Thursday, 15 August 2013

Review: The Swapper

The Swapper is an indie puzzle game, developed by Facepalm Games which, on top of challenging you to complete a large array of puzzles, raises some interesting questions on existentialism and morality. Your nameless and faceless character crash lands on a seemingly deserted space station and, using a cloning tool which it's former inhabitants created, has to find his own way off. You quite soon discover that there is another person aboard the ship, a female scavenger, who seems more clued in on what has been happening there, but uninterested in filling you in on too much at a time. Over the course of the game, through dialogue and crew logs, you discover what happened to the space station and all it's former crew. The game ends with an interesting moral dilemma that for the first time, in a long time, made me actually pause and think - even though it had no real bearing on anything.

The gimmick behind The Swapper, what separates it from other puzzle games, is it's cloning mechanics. You can create up to four copies of yourself, which move in parallel with you, and switch your consciousness between them, as long as they are within your line of sight. Most of the challenges involve positioning your clones in such a way that one of them can pick up an orb whilst the rest are in place on switches or create a line-of-sight network to switch your consciousness along. Only the conscious clone can pick an orb up, and you can only create four clones, so you have to plan everything out carefully. Puzzles are made more difficult by lights; red lights block your ability to swap, blue lights prevent you from creating new clones within an area and purple lights prevent you from doing pretty much anything.
The premise of the game is simple, yet it raises many interesting philosophical questions – what is life? What is consciousness? When you can swap your consciousness to a new body, created seconds ago, and discard the old one – are you still yourself? At first the cloning concept just seemed like a well executed mechanic, but when I discovered that I could traverse vertical spaces, by creating a clone above myself and swapping to it, I was sort of horrified – as old clones are left to die as their soulless bodies fall to the ground, with a bone crunching impact. Clones die often and in a cavalier fashion, but I still found myself wondering about them, and even feeling sorry for them. Gravity also plays an interesting role within puzzles, many rooms have pads that invert gravity for your current clone, and any subsequent ones he makes. There are also some very serene sections where you are floating in zero gravity between sections of the station, using your cloning tool to propel you.

The Swapper looks great, environments are dark and gloomy, and for much of the game light is a commodity. You shine a light where you look, but it is never enough to truly pierce the dark, though there isn't a lot to find between levels, it just adds to the mystique. Puzzle rooms juxtapose this, as they are brightly lit with blue, red and purple lights; they are the places most shrouded in mystery, yet also the ones outwardly hiding the least. The art of the game was created using real world items, which gives it a wonderful claymation vibe, and makes it look truly unique. At the beginning of the game you arrive in a tin can rocket, which initially seems cool and quirky, but nothing else in the game looks so overtly homemade - so it ends up being unauthentic for the game.
Tonally The Swapper feels very reminiscent of the original Alien and Dead Space. It cultivates a great atmosphere through it's subdued use of sound, dark environments and enigmatic approach to storytelling. However, both Alien and Dead Space make their setting feel like real world possibilities for the future, their environments look practical - like people could actually live in them. This is one of the few places that The Swapper fails for me - the space station feels like a husk, where people could never have lived. Though there are no enemies I felt a growing sense of unease as I progressed through the game, how the game sounds reinforces this, especially the dull thud of your heavy shoes on metal runways and air whistling through the vast empty station. 

There is an abundance of indie puzzle games on the market at the moment, though it doesn't feel over-saturated to me, as there are so many interesting and inventive ones still coming out. The Swapper is not a terribly difficult game, I only truly got stuck on one puzzle for a significant amount of time, but I still felt a sense of accomplishment upon completing the game. Throughout the game the developers prod you with rhetorical questions, trying to get you to think more as you play, and this helps make The Swapper more than just another interesting idea, but also one of the most coherent and well executed games I've played all year.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Review: Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

I don't like cowboys; I don't see why people would be attracted to a period of time where dirty, sweaty, gruff men were glorified for being criminals. I may not understand the time; I just thought that I'd say that because, despite this, I warmed to the game in a way I didn't think I would. Gunslinger is a third person shooter, set in the wild west, with a very an arcade feel - as enemies come quick and die fast. Most levels consist of you fighting through waves of enemies and end in either a boss fight or a duel. Skilled shooting results in XP that lets you level up and fills up a bullet time meter that let you slow everything down. The game features a comprehensive, if somewhat short, story mode, as well as an arcade and a duel mode.
Gunslinger is an arcade style shooter where the player takes on the role of a bounty hunter, Silas Greaves, as he recounts the story of his past dealings with many of history's most infamous cowboys, and their bands of outlaws, to a few patrons in a saloon. The majority of the story is told whilst you are playing the game through conversations the characters in the saloon are having, though there are also some multiple picture cut-scenes that, whilst artistic, I found to be lacking. Over the course of the game you discover how Greave’s life intersects those of such figures as Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Gunslinger runs with the idea of an unreliable narrator and executes it brilliantly, as Greaves tells his tale he embellishes it along the way – rewriting the environment and events as you play through, changing how things happened as he remembers things differently, or corrects a discrepancy that someone else points out. The level that most successfully showcases this is about half way through the game; you play through two different versions of a bank heist, told by someone who was there and someone who read about the heist, before Greaves tells them how it actually happened. The unreliable narrator motif and arcade shooter mechanics are a perfect combination as it finally makes sense for one man to guns down hundreds.

