Vulture Capitalism: Thoughts On the Syndicate Reboot

Syndicate's singleplayer campaign has received some mixed reviews - with most of the praise being reserved for the co-op mode - but personally I very much appreciate the offline gameplay as well. Comparing it (as some have done) to Eidos Montreal's similarily cyberpunk-flavored Deus Ex: Human Revolution is rather unfair, since that game was a dialogue- and stealth-heavy RPG and as such has very little in common with the kind of slightly unusual but decidedly action-oriented games which Starbreeze Studios have been making for the last decade or so.

Syndicate's generic script and two-dimensional characters certainly won't win any prizes (despite voice work from surprisingly high profile actors like Brian Cox and Rosario Dawson) but, more importantly, the overall FPS design is really good and includes satisfying weapons, excellent sound design and a few neat special abilities which spice things up without at the same time overwhelming the player with too many things to keep track of in the middle of game's the fast-paced combat. Just as DX:HR, Syndicate's slick, chilly art style suffers a bit on the PC from multiplatform-related restrictions in terms of texture and effects quality etc. but nonetheless manages to provide a solid framework for some visually striking environments which remind me a bit of Battlefield 3's urban areas mixed with Mirror's Edge's cool IKEA dystopianism. I imagine that Swedish developers Starbeeze and DICE have had a direct influence on each other, especially considering that their headquarters (in the cities of Uppsala and Stockholm, respectively) are very close to each other geographically.

In any case, Syndicate's 4-player co-op is also rather nice and has been described as "Brink done right" by people who know more about online shooting than I ever will. What is certainly true is that the hectic online-oriented missions require proper management of the game's special abilities and includes an almost RPG-like number of unlockables both in terms of skills and weapons for customization in accordance with one's playstyle. The MMO-like elite units/boss fights in particular require the group to engage in a lot of well-timed "de-buffing" while staying away from the most damaging attacks and heal downed squad mates when necessary.

Just like Digital Extremes' The Darkness 2 before it, Syndicate is not quite memorable enough to not risk getting completely lost in the veritable flood of FPS releases (and I think it's fair to say that Jeff Gerstmann's glowing Giant Bomb review will remain a slightly curious outlier), but fans of quirky shooters would do well to check it out.

1 Comments

By far the best thing about Alan Wake is how well it sold on PC

I played through Alan Wake back in 2010 when it was released exclusively for the Xbox 360, and I honestly didn't think very highly of Remedy's long-awaited new action adventure. On the plus side, in creating the little town of Bright Falls with its surrounding deep woods the studio completely nailed the Lynchian atmosphere they were so clearly aiming for, and the settings themselves remain by far the game's greatest asset. However, the endless and relentlessly linear traversal through familiar-looking dark forests quickly became repetitive and the rather basic combat - while not without its share of visceral thrills - likewise grew stale within just a few hours of gameplay. This might all have been excusable if the story was any good, but the needlessly convoluted narrative gets so mired down in the details of its supernatural backstory that by the (annoyingly amiguous) end its reasonably compelling "man loses wife and sanity" premise has almost completely fallen by the wayside. As a game Alan Wake significantly overstayed its welcome, and it was thus a real relief for me to finally put it back on the shelf for good.

Given my less than enthusiastic reaction to the original version of Alan Wake it might seem surprising that I picked up the PC version as soon as it was released, but this was purely a case of wanting to support the platform rather than being particularly interested in actually playing the game itself again. If nothing else, there's some symbolic value in this belated PC port considering how Remedy's contractual obligations surrounding the 360 release of Alan Wake seemed to mark a drastic shift away from PC gaming for the developer in question. Indeed, that this agreeably priced PC port reached #1 on Steam and became profitable in just 48 hours - despite the game having received a somewhat mixed reaction and been out for two years on another system - speaks volumes about the personal computer's renewed commercial viability as a serious platform on the market.

