#AprilTTRPGmaker Favourite game to relax with

PbHaUVDhS4-Chan is my waifu.

Tabletop games aren’t really ‘relaxing’ for me. Usually I’m running them – which is how I like it – but even when I’m a player it’s not really ‘relaxing’. It’s fun, engaging and all that, but your brain is far too engaged with figuring out plots, schemes and tactics that you don’t relax.

To relax I tend to play computer games, PC too, but mostly I’m a console peasant, because it’s simple just ‘plug and play’ and you don’t have to worry about specs.

If I really want to relax I’ll play something zen or repetitive. Minecraft is good because you can just zone out while you dig and – bit by bit – build ‘something’. Otherwise I tend to enjoy RPGs, open world games and FPS with good plot or extended play (something like Far Cry is far more fun for me than – say Call of Duty).

Review: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

A narrative computer game, derisively called a ‘walking simulator’. EGttR is as long-winded as its name, painfully slow to play with no meaningful interaction.

There’s zero point to this being a computer game or interactive experience since it isn’t really an interactive experience in any meaningful way. It would have been better as a film, radio-play or miniseries.

Pretty though.

Style: 4/5
Substance: 1/5
Overall: 2.5

#PS4 Review: The Order 1886

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Introduction

As I may have mentiond before when reviewing games within the genre, I am a big fan of steampunk. I’m a purist though. The steampunk that I like is of the more ‘hard SF’ or ‘alternative history’ style. The Difference Engine rather than Arcanum. In many respects The Order does tick the right boxes, but hopefully I’m not spoilering anything by revealing that it also includes supernatural elements – which I admit that I’m biased against.

The Order has been subject to some controversy, mostly centred around its playing time and its cinematic styling and prevalence of quicktime events and cutscenes.

I have no particular dog in the fight around cinematic styling (it certainly helped elevate Alien Isolation), I primarily care about whether the game and story are good. I can forgive a lot and I enjoyed Space Ace and Dragon’s Lair back in the day. I expect more these days, but have nothing necessarily against cinematic frame rate, film grain or qt events.

When it comes to play time, I do think there’s an issue to answer. My metric for time well spent and value for money is cinema. Locally you can expect to see a two hour film for around £8. I would hope to get at least eight hours from a shooting game (more from an RPG or similar). That means I would look to expect about twelve hours of joy for a cover price of £50, including replay value.

I finished The Order, without rushing, in about 7 hours. That’s about £30 worth of entertainment, sold for nearly twice that.

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Story

Here be spoilers.

You are a knight of the order, a tradition carried on since King Arthur’s day and a band of near-immortal knights empowered by the ‘black water’, drunk from the holy grail. You play Sir Galahad (Grayson) a stoic and principled member of the order who progresses through the story from absolute loyalty to questioning everything he’s been taught to believe and has upheld for centuries.

Taking the names of the knights (similarly to the conceit in Kingsman) The Order serves the realm and answers to no-one, concentrating on helping protect the realm and humanity in general against threats both natural and supernatural (rebellion, lycanthropes, ‘bedlamites’, vampires and more).

The Order has absolute authority and autonomy, commands police and soldiers, operates out of a palace and has access to the finest technology of the new age of science present in the game. This includes a diverse group of weapons from automatic pistols (based on the Mauser and the C-93) to automatic rifles, pump action shotguns and more exotic weapons like a thermite rifle, electrical arc gun and a recoilless explosive launcher.

You start with a flashback – or flash forward – where you have betrayed The Order and are sentenced to death. Crippled you make your escape with some difficulty and then flash back a considerable amount of time and back to your more regular duties. The Order are essentially a special operations unit and as you deal with bedlamites, lycanthropes and rebels you slowly uncover a conspiracy at the heart of the United India company that reaches into the heart of The Order itself.

Vampires, werewolves, knights of the realm, it’s all rather derivative – even in the language that’s used (lycans…) and owes more than a little to the Underworld film series, which is unfortunate. It would have been a stronger story, I think, without the supernatural elements which – at this point – are worn thin. It’s possible they could have been elevated, tired concepts can still work if handled well or if they’re aware of themselves, but The Order goes at its material in too po-faced and serious a manner for it to really work here.

Too much goes unexplained and while that can work – if you find out as you’re playing – you don’t find out enough to make proper sense of what’s going on in the game.

