Monday, 28 June 2010

Demo Reviews

I've just got a hold of Red Dead Redemption, but as playing that is going to be a pretty mammoth undertaking, I thought I'd do some posts in the meantime!

I was in London this weekend to see some friends over from the other side of the world. Made the mistake of walking down Oxford Street, and happened to walk past Primark... The combination of the close press of a million souls, the 30°C late afternoon heat, and the already fairly ground-in Evil of Primark combined to create something akin to the 3rd Circle of Hell. I manged to avoid its Abyssal pull, and thought I was through the worst.

Then we got on the Underground.

Anyway, I've also been playing a couple of demos.

I gave Transformers: War for Cybertron a whirl, a game I've had fairly mixed feelings about. I was initially excited when I heard about it because... well, it's Transformers, innit? And it could never be as bad as the absolute mess of CGI Michael Bay released as a film, could it? Then my initial excitement turned partially to doubt; surely the whole point of Transformers was they were robots in disguise, right? That's why they said it in the song. I've never been completely comfortable with the Cybertron based parts of the Transformers continuities, and here was a game based entirely on Cybertron.

The demo was multiplayer only, not really the part of a game I look forward to most. Still, it gave a reasonable idea of what the robot-on-robot action would be like (fairly clunky and visually indistinct, as it turns out), and while it didn't strain my underpant elastic at first, I've chewed it over in my brain for the past few days and have started to warm to it. I think a single player mode with a bit more character and charm is exactly what I'm looking for, and I hear that's exactly what the game has. Still, I do hope that the vehicle modes in the full game are more inspiring than they are in the demo; just about everyone in the matches I played stuck to the robot mode, a sad indictment of a game based around Transforming robots.   

The other demo I tried was Blur, a collision of Burnout and Mario Kart. There is honestly no other way to describe it. The action is pretty eyeball-searing, but I think the fun of both the above games comes from clustering around the TV with your housemates, handing out the beers, and then squealing obscenities at each other. Maybe if I'd played Blur in such surroundings it would've jumped straight to the top of my most wanted list, but, as it is, it's probably going to stay low priority at least until it comes down in price.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Fable II Thoughts

I've spent the past couple of weeks ploughing through Lionhead's Fable II. I actually played Brutal Legend just before it (which, looking back over some old, old posts was a game I was really looking forward to) but that will have to be a post for a different time.

So...

I played the first Fable game a few years ago on PC, and quite enjoyed it. It didn't quite have enough freedom for me, I never felt like I was exploring or really adventuring. The world was presented as a series of small, mostly linear 'bubbles' with a couple of key locations in them, so you couldn't wander off the beaten track. The story also wasn't the best, and I think I eventually gave up around two thirds of the way through. That said, there was something engaging about the central character, and the way his appearance reflected your actions in the game.

Fable II builds what I thought were the strong areas of the first game. Unfortunately, some of the poor areas are carried across directly; for instance, the story was particularly uninspiring. It's full of paper thin characters and ridiculous moments where a character (I like to mentally label them Professor Von Plotexposition) turns up and explains what's happening. There was some backstory to explain why the Bad Guy was the bad guy (actually, that's a lie... his fall from his originally tragic situation to a cruel tyrant was explained in one line of dialogue, which itself was simply a cheesy metaphor), but it really was hard to care about any of it. At all. I mean, it says something about the game that I was more upset about a bad guy kicking my dog than I was when my sister was murdered (actually it may say more about me).

I think I would have preferred if the story had actually been more generic and spent more time playing on other RPG cliches, something it does on several occasions very well. Slight spoiler here, but there's a brilliant twist on the classic 'My son thinks he's an adventurer and has wondered into a dungeon' quest; if the style of this quest had been carried across to the main story I would have lapped it up right the way through, and we wouldn't have had the jarring shifts in tone that the game is currently plagued with. One minute, you're helping a pair of bumbling brothers (Freelance Necromancers) who have accidentally raised the dead, and the next you're forced into torturing some prisoners in the Bad Guy's castle.

