Reviews

I had a slightly underwhelming experience with my first foray into the new and improved Final Fantasy MMO on the PS3. The hardware could barely cope with it and even when it did everything was pretty substandard. There was an impressive world at work but I felt it was destined for ‘greater’ platforms.

020

Fortunately Square seem to have got a handle on the connection issues that somehow plagued both the original release of FFXIV and A Realm Reborn. I created my character, selected my class and joined a server in no time. I got one disconnect down the road during a quests but I quickly reconnected and got back into the world.

Having a quick and painless entry into Final Fantasy’s world certainly makes the experience a lot easier on the nerves. By the time I actually got to move my character and have a look around on the PS3 version I was already past breaking point. Entering the world with a fresh prospective I made my way towards the first of many, many quests.

As expected it seems every single quest involves finding an item and then delivering it to the quest giver. Even many hours in I’m still performing meaningless fetch quest after meaningless fetch quest. The game that ensure MMO’s aren’t synonymous with DHL Simulator will be a huge success, but Final Fantasy XIV isn’t that game (I’m looking at you Division). Taking on hordes of challenging enemies or giant animated trees doesn’t seem to matter much when you’re dropping off some plants for some lifeless NPC.

If we’re going to be doing fetch quests it would be nice if the NPC’s have something interesting to say. Hell it’d be nice if they had anything to say. Probably the most impressive thing in The Elder Scrolls Online was the fact that every NPC had recorded speech. Sadly Final Fantasy has got barely any speech for it’s NPCs which can at times make questing a little dry. I’m not apposed to reading but when an NPC has three pages of useless commentary before actually saying anything useful it’s easy to lose interest and glaze over.

So the main appeal has to be from co-op questing. Joining up with even a small crew of random players instantly makes FFXIV more appealing. There is an inherent appeal accomplishing feats and completing quests with friends, be they real or digital only. Even without talking there is a predictable Journey-like communication between players.

In particular during FATEs (Full Active Time Event) where for a limited time players must help each other take out multiple enemies or slay a larger foe for a tasty EXP bonus silent communication is ever-present. On one such an occasion we were tasked with taking down a rather formidable tree. Things were looking very bad. I started attacking and did minimal damage as the giant shuffled towards me. With one hit it became obvious I wouldn’t last more than a minute.

But then a mêlée warrior jumped in and we at least started to damage the monster although it was still clear the fight would end soon. But then a tiny mage scuttled towards us and healed us both like there was no tomorrow. He didn’t get bored, run off and leave us to die. He didn’t get distracted and attack. He did his task without being asked, we all lived and eventually killed our enemy to reap the rewards. It was one of those moments only possible in MMO’s. A spontaneous co-op experience among comrades fighting for a common cause.

030

The UIs and menus benefit greatly from the PS4’s massive increase in power over the PS3 version. Everything has an increased fidelity but it doesn’t entirely stop the menus from being clunky every now and again. The PS4’s touchpad serves as a mouse to help but it’s still easy to lose your cursor and have to stop and figure out where it is. In large holding L2 and R2 to bring up your character’s abilities is easy and the UI makes it obvious how to perform the desired move. There’s still the sense that the controls aren’t native to consoles but they get the job done.

Combat allows itself to get fairly repetitive even quite early in the game. New moves and equipment try to keep things fresh but ultimately you will engage an enemy, hold a trigger and mash a face button. There’s some strategy later on when more moves are available to you but more likely than not you will find a move that works well in most situations and stick with it. Enemy design is what we’ve come to expect from the Final Fantasy series and is just as good as any single player title, but it’s not enough to maintain your interested past the 5 hour mark.

Were visuals are concerned very little, if anything, is comparable between the PS4 and PS3 versions. Textures are now flaunting their full HD capabilities and everything just looks beautiful. There isn’t a sharp edge in sight. The impressively colourful world of Eorzea lets the PS4 version show itself off with a dazzling array of colours. I don’t think there’s a colour that exists that isn’t used. Plus everything benefits massively from a lovely smooth frame rate thanks to the PS4. If you’ve only seen Final Fantasy XIV on the PS3 you haven’t seen it at all. It’s a completely different experience between platforms and the PS4 version really is the only way to see Eorzea.

050

Despite all the improvements there are still a few issues that run deep through Final Fantasy XIV’s core. The quests can become boring quickly, and so too can the combat. There is a reasonably comprehensive selection of character abilities but you are reliant on levelling up a required amount to earn both stats and new moves. There’s no choice or real freedom beyond choosing a class when you create a character. And if you don’t quest with friends everything is all the more stale. So much time, sooooo many fetch quests.

But still this marks another impressive entry for Final Fantasy XIV’s tarnished history. So great are the differences between the PS4 and PS3 versions that this may as well be another re-release. I certainly consider it so. If you’ve not tried FFXIV on the PS4 you’ve still not tried the ‘proper’ version. Square even allow you to port your PS3 characters across so if you’ve got access to a PS4 I’d strongly recommend giving this version a go – regardless of how much you may have already done on the PS3.

 

One of the most difficult to read titles to grace the PS3, Short Peace is the new creation from Namco Bandai, Crispy’s Inc and Suda 51, a movie and video game crossover that spans Ranko Tsukigme’s longest day. Will this obscure Japanese title find its deserved niche, or will it sink under the tidal flood of western releases designed to appeal to the masses?

_bmUploads_2014-01-28_8501_Stage 1-8_1391170509

Hoping for a breath of fresh air, I dove into Short Peace with an open mind; prepared for anything, I encountered one of the most bewildering gaming experiences of my life. With the contemporary rulebook strewn out of the window, you’ll encounter all of the classic atypical Japanese stereotypes such as, ‘terraforming young girl’ and ‘rugged motorbike rider that can transform into an Ironman suit’. I’m skipping ahead however; Short Peace starts out fairly sedately before jumping into the land of the nonsensical.

You play as Ranko, an average schoolgirl during the day, who by nightfall, becomes a deadly assassin tasked with ending the life of her own father. If you’re familiar with the workings of Katsuhiro Otomo, then you’ll be pleased to know that this functions as a tie-in to his four part film compilation. Whilst the gameplay is certainly entertaining in its own right, it becomes clear early on, in part due to the cutscenes often being longer than the levels, that the main focus of this package lies sorely in its storytelling and cutscenes.

Much akin to an infinite runner style game, only with an end, Short Peace places you in a multi-tiered, 2D environment with the only goal being to evade the, often unexplained, pursuing threat. Starting out simply, the game informs you briefly on the control setup, which essentially boils down to holding a direction, jumping occasionally and mashing square whenever you see an enemy. Whilst you can’t directly fail the level by choosing from the multitude of paths on offer, some are undeniably quicker, some hold secrets and some have an increased number of enemies. If the pursuing behemoth does start catching up with you (and on later levels it most certainly will!) you have your trusty gun at your side to help. Firing at it from your trusty instrument/gun will make it back off and keep the pressure down, however using it will deplete its ammunition, which is regenerated only by vanquishing scores of enemies.

Kirara Dragon13_1393443322

With it being such a fast paced game; most levels only taking approximately 90 seconds to complete, combat on the fly sounds potentially tricky. Fortunately, for the most part, it isn’t. It all boils down to timing and reaction speeds, most of the early enemies are stationary and provide little to no challenge, later on however, enemies will swoop, home in on you and even fire projectiles. The difficulty spikes a little after some of these enemies as you may imagine! Fortuitously, due to the chaining system, it usually ends up as more of a spectacle than a true challenge, for when you kill enemies one after another, the vivid and dramatic effects of their destruction will link and take out subsequent nearby enemies in a row. With each defeated enemy releasing a potent array of colour and shapes, when you’re on a longer ‘streak’ the screen can cross the inevitable boundry between a Jackson Pollock painting and an all-night rave.

