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Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Late October and early November has seen the release of far too many games I want to play. Alas, with only so much money to spend and time to play I had to be selective. So Fable III and Vanquish will have to wait while I play through Fallout New Vegas and Enslaved.

I finished playing Enslaved last week. It was pretty short. Took me about 6-8 hours to complete. The gameplay was fairly standard and didn’t include any mechanics I haven’t seen before. But still, it enchanted me and I would recommend picking it up.

I’m not someone who is usually captured by graphics – a nice looking game is appreciated but if the gameplay isn’t there then does it matter? But Enslaved’s vivid and verdant post-apocalyptic environment really is beautiful. It also made a welcome change to the grays of Fallout’s wasteland! The world of Enslaved is one that has become over-grown with plant life in the decades following a war with robots. Humans are sparse but these robots are plentiful. And homicidal. You play as Monkey, a gruff and athletic protaganist who is “enslaved” by a woman called Trip. She wants you to help her get home and the story unfolds from there. And the story is where this game really shines!

The story is very loosely based on the Chinese novel Journey to the West and was co-written by Alex Garland. Gameplay is a mix of platforming, combat and a little bit of puzzle-solving – certainly fun but not revolutionary and not the games main selling point. It’s the games atmosphere, environment and slowly developing story that draws you in. The characters are well written and animated. It is difficult to not to start feeling empathy for them. Some scenes are genuinely touching. Soon you find yourself actually looking forward to the next cut scene! Many things are left unsaid by the end of the game which leaves you with a sense of wanting more. It also leaves the player with the ability to draw their own ideas and conclusions about Enslaved’s world instead of being spoon-fed every bit f information possible from an over-zealous writer.

I would welcome a sequel to this game. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been selling very well. Some people have complained that it is too short or too easy. Well, not every gamer has time to sit down for 50-70 hours to complete a game but they still want an experience bit deeper than jumping on Call of Duty on Xbox Live. I think Enslaved could provide that. Perhaps the marketing effort spent too much time focusing on hardcore gamers who had their eye on titles like Fallout and Fable. Maybe with a lower price or digital distribution it could have done better. It’s a shame because I really do think this game can fill a niche and I think people are missing out on one of the best stories in video games this year if they dismiss it out of hand.

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It’s Your Funeral

It’s been a few months since the last DLC was released for Left 4 Dead but last week Valve gave us a new and kinda maudlin campaign; The Sacrifice.

You can download the expansion for either Left 4 Dead or Left 4 Dead 2. The Sacrifice covers the events of the last DLC The Passing but from the point of the original 4 survivors from the first game. Along-side this mini-campaign the DLC also adds the No Mercy campaign to Left 4 Dead 2. For this reason, The Sacrifice is obviously a better deal for owners of the sequel rather than the original game unless you’re playing on Steam in which case the DLC is free anyway (you lucky buggers!).

The Sacrifice campaign adds some nice new maps that provide multiple paths and some great crescendo moments. The one that really stood out was the point where you have to release a Tank that has been trapped in a train car in order to reach your destination. There is no running away from this one. It will certainly shake up versus mode and expert setting as it will test how well a team cooperates. One wrong move and one or all of you could be dead. There is also the interesting addition of exploding barrels that can be helpful at choke points. But The Sacrifice is really all about the moment right at the end where a member of your team has to die in order for the rest to escape. This is the moment that Valve has been building up to since the release of The Passing and even promoted with a comic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to expectations. The moment of sacrifice is under-whelming. It does not ask much of the player and is devoid of emotion. It’s a shame since you leave the game feeling not exhilarated but cheated. In online versus play I have seen teams vote to return to the lobby rather than play the sacrificial map.

The No Mercy campaign, despite already being familiar to most players of Left 4 Dead 2, is a very welcome addition. The new special infected and the addition of melee weapons really shake up the versus gameplay. The point where you have to wait for a lift whilst been attacked by hordes of zombies becomes much more difficult than in the first game as special infected like the Spitter or Jockey can force the survivors to move out from safe spaces. This change in the dynamic of a familiar map makes a nice change of pace.

If you’re a Steam player then it’s a no-brainer; you should download these new maps. If you’re playing on Xbox, well, it depends on if you’re playing Left 4 Dead 1 or 2. Unless you’re playing the sequel I’d keep hold of your cash and put it towards to buying yourself a copy of 2.


Final Fantasy XIII

So, I finally got around to playing Final Fantasy XIII. When it came out I was distracted by other games and the generally negative reviews dampened my interest; but it’s Final Fantasy so clearly I was going to play eventually. Yes, I love Final Fantasy games. I love the cheesy dialogue with the tacked-on saccharine philosophy. I love the completely impractical clothing choices and the gravity-defying hair. I love the fantasy landscapes and the sheer variety of creatures. But mostly, I love the fighting.

