Saturday, February 22, 2014

Company of Heroes 2 Review!


                Company of Heroes is the best RTS game I ever played and with this in mind I pre-ordered Company of Heroes 2. (BTW people, don't pre-order games! It’s not worth it!)
               Relic Entertainment is one of the best studios developing strategy games out there, creating series like Homeworld, Dawn of War and Company of Heroes, so with such a background is hard to believe things could ever go wrong. But things don’t always work out as they should.
               Everything started with THQ financial downfall leading to the game being postponed a few times, then the big hit came with THQ filing for bankruptcy and all the studios and game licenses under their domain being auctioned. SEGA saw the opportunity to become the strongest strategy games publisher and acquired Relic Entertainment together with Company of Heroes rights and Dawn of War licenses (the horror!).  As most of the fans were happy about this move, I was skeptical, thinking about the not so nice things that happened with Shogun Total War 2. Following these events the game was postponed even more for polishing and of course for SEGA to have time to leave their mark on the game. Everyone was optimistic (I wasn't, yet I still pre-ordered, damn fanboys!) because SEGA is such a big publisher and has huge experience with strategy games and there were lots of promises flying around that everything would turn out great. The game was ultimately released on June 25th, 2013, let’s see how it turned out.

               Company of Heroes 2 is a combination between RTS and RTT genres with the gameplay focusing on tactics, units positioning and map control. The action is set in WW2 on the Eastern front, the player takes command of the Russian army on their desperate attempt to protect the Motherland from the invading German army.
               The campaign is presented as a number of flashback stories, as one of the leaders of the army, now in prison, is asked questions about what happened during the war with the army under his command. The story is about difficult decisions that had to be taken and the necessary sacrifices that were made in order to defeat the (evil!) German army. Basically this is the script of every modern shooter turned into a story for a WW2 strategy game. Why the hell not? Shooters sell millions of copies every year with this kind of recycled story, why can't strategy games do the same?
               The progression of the campaign is so slow and the game insists on holding your hand in almost every mission, becoming really frustrating, and by the time you are at the 6th or 7th mission you still feel like playing a tutorial instead of being the commander of an army leading your soldiers in decisive and cruel battles. The “hand holding” has been practiced in almost every genre in the last years. Producers should stop treating gamers like they are a bunch of idiots, because that’s what these prolonged tutorials look like.

For the Motherland!

               The game mechanics of Company of Heroes were complex, more so than most of the RTS games at the time and even long after. The game is using cover system for all units, an realistic armor system for vehicles and suppression mechanics for infantry, all these features add up to an awesome gaming experience.
The gameplay in Company of Heroes 2 is similar with the first games, but with a few additions to improve what was already an excellent game.
The most important new gameplay mechanics are:
·    Weather plays a big role in the game now, blizzards disrupt your actions and kill your units if they can't find some cover or if they can't light a fire.
·    Moving through deep snow slows down vehicles and infantry movement speed, making it harder to control your units and forcing you in some situations to take a different path. Also moving on the snow leaves footprints which are visible for the enemies.
·    Water now freezes on winter maps opening new path ways as you can pass over it with your units, but it can also break and the units caught there will sink. This mechanic can be used for both defensive and offensive strategies.
There are some other features but these are the most notable ones.

Fires are life savers during blizzard.

Leaving footsteps in the snow and jumping over fences!

               Adding all these new things to the already complex gameplay of the first games seems like a good improvement, but it is actually more complicated than that. It’s not enough to add new features to make a better game, the core mechanics should work properly as well. The AI and pathfinder took a huge hit in this game, the units are dumb as hell and get stuck in one another or other obstacles all the time, they can't find their way to cover and sometimes not even to what looks like a simple location, overall the pathfinder is terrible. In a game where you have to position your tanks all the time to always face the enemy anti-tank unit , your tanks are unable to find a good path to their set destination and tend to rotate in place or move in reverse towards the direction set by you. These problems are incredibly frustrating, you lose games because of this in both singleplayer and multiplayer and even now after so many months from release date these issues have not been completely addressed.
               The multiplayer has the same mechanics and modes as the previous games. Players can choose between one of the two factions in the game, the German or Russian army and join 1v1 battles or up to 4v4 matches. The standard modes for multiplayer remain Victory point control and Annihilation. Victory point control focuses on holding certain positions on the map, both players start with a set amount of points and the player that controls at least two out of the three victory positions makes the opponent lose some of his points, when one player runs out of points he loses the game. In Annihilation in order to win you have to destroy all your enemy's buildings. A new feature to the multiplayer are the commanders which replace the old leveling system during battle, commanders are selected before the game starts and each one comes with a set of abilities good for different kind of strategies. A progressive ranking system with rewards together with a perks system has been added which complement each other, as you rank up your profile you unlock new skins and perks for your units.
Perks system.

               All things considered, the multiplayer is probably the biggest letdown in Company of Heroes 2. In 2013 this game that was designed to be competitive and possibly an e-sport, with integrated support, and had some online tournaments, lacked so many important multiplayer features, a part of which have still not been added. Company of Heroes 2 was released without a lobby, chat channels, ladder, the possibility to play custom games with other players than your friends and dedicated servers. Everyone knew how many problems were caused due to lag in multiplayer games in the first games of the series or even in Dawn of War 2, games that are based on the same graphic engine, yet SEGA decided to ignore all these problems and the wishes of the fans releasing the game without dedicated servers. On top of everything the multiplayer was totally imbalanced at release, allowing all kind of cheesy tactics that could be used to win the matches fast and easy, the kind of tactics that should not be seen in a game like this one. It took several months to bring the units of both factions on a much more leveled ground.
               On the technical part, the game uses Essence Engine 3.0, a modified version of the engine Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II use. The game takes advantage of DirectX 11 and comes with improved graphics and physic, but not such a huge jump from the first titles of the series. In all fairness those games look very good even today, so even if is not such a huge improvement the changes are visible. The optimization was an issue from the beta and remains one even today, the game doesn't run well and causes all sorts of performance problems even on high-end computers.

