Mar 25, 2017

07: Open World done right

Back wen Horizon: Zero Dawn was first announced I was sceptical about it. Part because I´m always sceptical when it comes to so called AAA games, part because it is the first Open World game from Guerilla Games and part because I don´t like most Open World games. You can blame Ubi Soft for at least of these reasons. I still picked it up on day one because I liked Guerilla´s Killzone Series and because Horizon´s unique mix of primitive Tribes and high-tech machinery looked very interesting to me. And I´m really happy that I did play the game because in my opinion it turned out to be one of the best games ever made. I´m not joking here, Horizon is one of these rare games that hooked me right from the beginning in a way that I just had to finish it ASAP, heck, I even cared enough to get all of those stupid Trophies. Yeah, making a better Open World game than Ubi Soft is probably not that hard to do and having the combat being focused on ranged weapoms helps to keep at least me interested. Ever since I first played Turok 2 back on the N64 I really enjoy using Bow´s in Videogames, and your main tools of destruction are indeed a variety of Bows. Yes, Horizon isn´t without flaws, but most of it is leaning towards the territory of nitpicking. One of these Nitpicks is, shockingly enough, the basic Story setup.

Don´t get me wrong, the Story is presented in a very interesting way because neither the player character, Aloy, nor anyone else knows who the "old ones" where, why there are these machines and why they are a threat to humans. Probably everyone who has seen a couple of Sci-Fi movies can easily guess that humanity itself created the machines, screwed up in the process and the machines took the world over. And while this Story setup isn´t exactly anything new, the execution of it is still amazing and there are even a few twists and turns thrown in for good measure. In Addition to uncovering history you have to deal with religious extremists and prejudices. A lot. If you feel like taking a break you can always play one of the mostly really well done Sidequests, I only really disliked the majority of everything that has to do with the Hunters Lodge because it felt mor like busywork than actualy doing something worth your time, and the only reason this sticks out so much is because unlike Ubi Soft´s Open World Games Horizon isn´t filled with truckloads of busywork. Other than the Main- and Sidequests you can do some optional content like climbing the Tallnecks (these huge Giraffe-like machines) to uncover the map faster, clear out Bandit Camps and Corrupted Zones to make travel safer, enter the Cauldrons to be able to override more machines (override turns machines friendly for a while and they will fight against other machines) or do the busywork of grabbing all the collectibles.

Luckily the world itself isn´t stupidly large for the sake of being stupidly large, it actualy feels like a fairly small-ish map for an Open World game, however when not using the fast travel system you are mostly traveling on foot. And you have to visit a place once before you can use the fast travel to that location. You visit deserts, a dense jungle, snowy mountains and areas that will remind you Northern Mythologies by just looking at them, so all your landscape bases are covered here and everything is insanely beautiful.  The Soundtrack while being really good lacks any really memorable pieces. I could listen to any piece of music from the game right now and I probably wouldn´t even know that it even is from Horizon, but that´s a problem that I happen to have with a lot of more modern games. What is a bit unusal is the Photo Mode that is implemented into the game. Outside of Racing games I very rarely, if ever, see any sort of dedicated tool for Screenshots. And it is a mighty powerful tool at that. at any point during gameplay that is outside of cities or settlements you can make full use of all features, you can move the camera around, change the FOV, decide weather or not you whant a dept of field, adjust the focal plane and what f-stop to use (yes, they use some proper Photography-terms here), play around with exposure settings and various filters and it even gives you control over the daytime so you don´t have to wait for the proper lighting to make your Screenshot extra cool. This is all the proof I need to whant this in each and every game now.

One of the weakest things about Horizon are the pointless crafting and Skilltree "features". You can craft pretty much all consumables you may or may not need during the game, this ranges from multiple ammunition types to traps and potions, but I don´t see the point of even having this when the gaming is throwing out so much crafting recources that you have unlimited acces to everything. At that point you might as well lock the traps & potions behind cooldowns after being used and make the ammo capacity bigger and make the player buy them from merchants or at least make the recources more limited. Skilltrees can be a great way to offer different gameplay styles if done right, however when the game throws at least a dozen possible skillpoints more at you than you will ever need to unlock all skills the whole system becomes useless. If you happen to have a PS4 you should own this game, It´s a really great experience and probably the strongest new IP in recent years and I think that every gamer that complains about most games being sequels should support this game to show that we whant new IP´s, 

Feb 12, 2017

06: Is it a game or a movie?