The fighting is the real reason I play FF games. The rest is just icing. For me, the strategy is what keeps me coming back for more. I have never really understood why FF games are labeled as RPGs. They share more in common with the Total War series than they do with Fallout or Mass Effect. You are only “role-playing” in so far that you are in control of a number of characters but you don’t get to decide how they should react to the plot. The only control you have is over upgrading their weapons and their skill-sets. These are two things that I love doing but would you really call it role-playing when you have no access to their emotional reactions? But as a strategy game I have often found FF to be a complex and in-depth affair that has often given me the chance to seek out some of the hardest gaming battles around. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I find it pretty satisfying. I imagine that this is what attracts a lot of other people to the franchise. This is also why I find some of the game design in FFXIII to be very odd indeed.

FFXIII is very insistent about holding your hand every step of the way. For the first 2/3’s of the game you will be restricted to moving along one path. There is no open world and no choice about where to go. You just keep ploughing ahead down corridors that don’t give you any opportunity to divert from the path. You can’t choose your own battle team (often the characters are in completely different areas of the world to one another and the narrative keeps switching back and forth between them). You are limited to upgrading your characters in only the areas the game has chosen for you. In battle, you can only control the actions of your main character and are limited to assigning roles to the rest of the party. You don’t have access to upgrading your weapons. The game does eventually make all these things possible and if you put the time in you will end up in an open world, free to do what you want. But it takes at least 15 hours to reach this point. 20 if you’re like me and stop to fight everything. Most players of FF games will already be familiar with most of FFXIII’s mechanics. 20 hours is an awful long time to wait for the game to take the training wheels off. Perhaps they implemented this narrow, restrictive gameplay in order to encourage new players? If so, I wonder what new gamers would put up with 20 hours of being pushed down corridor after corridor.

Upgrading weapons is another area which makes little sense. Battles, treasure chests and shops (all shops are accessed through save points – you don’t get to talk to NPC’s!) all yield a massive array of items. There must be hundreds of different items you can pick up, all which can be used to upgrade your weapons and accessories. The items are all named, categorised and have different experience point values BUT they essentially boil down to 2 things. Organic and inorganic. Organic materials have low exp but add multiplier points to your weapons for all items added after. Inorganic materials have high exp but no multiplier points. Therefore your strategy for upgrading is simple – add organic until you get max multiplier, then start adding inorganic. What was the point in naming and explaining hundreds of items when they no effect on your upgrades beyond these 2 categories? It’s almost like they had plans to do something more interesting and then decided against it. There is no strategy to upgrading your weapons or accessories and therefore it becomes a chore and not part of an essential game mechanic.

On part of the game I will defend is the battle system. I have seen many complaints regarding the fact that there is an “auto-battle” system. Yes, there is, but if you expect the characters to win a battle without your input then you won’t make it very far in this game at all. In FFXIII the fighting is less about specific commands and more about what roles you assign to your characters. There are 6 different roles (although you characters will start out with access to only 2 or 3 of them) and you will have to carefully select which ones you want your character to take in battle. You can change these roles in battle using a system called “paradigm shift”. If you want to make it through a boss battle then you better pick these roles carefully and keep a close on eye on what’s going on in order to “shift” effectively! It’s hard to explain unless you’re playing it but the system really does allow a depth of strategy, especially when it comes to working out how best to take on a particular enemy or in deciding how to level your party effectively. Despite this, I do understand the complaints. It is somewhat simpler than previous FF games…yet it is still very complicated for the uninitiated player. I once again wonder who the target audience for FFXIII is!

Ultimately, if you like FF games and you are willing to push for 20 hours in order to reach the open world of hunting massive fantasy creatures then FFXIII can become quite a rewarding game. I can tell that I am going to be sinking in quite a lot more hours and enjoying myself immensely. However, this amount of time is not a reasonable expectation of most players. Games should draw you in straight off the bat or at least within the first hour. In comparison to other games, FFXIII seems reluctant to let you just play.


Limbo – an evil little world

This week Microsoft kicked off its Summer of Arcade promotion with the release of of Limbo, a game created by indie developer Playdead. It’s been getting a lot of attention due its art style and focus on puzzle solving.

You start the game as a boy and wake up in a grey, shadowy world. The game gives you no clue as to what the controls are or what you are supposed to do. Like the young boy on screen you are left on your own to figure out what to do in a particularly hostile and foreboding environment. Moving about and interacting with objects is easy figure out. It’s the puzzles and the hidden dangers that get you.

