E3: Bethesda Conference – News and Views

E3: Bethesda Conference – News and Views

Bethesda stuck to their usual strategy witht ehir 2017 E3 conference, as they decided to only announce and show us games that are launching in the next year. This inevitably meant that the conference ran much shorter than most do, but it also meant that the conference felt packed out. They wasted no time in showing us what they have to offer.

The first major feature of the conference involved the showing off of both DOOM VR and Fallout 4 VR. Doom appears to have had a number of new mechanics added, with the brief appearance of what looked like some kind of interactive puzzle section. Otherwise, the same weapons and combat mechanics appear to be a part of the DOOM VR experience, only this time there is teleporting too! Frankly, I’m not sure how well this one is going to work. Combining DOOM’s fast paced gameplay with the limitations of VR sounds as though it could only lead to sever motion sickness. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes. Fallout 4, meanwhile, looks like it has less change to offer. Mechanics have clearly been reshaped to fit VR controls, but otherwise it looks like a fairly faithful recreation of the post-apocalyptic sandbox shooter. At any rate, it’s awesome to finally see a triple-A open world game make the leap to VR. No release dates have been given.

Next, Bethesda announced the creation club for Bethesda Game Studios’ Fallout 4 and Skyrim Special Edition. Here, players pay for a virtual currency which they use to buy add-on content for these games. The money it generates is used to fund top modders and smaller developers to create the content on offer. It appears to be a move by Bethesda that allows them to profit from a a lot of cheap content whilst also supporting the content creation scene for their games. At any rate, it seems much more reasonable than the idea of paid mods, and will hopefully ensure a high grade of quality for the content it offers.

Bethesda also announced a Skyrim themed expansion to their electronic card game, The Elder Scrolls: Legends, along with the Switch port of Skyrim that was teased in advertisments for the console. It is interesting to note that this is not the special edition of Skyrim, which is presumably due to the hardware limitations of the Switch. It does include some light Zelda themed content, though, which is at least something. Plus, the idea of Skyrim on the go is bound to be extremely appealing. It’s coming Fall 2017.

A standalone continuation of the Dishonored story was also announced, entitled Death of the Outsider. A trailer was also dropped, which featured both Daud and Billie Lurk (the playable character this time around). The title of course gives away the mission that these two chracters seem to be going on, and perhaps even implies that this may well be the swan-song for the franchise. If that’s the case, Arkane certainly seem to be sending things off with an intriguing bang. Death opf the Outsider launches on September 15.

An announcement for The Evil Within 2 also dropped. Going by the trailer, the follow up to Mikami’s well received survival horror looks to promise the same flavour of bizarre sci-fi horror as its predecessor. Spooks and scares are aplenty, and one cannot deny the sinister atmosphere here. Rather appropriately, The Evil Within 2 launches on Friday the 13th of October, 2017.

Bethesda closed off the conference with the official announcement of Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus, a follow up to 2014’s The New Order. The sequel debuted with an extensive gameplay demo which offered a look at the game’s new setting: an America where Nazis have come to power. The setting appears to be some years on from that of the predecessor, as it boasts technology that would not look out of place in a cyberpunk story. The craziness appears to have been turned up to 11 as well, and I have no doubts that this will be another enjoyable shooter that combines the best of both the old school and more contemporary examples of the genre. Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus releases October 27, 2017.

Bethesda certainly had less to offer than the other big publishers this year, but what they do have looks more than solid enough to be worthy of consideration. Three sequels, VR modes to two of their most acclaimed games and a formal announcment the Skyrim version that gamers are pining for. I do however suspect that this is one of their quiter years, and that we’ll have much more to see next year – perhaps including a glimpse at whatever Bethesda Games Studio has been working on since Fallout 4.

 

 

 

E3: Microsoft Conference – News and Views

E3: Microsoft Conference – News and Views

If Microsoft seemed set on one thing in particular this year, it was addressing their problem of having hardware but no the games to make it worthwhile. Their E3 conference certainly aimed to remedy this, as it showed us game after game (42 in total!) with little to no fluff in between. Additionally, they also revealed that Project Scorpio, their supercharged upgrade to the Xbox One is now officially called Xbox One X. It was a good conference overall, and left us with an awful lot to talk about.

Microsoft kicked things off with the reveal of the Xbox One X. They announced that everything that works on the normal Xbox One will work here to, and will take advantage of the sizable power upgrade. Then they went on about the specs and how it is the ‘most powerful’ console yet, while also emphasizing the 4k resolution that they want to target with it. It’s almost the smallest Xbox One yet, because everybody was totally crying out for that. All in all, Microsoft delivered on what was predicted by Scorpio rumours, so they now have a substantial competitor to the PS4 pro. It will cost $499 at launch. Xbox classic backward compatibility is also forthcoming.

After quickly flouting the power of the Xbox one X, Microsoft got straight on with showing us game trailers. First up, Forza Motorsport 7 was announced, along with the promise that Xbox One X would be able to handle the game with 4K resolution at a consistent 60 frames per second. While this is impressive, and perhaps sets a precedent for console gaming, one must remember that track-based racing games like Forza are considerably less complicated than other high-fidelity genres, so we shouldn’t expect to see this occuring on every Xbox X enhanced title. Forza 7 releases October 3, 2017.