For a game, dedicated to reaction times and quick, committed judgement calls, it’s a good job that the controls are tight, responsive and simple. In fact the only time when I came into problems was during the first boss fight where you can’t rely upon your usual momentum and instead must change direction constantly. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, yet if you jump backwards instead of first facing the correct direction, you will leap about half of the expected distance, a potential problem when you can’t clearly see your character due to the myriad of on-screen effects. All of which can be exasperated when you factor in that there are no checkpoints, but conversely, you will rarely have to replay more than a couple of minutes should you succumb to the ensuing darkness.

Helpfully breaking up the pace are the bosses, some often pose not only a different kind of threat, but also can change the game up entirely, as is the case of the second boss encounter where the largely un-adhered to rulebook, is once again ignored and the game instead takes the form of a 2D overhead shooting battle, with a dragon, that was once a little girl. Obviously.

_bmUploads_2014-01-28_8494_Stage 1-1_1391170507

Whilst it might not be the longest game available, you’re better off looking at Short Peace as a package. The game itself, despite how actually engaging it can be, is not the focal point, it’s the fantastic movies that enthral the most and will be the games largest draw. The artwork is sublime and the comic book stylised effects during the in-game cutscenes work well. Despite the game’s spoken language being entirely in Japanese, the subtitles aren’t too intrusive yet they can however disappear fairly quickly, especially the hints. The odd sense of humour retains its quintessentially Japanese appeal, with loading screen messages murmuring about various restraints in development and the like!

Short Peace is not without its fair share of faults however, its short length is a little problematic and not entirely excusable, even with the replay value in beating stage times and collecting secrets such as artwork and costumes. For the most part, the load times are great; if you fail a stage, the retry screen is quick and painless to appear, for some reason however, if you select the extras screen from the main menu, it can seem like an eternity before something happens. There are also some great scenes on the XMB video section when you have the disc inserted that can be potentially easy to miss if, like I did, you assumed they’d be in the game’s menus somewhere.

In truth, Short Peace is going to be a subjective matter for most. Those who’ll appreciate it will relish its accompaniment to the saga. On the other hand, those who have had no experience of the source material will not only be greatly bemused, but also presented with what could in essence, be a very highly polished mobile game, albeit with fantastic presentation, engaging cutscenes and slick, responsive controls.

Storm of Vengeance has already been available to play on mobile for quite a while now but now it’s available on PC too. From my experience the transition from mobile to PC is pretty difficult to get right. More often than not you end up with a game that costs more than its mobile counterpart that looks nice but essentially runs on hardware that far exceeds the game’s requirements. And whilst that is the case Storm of Vengeance comes in at only £6.99 on Steam, which is actually pretty reasonable. But anyway, onwards to the gameplay.

The basics are similar to PopCap’s fantastic Plants Vs Zombies which is certainly not a bad game to be compared with. There are five lanes and at the end of each you can deploy a building which produces cards that represent units for you to deploy in those lanes. You also have to consider generating Storm of Vengeance’s primary resource – ‘manpower’ for the Dark Angels and ‘Teef’ for the Orks. It’s fine having loads of unit cards to deploy but that doesn’t help you much if you can’t afford any of them.

gretchin_rush

So there is an element of planning and strategy to be had but with only five lanes it’s very easy to find balances and tactics that work every time. After learning the basics and playing a few levels I found that the same tactics would be useful for me long into the future. There were certain levels were the balancing act was a little tricky but selling a building and deploying a new one soon got things back on track. I would have preferred the resource acquisition to be a more difficult balancing act but there’s only so much we can expect from a lane defence game. If we’d had more lanes though that would work nicely. Considering both teams would have more of everything balancing would be minimal but the game would require more thought as to what buildings to place in those lanes.

But unfortunately that’s not the case and those tactics I mentioned using very early on are just as relevant at the end of the game. It’s a shame really that there isn’t room in Storm of Vengeance for that sense of increasing challenge that keeps things fresh because I thoroughly enjoyed my first few hours. And I got pretty hooked, largely because of upgrades that you unlock by completing missions. But just like your tactics your upgrades will reach maturity long before you complete the campaign.

And the campaign can feel a little repetitive. The written speeches that serve to move the plot forwards soon lost my attention; but admittedly that was mainly because I just wanted to get back into the action. And again the limits of a lane defence title hindered things from moving forwards. Each area is very similar with only a few changes to the background but no alterations to the gameplay.

doomed_gretchin

Once your done with the Dark Angels, who you will likely play as first, you can then move onto the Orks. Refreshingly they are surprisingly different from the Space Marines. Resources have different names and buildings but work almost the same – however units are different even beyond the obvious. The extent of Ork military strategy is ‘more units is betta’ while a few Dark Angels stomp about killing hordes of Orks. The simple, but expensive, upgrade system of the Marines is replaced by a frantic, fast paced and largely disposable system. The variation between the factions is impressive considering the limitations of the mobile origins of the game and it’s lane defence genre.

But it’s so frustrating that I unlocked all the upgrades so early. You have access to all the units very quickly. I can’t understand why there wasn’t a whole host of upgrades and units to unlock. The main reason I played for as long as I did was to level up and acquire unlocks but with only a handful of units and four upgrades for each it doesn’t last long. There are so many untapped units from the Warhammer 40K universe it’s criminal. Perhaps it’s out of the scope of Storm of Vengeance but tanks, bikes and Terminators instantly spring to mind and my Warhammer knowledge is rather dated now.

Storm of Vengeance is great fun and a decent addition to the underused lane strategy genre. Unfortunately it doesn’t follow through into the late game, or even mid game, with upgrades and units to acquire but rather lets itself stagnate all too quickly. The same goes for the strategy elements to the game that become simple and repetitive very early on.

ghaz_vs_dreadnought

With more units and upgrades there would have been way more to keep me interested. They wouldn’t even need to be all that clever. Just simple things like more unit health or faster resource generation would have given me something to aim for. And more lanes would definitely increase the capacity for strategy in a game like this.

So Storm of Vengeance is a lane strategy game that sadly has far too little strategy and not enough to keep you coming back. I certainly enjoyed my brief time with Storm of Vengeance although I wish it had been less brief. There’s certainly a feel that this is still a mobile game and that’s certainly where it belongs. As a PC title Storm of Vengeance needs quite a bit more content to be considered fully fledged, but it’s still a briefly enjoyable strategy game with Space Marines and Orks killing each other, and that’s fine by me.

Once again Traveller’s Tales have been hard at work and have delivered us yet another Lego game; in this instalment, it’s time to revisit Middle Earth and see what our Hobbit friend Bilbo has been up to with a gang of uninvited dwarfs and something about a dragon…

BarrelSequence-LegoHobbit-Screenshots

As per usual in the Lego gaming franchise, the general format hasn’t changed too much; anyone who’s even so much as glanced at a friend playing, will know exactly what to expect. You’ll smash everything in sight, solve some tame puzzles and collect more than you’ve ever collected before, especially so with the new crafting system in place. Setting the tone of the film rather nicely, you’ll find that you don’t actually come into contact with any enemies for around the first hour of quests; instead, you’ll be given a brief rundown of what the narrative entails followed by playing host to a rambunctious crowd of hungry Dwarfs.

As in true Lego fashion, you’ll find yourself playing through the film(s) most memorable and action packed scenes in only the way Traveller’s Tales know how. Breaking up the pace and not letting you get too worn out with the same task has always been their speciality. You’ll battle hordes of enemies, solve puzzles, do some sneaking and take on boss battles, all whilst taking a Warhammer to the scenery of course. You’re never left doing the same thing for an extended period of time and this translates to the free roam too. Upon completion of its approximately 6-7 hour campaign, you’re given free reign of Middle Earth to wander the plains, villages and mountains as whomever you please. It’s oddly satisfying wandering about Bree as a glowing Sauron, more so when the villagers don’t take up arms and instead (this time around) leave you about your business! I often find the post-game of Lego titles to be somewhat therapeutic, slowly and methodically working your way through the collectibles, and of course, amassing a Dwarf shaming fortune of studs can be incredibly addictive too.

