities, quite significant ones as such. Rather than making it a cheaper model with less features, much like Sony does with it's slim models, added for the One S is a larger hard drive for the same price, going from 500GB to 1TB, though an even cheaper 500GB model is also available.

            The most significant upgrade though, is the really cool UHD disk drive, which replaces the Blu-Ray one. Letting you very cheaply have access to play UHD movies, a great bonus as standalone UHD players are still very expensive. The One S also lets you see Netflix content at 4K and adds HDR colours to not only HDR movies but games that feature it and TV's that support it. The latter craves a small hardware boost in the CPU to make it work. As such the One S will give you slightly higher framerates in unlocked framerate games, 360 BC games and probably a few frames in higher resolution in games with dynamic resolution. Nothing you'll notice significantly, but it's a nice touch. Physically there's an added IR blaster at the front of the console to easier use various remote controllers through your Xbox as a media player too.

            I did a quick size comparison with the original Xbox One and as you can see the actual console is considerable smaller. The total amount of shelf space, considering the huge power supply being integrated, makes the reduction in size significant though.





            That's really all there is to say about this new hardware purchase! If you're in the market for buying a Xbox One this model is a no-brainer as the S model will be the only one available by now in the shops. If you are in the market for a used one though you have to consider mainly two things, apart from a cheaper price for the older model: Do you want a fairly small physical size on your console, for me personally it wasn't such a major issue with the power supply, and also if 4K Netflix content and UHD movies are something you'll use. The latter choices require a 4K TV, and if you want the added HDR functionality, you'll need a newer type of 4K TV too. Decisions, decisions and all that. 

            All in all it's nice to see Microsoft making the Xbox One go from a fairly plain black box, to something sleek and cool looking with a much smaller size. It fits stylishly into most TV furniture; the S in Xbox One S is for sexy!

            Now on Instagram!

            For those following my blog, I'm now on Instagram. A place I thought best suited for gaming related pics I take now every so often on my mobile. I love taking pics of old and new hardware or games.



            You're welcome to drop by and follow me on: www.instagram.com/residentdante

            As always, I'm on twitter too: www.twitter.com/residentdante

            Friday, 28 April 2017

            The massive Andromeda effect

            Mass Effect Andromeda



            Platform tested: Xbox One

            A sequel series to the fantastic Mass Effect trilogy on last gen was inevitable. The developer, Bioware, switch it up brilliantly between Dragon Age and Mass Effect releases. Returning to such a critically acclaimed franchise with quite a few years break can be challenging. To say my expectations, and I presume everyone else, were high, was understating it. While the ending of the previous ME trilogy had been criticised, the franchise as a whole was an excellent sci-fi RPG and third person shooter combination.

            Having redeemed a free EA Access voucher the same month as release for ME:A, I not only got a small discount on the game, but I also had the chance of playing the first ten hours nearly a week ahead of release! My save continued over to the full release too, which gave me time to try the beginning of the game twice actually, as I couldn't decide what my fem-Ryder should look like. The default face looks kind of more detailed, while the custom one made my playthrough more unique. So as a tribute to my favourite videogame heroine; Regina, I went for short red hair.




            As the role of either a female or male Ryder sibling, both are featured in the game regardless of your custom gender choice, who is a part of the Andromeda Initiative. A huge fleet of exploration spaceships sent out in the hope to find liveable planets for in the Andromeda Galaxy. Setting out on it's journey in the timeframe Shepard from the first trilogy lived, you start the game by waking up from a 600 year journey in a frozen sleep state. It's quite clear the game seems to set itself far away from the story of the original games as a sort of statement of a fresh start to a new series, however it keeps the ME feeling very much intact. 

            The first area of the game learns you the basics of control; movement and combat. You quickly discover the neat jumping boost move this time around, making it easier to traverse the more open ended environments. Strangely though, the rolling mechanic isn't present from ME3, probably  planned considering the less indoors and square design of the old games. Even on this first little planet visit, the game introduces a neatly confined but open ended structure to it. Letting the player get a feel for things to come and to understand that mission critical checkpoints can be taken in your own order.

