Saturday, February 28, 2015

Why I said no to numbers!

                When I was younger I thought that scoring games using a numeric table is the way to go, as it could be easy to separate the scoring by categories like: graphics, story, gameplay, feeling, sound and multiplayer (if it is the case). The average from all the categories will result in the game’s final score.
But with time I realized that this system was far from being perfect and in reality it was misshaping the games into better or worse (usually better when it comes to AAA titles). So when I started this blog, at first, I didn’t want to use any scoring, but as I thought this through and listened to the suggestions I received from some of my blog readers I started using a pros and cons system for my reviews.
Before I would start explaining why I think pros and cons is a superior way to rate a game, I want to talk a bit more why the numbers, which should never lie, are not telling the truth in this matter.
Splitting the maximum score a video game can get into a number of categories and scoring each of them individually accordingly with the game’s performance in that respective area to then make a total score out of it sounds great, in reality things are more complex than that. The genres of games should be treated differently as some things might be more important for a genre than the others.
From the time this industry was growing each genre focused to improve in different aspects, the end result being a game with some features greater than others. The players got used with this inequality as no game can be perfect (I wonder why so many games get 10/10 from professional journalists), but it can be extremely good in its respective field. A good comparison can be made between classic RPGs (not action RPGs) and shooters or action games. Those who wanted advanced technology with better graphics and physics know that shooters and action games usually deliver these features to a great extent. The players who wanted storytelling, dialogues and a complex character progression always turned to RPGs. A fan of standard RPGs doesn’t usually expect mind blowing graphics, but does want a captivating story full of mystery and choices with an impact in the evolution of the game (I don’t say RPGs should look terrible!). Based on this it is safe to say that for an RPG the graphics shouldn’t be evaluated in the same way as those of an FPS, but the story should be more important (a mix of the two is a real challenge) and this leads to a selective way of scoring video game. The complexity of this goes so far that it could take me pages full of walls of text to describe the way I look at a scoring system including every particularity for each type of game and the subjective opinion of those who play them.
So I will give one example as it is pretty explanatory.
                Metacritic is, apparently, the new standard for video games performance with developers having terms in their contracts including this website. When I look at the scores I see incredibly high ratings and knowing how many issues those games had and still have it bothers me as I feel that we are lied to.
For example:
                Before I start talking about this example, I have to say that I consider this game the most overrated video game of all times and I might be biased when I talk about it, even so it doesn’t mean that what I’m saying about it might not be true.
                The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an open world action RPG released in 2011 on aPC, Xbox 360 and PS3. It has a Metascore of 94/100 as an average from 34 critics’ reviews. Breaking down this game in categories and analyzing them, things might not look so good.
Skyrim is an open world game with a 1st person/3rd person camera that puts an accent on immersion through exploration and what should be visually stunning areas. For the year 2011 Skyrim looks quite poor (The Witcher 2 puts it to shame), some of the textures have horribly low resolution and even after the release of HD textures pack, it is still not up to 2011 PC standards. The game doesn’t have DX11 support and the optimization was terrible with high CPU usage in some areas for no apparent reason. Many players might argue that Skyrim looks amazing, they should keep in mind that good looking landscapes don’t necessarily mean good graphics and the quality of graphics stands in the technology used.
                Skyrim is an action RPG and for this genre the story, dialogues and character progression are important, yet this game follows the same pattern as the previous titles in the series (which weren’t that great either when it comes to story), but dumbs down everything. There is little to no impact visible from the player’s actions in the world and no matter the order in which things are solved, the end result is always the same.
