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?

On Congratulations, Holiday and Games

So its been an eventful week. I finished off my contract and got paid a tidy sum from M&P (minus my NI Contribution) which has been nicely packed away into my savings account. Its going to be spent on a few things like airsoft trips and some books but mainly starting to save up for after uni. The best plan for it is probably to keep it for a rainy day but I’d also like to go to E3 or do a road trip following the route of the Allies from 1944-45. However, that’s all after uni.

But the main thing this weekend was my sister’s wedding. I won’t say much about it but a congratulations are in order for both her and her husband Chris. Service was excellent and the reception afterwards was fun especially as I ended up having to take care of one of my kinda-cousins which was done by drawing tanks, planes and soldiers – something I haven’t done since I was 10-ish. As part of the wedding celebrations, my aunt and uncle have also been visiting down from Scotland. It’s been very nice to see them, especially when we went for a walk across the moors above Keighley. Admittedly, the walk did devolve into a trek through mud, heather and bog (which I ended up vanishing into at one point). It also guaranteed that I’ll be wearing my walking boots from now on rather than using the black assault boots when I’m airsofting. They offer a bit more support and don’t rip my soles to pieces.

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Speaking of airsoft, I’ve picked up what will be the last gun for a very long time. I’ve always loved the M16/M203 combination especially after owning an Action Man version as a kid. Now, over ten years later, I’ve finally bought one. Its a beautifully made ICS M16A3 with an attached Sun Projects M203 that I picked up for a steal online. Its also been taken good care off by its previous owner so I’m very excited to use it in an airsoft game. In terms of purchases, I’ve also picked a new speedloader and I’m looking into a set of WileyX Sunglasses as some cool sunglasses that I can airsoft in/wear while sorting out kit and there is a small risk of blowing my head off.

Thanks to being on holiday I have had plenty of time to sit back and play a few games. First up is Civilisation 5’s recent expansion. I’m in the midst of writing the review of it so I won’t say too much. A review that has recently gone up is my impressions of Spec Ops The Line. I honestly went into it with next to no hope – the demo’s gameplay was a bit bland and the review I had seen were middle of the road. However, I actually really enjoyed it. Read on my review on This Is My Joystick here.

On top of these, I also have two more game on my to review list. The first is Speulnky on XBLA. Now, I loved the original and spent a large amount of my time at GCSE sat playing it and not doing too well at it (did fine at the GCSEs though). This new release has a really nice art style but the gameplay is still the same horrifying killer that is used to be.The other is Lollipop Chainsaw. I’m midway through the review on this as well but I’m not sold on the gameplay. Story is fun through with some really good characters. Its a shame the rest of the game doesn’t really match up. Review coming soon.

That’s all for now, struggled to write this post because I’m a four year old with the attention span of a gnat. Still on holiday so trying frantically to write more on my airsoft book as I’m still trying to hit the deadline of September

On the End of Term, Start of Work and Max Payne 3

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(Top and bottom pictures from my last airsoft trip)

Well that’s my second year of university over and done with. I came back home on the 24th, spent the next day sorting out a piece of work and then my holiday started. I’ve found my second year to be much harder both in terms of university work and student life in general. However, it has proved that I do enjoy programming but I’m not a natural at it – I’m going to have to spend most of the summer practising so I’m ready for my final year. I have a few projects all planned up to do over the summer and I plan to write about them during my month’s off after June.

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Thoughts On… Alan Wake: American Nightmare

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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… Iron Brigade

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

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Tower Defence is one of the ‘in things’ at the moment. From Gears of War 3 to Assassin’s Creed, games are forcing in moments where you place traps to defend your favourite buildings from the angry hordes.  Double Fine has tried their hand at this with their latest game, Iron Brigade, or do I mean Trenched?

Thanks to a Portuguese board game maker, Trenched had to have its name changed and its European release delayed. Unfortunately for a co-op game, this has affected its gameplay. This is a damn shame, as it is perhaps one of my favourite games of 2011.

Evil television? Sounds like the Jeremy Kyle Show
In the world of Iron Brigade, two men left disabled by the first World War hear an alien signal which affects their mind. While one creates stompy mechs to help soldiers walk again, the other creates television. However, this isn’t good television; it soon becomes an evil group of machines seeking to hunt down and kill humanity, otherwise known as the ‘Tubes or Monovisions.

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This game has a lot of explosions in it…

The story is all presented via the front covers of ‘30’s style ‘Man’s Own Adventure’ magazines, which suit the world perfectly. They also have some pretty funny in-jokes slid in via the front page titles, which are just another thing that marks out the game as a Double Fine production.

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Thoughts On… Unstoppable Gorg

(This review originally appeared on This Is My Joystick)

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The name Futuremark should be one that most people who like tinkering with their PCs should know quite a lot about. They make 3D Mark, perhaps the most famous benchmarking tool for the PC to date.

What most people don’t know is that Futuremark also make games; their first was a PC first-person shooter called Shattered Horizon, which looked fantastic but was deeply flawed at launch. Then they made Hungribles for the iOS, which was a little more successful, and is supposedly quite fun. Now they have returned to Steam with the Unstoppable Gorg, a new and different take on the good old tower defense genre.

 

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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!

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@property(nonatomic, retain) IBOutlet BlogPost “More Coding and Games”

From XKCD

Yep, don’t worry I’m still here. Just been doing some more programming to get ready for a few hand ins. At this point they are mainly milestones although I do have a presentation on a LISP problem to show on Tuesday which will be great fun.

At the moment, the main two projects I’m working on are a C++ game using HAPI, a API (or framework) developed by my tutors at Teesside University and a game for iOS (hence the horribly mangled bit of Objective C in the title bar). I’m finding coding hard work but its oh so satisfying when you finally solve a puzzle.

But you people aren’t here for coding talk, you’re more interested in games! So here what I’ve been playing for the past few months:

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