Love or hate the games from Quantic Dream, but one thing is for sure: You can´t say that they don´t at least try to deliver a experience that is different from most other games. The problem is, and this is where a lot of hate towards their games comes from, that with the exception of Omikron: The Nomad Soul all of the Studios other games shifted more and more towards the realm of Interactive Movies with gameplay often consisting of not much more than choosing Dialouge Options and Quick Time Events. I tend to enjoy their games. What they lack in gameplay they more than make up in Storytelling. Just take Fahrenheit / Indigo Prophecy as an example. In this game you play both as the Agents working on a Murder case and the guy who did it. As the player you both whant to get the guy you are after yet at the same time you don´t whant to get caught. The Story get´s a bit more complicated than that, but overall it is a insanely great way to kick the game off. Beyond: Two Souls takes this Interactive Movie aproach and just runs with it in every way possible. The game runs in a 21:9 Aspect Ratio at all times to give it more of a movie feel, two of the main characters are acted, both in voice and motion capture, by real actors and the ingame models are modelled exactly after them. These are Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, both with Hollywood fame prior to this games release and their acting isn´t bad either. Cutscenes and gameplay sections often have transsitions so seamless that sometimes you end up making controller inputs during cutscenes. 

You play as Ellen Page´s Character Jodie and the Entity Aiden that is with her at all times. At first Jodie grew up with foster parents, however after an incident where Aiden almost choked a boy to death during a snowfight Jodie is taken to the Department of Paranormal Activity (DPA) in an attempt to understand and control Aiden. Once at the DPA she grows up there until she enters the CIA as a Teenager shortly after she was able to shut down the reactor for an experiment gone wrong that was intended to get acces and control the world of the Entities, now dupped the Infraworld. At the CIA Jodie taks part in a couple of Missions, however after she learns that the CIA lied to her about who the target of one of her missions really was she decides that she no longer whant´s to be a part of the Agency and runs away, living homeless on the streets for a while and hiking through the country and making a few friends in the process. After some time she get´s back to the DPA and agree´s to go on a last mission with the CIA to shut down a chinese developed Condenser before it is used to attack the US, in return Jodie get´s offered a new Identity to start a new life. The Mission is a succes, however the CIA doesn´t really keep their promise and they whant to put Jodie in a coma-esque condition. Nathan, one of the Doctor´s Jodie grew up with at the DPA, decides to shut down the containment field of the Black Sun dubbed Condenser in an attempt to reunite with his dead wife and daughter in the Infraworld. During the Shutdown Jodie learns who Aiden really is and she has to decide if she want´s to stay alive or if she whant´s to join the people she lost on her Journey in the Infraworld.

Ingame the Story is presented in a non-linear way. At least that´s what the game does by default, because the PS4 Version has at least the Option to play it in a Linear presentation. Why this wasn´t patched in for the PS3 Original is a mystery to me. The real issue is that both the non-linear and the linear aproach of telling the story aren´t perfect for this game. With the non-linear variant the game jumps around in it´s timeline that it get´s confusing at times, but that isn´t the real problem here, the actual order is. For instance you take part in a mission for the CIA in a Warzone, however because at that point you already played sections of the game where you are running and hiding from them, and because of this you already know that there can´t be any real threat for Jodie here because you know that she obviously didn´t die during the mission. With the linear aproach the game takes a real long time to pick up the pace, and at that point you might have lost interest in the game. With the PS4 Version you can at least pick your poison. Gameplay for the most part is a mix of Quck Time Events, manipulating objects or people as Aiden and fighting against other people or Entities. When fighting against other people it really is a slightly different form of QTE, in those fights, and some other instances the game will slow down and you have to push the right stick in whatever direction Jodie is moving. Sounds simple enough, but somehow it isn´t always obvious wich direction the game expects you to input. Luckily you are allowed to fail these inputs as much as you like because in an attempt to keep the Story going Beyond; Two Souls doesn´t have a failure state, but there are different ways in wich the scenes can end.

I played the PS3 Version and it is one of the best looking games on the system. It is really amazing what Quantic Dream did here with the system and the visuals are on such a high level that the very rare low-res texture and jagged shadow stick out as if a flashing arrow where pointing at it, but that´s really nitpicking here. Sure, the game has some Slowdowns, however considering how incredible the game looks and that the PS3 was already 7 years old by the time the game was released you can´t really complain that much. Both the Sound Effects and the Soundtrack are on a similar high level, but the Soundtrack isn´t memorable, it is just there. All of the Voice Acting is really well done to a point that paired with the visuals you can really mistake the game for a CGI movie at times. Sadly the game never really explores it´s gameplay capabilities to a full extend. Especially the Missions you do for the CIA and DPA show how much fun a game could be that gives you control over an Soldier and an Entity that allows him to control the enemies or to manipulate the world around him in his favour. As it is Beyond is a fun experience and it is worth at least a try.

