Saturday, September 20, 2014

Spellforce - Sometimes Slow is OK

I have been re-playing a bit of Spellforce-Order of Dawn this last week. I find it curiously compelling even though I can't really recommend it to a modern audience. The rts/rpg hybrid gameplay was probably innovative back in 2003 but the game feels dated today. Moreover it plays very very slowly. A key feature of the game is that your character and accompanying army spend a lot of time just walking slowly around large maps to find enemies and other objectives. A curious design decision is that every time you load a game or use a fast travel portal the entire map covers with fog of war again. This means that unless you have a photographic memory the only way to search a map properly is to walk the whole map area in one long (an hour or more) session without quitting the game and without availing of any fast travel abilities.

The game is also rather easy (played on normal at any rate) and encourages a turtling strategy. It is very easy to defend your base from sporadic enemy attacks while you build up an unstoppable army and only then bring it out for the slow walk around the map steam-rolling any opposition you find along the way.

All of the above makes the game hard to recommend and I suspect many players would find this slow unchallenging gameplay rather frustrating. Yet I find it suits my mood at the moment. I doubt i will stick it out to the end of the campaign but it is keeping my occupied for a while at least.

Friday, August 29, 2014

A month of gaming - Those I have finished and those I have not.

In the last month I have played about twenty different games. Rather I should say I started to play about twenty different games. In some cases I stuck with the game to the end of the campaign. In others I gave up with no intention of going back but there is a third category of game which just  got sidelined when my attention wandered to something else. These games remain in my "to be played list".

Analysing the list it breaks down like this:
A. Games I am currently actively playing: 1
B. Games that I played to the end of the campaign I started: 6
C. Unfinished games on hold that I will probably get back to: 4
D. Unfinished games I am unlikely to go back to: 9

Categories A and B are not really problematic except to comment that I really like finishing games. Those games in category B where I have finished a campaign give me warm fuzzy feelings. Given that the large number of unfinished games in categories C and D might seem worrisome. Ten years ago I would have been horrified to think that I started nine games in a month just to give up on them. Today however with online sales and bundles there is a surfeit of games and a shortage of time. I have long since come to terms with the fact that I cannot play every game so it makes sense to try out a game and quickly move on once I have had enough of it.

The only really problematic category is C. These are games I really would like to get back to. Unfortunately there is a similar number of games from last month and again from the month before. This is my real backlog. If I am honest most of these games will never be finished, forever being pushed aside by something newer and shinier. They will remain on my "to do" list for a few months until they fade from memory. Some of them may come back to the fore in later years, perhaps with my starting a new campaign. I can remember specific instances of this but I haven't analysed it well enough to put a percentage on it.

For Reference here is a list of the games, each of which I have actually played within the last month, (The preceding letters are the categories from above put in to help me count):

C Splinter Cell, Blacklist: Enjoying it but got distracted. Want to get back to this.
D Dungeon Siege 2: Quick Look: Seems OK but I am not sure if I have time for this.
D Space Hack: Quick Look: Seems OK but I am not sure if I have time for this.
C The Witcher 2: Enjoying it but keep getting distracted. Want to finish it eventually.
D Magrunner Dark Pulse: I played a lot of this before eventually getting bored. Not sure if I will ever go back.
A  XCOM,  Enemy Within: Actively Playing. Will Probably finish the campaign
B  XCOM, The Bureau: Finished the main campaign.
B  Serious Sam 2: Finished the main campaign.
D Gears of War: Replay got about 75% of way through before getting stuck. Have finished before so don't feel any need to continue.
D Fez: Quick Look. Didn't really grab me.
C The Bridge: Quick Look. Seems OK. Want to explore further.
C Shadow Warrior: Quick Look. Want to explore further.
D GTR Evolution: Got it free and had a quick look. Probably won't play again.
D Saira: Got it free. Probably will not play again.
D Really Big Sky: Quick look. May keep on hand for instant gaming gratification but probably won't play again.
B Bioshock: Replay. Finished the main campaign again.
B Bioshock Infinite, Burial at Sea episode 1: Finished.
B Bioshock Infinite. Burial at Sea episode 2: Finished.
D Divine Divinity: Quick Look. Seems OK but I doubt I will ever get around to playing this.
B Bioshock 2, Minerva's Den: Finished

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Splinter Cell Blasklist: Would the real Sam Fisher use non lethal takedowns?

Splinter Cell Blacklist offers three distinct playstyles: Ghost mode where you focus on stealth and non lethal take-downs, Panther mode which combines stealth with lethal take-downs and Assault mode which is guns blazing shoot outs. Different weapons and perks cater to each style and you are more or less encouraged to focus on one style. 

Happily though you are not forced to stick to one style and I don't think that you miss out on any story elements by swapping between styles. This is important to me partly because I like variety but also because I tend to engage in a bit of subtle role playing in a game like this. I won't choose a course of action just to get the next achievement but instead I like to act in manner fitting with the protagonists mind set. When highly trained special agent Sam Fisher encounters a humble security guard just going about his job it makes sense that he would try to sneak past unobserved or at worst put the guard to sleep for a while. On the other hand when he encounters room full of ruthless killers who have just shot up his buddies there is no way he would let them wake up the next morning with nothing more than minor headaches. He is going to shoot as many real bullets into them as he can. 