On top of studs, bricks of differing colours, envelopes, minikits and equippable items, you’ll also find yourself chasing down baguettes, gems and planks of wood. Before, when crafting something at the blacksmith, you were only really required to part ways with your precious Mithril/silver bricks, now you must also pony up some crafting materials. Whilst there are also some points in the main story where you must give up your hard earned fish and rope to progress, anything they require will be lootable in the area. It’s a potentially interesting system as it could make you prioritise something over another, but in reality, when you’re destroying everything in sight; it just means scampering after something other than studs.

Buddy-UpThrow-LegoHobbit-Screenshots

Due to the rather unsurprising fact that we already have had a Lego Lord of the Rings game, you’d be forgiven for asking ‘what’s different?’ It turns out, quite a lot. As it follows the first two Hobbit films, locations are inevitably revisited, but it also means that others are added. Whilst you may have had your fill of Lego Rivendell in the past, you also won’t have dipped your toes in Lake Town either. Some of the characters jump roster and bring along with them, their unique brick-hunting traits, others are mostly new. Again, the character selection screen is overfilled with the same, repeated set, with younger or older versions often filling in the blanks. I don’t mind that there are characters repeated, but it would be nice to have all repeats on the same slot and be able to cycle between them using the right thumbstick for example. When you’re pawing through the screen looking for a specific ability of a dwarf, especially when so many of them look so alike, it can be frustrating to have to look through each one until their board placement is memorized. Due to the bewilderingly similar sounding names, I ended up making my own nicknames to help locate them on the character selection screen. ‘Russian with hat’ is what I went with for the mining ability, ‘Aragorn with green shirt’ for the bow and arrow, and ‘Not quite full ginger beard’ for the largely useless (but hilariously animated) belly bounce.

Other new changes spring up over the course of the game, the ability to ‘buddy up’ with another dwarf to create more firepower, making it especially useful against bosses, or when you just want to re-enact a chaotic version of ring around the roses. Stacking is now a way for the Dwarfs to help each other reach higher places, essentially, they stand on top of one another, and someone else climbs up them. Dwarven ingenuity over simple Elvish leaping they might say, with a mead soaked beard.

Sarumon1-LegoHobbit-Screenshots

Whilst most things have taken a turn for the better, there is still room for improvement however. The camera, although greatly improved from the past titles, can still get stuck; no matter how much you scream at it or shunt the right thumbstick, it will stay resolute. Another constant ache is the auto targeting with ranged characters in combat. All will seem fine and dandy until Gandalf, for all of his wisdom, will completely ignore the target and start incessantly casting spells at the nearest plant, something that came to fruition during a boss fight alongside another, rather more nature loving, wizard. My final criticism being one that had my brow furrowed throughout, the issue of the disappearing blocks. I know that it would look ridiculous to have an item you’ve smashed to smithereens instantaneously vanish from existence the moment it’s broken, but don’t scatter the (still rendered) pieces at my feet and then not let me walk freely through them. Countless times I have had to sit and wait for the pieces to disappear before continuing on and breaking the next set of objects; when studs disappear after a while, it can feel unnecessarily hampering.

In terms of presentation, a Lego game has never looked so good, the lighting is impressive, the animations appear to have been spruced up and the studs are shinier than ever. As always, it can be fun to see how they’ve made certain major enemies and locations out of Lego, shortly followed by grumbling and wishing you had Lego like this when you were young! The music and voice work are understandably stellar, especially from a series such as this, you would expect nothing less. Menus are slick and fast; changing characters is no longer a chore as the loading times have been drastically reduced across the board, making exploring and hunting for bricks, that much more seamless.

Never ones for dramatically breaking the mould, Traveller’s Tales have once again cornered the market in fully licenced, accessible fun. If you like the franchise it’s based upon, buy the game.

During your time on Invizimals you will play as a character called Hiro. It seems he works for a secret organization that send him through a portal into another world inhabited by talking animals – Invizimals. On your travels you will meet many such creatures each of which sport their own abilities to help Hiro travel around the world. Although you have to ‘prove’ yourself first by fighting them in a brief QTE scene. After you’ve beaten them up they let you take their powers so you can transform into them at will. OK, why not?

1

Collecting small floating orbs called ‘Z sparks’ essentially acts as currency for you to spend on upgrading your creature’s abilities – and unlocking the occasional secret door. Sadly each creature only has three heavy attacks and three ‘special’ moves for you to acquire. The difference between the heavy attacks is minimal and basically will just allow you to choose between a weaker attack that you can use more frequently and a more powerful one that you can use less.

On top of that you can only unlock them in order so to acquire a final move you must first acquire the five before it. Also there is an unbelievable abundance of z-sparks and you will have more than enough to purchase upgrades almost, if not, immediately after you acquire a new creature. There are a few ‘secret’ areas that allow you to briefly get off the main path but not enough to make for any decent exploration. So considering you’re never really in need of extra sparks there is very little incentive to go searching even if you do have the option.

There’s no other way to put it, the combat is rigid and repetitive. And time and time again I would get stuck on tiny pieces of uneven ground, unable to attack, reduced to mashing the jump button until I was free from my invisible prison. Even when things go right it’s a case of pushing square until the enemies die. You can throw in a heavy attack if you want but there’s no need. All this can be done without ever taking noticeable damage because enemies are far too forgiving. They’re so slow it becomes difficult to actually get them to attack you. And even if they do you’ll take minimal damage.

5

Unfortunately there’s not much else to it. You do some clunky platforming, you collect some sparks, you fight what may as well be a dummy and you start again. It takes very little time to get thoroughly bored on Invizimals. And the knowledge that it doesn’t get any more varied or interesting ensures any enthusiasm you may have dies long before you reach the end.

On the plus side the environments that surround your adventure are vibrant and colourful. Even though the combat is reduced to repetitively pressing a single button at least the areas give you something to look at. Considering the scope of the rest of the game there are even some surprisingly good looking moments. Sadly they are hindered by a fixed camera which varies between frustrating and game-breaking, especially during some of the already clunky platforming the camera can be a death sentence. Nobody wants to replay sections from a checkpoint just because the camera flips and you sarcastically walk of a ledge to your doom.

Every part of Invizimals feels cheap and poorly put together. That’s possibly unfair given the game’s budget but the final product is plagued by problems that shouldn’t be present on a PS3. Fixed cameras, unresponsive platforming and rigid combat sour Invizimals so much that it becomes very difficult to enjoy any part of the game. And even if you let yourself enjoy the gameplay briefly you will likely become bored quickly.

It’s difficult to imagine someone painstakingly spending months making sure Invizimals is the best it could be. The whole game feels rushed and put together directly from a last-gen platformer tick list. There’s no need for the patronisingly simple ‘puzzles’ and lack of threat during combat. The more than formidable selection of Lego games have proved time and time again that using simple mechanics a game can be packed with stuff to do and appeal to gamers of any age.

6

The only real victory for Invizimals are the graphics. Both the environments and the Invizimals themselves look surprisingly good. So too do the cutscenes that are dotted about to move the dubious plot onwards. But scratch the surface even lightly and the illusion is broken. Nothing in Invizimals feels anywhere near what other platformers currently offer. Apart from those who are big fans of Invizimals it’s hard to see who would get enjoyment from The Lost Kingdom. It feels so dated and rushed it’s difficult to even get deep enough into the game to allow the fixed camera and turgid combat and platforming to ruin your experience. And unfortunately there’s no fun in upgraded and acquiring new moves because they’re all handed over to us like we couldn’t cope without the game’s charity.