               Instead of custom game mods a series of DLC named Theater of War were released with some co-op missions and singleplayer challenges. The missions are fun and some are hard but heavily scripted.
SEGA didn't spare Company of Heroes 2 from pay to win DLCs, they did it with Shogun Total War 2 so why not here. A series of commander DLCs with very powerful commanders was released to use in the multiplayer matches.
               A few months after launch the game has received important updates which added Steam chat and ladder integration, custom games with random players, lots of bug fixes and more. SEGA also confirmed the possibility of adding dedicated servers for the game. But the question still remains how a AAA game that cost 50 euro at release could come without all these features and with so many bugs?
               Company of Heroes is my favorite strategy game of all times, for the innovations it has brought to the genre, the challenging and brilliant gameplay and the true feeling of war that it recreates. Sadly Company of Heroes 2 had a poor timing, changing publishers during development and trying so hard to bring something new instead of polishing the already existing features. The game is far from what the sequel of this series should have looked like. But it is a good example of what is wrong with the industry today, publishers pushing for DLCs and unrealistic release dates instead of giving the developers the necessary time to finish their game and listen to the requests of the fans.
               The quality of strategy games dropped a lot in the past few years and the genre is in danger. The RTS games are dumbed down with the hope of attracting more players and sell more copies of the games and by doing this, the core fans of the genre are pushed away. On the long-term this kind of business strategy is damaging: on the one side the hardcore players won’t buy these games any more because the final product doesn't reflect their expectations and on the other side the newcomers won't stick with the genre anyway if they don’t like it. Strategy games are for players that look for complexity in a game and this should not be forgotten, for action packed story and a screen full of effects there are other genres.
               Maybe is time for the developers and publishers to focus more on the quality and complexity of the games rather than making the RTS’s more accessible, people have different taste in everything you can't force them to like something they don't enjoy. A high quality and complete game will be well received by enthusiasts and if the game is good might attract even those outside the strategy games hardcore community.
               As an ending note, I say with regret that Company of Heroes 2 was a big disappointment for me. Is far from what I expected and what should have been. The huge amount of bugs, the lack of crucial features, the campaign full of clich├ęs and optimization problems ruined this game for me.

+ Same game style as Company of Heroes
+ Graphics
+ Some of the new game mechanics
+ Epic battles

- Lots of bugs
- The lack of key features for multiplayer at release and a long time after
- Optimization
- Campaign Story
- Imbalanced units
- Imbalanced DLCs


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Top 10 of my favorite RPGs Part V

Here is a list of RPGs that I've played and I recommend even if they didn't make it on my Top 10 list:

·         Diablo (1996),
·         Fallout (1997),
·         Final Fantasy VII (1998),
·         Baldur's Gate (1998) with the expansion Tales of the Sword Coast (1999),
·         System Shock 2 (1999),
·         Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) with the expansion Throne of Bhaal (2001),
·         Icewind Dale (2000) with the expansions Heart of Winter (2001) and Trials of the Luremaster (2001),
·         Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption (2000),
·         Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001),
·         Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel (2001),
·         Icewind Dale II (2002),
·         Dungeon Siege (2002),
·         Divine Divinity (2002),
·         Arx Fatalis (2002),
·         Neverwinter Nights (2002) with the expansions Shadows of Undrentide (2003) and Hordes of the Underdark (2003),
·         The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003),
·         Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003),
·         Beyond Divinity (2004),
·         Sacred (2004),
·         Neverwinter Nights 2 (2006),
·         Dungeon Siege II (2006),
·         Titan Quest (2006) with the expansion Immortal Throne (2007),
·         The Witcher (2007),
·         Mass Effect (2007),
·         Dragon Age: Origins (2009) with the expansion Dragon Age: Origins – Awakening (2010),
·         Fallout: New Vegas (2010),
·         The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011),
·         Bastion (2011),
·         Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011),
·         Terraria (2011),
·         Legend of Grimrock (2012),
·         Dark Souls (2012),
·         Shadowrun Returns (2013),
·         Path of Exile (2013).

Many of these games are very good and should not be missed by fans of the RPG genre. 
The year 2014 looks very promising for the RPG genre and I'm looking forward to play some of the games that are going to be released this year.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Top 10 of my favorite RPGs Part IV