Next up, a sequel to 4A’s Metro: Last Light was announced as Metro: Exodus. The brief demo showcased stunning visuals and series-first open world gameplay, taking place above the ground in a wide open, vibrant green space. As usual, there was plenty of shooting, plenty of monsters and bucket loads of atmosphere. While it was announced at Microsoft’s conference, the game is also coming to Playstation 4 and PC, and looks to up the scale but retain the atmosphere of its predecessors. Metro: Exodus releases in 2018.

Onto the totally-not-leaked-or-foreseen latest edition to the Assassin’s Creed franchise, entitled Assassin’s Creed Origins. As was reported from multiple different sources, the game is set in ancient Egypt, and offers a number of RPG elements that have clearly been inspired by The Witcher 3. As usual, the art design for the game’s city is absolutely on point, offering a vibrant and very hot looking take on urban Egypt. Ubisoft appear to have also applied the lessons they learned with Watch Dogs 2, as they are clearly trying to offer the same diversity of approaches to situations. Oh, and Eagle Vision now involves controlling and actual eagle. So that’s pretty cool. All in all, it looks like the series has had a much needed shake up in its short hiatus. Assassin’s Creed Origins launches October 27, 2017.

After a sustained burst of big annoucements, things slowed down momentarily. Early access game Playunknown’s Battlegrounds has been secured by Microsoft for an Xbox release, as has Deeprock Galactic. State of Decay 2 was announced, and looked every bit a generic open world zombie shooter, so didn’t really grab my attention.

Next was a brief trailer for the Darwin Project, which mostly appeared to involve a man shouting at the audience while the game was played behind him. After that, cross-play functionality for Minecraft was announced, because people do still play that game, and now want to play it together, I guess? Oh and they’ve added some shaders to the Xbox version as well as 4K support on the Xbox X. Because when you want to show a console’s power off, Minecraft is totally the game to do that with?

Following this there were some other trailers for titles such as Dragon Ball Fighter Z and Black Desert Online. Honestly, there were so many that they’re difficult to cover at length. Next we moved onto the indie-platformer part of the night, as trailers for The Last Night, The Artful Escape and an Ori and the Blind Forest sequel dropped. Of all these games boasted pretty aesthetics, lovely music and bags of atmosphere. They speak for themselves, frankly, so do check them out below:

After these, Microsoft moved onto to showing off a more substantial demo for Sea of Thieves. It seems to have a lot more features now, such as underwater looting, sharks, mundane looking ground combat and the ability to fire yourself from to ship to ship using cannons. The demo showed off a lot, as a party hunted treasure on an island before making an escape and battling at sea. It looks like a really fun pirate simulator, and more importantly, a really fun game for online co-op. Definitely one to keep an eye on! Sea of Thieves launches sometime in 2018.

Another big announcement next: Super Lucky’s Tale, a follow up to the Oculus Rift title that launched last year. This incarnation of the franchise offers a third person platformer set in the same cheery and colourful worlds of the first game. It launches on November 7 this year.

After much delay, old disney styled platformer Cuphead has a release date of September 29th. It’s looking as gorgeous as ever. Crackdown 3 also returned this year, but seemingly without the impressive destruction tech that was showcased upon its announcement. Instead we got live action Terry Crews and a game that looks all too similar to Saints Row in its trailer. Perhaps the plans for the cloud processing power fell through? In any case, Crackdown 3 is set for launch on November 7, 2017.

A follow up season to Life is Strange was shown off with a trailer. It’s called ‘Before the Storm’ and appears to follow Chloe, the friend of the protagonist in the first game. It will presumably fill in her mysterious backstory, and I’m more than up for returning to that world after the strong impression the original left. Before the Storm’s first episode launches August 31, 2017.

Next up, a Shadow of War gameplay demo! This time around, emphasis was put on showing off the enhanced Nemesis system, namely the character aspect of it. The orcs on show were spouting individualized monologues in a clear development of the tech that drove its predecessor, Shadow of Mordor. Best of all was an Orc whose personality completely shifted from menacing to witty, when his mind was controlled by the player. It seems as though the word in mind for this sequel is expansion, as the same mechanics receive large developments and the gameworld is made more diverse. As someone who adored the first game, I’m looking forward to seeing how this sequel turns out. Shadow of War hits shelves on 10 October, 2017.

Finally we recieved our first proper glimpse at Anthem, the new Bioware IP which was teased at the EA play conference. It looks to be an open-world, co-op experience which has you and your friends leading expeditions beyond the walls of Fort Tarsis, venturing into the lush yet savage and mysterious world beyond. The game’s core mechanics seem to involve the use of customisable exosuits, allowing you to chop and change abilities to suit certain playstyles. They also let you fly around like Iron Man, which in an open world game, sure sounds like a neat way to get around. Also on show was a variety of enemy types, from untamed beasts to swathes of alien looking troopers. From this trailer, it appears that Anthem is perhaps EA’s answer to Destiny. In any case, it looks like great fun. I just hope it can deliver on the same narrative strengths that Bioware are typically praised for. A full release date is still a long way off, but EA are aiming for 2018.