Without an original thought or design idea Invizimals: The Lost Kingdom comes off as generic as possible. It’s difficult to care about a game that seems to have been made without care. The Lost Kingdom just seems like the product of market research rather than because a developer had a good idea for a game.

Tecmo Koei’s long running Dynasty Warrior franchise returns with the new complete edition of it’s eighth iteration. Featuring the standalone game along with added extras thrown in, can this re-release justify a purchase from those who may have already wrung Dynasty Warriors 8 dry?

sc21L

Much akin to the previous entries in the Dynasty Warriors saga, the tales revolve around separate narrative arks involving different Chinese factions and their subsequent warlords. With each campaign offering individual, unalike scenarios and events, there could be a long and poignant story to work through, providing you can cope with confusing exposition and comical voice work. A seasoned veteran of the franchise will know exactly what to expect here, the plucky newcomers however, will find themselves lost and out of their depth almost instantaneously due to the verbatim on offer. Fortunately, there is a codex style section to brush up on your potentially embellished ancient lore.

The gameplay holds true to its (repetitive) roots and will not surprise anyone at all versed in the art of mashing buttons. For the uninitiated, Dynasty Warrior games revolve around the concept of territory control; progression is performed by slaughtering swathes of enemies, leaders and bosses. Take out the higher ranked opponents, and the number of enemies in that area should diminish, letting your armada of goons push ever forward. With each map capable of holding upward of a thousand enemy ragdolls in total, in theory, there should never be a dull moment. In practice, things are a little different.

Without any true combos to learn and master, it devolves into alternating between heavy and light attacks depending on which set of animations you want to see at the time. Enemy grunts may as well lie down on the floor upon your approach as they pose little to no purpose apart from raising the addictive KO count in the corner of the screen. Bosses work a little differently as they are essentially the same as you. They can wield large area attacks, relentlessly pursue you and can often swing the tide of battle. The combat opens up slightly here as the new weapon fusion system allows you to bring along another weapon. Aside from the satisfaction/hilarity of beating down wave after wave of enemies with a scroll of paper, their potential elemental affinities can play a pivotal role in boss encounters. Bringing a weapon with an opposing affinity to a boss fight and you’ll likely wipe the floor with them, if you don’t have that luxury, be prepared to learn and master juggling and chaining attacks, especially on the higher difficulties. Whilst the bosses were indeed more intense, they can often break the pace if you let them fall to the ground as your attacks will not register until they spring to their feet. Whilst it would be infuriating if they could do that to you, a lot of the earlier battles entailed the exciting premise of me knocking them over, me flailing fruitlessly and me getting hit once they’d finally dragged themselves up and were ready to get knocked back down, again.

sc20L

Luckily, that’s not quite as far as the combat extends, there are also ‘super’ moves that will deal tremendous damage; are of course, only available once a certain gauge is filled. Another move/mode, instantly familiar to any other third person hack and slash game being the timed, ‘suddenly I’m way more powerful than I was before, only I can’t sustain it for long’ one, where attacks are more deadly, gauges can be filled and devastating attacks can be unleashed. Once earned, they can be unleashed at any point and can be a lifesaver. Especially with the threat of potentially having to restart the entire battle from scratch.

Repetition is certainly a key aspect to get over when playing Xtreme Legends, and while it may come down to performing the same moves over and over again, you do get constantly rewarded and encouraged by the game. Item drops, including new weapons are frequent and relatively unique, and are often great fun to experiment with, such was the scroll of incomprehensible death I wielded for quite some time. Levels come thick and fast at the start, earning you new abilities to equip before combat; all this is before the frankly ridiculous amount of playable characters on offer which, due to the expansion, takes it up to a staggering 82. Needless to say, if you’re prepared to put the time in, you’ll be rewarded with many, many hours of content.

It’s shift to the PS4 is of course a welcome and progressive step, it’s just a shame it doesn’t at all make use of the extra grunt on offer. Whilst there is a clear leap in framerate performance, the draw distance is under par and enemies that are even slightly out of your remit present a disappointingly muddy blur. The special moves and animations look pretty enough, but it’s nothing you won’t have seen done better before. Hopefully the next full release will start to push the hardware a little further and we’ll see what we all envision from a game like this.

sc22L

If you have played the original to death, unfortunately, you won’t find all that much new content however. Aside from (almost) humanising the newly playable and frighteningly powerful Lu Bu in his own storyline and adding some additional Fantasy Battles to whet your ‘what if’ palette, there isn’t much to draw you back in. If you did skip Dynasty Warriors 8 however, this is without doubt, the definitive version.

Much like other franchises in the same scenario: Call of Duty, Need for Speed and Assassins Creed to name but a few, Dynasty Warriors have found themselves trapped inside an inescapable, spiralling rut. On the one hand, their formulaic approach to advancement and reticence to major change will appease the hardcore fans, yet it can often split decisions on those all important ‘middle fencers’. Whilst the same basic mechanics will have to still apply for fear of alienating their loyal devotees, evolving to encompass a greater audience must also take precedence for it to realise it’s potential.

In theory The Elder Scrolls Online has the potential to take all the greatest parts of the Elder Scroll’s single player experience and basically add a massive world full of people around it. And lets be fair if Bethesda know one thing it’s how to make colossal environments.

Another thing it’s fair to say is Bethesda have a pretty good handle on classes and abilities. So the first thing you’ll be doing is creating your character. There are three allegiances to pick from; the Aldmeri Dominion, the Ebonheart Pact or the Daggerfall Covenant and each has certain races assigned to it (unless you get a pre-purchase bonus which allows you to choose freely). After choosing a name for your character and sifting through the vast amount of customization available you’ll get to choose a class.

28b6ce40d343a3f2ab

There’s four to choose from and I am pleased to say they are refreshingly different from each other. Without spoiling the surprise for those who haven’t looked yet each class has three disciplines which in turn have six usable abilities, one ‘ultimate’ move and four passives. And then if you level a move up enough you can pick a specialisation to add another effect to that move. Then there’s the usual Elder Scrolls single handed, double handed, bow, shield, three types of armour and many, many more. It’s ridiculous. I thought Skyrim had impressive class systems but it’s nothing compared with what’s on offer in Elder Scrolls Online.

And none that I have tried feel even vaguely similar. You really get a sense that each class is unique and has its own strengths and weaknesses. Even though you could potentially learn all of the standard Elder Scrolls abilities with one character each individual will still be different because of their class choice. Oh and did I mention that each race also comes with another set of unique passive abilities. It really is something to behold.

After I spent what felt like a week customizing my character I actually went to play the game and after a brief cutscene found myself in an environment familiar to any Elder Scrolls fan, prison. But have no fear! The prisons in Tamriel, or even on an Oblivion plane as in this case, are surprisingly lax. You’ll travel around, choose a starting weapon and get a feel for how things are going to go in general. Talk to this person, find this item, kill this thing and talk to someone else. It’s methodical and slightly generic but still satisfyingly progressive. Also Michael Gambon lends his voice which is always a good thing – although sometimes it’s difficult not to picture Dumbledore which is annoying. Also, was that John Cleese playing the mental old hermit sat on a bench?

55fc7938d6fc169cb2

Thankfully the prison section doesn’t take too long and your unleashed to go and explore the world at your leisure. Despite the usual MMO nonsense that is inevitable to the starting area things look nice – just look past the monkeys, horses and the odd rogue mage unsuccessfully attempting to set fire to a bush. But I didn’t get that feeling I got when I first stepped out of the vault in Fallout and my eyes adjusted to the harsh light. Or the unrelenting freedom that Skyrim imposed from square one with trees and mountains trailing off as far as the eyes can see, or at least as far as your graphics card can handle anyway.