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Presentation

Graphically The Order is an astounding feat. The people look real enough that there’s no real uncanny valley feeling, even though sometimes there’s a delay in a character moving out of your way or responding to a cue from a button press to push a cart or give someone a leg up.

The sheer level of graphical fidelity is breathtaking, most especially noteworthy is the way that cloth moves and drapes. The design is perfect.

Oddly, this sheer level of graphical accomplishment sometimes works against the game because the sheer level of graphical detail and realism leads you to expect realism to such a degree that the flaws stick out like sore thumbs. The most glaring of these were the fact that you cast no reflection – leading me to erroneously believe that Galahad was a vampire for a while – and that things fail to explode, shatter or move when you run into them or set off an explosion.

The voice acting is superb and brings real emotion into the characters. The characters look like real people – imperfections and all. The musical score is appropriate and well done. Presentation-wise, this is a brilliant game.

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Gameplay

The game breaks down into four separate gameplay styles, one of which isn’t really gameplay.

  • Cut-scenes: Sit and listen to the various characters discussing this/that and the other. It would have added a great deal if you’d been able to choose your character’s input and conversational options during these.
  • Quick Time Events: Some of these occur during combat (stealth attacks, boss fights, melee). Others occur on their own basis during cut-scenes. Some of these are an improvement on normal QTEs as they’re somewhat forgiving. If you mess up it’s often not instant doom, but a setback you can recover from.
  • Cover Shooter: Once the guns are out the game is a cover-shooter, similar in feel to Gears of War, though a bit less bulky/macho. This isn’t bad per se, but the cover spots are obvious and many of the fighting spaces are so tight and constricted you might as well be in melee combat. The different guns are quite fun. The wild disparity in enemy toughness is disconcerting though.
  • Exploration: Occasionally you’ll be free to move around and not be in combat. There’s not much in the way of exploration, you’re primarily on rails the whole time with an obvious way to go. While exploring you can find beautifully rendered objects, read newspapers, locate clues etc but nothing that really has that much impact on the game or that would motivate you to search around when you don’t have to. You will find audio recordings, but since you have to interrupt play to listen to them and they have no real bearing on play there’s little reason to do so.

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Score
Style: 5 (In terms of graphics, style and technical accomplishment the game is close enough to perfect as to warrant a 5).
Substance: 2 (Too short, derivative story, hidden story).
Overall: 3.5 (Solidly above average, but only dragged there by virtual of graphical and technological accomplishment).

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Opinion

The Order is not a bad game. It’s just not a great game. It doesn’t live up to its hype (similarly to how Watchdogs – an otherwise solid game – drew ire thanks to not living up to its hype). It is, however, a laudable and marvellous technological and graphical achievement which will be the new benchmark for console games from now on.

It is too short, ripping the feeling of having gotten value for money completely away and leaving one dissatisfied and even resentful.

With no plans for DLC we can’t even look forward to a more complete experience further down the line.

If the company takes their criticism to heart and addresses it for a sequel, they could well be on to a truly winning formula but it also remains to be seen how much of a success the game will be or whether the negative reviews have stymied any hope of a better sequel.

Personally, I’d love to see a Dishonoured sequel, rendered in this engine and with Dishonoured’s gameplay. That would be marvellous.

Like many things, this would probably make a better tabletop RPG than a computer game, as things stand.

I mean hell. I’d write the sequel for minimum wage, just to see a better story presented this well.

I hope we see this engine licensed and used for better games.

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Review: Alien Isolation

maxresdefaultIntroduction

I’m a fan of the Alien series – by which I primarily mean Alien and Aliens. The rest of the films can take a running jump off a cliff so far as I’m concerned. None of them live up to the promise of those first two. Some of the Dark Horse comics on the other hand, were brilliant and if Aliens Versus Predator had been based on their comic it would have been amazing. Prometheus looked pretty, but was a conceptual nightmare, like someone had given Von Daniken the brown acid and an unlimited budget.

I love the franchise, but I’m a picky motherfucker, is basically what I’m saying.

Also, here be spoilers.

Story

You step into the shoes of Amanda Ripley, Ellen’s canonical daughter who had died by the time we get to Aliens. Amanda has grown up without her mother and without knowing what happened to her. When the Nostromo’s black box is discovered and word gets back to Weyland-Yutani, she goes out on the company vessel the Torrens alongside an oligatory synthetic (Samuels) and a company woman (Taylor) to the remote station Sevastopol, owned by the lesser rival corporation, Seegson.