The gameplay is a huge factor in any game, since it is tied to the complexity of the game and its fun factor. This game gets repetitive at the speed of light, completing the first dungeon in the game is like seeing most the dungeons in the game since they all have the same pattern. Skyrim’s combat is dull and unappealing, based only on directed swings, block and spells casting. The UI for PC is exactly the same as the one on the consoles and it lacks in functionality with moments when the mouse cursor doesn’t even work properly. All these things put together affect the gamepaly and enjoyment quite a lot (at least they did for me). Some would say that the game is saved by the mods, but when this game was launched and got the scores from journalists, it didn’t have any mods, not to mention that mods are not part of the original game and should not be treated as a big part of a review.
While Skyrim does well on sound effects and the feeling of exploration and has mods support which can help a lot with replayabilty and the problems of the game, the scoring it gets can’t be justified. How much should this game lose for the gameplay problems, the outdated graphics and the questionable story? I don’t even have to do some calculation to realize how major those features are to such a game and how they should affect the score in a negative way.
Yet the numbers of Metacritic make Skyrim one of the best video game of all times, but what about all the problems mentioned above, are those problems worth only -0.6 of its final score? A similar argument can be made for Bioshock Infinite and many other games, but I picked this one because it is easier to point out things. If the math and numbers shouldn’t lie, where is the problem?
Do critics overlook things or the scoring system doesn’t actually make justice in many cases? Reviews should have the subjective input of the writer, but to what extent?
                I don’t have a proper answer to this question (I might have, but it is not that pleasant), but I do have what I can call a solution to the problem itself: let’s not take for granted the scores for games and actually read and watch videos about them to make an informed purchase.
                When it comes to my reviews I follow a pattern that I developed since my article about Company of Heroes 2 and I use it even today with some minor improvements. I’m not saying that I’m a good writer or critique, just that the way I choose not to give a score to video games because it can be misleading, but rather present the pros and cons of the reviewed game.
                 The way I write my reviews is specifically designed to serve the system I use for scoring games. Each one of my reviews starts with an introduction that is related to the game, either by talking about the franchise, genre, universe or various other things. The continuation is the introduction to the game, where I talk a little about the release, the studio that made it and sometimes details about development and after this the real review starts with: story, gameplay, multiplayer (if it is the case), graphics, sound and the ending for the article with my overall impression (always in this order).  While this might be predictable and makes it harder to have the article written cursively while following a set order, it does work perfectly with the pros and cons that are always at the bottom of the review.
It is like a TLDR segment that underlines the good and the bad of every title. If someone wants to know more, they can always go to that portion of the article and usually find details in abundance
The subjective way we look at games, makes the overall experience of a video game different from one individual to another. Only you, as the player, know what you want most from a game and what is important for you and what you can overlook. So looking at a short version of what might be good or bad into a game can help someone make an impression if they are interested in that particular game leading to more research about what they found.
                The score might end up being a lie, for many reasons, and nobody wants to buy a game that they do not enjoy. But enjoying something doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good.
As an ending note I would like to say something that is repeatedly said to most of the gamers I had contact with: It is nothing wrong to have fun in a bad game, but it is something wrong to say that a bad game is good.