I did at least enjoy the voice acting; good to see an almost entirely British cast (Stephen Fry, Julia Sawalha), even if it does slip into cliche comedy accents in several places. You'll already be able to tell what accents the peasants have before you even have the game.

One area where there has been an obvious improvement, however, is in the graphics. They weren't too shabby in the original, they had a certain cartoony charm. In Fable II they are absolutely stunning. In particular, the seasonal shifts (sadly there isn't a Harvest Moon-style seasonal cycle, changes in the seasons are driven by plot) and the lighting and weather effects are amazing. Seeing the sun breaking through the clouds, or watching snow slowly drift to the ground are some particular highlights.

The levelling system works well, though it certainly could have been deeper. As your character kills enemies with your various abilities you gain experience associated with that area; shoot an enemy to death and you get more experience to invest in the Skill tree. Your character can specialise in Strength, Skill or Will, and there's also a 'general' experience pool that can be used to advance your character in any of the trees. One small problem, though, is that I reckon most characters will end up with lots of experience in all three areas over the course rather than specialising in one. You are supposed to be the only hero who has the mastery over all areas, so I guess it kind of fits, but one of the central themes about the game is choice. Why not make the choice as to which path you progress down meaningful, instead of allowing anyone become an expert at everything?

What is very cool, though an idea carried over from the first game, is that advancing your hero in the three areas will change your appearance. Focus on Strength, and you muscles visibly bulge, concentrate on Will and glowing runes will start to appear on your skin. Go with Skill and your character... erm, gets taller?

Anyway, leading on from this, the reintroduction of alignment morphing from games like the Black & White series is welcome. I'm a sucker for stuff like this; by the end of the game by character was a 6' tall bodybuilder, sporting a rather fetching cuffed overcoat, shiny white teeth and a halo. In particular I like how there are now two character sliders; one for your character's 'purity', which is a measure of how greedy and indulgent you are, and one for your character's 'alignment' which is how selfless you are. Tou could be a Good character who is Corrupt (a decadent character who drinks and sleeps with prostitutes, but wouldn't harm anyone else) or an Evil character who is also Pure (someone very organised and regimented; more of a brutal dictator than a psychopathic killer!). The former character would end up looking fat and unhealthy, and the latter would attract a cloud of smoke and end up with a chalk-white complexion.

(Incidentally, how stupid is it that you have to eat celery to get thinner? All the running, fighting, dancing, chopping wood, etc. etc. makes no difference to your figure!)

Also, some locations change depending on your actions through the game; the effects of this can be seen fairly early on, with one location in the main city of Bowerstone changing either to a hive of scum and villainy or a fairly well-to-do area with a scattering of shops depending on whether a guard you encounter ends up being fired or not (as a direct consequence of your actions).

The area where I had the most fun, however, was interacting with the world and the economy. Unlike a world like Oblivion, Morrowind, or Fallout 3, prices of goods depend on supply and demand along with the local economy. Keep an eye open, and you can make money shipping goods from areas where they're on sale over to areas where they're in demand. Invest a lot of money in an area and the quality of their goods goes up, allowing for a bigger margin if you decide to play trader. I may be wrong, but I think if you pick up things like blacksmithing jobs it can result in the weapon shops producing more, but don't hold me to that. Still, if you fancy to property trade, you can buy cheap buildings in town, pour a load of money into the local economy, then sell the houses on again in a booming market with a redecorated interior to make a fat profit.

In fact, it would have been interesting if this had gone further, if it would basically a fantasy Renaissance-era version of Elite; imagine if you could own woodmills or ore mines, and by having a stranglehold on the supply of raw materials you could ensure your blacksmiths were producing the best or only weapons. You could even encourage strife to boost the sales of your own weapons (I'm sure this happens in a film, but I'll be buggered if I can remember which one.). By the sounds of it, this aspect of the game is set to be vastly improved on in Fable III. The idea that your entire kingdom will change depending on your actions as ruler is quite exciting, with, for instance, particular neighbourhoods falling into disrepair if you neglect to tackle crime.

I should mention when you take the time to earn money like this playing the game ends up pretty easy; money is plentiful, therefore it's easy to buy health potions, food, and property.

