Sea of Peeves

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Love it, hate it or if you’re somewhere in-between, there’s little getting around the fact that Sea of Thieves suffers from a glaring issue: There’s bugger all to do (and not much point in doing it either).

If gameplay is King, then for some reason Rare decided to appoint the iron throne to a ruler as bad as Joffrey, because at it’s core the game is nothing but a series of fetch quests. You set sail, you gather some stuff (Chests, skulls, livestock), then you bring it back for cash rewards – rewards that can be spent on items that only have a cosmetic purpose. The biggest irony being you that can’t even really see the fancy new tricorne you treated yourself to, as you play from a first person perspective.

However, although the core gameplay objectives are more than a little lacklustre, the general gameplay execution is sublime. The way you interact with everything in the game is basic enough not to be complicated, but involved enough not to be simple. Sailing a ship for example – one of the main things you’ll spend your time doing – involves a series of manual tasks like setting the sails, raising the anchor and relying on the compass for navigation. It’s very hands on if you’re on your own in a sloop, whereas the galleons really require the careful coordination and cooperation of an entire crew! Successful sailing and navigation can be very rewarding in itself. The game world, with day/night cycles and variable weather conditions, is also very remarkable and a thing of beauty. Between the gameplay handling and the game-world, you have a rock-solid foundation to build on – even if you kept the simple fetch quest mechanics.

The reason I believe this to be true, is because of the parallels between this game and Elite Dangerous. In Elite dangerous you do the same basic stuff – you ferry items about for cash, and you might find yourself in the occasional shootout with rival ships; albeit of the space variety. The main difference is though, in Elite Dangerous you can invest the money on proper stuff. Stuff that improves you. Progress!

The counter argument to this is that it would unbalance the game, but the game is already unbalanced. If you head out on your own in a sloop, you won’t stand a chance if a passing galleon with anger management issues takes an interest in you. You’re much better off trying to fly under the radar. Sea of thieves could play into this. When most people think of improvements, they initially think of increased health and firepower – which would certainly be an option – but customisation can be much more than that. For the lone adventurer, how about a sloop upgrade that ditches the weight of cannons in favour of advanced speed and manoeuvrability, in order outrun enemies? What about a water tight deck upgrade so you can lose them in a storm? Or a shallow keel upgrade so you can take advantages of the shoreline. A paint scheme that makes your ship harder to spot? These are the type of options that Elite affords the player and, rather than unbalance the game, it opens it up to different ways to play; it gives your sandbox more options. More reasons to carry on playing.

Another great addition that could be pinched from Elite would be bounties. Being the feared Blackbeard of the seas is a lot of fun, but what if it came with some risk attached to all that piracy and griefing? What if, the more you hostilely engage other ships, the more a bounty goes up on your own ship? Hunter becomes hunted, as players take to the sea to hunt you down for the massive bounty on your head! They could even introduce a GTA-like stars system, where an NPC navy man-o-war spawns in to try restore order to the seas. It would all need to be carefully balanced for risk and rewards, but there’s no reason why piracy couldn’t have it’s own level/faction – where stolen chests are cashed in for bigger rewards than ones that are simply found on islands. Bounty hunting itself could be another new faction, where you take on quests to hunt down notorious pirates on the server. Pirate leader boards! None of these things would drastically change the core game, they would just introduce systems of progress around elements that already exist in the game and give them some meaning.

Sea of thieves is clearly lacking content, but a lot of people can see  – or really more feel – its potential. There’s something there; something special. New epic quests and a depth of content might be an answer, but I’m not sure it’s the right answer. There’s something to be said about writing your own story as you play the game, rather than adding new content that writes it for you; I think the answer simply lies in creating more meaningful progress systems around what is already there to ensure the players and their friends keep on writing.

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Subnautica Pre-Review (Xbox One)

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“Just look at the world around you
Right here on the ocean floor
Such wonderful t’ings surround you
What more is you lookin’ for?”

Although not officially released yet, Subnautica is one of those weird titles that has been around for a while. Rather than release it in its final form and at full price, it’s been pushed out quick, cheap ‘n’ dirty on pre-release platforms as they continue to iterate through development cycles. Somewhere along that agile development line, when they think it’s good enough, a “done” flag will get poked into it and it will get an actual release – generally at full price. This is what has recently happened to the PC version, and the Xbox version probably isn’t too far away. So how “done” is it, what is it and is any good?

Subnautica is a survival game with twist; most of it takes place “un-da da sea”. Also, although it’s sand-boxy and open world, it does have a decent narrative flowing through it; it’s certainly more single player story than it is creative sandbox. For the most part, the things you collect and build all have very functional purposes. You can express a little bit of creative dexterity, but your main focus will be building for necessity rather than decorative pleasure; there’s little scope for 50 foot phallic monoliths here! Instead you’ll be building to stay alive, to explore further and to advance the story. Don’t mistake “functional” for dull though, as you’ll likely be impressed – if not surprised – with what this game has on offer.

Without giving too much away, your world starts pretty small. The game begins amidst something going terribly wrong. You’re frantically strapping yourself into a life pod, as you desperately evacuate the space ship you were on. When you regain consciousness in the cramped confines of the life pod, you find yourself crash landed on a oceanic planet; the massive flaming husk of your abandoned spacecraft is visible a distance away. With open sea stretching to the horizon in every other direction, your little life pod becomes your only sanctuary and you must instead look down for answers, as you dive into the sea.

