Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Review: HotKeyIt StarCraft 2 Guide

The truth is that StarCraft 2 is a hard game, improving by yourself is tough and will take too long for most people to get truly good; luckily there are many aids available to help you train to be better. For those willing to pay a monthly subscription there is the starcraft 2 guide HotKeyIt. It's a testament to the game that there is such a passionate community built around StarCraft 2 and, whilst you do have to pay $4.95 a month for this service, I don't think it would be possible to have this level of content without some sort of fee. For your money you get access to an ever expanding library of videos created by high level Grandmaster coaches and access to forums.
The website itself is pretty standard, if a little bland, but gets the job done. The whole website is very simple to use and it didn't take long at all for me to work out where everything was that would be relevant to me, as a Terran, was and where the forums are. All of the videos are well tagged and named so that you know what type of video each one is and for what race it is for. As this is a subscription service there are no adverts, either on the website itself or in the videos, as you would expect.    

Initially HotKeyIt seems to offer an overwhelming number of videos, but they are all well sorted by each of the match-ups, by lesson type or if they are part of a series they go into a separate place. There are multiple types of videos available ranging from simple macro mechanics tutorials to in depth strategies. The feature I was most impressed with was Leak Finder, where one of the coaches would take a replay from the community and analyse it. At first I was concerned that Grandmasters wouldn't be able to relate to silver league issues, but it turns out that problems are universal and the advise given was useful.
With this sort of service it is important that new videos are regularly produced to keep up with shifts in the meta-game, and this is something that HotKeyIt manages to do; with new videos added every few days. Each race has one or two main coaches, who create videos on a regular basis, so over time the number of videos will only increase. As well as the main coaches there is a number of other coaches, including some very well known names like Spanishiwa and desRow, who have also produced some content.

I think that with a service like this it is important to have communication between the content developers and the community; sometimes answering what may seem like a stupid question can completely change how somebody thinks about the game and improve their play. HotKeyIt keeps up communication in a number of ways. Firstly, there is a forum where members can talk amongst themselves, ask questions of the content creators and where updates can be posted. Secondly, each video has a comments section where users can talk about the video or ask question of the video's creator. Lastly, there is the aforementioned Leak Finder, which gives direct feedback to a member of the community but is also useful for others.
From what I saw all of the coaches have enough charisma to create interesting and informative videos without awkward silences and too much 'umming' and 'arring'. Settings quality does depend from coach to coach, but then you can't expect everyone to have a rig good enough to record ultra on, and if you are used to watching pro streams it shouldn't be a problem to watch on low. In regards to audio I never had problems with the quality of the mic used or with the in game sound being too loud or too quiet.

Overall I think that the main draws of this website are it's breadth and the responsiveness of the content creators. It's intuitive interface allows you to easily choose videos to target the areas where you are weakest; I have seen people suggest what they would like future videos to be about and then the coach follow through and make it. If you are stuck in a rut or just know you could be better then HotKeyIt is definitely a useful tool to achieve this. The website's design may not be that great, but the content is worthy of attention; if you are willing to spend $4.95 a month I would absolutely recommend this service.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Review: The Walking Dead Episode 2

It often seems that the best zombie stories are the ones that focus on the interplay between the living as much as they do of the dead; zombies, walkers, the infected or whatever they are are obvious dangers but humans can be just as monstrous, if not worse as they are self aware. This is why The Walking Dead the game succeeds as a brilliant work of fiction as the humans are well thought out with their own agendas and allegiances. The walkers were a much more imminent threat in Episode 1, but in this episode they take a bit of a back seat to a more human drama. Whilst there are some obviously good characters, like your adopted daughter Clementine from the first episode, most characters are shades of grey, and cannot always be relied on.

Like episodes of the TV show, Episode 2 of the game starts with a previously on section tailored to your play through of Episode 1 and ends with a preview of the next episode. Whilst the story is original and very separate from the TV show it still has a very cinematic quality with it's long cut-scenes, artistic graphics and emotional characters. The game plays like the previous episode did; there are plenty of conversation choices, as well as a bit of point and click exploring and QTE action scenes. The emotional tie between you and Clementine isn't emphasised as much as it was in the first episode, which is a shame, but there are still three more episodes coming to further develop that in.
A couple of new faces bolster the ranks of an already impressive cast.
 Episode 2 starts off gruesome and only gets worse as you play through. The survivors of the first episode are now holed up in a crude fort but have run out of food and there are even more people to feed too. A couple of men from a dairy farm happen by and offer to exchange food for petrol, and even invite the group back with them, but bandits threaten the peace and events unfold in a way you would not have guessed from the start of the episode. I don't want to ruin it but I will say that I was equal parts shocked and appalled by the end, though of course, it left me very excited for the next episode.

Episode 1 was characterised by a feeling of dread as the clear and present danger of a horde of walkers is ever present, in contrast Episode 2 has a disquieting feeling, that may seem less severe, but in fact is more alarming. Like I've said before the walker threat is more obvious, whilst the human treat may not be seen before it is too late. What if you don't trust people and they turn out to be saints? But then what happens if the opposite is true? Tension is slowly built up throughout the game, but it's not obvious if something is amiss, if you are just looking too deeply into something small or if you are looking in the entirely wrong direction.
Even in a zombified world kids are still kids.
My main concern with the game at the moment is that if they stick to their current schedule of one episode every two months, and if your choices are indeed remembered, that it will be too hard to remember what your choices in the first few episodes were. The only other problem I had with the game was that the camera angle can feel awkward at times, but with this sort of game that will always be a problem. The only bug I experienced was my character not appearing in frame for one shot and that isn't a big deal at all.

Overall Episode 2 is a great addition to what is fast becoming one of my favourite video games of the year. It mixes together good story telling, interesting characters and doesn't shoehorn in contrived plot points, which together creates a gripping story. The game goes at its own pace and may not be for action lovers but if you are interested in a good story then The Walking Dead the Game should offer you a treat. I give this episode: