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.



    + 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:

    As always, I'm on twitter too:

    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.



      + 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.

      Friday, 7 April 2017

      Swedish yarnballs


      Platform tested: Xbox One

      There have been many 2D platformers in my gaming life through the years. I've grown up on sprite drawn ones and experienced the genre going full 3D, then years later going back to 2D gameplay but retaining the 3D graphics. New Super Mario Bros. leading the way as one of the strongest contenders 2D platformers with 3D graphics. Unravel is one of these too, but perhaps has it's foot set more in the physics based gameplay, much like Little Big Planet, rather than being the old school style like NSMB and the latest Rayman games.

      Made and set in a beautiful rural Sweden, Unravel hits home for me on a visual level with such impact, I could literally feel the atmosphere and nostalgia build up inside. I've grown up in Norway and the countryside is very much alike Sweden's featured in Unravel. Beautifully detailed nature locations are blurred into a beautiful backdrop for each level. Unravel follows a little woollen figure, named Yarny, on his travels through gardens, woodlands, seasides and snow covered mountains in search of a little knitted figure at each level end. Levels have increasingly complex with climbing puzzles to solve to progress, but they are never too hard to figure out and evolve around the way Yarny strings his woollen lasso to reach places.

      The game is set in a country cottage on a farm, working as a central hub. From here you your journey begins beside an empty photo album on a dinner table. Each level is found throughout the cottage, in form of a picture. Entering one and completing the level gives you access to enter the next and so forth. Each completed level ends with Yarny finding a woollen figure to put on the cover of the photo album, thus resulting in a story page and photos added of the location the level was set in. It's a touching and sweet storyline with a lot of visual atmosphere and is perhaps even more so if you are familiar with the Scandinavian nature and countryside. The pictures could almost come from my own childhood photo album.

      Gameplay is fairly straightforward and simplistic. Yarny walks left to right and can throw out a lasso of string to attach to ledges, branches etc. and climb or pull himself up to it. Knotting a string in two places near each other makes the string a trampoline, letting Yarny reach new places higher up. To progress you need to find more string, as Yarny runs out of it and gets stuck. However this string length mechanic was too scripted in my book, with no clear definition of how much string each yarnball gave you. Sometimes you would walk for ages, other times it stopped suddenly after a short stroll simply because you used and extra few knots climbing onto something you didn't need to. I rarely ran out of string though, so it was never really an issue. Otherwise the gameplay rules were fairly straightforward and easy to get to grips with.

      Some issues I'd like to address though. The controls are slightly floaty, think Little Big Planet, with physics based platforming resulting in some annoying misses when precise jumping or timing is required. I still found the game fun to play as it never requires those extremely fast and precise skills from the more traditional and faster paced 2D platformers, but it's definitely a place the game could be improved. I could have been challenged a little further at times too, I get it's a more laidback game with atmosphere to suck in, rather than throwing hectic gameplay or tricky tasks to solve, but I never scratched my head for long or was challenged at a higher level of any sort.

      Unravel is a fun and fairly lengthy platforming adventure that deserves attention, if not mostly for the visual atmosphere it so perfectly visualises. If you're from Sweden, Norway or Finland you're gonna really need to pick up this one up and truly enjoy the environments and nature settings. So Unravel then; a solid and fun platformer with beautiful visual style and atmosphere, though objectively for the genre nothing ground breaking new or incredibly polished gameplaywise.



        + Plus points

        • Gorgeous visuals, hitting straight home with it's Scandinavian nature.
        • Original character and setting.
        • Atmospheric with a darker underlying story at times.

        - Minus points

        • A little floaty feel to the controls.
        • Slow pace may not be for everyone.
        • Can get frustrating sometimes.