This begins the hunter-gather mechanics typical to most of these types of games, albeit underwater; an environment that sets it apart from other games of a similar nature. Surviving under water adds a few unique difficulties. If you’ve ever been in a swimming pool or the sea (and assuming you aren’t a fish) you may have noticed that breathing underwater is a bit of an issue. If you didn’t, then you probably aren’t around to read this. In Subnautica, if you don’t take heed of this simple yet vital fact, you won’t be around long either. Along side more typical factors such as hunger and thirst, oxygen (and the careful monitoring of how much you have left) becomes one of the core mechanics in the game.

Starting out it will severely limit how far you can explore, but even later on when you have more tools at your disposal, it’s an issue that never really goes away. In fact, if you aren’t careful, it’s easy for the longer air supplies to lead to complacency as the lure of resources takes you deeper into the unknown. It’s all too easy to navigate yourself into a twisting cave network and realise too late that you haven’t got enough air left to get back out. You’ll notice that being underwater makes navigation much more taxing in general as, with every direction of travel open to you, it’s very easy to get disorientated. Keeping track of where you are and where sanctuary is in relation to your remaining air supply is easily one of the biggest dangers to manage in the game.

That’s not to say there aren’t other dangers lurking beneath the surface though. You’re lucky to have “landed” in a relatively safe if-not-pleasant area of the ocean, but as you venture out further and deeper, there’s a few surprises waiting for you – very few of them friendly. This is somewhat unfortunate, because Subnautica isn’t really a combat based game; you’ll spend most of your time avoiding, rather than engaging danger. The game does a good job of creating a sense of this danger as well, through subtle use of background noise and music. It’s hard to forget you’re little more than a tadpole in a very large pond – and when the game does remind you it’s often brutal, sudden and with little warning.

Rather than an oppressive danger, Subnautica has more of a mysterious danger about it. The deep murky environments are filled with strange bright fauna that entices you in, and each area usually rewards you with new materials or secrets to discover. Most of the narrative is delivered to you via discover-able databanks that get entered into your PDA, but also from scanning all manner of weird and wonderful flora and fauna. There’s a lot of detail here and they’ve done a thorough job both creating and explaining the ecosystem – if you can be bothered to invest the time reading it all. The result is that there’s often never a dull moment, despite the endless exploration. “Often” is a key word there though – as Subnautica is far from perfect.

Although the game does give you some direction, most of the time you have to progress the story through simple exploration. This means there’s an element of luck in which items you discover, which in turn can be quite frustrating as they’re quite easy to miss. Also, it starts to become clear that some events are triggered by building certain items – items that you don’t necessarily need and can overlook. It’s not the most intuitive or fool-proof system and can leave you at a loss with what to do next. It’s always going to be a delicate balance with this type exploration game – guiding you along without directly showing you the way – and  although Subnautica does do a decent job, it’s not always spot on.

It’s not the games main issue though. The main issue are the bugs. The numerous, numerous bugs. From minor graphical issues, to more game breaking stuff, Subnautica is currently a bit of a mess on Xbox. It runs poorly, with frame rate drops, slow environment loading, poor textures, weird graphical issues and clipping. Base building seems to be a law unto itself, with some sections that snap together nicely, and others that brazenly defy you for no apparent reason. In short; it needs a lot of polishing and tweaking under the hood before it’s fit for release. Most of it is pretty forgivable, but some of the bigger issues include saves not always working (don’t trust it when it says the save is complete – leave it an extra 30 seconds), falling through the environment (due to slow screen loading) and poor draw distance. With navigation and exploration both being key gameplay elements, that last issue is a real hindrance and hard to forgive.

Despite the problems, Subnautica’s potential shines through. Even in it’s current state it’s still a very captivating and complete package, which is unique enough in it’s field to really stand out. You’ll get to build some cool underwater bases, explore the deep in some impressive vehicles and, if you take the time, uncover the history of the planet and the reasons behind your current predicament, as you battle to overcome it.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

We’re all emotional beings. Well, most of us. There’s definitely a few emotionally-dead fucking psycho’s out there – but most of them seem to reside in parliament, rather than the gaming community. Actually, there’s quite a few in the gaming community now that I think about. Anyway, I digress (already).

We’re MOSTLY all emotional beings, with feelings and erm, stuff. When we play a game, we’ll invariably feel a certain way about it. We’ll either enjoy what we’re experiencing, or we won’t. We then put those feeling on the game, and translate it into good or bad.

I’m enjoying myself = good game. I’m not enjoying myself = bad game. Simple stuff right?

You may then go on, especially in the case of the games reviewer, to explore those feelings in more depth and analyse what is causing them. Why is this game not making me happy; What is wrong with it? Or, this game is awesome; what is it about the game that’s making me feel this way?

Makes sense? The only issue I have with this, and where the waters get a bit muddy, is how variable our emotional state is, how blind we are of it and more importantly of how it affects our outlook. To give you an example – and it’s not a video game, but I believe the principle is the same – I started watching Black Sails on amazon prime, or at least tried to, but wrote it off fairly quickly; I wasn’t enjoying it. We’ll call that point A. Some months later, I started watching it again, got really into it and it went on to be one of my favourite shows – we’ll call that point B.