            The main planets of the game though, is where you really understand how huge the levels have become. Much like how large the car-only planets in ME1 were, only this time around with tons of actual interesting areas to explore and discover. I love this new direction, it perfectly balances open world gaming with a more linear structure that takes you from location to location, rather than the whole game being one big play area. This fits perfectly with the fact that such a space exploration game needs planet diversity, spanning from from boiling, desert surfaces to cold and icy ones.

            Only on my first proper planet visit I'm finding secrets, ancient ruins, underground complexes and ending up terra-forming a whole damn planet. Then, you venture forth to setting up the first exploration center of the Andromeda mission, thus starting colonisation of the planet for mankind. Further more, I must secure the base from enemy attacks and progress on making the planet a liveable place again from it radioactive previous state. I mean, words can't really describe the huge, monumental tasks I doing and the fantastic sense of pioneering space exploration! And that's just the very first planet and the early hours of the game.

            It's like Bioware took all the good parts from the older games; the big, open and driveable planets from ME1, the tight and satisfying shooting combat from ME2 & ME3 and the amazing presentation from all of them and mixed it with a modern, yet not overdone, open world approach and achieved something truly unique. It gives the game not only a sense of, but also actually delivering you the freedom of massive scale the previous games lacked at times. It's that grand feeling you would imagine space exploration would be. Sure some of tasks on the planets are repetitive, but the maps are never overcrowded with stuff to do, and usually have a side story with cutscenes in them. Making venturing into the side missions are more tempting and interesting fare.





            While there's been numerous posts online about how the facial animations look somewhat stupid at times, I personally didn't find them more distracting than the previous games. Comparing a game where you can make your own character and change the tone of a conversation mid-way to very carefully scripted cutscenes in more linear games is a little unfair. Sure ME:A, much like Fallout 4, can fare into uncanny valley with it's characters expressions at times. However the facial animations do the job fine, characters look detailed and are a big upgrade from the older ME titles. The running animation though, is still laughably ME 3 bad, it needs to be fixed!

            Physics wise the game could give me a slight glitchy feeling at times, like it's missing some extra hours of polish. While the combat is very satisfying, giving room for a lots of tactics with it's wide range of attacks and defence, I still found enemies falling strangely around after being shot or crude cover detection as you try to hide behind an object. These are hopefully issues that get fixed in an update. I must stress that ME: A is far less a cover based shooter than the old Unreal Engine 3 based trilogy. More often the game pushes the player to attack in more open environments, relying on vertical attacks from above with the jump jet tactic and manoeuvring quickly from side to side around the battlefield. Adapting to this larger form of fighting is refreshing and fun.

            Perhaps the issues that bothered so many with Andromeda simply became an internet meme thing, taken out of proportions, because the game is one of the best Mass Effect games released in my opinion. Falling just behind ME2's fantastic revision of gameplay and presentation over the very first game. It may not be an opinion I share with the general public, but at least I made it on my own through hours of play. My best tip is simply to give the game a few hours by yourself instead of judging it by the loudest complaints on the net.

            I found the freedom, the focus on exploration, the way you build up planets and colonising, all to give a fantastic sense of accomplishment and a fresh new beginning to hopefully a new Mass Effect trilogy. I genuinely felt like I was changing the future for mankind together with the alien races, pioneering space exploration. Perhaps it's just my personal taste that ME:A so well suited, but it's definitely a game I would not believe the hate about and simply try for yourself. My favourite game of the year so far with a fantastic mix of RPG, third person shooter action and adventure exploring.

            Rating

            ★★★★★☆

              + Plus points

              • Exploring huge planet surfaces and terraforming them is breathtaking.
              • Far more expansive worlds to discover and explore than before.
              • Gameplay feels satisfying, with lots of variation in attack and defence types.

              - Minus points

              • The side quests are can get repetitive at times.
              • Facial animations can look strange at times and the running looks stiff.
              • Limited visual customisation options, both for characters and armour.