As for the extra bells and whistles added for the PC version, the increased resolution does wonders to the already quite respectable art assets (especially compared with the 360 version's somewhat controversial sub-HD graphics), but the promised NVIDIA 3D Vision support is sadly quite lacking at the moment and will have to be patched extensively. Also, for the keyboard/mouse purists out there it's worth adding that AW works best with a gamepad plugged in.

7 Comments

The Gravity of the Situation: Thoughts on the ME3 Demo

If the original Mass Effect attempted to be a sprawling sci-fi epic and the second game was a neo-Western character-oriented action drama, the ME3 demo makes the upcoming third installment look like some kind of interactive Michael Bay movie - and I mean that in both good and bad ways. The most recent version of Bioware's notoriously fluid conception of what a sci-fi action RPG should feel like is clear enough from the demo's storytelling alone, but comes across equally well in the graphics and overall presentation. Whereas the first game distinguished itself by the sheer scale of its somewhat desolate environments and the sequel focused on delivering a slick noir-ish aesthetic, ME3's impressive opening scene has a much less subtle, more muscular emphasis on squeezing in as many polygons as possible on the screen at any given time. In scenes which remind me more of the Covenant siege on New Mombasa in Halo 2's similarily grand introduction than any previous Mass Effect moment, the ME3 demo starts out in a sprawling detailed cityscape with lots of moving parts (many of which are massive and alien in nature) and an equally large and unnaturally unruly body of water cramming an additional layer on top of an already busy and comparatively hardware-demanding background.

As for the writing and actual gameplay, it takes approximately three seconds for it all to reach Wagnerian levels of bombast where it stays for the entire duration of the introductory mission. Exactly what and how much of the full game content of these scenes have been cut down for purposes of the demo download is of course unclear, but in any case it provides a clear enough contrast to Eden Prime's oppressive sense of foreboding and even makes the dramatic space crash/death sequences of ME2 feel subtle and atmospheric by comparison. Within minutes of the demo's non-interactive beginning, ME3Shep starts spewing forth heroically monosyllabic rhetoric in what amounts to a Cliffnotes version of his/her climactic ME2 pep talk; just in time before the Reapers throw everything including the (no doubt exploding) kitchen sink at the Homeland. After that, it's Gears of War-ish traversal through dramatic scenery punctuated by action-filled choke points all the way to the dramatically effective Normandic extraction which ends the first part of the singleplayer demo.

As someone who has played Bioware games for almost 15 years now it's hard not to have mixed feelings about where these celebrated RPG developers have ended up after years of streamlining their gameplay design (which is not necessarily the same thing as "dumbing down", by the way), but at least a part of me can't help but feel some respect for the general path they've chosen to embark upon. As has been evident for years now, they are clearly not interested in catering (solely) to the D&D grognards who want another Baldur's Gate, or even the slightly younger KOTOR converts who don't care about MMOs. Whether foolishly or not, Bioware are hellbent on winning over large swaths of the mainstream/action gamer population which just might be persuaded to invest in a more story-oriented experience than they've previously been known to collectively spend millions of dollars on. And that's the thing; as easy as it is to forget for us oldtimers, Bioware are not merely asking us longtime fans to go out of our comfort zones but also betting on the peanut-crunching crowd to be open to a more multi-layered gameplay concept than merely running from checkpoint A to B to C while artfully killing hostiles on the way (...although Bioware certainly got that bit covered, too). ME3's new Story/Roleplaying/Action system unfortunalety dilutes this potentially radical idea (since such a three-way choice implies that A) all players already know what they want, and B) they are not asked to try something completely new) - but there's still enough daring risk-taking left in the whole project that I think Bioware - and to some extent its comically reviled publisher partner EA - deserves some kudos for the high-stakes game they are playing. However, even after enjoying the sheer spectacle of this demo it's also fair to say that this entry in the series must be the title which makes Bioware consider its future direction carefully. If in spite of all ME3's action movie-esque sound and fury they still can't begin to reach the sales figures of some of the most popular and successful games out there (such as, say, Halo or Assassin's Creed), then maybe they should seriously consider scaling back some of their mainstream ambitions for a while, work on some smaller projects and perhaps even stop trying to be some damn epic all the time.

