Thoughts On… Spec Ops: The Line

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

Morality is something games really struggle with at the moment. They seem to really focus down on being binary: good or bad, positive or negative. Jaeger’s Spec Ops: The Line throws this idea out the window as it presents you with choices no man should have to pick from. All this takes place inside of a story that makes me want to put this game up on a pedestal as a truly adult game.

A journey
On first appearance, the story in Spec Ops appears to be heavily formulaic. You play as Captain Walker, the leader of a Delta Squad sent into a sandstorm-locked Dubai to find out what has happened to a US Army unit led by a Colonel Konrad. However, the longer they stay there, the more they realise they have kicked over a hornet’s nest and they must struggle to finish their mission.

If the Colonel’s name has set alarm bells ringing, it’s for good reason. The game owes a lot to Apocalypse Now and the novel The Heart of Darkness in terms of both the plot direction and the game’s tone. There is also a lot of Vietnam references, from some of the characters’ clothes (think lax soldiers wearing non-uniform clothing), up to the music blaring out around the desert thanks to the Radioman.

Your two squad mates are some of the best characters I’ve played with for a while. Like everything else in this game, Lugo and Adams start off being your stereotypical classic “time to bro down” frat boys you would expect from a modern military game. Lugo is the fast-talking joker, while Adams sounds like he is about to say he is getting too old for this stuff. However, as things pile up and deeds are done, they start to change into much more cynical characters.

The writing is fantastic. Everything from the overarching plot beats to the individual squad mates dialog gels together perfectly. In fact, even the loading screen tips are great. One simply asks “How many Americans have you killed today?”. It forms a horrifying picture of what happens when everything just breaks down and man is put to the test.

The writers must have had some serious balls to make some of the decisions they made about what to include. Throughout the game, you will pass areas filled with some terrible images of humanity in action. I went into this game fully knowing that it was going to throw the usual piles of corpses at you, but this game takes it to the point where I actually felt physically ill at what was going on.

Expect to see a lot of scenes like this. This game ain’t for kids

Playing your way into hell

This is compounded by the multiple moral decisions you have to make as you progress through the ruins of Dubai. Unlike other games which boast about their decisions, the decisions in Spec Ops are not black and white. Each of them are gut wrenching to perform; in particular, a late game decision I made purely without thinking and then had to pause the game just to calm down afterwards. They make perfectly clear that no matter what you do in the game, no one is coming out clean; every character in the game is just drifting down the river to oblivion.

Of course, this is a game not a movie and you must play though something. Spec Ops is a standard military third-person shooter. You take cover a lot, as in some sections drifting out from behind a wall will lead to almost instant death. You can carry two guns at a time but luckily all of them feel nice and powerful, with the upper end (such as the AA12 or the static machine guns) literally ripping people to shreds in a spray of pink mist and cries from their companions.

This works both ways though; the late game appearance of a heavy trooper in a bomb-proof suit carrying an AA12 will often lead to a horrible messy end for Walker. Most weapons also have a secondary function such as a silencer or burst fire, which does make the SCAR-H one of the best weapons due to its grenade launcher.

There is a nice variation in terms of bad guys, primarily down to the weapon choice but also in terms of behaviour, such as with the heavies or the elites. Some of the best scenes take place featuring the close combat specialists. Guys in vests, often with mohawks, come screaming towards you with knife out and if they aren’t taken down quickly it’s an instant death for you.

Luckily, you can go on the mêlée offensive on the other bad guys, including some executions which grab you some precious, precious ammo. These escalate in brutality as the game goes on; another way for the developers to show the situation deteriorating.

The squad command system is a mixed bag. It’s all mapped to a single button (RB for the Xbox 360) and it’s up to the game to determine what happens. At long range, it’s Lugo with a sniper rifle; close quarters, Lugo and Adams pull out grenades and get up close and personal. There are a few other circumstances where pressing attack causes the squad to go silent in order to take out patrolling guards. Using the attack button focuses up your squad but does leave them a little vulnerable to being flanked by the bad guys. I really wish it allowed you to order your squad to an exact location, such as in Rainbow Six Vegas. Nonetheless, it does do the job required.

I do need to mention the AI. Most of the time it works very well, with the baddies using squad tactics and flanking you, while your squad is pretty good at moving effectively despite the crazy stuff you do. However, there are a few occasions where your buddies do get in the way or manage to get themselves both downed at precisely the wrong place.

Finally, the difficulty. I played it through on the hardest difficulty out of the box (a harder one labelled FUBAR is unlocked after completing the campaign), and found it challenging, with there being a nice difficulty spike right in the final few levels. The checkpoint system is a little too far apart for many encounters, often forcing you to re-watch cutscenes over and over again. The achievements are also pretty easy; they are all single-player focused and can be quickly completed. In fact, the entire game is quite short, but the story more than makes up for it.

