Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Shadowrun: Dragonfall Review!


                Shadowrun is a cyberpunk fantasy table top RPG universe which was first published in 1989 and it is still one of the most popular table top games.
In the Shadowrun universe magic, cybernetics and mystic creatures exist in the same world. The story is focused around conspiracy, corporation fighting for the world power and dangerous creatures threatening everything. In order to remain unknown in a world full of conflict, corporations, governments and anyone who can afford it started to use shadowrunners, dirty work specialists, which don’t affiliate with any faction and do everything just for the money.

               Shadowrun Returns is a turn based RPG that was made possible by successful crowd funding on Kickstarter, reaching the 400,000 $ goal in less than 2 days and by the end of the campaign the project gathered 1,900,000 $ and was one of the most successful video games crowd funding campaigns in 2012.
Shadowrun Dragonfall is a DLC campaign for Shadowrun Returns, developed and published by Harebrained Schemes and was released on 26 February 2014.
               The new campaign is set in Berlin and the action takes place simultaneously with Shadowrun Returns but has no connection to the original game and no knowledge of the previous campaign is required in order to enjoy the game. The story starts with a group of runners attempting to break into a secured mansion in order to obtain some information, but as things never go as planned in this universe everything escalates to a dangerous level.
After the first mission which serves as a tutorial and intrigue for the game and sets the course of action for you and your team. The story progresses in a very interesting way, because everything that happened relates somehow to the existence of a presumed dead dragon and in order to obtain some information about this creature you and your team need a lot of money to pay an information broker and you are forced to take all kind of jobs. From this point forward the main story progresses very little and only by small clues that you gather during or after your missions, but lots of side stories develop presenting the dangerous and interesting world of the Shadowrun universe. Every mission has a different story and you have to make difficult choices in order to succeed. It’s not always about doing the job and grabbing your money, morals intervene making you ask yourself if you are actually doing the right thing. Your teammates might have something to say as your actions might mean something to them but what’s more important (and scarier) is that corporations always have an interest in what you are doing. The game puts you in a constant conflict of interests and choices between what you have to do, what seems the right thing to do and what others want you to do during your missions and no matter how hard you try, you can't please everyone.
Another addition to the complexity of the story is the characters from your team. Compared to the previous game, the new characters are always part of your group and you can switch between them at the beginning of each mission. Every character of your team has a different personality, background and specialization and you have to approach each one in a different manner that suits their personality in order to understand their motives and get to know more about their past. Glory is a female human full of cybernetic implants and she is specialized in healing, pistols and melee combat, she is introverted and it is very difficult to discuss with her as she barely says anything at all, especially about herself and her past. Blitz is a human decker (hacker) who uses sub-machineguns and drones, he is very open and doesn't think anything through as he relies more on impulse and emotions. Dietrich is a male human shaman able to control spirits and use throwing weapons, he’s a reliable guy and is open to any kind of discussion. Eiger is a female troll soldier, using long range rifles and shotguns, because of her tough personality the dialogues with her go in a different direction most of the time as she gets pissed off by lots of things. The last two members of the gang are Paul Amsel and Dante. Paul is the manager of the team, he’s getting new jobs and information about almost everything, but he cannot be taken to missions. Dante is a dog, which can only follow you around in town, but there’s more to him than it meets the eyes (intrigued?!).
Knowing your team is part of being in it and opens up new stories and makes you understand your teammates’ point of view during the sensible choices of missions. Every character of your team is different and interesting in his or her own way and their past stories can be both touching and terrifying.
My team HQ.

               The main mechanics of the original game remain unchanged in Dragonfall, but this doesn't affect the gameplay in a negative way, because these mechanics were very good, Shadowrun Returns lacked a certain degree of complexity and some core features (like proper saves system!) that affected the game quality, but the majority of those problems have been fixed with the release of this new chapter of the game.
This game uses the same tactical turned based with action points combat system just as in the original game, with an addition of abilities, armors and some new type of weapons like sniper rifles, mini-guns and grenade launchers for more diversity.
Poor sniping skills!
One of the new toys!

Part of the combat of the game and also the depth of the gameplay is the Matrix, a global computer network where you can hack into terminals and find information or open pathways by connecting the user, a decker, in a virtual reality where he has to fight through different virtual network protection and viruses in order to access the wanted databases. The Matrix gameplay didn’t’ receive any proper enhancements in this DLC, but is still a welcome asset to the overall mechanics of the game.
Welcome to the Matrix!

The classes and skills system remain unchanged, the game has six premade classes, Street Samurai, Mage, Decker, Shaman, Rigger or Physical Adept and the possibility of creating a class of your own with your desired combination of skills. The skill tree is complex enough to give you lots of options for your character.
Soldier stats.

