Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Star Wars: The Old Republic - Preview

Along with many others around the globe, I was playing the Star Wars: The Old Republic beta weekend and all-in-all, I have to say, I was quite impressed. My experience was as follows.

With a due sense of anticipation, anxiety and excitement, I click on play. The game loads and the opening CGI video plays out. Anyone who has been keeping up with TOR will have seen this video before (it’s the one with the Zabrak Jedi and his Padawan). So far so good. Server selection. There’s a lot of red names and ‘FULL’ warnings. I go for one of the ‘FULL’ servers that doesn’t list a waiting time and I’m straight in to Character Creation. Hmmm, what shall I pick. Well, in my extensive experience, an oddity in MMOs is that the nicest people always join the side of the bad guys and as any Star Wars fan knows (and any non-Star Wars fan will be told often and loudly by Star Wars fans that cannot comprehend such blasphemy), the bad guys in this setting are the Sith Empire (the Imperials).

The Sith Empire: Large groups of fanatical devoted followers and huge numbers of excessively overpaid mercenaries that follow/worship the Sith Lords as gods. Their plan: to conquer the Republic and then do something, but they’re not quite sure what that something is yet. They are, however, certain that the conquering of the Republic should be done with all haste.

The Republic: Sort of like the European Parliament, except that they agree even less and tend to solve their problems in a more physical manner by throwing Jedi at it until it goes away. The Jedi Order has a long standing relationship with the Republic as their own private police force, did I say ‘police force’? I meant close allies.

So, I choose the Imperials. Class selection. There are four to choose from for each faction, each of these four then splitting into two more once you complete the prologue world at around level 9 or 10.

The Imperials:
Sith Warrior - Juggernaut: the Darth Vader archetype. Wield a single lightsaber and wears heavy armour. Warning: choking hazard. for those who like the idea of walking (alternatively: flying through the air propelled unnaturally by your own will) up to an enemy then proceeding to utilise your lightsaber as more of a club than a sword.
Marauder: the Asajj Ventress/Galen Marek (Starkiller from The Force Unleashed) archetype. Dual wielding single lightsabers and wearing medium armour. For those who like their opponents filleted.
Sith Inquisitor - Sorcerer: the Darth Sidious (Emperor Palpatine) archetype. This one’s for the megalomaniacs amongst us. For those who like shooting lightning from their hands and cackling maniacally.
Assassin: the Darth Maul archetype. The sneakiest of the four saber-wielding Sith. Carries a saberstaff and likes to go invisible to spy on the other initiates in the showers...
Bounty Hunter - Mercenary: the Jango Fett/Calo Nord archetype. Wielding two blaster pistols and a wrist-mounted missile launcher with heat-seeking rockets. For those that enjoy it when their employer has to state, “and no disintergrations”, just to make sure.
Powertech: the Davik Kang archetype (for those who played Knights of the Old Republic). The Powertech specialises in Heavy Armour, Shields and Flamethrowers. The philosophy of the Powertech seems to be, ‘if I can’t die, how can I lose?’.
Imperial Agent - Sniper: the Trenchers of the imperial war machine. Less traditional sniper, more mobile gun emplacement. The Sniper can deploy their own cover shields and also deploy things such as mines and droids to defend their entrenched position.
Operative: the more traditional field agents and spies of Imperial Intelligence. They use stealth to get close to people before silently removing their kidneys. Good for people that like to work from the shadows and ignore their friends repeated calls for help.