        Wednesday, 8 March 2017

        Commanding troops with halos

        Halo Wars 2

        Platform tested: Xbox One

        I quite enjoyed the previous Halo Wars, a RTS game built for the Halo franchise. While it's not a genre I usually fare much into, I quite enjoy to play them casually now and then. I liked how Halo Wars was closely incorporated into the main Halo story and put you in the role of commanding the massive firefights the shooter games are so famous for. So here's the sequel, back on far more powerful hardware, with a wealth of new options, more advanced unit controls and brand new game types catering for everyone. This time around the game also is released simultaneously on PC, taking on a entirely different platform when it comes to strategy games, proving that the developers are committed to making a proper in-depth RTS.

        There's a healthy amount of modes on offer, catering for both online multiplayer and campaign play. From classic RTS matches to more fast paced ones like the new Blitz mode. The latter mode hands you cards with units, removing the often difficult task for beginners of building units and finding resources. It's a quick way of getting into battles instantly and makes way for shorter online battles compared to more traditional RTS matches.

        There's also an excellent tutorial, which is prompted as a recommendation if you start the main campaign without completing it first. Separated into a basic and an advanced segment, it's an excellent way to get familiar with the game rules and it's controls. While the button layout and commanding of units is generally some of the best you'll find in a console game of this type, the amount of shortcuts is quite daunting for beginners. Paying close attention to the tutorial and learning how to move quickly across the battlefield, selecting only the units you want to, is key to multitasking multiple battles on the battlefield. Without multitasking, you'll never become truly competitive for online RTS play.

        The visuals have received a really nice upgrade from the first game, they're less sparse this time around, with a lot of small details and a much higher unit count onscreen. The resolution bump up to 1080p especially helps keep the picture clean, even with tons of vehicles, characters and buildings cluttering the view. This is after all a genre that benefits highly from high resolutions and better hardware to deal with the vast amount of elements moving onscreen and the extra CPU power it requires for it's AI.

        The small units and characters are nicely detailed and represent the ones from the main Halo games perfectly. There's a nice amount of variation in the terrain you navigate too and a focus on elevation; higher ground gives you a strong advantage and needs to be used strategically. Fortifying ground troops into cover is also a great way to keep your units alive.

        The main campaign, which was mainly why I bought the game, is an incredibly well presented affair. The CGI cinematics are stunning and the dialogue is top notch, laying foundation for what I only can presume will be the backbone of the Halo 6 story. Each mission is explained in detail and mission objectives are clearly outlined for the player.

        Although I enjoyed the diversity in the missions, like most campaigns in RTS games, I felt I was guided into very specific tasks. Only the later missions opened up a little, letting me play the game more like a typical RTS match. They could easily have padded out the campaign with normal battles against the AI. All in all though, I enjoyed the playthrough and the various missions, which all had their unique main goals and settings. Some of them have a really fast and pressing pace, while others had a wait of tension for backup units as you are being overrun by waves of enemies!

        Halo Wars 2 is an excellent console RTS, while the dabbling into the PC market  could prove difficult, it's nice to see the developers have this dedication. While the initial control scheme and difficulty can be overwhelming for a casual of the genre like me, it's an enjoyable playthrough recommended for those looking for a more diverse and different experience on console. If you really like the Halo universe it's a unique way to get a sense of the scale of the battles fought in the shooters in a completely different genre. The familiar units, the AI conversations and the mighty Spartans will bring a smile to most Halo players, never mind controlling lots of them over a huge battlefield! Just don't go into this game thinking it's like the first person shooters, gameplay wise.

        Rare as they come, with a ton of controller shortcuts to learn, Halo Wars 2 is probably the best RTS game for console right now and probably will remain so for a long time. Recommended for those that want something else than their worn out copies of Command & Conquer or the first Halo Wars on their 360's. I would also advise those who wish something different to play in a world full of shooting and open world games, it's genre you seldom see on console and should be enjoyed by more gamers! Halo Wars 2 offers excellent development quality, fantastic presentation and exciting gameplay. Sure it may not reach the depths needed for hardcore RTS players from the PC platform, it will keep console players happy for a long while.



