Tuesday, 28 May 2019

A tale of loading souls and caliburs

Soul Calibur VI




Platform tested: Xbox One X (enhanced)
Also on: PC and PS4
Released: 2018


Review



Introduction


The Soul Calibur games have been around for years now, I even did a retrospective write up last year on my favourite in the series: Soul Calibur 2. I have played pretty much all the SC titles through the years, with SC4 coming to mind as the one I've spent the most time with after SC2. However, the series has had a difficult job of reinventing itself or catching the spotlight like it did back in it's glory days of the Sega Dreamcast release of SC1 and the multi platform release of the second game, living on the flare of being amazing ports of arcade hits.

Years have passed since these days though, and the fighting genre seems to thrive on smaller budget releases these days. We still have series like Tekken, Street Fighter and Dead or Alive getting frequent releases but not as groundbreaking system sellers or technical hardware pushers. Among all of these, Bandai-Namco have decided to revive the SC series with a sixth entry, technically seventh if we count Soul Blade. Lets take a look at the newest game of souls and swords.





Plot and setting 


Storywise SC6 is a sort of reboot of the storyline, going back to SC1 to uncover what they describe as hidden truths. Nonetheless it's the same kind of setup as always; a mix of various historic, geographical locations and characters mixed into on fantasy world where they are all seeking the ultimate powerful sword. Be it for good or bad intentions.

This time around the game has two main singleplayer modes in addition to classic arcade like battle and network modes. Network is of course battling out online against other human players, truly testing your skills to the limit. The main two modes though, are Libra of Soul and Soul Chronicle. The latter serves as a sort of fleshed out arcade mode, where you can play through a series of events for each characters with plot being presented as text during a timeline. There are sadly no intro og ending movies here; just artwork and still images displayed as the story. A little sparse and cheap looking for my taste.

Libra of Soul is where the main game resides. Here you build your own character by choosing fighting style, body type, weapons and outfits. A lot of customisation is available and more is added through the season pass if you choose to buy this. Libra of Soul presents you with a text story on a huge world map. Here you move along, travelling various routes to fight against enemies and earn experience points to level up and take on the harder enemies along the way. It feels like a somewhat more fleshed out version of the main mode seen in previous SC games, yet not really daring to take new directions in ideas. It does get quite addictive to level up and get better weapons at times, however I found the story too text heavy to engage myself fuly into. I guess I'm too used to cutscenes these days with audio dialogue.


Gameplay and features 


Although SC6 runs on a new game engine it feels very much like what you expect newer SC games to play, probably closest to SC4 and 5. New and old movesets foer reoccuring characters are available and it instantly feels like home when you start controlling the game. There are of course a few new characters added, with Grøh coming to mind as a terrible and out of place design. New to SC6's gameplay is "reversal edge" a sort of action implemented slow-motion scene where the player activating an attack needs to choose strikes and the defender has to choose the countermove. It admittedly looks very flashy and cool, but kind of wears off it's charm and resides in the "gimmicky additions" category after a few hours.

For a fighter like SC6 it has a standard amount of options on offer and it's perhaps it's strongest suit, bar the lack of cutscenes. Otherwise there's plenty of customisation options and the main game mode is large, albeit sparse presented, to dig into. Some strange omissions are the lack of a second outfit per player, sure we can make our own, but it feels a little cheap to niot include. I would also have preferred more fighting arenas for added variety.


Video


It seems to be a reoccurring issue for Bandai-Namco to struggle with optimising the Unreal Engine 4, which SC6 is built on. Tekken 7 still runs at a laughable 720p on Xbox One X, Ace Combat 7 sees both the PS4 Pro and XB1X versions run at 1080p and here we have SC6 running at 1440p on both systems. It's a game with one arena and two characters onscreen. Was it really that hard to make it run at a sharper and better looking resolution, at least on the much more power XB1X?

Added into the mix of bad optimisation is the fact that this game has some of the worst loading I have ever seen in a fighting game. For a game that's all about jumping fast from fight to fight and in and out of menus it's almost insufferable. It has definitely made me play the game much less.

