On Holidays, Games and Summer

WP_000029

So I’m back at home for my holidays (well until Sunday) and its been a quite good time. I’ve got plenty of work done, went for a placement interview, saw my sister and had a meal with her and generally had a chance for a bit of a rest. April is going to be packed full of work getting all the coding projects finished so it may be very quiet round here but once that’s all over, I’ll be just working on a few reports and portfolio things.

One of the things I spent a lot of time doing over the two weeks is driving. From going to the dentist to going to Newcastle for an interview, I’ve clocked up a good few miles in the car. I’ve discovered I really enjoy driving long distances, with the radio blaring out and being able to concentrate on the road.

Continue reading “On Holidays, Games and Summer”

Thoughts On… Risen 2: Dark Waters Preview Build

(This preview originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

RISEN2-all-all-screenshot-106

When people talk about Western RPGs, most people think about Bethesda and their free roaming worlds or Bioware and their expansive stories. What most people don’t think of is what Germany has been turning out, in the form the of the Gothic series.

Unfortunately, the development team behind those games, Piranha Bytes, no longer work on them. Instead they are now working on Risen, a new series of German RPGs. Risen came out in 2009 and now a pirate-themed sequel is almost out. I managed to get a look at a preview build and it’s an interesting title to play.

This was a preview build so some things may be tweaked before release.

Risen 2 is set in the same world of the original. You play the Nameless Hero, a member of the Inquisition, charged with protecting the innocent and fighting the titans; the old gods currently coming back to life after the events of the first game. After being awoken from a drunken stupor inside an Inquisition fortress, you head off to help the crew of a ship wrecked out in the bay, where the only survivor is Patty, one of the main characters from the first game.

Through her, you learn about a way of destroying the Titans but in order to get it you must sign up with Steelbeard, pirate king, enemy of the Titans and Patty’s Dad. Because of this, your commander orders you to leave the Inquisition and head off to Ticaragua to link up with Steelbeard and hunt down the weapon. The plot seems really interesting and it really captured my imagination when I was playing through it.

RISEN2-all-all-screenshot-103

Voodoo Priestess? Check.

As it’s a German RPG, Risen 2 doesn’t hold your hand very much, or at all. In fact, it’ll probably take your hand and set it on fire. Apart from the occasional prompt for sleeping or some other on-screen items, the game tells you next to nothing. In fact, if you haven’t played many traditional RPGs, the game will appear to have a horrible interface. More importantly, it doesn’t guide you through much of the levelling system or skills. This meant I spent half the time playing trying to find out how to improve my skills or locate quest items.

Worse, the game itself is damn hard. All of your upgrades require stupid amounts of gold in order to improve your skills, which means you spend the first part of the game fighting against enemies that can pull off moves you can only dream about.

One of your early objectives is to get a bandana back from one of the guards. In order to do this, you have to challenge him to a duel. However, you can only either attack or defend while he can kick you, power attack you, break your defence or simply throw sand in your eyes. This makes it almost impossible to do, leading to the main quest sitting in your to do list for ages, even if you’ve done everything else. I found it hard to gain enough cash to upgrade one skill to the point where it’s useful. It promises to make the game last a very long time, at least.

That said though, Risen 2 does a lot of things right. Nearly all the various quests have multiple ways of solving them, ranging from punching a guard to just bribing him to get what you want. It nice to see a game be so open to you; it gives you a toolbox of ways to solve a problem. In fact, solving puzzles seems a major point of the game making it feel more like an adventure game rather than the collection of stats and maths that other games soon turn into once you start picking up the loot. This is more about finding ways to solve your problems.

RISEN2-all-all-screenshot-102

Nobody expects the Inquisition! Also nobody expects them to have guns

I do also like the combat system, once you’ve unlocked some skills. It makes combat look and feel like something from the Pirates of the Caribbean, with a mixture of sword play and gun-fighting in a single fight. It is also challenging, making the fights long, tense affairs, especially when you are up against another human. I decided to focus mainly on guns and so by the end of the preview I was running around with a musket that I could kill most things from a long-range. The game does also include a form of magic in the shape of voodoo, but in my playthrough I didn’t have the chance to try it out.

