Friday, 12 January 2018

Back to the origins of assassinations

Assassin's Creed Origins

Platform tested: Xbox One X

Review: There's been a Assassin's Creed break for two years now, following the rocky debut of their new engine in Unity and Syndicate. Both those games failed to impress the audience in new ways and Ubisoft felt the need to pull back and give the series a longer development cycle. Leaving the more modern times of revolutionary France and Victorian England behind, Origins is about going back to the series roots and finding out where it all began. This time around we are going way back in history, over 40 years before B.C. in fact, to the ancient Egypt. Have Ubisoft revolutionised the series after a short hiatus one wonders.

Well, there's no doubt that this is a AC game. The distinct feeling when walking around, fighting or climbing is very classic for the series. The larger open world this time around reflects itself in the recreation of ancient Egypt where there are cities, but also vast areas of lush vegetation, endless deserts, huge mountains and large areas of water. There's less focus on a dense cityscape, and more about huge nature areas to explore. Not only are the enemy soldiers dangerous, but there's wildlife to consider too. Ubisoft has kind of ended up where they began with the first AC; deserts to roam and cities to discover in the middle east.

In this adventure we follow the Egyptian medjay Bayek, a sort of mercenary, in his revengeful task to kill his son's murderers. Along the way he is accompanied by his wife Aya, both on a mission to kill all the people on their list of cruel and corrupt Egyptian leaders in their aim to also set Cleopatra on the throne again. The game is divided into land areas with famous cities and sites from the ancient times; including the pyramids and the lighthouse of Alexandria. The whole map is traversal, but the areas give a hint about which level you should be at before entering them.

Origins relies heavily on leveling your character and equipment. I would say it's the closest to an RPG that the AC series has ever been, only without the magic side of that genre. Each level up grants you points to further enhance Bayeks abilities. There are ordinary, rare and legendary weapons to find, plus your armour and equipment can be upgraded with resources you find. This gives the player a purpose to take on side missions and go hunting for materials and animal skins required to craft equipment. I found this whole character leveling system really good, and the resources fairly easy to collect. it also helps that the combat feels satisfying, with proper hit detection and less scripted animations. Sword fights feel intense and the bow shooting is very satisfying, especially the first person bow with controllable arrows!

One of the cooler new additions to the game is Senu, Bayeks pet eagle. At any time you can hit the eagle button and bring up a birds view as you control Senu from high above. He can scout for enemies, transports, animals, treasures and mission objectives. Each climb up to a high synchronisation point grants Senu better spotting abilities, a real neat feature. Flying around and taking in the sheer size of the environments is a really welcome addition to the game and fun one at that. It really makes the game engine shine, the sheer size and amount of detail from above is jaw dropping.

Which brings me to Origins strongest point; it's incredible immersive world. I'm playing the game on Xbox One X and while the first part of the game feels a tad generic, it's when the game opens up and lets you explore it's vast and detailed world it amazes. The thickness of foliage, fields covered in thousands of flowers and strands of grass, tons of buildings, lakes, open seas, huge mountains and endless dunes of desert sand; just all come together and blow you away. It's truly a beautiful world to immerse yourself into. The sheer density of all the detail in such high resolution when playing it on the Xbox One X is incredible at times, every little corner of the world seems to be filled with detail. I fell in love with the Egypt setting.

I found little I disliked strongly in Origins when it came to gameplay and a technical point of view, only a few small issues; the environments seem to have opened up so much that it's not really built for traversing it a high level above the ground with tons of connected buildings. Also the combat has a terrible lock-on mechanism that seems to target the enemy furthest away from you rather than the guy hitting at you, with an axe. As usual some side missions are boring and repetitive, but this is very common in RPG styled games anyway.