Almost perfect!


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Screenshot of the Week #26: Ballistic missiles!

                This week the closed beta for Dirty Bomb started and I got an invite and there is no NDA so I can talk a little about it. I also got the chance to test Obsidian’s Armored Warfare in the Alpha test, which I can’t say anything about.
Dirty Bomb looks like a decent online shooter with great potential. There seems to be a lot left to do until the game is actually in a good shape. While it runs and plays quite well, it lacks severely in content at the moment with very few maps and playable modes and not too many characters to choose from. I might write an article about the game when is further down the line in its development.
                I have been playing a lot of Heroes of the Storm lately, since I was searching for a new PvP game for quite a while and I didn’t have the patience to return to those I used to play, this game came at the right time for me. I’m enjoying it a lot despite the fact that I’m getting quite mad during some of the matches. I’m currently pushing to unlock more heroes so I can start ranked matches, where hopefully I will find a more organized play. Either way, the game is still quite fun and the heroes are awesome especially for someone familiar with Blizzard’s lore and games.
There are rumors that the next hero to be released is Sylvanas and she is probably going to be great (can’t wait!).
Rockets ftw!

                It took me quite some time to finish and polish it but the review for The Secret world is done. I have continued to write a little about This War of Mine and I think this article is going to turn quite good as I get to talk a lot about the problems that this game points out through its gameplay.
Patch 1.2 is coming for Elite Dangerous, bringing a new ship, the wings mechanic which allows players and AI to group up. I have been waiting for the game to receive some more polishing through patches as the release felt rushed and didn’t want to write about it in that state, so probably after this patch I will finish the review for it.
There are more articles coming, including one in which I say my opinion about conventional scoring system for video games and why it isn’t such a good thing.

In the meantime, please share my articles and follow me on Steam and on Twitter!!


Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Secret World Review!

               In the long years that have passed since the initial success of MMORPGs with Ultima Online (1997), Everquest (1999) and Asheron’s Call, the genre hasn’t evolved as much as it should have. There was the big breakthrough of World of Warcraft in 2004 that put together most of the elements the other games created and based its leveling on questing rather than heavy grinding and focused on end game content. This was followed by the innovative mechanics of Guild Wars in 2005, that came with the completely instanced content (an idea very popular in the free to play MMORPGs of today) and with the fixed number of useable skills which is widely used today. But after that, the genre stagnated for years, most developers trying to overthrow World of Warcraft without really realizing where the roots of its success come from. And so began an almost decade long period of games copying each other, especially after the rise of free to play games.
               Some developers have tried to get out of the loop, but there are few titles that actually had success in the western culture. But 2012 was the new defining year for MMORPGs, at least it was for me if not for everybody. The release of The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 changed some of the vision over MMORPGs with unique and innovative features that killed old and annoying concepts overused to death by developers for very few reasons (fear of the new).These were story driven games that put the RPG in MMOs and abandoned the conventional leveling for different ways of progression while getting rid of the incredibly annoying quests backtracking. This was a new dawn for MMORPGs and for the players willing to venture into something different.

               The Secret World is a MMORPG developed by Funcom and released in on 2nd July 2012. The game started with a monthly subscription business model that lasted until the winter of the same year. After that it switched to a buy-to-play model with an optional subscription and paid-for DLCs released every several months, but at a way slower pace than they were initially released.
               What separates The Secret World from most of the MMORPGs on the market is its modern setting, a setting that hasn’t been milked to death like the fantasy one (probably because it is less popular or it is harder to deal with the game mechanics involving it).
The Secret World’s action takes place in our time, but in a universe in which many legends and urban myths exist, where occultism and paranormal are not fantasy but a reality hidden from the eyes of the normal people (muggles!). The game starts with the player character receiving supernatural powers from the agents of Gaia itself, the bees, and struggling to control them. As the character adapts to these new powers that seem depicted from a comic book, an agent from the chosen faction appears at the door and recruits the player and so the adventure begins!
               There are three secret societies to choose from each fighting for power and stability in the world: Templars, Illuminati and Dragons.
Templars date from Babylonian times and they are set on destroying what they consider darkness no matter what. Their current headquarter is in London.
Illuminati are the shadow puppeteers of the world pushing for the New World Order, acting silently and only going full out when it is absolutely necessary. Their headquarters are beneath Brooklyn in New York.
Dragon is an Asian group now based in Seoul that recreated itself many times throughout history. Their existence follows the natural chaos of life and they fight for change and to stop society from being controlled.
The three factions are in a secret war with each others, but fight together against the powers that threaten the existence of our world.
These Orochi people are everywhere!