Ziplines galore in future Dubai

Dubai – jewel of the desert
Unfortunately, the graphics in Spec Ops don’t quite match up to what the rest of the game provides. Texture pop-in is rampant (as it is in most Unreal Engine 3 games), I had a couple of graphics glitches while playing and a lot of the assets such as textures and models seemed unusually low quality. I’m also not a fan of the fact that the game features gibbing. It would be ok if it was realistic, but when it’s just heads disappearing after headshots and bodies turning into red objects when hit by explosives, it seems at odds with the rest of the game’s tone.

However, the game does a great job in its environmental details. Large portions of the game take place on the tops of Dubai’s many skyscrapers, and the views are breath-taking. When the sandstorms come rolling in while fighting on the top of some of the most striking buildings in the world, it looks like hell is descending around you.

I do need to write a warning though. There is a very effective scene later on that relies on the use of strobing (as in blacking out the screen then re-lighting it very fast), to get the full effect. I’m not usually affected by this but even I found it painful after a while.

Charlie still don’t surf
The team at Jaeger have made some pretty good choices when it comes to the audio side of things. Although the voice acting from Nolan North does make Walker sound like Nathan Drake after a really bad day to begin with, he helps to embody the character as the game goes on and is a really good fit.

The other voice actors in the game also help to make the story as good as it is. I don’t think I’d find Konrad nearly as terrifying if it wasn’t Bruce Boxleitner’s voice spouting down the microphone. Your team’s voices are fantastic and their dialog feels like something just out of Generation Kill. Finally for the voice work, the Radio Man is excellent. I won’t say much more, but he’s truly a great character, thanks primarily to his voice.

As I mentioned before, there is a very strong Vietnam vibe and this comes through in the background music. A large number of the classics such as “Hush” by Deep Purple are in the game and all of them are used at key moments to really put an edge on the action. The rest of music is also Vietnam tinged, with a real ‘70’s sound to the electric guitars and basses that make up the most of the incidental. I really hope they release a soundtrack CD, because it’s pretty good.

The game has a message that shouts out loud and clear

 

The sound effects also do a good job in helping the gameplay. They are not the best I’ve ever heard but they do a pretty good job. Guns sound hefty enough, although much of the ambient sounds are pretty repetitive. I am happy to say there is a good variety in the shouts the enemies use, but you will hear a few lines repeated.

It’s pretty lonely in here…
The multiplayer in Spec Ops sounds tempting but unfortunately it isn’t very good. My main problem with it is that it makes the game look even worse in an attempt to defeat some horrific lag, which doesn’t even work. The few games I go into were almost unplayable.

It’s a shame though; there are a ton more weapons in the multiplayer and a deep levelling system that’s on par with other shooters out now. Customisation is fun, but good luck finding enough people to play this. Luckily for achievement fans, none of the achievements require multiplayer.

Would you cross the line?
Spec Ops: The Line is a truly excellent game. The graphics are patchy, it’s quite short and the multiplayer shouldn’t exist, but the story, music and the general feel makes it a classic-to-be. Games have started to reach a point where the stories they tell don’t have to be focused on glorifying the player and making them a paragon of virtue.

Much like its inspiration Apocalypse Now, Spec Ops is not an experience you take part in to feel happy or relax. You play it to experience a message told in a unique way by making full use of its 18+ age rating, among other things. It begs the question, how far across the line in the sand would you go?

Those Games of 2011

Ah, its that time of the year. The time when Steam takes EVERYTHING from my wallet,  the time where it is now the norm for me to be working on uni stuff all the way through my time at home and the time where everyone writes top 10 lists.

Well, 2011 has been a great year. So rather than limit my choices to ten, I may as well give you a list of all the games I’ve really enjoyed this year and just why you should give them your time. Before I start, I need to say I have missed out a couple of key releases that probably should end up on this list. At the time of writing I haven’t played Bulletstorm, Dead Space 2, Gears of War 3, Halo Anniversary or the Witcher 2 so they will sadly be absent from this list

So, on with the list!

Continue reading “Those Games of 2011”

Thoughts On… Red Dead Redemption (+ DLC)

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Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego
Year of Release: 2010

Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360

The Wild West is an oft-maligned setting for games, normally the preserve of substandard shooters filled to the brim with terrible accents and horrible attempts to create the feel of the wide open plan. 2004’s Red Dead Revolver was one of the best games to use the untamed frontier and now it’s sequel is one of the best selling games of 2010. And there is a good reason why – the game is fantastic.

Red Dead Redemption sets you in 1911 at the end of era of the free West, as the government starts to increase its control into the lawless areas. You play as John Marston, a former outlaw who must now hunt down his former gang members to get his family back. However, it doesn’t start off well so he has to start from scratch. The plot line is really good but it is slightly sticking to the usual Rockstar plotline with your character being betrayed, led on, forced to do more missions for criminal scum than he wants to and then eventually having to kill everyone. It does also mean you can probably guess most of the plot twists long before they happen. The game does have a nice sense of progression though and seemingly perfectly balanced in how long you spend in each of the three major areas. Additionally, its sets you up for some amazing set pieces that perfectly suit the Western feels for the game.