Overall, Microsoft’s conference was a very strong one. They didn’t mess about with showy presentation or over the top gimmicks. While the list of actual console exclusives is surprisingly thin, games were very much at the centre of everything they had to announcehere, which seems proof enough that they are listening.

E3: EA PLAY Conference – News and Views

E3: EA PLAY Conference – News and Views

It’s my favourite time of the year again, when Journalists, investors, publishers (and for the first time, the public) descend on the Los Angeles Convention Centre for the Electronic Entertainment Expo; the noisiest, showiest and often most vapid event in the gaming industry. Meanwhile, the rest of us sit in the comfort of our homes, observing the chaos from afar while we tweet and stream with passionate snark and sarcasm.

This year we begun proceedings with EA PLAY, the relatively new offshoot of E3 where the industry’s most loathed publisher showed us what they’ve got lined up for the next year or so. As usual, things got off to a rough start. EA began with a trailer that announced a story mode for Madden 18, which hardly comes as a surprise after they gave FIFA the same treatment last year. Following this was the announcement of a new Battlefield 1 DLC in September, entitled In The Name of the Tsar. With it, developer DICE promises six new maps, a new playable faction (the Russian army), new vehicles and new weapons that are all themed around the Eastern front. Whilst neither of these announcements are worth being particularly critical of, one must admit that this was hardly the strong opener that conferences like these normally deliver, as both things they announced seemed nothing short inevitable (and therefore rather dull). And that would have been fine too, if mundane had not become the very essence of the conference.

Following the mundane opening, we were brought rather swiftly into the widely lambasted Sports segment (often referred to as the piss-break). Here, EA spent a good ten minutes or so advertising their interest in e-sports, as they announced their largest ever FIFA championship as well as championships for other titles. Then came the entirely unforeseeable presentation of a FIFA 18 trailer. Here, we saw that while FIFA 18 may have sparkly AI and nice visuals, it is indeed just another game about football. Once again it has a story mode too, which will follow the ongoing story of Alex Hunter, protagonist of FIFA 17. It’s important to note that in all of this, we saw absolutely no gameplay. There was the occasional trailer as well as screenshots, and the usual showing off of new engine tech, but otherwise absolutely nothing substantial in the first 25-30 minutes of the show. Way to bore us right off the mark, EA.

Next we saw a bit of Need For Speed Payback – a game that promises CARS! STUNTS! EXPLOSIONS! And not a lot else. Nothing they had to show was particularly exciting, but on the upside we finally saw some actual gameplay, so at least it didn’t bore the audience to tears. The demo itself involved a car chasing down a truck, someone jumping from the car to the truck, and stealing another car from the back of the truck. All the while, a police chase rages all around. It’s hard not to note the Fast and Furious influence here, in what is another clear attempt by the Need For Speed team to meld storytelling with silly car action. Let’s hope it’s not another catastrophe like the one we saw in The Run.

Following this demo was the definite highlight of the show: the announcement of A Way Out, the new game from Hazelight (those chaps that made the truly wonderful Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons). As a studio who have hitherto shown a willingness to attempt something a bit different when it comes to game design, the reveal did not disappoint, as they announced that A Way Out would be an exclusively two-player co-operative experience. The trailer that they showed established the plot of the game, which follows two men as they attempt to escape from a prison to go on some sort of revenge mission. A Way Out looks to take a lot of inspiration from cinematic third person adventure games like Uncharted, but also seems to offer enough original ideas to make it of note. In the subsequent gameplay demo, Hazelight showed off several interesting features, such as a mechanic that sees one player in a cutscene while the other plays normally, and different narrative outcomes based on which character completes which action.  Overall, Hazelight delivered an incredibly strong first showing for their new IP, and indeed the only showing of the conference that left me pining for more. At least EA gave us one thing to look forward to.

Next up was the announcment of another new IP, this one from Bioware (Dragon Age, Mass Effect): Codename Dylan is now officially called ‘Anthem’. A reveal tease dropped along with the announcement, but all that it really gave away is that we can expect Anthem to have a science-fiction setting: In which a big wall keeps people safe while other people fight the big monsters that are outside. Beyond that we know very little other than that Anthem is an action game, and that Bioware/EA will be showing us more at tomorrow’s Xbox briefing. It’s hard to feel excited or even intrigued for the project at this point, so let’s hope the proper reveal gives us something juicy.

After an incredibly mixed bag, EA brought us onto what they thought would be the main event: the first gameplay reveal for Star Wars Battlefront II… though of course, not before they revealed DLC plans and a bullshot trailer first. Following Titanfall 2’s model, aka the Overwatch model, all extra content for the game after launch will be completely free. The first pack of content will include Finn and Phasma as playable characters, as well as a map based on events in the upcoming film, The Last Jedi (so expect it to launch sometime after that movie). While I much prefer this to paid content that could divide the playerbase, one has to wonder how EA will make it viable. Though they didn’t announce it, microtransactions are arguably on the cards, which is always questionable in a premium triple-A title. The trailer that followed these announcements was of the typical variety, where doctored, scripted engine footage is shown in place of genuine gameplay, to make the multiplayer segment of the game same much more intense and action packed than it’ll ever be in reality.