          + Plus points

          • Fantastic presentation and cinematics.
          • Controls are fast and have a ton of shortcuts to aid controller players.
          • The visuals and resolution really help the game look crisp and easy to navigate.

          - Minus points

          • Tricky difficulty curve for newcomers, yet lacks the depths for hardcore RTS fans.
          • Campaign feels a little directed towards very specific goals.
          • More padding to the campaign needed, it's over a little too soon.

          Bonus game: Halo Wars: Definitive Edition

          Alongside the purchase of Halo Wars 2: Ultimate Edition you receive a season pass for future DLC map packs and, more interestingly so, you also get the "definitive edition" of the first game. Remastered with a 1080p resolution bump and what seems like a fairly solid 60fps. It's a nice way for people who haven't played the original or those just wishing to replay the game on better hardware. Alongside this release, every Halo game from the original Xbox to 360 is now available on the Xbox One with better graphics and performance all round!

          For a review of the first Halo Wars check out my old review of the original 360 game here. It's an enjoyable game that fans of the series should check out! If your starting ground is Halo Wars 2, consider buying the ultimate version to get your hands on this first game and start there. It's still a solid title, though it doesn't have the depth and scale of the second game.

          Friday, 17 February 2017

          Evil goes back to the residence

          Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

          Platform tested: Xbox One

          When you start playing Resident Evil 7 and actually become scared senseless, I realise how completely off course the series had previously become. Moved far away from it's horror roots. One can praise RE4 for it's originality and large influence on the games industry in general, but it destroyed the RE franchise as a horror series and set it on a path of becoming an action fest. Luckily, Capcom have done a complete 180 turn with RE7, fundamentally changing the formula once again. Somehow it manages to feel incredible innovative, yet it goes all the way back to what made the Spencer Mansion so creepy back in 1996. For this newborn horror focus alone, I decided to purchase RE7 at launch.

          In a weekend sprint I finished the game and I'm here to say that I'm incredibly impressed how Capcom have turned the series around. Not only has it been influenced from Konami's Hideo Kojima produced P.T. demo, Alien Isolation and other first person horror franchises like Amnesia. It also retains many traditional Resident Evil elements. The return to horror is not only what makes RE7 so great, but it does so in a brilliant and innovative manner. RE4, 5 and 6 fans please leave the room and shut the door behind you, forever. Mansion survival horror is back!

          One might think the RE concept is lost in a first person game, but RE7 proves that this angle works just fine for the franchise. Like many other popular horror games in the recent years, the first person perspective adds a new dimension of depth and a immersive feeling of actually being in a creepy place. Sounds make you turn to look, turning corners gives you a limited view before actually going around them and there's a constant fear of something creeping up behind you. I love that we finally get to play a RE game that's very much how they intended to have the very first game, but opted out of due to hardware limitations back in the 90's with a first person view.

          RE7 isn't just devoted to horror, it's probably scarier than the RE series ever has been. Sure, you can fire a gun like any other first person shooter, but the sparse ammo and claustrophobic areas leaves you vulnerable. Simply obtaining a gun doesn't give you the safe haven you hoped for. RE7 throws you into gritty fights and the enemies fight dirty, often resulting in desperate melee brawls as you're hanging on for your dear life. The franchise once again awards you for actually avoiding fights, saving you precious ammo and healing items. It's about surviving and escaping, not slaughtering enemies.

          The slower, more haunting parts, remind me of the short but sweet P.T. demo, while the sneaking about, trying to avoid some of the powerful evil inhabitants of RE7's mansion, feels like the intensity of being chased in Alien Isolation. While RE7 never reaches the pure fear heights of Alien Isolation, or it's consistency of doing so over longer periods of time, it recreates some of those horrendous moments of spotting an enemy turning the corner far away. Leaving you wondering if you are spotted and need to run or simply can pull back and hide unnoticed.