That last bit doesn't sound too likely, of course, but at least so far I've personally found myself liking the Mass Effect series (i.e. both previously released installments) a lot more than I initially thought I would. Right now I'm on my third ME2 playthrough (first on the PC) and finishing of the great Shadow Lair DLC for the first time and, yes, I sure got ME3 pre-ordered on Origin...

19 Comments

The Day TES Modding Got Easy: Morrowind Overhaul 2.0 Out Now

Morrowind Overhaul 2.0 is a newly updated compilation consisting of previously released and independently developed visual/cosmetic mods for The Elder Scrolls 3. This package is unique in that it not only includes a very sizeable and thoughtful selection of the very best in user-made graphical upgrades for Bethesda's well-liked 2002 open world RPG; it also streamlines the installation of those mods to an unprecedented extent. While there is still a certain amount of manual preparation required, an impressively large part of the actual process of moving content files to the correct paths, updating load orders and setting up the infamously messy MGE etc. has been almost completely automatized (even to the point where the included installation program takes control over the mouse cursor and conveniently chooses options for you!), and the accompanying instructions PDF should clear out most of the remaining questions.

It's clear from forum discussions so far that the Morrowind Overhaul doesn't work perfectly for everyone just yet, but its creators will continue to update it and release new versions which will hopefully improve stability and compatibility. MO 2.0 is already an impressive piece of work, though, and should be well worth checking out if you've never got into TES modding before and also happen to own a reasonably powerful gaming PC (seeing as extensive visual modding of Morrowind is very hardware-demanding...).

Morrowind Overhaul 2.0 can be downloaded here;

http://morrowindoverhaul.rpgitalia.net/

Installation PDF available here;

http://moautoupdate.net/guides/MGSO_Installguide.pdf

1 Comments

A Sense of Place: Thoughts on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I've not posted anything about Skyrim on this blog yet since I don't really have anything particularly original to say about the game that hasn't already been repeated a thousand times by legions of admiring fans and reviewers alike. I usually get bored of the TES series' signature quantity-over-quality approach to open world design (the smaller, more hand-crafted Gothic titles being more my kind of non-linear RPG), and have been known to say some pretty nasty things about Bethesda in general and Todd Howard in particular. For the sake of discussion, it would probably have been more interesting if I felt the same way about the fifth entry in the series...but after having spent more than 50 hours in the land of the Nords I must admit that the game provides a consistently immersive and satisfying experience with a surprising amount of genuinely worthwile content to explore.

I'm playing as an Imperial fighter (who just reached level 36) with a focus on heavy armor and one-handed swords. Skyrim's melee combat still has a bit of that weightless, haphazard feel which characterized Oblivion and Morrowind, but welcome improvements have been made in terms of things like attack animations, the impact of the weapons as well as the precision and timing required to be really effective - especially with the slightly more technical shield plus sword combo as opposed to the less subtle two-handed berserker approach. Even more importantly, though, having two equippable and freely customizable hands ensures that the player can easily mix weapons, shields as well as spells in innovative ways and change between combinations more or less on the fly using the handy Favorites feature (in conjunction with the well-hidden Hotkey system). Overall, there's a fluidity here that feels a lot better than the detached clunkiness of Morroblivion.

The enemy level scaling in Oblivion was deeply problematic and resulted in a lot of frustration during my one and only playthrough of that game (partly due to poor skill management on my part). Therefore, it's a particular relief to experience the much smoother progression in Skyrim, in which at least the more powerful enemies still manage to put up a fight even past level 30. As usual, some notorious power players will complain that the game is too easy, and it's obviously always possible to exploit the mechanics of an open world RPG system (though that's more related to stats and perks which is not was concerns me here), but I think it's fair to say that people who had issues with Oblivion in this regard will find Skyrim to a considerably less bumpy ride.