EA then made the dumb decision to follow up the trailer with an actual live gameplay demo of the multiplayer, which only highlighted this issue – and several others. The entire battlefield that was on show looked vastly empty in comparison to what we had just seen, with only small packets of action opening up here and there, arguably highlighting the usual problem of putting a smallish number of players in a huge playspace. It also didn’t help that the direction of the live demo was terrible. There was no map fly-through to give us an awareness of the combat space or context to the action that was taking place. Whoever was selecting the different player-screens did a very poor job, often switching the perspective to somebody who would die moments later, or showing us a ‘dogfight’ that was literally just somebody flying around the level, almost aimlessly. It’s a damn shame that a game that looks and sounds as good as this seems to look so shallow on a mechanical and interactive level. Overall, the demo fell flat, as it delivered on the promise of showing us an increase in content, but sadly forgot to show us a compelling game.

I was also expecting to see a single-player portion of the game on show here, but that did not happen. Indeed, the strangest thing about this conference was perhaps the lack of presence from modes and titles that have been previously announced. Sea of Solitude, Fe and Visceral’s Star Wars game were all missing from the proceedings, which was odd given that EA clearly had time that they needed to fill. Overall it was a conference of great disappointment and general boredom, with just the occasional spark of something interesting. Did it’s job then, as that sums up the publisher’s products rather well.

Review: What Remains of Edith Finch

Review: What Remains of Edith Finch

Developer: Giant Sparrow

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4

If one must reduce it to a category, What Remains of Edith Finch certainly fits ‘walking simulator’. The goal of the game is to explore the Finch family home, and in doing so, discover their strange history. In practice, this manifests as moving from room to room in and around the Finch home, examining various documents, tapes and books to obtain fragments of narrative which culminate in a complete picture of what took place there. Usually with this sort of arrangement, player agency is limited to only a small number of interactions, as mechanics take the backseat and the story becomes the primary focus. However, this is not the case with Edith Finch, where developer Giant Sparrow manages to incorporate a diverse array of simple yet effective mechanics to more effectively tell their story.

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To do this, each piece of narrative information presents itself not as a readable item, but rather as a narrative device that shift’s the player’s perspective to different themed offshoots, making them explore the memories of various family members through segmented gameplay instead of narration alone. The earliest appearance of this feature sets the broad scope of this mechanic wonderfully, with the player entering the imagination of a young girl, who herself pictures becoming an assortment of different predators. One can’t help but respond with child-like glee as they pounce from tree to tree hunting birds as a cat, or soar above a snowy field littered with rabbits before swooping down to devour them. There are better examples too, though to discuss them would certainly spoil their magic, as the interactivity that this feature offers is made more brilliant by its diversity and unpredictability

As a central device both mechanically and narratively, these shifts in perspective help Edith Finch to tell its story in a way that is completely involving. At their best, they evoke a strong sense of each individual Finch character, as player interaction becomes personalised to fit each family member’s specific traits or story arc. Where these offshoots lack agency, they do so to evoke a sense of impending tragedy as well as the unchangeable nature of history. In this way, Edith Finch plays into a strength of the medium that is explored all too rarely in that it effectively builds characters through mechanics whilst it also bucking the more negative limitations that audiences have come to associate with ‘walking simulators’.

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And that’s a good thing, too, because the tale Edith Finch weaves is one that is more than worth hearing. You end up exploring the bizarre family line of the secluded Finches, which is utterly submerged in fateful tragedy from the off. As you begin to work your way across their family tree, you begin to discover the fates that befell this family, and the terrible luck that seems tied with the Finch name. While the different offshoots may explore these themes in very different ways, there is a confident cohesiveness that weaves itself throughout the tale. It’s a story that primarily deals with mortality and the brevity of life, its various tragedies being portrayed with maturity and sincerity. Despite this, it was not a story that I found to be particularly sad. This is largely because each sequence fully embraces the power of imagination, highlighting the importance of joy in times of despair.  This allows established character motivations to be paid off in a way that is utterly satisfying, if unfortunately, tragic. There’s a point to all the pain, though, as Edith Finch explores the theme of legacy and how we choose what to pass on the those that we leave behind when our time comes, and is bought to a resolution that makes perfect sense of the picture-book storytelling that emanates throughout.

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To tell its thoughtful tale, Edith Finch offers a superbly realised setting. Like many of its kind, the entire game takes place in one location: the home of the Finch family; a precariously stacked cacophony of architectural styles. But the details here are extreme, every room an individual masterpiece of environmental character-building. Many times, I entered a room and immediately had a sense of its owner’s character, just by observing the possessions that were placed around and how the room was decorated. Driving dreams and ambitions were adorned across the walls and furniture decorations, while tragedies were foregrounded in the finer details. Ultimately, Edith Finch succeeds in creating more intricate bonds with characters through level design than most games do through cutscenes and dialogue.