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A big part of this has to do with the characters. Marston himself is probably one of the best protagonists Rockstar has ever done, with a greater depth of character than any of the three from GTA 4 and its Episodes. He is morally straight which is a complete contrast to Niko – being married he doesn’t take the services of the ladies of ill repute and he also express his disgust when you shoot women or horses. This is normally at odds with what the players do and it can be a bit jarring for players doing the usual psychotic shooting matches when suddenly Marston’s voice chimes out saying “Hey, that ain’t right”. For this reason, many players aren’t that keen on him due to him being less a clean slate for them to lay their actions on top.

Of course you can talk all day about the story and characters but at the end of the day, most of the time you spend in the game will probably be spent running around shooting people. In this respect, Red Dead is still pretty fun. It handles similarly to GTA 4 even down to the weight your characters moves with. Aiming, shooting and moving around stays the same. However, one are two additions are included to keep with the setting. The first is horse riding. At first attempt at actually riding a nag, the control scheme is a love or hate affair. I really didn’t like it but grew used to it after a while. It requires careful button presses to keep the horse moving forward without it becoming pissed off and throwing you. Dead Eye mode is added as well, which makes shooting a heck of a lot of fun. By tapping the right stick, time slows down which gives you an edge. You improve this ability as the game progresses up to the point where you can tag locations on multiple enemies before taking them all out in one go.

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Alongside the story missions, you also have a whole bundle of side quests and challenges to complete. The main type is the stranger missions, which are found lying around the world. Some of these lead to the best missions in the game including my favourite which has a slight supernatural tinge. Similarly, there are also bounty boards which send you out to capture outlaws and bring them to justice, forcing you to flee at speed from the targets mates and head towards the nearest jail. There are also the gang hideouts. These are certain locations in the world where evil bandit gangs and rebels hide out int. As you are working for the government, its up to you to clean these areas out. Each has basically the same gameplay template but they all unlock new weapons to use in the rest of the game. Its a smart idea and something I really enjoyed in the game, giving you areas where you are guaranteed to have a decent fight. As well as all of this, there are four sets of challenges that take place in the background. These are split into effectively shooting, hunting, treasure hunting and… flower picking. Seriously. They are pretty fun to do but also teach you unusual methods to do certain things, like killing cougars with dynamite.

I have to say that the best thing about Red Dead Redemption is simply the world. Its packed full of detail but unlike Liberty City, this world doesn’t overwhelm. Each area feels very natural from the snowy pines in the north to the classic Mexican landscapes in the south. As you ride around, random events will happen – for instance, if you walk down the main street of Armadillo (the classic western style town) you might pass a shop being robbed which you intercede in or a lady about to be murdered by a gentleman unless you swiftly disarm him. These events also take place in the wilderness, with animals randomly appearing ready to savage you as you line up the perfect shot on that bandit you’ve been chasing. It just feels right when your walking through it.

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Red Dead also has a great set of multiplayer options. Instead of the clunky GTA IV system, RDR has a free roam mode instead of a lobby. This means that if you want to simply login to have a great time just running around (aka 90% of what I did in GTA IV) its a single button away. For more complex modes, you simply select the one you’re interested in from a list and then get matchmade into it. The main draw for me though is the xp progression system, which unlocks more weapons and other customisation options (such as horses, character models or titles). The greatest joy however is just playing online with a posse of friends and all the stories that come out of it, like the time we jumped from the roof of the saloon in Armadillo and straight onto our horses while being chased by police. My time online was filled with these crazy events.

The tech behind this game is also impressive. The world is rendered beautifully with very few technical hitches or slowdown despite the huge distances. It looks tons better than GTA IV as well, with the characters looking an awful lot better. The sound design is also pretty good with a soundtrack that set the mood perfectly. Voice acting is also spot on, adding another layer to the immersion. The only issues I have on the tech side are several bugs that pop up every so often. The game only locked up a couple of times but some weird things (such as a cougar using a female human model) were slightly more worrying.


Of course, no game is complete with DLC in the past few years and Red Dead does not disappoint. After an initial free pack called “Outlaws to the End” which added a few extra Co-Op missions, there were three later paid packs and a huge patch to extend the free roam multiplayer.

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First up in the paid for DLC is the Legends and Killers pack. This primarily added the characters from the original Red Dead Revolver to the multiplayer as selectable skins. These are pretty cool in themselves but the best addition has to be the tomahawk – a new throwing weapon that allows stealth kills in addition to being a melee attack. It also looks bad ass when you nail a kill via the slow motion mode.

Next up is the Liars and Cheats pack. One of the main things the community asked for was to bring the various minigames, such as Poker and Liar’s Dice, to multiplayer. This pack added all of them in as well as several new modes and challenges to be completed. Of course, the best thing is the new weapon – the Explosive Rifle. This is an Anti Tank rifle that explodes anything it hits. It is now my guilty pleasure when I play – it feels plain wrong when you blow a cougar to pieces with a single shot but by god is it hilarious.