As for the much-discussed dragon fights, well, they do quickly get rather easy but what's consistently great about taking down these oversized airborne lizards is that you just don't know when and where they are going to attack. The sudden appearance of a dragon has a way of making you forget whatever it was that you were doing and just get in the action...

Somewhat ironically, whereas Skyrim is arguably more constrained by aging console hardware than the largely PC-centric Morrowind or the 360 near-launch title Oblivion were, with TES5 I feel Bethesda nonetheless has achieved a great deal more when it comes to the world-building than with any of their previous releases. The vaguely Scandinavian-looking environments are teeming with relatively realistic wildlife and the endless rolling hills of TES4 have been replaced by dramatic landscapes which are both more varied and more detailed, and therefore also more interesting to explore. I suspect this general increase in quality is partly the result of technological advances and rising consumer expectations in the graphics department rather than some sort of creative revolution within Bethsoft itself, but whatever the case Skyrim feels more meaningful and worthwile as a world than Cyrodiil or even the delightfully strange but rather brown Vvardenfell ever did. Much like past Elder Scrolls titles, most of the human settlements in Skyrim are curiously dull and prefab-heavy but at least this time around it's actually rewarding to just wander through the jaw-droppingly beautiful wilderness and discover hidden dungeons filled with challenging enemies and great loot.

Skyrim both has a lot more properly scripted and dialogue-supported side quests than any previous Elder Scrolls title and the game is much better at subtly steering the player towards cool new experiences. Almost every tomb or crumbling castle I've stumbled upon in the wilderness have shown clear signs of being part of some substantial side quest or other. Also, one of the greatest things about Skyrim's exploration is that there always seems to be a quick shortcut out of a dungeon once you've cleared it out and/or found whatever quest item you were supposed to collect. Walking all the way back from where you came was a tedious issue even as far back in the series as Daggerfall, so it's great to see the shortcut approach in no less than two Bethesda-published games this year (the other one being id Software's Rage).

In conclusion, while Bethesda's new open world RPG undoubtedly has many of the exact same flaws as previous TES titles - such as less than stellar combat, forgettable NPCs, lots of minor skill imbalances and a bit too much repetition to quite justify the scale of the game world - the improvements to the long-established formula are significant enough that, at least to me, Skyrim is the game both Morrowind and Oblivion desperately tried to be but never was. RPG of the year, then? Well, given the undeniable shortcomings of the compelling and well-intentioned Dragon Age 2 and my own lukewarm feelings towards CD Projekt's ambitious but somewhat forgettable The Witcher 2, I think that might very well be the case...

26 Comments

The Mending of a Broken World: Lands of Lore on GOG.COM

No Caption Provided

A lot of people seem to want their fantasy RPGs to be dark and rather gritty. While that approach can certainly work in some cases, it seems there's always a considerable risk that game writers - being the slightly pretentious, semi-adolescent male bunch that they are - confuse "maturity" with crude cynicism or childish misantrophy and churn out end products which are far more tedious and ill-humored than they are engrossing and profound. For a long time now, I've been more drawn to games which attempt to straddle the fuzzy fantasy/fairy tale boundary and produce something colorful (both literally and figuratively) with a healthy dose of escapism - which I guess partly explains my enduring affection for Lionhead's well-intentioned but flawed Fable series. An even better example of what I'd like to see more of in PC fantasy games is the fondly remembered first installment in Westwood's Lands of Lore series, which has now finally been released on Good Old Games (in an absurdly generous pack with both Throne of Chaos and Guardians of Destiny for just $6).