The Republic:
Jedi Knight - Guardian: the Obi-Wan Kenobi/Clone Wars Jedi archetype. Wearing heavy armour and wielding a single lightsaber, they are the traditional Jedi Knight we all remember from the films. For the traditionalists among us.
Sentinel: the Anakin Skywalker (when he fights Count Dooku in ‘Attack of the Clones’) archetype. Dual-wielding lightsabers and wearing medium armour, they are a mix of damage and resilience. For those that really like the sound of whooshing lightsabers.
Jedi Consular - Sage: the Yoda archetype. With their superior mastery of the Force, they have decided they want to throw big rocks at people they don’t like. For those that like to imagine what it would be like to pick up a car with your mind and drop it on someone.
Shadow: Not a traditional Jedi archetype as we know it, although it seems the saberstaff was a much more common weapon in the Old Republic timeline. Focusing on cloaking themselves with the force and striking from behind, they seem like the least Jedi of the four Jedi classes. For those who don’t like Jedi or Sith, but like lightsabers.
Republic Trooper - Commando: the Heavy guns expert. Not a commando in the traditional sense, as I don’t think most commandos would go into battle with only a giant rocket launcher or a minigun, but still. For those that enjoy shouting “I AM BULLETPROOF!”.
Vanguard: the clone trooper archetype. Wearing heavy armour and carrying a blaster rifle, they look every bit the part of the walking tank. For those who like to strike hero poses.
Smuggler - Gunslinger: the space cowboy. Dual-wielding blaster pistols and using explosives to damage and sabotage their opponents. For those that like wearing big hats and saying cheesy one-liners.
Scoundrel: the Han Solo archetype. Using a one-handed shotgun-pistol and stealth tactics, they like to bide their time before breaking cover to steal everything that isn’t nailed down. For those that like Wookies.

I’ve always been a fan of Zabraks (before Darth Maul) and the saberstaff (again before Darth Maul, although he did combine the two much to my delight), so I thought I’d try for Sith Inquisitor into Sith Assassin. I won’t give any specific details so I don’t spoil any of the story for those that haven’t played it yet, suffice to say that it was all very much in keeping with the Sith we know and love from the KOTOR series. However, I found the first area’s quests for the Inquisitor stiflingly boring and when I took a break and logged back in, I found that I didn’t want to play the Inquisitor and decided to try another class.

So, over to the other side of the fence. Jedi Knight looks fun. Sure enough, it is everything we expect, heroic and helpful, but there’s still something missing. The Jedi Knight character is quite bland and there isn’t much scope to create someone intriguing. So, onto the next character.
Bounty Hunter. Now, I liked the look of Bounty Hunter from the start, but was put off by an article in PC Gamer that spoke about the boring conversation choices and the stagnant storyline. Perhaps because I played a female character (a first for me, shock horror), instead of the male bounty hunter that the PC Gamers article tried, and because I went down the light side route (as far as a bounty hunter can be light side), I found the Bounty Hunter story hugely engaging. The character is voiced well and you can choose between being a complete bastard/bitch, a complete mercenary with no morals without profit or the uncompromising hunter. The feeling of satisfaction I felt when I got to freeze someone solid with a carbonite ray because I chose the light side option to keep them alive, I knew I’d made the right decision going down the path I had.

Every class’ skills were interesting and mostly unique. No skill felt redundant and I often found myself using all of the skills I had in fights. Combining this with the removal of the auto-attack mechanic (probably the best decision Bioware have made in terms of combat) makes the combat engaging and responsive, because your character will not act without your input. Traditional MMOs can be compared to playing a keyboard at school. You put on the auto beat and then press the keys when you need to. TOR feels more free and creative, more like a piano. No sounds comes out unless you press a key, meaning that it is you that creates the music.

Every quest, and I do mean every quest is completely voice acted and animated with your own individual conversation. I can’t even begin to explain what a difference this makes to the overall questing experience. The level of engagement and immersion is second to none. The traditional ‘Kill x number of y’ quests are gone, although for those with a sense of nostalgia or simply a wish for some extra experience get the option to do them as Optional additions to other quests whilst you travel to them, but they are by no means necessary for levelling. Gathering quests, unfortunately still remain, although they are mostly painless and there are still the usual ‘go here and press this button’ quests that can get a little tedious from time to time. However, there are many interesting and unique quests that are a joy to complete (the story quests, which are character specific, in particular).

The heroic quests and Flashpoints are also interesting and of varying levels of difficulty. The first time I fought Iron Fist (a Mandalorian Commander) in the first Flashpoint you get access to, my partner and I got roundly trounced. The second time, however, we won and felt a distinct sense of achievement for doing so. A little disappointing was the fact that the final boss of the same instance, who is supposedly a Sith Apprentice, was woefully easy to beat. I expect this will be rectified before release.