Risen 2 is a beautiful game as well. It isn’t full-on photorealistic but the lightning effects can very dramatic, dabbing light across the jungle floor and creating some of the nicest beaches I’ve ever seen. Character models are also full of detail, although some of their animation can be a little off, especially when the conversations turn into an arm waving contest where everyone waves their arms the same way. The music ties in with the onscreen action and set the scene just right. The voice acting, though, changes between excellent in the case of the main character to rather less than perfect for some of the incidental characters.

I enjoyed this little preview of Piranha Bytes latest and I must say it has piqued my interest in the full game. This is a story RPG you can happily sit down and play for hours, and it doesn’t just rip off the Skyrim model. If you want a game featuring pirates or the desire to buckle some swash, Risen 2 might be worth your time when it comes out this year in April.

Thoughts On… Alan Wake: American Nightmare

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

2080005-543563463

Well, Alan Wake is now back on the menu it seems. The PC version has just come out (reviewed here) and now Wake is back fighting the darkness on Xbox Live.

This version takes more from Tarantino than Stephen King, and is way, way shorter.

 

The nightmare continues
American Nightmare picks off from the end of The Writer DLC, with (spoilers) Alan still trapped in Dark Place and his evil doppelganger Mr Scratch breaking out to bring his own taste of darkness to the world. American Nightmare actually takes place inside an episode of Night Springs that Alan had written when he was on the writing team, long before the events of the original game. Wake now has to find out what Mr Scratch is doing in the dirt around Night Springs, Arizona and stop it.

First of all, this isn’t Alan Wake 2. Whatever happens in the story, it isn’t the main way Remedy is taking the franchise forward. However, the story is, much like the first game, excellent. It just keeps pulling you forward, teasing you along with the plot.

However, you visit each of the three areas really quickly and then a plot twist makes you go back to them a total of three times each. Admittedly, you aren’t doing exactly the same thing each time but it’s still a little boring and feels a bit cheap, especially on the final go round. However, it is a downloadable game and so the amount of work makes sense. In addition, I kind of like the idea they were going for.

2082133-alan_wake_american_nightmare

Alan is back; his writer’s scarf isn’t.

I also love all the little side bits such as the manuscripts, tv and radios shows. I love Mr Scratch as a bad guy; he is filled with a sense of evil and mischief that the Dark Presence in the first game never had. The acting of the FMV sequences around the plot is great and a real reason to play through the game.

Back to the Flashlight
If you’ve played Alan Wake, you will instantly get the gameplay. In fact, it will probably feel like putting an old glove back on. You still need to burn off the darkness from enemies via a torch before attacking them and you still can use flares and flashbangs as area effect weaponry. The main gameplay changes only really affect your weaponry and your enemies. I also noticed that the game seemed to never really limit the amount of pickups. Unlike the first game where some levels had you carefully using your allotted weapons and batteries, this game doles out ammo frequently, with combined ammo/battery pickups in every area. This game really lays on the combat and so adjusts itself to include that.

Many people’s greatest issue with the first game was the enemy variation. You only really fought three different types and all were defeated the same way, just changing how much darkness you had to remove and how many rounds it took to bring them down. American Nightmare adds five more enemy types which forces you to fight against them differently.

The swarmer, for example, will split in two if you hit him with a concentrated torch beam forcing you to deal with a horde of enemies if you try and take him down the normal way. The Birdman takes the bird swarms of the first game to a new level, using them to get around before sneaking up behind you.

Another new enemy type takes your flashbangs and instead uses them against you, forcing you to get up close and personal. The final bad guy is a huge hulking behemoth who will send you flying if he hits you.

They also added some spiders, because no game is complete without some evil spiders. None of the new enemies are too hard but they present a bit of variety to all the combat scenes.

2123045-1motelmood

Once you check in you can never leave…

Another huge increase in variety appears with the new weapons. Alan Wake used a very small, select set of guns to make it fit into the setting of a small town in the Northwest. It was a great idea for the setting but was a little limiting in terms of the gameplay. American Nightmare adds in a ton of new weapons, ranging from a 9mm pistol up to assault rifles and combat shotguns. These help to make the combat much more interesting and nearly all of them are super satisfying. They also provide another incentive to replay the game and find all the manuscript pages, as many of the better ones require unlocking to use. It isn’t vital to unlock all of them as many of the lower end weapons can be found everywhere.