Feb 5, 2017

05: I´m doing Science!

Somewhat similar to the original Doom a little First-Person Puzzle game called Portal has grown to be a regular game to play through over the years and so far it still remains to be fun. Sure, by now I know the solution to all the puzzles from memory and I got promised cake every time and never got it, but GLaDOS is always capable of getting a smile on my face and that´s what I like this game so much. The Developers of Portal where hired by Valve after said Students created a short Proof of Concept game called Narbacular Drop wich already features a lot of the concepts later used in Portal. The Player wakes up in a glass chamber, a really catchy tune playing on the radio, a timer on a wall is counting down from 60 Seconds and a computerized voice welcomes you to the Aperture Science Enrichment Center and you now have to find your way through 19 Test Chambers using the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device and you are promised a cake at the end of the last test. The first few Test are designed to ease you into the concept of how the Portals work and what effect they have, or don´t have, on your movement. At first you can´t even create Portals yourself wich is quickly changed and you get your first version of the Portal Device wich is limited to creating blue Portals and after learning a few more tricks on how to use Portals properly you get upgraded to the full device and you are allowed to create both the blue and orange Portals and the real fun begins. You can create Portals on any non-metallic stationary surface that is large enough to have a Portal on it. If the surface moves your Portal on it closes itself.

Aside from the rules for the Portal placement you don´t have to worry about much, you don´t take fall damage, brownish-green steamy stuff will kill you as will electro-ball thingies that are needed to power a platform or lift. In the beginning all this testing seems to be mostly legit, however the computerized voice glitching out and not knowing your name or where you come from seems a bit off and while avoiding a whole bunch of turrets you begin to get that wierd feeling that you where never supposed to leave this place in one piece. This might be because GLaDOS, that´s the AI that is talking to you throughout the game, went bonkers at some point and tried to kill everyone inside the Enrichment Center by flooding it with a deadly gas and aside from GLaDOS herself the place seems to be abandoned but for reasons never explained left powered on. In the end you are able to shut down the AI by using brute force, your escape however, well, that´s another thing. And I won´t say anything about it. For the most part you won´t really notice much of the Soundtrack, but it is great stuff and the Credits Song "Still Alive" is probably one of the best known pieces of music ever created for a video game. Portal is a masterpiece in gamedesign and it teaches how it works without an obvious, forced tutorial, the humor is amazing and you should play it!

Jan 18, 2017

04: Sand in my Shoes

OK guys, this is my 4th attempt on getting a nice introduction for this one, but Spec Ops: The Line doesn´t make it easy for me. At first I wanted to talk about how I don´t like 3rd Person Shooters that much, but it felt unimportant. Then I tried to approach it from the controversy that sourrounds this game and again it felt wrong. What I tried to say was: I get what Yager Development was trying with this game, but at least for me it doesn´t work because I think that Yager themself missed their own point. I do get that they want to take an anti-war position with this game and in both the cutscenes and the Storytelling itself it really works. They show you what effect your actions have, the characters question if their actions where necessary or not or if it was even the right thing to do. And the twist at the end really comes as a surprise and it works. I love the game for this, I really do, however it sadly still falls flat on it´s face and leaves you with very mixed feelings because the gameplay doesn´t support the anti-war approach the game tries to take. The big issue here is that Spec Ops is just a run off the mill cover based 3rd Person Shooter with a few turret-sections mixed in for good measure. And to make matters worse the violence during gameplay sections is way over the top with heads exploding with huge amounts of blood leaving bodies with a clean cut at the neck. It just feels wrong to have a splatterfest while mowing down waves of enemies and then trying to tell the player "Look at this, this is how bad war is and it does bad stuff even to tough soldiers!", it just doesn´t work.