The only real variable between point A to point B is me. The show is the same show. However, if you’d asked me to review the show at point A, it would be a very different review to one you’d read if you asked me to review it at point B. I’m fairly certain that I’d have found reasons to explain why Black Sails isn’t very good if you asked me about it at point A; The acting isn’t very good, the story is too slow, or cliche, or something else. I’d have been able to explain it and make it sound like a logical and reasoned critique as to why it’s not a very good show. It is only with hindsight that I can now see that I was the issue. It’s hard to analyse these things, but I expect that the issue was down to me having just finished the season finale of Son’s of Anarchy (multiple seasons, hundreds of hours) and I was still too emotionally wrapped up in that to transition straight into something new. When I came back to Black Sails at a later date, I was in a more open minded state. But, as I say, it’s only going back to it that I now have sight of the real issue. Had I not, I’d still tell you Black sails isn’t very good if you were to ask me.

Most reviewers are never going to get that hindsight, and it makes me wonder about how flawed the process is. Or at least how fair or even reliable it is. When you review a game, you’re tied into a deadline. You need play, form an opinion and write it up in a very narrow window. You don’t get to put it down and come back to it in a few weeks time. You only get one bite of the cherry and if on that particular day you’re sick to death of cherries, well, it probably isn’t going to turn out favourably for the cherry.

It also makes me wonder about more conscious bias. If your cat got run over that morning, you may not be aware that it manifests itself as a poor write up of the latest twitch shooter that afternoon. However, there are things we’re completely aware of. I can’t fucking stand point and click adventures. For every inspector Clueso moment, where you cunningly determine what you need to do with an item because of message hinted at earlier in the game, there’s 10 other moments where you arbitrarily have to stuff a turnip in a keyhole to make a magic pixie appear who opens a door to another dimension. It’s a fucking stupid, stupid gameplay mechanic that often boils down to either trying every item on ever thing, or resorting to an online guide to tell you what to do next. They’re all shit!

So, given my open disdain for the genre, should I even go near reviewing a game from it? I know my bias against the genre will openly factor into my opinion, and won’t necessarily be fair to the game. Objectively, I can recognise that Simon the sorcerer is visually appealing, has amusing writing, good voice acting (From Arnold J Rimmer) and pleasant music….but it’s a point and click adventure so to me its gameplay is fundamentally broken and well…. shit. When I play this type of game I know I’m going to get annoyed by it and eventually fed up; there’s nothing I can do to control those emotional responses. I also know that’s completely out of touch with those that like this kind of thing (aka idiots). So what can you do? There’s no way to really account for the emotions you’re aware of, let alone the ones you aren’t.

 

Ultimately this is all just food for thought. We’re all human and it’s this kind of thing that makes us human. I do think it’s interesting though, on a philosophical level, that we can’t even reliably trust our own opinions with complete certainty; external pressures are always acting on them. Writers just need to be as conscious of this as possible and back up their opinions with examples as much as they can. I think the onus is probably as much on the reader as it is on the writer to appreciate the highly subjective nature and questionable validity of reviews. The reader needs to appreciate that if a game gets 7 out of 10 it doesn’t mean it is 7 out of 10 – it just means that person, on that day, in that frame of mind thought it was a 7 out of 10.

 

Gears of Four

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When I think of Gears of War, I can’t help but think of boobs as well. Not (just) the hulking great muscled man-boobs of the protagonists, but the pendulous fun-bags of the female variety. Why, you ask? Well, partly because I am constantly and involuntarily thinking about boobs, but mainly because on a philosophical level, I think they both have so much in common.

The thing is with boobs right; they’re fucking awesome. Introduce boobs into a situation and it’s like; “Woohoo, best thing ever!!!!!!”. At first. Then, about ten minutes later, the hype has kinda dissipated. It’s not that the boobs are now bad; you’re just aware of their limited appeal, your mind starts to wander and you move onto something else. Here’s the thing though; reintroduce the boobs again a short time later and “Woohoo! Best thing ever!!!!”. Rinse, Repeat.

This, I think, sums up gears in a nutshell. It’s really great fun every time you pick it up, but the gameplay is limited and stagnates quickly. This latest iteration is certainly the best version yet, but only to the point of being boobs with nipple tassels. It’s not Total Recall level of boobage.

But then maybe that’s OK? That third boob in Total Recall definitely takes the titty game to a different level, but possibly not a better one? Maybe it’s best not to mess around with a winning formula. I mean; how can you improve on a boob?

So that’s what you get with Gears of War four. More voluptuous boob, with shinier nipples than ever before, but little in the way of innovation. Without moving onto the penis analogies, it’s extremely solid stuff. For me, the gameplay has never been much more than adequate and it’s not helped by the way the level design will often betray any hope of subtly or surprise. Most of the time you can see exactly when the shooting is about to start before it happens, as the level will open up and you’ll notice a handy collection of waist-high walls to hide behind.

Subtly isn’t really Gears’s thing though and, to be fair, it doesn’t need to be subtle; it needs to be the type of gruff, macho, in-your-face bullshit that satisfies our more primitive desires. In that regard, it doesn’t really fail.

Leaving aside a shitty section where you’re mostly blasting robots, it’s the classic headshot popping, chainsaw gunning, frag throwing, splatter-fest that Gears fans know and love. There’s a new rodeo running mechanic where you can vault, stun and execute enemies… but it doesn’t amount to much. Environments are more destructible this time around, so you’ll want to keep an eye on your cover and hope it’s as secure as you think it is. There’s also some reoccurring electric storm sections that ramp up the drama levels. In these sections, strong winds will hamper thrown weapons like frags and also introduce opportunities for environmental kills. Taking out a restraining barrier, for example, will cause stacked logs to get blown across the battlefield and wipe out any unsuspecting enemies in their path.