When playing this game be prepared to die a lot. Sometimes dying is completely unavoidable and gives you clues on how to avoid it next time. It doesn’t stop it being any less nasty though. Whether you are being chased by monsterous spiders, trying to avoid bear traps or running from silent children who really seem to want you dead the game keeps you on edge and uses its nasty atmosphere to give you a little push to solve the puzzle faster. There is an achievement for completing the game with less than 5 deaths – I imagine that only the most dedicated gamers will manage it!

The game is fair and autosaves often so you never lose too much progress but some of the puzzles can be very tricky to figure out. Solving them can rely on many different factors; speed, interaction of objects, your own momentum, lateral thinking…and you won’t run across the same puzzle twice. The game constantly throws new and ever-more-challening puzzles in your path. Eventually the puzzles start becoming much more complex and difficult. Despite the difficulty they are also well-designed and once you understand the solution you’ll wonder why you didn’t see it in the first place. It also feels quite rewarding when you figure out something that has had you stumped for a few minutes.

Along with the gloomy, eerie visuals is a quiet and creepy soundtrack. The music in Limbo is very limited. Mostly you can hear the breeze and far off noises but when danger approaches the soundtrack gets more aggressive along with it. It’s enough to make you jump at times. Especially when it comes along with the visuals of a gigantic spider creeping it’s way towards you.

Limbo is full of character, atmosphere and provides an intense gameplay experience. I can’t think of any other game to compare it too.

Limbo costs 1200 Microsoft Points.


Sleep Is Death gives us a new way to play

I don’t play many games that aren’t on a console but every so often my attention is peaked by something. In this case it’s a game called Sleep Is Death by indie creator Jason Rohrer (the dude who made The Passage).

There is quite a bit of hype surrounding this game and you’ve probably heard words like “innovative” and “limitless possibilities” thrown around about games before. The interesting thing is that in this case, it’s true. Sleep Is Death is for 2 players, one playing the “controller” of the game world and the other being the player exploring the world. The player has a 30 second timer in which to move, pick something up, speak to someone or say something. The game, in turn, reacts to whatever it is you do. But it’s not the game itself reacting it is the “controller” – the other player. This means that you literally can do nearly anything and get a response from the game. Think about it. In how many other games can you say what you want or smash what you want or kill what you want and actually have the game react specifically to what you did? The entire problem of intelligent design in games is wiped away by simply putting another human in control of the environment.

The controller interface is pretty easy to understand – it’s mainly drag and drop. The simple sprite based art means that new characters, objects and environments can be created with astonishing speed. The pared-down art style also means that players remain focused on the story without getting distracted by how “good” things look. This is important when you have only 30 seconds in which to create the environment or consequences for the player. There are also prepackaged assets that come with the game (and more available to download) so you don’t have to do all the work yourself if you don’t want to. If you are going to be the controller then you can also create scenes and characters that you can store in the game’s library for future use. The player interface is even simpler; point and click.

There is one very obvious downfall to this game. It depends on the creativity of the controller and the responses of the player. Even so, you can pretty much guarantee that you won’t know what is going to happen until you sit down to play. Even the controller has to react to the player! How many games can you say that about? If you’re not playing with a friend you can find people to play with at Sidtube where people also upload screenshots of their games and you can find new resources.

You can download Sleep Is Death here – payment is donation based so give what you can afford and support our indie developers!


Let’s talk about Red Dead Redemption

I’ve been sinking quite a few of my gaming hours into Red Dead Redemption on the 360 the past few weeks. On the whole I have been enjoying myself immensely whether it be shooting bandits, hunting rattlesnakes or breaking horses. I even began to enjoy the gambling once I figured out that the AI had a “tell” in Liar’s Dice that allows me to win 99% of the time. In fact, if you asked me if you should buy the game I would say yes because it is damn good fun if you enjoy open-world, sandbox type games. However, this review isn’t gonna be about how great the game is. You can read one of those reviews quite easily. They’re everywhere. This review is about the things that are bad about RDR because very few people are talking about them.

There are few differences between RDR and GTA – the mission structures, character types and game mechanics are extremely similar. It doesn’t introduce anything new or original to video games and sometimes heavily relies on stereotypes and predictable plot to drive the narrative forward. The environment is the major distinction. To be fair, the praise heaped upon Rockstar for the landscape is well deserved. It is diverse, packed with wildlife and has some extremely beautiful moments around sunrise and sunset. It is not a chore to ride your horse through it on the way to missions but actually rather pleasant. The music also resonates beautifully with the landscape creating an emotional resonance. Unfortunately, RDR fails to create the same level of emotional resonance in any of it’s characters.

The main character, John Marston, is presented to the player as a gruff and tough man who is attempting to leave his former life as a criminal behind him and be a good father and husband. He is surly, quick to anger and has little qualm in gunning down those who stand in his way. He is also presented as a stand-up, honest sort of guy who won’t cheat on his wife or kill without reason. Regardless, the game will let you gun down whomever you please for whatever reason. You will inevitably end up with a bounty on your head and NPC’s will stay clear of you but it doesn’t change John Marston’s plot. In the cut scenes he still talks like an honorable sort of dude. This can be quite jarring if you’ve just robbed a bank and shot a man off a horse just because you could.