1. Planescape: Torment

   Developed by Black Isle Studios, published by Interplay Studios and released in 1999 this game is an absolute masterpiece.
   The action takes place in the multiverse of Planescape, a campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rule set.
   The game tells the story of the Nameless One, a hero stuck in a loop between life and death, reincarnating after each death but losing part of his memory every time. The quest of the hero is to regain his memory and find the nature of his immortality. As the game progresses, the hero learns about his multiple incarnations, both good and evil, which have a span of thousands of years, about the way he affected the lives of those around him and the course of history during all this time.
   The gameplay is story driven and focused on dialogue and interaction with other characters. Although the combat system is using some of the Dungeons & Dragons rules it doesn't use their maximum potential. This together with the lack of a complex loot system form the weakest points of the game.
   Planescape: Torment has one of the most complex stories and characters I have ever seen in a game, so complex that it rivals some of the best fantasy books. Choices matter, the dialogues are very well written and with many options and the outcome of a conversation can be changed in multiple ways affecting the progression of the story. The characters are amazing and the feeling in the game is at the highest level.
   This game sets a high and very hard to reach standard for RPGs. For me, it is the best RPG I have ever played and it will probably remain on top of my list for a long time and not only because it is such a good game but also because the quality of RPGs has dropped a lot in the past few years. Developers put more accent on things that are not so relevant to this genre instead of focusing their efforts to develop the story, dialogues and interesting characters.
   I hope an Enhanced Edition will be released soon as I want to play it one more time, and maybe by adding HD graphics to it new gamers will get a chance try it out and experience its beauty.
   There are good news for the fans of this game, a spiritual predecessor named "Torment: Tides of Numenera" has been financed with the help of Kickstarter and fans. This game will be developed by inXile Entertainment, a studio with many former members of Black Isle and Interplay. The action will take place in a different universe, with a new story and characters, but aims to capture the same things that made Planescape: Torment such an incredible experience.

 My Top 10 RPGs ends here.

   The reason why there is no game from Baldur's Gate series in this list is that I started playing them multiple times, but never got too deep in the story from various reason, I did like them but I cannot express my full impression about these games. Hopefully now after the release of the Enhanced Editions I'll find some time to finish them.
   There are many other high quality RPGs, but these are the ones I consider the best. I based my decision on story and dialogues, gameplay, feeling, innovations, character progression and very little on the technical part as I don't find it so relevant for an RPG.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 PC Demo impressions

Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 is the second game of the Castlevania reboot and the last game of the Lords of Shadow saga.

   The game continues the story of Gabriel Belmont a champion of the Brotherhood of Light, who became Dracula the Prince of Darkness by absorbing the powers of the demon Forgotten One at the end of Lords of Shadow epilogue. The story of the game will cover a period of over a thousand years, showing Dracula in his prime fighting the Brotherhood of Light together with the ghosts of his human past and a weakened Dracula in the modern age awakened by an old "friend" to prepare for the coming of Satan.
It is unclear whether the major events from Mirror of Fate, a  Nintendo 3DS exclusive that continues the story from the first game, will be presented in Lords of Shadow 2 for the players unfamiliar with the new story development.
   In the Demo we get to play a small part of a battle at Dracula's Castle which is under siege by the Brotherhood of Light forces who are desperately trying to destroy Dracula. The Demo is a Tutorial and doesn't show any moments that could be considered spoilers, as everything in this demo was part of videos released for the game.
  Now that you have become Dracula you get a new set of abilities and weapons replacing the ones you had as a human. These new powers should be used for different situations and in a combination that can turn the scale of battle in the player's favor.
  Because the combat cross was destroyed by Gabriel at the end of Lords of Shadow, the protagonist, now a vampire, has received a new weapon to replace it. A chain of blood is used now in order to perform the normal attacks with similar animations as the combat cross chain attacks.
The finishing moves changed as well, now you suck the blood of the human victims healing a small portion of your life in the process.
But the most important additions to Dracula's powers, shown in the demo, are two new weapons:

The Void Sword is a vampiric mid-range weapon replacing the light magic from the previous game and has the ability to steal life from the enemies you are hitting and heals you in return. The Void Sword has both single target and area of effect attacks and requires energy in order to use it. The energy replenishes quite fast and I'm not sure if this is part of the game mechanics or just because the Demo is a Tutorial and is deliberately easier.
Void Sword slashing through enemies.

Chaos Claws, the second new weapon, is a pair of flaming fist weapons which replace the dark magic from Lords of Shadow. The Chaos Claws are designed to be used to break the shields of the enemies weakening them for your other attacks. Similar to the Void Sword, the claws attacks use their own energy, energy that regenerates just as the sword's. The claws have both single target and area of effect attacks and can be used for special attacks as well.
Chaos Claws breaking a shield.

Interviews with the game's creators have confirmed that both of these new weapons can be upgraded in order to receive new combos and special attacks.
   Even if the combat has the same style as the previous game, based on dodging, blocking attacks and counter-attacking, the new weapons and enemies together with their new mechanics make the combat more dynamic and tactical. Overall the combat is more visceral, fluent and with better animations, but the biggest improvements for PC are the free camera and in-game full mouse support, which allow the player to always see the surroundings without being hit from blind spots and helps for better positioning in combat. The gamepad is no longer required to fully enjoy the game anymore.
   On the technical part, the graphics of the game have improved a lot compared to its predecessor, with better textures and models. Although not at the top standards of PC gaming,  the game doesn't look like just a console port anymore. The music in the game is phenomenal and really captures the feeling of this series, the orchestral background is absolutely epic and I could listen to it for hours without getting tired of it.

   Castlevania Lords of Shadow was never a game I was waiting for and it was a big surprise to me when I played it on PC last year because of the interesting world and captivating story. From the demo, Lords of Shadow 2 seems like a very good game and I look forward to seeing the epic conclusion to this saga.

Pre-purchase it or download the demo on Steam.  The game will be available for PC on the 25th February, 2014. You get 10% off if you pre-purchase it now.