               But even if the combat is a big part of the game, the most important thing and the main focus of the game remains the dialogues system. The dialogues are complex and offer multiple options both standard replies and skill checks and the outcome of a conversation and even of the entire story depends on the way you talked your way into the game (having social skills IRL helps!!!). Some responses get you out of fights, others give you clues about your missions and some bring you more money, beware what you say and to whom because it can cause or save you a great deal of trouble. A feature of the dialogues system is the way the game narrates the details for you, from the facial expressions of the person to whom you are talking to the surroundings and these details make the game way more immersive and cover some of the problems caused by the lack of voice acting.
She's hard to hit on!

               On the technical part, as its predecessor, Dragonfall stands great, the 2D graphics made possible by Unity Engine are absolutely beautiful and the combination with 3D characters is done smoothly making the difference hardly visible.
The quality of the sound is very good, the music fits in the atmosphere of the universe and of the missions. On the other hand, the gun sounds and some of the combat sounds could be better. I did find the sound of shotguns very irritating, on top of this, there is no difference between the sounds of different models of fire arms of the same category, so all the sniper rifles in the game share the same sound effects and this goes for every other type of weapons. Do not expect any voice acting for this game, because there isn’t any.
Isometric beauty...

               Shadowrun Dragonfall suffers from the same problem that all crowd funded games or games developed by small studios do, it lacks production value and it shows. I don’t think of this problem the same way I think about a AAA title (oh… I’m subjective!), but this is a problem and I think it should be mentioned. The game has no cut-scenes or CGI, the epilogue of the game is a white text on a black screen (SPOILER ALERT!!!), there isn’t a large variety of sound effects or music in this game and it gets repetitive and there is also no voice acting at any point. All these things can be a problem for a lot of players out there and I can understand why, production value adds up to a better game and in this case the lack of it drags down a very good game.
The budget of the game was limited and it shows and it is sad to think how much better this game would have been if it had a larger budget.
Apart from the production value another big problem at release and even now are the bugs. In some missions your choices can get you stuck and force you to load an older save or even restart the entire missions. The dialogues bug as well, triggering future dialogues that make no sense to what you previously said to those characters.
               The game was designed to be later released on iOS and Android tablets and that affected the PC version, the main game suffered more because of this where there is a visible restriction to movement in all areas causing linearity, in Dragonfall this problem persists but is not that annoying anymore because of the better level design.
The game has incorporated support for mods and this gives an opportunity to the community not only to create fixes for the game or change gameplay elements in a way they could enjoy them more but also create new campaigns.

               Overall Shadowrun Dragonfall is a great improvement over the original game, bringing a better story with complex dialogues and lots of new features, while fixing some of the problems the previous game had.
I don’t think anyone can expect more from a DLC than this one has to offer, the campaign takes up to 16 hours to finish, everything is done at a good pace and it doesn’t feel rushed at all.
               I love the Shadowrun universe and I’m glad that we now have a chance to see more games using this amazing universe. An MMO is in development set in the Shadowrun world and Dragonfall hints for a new location for probably another DLC.
All being said, I’m looking forward for more games set in the shadows…

+ Beautiful combination of 2D and 3D graphics
+ A good presentation of the Shadowrun universe
+ In depth dialogue system
+ Story
+ Tactical combat system
+ Game length for a DLC
+ The team
+ Mods support

- Lack of production value
- Bugs
- No additions to the skills system


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Wargame: AirLand Battle Review!

   We don't usually get to play many Real Time Tactics games , probably because this genre is complex by design and scares away the casual gamers. The communities for this type of game are small even for strategy games standards and formed from hardcore players, yet this should not be a reason not to try these games out, you might miss on some incredible and complex experiences that no other strategy genre can offer.

   Wargame: AirLand Battle is a Real Time Tactics game developed by Eugene Systems and released on may 2013 and is the sequel of the Wargame: European Escalation released in 2012 (yes, the first game has a better name...).
   The action is set in Europe during the Cold War between the years 1975-1985. The campaign is not really the main focus of this game and it feels more like the training for multiplayer, but is's still worth playing it. The missions are split in four different campaigns, each campaign has a different and progressive difficulty set by default. The player takes control of NATO (USA, France, Canada, UK, Federal Republic of Germany, Sweden, Norway) or Russian (East Germany, USSR, Poland, Czech Republic) forces and commands them from both a tactical and a strategical point of view. Each campaign has two phases: phase one is on the map of Northern Europe and here you have to decide where you want your troops to be deployed, the areas you want to attack or defend and you can use multiple tools that you have at your disposal (tactical strikes, scouting units, submarines, etc.) in order to have a better control over the map; phase two is the real time battle, here you deploy your units at the beginning of the game and send them to control multiple objectives on the map in order to win the battle. Politics plays a role in the campaign as well, as events occur on the political scene you are forced to take action according to them affecting your current and future battles. The campaign is challenging and tests your strategic mind, some of the battles are incredibly difficult and if your actions are reckless later on in the campaign you might find yourself in a position impossible to win. The campaign doesn't have much production value because no high quality cut-scenes or voice acting are used and after a time this can become repetitive because the battles take place in the same region of Europe and maps start to repeat themselves. Even if the campaign of AirLand Battle is not heavily scripted it is a step down from the European Escalation campaign, which was much more rewarding (including achievements and rating system for missions), entertaining and with a larger variety of missions.