No, Origins main problem is not the game itself, it's the storyline. It feels bland and non engaging. Bayek seems uninterested in the political changes that Aya cares for and wants Bayek to take part of. His only motivation is to avenge his sons killers, as such the main story with Cleopatra working her way to the throne seems trivial and sidelined. I felt Bayeks pain for his son, but I also felt his indifference towards the larger historical picture. Making the ending feel rushed too late into the game to tie itself with the whole Assassin's Creed main plotline.

The build up of the actual secret organisation should have been a larger focus, much earlier in the game. It's sad to see a clear five star game, fall down to a four for me, but the story just brings the whole package down. It's just there with no motivation to take properly part in it, even Bayeks personal goal of revenge towards his sons killers is brought down with some unsatisfying ending cutscenes for their assassinations. I wanted to care for the story, but I didn't and the game didn't make me want to either.

Origins is a warm and welcome return of the AC series after it's short two year hiatus, the gameplay is satisfying and it returns to some of the right design choices; the world is huge and stunningly recreates an ancient era. While it's perhaps not a revolution of any kind, it's an extremely polished AC experience this time around. Sad then, that the storyline is such a let down, but as a videogame alone it's a fantastic game. Newcomers to the series can easily drop in here and play too, it requires no prior knowledge of the lore and gameplay is probably the best of all the AC games.



      Wednesday, 3 January 2018

      Back to doing your duty in the war

      Call Of Duty: WWII

      Platform tested: Xbox One X

      Review: I've skipped two whole Call of Duty games of recent time, the shift from a more classic warfare to sci-fi settings have put me off in the long run. A great relief when COD WWII was announced then, Slegdehammer games have gone back to the "boots on the ground" warfare. To see people wanted this to happen can be reflected in the eager way Activision has advertised it as a "boots to the ground" COD game. It's been a long while since there's been a large triple A production of a second world war game. I was excited to get my hands on this game to say the least. Plus the game was enhanced for my new Xbox One X! 

      The main singleplayer story for WWII is simple; you follow a U.S. soldier from his landing at the bullet inferno that was the Normandie beach landing, all the way through Netherlands and France, finally reaching Nazi-Germany. It's a linear structure where each mission is set in a new location. Following the whole allied campaign into the depths of Germany is quite exciting, but fairly standard storyline for a game featuring this war. I really like that they've focused on a lot of nature locations this time, with warm and sunny french farmlands in the sun, to dark and cold woods near the borders of Germany. It's a nice departure from sci-fi settings.

      I must just make a footnote that my review is about the singleplayer, my playtime has not been enough to dig into the multiplayer. But the interactive battlefield hub as a menu for the multiplayer mode, the boots on the ground gameplay with traditional weapons and the large nazi-zombie coop mode gives way for a lot of value for money here. The singleplayer lifespan is a fairly okay length, but all the additional content in multiplayer and zombie mode make up for it. Anyway, lets dig into my singleplayer experience some more.

      The game is divided into a mission structure with cutscenes before and after, there's a lot of variety in each mission and a lengthy size to each. I loved seeing all the different locations along the way as I made progress through firefights in forests, villages and military fortifications along the way. A lot of the scenarios in the missions are based on famous WWII battles. There's also some variation going on with the gameplay too, tank missions are thrown in, sniping battles and a cool undercover stealth mission. The latter brings me back to fond memories of something similar in the old Medal of Honor games. While it's hardly reinventing the wheel, it's nice to have throwback to the more classic structure of WWII games from the past.

      While impressively depicting the d-day landing with it's beach and bunkers, WWII doesn't truly shine until the second mission and throughout. It's a beautiful game depicting the countrysides you pass through in France and Germany on your way to liberating Europe. Especially the foliage is impressive and the levels have a fairly open structure to them, although they sadly still rely on the classic "walk from A to B" structure. Everything looks so smooth in the solid 60fps framerate and in the super high resolution on my Xbox One X version, making everything look so free of jaggies and shimmering objects. WWII goes for a slightly more soft approach to it's picture quality, but I think it goes well with the more natural environments and setting of the second world war era. There's a ton of detail in the texture work with muddy and stony countryside paths looking absolutely amazing in sunsets and in the light of dark nights moon light. 