Nodrim and TopSOUL

Top 10 of my favorite RPGs Part III

4. Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

   Neverwinter Nights was a more action oriented interpretation of the Advance Dungeons and Dragons rules and I enjoyed it for this reason. This game stands out from the rest of AD&D games because it's closer to a Hack and Slash and focuses more on character progression, loot and combat than anything else.
   Neverwinter Nights 2 was developed by a different studio which changed a lot of things in the game and it didn't deliver what I expected from it because the game was like a more traditional RPG and even though I enjoy story driven games a lot I wanted this series to stay as it was at the beginning.
   Then in 2007 Mask of the Betrayer was released and after playing it I almost forgot what I wanted from this series. Obsidian Entertainment did such an amazing job with the story and the characters of this game and put so much thought into it, that it takes several playthroughs to be able to experience the full extent of all the possible choices in the game.
   The story is a sequel to NWN 2, set after the events of the main game in a land called Rashemen controlled by red wizards. The player character is a spirit-eater, a cursed being who must feed with other creatures souls in order to exist. You start on a quest to find out the nature of your curse and a way to stop it in order to save your soul. It's up to you as the player to control the monster inside you or give in to his power. The more you feed with spirits the more you descend into the darkness and it becomes harder to control yourself up to a point where you will devour your own soul. Things are not made easy given the fact that your journey will take you to the temple of the former God of Death, Myrkul, which resides in these lands. As the origin of the spirit-eater inside you is unveiled, the journey leads you into the lands of the dead to fight for your soul.
   Everything in this game is so well written. The interaction with the characters you gather into your party is complex, your conversations with them can reveal their past and the problems they are facing and you can chose to help them in order to improve your relation with them and the synergy of the group.
   The number of choices you have in this game seems limitless and they don't only revolve around your dialogues but also around your actions as a spirit-eater.
   The combat is one of the strongest points of the game, taking full advantage of the AD&D 3.5 rules. You start at level 18 and you can reach the epic level of 40, the skills and spells customization are amazing, there are so many options to shape your character the way you want and the way that best fits your play style.
   The game is very difficult, some battles are extremely challenging and you have to use all sort of tactics in order to win, difficulty being lost in many of today's RPGs.
   On the technical part, the game graphics are beautiful and look good even today, the spells effects are spectacular and make the combat even more frenetic.
   Mask of the Betrayer is one of the best RPGs I have played in this decade, it's not on the same note as the first games developed by Bioware, but instead brings back the feeling of old school RPGs in this age with games focused only on action.

3. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 - Sith Lords

   KotoR 2 was developed by Obisidian Entertainment, a studio formed by many former members of Black Isle, and was published by LucasArts in 2005.
   The previous title was made by Bioware and is a highly acclaimed RPG, considered by many far superior to the sequel. Even if Revan, the hero of the first game, is one of my favorite jedis/dark jedis from this universe besides Jacen Solo (which doesn't feature in any video games) and he has such an unpredictable story, I like KotoR 2 more because of the amazing characters and emotional story this game has, they really make you feel like you're part of the story and not just playing it.
   The action takes place five years after the events of KotoR. With the Jedi Order destroyed and jedis almost extinct, the main character is an exiled jedi and one of the few left with the ability to connect with the force. During the story of the game, you, as the player, establish the connection with the force to gain power to defeat the Sith Lords which are reigning terror over the Republic.
   Your choices make the difference in this game as you can join either the light or the dark side of the force and on your trips to the different planets present in the game you can help the Republic forces or destroy them.
   The characters you team up with in your journey are very complex and have different goals and secrets. You have to pay careful attention to each of them in order to find their true nature and make them your devoted allies or you can even turn them into your enemies.
   The game mechanics are very similar with the predecessor, using the same combat system and a similar set of skills for character progression. This is not a bad thing as these features were inspired from Dungeons and Dragons rules and were working really well.
   The saddest thing about KotoR 2 is the fact that the game wasn't finished at release and the developers never got it to the state they initially wanted to because of the pressure from the publisher. A lot of story content was removed from the game, including the ending. There are some mods for the game which add the missing content and complete the game allowing the players to experience the real and much deeper ending of the game.
   Overall, Knights of the Old Republic 2 is one of the best RPGs ever made and one of the last good games made in the Star Wars universe.

2. Fallout 2

   Fallout 2 was developed by Black Isle Studios and published by Interplay Studios in 1998.
   The story takes place 80 years after the action of Fallout in the same post-apocalyptic America and tells the story of a descendant of the original hero. The protagonist is in a quest to save his tribe from starvation by finding the GECK, a device thought to be able to recreate a community out of a desolate wasteland. Compared to the previous game where mutants where the danger to the new world, in Fallout 2 the threat are humans, remnants of the old government now under the name of Enclave. This faction terrorizes the survivors of this wrecked world by kidnapping and experimenting on them in an attempt to create a virus that destroys any living being with mutated DNA. In order to put an end to the horrors done by Enclave and save not only his tribe but the world reborn from the aftermath of the nuclear war, the protagonist allies with all kind of interesting characters, both human and mutant, and takes the fight to the enemy.
   Fallout 2 features the same game engine as its predecessor, looking very similar to it. Apart form the graphics, the game mechanics, interface, skills and combat are almost the same. The focus of the game remains the story and the complex dialogue system, which were the strongest points of Fallout.
   Despite using so many elements from the first game, Fallout 2 manages to present a different world, a world changed by the events of the first game with new feeling and new areas to explore, yet with a familiar vibe.
   Sometimes it is so hard to believe how an izometric 2D game can be so thrilling and unpredictable. This is the achievement of Black Isle Studios, the best RPG developing studio that ever existed.
   This title will also remain in history as one of the most buggy games ever released, probably beaten only by its predecessor.
   Fallout 2 is the best post-apocalyptic game to date and although it is so old I would still recommend it, as this game is a true masterpiece. It's sad that Black Isle Studio and Interplay went bankrupt and the license is now owned by a studio that changed the game style so much, making it lose some of its unique qualities in the process.