Later on you can do the 4-person group Flashpoints, although I am still undecided on the 4-player group mechanic they are going for. It’s a much bigger break from the norm than it seems at first, mainly because the class roles are not as clear cut as they are in other MMOs. Whilst there are specific classes better at doing certain things (Tanking, Healing, etc) you still get the pleasant feeling that everyone is a damage-dealer first and whatever else second. Because of this, I have found that hybrid groups seem to work much more effectively than the traditional 1 tank, 1 healer, 2 DPS, which, I’m sure, is what we all expected would be the norm. The best group combination I found for a 4-player Flashpoint was two tank/DPS hybrids and two healer/DPS hybrids. This works much better than any other combination I have tried. You have the main tanker take on the toughest, most damaging opponent, whilst the second tanker (the off-tank if you like) takes the rest of the trash. The healers then work together and keep everyone healed, whilst still doing silly damage.

It is important to note that healing in TOR has received a lot of criticism over the past week and it seems to me that it is mostly because people are complaining that they can’t out-heal the damage tanks are taking. This is just not true. Healing in TOR is about teamwork. The tank needs to keep his damage reduction as high as possible so that the healer can easily keep him topped up. Gone are the days of the healer healing through damage that should kill entire groups, now there’s an element of people keeping themselves (DPS and other healers included) alive instead of relying on the healer to do all the work and this is no bad thing. I like the new mechanic, but I worry that people will not be able to break their old habits, even in the name of progress. We shall see.

Bioware have done the impossible. When we heard their plan, we all thought they were crazy. They wanted to create innovation in the MMO, whilst still keeping it accessible enough for MMO veterans to feel comfortable. Not only have they managed to do all this, but they have managed to place it in a Star Wars universe whilst maintaining the look and feel of both the Star Wars films and the KOTOR franchise. A truly astonishing feat. I have heard grumblings from certain other sites about the TOR beta and in particular their belief that the singleplayer story and multiplayer elements do not combine well and instead feel like separate entities. My reponse to this is to ask, how many of us have played an MMO and been forced to grind up the levels in order to play with our friends? It is rare that we actually level together as gamers and even rarer that we level together for the entire game. This is why I think that TOR seemeless transition from singleplayer RPG to MMO really shines. The ability to have fun living a real story whilst levelling up; and at the same being able to drop into Flashpoints and other grouped missions makes this a truly interesting combination. It is also the first MMO I can think of that actually looks like playing through the game as a different class will give a completely different experience, instead of just different combat mechanics and the same questing areas.

The beta weekend showed us one of the most polished betas ever seen in the gaming industry and it truly showed that Bioware haven’t been wasting their time. There’s no doubt that TOR is going to be big. The only question is ‘how big?’. For the answer to that, we’ll have to wait and see, but here’s one person who’s hoping that TOR lives up to everything we hope it will be.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

R.A.G.E. Review

Initial impressions of RAGE were good. RAGE can be summed up as a culmination of small changes to the genre that add together to make a good overall re-imagining of the formula.

The visuals are good. The game has great styling to it, with a real feeling of a connected and vibrant world. The sky is just incredible. Even though it is obviously a static, painted sky, it is one of the best skies I have seen in a game (and perhaps even in reality). The on-demand texture generation, however, leaves a lot to be desired if you’re using high mouse sensitivity, as I do, and it can sometimes break the immersion. However, the textures do look very good when they have loaded. The characters look very alive and each is interesting in its own way. The weapons look good and they all have a certain uniqueness to them that keeps them interesting.

The amazing sky:

The combat is crisp and engaging. The weapons, although sounding terrible, actually pack quite a punch. In a far too underused mechanic in the FPS genre, people actually react to being hit by a bullet. In most games where you might as well be firing at a lump of wood, but in RAGE people that you hit actually stumble or get knocked back and it all relates to whereabouts you hit them. This creates a nice difference between when you fire at a regular enemy and a heavily armoured enemy as well, as they react far less, but you can still feel their armour plating being hit by your bullets. Each of the weapons is quite unique and none of them feels inadequate, as is so often the case in other games where the newer guns are generally better. In RAGE, there is no point at which a weapon becomes useless. Even now, 2 hours in with some pretty awesome weapons, such as a sniper rifle and pump action shotgun, I still sometimes switch back to my pistol because the monocular I bought for it allows for great long distance vision that is less restricting than the scope on the sniper rifle; and even towards the endgame I found myself switching back to the pistol, because of it’s meatier rounds and high accuracy, which was good for dealing with armoured targets.