For an MMO Elder Scrolls online looks great, really great. But had they made an offline experience for PC, PS4 and the X1 it would look vastly superior. It’s the first time I really felt that the fact I was online hindered my experience. And truth be told it’s only really a niggle because I’m sure any RPG fan will agree that some of the best ever haven’t been great lookers. And ironically the main reason I felt slightly underwhelmed is only because of how overwhelming previous Elder Scrolls games have been. Plus given the scale of the world and the amount of people running around without hindering my performance Elder Scrolls certainly doesn’t look bad.

Sadly the questing falls into the standard MMO trap of endless fetch quests but they are intertwined both with Elder Scroll’s lore and ever expanding quest trees. It’s never quite as simple as finding an item and returning it to someone. There’s always another task and another NPC to talk to. It’s what made questing offline in previous Elder Scrolls great and fortunately nothing has changed. The same is true for the dialogue of NPC’s too. It seems that everybody has a recorded line even if they really don’t need to. Combined with the menagerie of real people clambering around, Tamriel has never felt so populated.

But we mustn’t let that population grow too much so we get to the combat. On your travels there are more than enough random enemies spawning to quench your thirst for blood. Combat will be familiar to anyone who’s played Elder Scrolls before. The usual walking backwards as maniacal AI decides whether it should either rush you head on or cast an ability before rushing you head on makes a return. But there are so many abilities at your command that you have quite a few options in combat even if you’re fighting alone. Somehow even though it’s quite repetitive when you really look at it it’s fun, rewarding and addictive. And tricky too. If you get into a fight with more than two enemies at your own level you are likely to be in trouble. One-on-one combat is usually not very taxing but you have to stay on your toes to make sure you don’t get ambushed.

71583963e5ae546fb8

So I must come to a conclusion, which I found difficult. As an MMORPG Elder Scrolls Online is great and by far the best I’ve been on. It has a vast world to explore and every inch is packed with things to do. There are so many abilities and levels to earn that the impressive amount of quests is almost unnecessary. Also NPC’s are entirely voiced and even Michael Gambon makes an appearance as one of the key plot characters. Combat is the usual Elder Scroll’s affair but imbued with all the abilities and skills on offer remains interesting, fresh and highly addictive long into your journey.

The only problem I have is missing out on the things that a new offline Elder Scrolls would offer. But really the only thing that would bring is superior graphics and a world that isn’t broken up into manageable chunks. And less monkeys running about. Considering the advantages of being online I’d say its definitely worth it. As an exercise in blending the best of offline and online Bethesda have succeeded spectacularly.

Konami and Hideo Kojima return once again to deliver upon us another bewildering and, most likely, convoluted tale involving acronyms, confusing character names and sneaking.

mgsvgz_ss_game_005

Acting as a sequel to the PSP hit, ‘Peace Walker’ and a prologue to the as of yet unreleased ‘Phantom Pain’ , Ground Zeroes could well have the more casual fans already scratching their heads. Especially considering the games built-in backstory which consists of around eleven paragraphs of heavy text that will go straight over the head of anyone unfamiliar with Peace Walker, which to be fair, could encompass quite a few people. After assuring yourself that things will pick up soon; that everything will probably be explained by the opening scenes, you’ll once again become nonplussed. Essentially it’s an extraction mission inside a heavily defended camp called Omega. Big Boss’s job is to infiltrate the base, determine the status of Paz Ortega; to extract him if alive, or confirm if he’s deceased. For the people that understand and follow the heavy lore involved, there will be a reasonable amount to sink your fangs into, for everyone else, try Wikipedia!

In contrast to previous entries in the series, Ground Zeroes is a fully fledged, open sandbox to gad about in. In keeping with this theme, other alterations have also been applied to fit in with the new style, some of which feel fairly progressive and suit the intended transition. Gone are the radar and the constant codec interruptions, they’ve been replaced by a snazzy pair of binoculars and a map which you must equip. As a trade-off for not being able to view enemy lines of sight and direction, instead, you can now tag enemies through the binoculars, making their positions visible at a quick glance around the screen. Enemy movements can also show up through walls once you’re in a given vicinity, hopefully, giving you time to either prepare an assault, or make a sneaky retreat. The replacement system for the codec, instead functions as a form of hint system; whilst aiming through the binoculars, your request might give off general hints such as describing what you’re looking at, or for instance, the affiliation of the enemy guards.

The gameplay itself still holds true to the Metal Gear ethos, being that you can either go full on stealth; not even subduing anyone, or go in completely the other direction and hop in a BTR to wreak havoc and destruction. The camp is filled with everything from patrolling trucks to catch a ride in, to hidden weapon stashes filled with goodies. You can hold up guards and attempt to wring some juicy information out of them, or you can lather the AA turrets with bricks of C4 for an explosive distraction. Taking the AA guns out in fact can help extraction, as you must call in a helicopter to one of a few designated positions, most of which, are heavily defended. The last thing you need when you’ve got a blabbering mission asset slung across your back, creeping through the velvet shadows, is to have to deal with extraction. Planning is paramount for a stealthy score.

gz_ss_dejavu_007

Whilst obviously intended for multiple playthroughs, you may well get frustrated a few times on your first venture into the camp due to the lack of information you have regarding the sometimes unpredictable enemy AI. With the lack of radar sightlines, you’re left with skulking through brushes, wincing as an unexpected guard saunters past. Sometimes he might see you, others, he won’t. If they’re on alert however, they’ll not only call for reinforcements, but break off their original patrolling route and ascend towers, man searchlights and scour your previously known location. When this happens, it’s usually best to run as fast as your little legs can handle and try to  hide prone somewhere. One good thing being that you can often manage to evade death and/or tortuous capture due to the large map and the new system: reflex.

Reflex is something that could well split opinion between the hardcore fans, essentially, once spotted, the game will enter slow motion; you have an opportunity to take out the guard that spotted you before he calls or radios for help. Whilst you can turn it off in the options if you’re up for an elitist session, it plays into the cinematic feel beautifully. When you are seconds from extraction, sprinting down a thin muddy path adorning a cliff edge, suddenly spinning around and silencing an alerted guard with a perfect headshot in slow motion before leaping at the waiting chopper feels pretty good. It’s not necessarily easy to do depending upon the equipped weapon, but it does give that same satisfaction of the newer Splinter Cell executions when it finally all goes your way.

The notoriously clunky and mind boggling controls have been refined this time around too. CQC is dealt with by a single (often brutal) trigger press. Aiming and firing is a far cry from the old, ‘press square to aim, release it to fire’ setup of yesteryear; although you can be fairly accurate, patience is still king. Get in an all-out fire fight on Ground Zeroes and you’ll likely win, partly due to the occasionally shocking AI which will often try to bum rush you into submission, essentially tripping over their fallen comrades bodies in an attempt to flush you out. That and headshots being fairly easy to get in the above scenario. Aside from the whole, ‘you’re not doing it properly if you get spotted’ mentality that can overcome us whilst playing, there are other side effects too. Not only will there likely be an increased presence of guards for the remainder of the mission, but also the suppressors on your weapons will degrade pretty quickly, making later silent takedowns, much more of a pain.

mgsvgz_ss_game_003

Onto the controversial topic, the length to value for money ratio. There’s no skirting around it, Ground Zeroes is short, very short. My first playthrough took me 86 minutes. I know, I’m grimacing as I’m writing this. It’s saving grace is that once you’ve completed it, you’ll start unlocking side missions, weapons and audio diary type collectibles, so whilst you may (understandably) be disappointed with the initial length, you’ll return to the main menu and notice you’re hovering around 8% completion. Whilst that may very well be a great incentive to replay the game, increase your score and take a stab at increasing that percentage, for most, the completion time shock will be enough for some to consider turning the game off. When I say side missions, I wouldn’t exactly get your hopes up for those either. The first I, admittedly poorly, attempted involved a Hitman style execution of two guards, they weren’t pinpointed on the map; instead I had to hunt them down in a vaguely marked area. Annoyingly, a guard managed to spot me through a wall, just before the target had apparently moved to across the other side of the camp. Cheers, timely intel guys. Either way, I had just managed to catch up to him when I was informed that my other target was fleeing the area, this preceded a very sarcastic cutscene of a Humvee quite casually driving off. Mission failed. Not only do all the side missions take place in the same map (at day time instead of night), but it’s the ho hum objectives that bore the most. For all they’ve accomplished over the years, could they not have thought of a more inventive main mission than, carry a person to extraction, then, do it again? It would have played out better had all the missions been available in the same scenario, letting you pick at the time what priorities you hold.