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The biggest, and I think best pack, has to Undead Nightmare which is a completely new game. It’s set during the later part of the game where Marston is finally settled back home. However, it all goes south (literally) when the dead start rising from their graves and John must go and find a cure in order to save his family. It reuses the main game’s map but thanks to a whole load of gameplay changes it doesn’t feel boring. Zombies only die from headshot and to assist in sending them back to the dirt, your dead eye meter is now massive leading to even more slow motion shots from your trusty six gun. The main story is a little bit weak but the overall air is that of a ‘70’s horror film – shot at on the same sets as the gritty western that is the main game. It very self aware that its a homage to zombie films and horror in general – on top of the zombies there are also undead animals and other mythological creatures for you to shoot in the face. Its a great addition that I’ve ended up playing more than the main game. Unfortunately it does have a town control mechanism that is a little rubbish in singleplayer.


As an overall package, Red Dead Redemption is perhaps one of my favourite games of 2010. It has a great singleplayer story filled with great set pieces as well as a fun multiplayer. Both of these are wrapped in one of the best living worlds I’ve seen for a while. Add the DLC and this game is well worth the investment.

Interview with Raymond Benson–Author of Homefront: The Voice of Freedom

THQ’s Homefront is coming out on the 18th of March in the UK and as part of the run up to its launch, Titan Publishing is putting out a novel set in the same world of Kaos Studios’ latest game.

The novel is set several years before the game and charts the journey of Ben Walker, a journalist who experiences the initial attacks on the US by the Koreans in 2025 before he flees eastwards, avoiding the attentions of the occupying forces while also styling himself as as the Voice of Freedom. Along the way, he also sees the horror the invaders unleash and find how the Americans live on post-invasion.

After reading through the book, and thoroughly enjoying it, I was offered the chance to pose a few questions to the author, Raymond Benson, and ask him just what’s it’s like to write about the fall of America.

Q. First of all, I just want to say that I really enjoyed reading the book and although it’s a cliché, found it quite hard to put down. What was the main inspiration  for the plot line?

 

“Thank you! It was a lot of fun to write. The main inspiration was John Milius, who came up with the universe of the videogame Homefront. He and THQ and Kaos Studios developed the game’s storyline and the backstory (the 15 years leading up to the year 2025) before I came aboard. I was then handed a two-page rough outline of what they thought the novel should be. I fleshed it out to a full treatment, creating new characters, scenes and locations. Once this was approved by all parties, I started writing. I was in constant communication with THQ and Kaos, which helped a lot. Afterwards, Milius provided notes and suggestions.”

Q. The book features four of the characters mentioned in previews as being your squad-mates in the game itself. Does this mean certain characters from the book may return in virtual  form?

“Perhaps they will in future games, I’m really not sure. The characters from the first game that I use in the novel have minor roles, so a reader doesn’t have to be familiar with the game to read the book.”

Q. John Milius (most famous for Red Dawn) is listed as a co-author and the game’s development team have repeatedly mentioned his involvement. How much of the book’s writing did he take part in?

“As stated above, John was involved in the early stages of branding the universe of Homefront. He worked with THQ and Kaos studios in developing the video-game and the rough outline of the novel. I wrote the book, and he then provided notes.”

Read about it now. Drive it from March 18th.

Q. Speaking of the development team, how much were the team at Kaos involved with the book? Are many of the guns and vehicles mentioned by name in the book going to be in player’s hands when the game is released in March?

“Kaos was very helpful, mainly because I had to keep checking to make sure I didn’t contradict anything that was going to be in the game. The main item from the game that appears in the book is GOLIATH, the robot that’s part tank, part dune buggy, and part monster truck. This is a technology that exists today and we believe will be more widely used militarily in the next decade or so.”

Q. The book  goes into great detail on several of the weapons and tech included within. How much time was spent simply researching the equipment and coming up with the plausible events?

“I had an intense deadline; 6 weeks! The publisher (Del Rey) wanted to get the book out a month before the game, and it takes 5-6 months to manufacture the finished book. I had to just dive in and start writing without worrying too much about the details at first. That said, the game people vetted all the military equipment in the book when it was done, and there were very few corrections. As far as plausible events go, we had a Korean-American CIA agent as a consultant on the game and the book… so that’s where the “this could really happen” factor comes in.

Q. Why did you decide to have the main character be a journalist?

“He was in the original rough outline that I began with. I fleshed out his background and life and gave him a  personality. It was a good idea for him to be a journalist; he could slip smoothly into the role of the voice of  resistance.”

Q. You’ve written several books based on licenses throughout your career as an author. What’s the hardest thing about having to write while working with someone else’s creation?

 

“The most difficult thing is sometimes being able to communicate with the licensee during the process. With Homefront, that process went smoothly and efficiently. In general, working with tie-ins requires the writer to be able to ramp-up quickly on the  franchise’s universe and characters; that can be a challenge if time is a factor, which it usually is. Otherwise it’s just like writing an  original book!”