 The action that put in motion the events of The Secret World is the Filth infestation of Tokyo caused by the detonation of a Filth bomb by an unknown person. The Filth is a black tar-like substance that mutates every life form it enters in contact with and recently started to ooze from various places in the world. Agents from the three secret societies have been deployed to Tokyo to help with the situation and the players get to experience the situation there through a vision after the game tutorial.
As this happens, different places around the globe become wildly dangerous as different supernatural threats rise taking advantage from this opportunity (coincidence?!). So as a rookie in a secret society, the player (the obvious choice) is sent to investigate and try to put an end to the terrors that haunt the normal people of our world.
The first location to cleanse from evil is the Solomon Island, a land engulfed in Norse mythology, which is now in the middle of a lovecraftian monsters invasion combined with a zombie infestation and tormented by the mistakes of the past (these people have a terrible karma). It is quite an atmospheric zone to start the game with, as a strange fog came and killed the people caught in it, creatures from the bottom of the oceans have come to the shores to swipe the land clean of life. Zombies run rampart into the streets of Kingsmouth City, the ghosts of the deceased can’t find rest, Filth is bleeding from the wounded land and hellish creatures have found their way into our world from their fiery dimensions (a bad day to be a cop there). But as bad as all these things sound, they aren’t the worse, as a madman attempts to awaken an ancient being imprisoned deep beneath the mountains for the island.
               The Secret World changes scenery often enough and to extremely interesting and unexplored locations by other games, starting from Solomon Island to Egypt, Transylvania and ultimately leading to Tokyo (DLC required) with some stops in between for China, the UK, Central America and others (waiting for Antarctica and its mountains of madness!). All the locations in the game are connected through Agartha, a zone that serves as a hub area for the players (as well as a labyrinth).
The monsters are as varied as the exploreable areas themselves, from the always present zombies, ghosts, demons and vampires to the rarer lovecraftian monsters, mummies, werewolves, local folklore creatures and many other unique ones created by the twisted imagination of the Funcom writers.
Looks safe.
So casual!
It's not Halloween!

               The story is evolving at a good pace with missions covering the entire map and having fully voice acted cutscenes. The mystery and myth surrounding every aspect of the story does require looking past the appearances and digging deeper to find answers as the huge amount of lore is not always explicit. Endless theories and speculations can be made about the action and the characters of this game, the characters break the barrier of conventional archetypes. The game being full of supernatural beings (gods, mythological heroes, etc.) and people trapped into situations that they have only seen in the movie makes it hard to find a normal person in this world, as everybody is at least a little insane, eccentric or paranoid, sometimes all three combined into an unstable personality cocktail. The entry cutscenes for missions are an absolute delight
This universe contains many references to popular culture and does satirize some of the things of the present times in a subtle but amusing way.
The right attitude!
Seems like a good outfit to wear during apocalypse!

It takes more than brute force to deal with the problems in this secret world, cunning and sneaking skills are required to advance further into the game without problems. The missions are structured into three different categories: action, investigation and infiltration, transforming questing in a combination of multiple genres which makes for diversity in gameplay.
The investigation missions are the flavor with some mind blowing puzzles. Observation skills, general knowledge and thinking outside the box are some of the abilities needed to complete these missions which kept me in opposite states of mind all the time, making me feel like a genius or a complete idiot when attempting to solve them ( helped me when I was stuck). There is an in-game built browser designed to help with this type of missions and there are many websites created specifically for this game and its mission which adds for an incredible immersivity level when playing and makes the world credible.
The action missions are engaging and sometimes difficult enough to put builds to trial, most of them should be soloable, but a party could make things a lot smoother (good luck with bugs). Many of these missions are grindy, requiring a large amount of monsters to be killed, but also lead to entertaining boss fights.
The infiltration missions are a combination of observation and sneaking with little combat as mobs are usually way more powerful in these scenarios. The sneaking is not mandatory most of the time as a well built character can usually power through the hardest mobs, but the beauty and the challenge stands in completing them unseen.
Mission endings have a paradoxical effect of both enjoyment and displease. The majority of them end with a phone text removing backtracking, but at the same time leaving a dry feeling as they end just like that, even after some epic action.
As good as the mission system sounds, it has its problems and some of them might be game breaking for the players with little tolerance. Playing as a group makes completing missions more efficient and faster, but it can also cause a tone of bugs because not all of them are working properly for group play. Also the completion of tasks in a group is very misleading, as some of them can be done together and other similar ones don’t work and have to be soloed. This is a stressful situation when playing with friends and if someone doesn’t pay attention to the evolution of a mission they might remain quite far behind in the progression for that mission because of all these problems..
Alone in the darkness.