To be continued...


Monday, February 10, 2014

Top 10 of my favorite RPGs Part II

7. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

   Morrowind is the third instalment of the Elder Scrolls series, after Arena and Daggerfall, developed and published by Bethesda Softworks in 2002. The game is an open world game, puts a big accent on exploration and is not focused on dialogues but rather on decisions made through joining different factions and helping them in the detriment of other factions changing the balance of power in the area.
   The story takes place in Vvardenfell, a huge island inhabited by dunmers, which is part of the Morrowind province. The hero is held prisoner on a boat arriving to Vvardenfell and is haunted by prophetic dreams about being the incarnation of the dunmer's hero, the Nerevarine, the one that will stand against the rising of the evil god Dagoth Ur and his followers.
   The world of Morrowind is huge, and can be explored from the second you finish the first quest in the game. You have almost complete liberty in this game, you can be the greatest hero or the most evil mortal that ever stepped foot on this island. There are numerous factions in this game and joining one can upset another and this conflict can escalate to higher proportions and can even end in the destruction of the factions that oppose your own. You can become the leader of many groups, the most particular one being a vampire clan. There are many secrets hidden in this world and it can take a long time and more than one playthrough to find them all.
  When it was realeased, Morrowind was one of the most beautiful looking games, taking advantage of pixel shader, but not requiring it in order to play. The game can also get user mods and this gave the game more longevity and even better graphics, some mods went as far as to give the game multiplayer.
   Probably the biggest problems this title had were the lack of difficulty and the dice based combat system used even if the game is more action oriented.
   Two expansions have been released for this game, Tribunal and Bloodmoon, expanding the world and the story of the original game.
  For me Morrowind is the best title of this series, surpassing even the games released later, Oblivion and Skyrim. If you really want to see how Bethesda games looked in their good days you should play Morrowind.

6. Deus Ex

   Developed by Ion Storm and published by Eidos Interactive in 2000, Deus Ex is an action RPG combining first person shooter, role playing elements and stealth in a cyberpunk setting.
   The plot follows an augmented anti-terrorism agent named JC Denton, a character that becomes of major importance to the organizations in the game as the action unfolds. The story is set in a Dystopian world in the year 2052, a world full of conspiracy and organizations that pull the strings from the shadows and attempt to control the entire world. As Denton is tracking down those responsible for stealing a shipment with the cure for "Grey Death" virus, he finds out that the virus is man-made and Denton quickly becomes one of the most wanted men by the corporations behind this. While held captive, Denton is contacted by an A.I. who helps him escape in order to uncover the secrets behind this virus infestation and stop it. As the story develops, Denton is facing the most powerful humans on the planet and their plan to control everything, he finds the truth about himself and the choices he makes will change everything.
   Deus Ex features some of the most common conspiracies known today like Area 51, Illuminati, human cloning and more.
   The combination of FPS, role playing elements and stealth works really well, each system complements the others in a very natural way. The combination of these elements leads to multiple ways of solving a level, you can go through this game by destroying everything that stands in your way or you can be like a shadow, avoiding everyone. Deus Ex is one of the few games in which you can choose not to kill anyone even if the game is packed with weapons and enemies.
   The game is full of choices that can lead to multiple endings, endings that combined form the base story for its sequel, Deus Ex Invisible War. The huge number of choices in the game adds to an increased level of replayability.

   Deus Ex tackles some of the problems of today's world and possibly the future, even if they are taken to an extreme level, fit for video games, the issues are intelligently put and could be an eye-opener in some regards. The combination of multiple genres and the possibility to avoid combat in totality makes it an almost unique game even today.

5. Gothic

   The game was released in 2001 by Piranha Bytes and it is the first title of the German developer.
   Gothic is the definition of immersion and controlled progressive gameplay, a game that sucks you in after a few hours of gameplay and where every step forward into the story or character progression feels like a real difference.
   The player takes control of an unnamed captive in a land sealed by a magical barrier which is actually a prison for men. You have to overcome the difficulties of being the new guy in a prison where the rules are made by the more powerful prisoners. You have to pay protection taxes, do dirty jobs, win fights in arena in order to earn your respect and get your chance to talk with the leaders to find more information about  the lands where you are held captive and about the magical barrier. The prisoners are separated in three different camps, each with their own rules and different goals, some are trading with the king outside of the barrier, others are planning to destroy the barrier in order to escape and one of the camps is worshiping a strange God inside the area. On your adventure in each camp you will make very good friends who will be there for you when you need them, by joining the higher ups of one of the camps you will make enemies in the others. Your ultimate goal is to find a way out of these cursed lands and this will take you into the land of the orcs, powerful hostile creature who inhabit a big part of the area inside this huge prison, and deep inside their lands a powerful creature awaits you.
   The gameplay is immersive and focused on interaction with the environment. In this game you can hunt for leather and meat, you can use the leather to make better armors or sell it. You can eat the raw meat to heal yourself for a small portion of your life, cook it for more effective healing or sell it to a trader. The crafting system follows a realistic pattern and you have to use the blacksmithing tools in a certain sequence in order to craft your weapons. These are just some examples of the interaction with the environment present in this game.
   The combat mechanics was the most disappointing thing in this game. It is very hard to control your character and hit your opponent at the same time. When you fight a stronger opponent or more opponents at once, things become very difficult and many times you are forced to rely on game exploits and the AI failures in order to win the fights.
   For the year 2001 the game looked very good, taking advantage of Piranha Bytes in-house engine, but the price for the good graphics was quite high as the game was very demanding and had long loading times.