Q. Carrying on from the last question, what’s your process when going through a writing project?

“I have several distinct phases. The first is the Conceptualizing phase, in which I daydream a lot and jot down ideas I want to use. In an original book project, this is when I come up with the premise and what I want to accomplish in telling the story. Next is the Outline phase. This is the most difficult, because basically I’m writing the entire book in treatment form. This is when I figure exactly what’s going to be in each chapter of the book. I spend a lot of time on this phase to make sure the outline, which is the blueprint for writing the book, is perfect. It doesn’t mean I can’t improvise during the writing, but it’s a guideline.

Next comes Research, if needed, especially on locations or technical subjects. The Writing phase is next, and that’s just sticking with a daily schedule to get it on paper. I write an entire first draft without looking back, thus establishing a fast pace. Finally, the Revising phase is when I go back and rewrite, add, delete, and make the book the best I can. The Revising process is repeated as necessary.”

Homefront has one of the best box arts I’ve seen in a long time.

Q. Out of your many projects over the  years, which is your favourite?

“Writing the official James Bond novels for seven years was certainly a high point. Those were some of my very first novels, and I’m very proud of them. There are a few original thrillers that I’m partial to, simply because they’re mine. I have an original thriller coming out in September 2011 called The Black Stiletto that I’m very excited about. It’s the first book in a series featuring a female costumed vigilante in 1950s New York City. Sort of a women’s action/adventure, but it will appeal to men, too.”

Q. As a gaming site, there is one more question we have to  ask. How much gaming do you do yourself?

“I was *in* the gaming industry for a decade, beginning in 1985 when personal PCs were just coming into homes. I designed and wrote several role-playing adventure games, having worked for such companies as Origin Systems, MicroProse Software, and Viacom New Media. I left that industry when I became a  full-time novelist in 1997, so my actual gaming has decreased since then, but I still keep up with what’s current. I suppose I’ve  always been more interested in the fiction; the stories behind the  games. That’s my forte.”

Thoughts On… Dragon Age II Demo

When EA first showed off screenshots and mentioned details about the sequel to 2009’s Dragon Age, I was quite worried. As a huge fan of the original game, the details of Mass Effect style combat and dialogue seemed out-of-place compared to the first game’s die hard classic style RPG which was closer to Baldur’s Gate than Bioware’s sci-fi game. However, thanks to the massive demo now available on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC, my mind is now at ease. That said, there are one or two things to point out before you rush off to fight some more of the Darkspawn.

After a choice of gender and class, the demo starts off with a bare-chested dwarf being dragged before several troops bearing the symbol of the Templars and the Chantry, Dragon Age’s all powerful church. A female Templar soon starts questioning him and he relays the story of a certain Hero of Kirkwall. This is you, and as he tells his tale, you are thrown into a battle with some of the Darkspawn.

Players of the original will soon notice that the combat feels a great deal faster. Characters now have a bit more weight to them and the combat feels great, especially as a warrior when you charge in and knock a ton of Darkspawn over in a single bound. There also seems to be a lot less of the shifting around of units that made the game look slightly messy. However, the game is still all about managing your abilities and using them at the right time with carefully landed blows capable of killing whole swathes of enemies around you. Fighting alongside you is your sibling, either Bethany the mage or Carver the warrior depending on your character class. After you butcher a metric ton of Darkspawn, and as more powerful abilities magically appear in your tool bar, a towering ogre bursts his way into the fight. The battle against it is pretty similar to many battles in Origins which pitted you against these terrifying foes and anyone who completed the first game will feel right at home. Then a Dragon turns up and the game fades to black.

Once again, everyone discusses while covered in blood

However, this isn’t the end of the demo. The female Templar calls shenanigans on the Dwarf’s story and he retells it properly, with a little more back story and setting. It turns out the battle you fought at the demo’s start was actually taking place during the sacking of Lothering, which Dragon Age vets will know as one of the earliest parts of the original game. At this point, the Hero of Kirkwall is known simply as Hawke, and he (or she) is fleeing the Darkspawn alongside their family. You travel along a mountain path into The Wilds fighting various pockets of Hurlocks in battles, which instantly reconnects those Dragon Age reflexes (the constant pounding of the health potion button for one), until you encounter two fellow travellers that help show off Dragon Age 2’s new and improved conversation system. Anyone who has played Mass Effect will feel right at home, with the hero now being fully voice acted and the dialogue UI looking almost exactly like Shepard’s voice commands. One improvement over Bioware’s other game though has to be a tone indicator, which gives a little hint as to how Hawke will voice it, preventing many an unwanted dialogue choice.