Another problem with John’s character is the fact it grates against a lot of the missions. Most of the core game missions are started by talking to particular NPC’s. Some of these characters are largely comic relief stereotypes which are fun and show off Rockstar’s sharp wit but absolutely clash with Marston. They are constantly making life difficult for Marston and sending him off on wild goose chases whilst promising to help. And Marston just takes it. He may threaten them and do a lot of talking about how annoyed he is but he never actually follows through with any intimidation and he always, always does what they say even if they have betrayed him previously. Of course, Marston HAS to do these things because this is how the plot and the game advances but it doesn’t make any sense in context of his character. Personally, I feel this is a large oversight by Rockstar. I don’t mind not having choice about taking on a mission or not because Marston is not my avatar like in a game such as Fallout 3 – he is a well-rounded character with a specific story that is meant to unfold as I play the game. Fair enough. But the fact is that the story does not always gel with Marston’s character. This inconsistency can throw you out of the story and doesn’t help you to form an emotional attachment with Marston. He’s a character that is always ready to help the law take out some bandits but the next minute will take on a mission to burn down a village or two. He acts like he has no time for drunks or swindlers but will pretty much do anything they ask. If Marston himself doesn’t seem to know what he cares about, why should I care about him?

I know this all sounds like a lot of complaining. Despite the fact that RDR has little in the way of originality and a flawed story it really is fantastically atmospheric and plays very, very well. I cannot say that I am not having fun. Also, bear in mind that I have not finished the game yet so do not know where the story will end up. However, the narrative is flawed in many ways and claims that this will be the game that will change popular opinion of games as an art form are definitely hyperbole. But that’s okay. After all, it’s still entertaining pretending to be a cowboy.


Looking Forward

This weekend I am planning on picking up Red Dead Redemption. Although I have never been the biggest fan of the GTA series, Rockstar have intrigued me with it’s wild west free-roaming offering. The last time I played a western game it was Neversoft’s Gun, a game that was fun and had a lot of potential but was marred by an irritating control system and a plot that was extremely short. The reviews for Red Dead Redemption have been generally positive (and sometimes a little over-flowing with praise!) so I’m willing to lay out some cash for it despite the video evidence of 101 glitches on YouTube. I think I’m gonna have a grand time in the old west.

This got me thinking about some other games that I am looking forward to playing. We’ve got some pretty excellent games on the horizon! These are the 4 I’m anticipating the most.

Mafia II – August 2010

Y’know, I never played Mafia. Crime games in general don’t tend to grab my interest. It’s not like I have anything against them it’s a just a personal thing. I tend to prefer stuff with a sci-fi or fantasy theme. Despite this I really, really want to play Mafia II. The gameplay trailers look like it will be immense fun (more Gears of War shoot and cover than GTA) and the work that has gone into constructing the 10 square miles of Empire Bay means it will likely be a joy to wander around. I’ve also been impressed with voice-acting I’ve heard on the trailers. I don’t expect this game to be particularly innovative in the sandbox genre but I love the idea of the playing a stylistic gangster game with great music, authentic environments and a good story. From what I’ve seen so far, Mafia II seems to be promising these things.

Dead Rising 2 – August 2010

Dead Rising was a good game that just didn’t quite work. The controls were iffy, the save system frustrating and the tiny text a massive pain for anyone without a HD tv. Here’s hoping that the sequel will eliminate all these issues! Because really, the opportunity to slaughter a screen absolutely packed with Romero-esque shambling zombies with weapons ranging from your fists to your own custom-built weapons makes my gaming thumbs twitch. Capcom say that the number of zombies which can be onscreen at any one time is roughly 6,000! There will also be cooperative and mutliplayer modes alongside the main plot. I just hope that it lives up to the hype that I have now created inside my head.

I Am Alive – 2011

Ubisoft first announced this title back in 2008. It was meant to be released this year but was pushed back after they pulled the development from Darkworks to in-house. I do hope it makes it to shelves because it just looks so interesting – like playing a part in a 70’s disaster movie. I like the idea that staying alive is part of the games mechanics and not something you only have to think about when being shot at. In fact, using tactics to trick or avoid your enemies is the main focus of play. Hopefully we will all hear more about it later in the year.

Fallout: New Vegas – Autumn/Winter 2010

If you’ve played Fallout 3 then you know why this game is heavily anticipated. If you haven’t played Fallout 3 then what are you still doing reading this blog post? Get out and buy yourself a second-hand copy! You won’t regret it!

So, what games are you looking forward to playing?