Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Preview: Guild Wars 2

Before I get into the game, which is amazing by the way, I will quickly go over my experiences of the opening weekend. I only expected the one day headstart so was surprised when I got a code for three days, unfortunately it was wrong and I did only get a day so after installing and patching I couldn't actually play. The one day headstart  began at 8 am UK time so I woke up at 7.45 to get a cup of tea and some cereal and to give myself enough time to patch if I had to, and... power cut for six hours, it wasn't until 2 pm that I finally got on. After three and a half days of disappointment I finally got on, but it was well worth the wait.

Stepping into Guild Wars 2 presents a pretty daunting prospect; five races, eight professions, a huge map, 80 levels and eight crafting disciplines to master. From the start I knew I was going to be a human Elementalist as I always go for the magic wielding class and because Nolan North is the voice actor for the human male. After two days my Elementalist is level 22 and I favour using a scepter and dagger combination with a mix of mostly fire and air attacks. The diversity in combat is great as each weapon set has a different group of attacks for each of the four available elements; there are even utility skills, elite skills and race on top of that. 
The world is full of awesome vistas like this.
Each section of the map is full of things to collect; points of interest, waypoints, renown hearts and vistas, which is where the camera pulls out in majestic style and shows you the full beauty of the world. Renown hearts are side quests that aren't super interesting but help structure the game so that you know where you should be going. Dynamic Events are what really makes the game interesting and draws large groups of players together to help with a common goal; each area has it's own set of Dynamic Events that range in side from only needing a couple of people to needing as many people as possible.

The game is beautiful both graphically and in the design of the environments. It is amazing how detailed each area is, I went swimming in an underwater section of the map with no points of interest nearby and found ancient ruins over grown with sea life. I have yet to see most of the world as I have only been to about six areas, but what I have seen so far has been diverse; from lush plains, to snow covered mountains and a pirate paradise. There are some amusing conversations to be over heard and generally the voice acting is done to a high calibre; my only complaint would be that NPCs repeat their standard phrases too often, whilst you are standing still for something like crafting this can be irritating.
Arena Net managed to make even underwater combat interesting.
Arena Net has included many things that might seem quite minor but add up to to make the experience much better overall. There are no quest hand ins, you do them and they are done, the cheque is in the mail. Unless you want to there is no grind, between exploration, crafting and down leveling there is more than enough content for you to not have to grind. If the next area is too high for you you can just go to another race's starting area, get down leveled and still receive XP. There are a lot of waypoints per section so once you have explored an area you can navigate it really quickly. Guild Wars 2 is probably more casual than many MMORPGs but that suits me just fine

I'm really enjoying my time with Guild Wars so far but I have found some problems. Once you choose your favoured weapons there is no way to change the main abilities, and they are all quickly unlocked, so I imagine that you can have your final build prepared by level 30-40. You start with only 5 character slots and a small bank space, probably so that many people will pay real money to buy gems and extend these, though you can get gems for in game gold. For a game built around the premise of guilds, it is in the name after all, it is not that easy to play with friends; the party UI certainly doesn't help. The first instance isn't until level 30 which at the start seems ages into the game, I was expecting to be able to play with my friends in a more structured manner sooner.
The UI is relatively simple and intuitive.
I am really excited to get further into the game to experience some of the high end content, start raiding and explore the rest of Tyria. The scale of group encounters increases as you gain in levels so I can't wait to see how big and ridiculous things get, as well as play more content with friends. I am really interested in some of the other professions, but I think I will try to max out my main first. Overall I am really glad I bought Guild Wars 2, MMORPGs are not normally my thing but I think that Arena Net has managed to craft a truly outstanding game with an amazing world, fun and consistent progression and an abundance of content. Over other similar games I think that Guild Wars 2 wins for it's accessibility, lack of subscription and awesome content.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Review: Stacking

Stacking can only be described as an odd game, as it is based on the idea of Russian matroyshka dolls. Your character is the smallest type of doll possible and there are a wide variety of different dolls that you can stack in to, each having their own ability, that can be useful in some way. In a standard adventure game you may have an inventory full of items that you have to use at different points in the game; in Stacking you create a stack of dolls to get the doll you need to the location where it is needed. You can only stack into dolls one size bigger than you, so it is important to get the right stack of dolls together, especially later in the game when you have to combine the abilities of different dolls.

Stacking is bursting with style; it is set in the industrial age and told in the manner of a silent film, with characters communicating through muted gestures and title cards displaying the dialogue. The main antagonist of the game is simply called the Baron and wants to use child labour to fuel his developing country; you play as a young child who, suitable annoyed that all of your siblings have been taken away, sets out out to save them. The game takes place over four main areas, each with their own set of dolls, and reaches a climax in another area that requires you to combine the abilities of many dolls together.
Throughout the game you are given puzzles to complete to progress forwards; each puzzle has many solutions but, after the first few, you only have to find one solution to complete them. The problem is that every puzzle has a very simple solution, that will be in the immediate vicinity and won't require much thought, and after that you don't have to do the other solutions to progress; this makes game is exceeding easy to complete. Other ways to complete puzzles and collecting all the dolls in each area is a way to extend the game further, but it's just not enough; Stacking feels very light on content.