One of the main reasons for adding so many more guns has to be the new arcade mode. In it, you play as Alan in a selection of different arenas where you must last 10 minutes until dawn breaks. The Taken are merciless in this mode, moving quickly to flank you and hit you hard as opposed to the bad guys in some other survival modes. You need to dive around looking for weapon boxes, which are all unlocked by finding manuscript pages in the campaign, so make sure you play through that first or else these missions will be quite difficult.

There are four of these at normal mode, but each is also available as a Nightmare variant, where the area is crawling with Taken rather than the usual waves. Overall, the combat changes make these a rather fun addition, but the fact it’s a single player experience means there is less inclination to replay them.

Nightmare-ish visions
Remedy has once again used the same engine that Alan Wake ran on. It does the job very well, the game looks good overall with a focus on the lighting and shadows. Like the first game, the characters that Wake talks to during the missions have some animation problems, which can break the immersion. Worse, because the game repeats the same three areas three times, the game even uses the exact same animations for the characters Alan meets three times, not bothering to sync the voice-acting on them. Personally, I think this is terrible.

However, the visuals used in the rest of the game make up for it. As I mentioned before, the cut-scenes is as good, if not better, than those used in the original game. It’s a joy to watch Mr Scratch and his madness.

2123050-scene1

Yep, add this to the list of games featuring Spiders.

Balance slays the Demon
Sound played an important part in the original game and that’s the same here. Voice acting is stellar for Wake and Mr Scratch, although many of the other characters are infinitely forgettable due mainly to their terrible voice acting. The Taken also murmur at you as they attack, much like in the first game and some of their lines can be great. There could be some more of Barry Wheeler’s voice actor, though, who only appears in the radio show, which is one of my favourite parts of the game. Another voice actor I love is the narrator, who perfectly captures the whole Twilight Zone idea this episode aims for.

The music is integral as well. Kasabian’s Club Foot is a vital plot point and suits its role to a tee. Other music is also great from the background soundtrack, to the new licensed tracks, including a brand new Old Gods of Asgards song, which is just fantastic.

Is it truly a nightmare?
I really enjoyed my time with American Nightmare but it was pretty short having burnt though the campaign in a single afternoon. That said, there is quite a bit of additional gameplay if you enjoy the arcade mode.

It’s a great game but I’m not so sure about recommending to people who didn’t play through Alan Wake. As such, while I personally think it’s a must buy, I find it hard to recommend to everyone else. I recommend giving the demo a try before you buy it.

Thoughts On… Alan Wake (PC)

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

AlanWake-2012-02-17-13-16-54-28-e1329970991872

When Alan Wake was eventually released after many years in development hell, it only turned up on the Xbox 360 (as reviewed here). However, way before it even saw launch, it was being paraded as the game to show off DirectX 10 and Windows Vista for several years, presumably before they realised it may not be such a good thing.

Luckily for all us PC gamers, Remedy have finally managed to bring the game to PC via Steam and let me tell you, this is the perfect way to play this gripping story all the way through.

Got ourselves a Stephen King here
The main focus of Alan Wake is its story and this really shows. You play Alan Wake, a bestselling author who is suffering from a severe case of writers block. To give him some time off, he and his wife travel to the town of Bright Falls, a tiny town in the Pacific Northwest where he intends to relax and hopefully get his groove back.

Unfortunately, this isn’t to be, shortly after arrival, he wakes up a week later in a car accident with no memory of how he got there or where his wife has disappeared to. Soon he is avoiding the police while also trying to fight off shadowy figures clad in darkness.

AlanWake-2012-02-17-18-26-36-51

Alan needs to stop going for casual walks at night

The writing in Alan Wake is phenomenal. I love all the little details they wrote into the town that links both to Remedy games and also to its two big influencers; the TV shows Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone. However, it’s not just a collection of references stuck together, the story is well written by its own measures and is paced perfectly to fit into an episodic structure. This feeling is improved even more so with the recap at the start of each chapter and the closing song at the end. It feels like you’re playing through a variant of Twin Peaks and I love it.

I also love the manuscripts you can pick up throughout the game, which are torn from a novel Alan was writing but has no memory of starting. These manuscripts help the player to know what’s going on elsewhere in the world and also provides hints for the future.

The PC edition also includes the two DLC packs. They are not quite as well written as the main game but they do help set up the story that is referenced in American Nightmare and will presumably be the starting point of the sequel when it arrives.

