Category Archives: Backlog – The Mantelpiece of unfinished games

Review: Pokémon X

X_EN_boxartI seem to always be way behind when it comes to the Pokémon franchise. The original games, Pokémon Red and Blue, passed me by on their European release in 1999 – I think at the time I dismissed them as being ‘for kids’ (I was at university at the time). But by the time Pokémon Ruby had come out for the Game Boy Advance in 2003, I’d gotten over myself somewhat. Yes the series is primarily aimed at children, but the mechanics underneath are far from childish – there’s a robust and complicated battling system here that can take years to learn and master. It’s like watching Toy Story – enjoyable for kids, but there’s a lot thrown in there for adults to like, too.

I picked up Ruby a while after its release, and it made me finally realise that all the fuss is about. The compulsion to hunt and capture the hundreds of pocket monsters is strong, the battles are a strategic masterclass and the aesthetic has a simplistic beauty. I was hooked. I spent many hours hunting through the long grass in an attempt to find the rarest Pokémon, and I happily explored the huge game world laid out before me.

The best bit about Pokemon X is the newly enhanced graphics for the battles, which look gorgeous.

The best bit about Pokemon X is the newly enhanced graphics for the battles, which look gorgeous.

But by the end I’d started to run out of steam. The final Elite battles are arduous affairs, several times more difficult than anything I’d faced previously in the game, so they required a lot of tedious grinding to enable my Pokémon to compete. One of the series’ flaws is that if you want to change up your main team, then training a new Pokémon can take absolutely forever, which limits your ability and will to experiment with different line ups. As such, you’re more than likely to stick with the same old Pokémon squad for the whole game, which can get a little dull.

Also, the plot is practically non-existent. You’re given a Pokémon by some professor and head off to… well I’m not sure why you head off. It involves rogue Pokémon trainers or something, although to be fair, surely all Pokémon trainers are a bit rogue – the Pokémon games are essentially cock fighting but without the gambling.

Skip forward a few years, and I picked up Pokémon SoulSilver for the DS a long time after its release (review here). In many ways it was very similar to Ruby, just with different Pokémon and better graphics. It had the same strengths and the same tiresome flaws. The Elite battles were a similarly epic slog – so much so that I stopped playing the game after I’d finished the last one, even though the whole region from Red and Blue opens up after you complete the game. I’d had enough.

Which brings me on to Pokémon X, the third Pokémon game I’ve played (again, a long time after its release) and one of the two entries in the sixth (sixth!) generation of Pokémon games (not including all the remakes and spin offs). And it’s the same. It’s the same game again. You could basically copy my review of SoulSilver and paste it here instead.

It did begin to grab me an hour or two in – the mega evolutions are a nice touch, even if they’re not used enough, and the old compulsion to “catch ’em all” is still there, although diminished with time. Crucially, there are simply far too many of the blighters now, so that catching them all is in no way a realistic prospect, unlike when there were just 150 or so of the damn things – an achievable target.

Also, a lot of the new ones are frankly crap. A floating set of keys? Come on.

KlefkiCredit: foolishfox via Reddit

Towards the end of the game, not long after I’d captured a Pokémon reindeer that looks suspiciously like the forest spirit in Princess Mononoke, I just gave up the will to carry on. The wafer-thin ‘plot’ was sending me to sleep (just because a game is for kids doesn’t mean the story has to be simplified to the point of stupidity), and I was aware that the Elite battles were no doubt coming up, which in turn would mean possibly hours of grinding. The same old things I’d done twice before.

I ejected the cartridge and sold the game the same day.

I remember reading somewhere that Japanese games tend to champion iteration over innovation when it comes to sequels. There’s some unwritten rule that Japanese audiences enjoy the familiar but with tweaks to the formula, which is why there are more than a dozen broadly similar Dynasty Warriors games and why every other JRPG seems to start with a destroyed village. I don’t know how true this statement actually is, but it explains why the Pokémon games have barely changed since their inception – and why they are unlikely to change in the future.