Upon arrival it becomes obvious that things have gone horribly wrong with Sevastopol. Nobody appears to be in charge, there’s no communications and to get to the station involves a spacewalk that goes wrong and leaves the trio scattered across the station.

As Ellen you have to survive the panicked populace, the rogue synthetics (lower tech than WT ones), the smashed up and breaking down station and… the alien.

Though things continue to get worse and it turns out it’s not just the one alien, but a whole nest (though the canonicity of aliens becoming queens or reproducing without queens – at least to start with – seems to be in question).

Eventually you escape – though that’s a questionable interpretation of events – and space is left for a sequel, though I think the story works better as a stand-alone.

Presentation

In many respects the presentation of this game is perfect. It’s a retro-future very much in the style of the films Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). This is played out in effects like green screen monitors, flickering strip lights, bulky monitors and computers that look more like Apple IIs or terminals. The save icon is even a video cassette.

This might be confusing and strange to younger gamers, but it definitely puts you in the world of the two best films and the whole design approach echoes aspects of those films (primarily Alien) and maintains the style throughout the game. The only drawback to this consistency is that many of the levels blur together through similarity and it can be hard to get a sense of being on a ship rather than the station.

Alien infested sections definitely have their own feel, as does the space jockey wreck, the planet surface and the exterior of the station, so it’s definitely not for lack of talent that other aspects feel a bit samey.

The sound score, similarly, echoes the films very faithfully and cranks up the tension of Goldsmith’s original score (Alien) to create terror by association. The only problem with it is that sometimes it cranks up the tension for no readily discernible reason, the musical equivalent of a cheap jump-scare.

The one area that really, really, really lets the game down in its presentation (beyond the minor gripes that there’s a lot of walking around doing nothing, which builds tension but gets old) is the alien.

You would really, really hope that the alien would be well done. Graphically it looks fine, but the motion capture animation for the alien is just too human looking. When it’s stalking you, you can’t help but be disappointed as it wanders around like a child who’s made stilts out of a couple of treacle tins. It only really becomes scary when it’s in pursuit of you and since it’s so key to the story and much of the play, it really lets the game down.

This is an area in which games can be better than films and better than the source material. Having the alien clamber on walls and ceiling as well as the floor, having it move in a less human manner would have massively improved the game. As it stands the blank-faced androids are scarier than the alien, and that’s just wrong.

Gameplay

The game plays like an FPS, though it’s really more of a stealth/survival game. Frustratingly you can’t jump, though you can crouch, crawl and hide under tables and inside ducts. The lack of a jump/scramble – save in particular spots – is hugely frustrating, especially whe being unable to hop up a couple of feet out of a gutter can be a matter of life and death.

Combat isn’t a huge focus, though you will find yourself struggling with other survivors and androids – but not aliens, which you can’t kill or hurt. You’re not a warrior, so you’ll find yourself lining up shots carefully and still missing. You’ll also find yourself bashing in people’s brains with a wrench a lot.

Androids are tough and if you get into a wrench-fight with one they’ll often catch your swing and end up throwing you back or into a wall. This does definitely bring home the strength and toughness of even the inferior Seegson androids, but it’s really, really repetitive and could have done with a bit more variety, or being a little less flawless at catching and deflecting your attacks.

Score
Style: 4.5 (only really let down by the alien).
Substance: 3 (A lot of plot information is hidden away on terminals, a lot of time in the game is lost crawling down corridors, stretching play out to snapping point).
Overall: 3.75

Opinion

The way people had been going on about this game I’d expected it to cause spontaneous orgasms and to spew kittens out of the screen. Even so, I wasn’t that sure that I’d like it and only got it because it was at reduced cost in the PS4 store. If I’d paid full price, I think I’d have been a little disappointed.

It’s not that this isn’t a good game, it just doesn’t really live up to the hype around it. I think, perhaps, given that Colonial Marines was such a disappointment to everyone, people were hugely pleased to get this game and for it not to suck.

Review: Far Cry 4 #PS4

2561268-fc4_screen_tuktuk_e3_140609_8pmpst_1402224704Overview

Far Cry 4 is the latest instalment in the series and it is pretty much more of the same. It’s the first Far Cry for the new generation of consoles, though you might not necessarily feel aware of that as you’re playing. This instalment takes us to a fictional pseudo-Himalayan nation (Kyrat) under the rule of tyrannical crime-against-fashion Pagan Min where you, as lost scion of a previous rebel leader end up entangled in the Kyratian Civil War, becoming the key player who determines how things are going to work out – despite only really being there to scatter your mother’s ashes.