The game mechanics are fun, but without the narration the game wouldn't be nearly as enjoyable, as the game often gets quite repetitive - especially if you don't change what weapons you use. There are three different tech trees that let you focus on either duel wielding, close-quarters combat or long range combat, however I found this tied me down, rather than giving me more choice.  The boss fights are dull, as they either consist of you filling a guy with bullets, or running between cover and blowing someone up with dynamite. I found that the final twist was way too predictable, from less than a third of the way through the game I knew how it would end - though the story doesn't have to be that interesting, as the way it is told is.

Overall I was impressed by the whole presentation of the game, the graphics and voice acting were done to a much higher level than I was expecting from a budget game. Gunslinger mixes familiarity and innovation in an interesting way, though struggles with repetitive combat and tired mechanics. The story mode only took me about 4 hours to complete and, whilst this is relatively short for a game, I was satisfied with where it ended.   

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Review: Antichamber

A thought-provoking sojourn into non Euclidean geometry, Antichamber feels unique yet familiar, as everything you know about level design gets twisted; known truths, such as A leads to B, may no long be true, or may only be true in certain situations. Antichamber forces you to reset the axioms you've learnt from other games, and challenges you to think way outside the box. Quite soon into the game you acquire a tool that lets you pick up and place little coloured blocks - that can be used for a number of purposes, such as to trip switches, block lasers or traverse the environment. 

There is no story and no real reason to have one, you occasionally see what looks like what might be an anti-block that menaces the hallways, but no exposition is provided. Make of the world what you will but this is a pure puzzle game that doesn't feel the need to tack on some contrived story for the sake of it. Sound is done in a very minimalist way, certain areas containing certain sounds, but otherwise it is very underplayed. I soon found myself recognizing where I was from the foley and even coming to despise some of the sounds as I meant I was somewhere I didn't want to be.

The map is made up of puzzle rooms and corridors, though corridors can have just as many secrets hidden in them as any room does. The map is constant, however walking down one corridor then back the way you came wont necessarily take you back to where you were before - but that path will always be the same. Another trick the game plays is to make you focus on looking at something, then when you pull out putting you into another place. Puzzles mostly boil down to either putting a block in a hole or blocking lasers, stuff that sound simple, but which can take a while to work out. 

In many ways you progress through the game in a metroidvania fashion as you upgrade your tool to have greater utility. At first you can only pick up and place small blocks, but as your gun upgrades, you can do new and unexpected things, which opens up more and more of the map. I found the first quarter of the game to be the most challenging, because I had to relearn how to play and got stuck on a simple problem for way too long, but after that breezed through the rest of the game in one glorious sitting.
I found Antichamber to be unputdownable, when I was stuck I wanted to keep going, and when I was on a roll I didn't want it to end. The game doesn't have a discernible story or anything, but it does definitely come to a point where the main progression of the game is done; Antichamber is that rare sort of puzzle game that makes me want to go back and complete every facet of it. Antichamber takes an interesting idea, non-euclidean geometry, and executes it wonderfully - creating a unique puzzle game, that feels like it achieves exactly what it sets out to. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Review: The Last Of Us

The Last Of Us, the latest game from Naughty Dog, tells a story centred around two complex characters – Ellie and Joel – as they traverse the United States twenty years after a zombie-like apocalypse. TLOU is a third person action game with stealth and horror components, but is also Naughty Dogs most cinematic experience yet. From the outside TLOU bears a resemblance to two of the biggest games from the last year or so, The Walking Dead and Bioshock: Infinite - though overall is very different to both, even though they can all be thought of as glorified escort missions. Ellie is a great character that grows as the game progresses; starting off young and naive and evolving into someone who rivals Joel in terms of ability – but who still defers to him for decisions, seeing him as a paternal figure. Ellie is witty, impulsive, optimistic, and everything that a child of the apocalypse should not be, and everything that Joel is not – but she is also the emotional core of the game and provides some much needed comic relief. Joel also changes throughout the game going from being very gruff, to being just slightly less gruff. Joel isn't a hero, he’s not even a good person, he’s often a character that you want to be a better person, to help keep Ellie safe. For much of the game he’s not that, in many ways he’s not even that like-able – but that’s OK, you don’t always have to play the hero. Both The Walking Dead and Bioshock: Infinite have great stories, but bland and tired game-play mechanics – TLOU manages to combine great story telling with game-play that feels fun and challenging for at least two thirds of the game.
The Last Of Us is a third person action/adventure game, you take on the role of Joel as he fights against or sneaks past humans and the infected alike; in most encounters you can just sneak past if you don't want to fight. Fighting comprises of melee and ranged combat, and for most of the game it is up to you how you approach a situation. Do you sneak up behind everyone? Or simply go in guns first. The melee combat in the game is brutal and feels exceptionally solid whether you are using your fists or a metal pipe. The way enemies grab up at your face as you strangle them from behind is realistic, if somewhat disconcerting. The game has a crafting system, whereby you use objects you find in the environment to create shivs, explosives and med-kits, as well as different resources that allow you to upgrade your weapons and yourself. Shivs can be crafted to give you an instant kill grab, but this consumes it, or can be crafted on to melee weapons to give one hit kills that make the melee weapons even more brutal than they were before. Explosives such as Molotov cocktails and shrapnel bombs can be created, but you have to decide what you would prefer - a Molotov or a med-kit, or a shrapnel bomb or a shiv. All of the guns can be upgraded in multiple ways, and you can be upgraded to be more effective in combat; for example you can buy an upgrade that let you shiv a clicker when are in their instant kill grab.