          This feeling of being chased give some of the best and most intense adrenaline moments of the game. Though I would have even enjoyed these scenarios more if there were far more hiding places scattered about. These horrifying chase moments are fairly sparse and short lived, Alien Isolation did a far better job of letting you linger on and break your down with nervousness over longer periods of time. However, the shorter lifespan of RE7 (we're talking 9-10 hours compared to 20+ in Isolation) keeps the game at a higher pace, mixing up new locations and scenarios consistently along the way. It never lets you tediously roam areas over long periods of time, resulting in some dull hours along the way. It's a short, but sweet experience.

          "RE7 isn't just devoted to horror, it's probably scarier than the RE series ever has been."

          Much like the traditional RE games, exploring and solving puzzles is a key part of the experience. Right from the beginning of the game you are introduced to a worn down kitchen, picking up and checking items to find out what's going on. Slowly you're introduced to a mechanic A that requires part B etc. It's familiar and welcome return for RE veterans, even more so when the game at a later stage introduces locked doors that require certain physical keys to unlock them. This curiosity for exploring the mansion pushes you through the horrifying discoveries and tons of jump scares the game throws at you. Sure, some of these scares are a bit cheap and clearly built for showing off the VR hype, but they work. Guaranteeing you a skipped heart beat here and there.

          Shooting and surviving brutal close combat fights is also key to completing the game. Herein lies perhaps the largest difference from Alien and Amnesia, if comparisons are to be made: you can shoot down enemies. The combat difficulty feels right for a survival horror game; it's often difficult to get shots in as enemies rush at you from close encounters. The ammo is incredibly limited too, so using a pistol or shotgun combined with knife attacks is advised. Some of the later parts of the game even reminds me of how the stressing feeling of the corridors at end of the first Alien movie are; red alarm lights spinning, steaming industrial pipes and metal corridors combined with a sub-machine gun and quite a few enemies. It's another example of how this game mixes things up in just the right amount of doses; it focuses heavily on slow paced and atmospheric horror, sure, but it dares to throw in a few more higher paced, stressing and more action like sequences without going anywhere near overboard like RE4-6.

          This balance in gameplay variation combined with the neat visuals running at 60 fps with tons of worn down and highly detailed interiors make way for a game that looks pretty and plays smooth. Sure, some of the texture choices and more finer details close up look grainy at times, but visually it's a highly appealing and unique looking game. It's visual strength lies it's it's detailed and well designed mansion setting. It really looks like a nasty and horrible place to explore all by yourself in fear.

          I have my complaints though. Some of the enemy encounters, be it the ones occurring in more trivial areas to more forced boss-like battles can feel a bit over-scripted in my book. The point were you wonder if you have to do something exactly how the game dictates or you're wondering if you're actually dealing out damage at all. Sure it looks cinematic when the camera is being thrown around by an attack animation, but it also leaves you wondering if you're in control or not. As such I felt the blocking move seemed slow and unresponsive, making me wonder if I really should use it or not. The combat could feel quicker and the later "molded" enemies have a really boring design to them sadly. If you've seen one, you've seen them all. Where are the varied and unique creatures and enemies from the original RE trilogy? It's also a fairly short lifespan of roughly 9-10 hours, though it was not an issue for me as a horror titles can often outstay they're welcome if they last too long. 

          RE7 is an incredible turn around for the series. Reinventing itself on so many areas, delivering an entirely new gameplay type, yet going completely back to it's eerie mansion setting from the very first game. Capcom really should be praised for this game, finally leaving the action RE behind. Sure, it's fairly short game, but it compensates by constantly delivering new areas and elements. Resident Evil is definitely back and I've never felt so optimistic for the series since it's glory days back in the 90's. I've never been so scared of a RE game before either! An excellent horror game choice for the early and cold months of 2017, just missing slightly on topping Alien Isolation for me. Alien is still the better game overall, but RE7 will appeal to a larger audience. 