But until there’s some serious innovation in the series, a brave reboot that addresses the series’ flaws and gives a serious boost to the simplistic story and characters, then I’m out.

No more fruitlessly hunting through grass for rare Pokémons for me. I'm done.

No more fruitlessly hunting through grass for rare Pokémons for me. I’m done.

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Halo: Combat Evolved’s “The Library” is a textbook game design

HALOCEAnniversaryI love The Library.  There, I said it.  Every time I play through Halo: Combat Evolved it dawns on me that it is once Master Chief makes the acquaintance of 343 Guilty Spark that the game really picks up, and becomes justifiably one of the historical cornerstones of the medium.  Being trapped in the tight corridors with the deadly Flood and its infected prey may not be the pinnacle of the tactical combat that to that point Halo had been the purveyor of, but it is during this intensely compressed period of fast-paced and twitch-based combat that Halo really comes into its own.  You may not be flanking Covenant grunts or taking down energy shields, but the change of pace that The Library brings with it is for mine, the pinnacle of first person shooting.

Anyone who has played Halo – and I’m sure that’s close to everyone both living and deceased by now – knows that in a lot of ways The Library is trial by fire.  The Flood has barely been introduced to the player before you’re forced into close quarters combat with a foreign enemy, an enemy that attacks en masse, and an enemy that challenges you to change your approach to combat.  I could write ad nauseam about how the Halo series made weapon design and balance into an art form – and it did – but it is during The Library that it becomes incredibly obvious just how integral the weapons are to the whole experience.  What may have been your go-to weapon combination fighting the covenant may not suit your battle against the rushing kamikaze infected – 343 Guilty Spark even passes comment on it, “Puzzling. You brought such ineffective weapons to combat the Flood, despite the containment protocols””, and it is the Library’s school of hard knocks that very quickly forces you to find your feet, and discover what weapon combination works the best for you. Or die trying.

But it is also the textbook level design that helps make the great halls of The Library not only a brilliant lesson in first person shooter weapon design and selection, but the perfect training grounds for fighting the flood .  Isolating the Flood the first time you experience them in their full force is one of the smartest design decisions of the modern era, taking the player out of the fight with the Covenant temporarily, and focusing the player on learning how to approach this entirely new enemy.  Halo is as much about knowing the opposition as it is knowing your surroundings, and it only takes a moment to recognise that intelligent and battle-hardened the Flood are not.  But The Library – complete with the scripted progressively narrowing kill rooms – is the perfect exam to test your mettle and teach you the skills you’ll need to make it through the rest of the game.  Because the moment you step out of the Library, you’ll be caught in the crossfire between two vastly different enemies, who are both hellbent on killing you.  Whether it was intentional or not the aptly named Library is the place almost singularly designed to teach you how to succeed for the rest of the game, and it is this cleverly-disguised tutorial right at the peak of the game’s storyline, that is the moment the game went from a cracking good time to a masterstroke of game design.

As someone who has never played a Halo game online, rather opting to enjoy the cracking single-player yarn Bungie and its kin have continued to wind throughout the series, it is easy to perhaps take some of the nuance of the game’s design for granted.  But time and time again every time I play the game – and Microsoft has given me ample opportunity to do just that – it all falls into place the moment the Flood comes onto the scene.   From level design that is purpose-built, to the way it changes player expectations and behaviour, and finally the way it represents a significant tonal shift in the game’s narrative, the Library is one of the best hours of gameplay in video game history.  And it’s an hour worth studying to understand what makes it so.

HaloCE-theLibrary

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Heavy Rain: Awkward Start, Great Finish

Heavy Rain box artMy first impressions of Heavy Rain weren’t great. After a protracted installation session, I was wholly underwhelmed by the game’s glacier-slow and mind-numbingly tedious opening (see earlier post). However, Sir Gaulian assured me that the game picks up, and I’m glad I stuck with it.