No Metal Gear Solid moniker would be complete without cutting edge graphics, excellent direction and those instantly recognisable footstep sound effects in cutscenes. Needless to say, Ground Zeroes doesn’t disappoint in any regard here. Camp Omega is stunning, the lighting sublime and the character animation fantastic. Kiefer Sutherland does a great job as David Hayter’s successor, adding a much needed burst of humanisation. Even if for the first few hours you can’t get Jack Bauer out of your head!

For what is one of the all time greatest franchises in gaming history, Ground Zeroes has certainly made a name for itself already, just not exclusively the most flattering ones. More of a playground for the devotees and a mere taste of what to expect with Phantom Pain than a fully fledged title, Ground Zeroes is to Metal Gear Solid as GT Prologue was to Gran Turismo.

If you often feel as though you aren’t being punished enough for simply progressing through a game’s storyline of late, then rejoice! From Software is back to give us all another kick in the gaming teeth with the successor to Dark Souls. Is it time to buy a few ‘backup’ controllers or have they finally relinquished and pandered to the masses?

771_Sc006_S0017.00_0039

No, of course not! Whilst it certainly eases you in a little more gently, Dark Souls II still packs a wallop if you attempt to play it like any other game. As in any other scenario, as soon as I gained control of my character, (after what looked like an incredibly high budget and impressive intro scene) I attempted to explore the wilderness stretching out before me. It wasn’t long before I’d found my first enemy, a giant troll looking character that, inevitably, beat me into submission several soul crushing times before I conceded defeat and ruefully went about my business following the implied ‘proper’ way to go. From then on, it was a lot easier, there were instructions to heed, little notes informing you of the controls and many susceptible enemies in weak, vulnerable formations that don’t really occur ever again. I savoured this bit, whilst it lasted. Yet as much as I tried to put it off, there’s death to be dealt on both sides; it wasn’t going to be settled here.

After some nervous foraging and a visit to a disparate warrior complaining nervously about a stone statue blocking the path, I arrived in the hub town of Majula. A place with several branching paths, an unnervingly large pit complete with visible treasure, and a merchant selling a ring to reduce fall damage. I didn’t trust him or the pit, so I left. Oddly serene, Majula instantly felt welcoming due to it’s soft, never-ending sunset and mostly safe setting, save for a few small, surprisingly aggressive pig resembling creatures. One cheeky hint I will point out is that there is a very helpful woman who resides here, talk to her, as it’s the only place where you may level up, and don’t forget to return to her fairly regularly as I did for the first few hours!

Veterans of the series will know exactly what to expect in terms of the combat mechanics, every move and decision you make during combat, even against the lesser foes, could spell disaster. It’s all about learning your opponents patterns and exploiting their occasionally wonky AI with your own timing and stamina management. Bosses are of their own unique styles and of course, posses challenges far beyond what you’ve come to face. Once you finally manage to slay one however, the elation is incomparable, until, much like many other RPG’s, they turn up as ‘normal’ enemies… Unlike previous entries, Dark Souls II runs at a stable, if not slightly underwhelming due to the newer consoles hardware, 30fps. Fortunately for us, this means less screaming at the game when it used to diddle us out of a few crucial frames during a particularly vicious battle in the past. Now if you die, it’s very likely it’s your own impatient fault!

3386_DualSwords

A few noticeable changes have been implemented that may split opinion between fans, yet combined, probably makes the game better as a whole. The first being that whilst resting at a camp fire, you can fast travel to any other unlocked camp fire without any form of payment nor punishment. The only reason this works, is due to the layout of the world map, before you might have been funnelled down a particularly linear route, whereas now, there are often different routes to travel and explore. Plus it makes the frequent returns to Manjula significantly less dull! A second change, one more in keep with the franchise, is that numerous deaths will whittle away at your maximum health bar, up to 50% in fact; to replenish that lost health, you’ll have to use a human effigy, which are rare. The third debatable point, assumedly a counter to the second, being that you can quell the amount of enemies in an area by repeatedly beating them to a pulp; whilst some may argue against this, I’ll take it. The last thing you need whilst stuck on an already, inherently difficult boss, is to either attempt to kill the horde of enemies along the way, or attempt to leg it past them, each and every time. For those, still on the fence regarding the controlled respawns, there is an item just for you that you can burn at a camp fire which will spawn more deadly variants to battle.

Whilst a player new to the series is always going to experience difficulties with a game like this, certain design choices don’t help along the way either. The menus, whilst archaic in looks, are filled with many, many stats that are going to go straight over most newcomers heads. Alongside this, items you acquire and come across are not named in any relative fashion to what you might expect of a traditional RPG. During the create a character stage, you are offered to pick one item from a list of gifts, most of which, inevitably sound useless yet presumably have a hidden function, accessible later in the game. I appreciate that the Dark Souls series has a reputation to uphold, but increasing the user base must also be of a benefit? I for one, would not be put off via the sheer difficulty of the game itself, but rather having to spend a few hours looking up what each item does, when you can use it and why.

Print 1

Majula’s serene, almost brightly lit, setting is also in keep with some pretty rough, enemy riddled areas however. Unlike the dark, brooding lighting of the previous games, rightfully indicating a dangerous route, you’ll find many a danger lurks in broad daylight; as such however much it makes you feel safer, you should always be on your guard. One annoyance in particular is related to the largely redundant torch, as in the earlier stages of the game, it recommends you take it into darker locations; it will even ward off some enemy types. The downside of course being that you must use your offhand to equip it, therefore sacrificing a shield or another weapon. The problem being, is that the majority of the game is quite adequately lit; in fact for the majority, it’s too well lit and as such I never really found a good reason to break it out. Whilst I’m of course grateful of having a shield on hand at all times, it would have been an interesting dynamic to have to balance your effectiveness of exploration and defence a step further.

Online play, once again makes it’s return with players able to invade other peoples games, help them out or just add a further source of difficulty. The written notes also make a return, either signifying danger or, depending on the player, giving ‘helpful’ hints to others. Entering a certain covenant can also help protect you against these threats should the need arise, or you can play in offline mode to help limit game invasions, at the downside of missing out on what can make this franchise so unique.

Due to it being developed on the previous gen, it’s understandable that the graphics aren’t going to provide too many wow factors yet despite this, not only does the opening cutscene look as through it’s been ripped straight from a blockbuster film in terms of awe and effects, but the art styling is of a higher class than most. It must be hard to come up with original locales and monsters but this seems like something From Software excels at, as most areas look fantastic, despite me being painfully aware that it’s not on the new consoles.

Overall, whatever you might think of the Dark Souls series, this game isn’t going to change your opinion. If you’ve played and enjoyed the others, you’ll feel right at home, if not, you’ll feel like you’ve been dragged into hell.

I think during my brief adventure with the Underpants Gnomes, after I had come into contact with Aliens and Nazi Zombies I remember thinking to myself the weird thing is I actually understand what’s going on. So there’s nothing in the plot that’s going to challenge your perceptions or tax your brain to it’s limits but I felt disturbingly comfortable deep in what is probably (and hopefully) the most ridiculous plot gaming has ever seen. I couldn’t help but feel somehow the ludicrous nature of The Stick of Truth made more sense to me than a lot of other games. Then again maybe I just need help.