            + Plus points

            • The setting is back in an eerie mansion and more horrifying than ever!
            • High framerate, good controls and a new FPS angle that fits RE incredibly well.
            • Tense atmosphere with lots of variation, introducing something new all the time.

            - Minus points

            • At times it's unclear if you're in an animated scene or actually controlling anything.
            • A fairly short game, though it's without long drawn dull areas.
            • The "molded" enemies just look plain boring.

            Friday, 27 January 2017

            Catalystic parkouring on mirrors

            Mirror's Edge Catalyst

            Platform tested: Xbox One

            It's been a while since we all ran about on clean, minimalistic rooftops in Mirror's Edge. Over eight years ago in fact. Developed by Swedish developers DICE of Battlefield fame, the original game gained a lot of PR for it's innovative gameplay and creative setting back in 2008. A running game if you like, born out of the growing parkour popularity from YouTube, taking what Assassin's Creed was early to deliver in gaming form a step or five further. While it mostly received positive reviews in general, plus praise from gamers wanting something else in the first person genre than just shooting, it commercially did strong with over two million copies sold. However, it did not start a trend or spark enough following become a huge new IP for EA. Busy with their various Battlefield developments, DICE put the franchise on hold for years.

            Last year, Mirror's Edge resurfaced and at the same time rebooted itself. Nothing lost as such, since the original story was a weak and forgettable offering. Catalyst is the title for the new Mirror's Edge and it retains it's main character Faith. Judging by it's rapid fall in price and the fact I bought it the same year for a "75% off" sale maybe gives an indication that the franchise didn't need a new iteration.

            I really enjoyed the first game, it's one of the best ones to come out of the last generation, but it also left me with the thought; "Do I really need more of this?" It's a game that sort of started something new and fantastic, then ended it at the same time. Along with lots of other titles to play, Catalyst ended up just falling to the back of my wishlist and out of my memory. Just before Christmas last year I spotted it for a massively reduced price and decided to give it a chance. I had loved the original after all.

            What struck me immediately with Catalyst is how little has changed, yet there's a fundamental difference to the game world. The whole concept has been modernised into something brand new. The gameplay is still very much alike; you use the shoulder buttons to jump and slide, while combinations with the other buttons let you turn mid-air, land softly etc. Incorporated too, is a leveling system which at first gives you a fairly limited set of moves. Upgrading your moveset lets you traverse the world in a more advanced fashion and reach areas previously inaccessible. This unlocking system is perfect for newcomers as they are slowly introduced to new moves. It's also works as an incentive to complete side missions and collect XP orbs scattered around in challenging places to reach.

            While visually the game is more diverse this time around with realtime lighting, shifting beautifully from day to night, the actual open world sandbox setting is where Catalyst shines technically. It fits perfectly with the old Mirror's Edge gamestyle. Sure, the first game had some fairly varied settings it threw you into, but each level was basically a route from A to B. This time you can choose the route that suits you the best and lets the player become far more creative with their parkour traversal. There's also  buildings to go inside, simply to pass through or explore on your way to a destination, giving the city a more believable volume to it.

            Running on the Frostbite 3 engine to DICE, Catalyst holds a fairly steady 60fps with some minor stuttering occurring when new areas are loaded in. The high framerate helps the controls and movement seem even tighter and faster than before. It's nice to see DICE focusing on delivering 60fps as a priority over resolution this generation. Sadly though, the Xbox One version I played runs at a quite blurry 720p image, hiding a lot for the finer details from distance. I could imagine running this on a high spec PC in full HD will make it look fantastic.

            I'm glad to see the game distances itself from shooting, focusing on giving the player only melee fighting as an option this time around. Avoidable before, the fighting in Catalyst is forced within story encounters, with some boss battles being really tricky. The key to succeed these hand to hand combat segments, is moving around consistently, never standing still for long. It's about avoiding being shot and delivering some hard hitting attacks combined with jumps. The upgrade system, I mentioned earlier, lets you increase your combat skills and tolerate more damage. At times though the combat can be frustratingly hard though, be warned.