For a start, it’s a film noir thriller, and I’m a sucker for film noir: over at 101 Films You Should Have Seen… Probably, we’ve eagerly covered all sorts of representatives of the genre, from the 70s noir revival Chinatown to the 90s sci-fi noir Dark City, with a bit of Lynchian psycho-horror noir thrown in for good measure. Heavy Rain is noir to its core, and it delivers a satisfying and convoluted story that throws in plenty of twists and red herrings to keep you on your toes. It’s also paced particularly well: although it starts off a bit too slow, the action builds nicely towards a breathtaking and satisfying crescendo.

The controls are a bit of a sticking point, however. I believe the aim of the control scheme was to mimic the actions taking place on screen: for example, to make Madison Paige put on lipstick, the game directs you to slowly move the analogue stick in a semi-circle. For most of the time you’ll be wandering around just matching inputs like this, but every now and then an action sequence will pop up where you have to match the command that appears within seconds to, say, dodge a punch. So, a bit like Dragon’s Lair, then. Later on, the consequences of missing these commands can be serious – your character can die permanently, and in fact I ended up doing a few quick restarts in an attempt to get Jayden through to the finale.

Sam Douglas is excellent as private detective Scott Shelby.

Sam Douglas is excellent as private detective Scott Shelby.

I have mixed feelings about this control system. If the aim of the controls was to develop more of a connection between your input and what happens on screen, then I think it has failed. If anything, the controls drive a wedge between the player and the game – I never really felt like I was controlling what was happening, more like a monkey pressing buttons in expectation of a reward. As such, it was more difficult to develop an attachment to the character I was ostensibly meant to ‘be’. Also, the decision to control walking by holding down R2 and then pressing in a direction with the left analogue stick is absurd. For the life of me I can’t work out why they didn’t just map movement to the analogue stick alone: why make us press R2 as well? It’s certainly not more immersive: half the time I found myself walking into walls as I wrestled with the controls.

However, I did quite enjoy the action sequences in the end. I’m not normally a fan of QTEs in games, but here there were some moments where my heart was really pounding as I desperately tried to follow the prompts on screen, knowing that if I failed, my character might not make it to the end of the game. There prompts are also set at a very well-thought-out level of timing – just forgiving enough to make them possible at first try, but still hard enough to make you really concentrate.

But, again, I did feel that in some way I was being robbed of control. The ‘decisions’ I made in the game often just game down to how quickly I mashed a button, so really it was more about reactions than decisions. I think the TellTale games did this a little better, providing you with clear, timed choices. L.A. Noire also bears some striking similarities to Heavy Rain, but I prefer the way that the former approaches controls: in that game you always feel like you’re in complete control of what’s happening, whereas in Heavy Rain there’s sometimes a bit of a disconnect.

There’s also a bit of unintentional comedy, not least with the whole ‘Press X to Jason’ thing, as well as a highly gratuitous shower scene that seemed to serve absolutely no purpose as far as I could see. But overall I enjoyed the game a lot more than I thought I would – it’s certainly a daring experiment, and I can see how other games have been hugely influenced by it.

The alternative reality glasses that FBI agent Jayden uses are a great idea - they could make a whole game using this mechanic.

The alternative reality glasses that FBI agent Jayden uses are a great idea – they could make a whole game using this mechanic.

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Wolfenstein: The New Order is far better than it ought to be

Wolfenstein The New Order Xbox 360Nazis, robots, alternative timelines – on paper, Wolfenstein: The New Order (buy on Amazon) sounds like the sort of straight-to-video B-movie nonsense you’d bypass with a tired shake of the head were you to spot it in a video shop (if such places even exist any more). Yet it manages to be, as Sir Gaulian found, far more than the sum of its parts.

My first impression wasn’t good, however. By halfway through the opening level, I was questioning whether I’d even bother playing through the rest of the game. It opens with a classic beach-storming episode of the like we’ve played through hundreds of times before in dozens of WW2 shooters, and it quickly reminded me of the dire Return to Castle Wolfenstein from a decade or so ago. Yes, there are robot dogs: otherwise though, it could be any old Call of Duty or Medal of Honor game from the turn of the century. But then it gets interesting.