The voice acting is overall quite good and highly engaging, as the NPCs dotted around the various settlements comment often, making for a much more immersive world. For example, you may take a mission from someone (the method of doing so nicely incorporate into the dialogue as well) and then walk past someone on your way out who’ll say something like “Good luck” and then when you come back they might say “You made it!” Although of course with a more varied vocabulary than that. While this seems like a simple mechanic, it is something that has been sorely missed in many so called ‘sandbox games’ in recent times. The feeling of people actually noticing such small actions as your coming and going make a big difference in the feel of the game.

The final good point I will mention, is that the game never feels like a grind. The missions are each very different and in very well made and rich locations; and the rewards for each missions give a sense of constant progression, and I mean real meaningful progression. For example, the first few missions you get a vehicle, a shotgun, a sniper rifle, etc. While this is not unusual, the fact that this level of progression continues well after the first few missions, is something I have not experienced in a game before. It is difficult to maintain a constant a rewarding sense of progression through-out a game, and the developers here must be commended for that.

Now the bad points, the driving sections can get somewhat repetitive. They are, however, short and any objectives relating to driving are optional and can be skipped. The missions you can get from the ‘Job Board’ take place in the same areas that the story missions do and often involve simply going backwards through the same area killing all the newly spawned baddies from a different faction. They have made improvements to this however by making it so that you don’t have to traipse back through the level once everything is dead and they just give you a straight way out once you’re done, whilst at the same time not breaking any immersion, which is a feat in and of itself.

The most negative aspect of the game is unfortunately the story. You can see that the designers have borrowed heavily from other big-selling games, such as Half-Life 2 and Fallout 3. The story similarities at the beginning and end are shocking reminiscent of Half-Life 2, but without the emotional connection we all felt when playing the latter. There’s no Alyx or Dog, there’s no Doctor Kleiner, there’s no cause in the sense that there was in Half-Life 2. When I first played Half-Life 2 and came upon those first two Civil Protection Officers beating up that man in the back alley, I had the exact same feeling as everyone else that played the game. My heart screamed, ‘That is wrong!’. I then looked at the bottom right of my screen. I had a crowbar. I looked up at the two erstwhile repressive murderers running towards me with batons out and I did what everyone else did. RAGE doesn’t have those emotional dilemmas or that real feeling of a cause worth fighting for, as there is no face to ‘The Authority’ like there was with Doctor Breen in Half-Life 2.

It is, however, unfair of me to compare this game to another, because although it does borrow heavily from other games, it has its own unique aspects and some of those aspects are genuinely worth playing the game for. Hopefully other developers will take note of the good points of RAGE and when the next genre-defining title comes along, it will be all the better for it.

Score: 83%

Monday, 26 September 2011

Rant 1: World of Warcraft Cataclysm


This sums up my attitude towards the game as a whole.


This sums up my feelings about recent changes in World of Warcraft.

So why the difference? World of Warcraft is 7 years old. It has been the most successful MMO of all time so far, a genre defining work that may NEVER be beaten. But while that is its best asset it is also its greatest downfall.

They have gotten LAZY. The content they are coming out with is disappointing to say the least. 4.3 comes soon and with it we get Transmogrification. Great seems like a cool addition, But wait! The art team now needs to do less work! Oh and remember they have important things to do before fixing trivial game mechanic bugs and plot holes in the story, REALLY important stuff. LIKE MAKING MY WEAPON SHINY AND BLUE!. It seems that in reality they care more about Diablo 3 and Project Titan (Facebook App I guarantee).

The new 5 mans look appealing based on the screenshots, Deathwing draped all over Wyrmrest Temple makes me a little happy, but only 1 more raid and that's the big D himself? That seems a little stupid when we have only had 4 so far. Apparently one reason behind this is that the lore for the Neptulon/Aszhara raid “didn't fit”. May I remind you about the entire Draenei race.