The story itself brings me back to boobs, in that; I find it very compelling, but I can’t really explain why. It’s not deep, complex or particularly fascinating, yet I do find it entertaining. I think it’s possibly the steady flow of cut-scenes and how they help drive the drama that does it; making it like an interactive action movie. As this game is set about 20-odd years on from the end of the last game, just seeing how things are getting on post locust horde has some appeal in itself. As you play through the levels you learn snippets of information about what has been going on since the Gears defeated the locust for good, and how civilisation is trying to rebuild. You follow the story of a new cast of characters this time around, but there’s some welcome cameo’s from the original Gears squad as well. It sets up the series well for a kinda reboot of sorts.

Gears of war four is gears of war more. More guns, more guts and oozing testosterone, the game does however sprinkle in enough emotion to show it has a human side, and stop it from being too obnoxious. You may not be able to polish a turd, but Gears proves that you can most definitely oil a boob.

 

 

 

 

Accessibility Issues

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Inaccessible doesn’t (always) equal bad; in fact I’m here to argue the case for inaccessibility as a legitimate game mechanic, rather than simply dismissing it as a flaw.

Some games are going to have a degree of inaccessibly as a naturally occurring side-effect of their depth and complexity. Piloting a sidewinder in Elite is never going to be as simple as flinging an “angry bird” across the screen; that’s just a reality of those particular games.

However, being easily understood – for example what you need to do and where you need to go –  is a more governable facet of accessibility and I think some games (Elite is an example of this as well) can be intentionally vague or obtuse in this area by design.

See, the trouble with accessibility in this respect is that it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. In some games – many in fact – that’s absolutely fine. But, in a sandbox game like Elite, you want room for people to figure stuff out; it’s where much of the reward is hidden in the game. The same is true of other sandbox titles, like the survival game Ark for example.

Starting out in Ark is brutal. Not many games will make you feel as lost, confused and vulnerable as the first few hours of Ark. Many will write this off as shoddy “inaccessible” game design and completely overlook how important that learning curve is. Showing you the basics would, without a doubt, make the game much more accessible, but it would also completely undermine both the core survival aspect of the game and also the reward of finally turning the tables on it.

It’s a delicate balance, but the more a game shows you, the more it takes away from you discovering for yourself, and in some genres it’s worth remembering that can actually be quite detrimental.

Sometimes it’s not purely understanding what you need to do that makes a game inaccessible, but the fundamental difficulty in achieving it that is the problem. The obvious solution – one as old as the hills – is that long standing and often condescending difficulty select option (Change “easy” to “recruit” or “beginner” if you want, will still know it means “loser”). There are games where this “accessibility” has been masterfully implemented; Forza Motorsport for example. It takes a fairly complicated racing sim and makes it completely customisable to individual skill levels via a very intuitive user interface. There are other games though, where difficulty is the foundation the franchise is built on.

The most obvious example of this is the souls series of games. For a game that is notoriously difficult and unforgiving, the game has ironically been beaten by more than most because of it. I’d go as far as to say that had the game have had more accessible difficulty settings, not only would it not have been the success it is today, it would be a game breaking addition. Difficulty is the soul of Dark/Demon souls, and it’s also why so many of the other mechanics work well in the game.

From the trial and error mechanics, to soul collecting, character builds, leaving hints and summoning help; it’s all built from the challenge of the game. Undermine that and you would undermine everything.

Inaccessibilities like those found in these games also feed into a wider phenomenon; that of the gaming communities. Say what you like about gamers; when it comes to communities that form from games like Dark Souls, they’re a cohesive bunch that produce invaluable supportive advice for conquering games. From FAQ’s, to Wiki’s, YouTube video’s and forums; people come together to discuss and overcome the challenges at hand in a way that’s quite remarkable. It becomes a group effort, where vast resources of information are created for free by the community, for the community. This level of cohesion is born from inaccessibility and is not found to this degree in games that don’t have it.

From a games critique point of view, accessibility is certainly a slippery subject; one that really does boil down to personal opinion, but one that I think is definitely deserving of more careful consideration. It’s all too easy to label a lacking component as bad, without really contemplating if less is sometimes more.

The Best Gaming Console of all Time (Part 1)

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A hotly debated subject this one. The best console ever. Ever. EV-VER! Everyone has got one and, although some people apply a degree of reasoning when they state their choice, chances are it’s just their personal favourite. I’ve decided to get to the bottom of this using a slightly (can’t stress the SLIGHTLY enough) more pragmatic approach. Rather than arriving at an answer and back-filling with logic, I’m going to start at the beginning, create a shortlist and then apply a rating system to arrive at the answer. The DEFINITIVE answer. Part 1 is creating the shortlist.

First Generation

Fuck the first generation. All shite.

Second Generation

Fuck the second generation, all shite. Not as shite as the first generation, and you could argue the Atari 2600, but still shite and overshadowed by Atari’s home computers.

Third Generation

Now we’re getting somewhere. The NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) is a attributing fact to the revival of the games industry. Only a div wouldn’t put that on the shortlist. Sega’s Master System is a decent effort, but definitely on the B team of the 8bit consoles. Sorry Sega.

Forth Generation

Fuck the Neo-Geo. Who knows anyone that had a CD-I? The only consoles of note (and they’re both behemoths as far as I’m concerned) are the SNES and the Mega Drive (Genesis if you’re a yank).

I really want to push for the Mega Drive here, but I know that’s a personal bias creeping in. The Mega Drive seemed to dominate a bit more in Europe, whereas the the SNES dominated world wide, and also had a stronger library of games. The Mega Drive is the first console (that I know of) to have expandable hardware, with the 32x and the Mega CD. From that perspective it stands out from the SNES…but neither really managed to impact the industry in a fundamental way. So, I’m going to have to accept the SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System).