            Sure Catalyst has it's issues. Firstly, there's nothing fundamentally game changing new here. It's basically the original Mirror's Edge gameplay set in an open world with a few new moves and a vastly upgraded combat system thrown in. Yet this type of gameplay isn't really utilised in other games, so it still manages to feel fresh. Secondly, the presentation in cutscenes is worth mentioning looks fantastic and the voice acting is very good, but the actual story is incredibly bland once again. I really didn't care for it's generic "evil corporation meets rebel group" scenario, the world simply didn't pull me in enough to care for it or the people inhabiting it. Perhaps here lies the ultimate problem for the previous game and this game; without a incentive to return to it's story and learn more of it's lore, once again I'm left not being interested in playing a sequel. At least this time there's quite a bit of open world stuff to collect and keep you playing after the story ends.

            If you're new to Mirror's Edge then this is where to start. Unless you're really wanting to dig in, you can simply skip the original and have the almost exact same experience in a more modernised and larger package here. I'd wager to say that even after numerous years the Mirror's Edge gameplay is still very unique and unlike most other titles. I went into Catalyst thinking it was just more of the same, and in a way it was, but it showed actually how good it originally was and modernises that memory into something larger and superior. I enjoyed the gameplay once again, was underwhelmed by the story once again but left a happy gamer at the end of the day. Recommended as a very different gameplay experience, but it may not be everyone's cup of tea.



              + Plus points

              • Neat open world that caters for the diverse moveset.
              • Beautiful minimalistic and modern level design.
              • Gameplay is still unique, looks flashy and feels entertaining.

              - Minus points

              • Nothing fundemantally new here.
              • Cool main characters, but the story is bland with a underwhelming ending.
              • Missions and tasks feel repetitive at times.

              Wednesday, 11 January 2017

              Christmas selfies with zombies

              Dead Rising 4

              Platform tested: Xbox One

              The Dead Rising series is a strange one. It was praised by many on it's initial release on the Xbox 360 back in 2007. In many ways it's often referred to as one of the consoles unique exclusives prior to the remaster launch on multiple platforms. It boasted an impressive graphics engine and a huge scale zombie outbreak set in a mall. The downside however, was the punishing timer and tons of escort missions, bringing a great new IP idea to a very required gameplay taste. A game that many didn't enjoy the structure of, myself included. The series continued with a sequel in that same generation, then a third game as an early release on the Xbox One (and later a PC release emerged).

              While the third game still retained the timer but gave it such a big window it render it almost non-existent. I quite enjoyed playing DR3, read my review here, and my excitement for a new entry in the series was quite high. The news emerging of Dead Rising 4 as the game was under development further spiked my interest; such as the timer being removed completely and escort missions being abandoned.

              So as a winter release of 2016, DR is back again featuring the zombie slaying Frank West from the very first game. Returning to his roots in small town Willamette, only to discover a new zombie outbreak is erupting. Hell bent on revealing how the government was behind both the first and this second outbreak, Frank heads out to a secret military facility. Here he discovers they are experimenting and producing a new zombie virus. A few months later and it's breaking out all over the town. Frank travels into Willamette town centre to document it all on camera, but crashlands at the insanely large mall. Once again he is stuck in the middle of zombie hell. Albeit without a set timespan, but with a whole city outside to explore too!

              With an unusual seasonal setting, more games really should do this, DR4 sets itself perfectly for the holidays in a Christmas setting which I absolutely love. There's a hilariously strange sensation over massacring tons of zombies, then pausing the game and listening to old, cosy Christmas songs. It's such a political incorrect mismatch it's incredibly funny in a dark humour kind of way.