Such a shame then, that not only have we a fairly standard looking game; sure it has some flashy lighting and sunsets but the arenas look basic and hide behind an extremely aggressive depth of field, resulting in a blurring of the backgrounds during battle, begging the question of why? But then we have the characters who are all looking their best in the Soul Calibur universe, but compared to larger games in different genres and it becomes apparent that the staff and budget of Soul Calibur is far from what it used to be. When I see massive third person shooters with better character models than a game that has this as a main focus, I realise the industry leading visuals of fighters is along gone era.

As a whole the visuals are nice enough for the eye, but it pushes no boundaries and at best looks average for this generation. A shame, begging the question that maybe Bandai-Namco should realise they aren't really using the UE4 engine very well?!


Audio


Classic Soul Calibur fair; sounds are like they are lifted from the previous games and the music is an, well suited, orchestrated but kinda forgettable affair. Soundtracks from the previous games are unlockable. I know quite a few people enjoy the SC soundtracks so this one won't disappoint as it holds the same style and quality. For me however, there's nothing striking about the audio in this title.





Summary


I must admit I was left disappointed. There's more work that could have been done to raise the game over it's somewhat bare bones feeling. The annoying loading coupled with short and fast fights just make playing a frustrating waiting game. The lack of a proper skip button for long text dialogues makes you end up pressing next over and over then watching even more loading before commencing in a short but sweet taste of a fight. Somewhere along the way the developers forgot the idea that fighting games have always been built around quick entries into fights and moving fast from one to next.

I wouldn't really recommend SC6 much. It seems like a slimmed package and just a overall more annoying experience to play than previous SC games. It's sad to see the developer struggle with optimising the game and adding content post-release giving us the vibes of an unfinished product, even though the Libra of Souls mode is fairly well padded out.

As basic as using the game only for a versus fighter to pick up and play with friends it gets to a tedious loading affair, losing the momentum with such a wait between battles. It just takes the fun out of it. Those that are SC veterans and huge fans I guess it goes without saying, you'll be getting this. For the more casual fighting fans that are looking for a good two player and pick up and play game, avoid it.

Rating

★★★

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Getting dug into dirty rallying

Dirt Rally 2.0




Platform tested: Xbox One X (enhanced)
Also on: PC & PS4
Released: 2019


Review



Introduction


Codemasters are once again back with a rally game, this time it's a continuation of Dirt Rally, a super realistic sidestep series of the main Dirt franchise. Confusingly enough when the previous mainline Dirt game was Dirt 4.  Set aside the fact that they maybe should just combine these to branches into one main game, this is the sequel to Dirt Rally which debuted on PC back in 2015. My experience with both the first game and Dirt 4 was somewhat bland; the first Dirt Rally for me seemed very basically and more experimentally structured, while Dirt 4 found itself confused in the middle between realism and semi-realism. Both the games has lacking visual appeal too.

Luckily Codemasters have really gone the extra mile when it comes to appearance, sense of series direction and content this time around. Lets let the handbrake go, press down the accelerator and take a look at Dirt Rally 2.0!





Plot and setting 


Game layout is fairly simple; there's a main mode which gradually takes you through seasons and underlying rally events at various world locations with increasingly more powerful rally car classes. One season contains multiple events, each event has five stages to race. You need to buy a rally cars to compete in them and manage a staff to help keep repairs quick and make car upgrades available. It's a simple enough structure, although some of the more complex choices are underwhelming explained.

There's no storyline or cutscenes as such, but then again in a racer this is often a huge hit and miss. I like the simple and down and dirty approach to just getting going with races and I found the menus more clear to navigate this time around. There's a nice variety of locations to race on; sun drenched Spanish tarmac, orange sanded Australian forests, fast and bumpy Polish gravel roads, autumn leafed American countrysides and rain drenched muddy New Zealand farm areas etc. I'd strongly recommend the deluxe edition of the game as they are adding along new world locations regularly, especially snow locations are weirdly missing in the base game. At the time of writing both Monaco and Sweden rallies have been added and Germany is right around the corner.