   Gothic is one of the best RPGs I have ever played and it's first sequel is as good as the first game with the same immersive gameplay, focused on good dialogues, relationship with other characters and interaction with the world.

To be continued...


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Top 10 of my favorite RPGs Part I

   Being a huge fan of the RPG genre since the day I became a PC gamer (and that was a long time ago) I played a huge amount of RPGs. I hardly skipped any titles from this genre in the past ten years so I thought it is a good idea to write a top of my favourite RPGs of all time and the reasons I've chosen them.

So here is my list of RPGs I've enjoyed the most:

10.  The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings 

   The Witcher 2 is an action RPG developed by CD Projekt RED and released in 2011 with an Enhanced Edition containing all DLCs released for free in 2012.
   The game is a sequel to The Witcher from 2007 and continues the story of Geralt of Rivia in his quests to find out what happened in his past and to find his lost love, from which he is stopped because he is accused of killing the king of Temeria. Geralt escapes from prison and embarks in a journey to clear his name and find the truth behind the assassinations of Northern Kingdoms kings. The story is presented in three acts, with the second being split in two parts with different story and action based on the players choices at the end of first act of the game. The story can be predictable at times, but is very well presented and has lots of choices that carry on through the entire game and possibly to the next title of this series.
   The Witcher 2 received a lot of improvement and modifications compared to its predecessor. The combat system had a complete overhaul, with Witcher 2 being more action oriented and with a combat that penalizes mistakes, but because the game was developed for consoles as well, the combat can be frustrating on the PC version.
   The graphics of the game are amazing, even today Witcher 2 is one of the best looking games on PC, showing how much developers care about their game and their fans on each platform.
   On top of everything Witcher 2 received many DLCs and updates, including a level editor and all free of charge.
   This game is not only one of the best RPGs in the lastest years, but also stands as proof that developers can release content for free and have a game without DRM in this age.

9. Diablo II: Lord of Destruction

   Lord of Destruction is the expansion for Diablo II developed by Blizzard North released in 2001.
   The expansion brings to the core game an additional act with a total of five, two additional classes and lots of new monsters and items.
    Besides the additions to the gameplay and story, Lord of Destruction fixes a lot of the balance issues and bugs of Diablo II also introducing a higher resolution of 800x600.
   The player follows in the steps of the Dark Wanderer, the warrior of the first game, which spawns in his wake hoards of demons in order to stop you from reaching him. The world and the story of the game is very grim and dark and is shown to the player from the eyes of a traveler that follows closely to the Wanderer.
   The game is an action RPG or a hack and slash as named by the fans and its main focus is killing hordes of enemies in order to find better items and trying to reach the maximum level of the game which is 100. This game is very hardcore by design, penalizes the player for each death and every mistake can rapidly result in a death.
   Lord of Destruction is an improvement to an already very good game and is played even today, over a decade after its release. This series has redefined the notion of action RPGs, we can say that a new genre was born: Hack and Slash!

8. Vampires: the Masquerade - Bloodlines

   Bloodlines is an action RPG developed by Troika Games and released in 2004. It was the last game developed by this studio before it was shut down.
   The game is set in the White Wolf universe called World of Darkness, a world full of dangerous night creatures and magic.
  The story is presented from the persepctive of a vampire from one of the seven Camerilla clans, an organization that unites vampires and with a main policy that vampires should hide and live among humans. As a dangerous relic from old times is brought to Santa Monica, the city of Hollywood becomes more dangerous then usual and as the game progresses more secrets will be revealed from this twisted, bloody and dark world. The main questline is unpredictable and the side quests are few but absolutely insane.
   In order to survive in this game you have to consume human blood, the more humans you kill by drinking all their blood the closer you are to become a feral creature by losing your humanity and makes it even harder to control the thirst for blood.
   Even if you play as a vampire in this game this doesn't mean you are free to do anything you want in this world, if your actions put in danger the Masquerade you can be penalized up to a point where you can lose the game.
   By being a vampire I always thought I won't feel fear anymore, but not even vampires can escape the terror of ghosts and other dark creatures. Bloodlines has some of the most intense and thrilling moments I ever experienced in a video game, all this without actually being a horror game.
   The combat system allows for both first person and third person action and the skill system is varied and has unique traits for each clan of vampires. There are a lot of different types of weapons to use in this game and you will need them in order to face the creatures of the night which are not only vampires and werewolfs, but demons, gargoyles, zombies and even fanatical vampire hunters.
   Source Engine gave life to this game and it looked great at the time of release and many years after that, but sadly there were many optimization issues and camera problems which affected the combat. The reason this game is not higher in the top, even if it deserves it, is because it was so buggy when it was released, and after Troika Games went bankrupt it took the community a few years to fix and balance the game.
   Despite everything that happened back then with the game and the studio that created it, this game remains a reference RPG, with an unpredictable story development and immersive action set in one of the best universes created by human mind. This game depicts the world of vampires better than any other media about these fantasy beings and I look forward to the MMORPG set in the World of Darkness.

To be continued...