Around this time you also get to look at the levelling system for Dragon Age 2 and another major change has occurred. Behind a menu that looks suspiciously like it was pulled almost entirely intact from Mass Effect 2, the abilities screen is perhaps one of the slickest menu’s I’ve seen in a long time.  The attributes screen now includes several calculated values based on your stats, which work out things like damage with current weapon, health based on constitution and total mana based on willpower. This allows you to easily and quickly work out which attributes to put points into in order to maximise your character’s effectiveness. After working through attributes, there is also your abilities to select. Each classes’ selection of abilities is shown as six separate trees of abilities based around common themes. For example, the warrior has two sets based around different equipment choices (either weapon and shield or two-handed) and four others based around aspects of the class. These are things such as Defender which focuses on raising your own and your party’s defensive capabilities through abilities as like Stonewall and Warmonger, which is about drawing enemies to you and away from weaker members of the party. It’s presented in a better way than previously and makes it a lot more player friendly than the simple list of the original game.

Abila-Trees!

After your tweaking, you eventually get back to the battle you fought right at the start of the demo, except this time you are not quite as powerful, have a few more allies and the battle ends with (spoilers) the dragon turning into a familiar face from the first game, who sets you off with a quest to reach the city of Kirkwall; a place where Hawke has distant relatives and is far enough away from the Darkspawn to stay alive. Another fade to black, another update from the dwarf and suddenly your thrust into yet another skirmish. This time, your characters are at level 6 and the narrating dwarf (with his awesome crossbow) is now a member of your party. You are accompanied by  Isabella, a pirate from the first game you may have met if you visited the tavern in Denerim, as you attempt to find out why her former employer is chasing after her. Playing with some higher level characters shows off a few of the more awesome moves, such as explosive arrows or cones of cold which look better in the new combat engine of Dragon Age 2.

I tried the demo on both Xbox 360 and PC and I’m impressed with the tech side. The new art style is a little unusual; it looks a great deal better but some aspects such as the terrain textures still look bland and the new textures of familiar enemies are a bit jarring. However, the characters look more naturalistic and the armour textures have a huge number of details on them, making each rivet visible. Additionally the graphics are used to great effect, players should look out for a visual embellishment of one of the characters during the first battle due to the narrators exaggeration. The voice acting is usual Bioware; I think the male Hawke voice is a great bit of voice acting but the female Hawke is a little grating. Control-wise, the console edition plays quite differently to the PC version. On the Xbox 360, it feels more like Diablo with the abilities mapped to radial menus and three of the face buttons. It’s a system that works and grants you the same range of powers as the PC user has with the keyboard.

It isn’t in the demo, but this is Ser Issac of Clarke’s armour. Awesome!

I love just how much Dragon Age 2 links into the original game which can occasionally be a bad thing for a modern sequel. However, it does explain much of the shared lore so if you’re dying to jump straight into Dragon Age 2 and use Ser Issac of Clarke’s armour, this demo makes it seem like you won’t miss out on much in terms of story. For the hardcore players of Dragon Age Origins, mainly those on PC, the worries about simplification are unfounded. Underneath, the slicker, cleaner, more beautiful exterior is the same old complex RPG, complete with the spell combinations, hours of levelling and sometimes punishing difficulties. This demo has done its job for me;  I’m now much more excited about the upcoming release of Dragon Age 2.

Thoughts On… Stacking

Double Fine are among my favourite developers in recent years, with games like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend sitting proudly on my shelf despite their flaws. All their games have a quirky sense of humour from Tim Schaffer (he of Lucasarts fame) along with distinctive art styles. However, Double Fine recently went into the downloadable market, first with last year’s Halloween themed Costume Quest and now with their latest game, Stacking. Is it a tower of fun or a stack of… something else?

The odds are Stacking up
In Stacking, you play as Charlie Blackmore, the smallest in a family of Chimney Sweeps in a world of Russian Dolls (bear with me here). Unfortunately, as this takes place in a pseudo-Victorian world, the children and father vanish off to work and are never seen again. Charlie is spared this fate due to his tiny size and so stays at home until a letter from a sibling sends him off on a mission to free his family from their servitude and defeat the evil Baron. As with all Double Fine games, the plot and writing is spot on, although there is no voice acting, the dialogue perfectly suits the theme of the game. The plot actually looks at some pretty bleak themes such as child labour but still makes it as involving as humorous as you’d expect. The written dialogue is also hilarious, especially in the case of characters that are in every area as it charts an ongoing sub-plot with them.

Puzzles abound!
At a very basic level, Stacking is puzzle game that requires you to choose a careful combination of abilities to meet objectives. These are gained by using Charlie’s small size to stack into other, larger dolls in a set order. For example, larger dolls require you to jump into small intermediate dolls to become big enough. Each of these dolls has their own abilities. These vary from useful (such as the infamous farting cook) to the pointless (one of the dolls is a drummer whose frantic drumming does nothing of note). I like this system and it can be quite funny just to mess around and see how each doll can affect the environment around it.

Charlie Blackmore: Pipsqueak! Tiny Person! Hero!