Fifth Generation

Sony Playstation. Nuff said. Sony, despite being peppy new-comers to the console market, managed to decimate the competition and own the fifth generation. It shifted over 100 million consoles, whereas the Sega Saturn only managed a tenth of that figure.

Amiga (CD32) and Atari (Jaguar) both swung and missed, marking the last time the home computer giants would venture into the market. The N64 is also going to make the shortlist. It had some extremely influential games in the console market, was a leap forward in 3D graphics and (I think) introduced the first rumble (pak) controllers; which went on to become an accepted norm in controller technology.

Sixth Generation

Ooooh, a tricky one. We can start off by eliminating the Gamecube and accepting the Playstation 2. The former is meh, and latter is mega.

The blatant Playstation win would usually be enough to knock its rival out of the running  had they been comparative machines; which they were…accept for online. The Xbox really helped take console gaming online like no other before it. Xbox live was (and still is) such a good service that, generations later, others are still playing catch up. Ok, Xbox makes the shortlist.

Last, but not least, Sega’s Dreamcast (RIP)Although short-lived and Sega’s final foray in the hardware market, the Dreamcast was a machine that was ahead of its time (VGA support, first built in modem) and one seemingly deserving of more than its lot in life.

Seventh Generation

There’s no denying the Nintendo Wii and the impact it had. Although I’m sure many of them collected dust, it seemed every living room had one nestled under the television.

The 360 vs PS3 battle is probably the most contentious of any. The Playstation 3 had blu-ray (which went on to win the Blu ray vs HD DVD battle), but was very expensive at launch, lacked games and under-performed. The 360 was actually a phenomenal all-round games machines, online and off – but was marred by crippling hardware issues (RROD).

Hardware differences aside, both machines offered the same features when it came to gaming, only the Xbox 360 did it slightly better. Multi-platform games almost always performed better, online support was far Superior and the machine was cheaper; so Xbox 360 it is.

Eight Generation

The underappreciated Wii U can be removed from the equation straight away, leaving just the similar offerings of the Xbox One and Playstation four. It’s not much of a battle though. Learning from its previous mistakes, Sony released a simple, solid gaming device. Incorporating Sony’s previous mistakes, Xbox released an ambitious incorporated media hub device and also refused to let the shitty kinect die. Xbox aimed high but missed; Playstation Four makes the shortlist from the Eight Generation.

Ninth Generation?

Nintendo’s Switch is off to a much stronger start than its predecessor, but at the moment it’s a one trick pony…and that pony is a cross-gen title. It’s too early to tell, so the Switch doesn’t make the shortlist.

The Shortlist

So this is the list of contenders for The Greatest Console of all time:

  • Nintendo Entertainment System
  • Super Nintendo Entertainment System
  • Sony Playstation
  • Nintendo 64
  • Sony Playstation 2
  • Microsoft Xbox
  • Sega Dreamcast
  • Nintendo Wii
  • Xbox 360
  • Playstation Four

In Part 2 I’ll be be putting each console through a rating process to crown one of them the winner.

Ark: Survival Evolved First Impression

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If you’re ever having a shitty day, take solace in the fact it’s probably not as bad as the day Bob the caveman is having. Bob (the default character in Ark) is trapped in a perpetual cycle of  waking up naked and afraid on a beach, and then dying shortly after from killer dinosaurs, killer fish and even killer ants. In the unlikely situation that those things don’t kill him, he usually starves or freezes to death a short time later. One time Bob woke up and was over the moon to discover another caveman, like himself, on the beach. Filled with excitement, Bob ran over to said caveman, only to have the guy turn around and stove Bob’s face in with a pickaxe. Life for Bob is hard.

Yup, life – or should I say staying alive – is hard in Ark:Survival Evolved. I mean; it would be hard even if you knew what you were doing, but starting out you’re given no guidance at all, so the early deaths are inevitable. I died trying to work out which button picks up stones. I died trying to get to grips with the inventory. I died going for a swim. I died trying to work a camp fire.  In short; I died a lot. Although there does seem to be a glaring need for a tutorial, I can’t help but think that this is all a deliberate design choice. This is, after all, a survival game. Figuring this stuff out is part of the “fun” and, if you can handle the frustration, it’s actually very rewarding just working out the basics.

Getting to grips with the mechanics and conquering basic survival seems like the first major milestones; I think it will be the bar for many where they either continue playing or walk away completely. Just staving off hunger seems a ridiculous battle at first; your character appears to have some kind of eating disorder where they require constant nourishment and berries, the first food source you’re likely to find, will barely hit the sides.

As you gruel through the first few hours, you will  (or at least should) start to turn the tables a bit though. Everything you do, including simply staying alive, seems to earns you XP. XP earns you level ups; level ups make you stronger. You also come realise that death isn’t a major setback as you keep your acquired levels, stats, crafting unlocks and, if you find your dead body, you may even get all your stuff back. Eventually you’ll build your first shack; a place where you can cook a decent meal, horde some materials and create a spawn point. Not only will this be a glorious moment, it will also set the foundation from where you can start etching out the feeling of actual progress.

If you’re playing on a Player vs Player (PvP) server, this is where the environment will stop being the biggest danger, and other players will be your biggest potential foe. It’s also the point where the game really opens up to you. You can set out in search of friendly players to create a tribe, or venture deeper inland in search of new area’s and resources; expanding your base and really leaving your mark on the world. Playing on a PvP server is certainly going to be the biggest challenge, but also makes for the most interesting gameplay. Each time you stumble across another player you’re never really sure how it’s going to go. Some people want to make friends, some will simply ignore you and many more will probably try to kill you.