Review 5

Attacking, using an ability or blocking will require you to press certain buttons at the right time according to visual prompts. For example when attacking your weapon will glint and you can either press ‘square’ once for a power attack for armoured foes or ‘x’ a few times for a standard combo against normal enemies. When blocking, pressing ‘x’ when a shield icon appears at your character’s feet allows you to take about 50% damage and avoid any potential status effects. The buttons and timings for abilities vary depending on the ability being used but essentially it comes down to timing.

It’s actually not that easy and it took me quite a while before I felt comfortable performing actions consistently. It makes sure you’re playing a turn-based RPG but still have something to do. It’s not easy enough that it becomes second nature but not difficult enough that the entire game becomes frustrating or irritating.

All your health and PP is returned at the end of a battle. Yes PP. Power points. You can liberally use your abilities without long term consequences. If you need PP badly you can always use an item once per turn anyway, which doesn’t end your turn. There’s enough going on that you can’t become complacent but The Stick of Truth never forgets that it’s turn-based. It never tries to be a third person action game but instead confidently relies on solid turn-based battle mechanics.

Combat 7

Outside of battle your time is usually divided between finding some of the huge amount of secrets and collectables, buying new items and scouring your way through the menus to customize your appearance and maximize your battle efficiency. The only thing that hinders your exploration are the substandard loading times. Scrolling from one screen to another takes the frame rate down to a grinding halt for a noticeable amount of time and more than enough areas have full loading screens. They’re not that long but you’re always aware that it won’t be long until you see another one. It’s a shame to break the pace of what would otherwise have been an excellent bit of exploration. Luckily it’s well worth enduring the loading.

From the weapons and their associated ‘strap-ons’ to the most unnoticeable of loot everything is a reference to something that happened in South Park. If there’s a single episode that doesn’t have at least one reference or item to pick up I’d be surprised. The constant reminders of past South Park episodes keeps the laughter flowing even when you’re just exploring, collecting loot or even looking through a menu.

They’re clever too, avoiding the temptation to make every reference totally obvious. It’s great to find something and get the reference without having your face shoved in it. And the references don’t stop at South Park. Matt and Trey have shown before some knowledge into the world of gaming, particularly with episodes like ‘Make Love, Not Warcraft’. There’s a constant barrage of gaming references and jokes that show The Stick of Truth actually gets its audience.

For instance one of the final weapons in the game is a ‘Vibroblade’ and is in no way similar to its original appearance in what is probably considered Obsidian Entertainment’s greatest game. A certain loot item is a video game called ‘Shadow of the Cyclopsus’ with a cover we should all recognize. The references aren’t to Call of Duty, Mass Effect or other main stream titles so it doesn’t come off like the embarrassing parent who’s cool because they say the name of a popular video game.

Matt, Trey, Obsidian and Ubisoft know games and it shows in The Stick of Truth; both in the humour and the gameplay. It doesn’t embarrass or patronize and feels exactly as well written as any episode of South Park. If you can get through the entire of The Stick of Truth without at least once laughing and then feeling just a tiny bit disappointed with yourself you’re not human.

The only bit missing is the censored scenes to everywhere apart from America. The press release from Ubisoft claims “7 scenes of about 20 seconds each are censored in the EMEA console versions of South Park: The Stick of Truth. The decision to cut this content from the game was made by Ubisoft EMEA.”

It doesn’t really take anything away from the game and the comments in the replacement frames are genuinely funny. It really isn’t worth getting worked up about and I recommend just playing as if this is the original. Inevitably when something unbelievably horrific happens in the US with a kid mimicking the scenes, blaming the game and sparking a colossal political debate turning people against video games, I think Ubisoft (and many others) will be happy with their decision. I’m just not sure why they feel Europe should be any different from the US. And once you’ve played the game tell me that the final environment isn’t far worse than the censored scenes. And I mean far worse.

Preview 1

Where visuals and audio are concerned everything is top-notch. The audio is totally unconstrained by realism allowing for inexplicable fire and explosions to sound just like they would in any other ‘more serious’ RPG. And visually it looks like South Park. It looks exactly like South Park. But with the addition of the 3D effects that a video game allows there are some pretty epic moments. Probably most impressively you can totally customize your character but he/she doesn’t look even slightly out of place alongside the other characters.

But underpinning the visuals and the laughs is a solid battle mechanic and an environment absolutely packed with stuff to find and do. Weapons, upgrades and character customization items are everywhere. So too are Gnomes, Crab People, The Hankeys and just about everything I can think of from South Park in one form or another. It never feels like a diluted, watered-down version of South Park. And, other than irritating load screens, the entertainment doesn’t stop from square one right to the end. It’s absolutely hilarious to the point where the fact it’s the best turn-based RPG I’ve played in a long time is just icing on the cake. An absolute gem of a game. Encore!

 

Konami are back with Lords of Shadow 2, the sequel to their 2010 Castlevania sleeper hit, and with it, they promise the return of Dracula, a revamped open world structure and enhanced combat mechanics, all drizzled in a modern day setting. Can they deliver on this lofty promise?

How_dare_you_defy_your_master

After waking up, many, many years after the events of the previous games, our hero with a sweet tooth, Gabriel Belmont has got his work cut out. Not only is he still immortal, but Zobek’s back with some friendly ‘help’ to get him back into shape and ready to face Satan. With people still seeking his destruction, our bitey friend Dracula must first regain his powers in order to step up to the challenge. Cue the montage.

After being ‘treat’ in the prologue to control our fully powered up hero, we are, surprise, stripped of all our powers and skills and must regain strength in order to quell Satan’s up rise. Fortunately for us, it let’s us get our hands on some weak enemies for target practice. Whilst being slowly drip fed the truly exciting moves over the course of the game, we still get chance to perfect the basics of dodging, blocking, countering and of course, swinging solidified blood around your head. Although it might partially be screaming God of War, Castlevania’s combat system does still feel unique, moves can be levelled up not only by purchasing upgrades, but by also using combos. You then transfer the progression, in turn powering up your whole skill set, it’s a lot less complicated than I’m making out, but it does increase the rewards for experimenting with different styles.

Along with the blood whip, you will soon get your hands on a pair of gauntlets and a sword to assist in the day to day dispatching of the devils minions. Whilst both have their own separate pools of expendable energy, both can be not only useful in battles, but necessary. The sword, activated via a simple tap of L1, deals less damage but you gain health from each successful hit. The big bad gauntlets, using R1, however not only deal increased damage, but are also invaluable for effectively breaking through enemy shields. Each weapon also has it’s own upgrade tree; although some of the moves are duplicated from the standard weapon, there are also some pretty potent combinations, some of which are deemed worthy of their own cutscene.

belmont_vs_belmont

Whilst it might seem like it’s all slashing, dodging and ripping still beating hearts from the devil-spawns chests, there are distractions along the way to help break up the pace. Lifeless platforming and ‘puzzles’ clog up the downtime between punching a demon and staring down a boss. The mostly linear platforming sections consist of some flapping bats to let you know you can stick to said surface, followed by navigating a pre-set, often mind-boggling route. Depending upon whether or not you followed the main mission marker, you’ll either end up at an easy to reach secret, a secret you can’t get to yet as you don’t have the pre-requisite power or just simply, the way to go. Whilst I love collecting hidden secrets that actually impact my characters progression in some way, wandering the off beaten path for five minutes, on several different occasions, only to discover I can’t further progress that way does put a bit of a downer on the old exploration urge.