If Edith Finch does possess any considerable problems, there is an argument for one in the game’s length and replayability. As is usually the case with games of its kind, the price of entry is high for an experience that only lasts for a couple of hours. But it’s clear why that’s the case: What Remains of Edith Finch oozes production value; delivering a hitchless, extremely well-paced game that doesn’t spend a second longer than it needs to tell its story. While there is little in terms of content to gain from going back for a second playthrough, it’s still an experience that I would like to have again. Additionally, the game allows you to select and replay your favourite sections again without starting from scratch. That’s a nice touch, as the diversity that the game offers certainly left me wanting to re-experience parts without committing to the entire length.

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Beyond this minor niggle, however, Edith Finch is through and through a brilliant video game. My two hours with it left me feeling thoroughly moved. It’s a game that evokes a multitude of emotions, in a way that is vivid and totally involving – showcasing the very best of the medium’s attempts at linear storytelling. It is a truly joyous experience, which manages to fully emulate the bizarrely brief ride of life and the inevitable dance with mortality that all of us face. While it may not be a particularly challenging or replayable game, What Remains of Edith Finch is an important one. It manages to escape the mundane aspects of its peers and in doing so sets a new example for them to follow in the future.

9.5/10

Superb!

 

 

 

 

Dark Souls: Just When You’re Getting Comfortable…

Dark Souls: Just When You’re Getting Comfortable…

Video Games are all about routine. Typically, they give you a series of mechanics to learn and a number rules to follow, in order to then put your knowledge of these to the test so that you may progress to solving more complicated or ‘difficult’ challenges. It can perhaps be argued that Video Games are the only medium of digital entertainment that make use of feedback loops in this way, as your reactionary inputs to the situations that they throw at you inform the outcomes, both narratively and otherwise, that follow. Coming to learn and trust in mechanics, and using them to complete challenges that are beyond feasibility in the real world is a large part of the joy of video games, and a strong example of what makes them stand out as a medium.

Dark Souls is no different. From the offset of your perilous journey through the shattered kingdom of Lordran, one such mechanic you are given access to is that of the bonfires. These act as the save points and safe havens of the game. They’re where you spend the souls you’ve collected from downed foes to level up, and you return to the last one that you visited when you die (which happens an awful lot, to begin with). On a bleak path of unforgiving hostility, where every encounter could spell your demise, they become a beacon of familiarity and comfort. When you catch a glimpse of that faint orange glow a little way off in the distance, you know you can afford to push a little harder. The bonfires, therefore, are a game mechanic you can trust in. They spur you on.

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The first bonfire you have constant access to is the Firelink Shrine. Its central location (at least early on in the game) means that it acts as a kind of hub to your progress, as paths leading away into danger often loop back round to its encouraging orange flicker. You’ll also find characters that you’ve helped along the way resting there, who will more often than not give you access to certain other mechanics as well as sparse fragments of exposition on the game’s world. For a large chunk of the game, it is this location that lets you revel in the progress that you have made.

And so you press on with your journey. You embrace each new path with a kind of certainty that you will make it back to this homely little light, which in a world so full of dark, manages to be awfully encouraging. You decide to finally descend into the damp and grimy sewers of The Depths below, an oppressively bleak area which ends in a successful downing of the ghastly Gaping Dragon with its million-teeth mouth belly. Spurred on by the crushing of this abomination, you press on further still into the darkness, this time down into murky Blighttown.

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After navigating its perilous rickety wooden scaffolds and virulent toxic swamps, you come against the fiery spider-witch Queelag. She’s a tough old girl who tends to spew lava and swing a big firey sword towards you in great swirling arcs. It is by no means an easy fight, but with the thought of sitting before that little light at the back of your mind, you are able to make gradual progress, learning her attack patterns as if it were a dance and slowly but surely gaining the upper hand. And then you succeed. As you ring the second bell of awakening, as the prophecy foretold that you would, you know that there is now only one place you wish to be: back up on the surface, sat before those glorious flames. A sense of warm relief washes over you.

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So, you stumble back up through the dark, making use of the shortcuts that you’ve found along the way. But as you finally come back up to the Firelink Shrine… Dark Souls breaks you.

Instead of finding comfort, you are met with a scene that sends dread coursing up your spine. The Firekeeper, who tends to the flame’s persistent flicker, has vanished. In her place is a pile of torn and bloody clothes, which can of course only mean one thing. Frightened, you make my way up the last set of stairs to where the bonfire burns. You find it extinguished, impossible to relight.Instead of finding comfort, you are met with a scene that sends dread coursing up your spine. The Firekeeper, who tends to the flame’s persistent flicker, has vanished. In her place is a pile of torn and bloody clothes, which can of course only mean one thing. Frightened, you make my way up the last set of stairs to where the bonfire burns. You find it extinguished, impossible to relight.