An important lesson I’ve learnt early on is to never light a camp fire at night. Huddled in my little shack, lighting a fire seemed like the logical thing to do – little did I know that it would act as beacon for marauding tribes of killers. Twice now, in the dead of night, I’ve been drawn to the sound of banging on my door. As I watch the doors damage meter slowly deplete, I start to panic and ready myself for the coming attack. Both times I’ve been haplessly overpowered and brutally murdered in my home; my pitiful horde of resources stolen and my corpse ransacked. It’s annoying, yet strangely thrilling and exciting  – the uniquely unscripted gameplay that can only be found in this type of game. I don’t light fires at night anymore. When you’re a little fish in a big pond, it’s often best to go unnoticed.

On a more fundamental level, the game certainly has some issues and quirks. You have a persistent character on each server you join, but there’s no “continue previous session” option or anything remotely useful like that. You have to actually remember which server you were on if you want to continue where you left off. I literally lost my first character because I couldn’t remember which server I was on. Even if you know which server your main character is on, at busy times the servers start to fill up. I’ve had instances where I wasn’t able to get onto “my” server straight away, as it was full.

The other issue of persistent characters is that you’re technically always online, even when you’re not playing. When you log off, your body is still in game and can be killed by other players and enemies. This in itself wouldn’t really be a problem, but it seems that a dino wall-clipping issue means that it’s possible to be killed, even in your secured house. Some well placed spike barriers has hopefully fixed the issue for me.

Some other weird issues include inconsistent building problems, where it can be very temperamental about where you can and can’t build. A common issue in almost every game that lets you build stuff, but Ark seems particularly insane. At one point it wouldn’t let me build on a flat open plain, yet jutting awkwardly out the side of a cliff face was fine! I think this may be down to respawning mine-able resource locations, like trees and boulders. There’s also the issue of occasional lag spikes. These can be especially annoying when hunting, or fighting off another player – but luckily they’re few and far between.

Despite the games issues, and maybe even because of them, Ark: Survival Evolved is one of the best games I’ve played in recent years. There’s certainly elements here that can be found in other games – Minecraft and Skyrim for example – but the game has a very unique feel to it, and on console in particular, I can’t point to another game like it. The prehistoric island, despite some graphical shortfalls, is both a beautiful and mysterious place; with some almost Halo-like structures scattered around that create intrigue and a sense of a bigger picture to figure out.

There’s also – you know – DINOSAURS! Whilst being chased by one of those spitty lizard things that killed Nedry in jurassic park, I ran straight into my first Brontosaurus (Or maybe it was a Diplodocus – I’m not great with dinosaur names). Looking up at the scale of the thing was quite jaw-droppingly awesome, even if they’re not perfect. I wouldn’t profess to be an expert on dinosaur behaviour, but they do have a tendency to just walk around a bit aimlessly. Some of the animations, pterodactyl’s landing for example, are also a little bit ropey. That said, the dino-factor is inescapably cool and more than a little unnerving when you don’t know you herbivores from your carnivores. If you see a raptor, RUN!

The punishing difficulty, frustration and massive investment of time needed to progress will probably put many off, but for me, Ark: Survival evolved has been a refreshing gameplay experience in a sea of (although higher quality and finer produced) generic titles. I personally highly recommend it, but at the same time appreciate it’s not going to be for everyone – even the hour long trial won’t do it justice.

Replay: Call of Duty 4 Multiplayer

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With the Call of Duty 4 (COD4) remaster tantalisingly close to release I thought to myself “What better a time to revisit the original game and see if it still holds up”. Actually, that’s a complete lie; I was installing a Minecraft update for my daughter, noticed COD4 was still in the disc drive and fancied having a go. Whatever.

Anyway, COD4 is just around the corner and I’m pleased to confirm that, for those that haven’t played it in years, the multiplayer is as good as you probably remember it.

The first thing that struck me, before even getting into an actual game, was how concise everything is. It’s still a very comprehensive package, but without the bloat of later games. It actually seems to nail that sweet spot of providing depth and variety, but without getting bogged down in meaningless filler. For example, creating a custom class/loudout takes seconds, not minutes like in recent games. This might not sound like much, but from a gameplay point of view, it means the 30 second interval between rounds gives you ample time to tweak your classes and fits with the flow nicely. There’s none of this “backing out of the lobby to fiddle with your setup” nonsense.

Another aspect of this concise approach is that your choices have a bit more weight to them and there’s more of a noticeable trade off. Pick an assault rifle, you get an assault rifle, and if you want that grenade launch attachment, you’re gonna have to lose the red dot sight. There’s no crazy Swiss-army knife guns to be had here, with shotgun attachments, hybrid sights and FM radio.

That goes for the “perk” system as well; you pick your three perks from the predefined lists, they each perform a clear unique function and you get on with it. There’s no perk modifying perks, or any of the crap found in later games. If you want UAV jammer, you’re going to have to lose stopping power, and if you want steady aim, you’re going to have to give up deep impact. Simple profound choices.

Once the match begins the action kicks in almost straight away and rarely relents the entire game. There’s a constant rattle of machine gun fire as rounds zip past before slamming into walls and buildings. The sound of explosions from grenades and flashbangs are never far away. The key to this intense action seems to be largely down to the well designed maps. They are small enough to keep the action flowing, but not to the point that it ever feels cramped. The moving spawns react to the flow of the battle and, other than the occasional mishap, elevate the problem of spawn camping. The abundance of cover and flanking routes keeps everything moving along nicely.