              Larger than ever before too, DR4 is roughly the town size of DR3 combined with the mall size of DR1&2. The whole map has a neat main road that connects all the surrounding town areas together in one huge loop you can drive around with the mall at the centre of it. The combination of indoors and outdoors environments without sacrificing one or the other is a nice welcome touch and helps mix zombie slaying and survival tactics up. The graphics do their job fine with the number of zombies and items onscreen being the most impressive techincal aspect. While the animation, textures and picture quality being nothing to get overly excited about at all.

              New to the franchise are black boxes scattered across the map with military exo suits in them, these are perhaps the most clever new idea in DR4; Pick one up and heavy objects that previously were inaccessible to Frank can now be picked up and work as huge weapons. The exo-suits all have a certain amount of power from the second you put one on, usually before wrecking carnage in an area, and then you can use it until the energy is drained. Continued from DR3 are also the combo vehicles, which lets you basically ducktape together two completely different vehicles into on zombie slaying machine. They 're usually very creative and feature some hilarious weapons to get rid of the hundreds of zombies that roam the streets.

              The game has a nice learning curve, even  for newcomers it puts you off to a mild start. Without the timer the game feels more like a proper free roaming game, only set in a zombie invasion. There's a more streamlined item management this time around too. Controls designate each direction on the d-pad into throwing, melee, firing and health items. Making switching between item types a far easier affair than before and eliminates some of the frustrating controls from the previous games. Picking up the correct item when there are many bunched together on the ground though, still feels like a hit and miss. All in all the controls are made for the better, a much needed change for the series.

              Although I feel the gameplay and mechanics of the actual game have all been made for the better, DR4 still can't shake a blandness at times. The story is forgettable, and the dialogue tries hard to be funny, but doesn't feel so most of the time. I found Frank to be difficult to understand as a character and his comedic moments just weren't that funny with the exception of some comments. The main plot of the game is fairly short and I would have perhaps liked more depth to the gameplay. Slaying zombies becomes tedious in the long run. One can accuse the removal of the timer takes away a pressing dynamic to the game, but it needs to be replaced by something. I'm uncertain they really have hit the mark in replacing that something to retain a pace and goal to all the zombie slaying.

              I personally don't miss the timer but there are other sacrifices to classic DR ideas which I do not approve of. The crazy, boss battle, psychopaths are completely removed and feel like a weird omission. Their insane and disturbing fights with a funny, but creepy introduction to each one, is sorely missed. In their place are maniacs, but these are just normal, aggressive human enemies. I would also have liked the build-up to trying to escape the city, like in DR3, to be the main goal in DR4 too. I found the main story was just a check-list of missions, giving me little sense of actually being in a zombie apocalypse dealing with it's problems.

              Once again Dead Rising somehow manages to grab players with a fun zombie slaying gameplay mechanic, letting you get really creative with weapons combinations and stupid outfits, proving that the actual core of the game works. But then after a while it just wanders off into a bland path with little new on offer. It's a game series trying to find it's core, yet it never really had a clear defined one from the start. Sure, removing the timer is a huge relief for people of my opinion, but in it's place there needs to be a new engaging dynamic to keep the game at a certain pace. The lack of a clear defined goal except hunting people down, haunts the game throughout.

              DR4 has it's good moments, the open world is large enough to keep a nice sense of exploring and the zombie slaying is fun with tons of weaponry and vehicles at your disposal. However, there's this feeling of not much happening that creeps up on you. If you really enjoyed DR3 and the changes it made, then this game is for you as it further distances itself from the stressing dynamic of DR1&2. Just don't go in expecting it to radically change it's formula or offer tons more of new ideas, it just does what it does best; letting you slay thousands of zombies in creative ways with this sense of a b-movie game hanging over it. An average release which has it's moments, but not an overall impressive title for me.



                + Plus points

                • Large play area with a huge mall and a town.
                • Excellent Christmas setting.
                • Tons of weapons, vehicles and outfits to mess around with.

                - Minus points

                • Bland story and dialogues
                • Nothing revolutionary new going on.
                • Game lacks substance, gameplay and mission tasks quickly become repetitive.