We are all but players
In Alan Wake, you control Alan through a variety of nightmare scenarios. Most consist of Wake having to travel through an area to get on with his quest to find his wife. Along the way, he will have to fight hordes of The Taken; humans possessed by the dark forces. Unfortunately for Wake, they are protected by darkness and so you need to burn it off before you can harm them, and this is done by using your flashlight or some other form of light.

The system as a whole works pretty well thanks to the inclusion of flares and flashbangs, which are act as a quick “get out of jail free” card if you are ever surrounded. Flares are also good for cutting enemies off as you struggle to get some generators working. Light also heals you and acts as save points, so they are pretty damn important. Of course, you can try and avoid being hit by using the dodge key, which rewards you with a cool slow motion dodge move. In fact the game really likes the slow motion, from downing a horde of taken or showing you when they pop out of the woods behind you.

AlanWake-2012-02-17-19-04-15-82

Don’t mind me, just having a nice day in the woods…

Wake himself is an author, not a soldier and so acts like one. He can’t sprint very far and he doesn’t have much health. He can carry three weapons (revolver, flare gun and either a shotgun or a hunting rifle) and each has its purpose. Due to the light based gameplay, the humble flaregun is in fact the BFG of this game, triggering a slow motion explosion when you fire it. The gameplay does manage to show Alan’s frailty without going into over the top madness.

There are also a ton of collectables. These range from the manuscripts mentioned before to radios and TVs playing Night Springs (think Outer Limits/Twilight Zone). Most you will find along the way, but others will take you a while to find. There are 200 thermos’ of coffee to go hunt down and find, so good luck!

Overall, the gameplay hasn’t changed during its move to PC, however it is a little easier as the PC controls make aiming much easier. This in turn means there were fewer cases when I ran out of ammo than when I played it on the Xbox 360.

I did have some issues with the vital dodge command, mapping it to the shift key makes it harder to pull off when you are sprinting around, leading you to being hit as you attempt to run past people. It doesn’t feel quite as natural as simply tapping the right button to duck out-of-the-way.

Welcome to Bright Falls
Alan Wake already looked great on the Xbox with its huge areas, beautiful vistas and (as it’s a game based around light) a truly great lighting system. However, bringing it to the PC has truly taken it up another step. Thanks to the ability to have higher resolutions, the game truly looks stunning. The character animation does still look a little odd during the speaking sections but the rest of the game makes up for it.

It can be a bit of a system hog if you knock everything up to very high, but even on medium settings it looks on par with the Xbox. You can choose to toggle the UI on or off, which makes the game look tons better and stops you from being dragged out of the immersion.  In fact, if there is one issue with the graphics, it’s the fact the UI appears to be a little stretched, which is just a minor niggle.

I’m also a big fan of another visual tweak to game. As well as subtitles, you can now toggle a visual commentary on as well. This means that at certain points, members of the development team will pop up in the bottom left corner of the screen and talk about what’s going on and what lead to this arrangement. It is a better system than Valve’s Hit Node and Listens, although the fact it replays every time you respawn at a checkpoint is rather annoying. They are, however, very interesting to listen to, especially if you have any interest in how games are made.

A soundtrack to rival FIFA
If you are looking for a game with great voice work and music, look no further than this. Sound plays a vital part in the game, from Alan’s narration to the music cues telling you enemies are coming. In terms of voice acting, Alan’s voice is perfect throughout. Your agent, Barry, has a grating voice but it’s the only downside in what is otherwise a spectacular game.

AlanWake-2012-02-17-12-54-09-67

The scenery is literally breath taking

The game soundtrack is also great and the included tracks (in the Steam directory) are perfect both in the gameplay and on my mp3 player. My favourite tracks are from the Old Gods of Asguard, an in-universe band that pops up as a major plot point but the rest of the licensed soundtrack is also perfect. Most are used as the end of chapter tunes, which help to shape your emotions as the game carries on. The others pop up on the radios you keep running into and are a nice touch.

Write a good ending
Alan Wake was already a good game on the Xbox 360 and this PC re-release is the definitive version. If you’ve already sampled it, you can go back and play through the complete story of Alan Wake, while also seeing the visuals in a way you haven’t before. Personally, I love the gameplay in spite of one or two issues and I think this is a must buy, whether you’ve played it or not.