The static kill-streak rewards (UAV > Airstrike > Chopper) keep things balanced and fair, with none of them being overly intrusive or overpowered. They’re a handy little bonus that work well in conjunction with the gunplay, but won’t preoccupy your mind as you play. It’s not like in later games where people desperately hold out for a match winning nuke, or get pulled out of the gameplay to remotely pilot a gunship.

Guns feel weighty and powerful, with satisfying hit markers letting you know when you’ve found your mark. It’s gunplay at its finest, even if the aim assist probably does make you feel a bit more awesome than you truly are. The only real gripe to be found is with the peer to peer hosting system. The game generally does a decent job at selecting the best host, but with such lightning fast gameplay, your performance can be impacted by your connection to that host. The split second difference in connection speed can often decide the outcome of a particular exchange, even if it’s not always noticeable. It’s far from game breaking, but is obviously frustrating if you do happen to notice it occurring. Luckily, finding a new game will generally fix the issue.

The XP, unlocks and challenges are all as addictive as ever. Most of the challenges don’t really impact on the way you play, they just encourage you to use different weapons and try different game modes – which is great; there’s nothing worse that witnessing your team mates doing dumb shit because they are blatantly just trying to complete a challenge. With each new level you reach, a new perk or gun gets unlocked –  this keeps things interesting and is a system that can really get its hooks into you. It’s not uncommon to have a few extra rounds simply because you notice you’re a few XP away from the next level.

Call of Duty 4’s multiplayer is still, in my opinion, peak Call of Duty. Though some will see it as basic by today’s standards, others will appreciate it for its more focused approach. Rather than showing its age, I think it shows what an unbeatable bench mark it set.

WWE (Worst Wrestling Experience)

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Sentiments like “they don’t makes games like they used to” are often those of rose-tinted middle-aged gamers, who, like anyone reminiscing, are thinking back to a time that didn’t really exist. It’s a distorted version of events within ones mind, one where the bland has been lost to the shadows and only the shiny bits remain.

When I found myself uttering that same sentiment recently, I was however musing about more negative connotations; I was thinking about how games aren’t anywhere near as shitty as they used to be.

Like a spreading fire, such a statement is sure to trigger alarm bells on multiple levels. Firstly among those who are bound (obligated even) to protest that there are indeed plenty of shitty games out there today; that in fact anything that scored below a 9, or anything they don’t enjoy on a personal level is, undeniably, “shit”.

Then there will be those that have sensed an attack on their cherished childhood; that someone has dared to claim things weren’t magical and perfect “back in the day”. They may even be reeling off lists of classics games in their head. Ocarina of time, Final Fantasy VII, Lemmings…

To try and dowse the flames a little, or maybe fan them, let me elaborate on this. I’m neither claiming that games today are now perfect, nor that they ALL used to be shitty; it was a mere observation that I don’t recall, in recent memory, playing a game that was fundamentally bad.

Sure, the millionth iteration of Call of Duty may not exactly be the innovation in first person shooter that we’d all like – it’s probably more of the same stuff we’re bored of – but it’s not a bad game; it’s mechanically sound. And the same goes for everything I’ve played recently. Being a kid of the 80’s (and not denying the gems) I can remember a time when games – or should I say gaming – wasn’t so reliable. For every “Pong” there were multiple “ET’s”, most of which the names I can’t even remember. Things have since vastly improved, because that is simply how progress works. Developers have learnt from their mistakes, they’ve learnt what does and doesn’t work, and the quality benchmark is a lot higher now.

With that in mind, it was a bit ironic to then stumble across a game that laughed in the face of such sentiments. A game that proved bad idea’s are still alive and kicking. A game that has decided to fight for the survival of shit games as a concept.

Before I go any further, I feel I have to disclose that I am not a wrestling fan. I didn’t “get it” until it was too late. The idea of a fake sport just seemed…pointless, so I ignored its existence. It was only whilst watching it round a friends that I realised it isn’t a sport at all; it’s a soap opera for teenage boys, and that was the appeal. That said, I was a fan wrestling games, because beating the living shit out of people transcends subject matter boundaries; it’s a universal good.

T’was because of this (and because it was free) that I thought I’d give WWE 2K16 a go on Xbox One. I was harbouring fond memories of games like WWF Warzone and Wrestlemania 2000 on the N64, so thought it would be an enjoyable romp.

On firing the game up, I was pleasantly surprised (and confused) to see Stone Cold Steve Austin on the title screen! I kinda assumed things would have moved on in the last 20 years, but it was nice to see a familiar face from the N64 days and it got things off to a great start.

Moving through the menu’s and I was instantly taken in by the wealth of gameplay options, the oiled up men and thumping background music. I’d soon created a badass custom wrestler – who looked like a jacked up hillbilly – and started what appeared to be a fully fleshed career mode. This however, was when things started taking a turn for the worst.

Wrestling games of my era were fast, fluid, arcadey type affairs. They had all the necessary characters, moves and fanfare seen in the “sport” itself, but the gameplay was generally a button mashy system that anyone could play. WWE 2K16 seems to have moved much more towards the sim genre, which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing, had it not been for a couple of critical issues.

Many key elements that make up the wrestling match are now carried out via mini-games. This could potentially of worked quite well had the choice and implementation of the games been better. For context, the submission mini-game has you control a coloured bar, chasing (or being chased by) your opponents coloured bar round in a circle. The transition from gameplay to this mini-game is jarring and far from intuitive. It doesn’t feel fun or fitting, it just feels weird and frustrating; but then at least it’s not as game breakingly bad as pinning, which is probably the single biggest problem in WWE 2K16.