I've only ever played the first 5-10 hours or so of the first entry in the series (which is one of the few pre-1995 PC classics I actually own a retail copy of), but the game's appealing combination of top-notch art direction, an admirably clean interface and surprisingly challenging combat and exploration all make it abundantly clear that LoL is no laughing matter (sorry) but rather a true classic among dungeon crawlers (even though it's also quite rightly seen as a more accessible "mainstream" continuation of the realtime formula established by Eye of the Beholder and Dungeon Master). Also, Westwood's departure from the grittiness of the (comparatively) dark fantasy which characterized so many RPGs even back in the mid-90s does in no way entail a wholesale rejection of real tension and drama. In spite of the colorbook aesthetics, charmingly stereotypical characters and frequently goofy dialogue the game still manages to weave a rather compelling little fantasy tale of a kingdom in turmoil and the ragtag band of adventurers fighting to restore the peace and order that was taken from them The voice acting is perhaps not up to modern levels of professionalism, but there's a wide range of suitably hammy performances (including a particularly good one by Patrick Stewart) which make the cutscenes and humorous party banter well worth looking forward to.

Because of the obvious care and attention that went into designing the game's various systems and interface, for just about anyone not immediately put off by the lack of seamless 3D movement in games like this Lands of Lore: Throne of Chaos should be one of the most accessible 15+ year old PC games available: with a "pick up and play" potential that easily rivals big budget RPGs today but with a degree of challenge to the combat, puzzle solving and exploration which few mainstream games of any genre attempt these days. Overall, that sounds like the description of a timeless classic if you ask me...

16 Comments

Telepath RPG: Servants of God

I've been following the development of Telepath: Servants of God for a few years now but actually not checked out the demo seriously before. Sinister Design's ambitious upcoming game combines a strong emphasis on story and dialogue with top-down turn-based combat. The battles take place on differentiated grid-based maps similar to what you'd find in an isometric SRPG like Tactics Ogre (and the Japanese RPG tradition is referenced explicitly by the developer), but still on a small enough scale that more Western-oriented fans of PC classics like Pool of Radiance or Betrayal at Krondor should feel right at home. I played on Normal difficulty in the demo and even early on the combat design and enemy AI was challenging enough that I was rewarded for thinking ahead a few turns and paying attention to tactical aspects like flanking and unit direction (most party members can be revived between battles, but the playable character's death results in instant Game Over). A noteworthy feature of the battle system is that various individual unit abilities work at very specific ranges - such as one, two or three grid squares away from the character in any of the cardinal directions - which obviously makes unit positioning even more important. Apart from some neat portraits the game's graphics are best described as functional, but the music is nicely atmospheric and adds a lot to the experience.

Narratively speaking the writing seems very good so far, and it's clear that a lot of work went into characterization (as evidenced by the voice actor interviews on the developer's YouTube channel) as well as the game's intriguing and original Middle Eastern/Steampunk setting. The plot revolves around a classic "religious fanatics vs the good guys" conflict, which the main character is immediately drawn into at the start of the game. In general I'm tired of seeing such a complex and multi-faceted social phenomena as religion being reduced to irrational totalitarianism in the vast majority of pop cultural works, but Sinister Design's Craig Stern appears to have crafted a distinct and believable socio-political context in which this age-old drama takes place and I very much look forward to seeing where the story goes in the full game.

Telepath RPG: Servants of God will hopefully be released by the end of this year (2011), and is available for pre-order here (where the very generous demo version is also available for download, as well as earlier freeware titles which can be viewed as less ambitious predecessors to Servants of God).

10 Comments

Saving Private Egge

I've always found online gameplay of any genre to be a rather empty and meaningless experience when compared to progressing through a well-designed singleplayer campaign, but there's no denying that Battlefield 3's multiplayer is very impressive and presumably more than a worthy successor to DICE's classic BF2. The sheer sense of scale which characterizes the BF3 matches (on PC, I should add) is frequently mind-boggling; especially if like me a few hours of console deathmatches is just about the only multiplayer you've experienced since the glory days of 56 kbps modem play in Doom 2 (still my favorite MP game for sure). The chaotic and pulse-quickening death and destruction which fills the entire screen in even the smallest of BF3's confrontations is further amplified by the fact that all of this incessant mayhem is being produced in gloriously high detail using what's quite possibly the most advanced graphics engine available right now (which is demonstrated much more clearly in the online mode than in singleplayer). Unlocking new gear is reasonably satisfying, although I almost always forget to change my loadout since those options are most easily accessible "inbetween deaths", at which time I'm generally too impatient to tinker with the settings and just want to hit the Respawn button and get back in the action before the rest of my squad mates have been obliterated.