Design

While Kyrat is a beautiful recreation of a mountainous country with many gorgeous locations it doesn’t make a great deal of internal sense, with the various locations seemingly plonked down willy-nilly here and there and the geography (and the way in which you have to travel across it) rather arbitrary and often a bit frustrating.

Character design is good and the characters move and express themselves well, especially the main characters whose movements and mannerisms are convincing.

The weapons are the usual sort of spread, though they lack any truly iconic or truly outstanding weapons that stand out above the rest. In many ways this is good as it requires you to switch around to use the right tool for the right job but it also means there isn’t really a particular weapon you can aspire to. Even the signature weapons aren’t that much better than anything else you can use, so other than OCD completism there’s little reason to gather every weapon.

Unfortunately, Far Cry 4 feels a bit like it’s ‘painting by numbers’ at this point, formulaic, repeating the same ideas found in the previous games without any innovation or expansion. It’s the same thing, just in a different location. It also doesn’t feel like it lives up to the new platform at all, with little to no discernible difference at the play experience level between the graphics and sound of Far Cry 3 on the PS3 and Far Cry 4 on the PS4.

None of this is to say that it isn’t beautiful and impressive, just that expectation is higher now and we’re still, really, waiting for games that really stretch the legs of the new hardware and show what it is capable of.

Gameplay

Gameplay is largely standard FPS controls. It does this well without a lot of the clumsiness many console games have compared to mouse-and-keyboard FPS on the PC. PC still gives a superior experience but as an old PC warhorse I find that – more and more – the console FPS experience is becoming tolerable and playable – at least against NPCs.

Other than the usual run-and-gun elements of FPS stealth is an important part of the game, especially when rescuing captives or capturing outposts.

The set-pieces, karma missions (how you win the hearts and minds of your fellow rebels) and the tower and outpost capture missions are exciting, if repetitive, but there’s also a lot of filler with little or no pay-off. Meaningless collection missions for letters, records and demonic masks with nothing to really show for it at the end – disappointing given the amount of effort it takes to unlock all of the map and get them all.

As you undertake missions you unlock the map and advance the story, giving you your path through the open world, but letting you go off the beaten path as much as you want. That may, actually, be a problem with a lot of these games as being able to spend hours going off and doing your own thing without the story or threat advancing robs you of any real sense of urgency or threat to the baddies. Games weren’t always this way, going back to some of the earliest free-roaming 3D games such as Midwinter and Midwinter 2, if you spent too long faffing around the enemy would advance and overrun you – a model that might be welcome in these sorts of games in the future.

Story

Ostensibly your kukri-wielding maniac – Kyratian in race but American in culture – is in Kyrat to scatter his mother’s ashes but can’t as the country’s civil war has divided the country and made it hazardous and near-impossible to get to where you need to go. As a descendant of the former rebels you’re also considered a useful PR tool and – increasingly – as a warrior. Your favour is curried by the two competing rebel leaders (one a traditionalist religious fanatic, the other a reformer who’s willing to do unspeakable things to bring her country into the future). The existing dictator, Pagan Min, is also obsessed with you to his detriment since it seems to prevent him finishing you off.

The story and motivations never reach the interest level of Far Cry 3 which was far more engaging and had a much more powerful hook for your character. The choices you are presented with lack urgency and are about as equally hopeless. They also lack any real emotional payoff for you. Even the final scene of the game is anticlimactic. This may be a deliberate design choice, trying to make some sort of comment about the pointlessness of civil wars or the cyclic nature of conflict (tying into the buddhist themes) but if so it’s a bad choice since it robs the player of any real sense of accomplishment from finishing the game.

The one place in which the story – and the design – truly shine are in the hallucinatory mythic sequences, to the point where these might have made for a better game than the one we got. Belled tigers, magic bows, demons and giant birds are just more engaging than gunning people down with a rattling AK.

Score
Style: 4 (Last gen on this gen, but pretty enough)
Substance: 3 (There’s plenty to do, but it’s all rather shallow).
Overall: 3.5/5

Opinion

Having been involved wit Gamergate until very recently (I still support but am phasing out my activity for various reasons) I was disappointed in many of the horrible statements made by people involved in the making of this game. I was also concerned, given some of the statements from the designers, that it would be a tokenistic, overtly PC love fest. Especially since one of the rebel leaders, Amita, is allegedly based on Anita Sarkeesian – something that made repeatedly blowing her up and shooting her incredibly cathartic, despite it being a fail condition for much of the game.