Just like that, your sanctuary is gone. The place that every path so far has returned you to, the place that you could look to for comfort and relief from the turmoil of this unforgiving adventure, taken away. It’s an emotionally crushing narrative stroke, made all the more powerful by its delivery through the subversion of a mechanic that the player has hitherto relied upon. It’s a strong example of a story being told strictly through game mechanics: That in the world of Lordran, there is no such thing as safety.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poetic Justice of Dishonored

The Poetic Justice of Dishonored

Arkane’s Dishonored has you assume the role of Corvo Attano, the royal protector to the Empress of Dunwall. When she is assassinated, and her daughter is kidnapped, the men that masterminded the operation usurp the empire and frame you for her murder. With help from a group of Empress loyalists, you manage to escape the murder sentence and are shortly granted access to a bunch of strange magical powers by the mysterious Outsider. Revenge is yours for the taking.

Now, video game revenge arcs might well be a tad stale at this point, but Dishonored puts a refreshing spin on the trope by emphasising the role of player agency. Being an Immersive Sim, your options for how you approach your targets are multitudinous. If you’re going in for maximum death and destruction, you have access to several different weapons and gadgets as well as a bunch of powers, such as the ability to possess enemies or swarm them with rats. Opt for the more stealthy route, and you can choke your enemies into unconsciousness, or avoid them altogether with the ability to slow and stop time as well as a short range teleport called ‘blink’. This arsenal of tools and powers are warmly accommodated by the game’s sprawling levels, which strongly adhere to the play your own way philosophy of the genre. Whether you’re sneaking about and blinking your way past highly trained sentries in the flooded district or swarming the opulent corridors in the office of the High Overseer with flesh eating rats, the path of progression is yours to choose.

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Each of Dishonored’s nine levels is a richly simulated, vertically stacked slice of a world, often sprinkled with lore and dialogue, as well as fully fledged subplots, that ultimately leave you immersed in a steampunk dystopia come to life. Interactivity becomes a conversation, as tidbits of information that you may or may not choose to acknowledge greatly alter how your objective can be achieved. The situations that arise from this conversation between simple mechanics and rich simulation can lead to some highly emergent outcomes. If a solution seems plausible, the game will respond appropriately. Consequently, the way that you choose to interact with the world and proceed with your journey has severe ramifications, both on a level by level basis and across the game as a whole. Play lethally, and be prepared to have your powers put to the test as levels swarm with guards, and also watch as your nasty work causes the city to descend into utter chaos across the course of the game. Take the stealthy non-lethal option, however, and things play out very differently, as Dunwall is restored to order and your main targets are dealt a hand of hard-boiled poetic justice.

Simply put, Poetic justice refers to a strikingly appropriate reward or punishment for a fictional character, usually a ‘fitting retribution’ by which a villain is ruined by some process of his own making. My favourite example of this in Dishonored is seen in the third level,  entitled ‘The House of Pleasure’. This mission sees you hunting down the Pendleton twins, two despicably corrupt members of the usurping government, who garner their great wealth from a mine in which the workers tend to vanish. They’re spending their time at a brothel, The Golden Cat, where they’ve locked away the heir to the empress (Emily) as they delight in salacious acts with the prostitutes.

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While there is nothing to stop you from going in all guns blazing, another route soon presents itself. You are told that the swindling rogue leader of the Bottle Street Gang, Slackjaw, has heard of your intentions, and wishes to make a deal with you. Head to the distillery where the gang resides (and presumably gets its name), and you can hear him out. He promises to get rid of the Pendletons quietly, so long as you procure the code to an art collector’s safe from the collector himself, who is currently in the brothel delighting in some kinky shock treatment. Take Slackjaw’s deal, and the level becomes much longer, as you’re forced to infiltrate the brothel not once, but twice; first for the code, second to rescue Emily. It’s no easy feat, but in return for this extra work, and indeed the meticulous non-violent approach that it requires, you are ultimately rewarded in a very satisfying fashion. You discover that Slackjaw isn’t simply planning on killing the Pendleton brothers quitely, oh no. Instead he’s going to shave their heads, cut out their tongues, and send them to work in the same dangerous mines from which they have procured their wealth, to the same fate that they have forced upon so many others. The Pendletons are ruined by the process of their own making. It’s a simple but effective solution to the question of how to tell a revenge story in which nobody dies at the hands of the protagonist, and a principle of storytelling that Arkane strongly adheres to throughout the entirety of the game.

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And that, to me, is why Dishonored stands out amongst its peers in the immersive sim genre. Similar games such as the recent Deus Ex titles tend to reward the player with extra experience points or an achievement of some kind for their hard work in sticking to a non-violent playstyle. With Dishonored Arkane manages to instead reward such a playstyle with satisfying narrative consequences and genuine moral comeuppances, culminating in an experience that is all the more satisfying for it.

 

 

 

 

Pokemon GO houses fascinating concepts but is a terrible video game.