Hero B. J. Blazkowicz takes some shrapnel to the head and goes into a catatonic state. He wakes up 14 years later in a mental asylum, only to find that the Nazis have taken over the world thanks to some mysterious advanced technology. And its the chilling depiction of this world, along with some brilliant characterization, that really elevates this game to the next level.

Whereas previous Wolfenstein games had you gunning down Nazis just because, you know, they’re Nazis, here you’re given a reason to really hate them. The game presents you with a world where Nazism is taken to its logical extreme – the quest for a pure Aryan race is taken to levels of unimaginable genocide and repression, the development of nuclear weapons has led to the subjugation of America and the quest for lebensraum has ensnared the whole globe – and even other planets. Blaskowicz’s shock at waking up to this nightmare is palpable. He declares that he wants to join the resistance, to fight against the rise of the Nazis, but he’s given the chilling response: “What resistance?” The whole world has fallen.

Wolfenstein the New Order mental asylum

It gives you an uncomfortable feeling of helplessness. How can you possibly do anything to change this horrendous world? Of course, the game gives you a conduit to do just that, but the way it explores the consequences of living in a Nazi-dominated world really provides pause for thought. What would I do in that circumstance? What could anyone do?

The plot and characters are also far, far better than they have any right to be for a ‘dumb’ first person shooter. Many’s the time that I’ve played through a game without giving two hoots about the other characters, mostly because they have the depth and personality of a wet lettuce (Halo is a good example). But here I really bought into the plight of these NPCs, mostly thanks to some excellent voice acting and a taut script.

Gameplay-wise, it’s also something of a revelation. The use of health packs came as a breath of fresh air after years of getting used to regenerating health – battles feel terrifically exciting as a result, as you desperately hunt for extra health while under fire. Dual wielding also feels fresh again, and opting for this over just using a single weapon has a big impact on the way you play the game.

Wolfenstein The New Order Abbey Road

There’s also room for a bit of black humour – the LPs you collect are brilliantly done, featuring Nazified versions of sixties singers, and the fact that the designers actually recorded the songs shows an amazing attention to detail. The only criticism I’d level at the game is that the collectibles are largely pointless – I would have liked to see more of the letters you find, detailing individuals’ struggles to survive, rather than various useless gold statues. Oh, and the ending… well, maybe that’s an article for another time.

All in all though, Wolfenstein: The New Order turned out to be a surprisingly affecting and eminently playable game that has managed to push the FPS genre to new heights. With this and the wonderful Alien: Isolation, my gaming year has already got off to a tremendous start.

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How Alien: Isolation Fried My Nerve Endings

Alien Isolation Xbox 360 coverI’ve just finished Alien: Isolation, and I’m almost glad. On the plus side, it hopefully means an end to the xenomorph-related nightmares and the dangerously high heart rates I’ve experienced while playing the game. On the other hand, it’s one of the best things I’ve played in years, and I’m very, very sad it’s over.

If you’ve never heard of the game, basically it’s just like the first Alien film – a terrifying haunted house in space – but this time you’re playing Ellen Ripley’s daughter, Amanda. She’s on the hunt for clues to her mother’s disappearance, which leads her to the Sevastopol, a crumbling space station that has become home to the flight recorder from the Nostromo. Along with something else.

The Sevastopol space station is a thing of decaying beauty.

The Sevastopol space station is a thing of decaying beauty.

I read an interesting article on Outside Your Heaven recently that compared Alien: Isolation with The Evil Within and criticised the former for essentially being a retread of the first Alien film. That’s a fair enough point – the designers have painstakingly recreated may elements from the 1979 film and, as the author notes, it would never have been greenlit as a film sequel because it shares too many similarities with the original. However, as a game it feels highly original – I can’t think of many others that pit you against an essentially invincible enemy and then make you cower for your life for the best part of 20 hours. It’s a nerve-shredding experience, but a highly addictive one.