Underwater Raid with a part to play in the story > Space goats who crashed their ship into a random island that no one wants to go to.

This brings us nicely onto the Legendary dagger(s). Rogue daggers seemed to me the most unlikely of choices for the next legendary, I mean we have had loads of rogue stuff before. But this is what they have chosen. I enjoy my rogue so when they announced this you may have thought i would be exhilarated. THINK FUCKING AGAIN!

This is a stupid idea. I shall agree with it for my own gain, but come on Blizzard, there are plenty of specs of classes who have never had access to a legendary (Im looking at you Enhancement) and yet you choose Rogues. It seems that while thought has gone into these decisions it has been misplaced.

In reality this patch is both good and bad. Firelands isn't a bad raid instance and with us beating Ragnaros the Firelord up it is also an entertaining instance, but the issue is that its got nothing else to go with it. Cataclysm shipped with 3 raid instances, Bastion of Twilight, Blackwing Descent and Throne of the Four Winds. That's 3 instances to go to and have a different scene every time. Firelands is.....Well the name is pretty self explanatory, Fire, Rocks, Lava, Some more rocks, Turtles, and more fire. Turtles i hear you cry, Yes fucking fiery turtles. Let me tell you, that while being hurtled into the air by fiery turtles doesn't get old, all the fire does.

Overall I've been left very confused by Blizzards motives. They seem to have lost touch with the WoW community a little bit and this isn't something that bodes well. Hopefully this is wrong and they have some uber ideas that will spice World of Warcraft right up to its considerably ugly eyeballs.

WoW is a great game, and I've spent many hours enjoying it, especially the Burning Crusade expansion, minus the space goats of course, but it seems to be getting less and less exciting as it moves through expansions.

I think the only thing that keeps me playing WoW is the people. My guild is great, and my previous guilds were great. I have previously quit and both times the people made me come back. Without friends the game just isn't as fun, and this is the same for nearly all MMO’s.

I think part of the reason I'm less interested than i was during The Burning Crusade is that my guild then, a 25 man raiding guild, is a rarity these days. Lots of 10mans, which is great, but i miss my 2 seperate lockouts a week, and i miss the camaraderie of 25 people all trying to kill something. I hope Blizzard might look at changing this back in the future.

At the moment i would call World of Warcraft the Sebastian Vettel of the MMO world. It knows its the best, and it continues to win, to the point where no one can match it. But in reality everyone wishes that Jenson Button or Fernando Alonso (Not this person) would beat him, just because no one really likes him as much as they would love something different. This is in my opinion where WoW has been successful. Given the choice between your favourite fantasy/sci fi book/film/world and WoW if your choice was as good as WoW which would you pick?

That's what I thought. :)

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Review

Recently I finished my first play-through of Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  To sum up my thoughts immediately after I finished the game would be to say that I felt a deep sense of being unfulfilled.  I honestly expected more of a game from such a strong lineage.  Let me explain why.

The set up for the story, which had been happening for going on two years prior to release, was excellent.  The pre-release footage, information and CGI videos really set the stage for an epic moral and ethical conflict that would engulf the entirety of humanity as well as the hero himself, as we, as a people, come to grips, for the first time, with the reality of science overtaking nature.  In reality we got three men fighting over who's got the better moral compass and you're supposed to be the great arbiter of the dispute.  Through-out the game you never get the feeling that this really is a huge dilemma for humanity, instead you get the impression that a small proportion of the population don’t like augmented people because they’re different.  

For anyone that watched the ‘Purity First’ live action trailer, you’ll feel the same sense of bewilderment that I felt when I found out that Neuropozyne (the hugely dangerous, highly addictive and ludicrously expensive drug required for the majority of the populace to ensure their body does not reject their augmentations) is barely even mentioned.  The few times it is mentioned, the hugely controversial nature of the drug seems to take a secondary role compared to the feelings of ‘oh my god, the poor, they need our help’ nature of the people involved.  The lack of corporate ethics that makes these companies use this drug to control people and their money never comes into play throughout the entire game.  The phrase ‘Purity First’ itself refers to an extremist group that are violently anti-augmentation.  Well that’s what the game would have us believe, even though the build up post release made us think they were more against the corrupting corporate nature of augmentation, where it is treated as a business and people are just money and numbers, rather than human beings.  However, in the game itself they come across as a group of idiotic terrorists bent on taking hostages for no other reason than they were told to do so by the voices.  While that is an oversimplification, you can understand my meaning.  They looked promising, as though they were going to have some deep storyline and complicated moral views when really they ended up as just a shallow group of faceless terrorists that you have absolutely no compunction about stabbing through the neck with a giant arm-sword.  There should have been conflicted interests in this conflict.  Should I kill these hostage takers?  Aren’t they just some scared people that don’t know what to do?  But in reality they’re lacking any humanity and the gamer feels no empathy for their cause.

