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.