You can distract the Alien, even scare it off, but you can never, never beat it. Whereas other games empower you with exotic weapons and give you a sense of superiority, here you’re bestowed with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. During the few times when you’re sufficiently tooled up, it feels extremely cathartic to do some damage to the space station’s psychotic androids, mostly because for the rest of the game you’ll be hiding in a locker, leaning backwards and holding your breath (there’s actually a button for that), and hoping to god that the Alien doesn’t see you.

Not a good situation to be in.

Not a good situation to be in.

For all the terror, it’s strangely compelling. Although it can get a bit too much. At one point I was trying to sneak to an elevator, and the Alien kept spotting me and devouring me before I could reach it. One time I was almost there – I’d managed to sneak through the vents, and I’d paused just before exiting into the corridor so that I could check the coast was clear. Suddenly, the Alien appeared out of nowhere and grabbed me/Amanda, and yanked her out of the vent as she desperately scrabbled at the metal surface. I mean, it came out of nowhere, man. Seriously, I had to turn off the game and just sit quietly for a bit after that one.

And that was right near the end of the game, too. You’d think by that point I might be quite blasé about being repeatedly gobbled by an Alien, but it never seemed to get any less shocking. Watch the video below to get an idea of just how traumatic it is.

Graphically, the game is astonishing. I was playing on the Xbox 360 and it looked pretty amazing, so it must be utterly astounding on the newer consoles. At one point you get to go outside the space station, and the view is gobsmacking. But perhaps more importantly, the attention to detail is spot on. The designers have painstakingly recreated the 1970s future tech and interior design from the original film, and it gives the game a unique feel. They’ve even put in that little bobbing bird thing from the movie, you know the one I mean.

If anything, the sound is even better than the graphics. The Alien’s footsteps still send a shiver through my spine, and towards the end of the game (I won’t spoil it) there’s an aurally amazing sequence that made me wish the speakers on my TV weren’t so knackered.

Some people have criticised Alien: Isolation for being a bit too long, but the length was just about right if you ask me. One thing I would say is that it’s a bit slow to get going, and the plot is a little weak to start with, but it picks up the pace in the second half. It also plays it a little safe in plot terms, sticking mostly with ideas that have been developed in the films – I’d love to see a sequel that stays true to the hide and seek gameplay of the original but takes the series into seriously uncharted narrative waters.

In the meantime though, buy this game (if you haven’t bought it already). It’s just passed one million sales after three months on release – a figure that the dreadful Aliens: Colonial Marines passed in just over a month. Show your support for good games, make sure it surpasses the sales of A:CM! Then, hopefully, we’ll get a sequel…

Look! That bird thing!

Look! That bird thing!

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The Black Sheep of the Assassin Family

Assassin's Creed Wii UI’ve been intrigued by the reviews of Assassin’s Creed: Rogue. Although it was brought out in the shadow of its bigger, next-gen only brother – Assassin’s Creed: Unity – most reviewers agree it outshines its graphically superior sibling in terms of gameplay. And certainly, its bonkers mix of narwhal hunting and assassinating assassins looks like a lot of fun. The only problem is that I’m still two years behind in the Assassin’s Creed series, and I’m far too anal to start playing the newest game without having played the previous ones.

In an effort to bring myself up to date, I’ve recently been tucking into Assassin’s Creed III, which came out in 2012 and has been sitting on The Mantelpiece since not long after its release. Sadly, it’s not that good.

Rather than list all of the things that are wrong with the game, I refer you instead to this article on kotaku.com, which pretty much nails the problems. I bridled at Kirk Hamilton’s use of the word “jank” (eh?) but otherwise he speaks a lot of sense. However, I’d add a few more points to his list of ten.