Each area in the game has several puzzles that need to be fulfilled before the level is cleared and Charlie can rescue his misplaced family. They range from drawing a guard away from a door to causing havoc at a safari or stopping the flow of caviar to some decadent adventurer. These puzzles can be solved in multiple ways. Unlike other puzzle games though, all of them can be retried straight after solving them the first time, letting you explore all the various inventive ways the team at Double Fine thought up while making the game. The difficulty level increases at the perfect pace, from only needing a single doll to achieve the objective to needing several dolls stacked together and quickly unstacked in order to dish out their abilities rapidly. There are occasionally puzzles where you work out a way you’d expect to work but isn’t recognised by the game; unfortunately this is an issue with all puzzle games, but it seems less prevalent than in other adventures.

In addition to puzzles there is also a list of hijinks to take part in. These are little side missions to do which are normally to do a doll’s abilities a set number of times. They act as a good introduction into what each doll does and can be handy in solving the puzzles which require a few more of the obscure abilities. They also add something else to do once the thrill of solving the puzzles is complete.

I have one or two issues with Stacking, the main one being the replayabilty. There are a total of four areas and I blasted through the game and got 100% in only a few hours. Once you done everything there is no multiplayer or anything to keep you coming back. There is a good chance that Double Fine will drop one or two DLC packs in the game (it does feel like it would be a very easy fit), however, until they appear, Stacking is a very short game.

The beauty of Stacking
Although the game isn’t the best looking game on XBLA, it does have a fantastic art direction. Everyone in the game is a Russian doll while the background behind them is made of up of everyday objects, carefully layered to create the environments. There are quite a few clever camera tricks used to make the world seem like a bigger place, which gives the game a very distinctive look. There is also a pretty clever little graphical changes here and there with certain dolls, such as the world going black and white when you stack into a dog. Another little touch that makes Double Fine one of the best developers.

The World of Stacking is Beautiful... apart from the Child Slavery

The world of Stacking is beautiful… apart from the Child Slavery thing.

Some puzzling notes
Although lacking in voice acting (in order to stay with the game’s silent film theme), the background music is perfect with tinkling piano overlapping the puzzling action. I also like the incidental sound effects such as the little shrieks the dolls cry out when you stack into someone nearby or those accompanying the various abilities the dolls use. That said, I actually played through quite a bit of the game without sound due to circumstances and it no way hurt my enjoyment, perhaps suiting its role as a silent film.

The solution of the review
I loved the time I spent Stacking, trying to work out the puzzles and enjoying the tale those fine fellows at Double Fine have woven. It has a fantastic story with some great puzzles that had me laughing throughout. My only major issue is the length, but for its price I recommend it to everyone. Buy Stacking and enjoy your adventure in the world of Charlie Blackmore.

Thoughts On… Bulletstorm Demo

People can Fly’s latest game, Bulletstorm, looks, thanks to its various trailers, to be an irreverent in-your-face first person shooter all about killing enemies in as gory and brutal ways as possible to gain points. After playing the demo, I can confirm that this is all true. Unfortunately, it also has one or two gameplay issues that stopped me from finding it as outrageously fun as the game thinks it is.

The demo takes a single section from the single player game and puts it into “Echoes” mode, which is basically a score attack mode. After a brief intro video narrated by the main character and introduces you to the basic concepts of both gameplay and story, you then leap into the level itself feet first.

At first glance, it’s a standard first person shooter. You run, shoot and slide your way through an abandoned area of a city, hanging far above the planet’s surface. The scenery is full of rubble and many of the skyscrapers have fallen on one side leaving a rather different selection of corridors to fight through. You’re given three weapons to play around with; the basic assault rifle, the revolver which can fire flares and the remote detonation grenade launcher which wraps itself around a target’s body part before you press the trigger.

Each kill you get gives you points. The basic kills are worth 10 points, headshots 25. The main way to earn points though is to be clever with your kick ability, your leash and your imagination. Drag a guy towards you, kick them away and then blast him in the head gains you 250 points. These however are the least interesting. When you fire a flare into someone you’ve knocked into the air, he’ll go flying off into the sky granting you the bonus “Fireworks” skill bonus and a big stack of points into your total. Each area is littered with extra little environmental features that add to the points total such as when you nail a guy to the wall with a quick kick to the face.

This, Sir, is my boot. Let it show you the door.

My main problem with this system is it requires a certain finesse to be totally successful at it. I understand the need for a learning curve but when the trailers are full of the crazy skillshots, it kind of seems like it should be the norm. This is more of a personal thing but I still think it’s worth mentioning. I also experienced a couple of issues with your partner AI interfering with your attempts to get your skillshots. Several times I’d be kicking guys off ledges only for my associates to get a shot on him and I only receive the ten points I’d get for standard kill despite losing a chunk of health. It gets worse if we include the alternate fire modes for each of the weapons; you receive three per area which, if they are wasted by the reckless AI or by your booby-trapped foe being caught on random bits of scenery. This happened a bit more often than you could accept as a little bug.