As always with online play I'm not fond of the endless repetition - and also have a constant, nagging feeling that there are significant elements of the gameplay which I can't quite wrap my head around (or that are simply not properly explained) - but I'm nonetheless enjoying the spectacle of total war which Battlefield 3 has to offer. And I do love blowing up tanks...

5 Comments

Roguelike D20 Party: Mysterious Castle needs YOU to go PC

The indie roguelike Mysterious Castle may look simple at first, but beneath the minimalistic iPhone-adapted UI lies a surprisingly tactical party-based/turn-based RPG built with SRD 3.5 (i.e. a loosely Dungeons & Dragons-derived roleplaying ruleset) as the foundation and inspired by games like Temple of Elemental Evil, Tactics Ogre and Zangband. The roguelike part of MC is that the world is randomly generated, but unlike most roguelikes this is a party-based game in which the player controls up to the three characters at the same time. The combat gets complex and challenging really fast, and the often large-scale battles include things like enemy mages, AoE spells, summoned creatures and a mix of melee and long-range weapons with multiple attack options (such as snipe, rapid shots, flurry, spin attack etc.) as well as positional modifiers such as flanking and high ground.

At least for now, Mysterious Castle is first and foremost a Mac and iOS game for the mundane reason that the Hong Kong-based developer apparently doesn't own a copy of Windows. He would like to get the game properly ported in the future, though, but sales of the iOS version (as well as Paypal donations) will determine whether that will be possible or not. Planned features to be implemented in the future includes a much larger party of playable characters (presumably the SRPG inspiration has something to do with that), destructible environments and eventually even online play (!).

Official website:

http://www.mysteriouscastle.com/

indieDB project page:

http://www.indiedb.com/games/mysterious-castle

Developer's YouTube channel:

http://www.youtube.com/user/jjurksztowicz

Official trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9gtLQGnjNg

The manual (good for getting an overview of the gameplay features):

http://www.mysteriouscastle.com/playerguide#quickinstructions

9 Comments

The Anxiety of Influence: First Impressions of Battlefield 3

So Battlefield 3 is out now and, well, at least as far as the overall presentation goes this is one generic modern military shooter if there ever was one. Bland realism aside, however, the technology powering Frostbite 2 is reasonably impressive and even high-end rigs have their work cut out for them (with max settings I personally get a frame rate between 40-55 with my modern-but-single GPU). Partly because of the soulless art design it can be difficult at first to distinguish exactly what the game does better than comparable action titles but the attention to detail, abundance of reflecting surfaces and complex lighting combined with very sharp textures stands out the more you play it (and especially compared to CODBLOPS and other clearly console-restrained shooters). Light in particular is used to good effect, and the "Operation Guillotine" level featured in this video is almost boldly designed in how it constantly forces the player to fight mere silhouttes during realistic nighttime conditions.

Given that I'm such an SP-focused gamer I was hoping for at least Bad Company 2 level of mediocrity to the campaign's overall structure and narrative, but since there's no Bravo Company here the game lacks even that rudimentary level of personality (and even though BF3 is decidedly less "humorous" than BFBC2, the dialogue is still rather cringe-worthy in its own right). As far as the actual gameplay goes, the first two-three levels have offered nothing beyond the same set pieces (sometimes literally the same set pieces) and QTEs we've seen in countless other military action games, and flying a plane (as in mission 4, "Going Hunting") in a Battlefield game without, y'know, actually flying the plane yourself - it's all on-rails - is blatantly absurd. I am obviously planning on checking out the much-hyped online modes, though; and perhaps by making a concerted effort to understand the basics of it all even I can derive some enjoyment out of tactical squad-based gameplay in large-scale destructible environments. We all know that's what Battlefield is all about, though it would sure have been nice if DICE had attempted to push the limits in more ways than just the game engine itself and the multiplayer.

3 Comments