FC4ArtWork_15_165459Those fears were unjustified though. There’s – thankfully – plenty of things in the game that are still ‘problematic’, and, therefore, fun.

Far Cry 4 is a perfectly respectable game and plenty of fun to play, but it fails in its storytelling in a way Far Cry 3 did not, ironically – apparently – as a response to Far Cry 3’s perceived lacks which turned out to be comparative strengths.

Far Cry 4 doesn’t really try to tell a strong story and many of its actions are robbed of significance, meaning or payoff because it has tried so hard to decouple its exploration and side activities and to focus more on being a murder-sandbox. Unfortunately, for someone like me who likes story and likes to get caught up in making a difference to the virtual world this made the experience lacklustre and unsatisfying.

Still, playing at Gurkha is pretty satisfying, in the moment.

#Destiny Review Redux

BxRsfydIcAANE5II played in the beta, and whatever it was before the beta (which certainly wasn’t an alpha) and I find myself perplexed by the response of many webcomics cartoonists and bloggers to the game. That response being disappointment for many. Review sites – in the spotlight recently over #gamergate have been giving it scores like 6 and 7/10, which are actually more like 4’s and 5’s once you take into account score bias (where the average trends towards 7).

For me, the game isn’t a disappointment, despite having thrashed through the Earth stages a huge number of times during beta access and having to do so again with the full release. Despite having already played through it in some intense play over the last week (I was laid up with a fractured wisdom tooth for a couple of days).

I can see myself continuing to play the game a great deal in much the same way I continued to play Trion’s Defiance console MMO (also very good!) even after I completed that.

So why have I had such a different reaction to Destiny than so many other people and why is it – in my opinion – a very good and worthwhile game?

I think I can nail down a few reasons.

  1. I didn’t follow the hype: I understand Destiny has been hugely hyped but I hadn’t really been following it that much. My expectations were shaped by my experience in the beta and not anything else. If I hadn’t played in the beta it wouldn’t be on my radar because…
  2. I wasn’t expecting Halo: I didn’t especially like Halo. It was expensive for the single player campaigns and I’m not a fan of PvP which is where the franchise seemed to be increasingly concentrated. Because I wasn’t expecting Halo I wasn’t disappointed and was, in fact, delighted by what appears to be the bastard offspring of Borderlands and Phantasy Star.
  3. I’m a Roleplayer: The views, the lore, the Grimoire (no pun intended) are crack to me. I want to understand this bizarre, post-transhuman world in which we find ourselves playing. I have been inspired enough to start putting together a kit to play Destiny as an RPG (using Numenera) and I’ve been poring over my Grimoire, reading the strategy guide for the lore and poking at the online wikis to see more about it. It’s a really, really interesting world even if it is all based around a singular deus-ex-machina in the form of The Traveler and pseudo-scientific techno mysticism.

Graphically the game is superb, the first new-generation game to really seem to stretch the legs of the PS4.

The music is great and will likely come to form background to some of our tabletop roleplaying sessions in the same way the soundtracks to Mass Effect and other games have (Prince of Persia was great while playing Dark Sun).

Gameplay wise, yes, there’s not a huge amount of levels yet, but the design is tight and they are replayable in different builds, different character types and at different levels. The Strike missions remain genuinely challenging and fun and the patrol missions are excellent time sinks already, especially with random events going off.

The elements many have complained about, the lore being scarce, the story being incomplete and unsatisfying make sense within an MMO context, you don’t want to shoot your bolt and have nothing left. I am sure more is to be revealed over time, though I appreciate people’s frustration with the current state of play.

I can’t stand PvP, so I can’t really comment on that aspect of the game.

Score
Style: 4.5/5 (a true next-gen piece of art, but I found the character design a little too dehumanising, distant and ‘unsexy’)
Substance: 3/5 (while the substance of the game is currently rather limited, the promise it holds is enormous. The hints of further Earth areas – Chicago, Mumbai, and other planets – especially the Jovian sub-system – all hold enormous promise that I hope will be fulfilled).
Overall: 3.75/5

The major problem with Destiny is that there isn’t enough of it. When you’ve made a game, that’s a nice problem to have and one that’s fixable.

Also, give us facial hair, goddamn pogonophobic game industry.