Bottom line is that Fable II isn't really a 'proper' RPG by any means. It isn't even a particularly accomplished action-RPG as the combat is way too simplistic (compare Fable II to a stat heavy, crunchy behemoth like Dragons Age: Origins). What it is, is a toy box where you can mess about with the various tools at your disposal; it sort of reminds me of playing with Playmobil as a child. It's even pretty much one of the only games I would consider playing through as evil, as the evil is much more of the top hat-wearing, mustache twirling Villainy than actual EVIL evil.

In many ways, this all makes it a classic bit of Lionhead software. Similar to Black & White, it's a series of cool mechanics without a huge amount of traditional 'game' holding it all together; this is both the title's main strength and main weakness.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Chaos Rising: Conclusions

The good folks at Relic and THQ have provided all the new units and gameplay improvements included in Chaos Rising to everyone who already owns a copy of Dawn of War II.

Basically, this means people with only the original can play against people with the expansion, and get to use all the new units for the existing races. In Last Stand, too, the three original heroes can play alongside the Chaos and Tyranid characters. I imagine Relic are hoping that people will load the game up again, see the new faction in action, and be inspired to shell out for the expansion.
 Enemies... We need ENEMIES!
As you can probably tell from my previous post, I really liked Chaos Rising. If you've not tried the previous game, this is the perfect opportunity to grab the whole set.

If most of the content is included, though, is it worth shelling out for just another 15 missions and a new race in multiplayer? Well, if you liked the original game's campaign, and want a bit more of everything, then the expansion is perfect. If you preferred the game's multiplayer... Maybe not. Unless you're mad keen on playing Chaos, all of the benefits and units are included with the recent patch.

Relic and THQ have both listened to feedback from the players while working on Chaos Rising, which bodes well for the inevitable future expansions. I just hope they stick to their guns, and work on improving and building on what made Dawn of War II different rather than adding back in what other people thought was missing.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Monday, 10 May 2010

Rejoice, brothers! Your slavery to the False Emperor ends today!

I've just finished the single player side of Chaos Rising, and thought I should put down what I think!

The original Dawn of War game was widely lauded for its fantastic presentation though it sadly started to look slightly dated by the third expansion), the charming (and, well, gory) character animation, and fast paced action.

Dawn of War II built on these key strengths, but mixed in some other elements Relic had used in their Company of Heroes games. It was generally well received by critics, but if you head over to the game's Amazon's page you'll find a slew of bad reviews, something I have talked about previously. The most controversial change was the removal of base building, something I loved but others hated. 

The single player campaign revolved around small missions with a handful of Space Marines which could level up and be equipped with RPG-style wargear. Unfortunately the missions became quite samey, especially towards the end of the campaign, as they were fought over a fairly limited selection of maps.
Enter the first expansion (or, more properly, expandalone) for DoWII: Chaos Rising.



Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II - Chaos Rising (sorry, I had to use the full title just once. From now on I'll use the simple acronym WH40K:DoWIICR... ehhh, maybe just Chaos Rising then) introduces, unsurprisingly enough, the Chaos faction to Dawn of War II. There is a host of new content, including multiplayer game modes, a single player campaign, maps... All that jazz. There might be some balance issues addressed maybe? I don't care that much about it as I mainly love the game for the single player and the odd game of Last Stand (essentially multiplayer for idiots).

The presentation is as good as I've come to expect from the Dawn of War games. The new Ice Planet looks fantastic, though the Space Hulk levels are a slight disappointment to a geek like me. Sounds are appropriately thumping, and the burping, squelching, and drippling noises the Great Unclean One makes are positively disgusting.

The single player campaign takes the Blood Raven characters from the original game up from level 20 through to 30; if you have the original, you can even load one of your saved games and carry on with the same squads. The campaign dumps your characters on a planet recently emerged from the Warp which, predictably enough, turns out to be infested with Chaos Space Marines. 
The story is standard stuff, though the characters do stand out as being quite good... for an RTS, that is (seriously though, can you name any characters from an RTS game? Except for Kane, of course). Still, I enjoyed the appropriately gravelly dialogue from everyone, and was interested enough to pay attention until the end of the campaign.