If you come at it at a different angle, then there is plenty to still see and do once you’ve gotten some exploration tools; revisiting areas is encouraged, if not explained particularly well. The rotatable camera is more of a mixed blessing than you might initially realise, being able to look at some of the more inspiring artwork and backdrops is nice, but it’s often infuriatingly too far zoomed in to make out much of your surroundings. A fair example being, after a mild platforming test involving swinging chandeliers (of which I’m pretty sure it’s almost impossible to fall off, rendering it ultimately pointless) I turned around to check on my trusty swinging platforms to see many treasures that were not visible before I’d completed my parkour run.

With the consummate ease our ‘hero’ Dracula tears apart demons from hell, of which most comfortably outsize him, it’s a frustrating and lowly experience to have to transmorph into a small pack of rats to slip by a few guards. Admittedly, in their codex style information page, it describes them as wielding indestructible armour; yet if I were Satan, I’d give the order to mass produce that natty material on a pretty wide scale seeing as the feared and fabled Dracula can not even attempt to engage such beings draped in it’s indestructible glory. It’s a little shame that the stealth sections have been implemented quite so poorly as I understand the reason for their inclusion being that he, at the time, was fairly weak and Dracula, by all accounts is a bit of a sneaky bugger. Oh, and if you think the first few sneaking sections feel a little tiresome or unfair, just wait for the bit with the leaves…

I_ll_smash_you_like_a_flea_

The feeling of ambivalence is an irritating one when viewing and listening to Lords of Shadow 2, the facial mapping of our protagonist looks sublime in the cutscene’s closer shots, yet his hair looks as though it has but two moving parts. The look of dreary textures and uninspired locales from the present day are of a complete opposite to some of the vistas and art design sections of the castle. The sound of two of my favourite actors, Patrick Stewart and Robert Carlyle working together in a videogame can scarcely overwhelm some of the generic stilted script asked of them. The menus feel archaic and unintuitive; despite the glaringly intrusive auto save icon appearing slightly off centre of the middle of the screen, cutscene or not, it still makes me wary to quit when there is no ‘exit to main menu’ option for fear of losing progress.

Despite all this, Lords of Shadow 2 is a fun game, when it wants to be. The boss battles are suitably epic, the music can crescendo and roar at all the right moments, there’s replay value, a challenge room, the combat is solid, the map can be explored with the right tools, and on top of all that, it’s around 20 hours long, with a new game plus option. In defiance of Konami’s and MercurySteam’s efforts, Lords of Shadow 2 isn’t for everyone. If you enjoy a good dungeon romp with a more than competent combat system, exciting bosses, more lore than you can engross and you can put up with the horrible stealth sections, some wonky textures and a plot that doesn’t quite deliver, you’re in for a blood sucking good time.

“Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” – Charles Dickens, Bleak House. Okay maybe that was too much. Plus Dickens is describing London and not Thief’s fictitious city but the comparisons are numerable and blatant. And if there’s a better way to describe the mood of Thief I don’t know what it is.

It’s been 10 years since we last saw Garrett, the man who robs from the rich and forgets about the second part because it’s boring, and I for one think he deserves an appropriately brooding introduction. And so does Thief. Wasting no time at all you slip into Garrett’s sneaking shoes and take to the rooftops. After a few pacy gameplay sections and a handful of cutscenes you’re free to explore and/or progress at your will.

ONLINE_240114_ss08_1389627972

Almost immediately you will have the option to go out and complete various side quests or ignore them as you desire. There’s plenty to do and explore in Thief’s city and considering the objectives are usually based around breaking into somewhere and stealing something there is an impressive amount of variation.

In a very early side quest I found myself breaking into a house directly into a bedroom containing a sleeping woman. I left her be and went to work opening drawers, cabinets and picking the lock on her bedside table. Whilst picking the lock it became apparent we weren’t alone. I could see nothing except the cabinet I was attempting to relieve of its contents but so clear where the footsteps that I had no doubt I was about to be rumbled. At which point you must decide to either be quick and run or hide. I hid. And then bludgeoned what later turned out to be the girl’s father unconscious. After the coast was clear I turned to the combination wall safe. To find the combination I needed to find a document and then search the area. I escaped with my objective completed and the woman still deep in slumber.

For a side mission that probably took me about 20 minutes I was so happy. I’d had my fair share of lock picking and earned a decent ‘wage’. I experienced that tenseness only possible in a stealth game. And then I completed a simple puzzle, but one that I figured out myself. The combination wasn’t highlighted in bright colours nor did the safe magically open once my character had ‘read’ the answer. It was brilliant, and in the long run made up such a small part of Thief.

But ironically it’s the side missions that kept me coming back for more. My only real gripe with Thief is that a good portion of the main missions end up with the endless looting of many, many small boxes, cabinets and drawers whereas the side missions tend to break the pace and allow for a little more freedom between looting sessions. Also if you’re not paying close attention it’s very easy to lose the plot. I certainly enjoyed the main missions but they could have done with just a bit more freedom, like the rest of the game.

ONLINE_240114_ss07_1389627969

In-between completing objectives you will need to traverse Thief’s city as an open world. There are tons of small allies, vents to crawl through, gaps to squeeze between and walkways to skulk from. And while all these things make for a fantastically intricate city to navigate they can be very confusing initially. After some time exploring you soon learn where everything is and it’s nice to be rewarded for learning a map’s intricacies but early on it can be a nightmare.

Luckily there is a very able control scheme that hasn’t let me down at all yet. There’s no frustrating repeatedly climbing the same wall crap – I’m looking at you Assassin’s Creed. If I want to climb somewhere I’m confident Garrett will do it as I instruct on my first try. If I don’t want to he won’t go jumping to his death after 10 minutes of gameplay. The combat takes a bit of getting used to but it’s a last resort and Garrett feels intentionally underpowered when all-out fighting. He’s a thief not a brawler after all. Which I’ve no doubt fans of the franchise will be happy to hear.

Any returning Thief fan should also be pleased with the difficulty settings available. Above the standard easy, normal and hard settings Thief offers even more customization if you want a real challenge. Things like not allowing any knockouts or alerts (at all) amongst many others, allow you to customize your experience. Eidos have clearly realised what this franchise means to its hardcore following and catered for those players too rather than excluding them to allow new players in. All are welcome in Thief and there is undoubtedly a difficulty to suit all. And if your done there’s always the challenge mode to keep you busy. So many games are unsuccessful because they’re either too difficult or too easy. It’s simple really, let me decide. And that’s just what Thief does.

ONLINE_240114_ss05_1389627967

Beyond getting the difficulty settings right I imagine Thief also posed a great challenge to create interesting visuals. We all like vibrant colours and lush landscapes but to create an atmosphere as impressive as Thief’s that’s just not possible. A clever use of what little colour there is and an obvious penchant for lighting effects are what keep Thief’s melancholy colour palette from sucking the life out of the game.

At one point I was deftly sneaking around an alleyway waiting to lift a guard’s purse from his belt when I found myself stopping to admire someone’s work. It wasn’t a multi-headed death beast from the Mogadon Cluster (if you got that reference you’re as sad as me). There where no antiheroes interrogating a bloody suspect. It was just a wet stone.

Many of which make up the Victorian style buildings. I could almost feel the cold and smell the damp concrete. Turning around a slither of moonlight had fought its way through rickety wooden beams and caught the particles in the air. The ever-present clock tower and the moon hung like dual Suns in the night sky. And then I return to playing the game stealing from the guard before sliding away down one of the countless dark alleys littered with beggars reaching out to me.

And that’s how Thief plays. It feels like your in a developer diary. You want to slowly pan the camera around and walk rather than run. And if you do and let yourself become engrossed in Thief’s world you will be greatly rewarded. It’s let down on occasion by rigid level design and repeated objectives but overall Thief is an absolutely brilliant experience.

SOCIAL

4,244FansLike
4,051FollowersFollow
7,429SubscribersSubscribe

LATEST REVIEWS

0
On a recent trip to Paris with Ubisoft for Watch Dogs, I had the chance to play Watch Dogs for a few hours, from the start, and here are my thoughts.