The story is quite predictable, the only real surprises are the beginning and the ending. The start of the game blind sighted me, instantly engaging me, and making up for the lack lustre second chapter that follows. In fact much of the early game is where TLOU is weakest – when your character can die instantly and the combat options are few TLOU seems quite narrow in scope. When everything opens up the combat feels great, and like less of a chore to do between cut-scenes. Working out how to approach an encounter, with the resources you have, only for it all to go wrong and for you to only just survive is oddly satisfying. I won't go into any spoilers but I applaud Naughty Dog for sticking with the story that they wanted to tell, even when focus groups showed that their ending was unpopular. They could have taken the easy option - but instead we are left with a bittersweet ending that feels very in-keeping with the tone of the game. Whilst the main arch of the story is somewhat predictable some of the tangents you take and the areas you explore are anything but; whether it be through side characters you meet, enemies you face, or just notes you find areas can have a surprising amount of depth to them. If you have played the game you will know of Ish, and know what I mean.
Taking inspiration from the Cordyceps genus of fungus – a group of parasitic fungi that takes control of insects, but which has spread to humans – the architects of the apocalypse offer a different take on the zombie trope. The infected in TLOU take a few different shapes; the recently infected - that can still see and will run at you if provoked – are typical zombies, Clickers are people that have been infected for a while – they use echo-location to find you as they have fungal growths protruding from their eyes, and those that have been infected for a long time, bloaters, are covered in fungus plate armour and take a lot to bring down.  The different types of infected combine together really well as you they require different approaches to kill or get past. One of the great things about TLOU is that many of the encounters can be entirely stealthed through.  Standard humans are also a problem for Ellie and Joel as different types of societies have sprung up in the wake of the apocalypse, few of them good. If anything I was a bit disappointed by the human factions you face, as it is not until towards the end of the game that any of them are morally ambiguous - they are all quite clearly the baddies.

The Last Of Us looks good graphically, but it is how the environments, animations, and cut-scenes  come together that makes TLOU stand out. Everything combines together to make a truly cinematic experience. When brushing against something Joel will put his hand out, he naturally slides into cover when near a wall, and changes direction organically – it really helps the characters feel as though they exist within the world. The cut-scenes add a lot of emotion into the faces of the characters unleash how great a job the voice actors did. Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson both provide the main characters with excellent voice work that really drew me in and made me believe in the characters. The end of the first section alone puts Troy Baker in the category with VA greats like Nolan North and Steve Blum. The score that accompanies the game is minimalist yet moving as the composer, Gustavo Santaolalla, uses a wide range of unusual instruments to create an uneasy atmosphere and one of the most memorable themes of any recent game - that still manages to tug at my heart strings.

My problems with this game are few. If you want to restart a section there is an option in the start menu to 'Restart Encounter', my problem is not with the choice this allows, but with what it represents. All the enemies in the game feel like they belong to one encounter or another;  you don't find many enemies on their own, they have to be part of a pack, and this makes it feel like there isn't a natural progression of enemies, but a series of challenges instead. The game can feel very segmented; you can walk through a door and everyone starts talking normally, whilst I'm still crouching though an environment and mentally hushing them, because they have passed an invisible wall and know there is nothing around - even though I don't. Whilst this prevents them from overdoing it on cheap scares, it also removes much of the surprise from the game. When sneaking around with others they often walk right by or into enemies, which doesn't break your stealth, though it does heavily break the immersion. TLOU fails to be scary though does manage to create a tense atmosphere - some of my favourite sections of the game were in dark basements, creeping slowly though infested areas, on edge - but never really frightened.

The Last Of Us makes me excited for what developers – especially the great ones like Naughty Dog – can do with the next generation of consoles. TLOU  is not only an emotionally evocative game, it is also a marvelous technical feat; with very limited memory Naughty Dog were able to not only create a beautiful game world, but realistic character movements and interactions. The way Joel shields Ellie if they occupy the same space especially shows the level of detail the developers put into their core relation – the little things really add on top of the big up to make this game one of the best of the generation.