This issue is even sadder when you realize how much Yager managed to get right with Spec Ops. Sure, the gameplay isn´t anything special, but Dubai covered and partialy buried in sand from a series of Sandstorms makes for both a very unique and in places surprisingly beautiful setting. In other places you really feel that this version of Dubai is a place where people have to fight to survive and fear for their lives on a daily basis. The environmental storytelling works and it feels like a lot of thought went into building a believable place. The Soundtrack is a mix of a less memorable original score and much more memorable licensed music by Deep Purple, Jimmi Hendrix and Bjork among many more. Amazingly each of these Songs fits the scene they are used in perfectly. The Story itself? A somewhat forgettable mess. Like mentioned above Dubai was hit by a series of Sandstorms and while the rich and wealthy upper class left the city before things got too bad the working class got trapped in the city. When Colonel Konrad, leader of the 33rd Infantry Battalion heard about the Sandstorms he vouluntered the 33rd to help and ignored orders to abandon the city. When the Storms got so bad that the city got cut off from the outer world Konrad declared martial law and the 33rd began to commit atrocities to the civilians left in the city. Some members of the 33rd didn´t like this and they tried to stage an coup d´etat, wich failed and got them exiled. The CIA then send in a Black Ops Team to investigate, as a part of this plan they started a revolution with the civialns to bring Konrad down. After a looping radio transmission get´s out of the city a three man Delta Force Team is send in to gather information.

Like I said the Story is a bit of a mess, heck, most of the time I wasn´t even sure if the CIA and their followers where on my side or not and at some point I stopped caring  about who it was I where shooting at. Sure, this may have been the intention of the developrs, but at the point I didn´t care anymore about my enemies the whole idea of the game already fell flat for me. Don´t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the game as a cover based 3rd Person Shooter, and as that it is great, but in my opinion the anti-war message they tried to get across doesn´t work when the gameplay doesn´t support it. For that the game schould have been much slower with much fewer enemies and a more realistic approach to violence. Yes, I do know that a slow, realistic game with an anti-war message would have been much harder to sell and andvertize, but I feel that it is the only way to really get the message to the people that play the game. I still recommend that you play Spec Ops: The Line yourself, just don´t expect that everything feels like it should belong in the same piece of media.

Jan 8, 2017

03: Virtua Fighter RPG

Today we have the first big one for the year. Shenmue ist just the perfect game to play around Christmas or during winter in general. But unlike Doom I don´t play this one that often, in fact it was only my 2nd complete playthrough and the first one was a few years ago. My overall opinion on this game changed a lot during this playthrough, after I finished it for the first time I would have recommended this game to everybody, but now I wouldn´t do that anymore. You see, Shenmue´s biggest strenght is the insane amount of freedom and attention to detail it has, and in the end that is also it´s biggest downside. You can open (almost) every drawer and closet you see and pick up a lot of things in the gameworld, most of the time you won´t find anything that is usefull or even needed, however in some cases you are requiered to do just that, and if you are not the type of person that just explores and tries random stuff in games anyway you could easily end up running in circles for hours without ever knowing that to do. I.e. around halfway through the game you have to sneak into a warehouse to meet up with someone. Once you arrive there you quickly realize that you can´t find anyone there. What you are ment to do here is to pick up a certain Item from one of the shelves to trigger a cutscene, however prior to this you where never required to pick up any item in the gameworld to progress in the game, you might as well still don´t know at this point that you even can pick up almost anything. But I´m getting a bit ahead of myself with the issues I have with the game.

The Story is a simple and basic one: Your father get´s killed and you want to revenge him. Lan Di, the man that murdered your father, is after the Dragon Mirror that your father owns, according to an old legend this Dragon Mirror is the key to great power, however it is useless without it´s counterpart, the Phoenix Mirror. As it turns out your father had both Mirrors and Lan Di obviously didn´t know that. You play as Ryo Hazuki and you have to find out where Lan Di is. And right there is this really big issue I have with the game: Ryo knows who is looking for, he has a name, he knows how Lan Di looks like, he knows that he uses a rare fighting style, so chances are that someone else with a Martial Arts background could know who exactly Lan Di is and where to find him. And considering that Ryo´s father himself was a Martial Arts Master with his own Dojo and, as it later turns out, unique fighting style chances are high that Ryo knows a couple of people that could help him. Obviously that would make way too much sense and it probably wouldn´t make a interesting game and because of that you have to find him the hard way by finding clue after clue the hard way by asking people, beating some guys up with a fairly in-depth fightinh system similar to Virtua Fighter and not screwing up completely during a Quick Time Event. I do understand why Ryo doesn´t ask if anyone knows where to find Lan Di, but it would be much more believable if the didn´t have the name from the get go, and considering how much attention to detail the game has and how realistic the entire experience is, this one detail really sticks out once you start thinking about it.