      Perhaps this pretty visual experience brings the sound impression to such a low for me. COD has always suffered from a tinny and bass-less sound, WWII continues this trend. It's like they just have added the sounds of the couple of soldiers next to you and throw in tank or airplane here an there as a background layer. It's sounds so thin, no rich sound picture with lots of background noise from guns, explosion and a heavy bass as you'd expect. The sound really puts the franchise a mile behind competition like the Battlefield series. I want heavy sounding guns, explosions with lots of bass and tons of background noise in my war games, not a tinny bb gun and a few sound channels on top!

      WWII has some other issues I wish to mention apart from the bad sound design. The actual structure of the game, while welcome to it's more old-school approach, feels scripted and linear. You are asked to go to a certain location, do a certain task, then move on and each event will trigger enemies attacking and so forth. It's like a old COD with a new coat of paint and luckily without the infinitive spawning of enemies. A sort of equipment management for the singleplayer would have been nice too, I'm stuck to getting a default setup for each mission and having to find and replace guns I prefer using on the battlefield. All in all, I would have perhaps liked a more dynamic battlefield, less linear level structures and perhaps longer battles where more of the environment could be destroyed. Would it also have been to much to ask for a coop possibility in the singeplayer too?

      After taking a futuristic approach for years, it's nice to see the Call of Duty franchise return to some actually historic events and more grounded gameplay. While I enjoyed the classic WWII approach to a game, it could have done with even more modernising in it's structure and level layout. I guess the COD franchise just isn't up fro taking huge chances. I enjoyed the impressive singleplayert playthough and it leaves me hoping that COD is going more back to it's roots from now on. I'd love a take on the Vietnam or Korean war for instance. WII is a solid shooter which maybe takes a little too safe and familiar path.



        + Plus points

        • Beautiful visuals in singleplayer at 60fps, with especially impsessive depiction of nature and foilage.
        • COD is back to "boots on the ground" tgameplay, finally.
        • For those delving into all three main modes; single, multi and zombie mode aree included, it's a solid package.

        - Minus points

        • Sound design is bad, weak weapon punch and very little environmental depth.
        • Very few innovative ideas going on, a standard and linear WW2 game.
        • Shortish singleplayer experience, like most COD games you are just moving along from A to B and thus the lifespan is limited.

          Tuesday, 2 January 2018

          Leaving 2017 behind

          My favourite ten games of 2017 kinda deserve a list, in no particular order. Some I will post reviews of soon, but for now here they are:

          • Resident Evil 7
          • Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands
          • Forza Motorsport 7
          • Mass Effect: Andromeda
          • Assassins Creed Origins 
          • Call Of Duty WWII
          • Sonic Mania
          • Halo Wars 2
          • Uncharted: Lost Legacy
          • Horizon Zero Dawn

          The absolute favourite this year, and a big surprise at that, is Resident Evil 7. It reinvented the series in a fantastic fashion, taking it's roots back to horror and even more so than ever before. Scary as hell and inspired by more modern indie styled horror games, Capcom outdid themselves and dares make the game complete new and in first person. A fantastic title.

          Second place would be Mass Effect: Andromeda as I felt it really made my dream of finding distant planets to terra form and colonise come true, I felt it received a stupid amount of negativity by the press and gamers in general, suffering from simply becoming a internet meme with no substance in what the game actually offered. I'm still hoping this title receives a Xbox One X update.

          Third goes to Horizon Zero Dawn with it's captivating story and fantastic open world. Very different in it's approach to setting, blending almost middle age life with futuristic technology and intriguingly weird robot animals to fight. I drowned myself in this beautiful game and look forward to checking out it's Frozen Wilds add-on.

          Well, we're now in 2018 and here's hoping there's lots of new and exciting games for the months to come. Happy new year!