What I did enjoy was the new corruption mechanic. By acting in particularly un-Space Marine ways your squads can gain corruption points and later new bloodthirsty traits and abilities. So far, so black and white morality system. Where the system shines, though, is that some of the choices you have to make are genuinely tough. For instance, in one mission foul Xenos are squatting in the tomb of a great Blood Raven hero. You can risk damaging the tomb (and consequently gaining corruption) to purge the aliens, or you can leave it alone. Or, you can purposefully destroy and raid the tomb to gain access to a powerful bit of wargear.

It's further complicated by corrupting wargear, purposefully overpowered weapons and equipment which slowly corrupts the wielder each time it's used (offset by redeeming items which weaken your character and reduce their corruption), and by a series of increasingly powerful corrupting abilties.
It has the effect of adding yet another layer of strategy on top of the RPG stylings of the original game, and though it feels a bit heavy at times (seemingly arbitrarily punishing you with corruption if you don't take certain squads with you in particular missions) I thought it was a very good addition to the single player.

The Chaos faction in multiplayer is good fun to play. Many people seemed to worry that they would end up too similar to the Space Marines as they shared several units. This doesn't seem to be the case, and they end up feeling very Chaos; I just hope the ability to build 'shrines' around the map (which provide some sort of localised buff) doesn't indicate a return to the game's base building routes...

I'll put summing up thoughts, including what it builds on over the original and whether or not you should get it, in my next post!

Friday, 23 April 2010

Long Absence

I realise I haven't posted on my blog in ages, so I thought I would take the plunge and write something!

There are a few things I would like to get up over the next couple of weeks... I've got some a new games I want to post up my thoughts on, including a board game I've been playing recently. I'd also like to put up my experiences (brief through they are) of running a Roleplaying Game on Google Wave and maybe offer some tips to anyone else thinking of doing the same.

Friday, 1 January 2010

More X-COM

First things first, I managed to limit myself to only a further two games on Steam: Medieval: Total War and Street Fighter IV. No more. Honest.

I played a bit more X-COM: UFO Defense over the past couple of days. The game is just as good as I remember it... For anyone who's not played it, it's a turn based, squad level strategy game. You spend a lot of the game looking at a view of the planet (the Geoscape), managing bases and budgets, manufacturing weapons for your troops, attacking UFOs wth your fighter jets, all that jazz.

When a detected UFO lands or you manage to force one to crash, you can intercept it with your troop transporter and the game switches to an isometric turn-based form. Here, you stomp your troops about killing aliens (or, more likely, have aliens kill your troops).

There are a bunch of nice touches in the game; for instance, you have to keep your funding countries happy or they withdraw funding from the project and, if you don't monitor the skies above their countries, they may eventually be infiltrated by alien spies and sign a pact with the invaders. In fact, advanced scanners can reveal what mission a UFO is on before you attack it; terror ships land in civilian population centres and scare the bejesus out of everyone, scout ships look for your bases so the aliens can attack you directly and supply ships resupply secret alien bases (so they can be followed to locate those bases or simply ambushed to replenish your stocks).

The other thing that works well is how you research alien technology. Just about all of the alien artefacts in the game can be researched and put to use against their inventors. While you feel completely outmatched in the early stages of the game (especially as your troops' standard armour only provides minimal project against a violent sneeze directed against you), you eventually learn to use the alien weapons and armours and even combine alien and earth technologies to make your own spacecraft.

Anyway, my favourite part of the game is its atmosphere. The music still sends shivers down my spine, and heightens the tension you feel while waiting for your turn; the game only shows you aliens that are visible to at least one of your troops, so you often spend the alien turn staring at a screen saying 'HIDDEN MOVEMENT', listening to doors slamming around the map, desparately trying to work out where the aliens are hiding. I maintain that UFO Defense and its sequel Terror from the Deep are pretty much the only scary strategy games (and turn-based strategy, at that) ever made. I would even go so far as to say they would rank quite high on my list of Scariest Games of All Time.

Right, I'll be back to write more about my new games when I get back home to my PC. Hope everyone had a happy new year!