Sunday, February 2, 2014

DayZ Stand Alone Alpha Impressions!

Early Access and Crowd Funding

               There has been a lot of discussion lately about Early Access on Steam and if people should pay for games which are in development and why Valve allows these games on the store. Before discussing about DayZ, I would like to give my two cents about this matter which involves DayZ as well. There are a lot of gaming studios in the world and tones (probably or at least I hope so) of great ideas for good games but there is always the problem of money! As a studio, in order to have money you need a good publisher with strong investors to back-up your product, to invest in marketing so that your product is known by the public and sells better. However, a lot of strings are attached after getting this money, publishers put pressure on developers and get involved in their work trying to change the aspects of the game that they think would make it sell less (dumbing down) and forcing developers to meet deadlines that they aren’t able to meet and there are probably other aspects as well. So to avoid situations like these and deliver the games they want to, studios go independent and try to get funds as best as they can: by using crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo or by posting their games on Steam Greenlight system hoping to gather enough votes for an Early Access on Steam store. But with these games you always know that they are a work in progress and that you are paying to support the developers to finish the games you want to play and there is no hiding about this and as a consumer you have been warned and you are not really entitled to complain until the games are released. By accessing the early stages of their work you can report bugs and give feedback that would help even more.
               There have been a multitude of unfinished and buggy games released in the last years, many being AAA titles, those are the games you should complain about, those are the developers you should blame for lying and for false marketing. Still despite all the good things, Early Access and crowd-funding can be dangerous tools, the final games can always be disappointing and unfinished and these kinds of games can destroy this concept. But as a customer, make sure the developers you are supporting and their games are worthy of your money, if not, you can always wait for their release.

DayZ Alpha (Early Access)!

               So why DayZ an Early Access game? Basically a work in progress which should not be reviewed in the current state but because I want to make an experiment, I am going to review this game at the stage it is in now (Q1 2014) and I will update this review in a year when this game will be close to a finished product. By doing this I can make a comparison and see how this game evolved and see if having the early funds and players feedback was worth it.
               The game is currently in Alpha stage. If you are not familiar with this term, alpha tests are usually the tests only for the developers, their families and friends. Games in alpha stages lack many features and are full of bugs, placeholders and stability problems. It’s a known fact that DayZ is far from being complete and has a lot of issues and the developers go as far as to warn you not to buy it unless you are fully aware of the current state of the game.
               DayZ is a stand-alone adaptation of an ARMA 2 Mod made by Dean "Rocket" Hall together with Bohemia Interactive, the creators of ARMA series, using the same engine and map as the mod. DayZ tries to get rid of the limiting shackles of being just a mod and tries to be a complete game.
It’s a little hard to assign a genre to this title, but the mod was the inspiration for many developers and started a trend of survival games that flooded the market during the last two years. I see it as a survival simulator but you can easily (but not that accurately) call it a FPS.

               DayZ is a complex and hardcore game where death is permanent, as a player you need to eat and drink in order to survive, if you are hit you will probably start to bleed and lose blood very fast until you are unconscious and eventually dead, it takes really few bullets to kill you, you can get food poisoning by eating spoiled food and this list of realistic game mechanics could continue and gets bigger with every patch. Now you can understand why I like to call this game a simulator and if you still don't believe me I will add one more thing: when you are low on blood (life) you can get a blood transfusion, but in order for this to happen you need to make sure the donor’s blood is compatible with yours (beat that!!).

               DayZ runs on the Arma 2 engine but has some visible improvements on the object and player models and texture quality is overall better, but on the other hand has the same problems that Arma 2 has by being very demanding, using high settings still runs poorly on today's machines and this engine is not that young.  The graphics for this game are designed with camouflage in mind, which really works, if you are wearing camouflage cloths you can barely be spotted in the grass or woods making the gameplay interesting, but if you run the vegetation settings on low you have a huge advantage because makes it so much easier to see other players. This is a common issue in many FPS games but in this title more than in any other game this matters because of the hardcore nature of this game. Also the engine has problems with draw distance, the distant landscape is horrible because vegetation is not properly rendered from medium to long range and this affects the camouflage system even more. So why use this? Because the in-game map has over 230 square km without any loading screens, is a true sandbox and there are not many graphic engines out there that can do something like this.

               The game servers are split in two categories, hardcore servers which have only first person camera mode and normal servers which allow for third person camera as well, both categories have their own hives which means the character made on one type of server cannot be used on the other. Apart from this there are no other differences between the two, but it is possible that this will change in the future.

               Talking about the sound in DayZ at this point in the game is really difficult; many sounds are place holders at the moment. Every melee hit collision has a shooting sound, there are also loads of annoying ambient sounds that make you believe stuff happens around you even if nothing does and this can be frustrating. The sound is far from being what it should be so I'm going to avoid talking more about it.