               When it comes to character progression The Secret World features a classless system without levels. With the completion of story and side missions experience is gained which is transformed into SP and AP at three thresholds on the experience bar. These points are spent in the skills and abilities progression, which is extremely complex and split in three categories: skills panel, a multi-layers abilities wheel and auxiliary weapons wheel.
The basic skills allow the usage of weapons and talismans at the expense of SP which can be spent to increase the level of these skills up to 10. With the increase in skill the characters can equip more powerful items and gain passive benefits from each type of item.
There three types of equipable talismans covering up to seven gear slots and nine weapons split in three categories: magic (elemental, chaos and blood), melee (swords, hammers and fists) and ranged (shotguns, pistols and assault rifles).
With the addition of new content, the skills system has been further expanded to accommodate the introduction of auxiliary weapons, augmentations and AEGIS.
The abilities wheel is a complex, and off-putting at first, system of enhancing the character with active and passive abilities tied to the equipped weapons. Each weapon has a basic tier formed of two sets of abilities and an advanced tier formed of six sets. Abilities cost AP and as the basic sets for each weapon are quite cheap, the advanced ones cost up to 50 AP for the ultimate ability and progressing through the wheel can take a long time.
 A character can equip two different weapons at once and an auxiliary, a build can be created with eight specific active abilities for the equipped weapons and eight passives with the restriction of only one from each for the auxiliary. Each weapon can serve at least two roles in the game from healing, tanking or damage dealing. The combinations for possible builds are probably in the number of thousands and even if not all are working as good, it is worth testing and experimenting to find a suitable setup.
               Auxiliary weapons have been added through DLCs, first coming with Issue #2. After completing the mission rewarding the weapon 35 SP have to be spent in the skills screen so it becomes useable. There is a special wheel to unlock abilities for auxiliaries with an almost identical design and functionality to the one for standard weapons, the only differences stand in the lower number of available abilities and the steep price of 50 AP per unlock.
Currently there are two ranged auxiliaries (rocket launcher and flame thrower), one magic (quantum bracelet) and two melee (whip and chainsaw) with more to come for a maximum of three per category (I’m rooting for sniper rifle, scythe and summoning!).
               Through the release of newer DLCs the game has received even more features related to character progression. Issue #8 has brought the augmentations system which unlocks stronger passive bonuses by augmenting active abilities and increasing the bonuses through skills.
With the release of Tokyo was added the AEGIS system which is divided in two parts, Issue #9 containing the AEGIS weapons and Issue #10 AEGIS shields. This is a two part technology that provides protection from damage to anyone shielded by it, but also provides the necessary weapons enhancements to penetrate these shields (typical military technology!). Its progression comes as a firmware update that requires a huge amount of samples from users of the system which are in the form of filth corrupted beings (the grind!).
This feature is part of the progression in the Tokyo area and currently has no effect in any other zones in the game.
As vast and complex the progression system is as short and vaguely informative is the tutorial for it (and everything else in the game for that matter), making it extremely scary for the new players and being one of the reasons that many of them quit this game or just ignore it. There are some pre-made decks that can be followed, but the synergy between the abilities used in them isn't that great.
Not even scary!

               The Secret World’s combat system is in between two styles. It is not the common static combat with auto attack, but isn’t fully action oriented either. Instead, this game takes elements from both styles in an attempt to make something better and suited for everybody, but this compromise doesn’t fit the game perfectly. With two equipable weapons and a great variety of builds, the combat sure can be fun and engaging. Its main mechanic is to generate resources for both weapons using an ability designated for this purpose and then unleashing ravaging damage with abilities that spend those resources. Cooldowns should be used when necessary and dodging out of the way of harmful abilities is a must. The majority of the abilities in the game can be casted while moving and this is a big plus.
The combat is dynamic and requires movement when fighting tough and versatile enemies. The area of effect abilities used by mobs have their size displayed by a white perimeter as a warning to avoid the incoming damage. The fights look like Armageddon was unleashed with fires burning, blades chopping through everything and bullets flying from all directions.
For group content, The Secret World didn’t go as far as to abandon the “holy trinity” (tank, healer & dps party composition) as Guild Wars 2 did, which is probably for the best, considering how the group content is designed in this game.
On paper everything looks great, but in reality what ruins the combat is the clunky netcode and the weird way some abilities work due to the tab targeting. Abilities deal damage before animations, making some hits unavoidable in PvP.  The tab targeting doesn’t seem like the greatest idea either and while a crosshair option has been added through patches its implementation is rudimentary and can be uncomfortable to use.
Even so, despite all its problems, I can safely say that this combat system is a step up from the standard and extremely overused auto-attack combat with immobile characters as it requires more input and fast reactions from the players.
Shooting stars.
Safety first!