The level progresses through a series of areas filled to the brim with spiked walls, exposed cables and other nasty things to kick people into. This all leads to a confrontation near an elevator which can be activated to come screaming horizontally towards a group of guys, giving you an extra boost of skill points from crushing some bad guys into the wall. Apart from this special part, the rest of the demo is moving through an area, killing the guys you see with as much skill and style you can, which can get a tad repetitive.

This is what happens when you don’t take the lift.

In terms of the graphics and sound, the game is classic Unreal Engine 3. It looks pretty good, especially as it is lacking the amount of brown and grim you’d normally expect from a game released by Epic. It has some exceptional backgrounds but if you’re spending too long looking at it, you’re doing it wrong. I have no problem with the voice acting, which is as crass as you’d guess from all the trailers. The weapon sounds are pretty good and there are some satisfying splats when you rip a guy in half.

I want to like Bulletstorm but this demo is unfortunately a bit of a turn-off for me. I hope it’s just the choice of level and limited selection of weapons in the demo that give me the issue. It’s worth your time as a bit of fun but I’m going to wait for the game’s release before I consider buying.

Thoughts On… Crysis 2 Multiplayer Beta

So who actually played the multiplayer in Crysis or Crysis Wars? Blimey, its quiet out there. Yeah the multiplayer included with the first part of the Crysis story was a little bit generic  and lacked any real reason to keep playing after a brief drop in. However, with the sequel coming to consoles, Crytek had to make some decent mutliplayer to please the legion of console players used to Call of Duty, Killzone and Halo’s offerings. EA has released a little demo (which they have called a beta as new tradition dictates) and I have to say I quite enjoy it.

crysis2_multiplayer_3

The most important thing I was interested about Crysis 2 on console is just how it plays. On PC, Crysis had a metric ton of controls for a whole set of different options, from binoculars to the various suit modes. Luckily, it controls rather smoothly and it was rather simple to pick up the controls and start playing. The controls are actually quite similar to if you played the PC version of the original (i.e. you were mental) but its all logical – wanting to jump super high? You switch to power mode if you hold it down. The two major modes (stealth and armour) are on the bumpers so its all good and super easy to blink out of view. The only weird choice is the grenade select – its more than just a simple button press away which does mean the game is less of a grenade spamming match.

So what has changed since Crysis? Well, you can now slide around like a crazy person if you sprint and crouch which is quite funny when you pop up in front of someone, there are almost as many weapons in the demo as there was in the original game and you get to see some of the new setting New York. The map available is Skyline and takes place on the top few floors and roof of a skyscraper which has received a little bit of beating which leaves one or two holes in the walls. Its obvious that Crytek are aiming for verticality in the sequel and you really have to break out of the Call of Duty mentality. On top of this, players are a lot more acrobatic with many jumping from rooftop to rooftop or disappearing down lift shafts while you’re chasing after them. Add into this the stealth mode and you are looking at a nightmare. The game also includes several kill streaks (aquired by collecting dog tags off fallen enemies) and death streaks which are all very Call of Duty style down to even the effects of the three default kill streaks. The modes in the game are limited to two – Team Instant Action (deathmatch) and Crash Site (or headquarters in COD-speak). Its Cell (PMC) in grey versus Marines (umm…Marines?) in tan fighting it out in each mode and I’m not a major fan of each sides respective dialogue.

tia_intense_action

Crysis is really famous for its graphics and although they aren’t quite as good in this demo, it actually runs for everyone rather than just the select few. However, its still packed full of the touches that makes the CryEngine awesome – there is water all over the map that drips over your visor and runs down it, the glass shatters as it does in real life, wood breaking looks amazing and when someone lugs the heavy machine gun into a firefight it rips the scenery apart. The UI is also perfect – killcams are actually the enemies view being hacked and live streamed back to you and like in the original it looks like the sort of thing a high tech nanosuit would display to the user.

The demo has a very slimmed down version of the full games multiplayer progression and it does reveal quite a bit about it. Like a certain other first person shooter franchise, custom classes unlock at level 5, each player has a dogtag/playercard and the starting classes (shotgun, sniper, heavy machine gun) unlock as you level up. However, instead of unlocking the weapons, attachments, perks and dogtag pictures via a set order, they can be all bought from the start. However, they require tokens which are gained in different ways. Weapons unlocks are gained via leveling, attachments via weapon usage and each of the three different suit types via gaining points while using that mode. So if like me you enjoy being a tank and using armour mode while firing off a heavy machine gun then you will rocket up the armour tree and unlock a load of armour perks attachments before you even think about the stealth side of things. There are also challenges to gain xp and a hugely detailed service record with all the stats you could ever want about your time in Crysis 2.

Before this demo, I had very little interest in Crysis 2 apart from maybe picking it up down the line. However, I am now actually quite intrigued by the multiplayer and I’m looking forward to seeing some of the singleplayer. I can see the multiplayer tiding people over once their interest in Black Ops has wained.