I find that this almost subconscious role playing greatly enhances immersion and my enjoyment of the game. I remember doing it in Deus Ex HR where my character gradually morphed from non violence into furious vengeance as he became more and more aware of how nasty his opponents were. 

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Bureau, XCOM Declassified: Turkey or Hidden Gem?

Is "The Bureau" a bad game or has it just been judged to an impossibly high standard? Firaxis's 2012 reboot of the iconic series XCOM, Enemy Unknown met with universal praise so why did "2k Marin's 2013 tactical shooter set in the same universe receive such lukewarm reviews?

After reading some of those unflattering reviews I approached the game with hesitation. Now having played for a little over an hour I am confused.  I have only completed the long introductory chapter and one real mission but what I have seen so far is wonderful. This doesn't feel like a bad game. This feels like a superbly crafted great game. When does it start to fall apart? 

The atmosphere so far is terrific. There is a beautifully constructed 1950's vibe going on with hard smoking square jawed men and women in severe suits who working for a mysterious government agency which is the last chance to save the earth from alien invaders. Lots of sound effects and incidental details carry over from Firaxis's triumph so it all feels wonderfully XCOMmy. As an added bonus your character is a dead ringer for Boardwalk Empire's troubled prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon). This is a world that feels both familiar and exciting. 

So if it isn't the setting that annoys people it must be the game play. How bad can it be? From the little I have seen so far the gameplay feels very similar to the Brothers in Arms games: tactical shooters with a combination of first person and squad based elements. As it happens I loved the Brothers in Arms games and so far I am equally loving The Bureau. 

Of course it may all fall apart later. Tactical shooters like this struggle to balance the first person elements with the squad tactics. Lacklustre AI can mean that it is often easier to ignore your squad and just fight it out yourself. I am very familiar with these difficulties from the Brothers in Arms games however and I have made my peace with them and when you do pull off a clever manoeuvre with your squad it feels very satisfying. 

I wonder though how much of the disappointment with this game stemmed from the fact that it is a departure from the turn based tactics formula that XCOM fans expect. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Bioshock DLC Blitz: Minerva's Den and Burial at Sea

I recently played the Minerva's den DLC for Bioshock 2 and greatly enjoyed it which prompted me to get the Season pass for Bioshock Infinite which included Burial at Sea parts 1 and 2.

Minerva's Den is a very fun stand alone adventure set in the Bioshock 2 Universe. It is has a self contained story about a scientist who invented the computing machine which controls much of Rapture's infrastructure (the Thinker) but who was double crossed by his partner. The story is well developed and engaging and the gameplay is fun too. It is intended for people who have already played Bioshock 2 so the difficulty level is reasonably challenging but you get a few new weapons and plasmids to play with which gives it a bit of variety.

Burial at sea episode 1 is an add on for Bioshock Infinite which brings Elizabeth and Booker DeWitt from Columbia into the world of Rapture. I found the gameplay very challenging but a lot of the blame for this is down to my stubborn insistence on sticking with Hard level. However the high difficulty highlighted the game's frustrating lack of the ability to save anywhere and the checkpoint spacing is generally terrible. There is a storyline but it is quite forgettable and all in all I would rate this one of my least enjoyable Bioshock experiences. The only real function it serves is to establish the link between Rapture and Columbia.

Burial at Sea episode 2 is the follow on to episode 1 but is surprisingly a much better experience all round. You play as Elizabeth and the game introduces a new stealth based playstyle which is a fun new way to experience Rapture and later in the game Columbia. I enjoyed this a lot and actually found it easier in many ways than the normal kill everything approach, particularly later in the game after I got upgrades which allowed me free instant invisibilty. Episode 2 is also overflowing with story snippets although much of these don't make sense unless you have played through previous Bioshock games. This is definitely a wrapper up for the entire series which endeavours to tie up all loose ends.  There are plenty of opportunities to wander off the direct path and explore stuff often gaining insights into previous elements of Bioshock. The opening scene deserves a particular mention because for the first time ever it gives you the ability to wander through pre-cataclysm Rapture. It is really only a snippet and a tantalising one at that but it makes me sad that Irrational never set an entire game during this period.

Burial at sea ties up all the loose ends from the Bioshock storyline but sadly it also appears to have been a final swan song from developer Irrational games. How sad it is that such a group of talented game developers was wound up and dispersed earlier this year. Look at the following list of games taken from theWikipedia article on Irrational. Every single one of them is a triumph of gaming:
1999System Shock 2YesN/AYesN/A
2002Freedom ForceYesN/AYesN/A
2004Tribes: VengeanceNoN/AYesN/A
2005Freedom Force vs the 3rd ReichNoN/AYesN/A
2005SWAT 4YesN/AYesN/A
2013BioShock InfiniteYesYesYesYes
Source: Wikipedia,, accessed 31/07/2014