Pokémon GO is a pop-cultural phenomenon. Since its launch two or three weeks ago, the brand has been returned to the public eye with the kind of attention that it has not felt since its western inception in 1999. It’s been a lot of fun to watch the success story unfold, especially because it concerns a brand that hitherto only seemed to be getting more far afield from its initial boom, instead relying on a small, loyal group of fans to stay afloat. It’s an interesting turn for the series, and one I have been very excited to explore in writing. Above all, I am interested in examining just what it is that sets Pokémon GO apart from the mainline series, as well as asking the question of whether or not it’s actually any good as a video game.

I’ll begin by examining some of the concepts that lie at the heart of Pokémon GO. First and foremost is that Pokémon GO does not only capture the idea of venturing out into the world in search of collectible creatures like the games before, but rather becomes it. There has always been a subtle meta undertone to the mainline Pokémon series: you begin each game as a boy or a girl in their room, with a TV and a games console, but you aren’t allowed to play it. You have to go outside, you have to go and do things. Pokémon has always been subtly trying to influence its player-base to get out more, to exercise and engage with their communities, and to not isolate themselves from the world at large for the sake of video games. With Pokémon GO, we finally see the series succeed in this, not by influencing the player to put the controller down and get outside but rather forcing them to in order to make progress.

This is achieved by the game’s use of GPS to track the player’s movement. They are presented onscreen as a customized avatar walking across an alternate reality map of their local area, made to look as if it belongs in Pokémon’s heavily stylized universe. As the player walks in the real world, the avatar on the screen will move too, and, after long enough, will encounter Pokémon that they can then catch using Pokéballs. There is a readout as well as particle effects on the screen that give some indication of how far away different Pokémon are located. As catching Pokémon is always the sole aim of Pokémon, and is the only route of progression here, the player must leave their home and go on a merry stroll if they are to effectively progress through the game.

With this mechanic we also see the real-world application of another of Pokemon’s major selling points: The explorer/trainer fantasy. I’m certain that nearly everyone who has played the Pokemon games has thought about how fun it would be to be able to venture out into the world in search of creatures to collect and foes to take on. Obviously this was never going to become a reality, but Pokémon GO gets about as close as it comes. The realization of this fantasy begins with the exploration mechanics described above, but is also supported by a number of mechanics that ensure that the experience is not one of isolation, but one that is rather socially and competitively engaging. The exploration of local points of interest also being gamified in Pokémon GO. Once again using the game’s GPS feature, in-game zones called Pokéstops are dotted at points of real-world interest. These exist to mark historical locations like churches and monuments, as well as commercial establishments like pubs, shopping centres and family attractions. But they also serve as a game mechanic. Pokestops offer items to the player such as Pokéballs, which allows them to catch more Pokémon. These stops also offer items called Lures, which can be placed on the stops to attract Pokémon there, essentially making these zones great areas to gather and engage with other players of the game by offering something of benefit to all of them, and, as a result, making the game a very social experience in any area where it is popular. This social function of the game is also enhanced by the fact that these Pokéstop items can only be grabbed once by a player before a cooldown period is engaged. As a result, the player is encouraged to go to a number of them, essentially giving them an in-game incentive the real world exploration of their area as well as engagement with the local community. So we once again see how Pokémon GO takes something from the mainline series and applies it to the real world; that being the sense of being at one with an accessible community that has a common goal.

In addition to Pokéstops, there are also Gyms. Gyms are spots that are placed similarly to Pokéstops, but have a different function. Anyone familiar with Pokémon will know that Gyms are the places where trainers take their Pokémon to fight those of other people. It works very similarly in GO. Past level five, players are made to choose from three teams: Valor, Mystic and Instinct. The difference between the three is purely cosmetic, only serving as much as to provide a way for the game to divide its players into competitive groups. When arriving at a Gym, the player can challenge the current owner so long as they are on a different team. Victory allows them to leave their Pokémon guarding the gym, thus allowing players of other teams to challenge them for the position. They also receive Pokécoins, an in-game currency that is used to buy progress-speeding items. Naturally, this taps into the competitive spirit that has always been a part of the Pokémon brand, and provides yet another avenue for social encounters with the game through its usage of real-world places of interest.

The answer is obvious then. Pokémon GO sets itself apart from the mainline series by applying much of what people love or loved about the brand to the (almost) real world. By using Alternate Reality as the basis for its mechanics, Pokémon has (at least conceptually) become the exploration fueled social experience that it always emulated, and as such it’s no real wonder that it has resonated with such a large number of people. Whilst all of that may be wonderful in itself and bode well for the future of alternate reality based gaming, it also begs the question of whether or not Pokémon GO manages to execute any of these ideas in a satisfactory way. Unfortunately, the answer seems to be that it does not.