And the. at least by todays standardts, small Open-World really is very realistic, it was modelled after real, existing places after all. You can enter many Shops and Restaurants, you can talk to every single NPC you see and every single one has voice acting. Sure, many will only say that they don´t have time or don´t want to talk with you, but at least you get a fully voiced reaction each time you approach a NPC. You can also buy certain items at the super market, mostly cassete tapes with music from the games Soundtrack and food for a littke kitten you can take care of, you can buy capsules with random little toys in them to build up a collection of various characters from Sega games. cars and random objects or you can visi the local Arcade to play Arcade-Perfect Ports of Hong-On and Space Harrier as well as a game of Darts and a QTE-Trainer. If you have some time to fill, and you will often run into a situation where you have to wait for something to happen, you can also visit the Dojo or various other places like Parking Lots or small Parks to train your fighting moves. Stores are only open during certain times of the day, NPC´s do different thing at different times of the day, the weather can change over the course of a day and you have to be at home at 11 PM the game will just send you back home becase it´s time to get some sleep. And if you get told to meet someone at a certain time you have to wait to further progress. All this really helps to make the game feel believable, and don´t forget that all this was done back in 1999, back then hardly any other game felt so realistic and even today you won´t find many games that will let you interact with so many random, useless objects as Shenmue does.

Visualy the game still holds up very well. Sure, the overall Texture Quality is low by todays standardts, but especialy when played with a VGA Box you can make out a lot of details. In addition the main cast of characters has very detailed character models down to the hands being modeled with individual fingers. Some of the models used during cutscenes, like i.e. Lan Di or Shenhua / Sha Hua are so detailed and well textured that they wouldn´t look out of place in some modern titles. Overall the visuals can compare to some of the games released in the middle of the PS2´s life span. The Sound is on a similar level. The Soundtrack is incredible and unlike most Dreamcast games it´s played mosltly by the Dreamcast´s Soundchip in Realtime instead of using compressed Audio Files. This gives the game a very high quality to it´s music tracks. Most of the Sound Effects you hear throughout the game come with fairly high quality as well, however the same can´t be said for most of voice acting. I don´t know if the same is true for the original Japanese version of the game since I´m only familiar with the english voiced PAL Version of the game, but a lot of the spoken dialouge has very obvious background noise from the compression, to make matters worse some of the voice acting is on a very amateur-level in terms of the actual acting part and some if it even has a slight hint of echo that was probably left from the original recording session. But considering how much voice acting the game has and how much I love the bad voice acting in the original Resident Evil I can´t and won´t complain too much about this.

Even though the game has a lot going for it on the technical side and in terms of world building, the controls can be really annoying at times, especialy during the first few hours when you play Shenmue for the first time. Your modern gamer senses want to control Ryo with the single Thumbstick the Dreamcast controller has, however that only controls the camera. Ryo himself is controlled with the D-Pad with A being you main Button to interact with the world and B to cancel most interactions. The left and right triggers are used to switch into a first Person view and to run, and it´s up to the player wich trigger does what. The Y Buttons opens your Inventory wich has all the Items you bought or found, you can view your notebook from here, view the list of moves you learned, view your collection of capsule-toys and listen to cassette tapes you own if you found the cassette player. In addition you can save the game from the inventory at any point in the game to resume at the exact place where you saved. The issue with these controls is that Ryo has the turning radius of a cargo ship when running and even when walking you will have trouble to enter a small passage because when you turn left or right while standing you automaticly move a bit forward as well. Sure, you get used to the controls, but some people might be scared away right at the start. Every once in a while you get involved in a fight, most of them are during the last third of the game. These fights feaure hand-to-hand combat with everything you would expect from a fighting game or brawler and with the expection of one or two fights even people that don´t play fighting games on a regular basis won´t have too much trouble winning these fights.

Like I mentioned earlier Shenmues greatest strenght and weakness is the great freedom it gives you, and because of that you absoluely have to be the kind of person that want´s to explore a games world and try stuff for the sake of trying. You need patience for the game because sometimes you have to play the waiting game and even though you as the player might already know what you have to do to progress you might have to do something else before you can actualy progress. In a sense Shenmue is a evolution of the Adventure-Genre, similar to those classic Point & Click games you spent most of your time with garhering information and solving a few puzzles along the way. But if you are not the types of person that likes to explore in their games you will hate this game because sometimes it will require you to do stuff that you might not know is even possible. Since I already played Shenmue 2 in the past as well I already know that it is the better and somehow more streamlined game and in comparsion the first game feels more like a technical demonstration of what the Dreamcast can do. Instead of playing the game you might as well just watch the official Shenmue Movie that came bundled with the XBox Version of Shenmue 2, that Movie is mostly made from the cutscenes to tell the entire Story, in terms of actual gameplay you wouldn´t miss much that way.