Getting pinned in WWE 2K16 triggers a quick time event. Yes, you read that correctly: a quick time event. Although the difficulty of said QTE is linked to your health, it quickly becomes more luck than skill. A win/lose that is little more than a dice roll. That alone is a horrible, horrible idea but unfortunately it works hand in hand with some other issues that create the perfect storm of failure.

The AI is extremely proficient at kicking out of pins, even if you’ve completely dominated them. You can beat seven shades of shit out of them, perform a fucking finisher on them, and still have them merrily kick out like “it ain’t no thang”. This will draw the match out longer, eventually meaning you yourself will get pinned and have to face the horrific quick time event.

The third and final nail in the coffin is the control issues. There often seems to be a distinct disconnect between what you want to do and what actually happens on screen. This ranges from input lag and inputs not registering, to picky contextual manoeuvres like tagging in your partner. It compounds the other issues and raises frustration to controller-throwing levels of annoyance.

WWE 2K16 falls at the first hurdle, which is a real shame because there’s such a potential for greatness and at times it reminded how much fun wrestling games can be. Some may be able to play past the issues – which is great as there’s a wealth of content there – but for many I think the game will have them tapping out in submission.

 

Ridge Racer Vita Review

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Dude, where’s my car?….and my tracks?….and my game?

Ridge Racer (or Riiidge Racer to anyone that played the original) is one of the quintessential arcade racing games of all time. Along with the likes of Daytona USA and Sega Rally, Ridge Racer’s core appeal was simple; great gameplay.

Fast forward over 20 years and, although the arcades aren’t what they once were, Ridge Racer is still going strong, finding a new home on console and handheld. Firing up the Vita version of this latest iteration of the franchise and it’s clear to see the game has stayed fairly true to its arcade roots. Aside from a few additions – which i’ll come to in a minute – Ridge Racer is still a case of picking a car, picking a track and burning rubber.

This is where and why things go a bit amiss for Ridge Racer however. Firstly, despite a slick interface, there isn’t much of a game to be found here. Of the various game modes, everything is basically stand alone races – be it against the AI, multiplayer or the clock. There is no over arching tournament or championship to take part in. You race, the race finishes and that’s about it.

There are a few additions here, but they don’t really amount to much. When you start out, you pick a team to race for. The idea being that you are actually part of something bigger – that all these stand alone races are affecting the overall standing of your team. It’s not actually a bad idea, it just feels a bit shallow and poorly implemented. My experience is that you quickly forget about the whole “team” aspect, as being the top team doesn’t award you with anything anyway.

The more relevant additions are levels and power-ups. As you race, you’ll level up and at certain levels, your cars will go faster. This only affects the first few hours of play, as by then you’ll have reached the level in which your cars are at full performance. It acts as a way to gently ease you in, but I personally think power settings, akin to Mario Karts “CC” system, would make more sense. As far as I can tell, once you’re at max power, you’re at max power. If it’s too fast for you, there’s no going back to a speed setting more suited to your skill level.

Power-ups, and the process of unlocking them, is where the game adds any attempt at depth and purpose. Winning races nets you credits which you can spend on unlocking power-ups from a tech tree. They add additional perks like extra nitrous and turbo starts. Up to three can be fitted at any one time, letting you mix and match to find the setup that suits you best. They don’t fundamentally change the gameplay, but they certainly help with squeezing in better lap times.

The second big issue Ridge Racer suffers from is a lack of content, due to its pricing model. Rather than a full price game with all its content, Ridge Racer has cut the games price and a load of its content at the same time, releasing the rest as optional DLC. Although not an unfair pricing system (buying it all doesn’t cost more than a full price game), it does, on the surface, just compound the “lack of game” issue. Such a bare-bones initial offering (5 cars, 3 tracks) is quite a bitter pill to swallow and doesn’t position itself well when it comes to up-selling DLC content. A more likely scenario is that people will be annoyed and likely  turn away altogether.

It’s not all bad news though, and the game does have one rather major saving grace with its exhilarating arcade gameplay – which is a bloody annoying situation. Ridge Racer is a blast to actually play. The car models are varied, look awesome and handle really well. The same is true of the tracks that are on offer. The result is something approaching arcade perfection, which is why its so annoying that there is nothing really holding it all together!

Hammering round the tracks at break-neck speeds is fast, fluid stuff. You won’t be needing breaks here, just ease of gas a little before tight corners and you send your car into some of the most impressive looking powerslides to be found in a racing game. Not only will you feel amazing as you pull off these miraculous driving feats, the games narrator will also chirp in with quips like “nice cornering!” to confirm that you are, in fact, the fucking man. Throw in some decent sounds affects, a selection of banging tunes and the whole gameplay experience gels really well. – it’s addictive stuff.

There are a couple of additional cars to be won via face-offs that act as sort of boss battle races. The races become available once a condition is met, rather than beating any particular mode. Theses are hard as nails to win, so are something of an end game to complete. It’s still not enough to feel like there is really a game there, but at least it’s something.

Overall, Ridge Racer is a disappointment. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s not the game it could quite easily have been; the game is should of been. Had I of been playing this on an arcade machine, then fine – but as a home version it sorely needs more structure around the race modes to add depth and longevity. The addition of a simple championship mode would have turned great gameplay into a great game.

6/10 – Fun, but shallow