So, what about the companies?  Surely there must be ethical conundrums that arise there, I hear you cry.  Unfortunately not.  Again the companies are somewhat shallow.  You’ve got the supposed ‘good’ company (Sarif Industries) and the supposed ‘bad’ company (Tai Yong Medical).  We all know from personal experience that corporations are mean.  They’ll do anything to make money and you don’t get to be the boss of one of these multi-billion [enter preferred currency here] companies by being a ‘nice guy’.  However, Sarif industries seems to be the first company in the history of mankind to be the exception to this.  They’re supposedly just trying to make people’s lives better (with a few Defence contracts thrown in to add a little controversy).  Neither company inspires much real interest, and the characters within each company are generic, emotionless and often stereotypical.  Through-out the game there are hardly any characters that garner any real feeling of depth of character or make you feel a true interest in what might happen to them and those few that do fall into the multitude of plot holes left within the story and are never heard from again.

What about Jensen’s personal story that looks really interesting from the pre-release media?  Girlfriend killed, hero almost killed, possibility of becoming something people hate and fear; surely there’s a truly great dark hero story in there, right?  No.  Jensen’s personal story crops up a couple of times, but basically sits on the sidelines waiting to actually get used.  When it does get used, nothing is explained, there is no emotion from any of the parties involved and there is no humanity shown in Jensen at all.  In the pre-release media we saw Jensen sitting in his apartment looking totally despondent drinking a glass of scotch having flashbacks of the attack on Sarif Industries that claimed the life of his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend, apparently).

This set the stage for what most of us thought would be a ground-breakingly deep story of a character stuck in the downward spiral of self-destructive grief and then having the story following his attempts to claw his way out of the abyss and become something of his former self.  Instead we play a full game with an emotionless, bland ‘hero’ who garners absolutely no sympathy or sense of relation from the gamer.  Eidos Montreal missed a huge opportunity for a truly moving and incredible journey of emotional self-repair with a really deep and interesting protagonist, but instead opted for an easily forgettable, generic action hero with little or no personality.

The game is heavily biased against a lethal response, the player receiving significantly less experience for killing people than for disabling them in a non-violent manner.  If there had been some reasoning explained for this within the game, such as Jensen’s unwillingness to become a simple killing machine or his regret over the Mexico incident from his SWAT days, something that seems very reminiscent of the ‘fishing trip’ from Gavin & Stacey, insofar as there’s never any really explicit information about what happened, simply that it was bad and Jensen was involved.  The fact that Jensen is an ex-SWAT Team Leader would make you think that a lethal response to hostage takers is a pretty normal response.  The multiple ways of overcoming obstacles is extremely interesting as well and is used extremely well in certain locations (i.e. the Police Station), but opportunities are missed elsewhere for a non-combat response.  However, there seems to be no discernible difference whether you play through a sequence in one way or another.  There are barely any consequences to your actions, the story follows the same linear path and nothing changes.  You could kill every single Police Officer in Detroit and parade their bodies publicly in some sort of ancient sacrificial rite and then dance on top of them in front of a camera and nothing would change.  That is a shame and yet another missed opportunity in the ever growing list.

Concept = 95%
Execution = 82%

Welcome to Grumpy Gamers!

Just a quick hello and welcome to Grumpy Gamers or "gg". Blackheart and I want to welcome you to our little blog, and we hope you enjoy some of our takes on the latest games! We will be inviting contributions in the near future so if your interested the details on that will be coming shortly.

So to start you off have a gander at Blackheart's Deus Ex review!