For such a short game it is pretty amazing how repetitive Stacking can get; each level follows the same pattern as you work your way towards a family member, rescue them, and then have a similar conversation with each of them, before moving on to the next. In the last level they all get captured again and you have to free them all again in quick succession. Towards the end of the game you have to mix two abilities to complete a challenge, but by then it is too late to be anything but under-used; it would have been better if you had to mix together the abilities of whole stacks of dolls.
Stacking's graphics are nothing special, but its character and level design do manage to set it apart. Stacking fully embraces its industrial setting and creates a rich and full world. Character animations are extremely well done here as dolls walk in different ways, have distinct and easily identifiable abilities and react to what you are doing. The sound design is also very well done; different dolls sound distinct, all abilities have fitting sounds associated with them and the music fits perfectly with the silent film method of story telling.

Generally Stacking seems to be a case of style over substance as it's visuals, animations and tongue in cheek humour are the only highlights; past Double Fine games have managed to mix these qualities with great gameplay too, but Stacking just feels somewhat lacking. Stacking falls short of its high potential and feels more like an overly long tech demo, though it starts with a unique idea and has innovative story telling, it is overly simple and feels dragged out. The first and last chapters stuck out in my mind as being especially good, whilst the three in-between felt boring and repetitive; as though they just copy and pasted the script to make it last longer.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Review: Spec Ops: The Line

It definitely tries to but does Spec Ops: The Line succeed in its fight against its genres tendency for being overly generic and create a truly unique experience? A fresh setting, a-typical villains and a focus on story are definitely two steps in the right direction, for the military shooter genre, but the gameplay and story's conclusion are one step right back. Spec Ops wants to be its own game but throughout playing it all I could think about was how reminiscent of the later parts of Uncharted 3, the protagonists are even voiced by the same actor, and Call of Duty: Black Ops it is. Whilst Spec Ops: The Line may fall short of its aim to be totally original it is still a very competent game, in its own right, and very worthy of attention. The story is well crafted, has a good pace and offers plenty of shocking moments, that don't just feel shoehorned in.

Spec Ops: The Line is a third person shooter with a heavy emphasis on cover based combat. The combat system is fast and fluid and your actions have a nice weight behind them; slipping into cover from a sprint results in your character rebounding slightly and jumping down produces a satisfying thud. For each weapon type, whether it be assault rifle, shotgun or pistol, there are multiple varieties that feel distinct and all come with an alternate attack. The alternate of your first weapon adds a silencer that allows for some limited stealth, whereas the alternate of another assault rifle, you find much later in the game, is an under barrel grenade launcher. In general the weapons in this game feel great.
The story takes place in Dubai after it has been wracked by a series of sandstorms and, for the most part, evacuated. You take control of Captain Martin Walker as he and his team go in after a after a division of the US army disobeys orders to abandon the city and goes rogue. The enemies aren't your usual Muslim extremists, Russian terrorist or Communist invaders, the people you face are just humans put in a terrible place; what happens could have occurred in any city in the world, after it is isolated and its remaining inhabitants left to die. Dubai is the epitome of over exuberant opulence and is a great setting for the game as it allows for the extremes of extravagant interiors on one side and destroyed buildings and slums on the other.

For most of the game you are accompanied by your two squad mates, Adams and Lugo, who are actually very useful. In a lot of games your squad mates are just glorified meat shields, but here they are actually capable of killing people on their own and you have a limited control of them to make them even more efficient. You can tell your squad mates to focus their attacks on one particular enemy, and depending where that enemy is they will kill them in a variety of ways, or they can flashbang a group of enemies. My one problem with your squad mates is that, once you know how the game ends, their loyalty throughout the game doesn't seem probable. Your squad mates are both very likeable characters but as the plot gets darker your relationship gets strained to the limit.
Graphically, Spec Ops always looks good (admittedly on ultra high on PC) and in some places is breathtaking. Dubai looks best in the sunlight as the lighting effects are particularly impressive. On the other hand, explosions are particularly bad and there are some low textures to be found as well. Spec Ops: The Line's music has an orchestra based backbone that is great but not exemplary. The tone of the game is often dark, atmospheric and introspective and this is reflected in the games soundtrack. Through the first two thirds of the game players you can hear a character called Radioman on the airwaves who provides a constant antagonistic presence and also plays some licensed music a la Apocalypse Now Vietnam war era.

The gameplay can sometimes get a bit repetitive, as is often a problem of the genre, as you go into a room, hide behind cover and slowly pick off enemies ducking back and reloading in between kills. Some sections are also overly long and drawn out, but in general the story goes at a fast pace. Spec Ops: The Line manages to tell the story it wants to tell, but is a very short game, coming in at around 5 hours. However, the multiplayer will extend the game time for those that are interested in it. The multiplayer mode as it is now is very generic but still enjoyable. There is also an upcoming DLC game that will allow you and a friend to play through certain sections of the game, prior to the events of the single player, in a cooperative mode. 
Spec Ops: The Line is a great game and a step in the right direction for the military shooter genre. It attempts to, and mostly succeeds to, innovate and it should be applauded for even trying to do so, as many companies these days are content to churn out the same game annually. Five hours for a single player game is short, but with that time it told a succinct and gripping story that probably wouldn't have benefited from being stretched by a couple of hours. I think that future Spec Ops games would benefit from an episodic format where every couple of weeks or so a new two hour chapter is released that tells a gritty and mature story; this would also help keep sustained interest in the game and its multiplayer component. Spec Ops' greatest features are its fluid gameplay mechanics, brilliant voice acting and its mature storytelling. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.