The biggest problem that Pokémon GO suffers from is its lack of a skill based element. Catching Pokémon, the central activity of the game, is a tiresome affair. As the player walks, the phone will vibrate and Pokémon will appear nearby. To catch them, the player touches the Pokémon on the screen, and the perspective shifts. If the player has AR (Alternate Reality) Mode on, then the phone’s camera is used to create a backdrop behind the Pokemon that is being caught, giving the ‘illusion’ that the Pokemon is there in front of them. The catching itself can best be described as being functionally identical as one of those ‘toss the paper ball in the bin’ games that infest sites like Miniclip. The only difference is cosmetic, and that you can, if you’re really that bothered about maxing experience points, put spin on the throw. Once caught, the Pokemon is added to your collection. There are 250 of them to catch. It’s very simple, in fact it seems as though every element of this game is designed with the intention of accessibility. There is no real difficulty curve. This problem extends to the combat encounters when fighting other people’s Pokémon for the control of Gyms. The perspective once again shifts to view that is a poor farce of the battle screens in the mainline series. I say this because all depth of these screens is lost. One simply taps the enemy Pokémon to attack it, and swipes to dodge incoming attacks. This would be acceptable, but it is rarely the controlling factor. Every Pokemon has combat points, or ‘CP’, and it is due to this that combat really becomes a simplistic affair in which whoever has the highest overall CP wins.

This lack of a skill element also exposes the deeper problem at play here. Pokémon GO is disappointingly shallow, and will lose its charm for many after getting over the initial wow-factor of its alternate reality gimmicks. Seriously. There is nothing interesting about how the game presents its mechanics outside of the social opportunities and fantasy fulfillment that it creates. The only way that a Pokemon’s CP, and therefore combat effectiveness, can be increased, is through the use of two items: stardust and candies. Stardust is accrued by the act of catching Pokémon. Candies are, err, accrued by the act of catching Pokemon. There is only one difference: While stardust is obtained from every catch, candies are not. Instead, you get them by trading in your duplicate Pokémon. While I can respect how it allows the game to sidestep the issue of finding a lot of duplicates in any given area, I feel it does not manage to avoid that problem in an engaging way. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about the frustration of getting that sweet phone vibration only to find yet another Pidgey. There just isn’t any excitement to progression in Pokémon GO. Sure, your Pokémon get stronger, and maybe even evolve, and it’s a great moment when you stumble upon a rare Pokémon that you’ve been after. But there is no long-term strategy at play, no room for tactics or anything of real substance, just constant repetition with irregular levels of fulfillment. It might be a laugh at first, especially with friends, but the Pokémon GO gets old fast.

Pokémon GO is also riddled with technical issues. I cannot tell you how many times I have tapped a Pokémon on the screen and nothing has happened. It sends you into a frenzy, you hammer at the screen again and again. Sometimes that works. Sometimes the little bugger just vanishes and you have to walk some more to find another. Either way, it casts some doubt in your mind every single time, and even goes as far as panic when it’s something rare that you’re trying to grab. And that’s it really: you know it’s sloppy design when one of your central features doesn’t even work correctly. There are also issues with catching Pokémon. You’ll put the perfect spin on your throw and get a little ‘great!’ read-out flash up, only for the game to then freeze and crash, leaving no option but to restart it. Most of the time the catch is registered when this happens, but even then it replaces the buzz of the catch with downright frustration at having to restart the app. That’s the other problem: restarting the app takes a very, very long time. You get a stylized safety warning screen and a loading bar, and some chirpy music that smells of adventure but tastes of mockery as the game just. keeps. on. loading.   There are massive problems with the game servers as well. I can think of several occasions that I have opened up the app with full signal only to find that it won’t let me connect. It even went down for more than a day last week; happy hunting indeed. I know this is likely down to the fact that it was never anticipated by the developer that this game would be so huge, but it’s not like they didn’t have time to find a solution to this before the game released in territories outside of the US. Pokémon GO simply isn’t a well polished product, and solving these issues is a priority if Niantic wants this success to be long-term. It currently has the air of cheap production values and shoddy craftmanship, which is actually rather ironic given how successful the game has been. That being said though, I have been playing the game on an old and beaten Samsung Galaxy S4 mini, so you might fare better if you’ve got something a bit more cutting edge.

If there is one thing I will hand to the game’s design as being a positive, however, it’s in how it monetizes itself. The game is free to play, and so it has micro-transactions. But it isn’t pay to win. In return for your money you receive Pokécoins, and these can be used to buy items in the store. Thankfully, you can only buy items that can already be obtained at Pokéstops, such as eggs that hatch Pokemon when you walk enough, incubators that house these eggs during hatching, and lures that attract Pokemon to these stops. You cannot buy stardust or candies, and so outright progress is still made impossible without the player actually going out and making catches on the regular. So while microtransactions will help you on your travels, they will not cut out the need for that travelling altogether. It is a decent way to monetize a free little app like this, and it seems in tune with the game’s vision. I honestly feel that other mobile developers could learn a thing or two from Pokémon GO‘s way of doing things. Then again, it probably isn’t a good sign if the best thing I can say about your free mobile game is that it doesn’t take the piss where the player’s cash is concerned.

Ultimately, Pokémon GO is nothing more than a collection of interesting ideas that are used poorly to mask a terrible video game, which capitalizes on nothing other than brand nostalgia and cheap gimmicks. It’s worth a GO (hah hah), simply for the fact that everyone is playing it, but beyond that it is an utter waste of your time.

Score: 4.0/10

By Matthias Brunwin