               And now comes the most important part, the gameplay and the most impressive thing of this game, which makes DayZ so special and the reason so many people were and are still so hyped about. The gameplay is hardcore and not only because of the ridiculous complexity of the game, but because it is immersive and generates a strong feeling, feeling that makes you check every place carefully and try not to take any risks because it could cost you your life. DayZ gives you that will to survive as much as possible and against all odds, to screw the others around you for your own benefit, it gives you the liberty to do what you want and every choice you take is your own. The best way I can present the strong feeling this game gives me is talking about what happened to me while I was playing it.
               My adventure in DayZ started with me breaking my neck because walking fast on the stairs can be dangerous (beware kids!); yes the damage taken when you fall is exaggerated. After a respawn, I continued with scavenging for any goods I could find but dying of external bleeding because zombies can walk through walls in the current state of the game and they are merciless if you don't know about this issue. I also didn't know where to get a bandage to stop my bleeding (pro tip: break your starting shirt for rags and use them as bandages!). As I was still trying to get a hold on the survival situation, I started interacting with players through in game voice chat trying to make item trades and asking for help or directions. This made the immersion even stronger. Then, as I got more accustomed to the game I started to team up with a friend, after all, this is about surviving the zombie apocalypse as a race, not just by myself, because what's the point then if I’m all alone? (well I wouldn't mind that so much because I'm not such a social person, but anyway...) As I was walking with one of my friends, scavenging for better loot we see a guy that is chased by zombies and bleeding. I smiled because that reminded me of myself a few days earlier. We jumped in and killed the zombies and bandaged the guy, we even gave him some food and we continued on our way, probably both of us thinking: "We are good people!"
               As our adventure continued we got fire arms and good gear so we went to what we knew as more dangerous areas (you would think areas full with zombies, oh you are so wrong!). We the reached an airport. Airports are areas with high quality items (good loot attracts predators!), so we checked around to see if is safe and we found a mass of dead bodies, as I was looking and asking myself "What the hell happened here?" I heard a rifle sound and my screen turned black and was kind of mocking me by saying: "You are dead". How could this be? I didn't even hurt a fly, I had a gun full of ammo and I didn't even get to shoot many zombies with it. Well turns out that people are more dangerous than zombies, makes you wonder why this apocalypse started. But as a human being I gave my own race another chance (more exactly like ten other chances), well turns out people don't deserve so many chances! So I embraced my dark side and started to kill other players that seemed dangerous to me (better them than me!) and by now I gained a lot of combat experience that helped me to stay alive in dire situations. That is how my adventure in this game started, from being the naive human in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse to becoming the dangerous survivor I am now.
In retrospective of everything that happened to me in this game, I think that this is like human history, it is enough for one man to do something wrong and plant the seed of doubt in people’s minds and from there starts an unstoppable chain reaction. This is about survival and this can bring the worst out of us, even in a game.

               I'm going to end the subject of gameplay by talking about the player’s purpose in this game. There has been a lot of talking about DayZ not having an "end game", I find this notion very annoying when it is correlated to a title like this one. DayZ is not a standard MMO, but a sandbox game, where you can do everything you want with the limits being the game mechanics. The only goal in this game is to survive and the way you do it is up to you, the player, it might be limited now because the game lacks many features, but when the game will advance in development this won't be an issue any more, so if you think there is not enough to do now in the game right now, just wait a for a few more months.

               Getting closer to the end of this review, I would like to list the biggest problems in the current state of the game and also the features that would be added as the development progresses.
These are things that ruin the game at the moment:
  • The animations which are on the right track but need a lot of work, most of the problems with animations are related to collision and fluency.
  • The AI which is terrible, as I mentioned before zombies go through walls and tend to remain stuck in doors and walls;.
  • The netcode which is jumpy, but to be fair, netcode is a very complicated matter. This will probably be fixed when most of the features related to netcode are added to the game.
  • Physics which needs loads of improvements, many items now fall to the ground and some even get stuck in the air. The developers promised ragdoll physics.
  • The loot spawning system which doesn't work without a server restart.
  • The engine optimization needs improvements as the game doesn't run properly even on high-end machines. In a recent interview, Dean Hall mentioned he had discussions with representatives from the biggest chip developers on the market (AMD, Intel, NVIDIA) and there is lots of room for optimization.
  • The interface needs to be more responsive to players’ commands.
  • There are other problems, but these are the major ones. Keep in mind these are mostly technical problems and bugs, not features that the game doesn't have yet.
The list of upcoming features is quite big. The ones confirmed so far are:
  • Realistic vehicles with damage, repair and customization system.
  • Construction system, where players can make their own buildings, camps, barricades, etc.
  • Hunting and wild animals to diversify the ways to get food and survive, improving the immersion.
  • Crafting system, which is already slowly implemented.
  • Upgraded graphics and other technical aspects.
  • Support for user mods.
               These are the features promised on Steam Early Access and mentioned in many interviews as well. Keep in mind that everything is subject to change and this list can get bigger or can lose some of the things listed. But in the latest interview Dean Hall mentioned that he is trying to make the game as complex as possible and said that has more ideas that he would like to see implemented in the game than what was mentioned above.

               So this is everything I had to say about DayZ Alpha and its dangerous world. Do you think it’s worth it? If you are a hardcore dedicated gamer you can overlook the big problems the game has right now and enjoy it as it is, because there is nothing out there like this, also the game is cheaper now than it will be later this year and you have the opportunity to submit feedback and bug reports to help improve the game. But if you are not sure, I recommend patience, you can watch streams and videos on the internet a few months from now and see if the game meets your expectations. As for the price, there are always sales on Steam.

               So in a year, when this game will be in beta stage, I would like to talk about how this title evolved and if Early Access was something good that helped the game improve or was just a good way to take your money using the hype that was surrounding the it and leave you with a product far from what was promised.
And for all those who already own DayZ, continue surviving, you never know when a zombie apocalypse might start and the things learned from this game could become useful!

I'm so relaxed in the game menu.

This screenshot doesn't do justice to the scary nights of DayZ.

Try to spot me in this sea of trees!

Show yourself and I'll end your misery!

I'm a hoarder and I'm proud of it!
You're lucky that you are my friend!