There's a lot of diversity in the rally locations when it comes to not only their visual appearance but also the surfaces they challenge the player with. Gravel roads are fast with a lot of grip, tarmac roads are even faster but require more "ordinary" road racing skills grip can easily be lost, especially in the rain. Snow surfaces are hell, but again they offer a nice variety to the mix. I liked seeing that newly added rally locations are blended automatically into the main game mode.


Gameplay and features 


For further variationoutside the main game mode the game offers other race events to participate in. There's historic rally events, where you can race classic rally classes through the years, with all the lovely modelled classic cars it's a real fun mode to play. In fact the historic mode even lets you later the difficulty level of the A.I. competitors, so it might actually be the best place to begin for newcomers to the Dirt Rally series! Rallycross has it's own main mode for those that love racing around rallycross tracks in a more traditional race style rather than versus the clock. These races are quite hard, and not really my cup of tea, but I'm glad they are in the game. There's also daily and weekly challenges and events to be played to compete your best times against players worldwide.

The amount of tracks and cars is a healthy bunch, and once again I'd recommend the season pass to get even more of them. I would have liked to have seen more track locations in the base game, but there's a healthy amount of stages in each one. Lots of weather types and times of day to add variety with too; daytime, sunset, night combined with rain, fog, clear skies etc. The road surfaces become a huge challenge in wet conditions, believe me. For hardcore players there's tons of customisation options to each car to dig into, tweaking each part to your style of rallying, plus an option to turn on an even more realistic damage simulation.


Video


2.0 really has made a huge leap from the first game and Dirt 4 visually. Gone are also the automated Dirt 4 rally tracks in favour for some beautiful and detailed crafted tracks by hand. It really pays off as each track looks stunningly modelled. Especially foliage and lighting makes the game look not only pretty but also organic like, combined with a slightly soft look which really suits the nature setting of rallying. The HDR brings out even more colour and makes the lighting even better. The car models are really good with lots of interior detail and wonderful bodywork that can be damaged in crashes.

Even more impressive is this Xbox One X enhanced version I am playing; which runs in a almost consistent native 4K, relying on some dynamic resolution if too much is happening onscreen, mostly in rallycross. What's even more impressive than the extremely high resolution is that the game runs in 60fps! It makes the controls and car manoeuvring so smooth and responsive. I have sadly noticed a few sudden, but very short lasting drops in frames here and there. They should look into fixing these. Otherwise it's hugely impressive visual leap Codemasters have done on the X from the base XB1, PS4 and PS4 Pro which all run in 1080p, coming real close to what PC players can enjoy visually! 


Audio


Car sounds are the star of the sound department here; each car sound dinstinctly different and powerful. Growling engines, whistling turbos and crunchy gravel flung up beneath the car all make the audio really pop. It's and impressive audio experience that suits rallying perfectly. I've enjoyed cranking up the sound and enjoying the beast like nature of these rally monsters in my headset, the cockpit view brings the best and most intense sounding experience!

There's little worth of mentioning music in this game; most realistic racers and rally games are absent of music during races. The menu music is just, well typical menu music.





Summary


Although this games can be really brutal at times, not a racing game for newcomers at all, it really helped get me more sunk into rallying than the first game did and Dirt 4. I think it might be the huge visual leap and the way you can tailor a easier learning curve for yourself to get yourself familiar with this type of racing. It's more meaty package and less of a barebones approach than the first game. I haven't had so much fun rallying in a while and the 60fps focus really helps put the game precisely at your fingertips. 

The whole scenario of burning down a claustrophobic, tight gravel road at high speed while jumping on small bumps and having to hammer down the brakes as you enter sharp corner while throwing your car sideways and hearing the amazing audio growl from your engine while passing so natural looking country roads is just an experience Dirt Rally 2.0 nails down more perfectly than any other rally game has to date. Codemasters are in league of their own these days when it comes to rallying. A warmly recommended racing game for those that can take a realistic simulator, but also enjoy the intensity of what rallying is about. Even more recommended for console players with an Xbox One X as the team have gone an extra mile to bring incredibly visuals to the platform!

It's of those games that does all it's game components well and comes together as a fantastic package in it's genre.

Rating

★★★★★