11. Boston just isn’t that interesting

In previous games we’ve been given medieval Rome or Constantinople to explore, and I’m afraid 18th century Boston just doesn’t cut it. In the 1770s the city was tiny and lacked landmark buildings of any note – there’s no equivalent of the Coliseum or the Blue Mosque here. In fact, most of the city looks the same, with only the tall ships in the harbour giving you any sense of bearing. And whereas exploring a city in previous games was a joy spread over many hours, here you’re only given the option to look around Boston sporadically, with a huge chunk of the game instead taking place in trees. Which are even less interesting than Boston.

Eighteenth-century Boston: not as interesting as Rome. Or Florence. Or Paris. Or...

Eighteenth-century Boston: not as interesting as Rome. Or Florence. Or Paris. Or…

12. The history gets in the way of the gameplay

More so than in previous games in the series, the history gets in the way of the fun. The designers have made the fatal flaw of looking at historical events and then thinking “how can we depict that in a game?” rather than thinking up something fun to do and then working how it could fit into the timeline. Some “missions” simply involve walking between characters and listening to interminable speeches, whereas another just involves following a revolutionary around and watching him start riots.

13. It’s So. Slow.

You only get your assassin costume halfway through, for pity’s sake. This being the fifth game in the series, you’d expect the designers to allow those who’ve been following from the beginning to just jump in and start assassinating. Yet the first five sequences of the game are essentially a tedious tutorial.

14. It’s stupidly over-complicated

Ubisoft seemingly hate to throw ideas away, even the not-very-good ones. By Assassin’s Creed III, we can now add hunting and ‘peg leg missions’ to the teetering pile of pointless distractions that litter the already over-cluttered game map. No doubt a certain percentage of people delight in mining the Assassin’s games for all they’re worth, collecting every last feather and finding every last weapon. Yet most of these activities are exceedingly tedious and pointless, and utterly overwhelming in their number.

And yet… and yet I’m still playing it. Partly it’s a feeling of obligation, a need to see the end of this game before I start the next one (and Assassin’s Creed IV is reportedly very good). To this end I’m speeding through it as quickly as I can, avoiding all superfluous missions. The naval combat is also fun, if underused, and it’s interesting to learn about the lead up to the American revolution, a subject I previously knew very little about. But I’m also impatient for it all to end.

What I’d really like to see is Ubisoft take the brave step of sweeping away all of the current conventions of the Assassin’s series and starting again from the basics, in a similar way to Square Enix’s approach with Tomb Raider. The series is crying out for some fresh thinking, and making it simpler will only make it better.

Hunting in Assassin's Creed III: like Red Dead Redemption, but not as good.

Hunting in Assassin’s Creed III: like Red Dead Redemption, but not as good.

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The Amiga: Another World Away

Another World, starring Sir "Lester" Gaulian.

Another World, starring Sir “Lester” Gaulian.

I just finished playing Another World: 20th Anniversary Edition on the 3DS, which was a bargain in the Nintendo eShop at £3.49. I remember when the original game came out on the Amiga in 1991: the cinematic graphics were mind-blowing at the time. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to play it back in the day, so I’m glad I finally got the opportunity to play Eric Chahi’s masterpiece.

The graphics still look fantastic – the silky smooth animation on Lester looks stunning, and the backdrops have a minimalist look that means they’ve barely dated. The gameplay, on the other hand, is showing its age somewhat. Much of the game involves trial and error puzzles, and one wrong move means instant death. Several times in the game you’ll enter a room only to be instantly killed because there you didn’t do something several rooms back. Or a guard will just pop up and vapourise you in one shot.

But I found myself compelled to finish it nonetheless, mostly because the game’s presentation and story are top notch. It does a brilliant job of forging the atmosphere of a strange, faraway and hostile planet where you’re never really sure what’s going on. The creators of Ico said that the game had a strong influence on them, and I can well believe that.

Perhaps the best thing about the game is that it leaves a lot unexplained – you never really find out who your captors are, or what the  motives of your alien companion are. Instead you’re encourage to fill in the blanks, and the game’s all the better for it. I’d rather a little mystery than exposition-heavy cut scenes every five minutes.

another-world-20th-anniversary-edition-14-700x466

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