Campaign map.
   The strongest point of the game is the gameplay which is a combination of statistics, complexity, tactics and units micromanagement and works very well. Being a RTT, the game's economic system is not based on resources that you gather but on reinforcement points. Every game starts with a set number of points which allows the players to create their army during deployment phase, after deployment these points continue to grow as the game progresses and help you reinforce your army with more units. As the player you have to be very careful how you use your units, there is a limit of reinforcements you can bring from each type of unit, so as the battle goes on even if you generate points you might not have units left to reinforce with.
The two factions are split in multiple nations each with their detailed units, including aircrafts now (!!!). Every weakness and strong trait of an unit are shown on the stats chart and on the battlefield as well, resembling reality as much as possible. There are many factors to take in account for units: weapon stats and efficiency against different types of enemies, speed on roads and rough terrain, the amount of ammunition a unit has for each type of weapon, the amount of gas a vehicle has and how far you can travel with that, all these are just some of the unit stats that affect your gameplay and ignoring these could lead to a quick defeat. The stats can also be affected by the damage your units take during battles, for example when a tank is hit the accuracy of the gun can be affected). You have to know your units' strengths and weaknesses very well in order to use them properly on the battlefield.

Unit details.
Deployment phase.
Vehicles affected by the damage taken.

 The complexity and realism of the game mechanics don't stop here. The map design and the terrain plays a huge role in each battle and the way you should think your tactics as well, rough ground slows your units' movement, cover from buildings and terrain can be used for both offense and defense, but you can't hide your units forever as all cover can be destroyed etc. Combining all these factors creates realistic and challenging battles.
   The multiplayer is a battle of tactics, strategy, micromanagement and mind games. The micromanagement of the units is a factor during battles but is not as important as it is in a RTS game making for a more tactic and less hollywoodian style battle scenes (still this doesn't mean battles are not spectacular!).
Multiplayer armies are created using a deck system, players can choose from premade decks from each faction or create their own decks of units in order to better support their strategies. With the huge number of units present in the game the variety of decks that can be created is huge and can go from a deck focused only on one type of unit (infantry, armored vehicles, air) to all kind of hybrids and this brings a huge element of surprise in battle, as you never know what to expect from your opponent.

My NATO deck.
There are four game modes for multiplayer:
-     Destruction in which you have to annihilate your enemy.
-     Siege a mode in which a faction starts in the middle of the map without the possibility to deploy units and the other factions have all the objectives surrounding the center and can deploy from all sides.
-     Economy where you have to win an economic battle
-     Conquest which is the standard mode where you have to control more objectives than your enemy does in order to receive victory points.

   Each of these modes can be played with two players and up to twenty players. The 10v10 games are quite interesting, because you have the option to play a match with low economic points and the number of units that you would actually control alone or with a few teammates are now split between 10 players, each controlling a smaller army, the economic points are generated much slower reducing the reinforcements and basically the army you have at the beginning of the game is the army you will control for the rest of the match. This really makes it a very strategic battle as every unit loss has a huge impact on you as a player and on the entire team.
A big improvement over European Escalation, for both singleplayer and multiplayer, is the fact that the entire area of an objective is highlighted on the battlefield so you know the exact position of the objectives without having to look on the map to know where to go and how much area you have to cover when you defend an objective.
Overall the multiplayer experience is intense, challenging and immersive and the ranking system of the game makes the victories even more rewarding than they already are.

Unsuccessful push...
   Airland Battle does great on the technical part, the graphics are very detailed and accompanied by good physics and realistic sound to make the battles even more immersive. The graphics are not a huge improvement from the previous game but the differences can be spotted, especially with the color saturation tuned down a notch. Considering the level of detail, the game runs great even during the most intense battles which is a big plus.

Graphic details.
   Even if this year a new title in this series will be released the game continues to receive support from the producer with constant balance updates. Two free DLCs have been released so far adding a new game mode for multiplayer, new units and more maps.

   Wargame: Airland Battle is a masterpiece of the RTT genre, a game focused on complexity and attention to details as every game of this genre should be. It's sad to see that such a good game is so underappreciated and has such a small community, but this happens often with strategy games. Later this year, Red Dragon, a new game in this series will be released, bringing Chinese army and naval battles.
If you are a fan of strategy games and modern warfare and you have the patience to study the units and learn the complex mechanics of this game you should definitely give Airland Battle a try!

+ Detailed graphics
+ Complex game mechanics
+ Solid multiplayer matches
+ Units level of detail
+ Realistic sound
+ Good map design
+ Free DLCs

- Low production value and repetitive campaign
- Minor bugs
- The name