               To complement the character progression, the itemization is the factor that defines most of the character stats and is capabilities to handle harder areas. The items are split into 15 levels of quality with QL 10.5 being the highest at the current stage, different types of quality from common to epic items and four different item groups: weapons, minor talismans, major talismans and head talismans. Standard items of the zone required level are provided through missions, keeping the player at an average level of power for that area. Better items can be purchased through specific zone vendors using tokens awarded from missions or from PvP using tokens gained by participating in battles against other players. Dungeon or raids can provide highest quality items based on a fixed loot table.
My character is sexy and I know it!

               The dungeons in this game are a true beauty, each of them has a story of its own in concordance with the area they are found in, expanding the lore even further. A shipwreck in the Atlantic ocean, the Hell planes, a tomb in Egypt or a secret super soldiers research facility are some examples of the awesome locations that serve as setting for them. The concepts and level design go hand in hand with the thematic of the game and is refreshing helping replayability a lot.
The dungeons are structured into three levels of difficulty: normal, elite and nightmare, each difficulty being designed to be accessible as a certain point in the character progression. While normal difficulty should be doable with gear gathered from the missions of the area where the dungeon can be found, the elite difficulty is more challenging and requires a gear quality of 8-9+. Nightmare dungeons are part of the end game content and are extremely challenging and almost unforgivable to player mistakes, they require an attunement and epic gear quality and the tactics necessary to beat the boss fights are more complex.
There are currently eight dungeons in the game, one for each major zone besides Tokyo, and sadly this number hasn’t changed since the launch of The Secret World. While there is a planned dungeon for Tokyo zone via a DLC, its release has been postponed and is currently unknown when it will come out.
               There are two 10 man raids in the game, which increase the activity options for the players that reached this part of the game. One of them was added a long time ago in Issue #4 and the other one is part of the lairs system. Lairs are some high level areas within the main zones of the game in which the mobs drop key fragments that can be combined to form the key for the lair raid entrance.
Compared with the dungeons, the raids feel easier, despite the fact that they require the coordination of 10 players.
We were lied!
I wonder if I'm in range.

               For those not too passionate about PvE content, The Secret World has player versus player content as well in the form of the Secret War. The PvP has two small maps, Stonehenge which is mostly a skirmish and El Dorado which is objective based where each team has to hold as many artifacts as possible. There is no world PvP, but for the fans of bigger fights the game has Fusang Projects which is a largermap with objectives very similar with the Conquest mode from FPS games.
               The PvP games award marks that can be used to purchase end game gear up to QL 10.4 and various other things mostly useful against other players. There is a progression system called Battle Rank which unlocks different coloristic for the PvP character outfits.
The problems with the PvP are related to the combat system and the fact that the population of the game isn’t that big and not so many players are into this feature of the game, leading sometimes to long queues for El Dorado and Stonehenge and numeric imbalanced teams in Fusang Projects.
Friendly gathering.

Overall, the end game is a grind fest, either grinding for XP required to max the stats in the character progression tabs (skills, abilities, augmentations, AEGIS) or grinding the highest quality gear available. For a game that is so innovative and fresh in so many aspects, I felt that the end game experience is a total letdown and is what made me quit in the first place. The replayability of any non-story mission in the game does make things easier for those who want to max their characters stats, but takes a lot of work to do so.

               On the technical compartment The Secret World finds itself at two extremes. On one hand it is one of the best looking MMORPGs I have ever played with fantastic level design, beautifully terrifying landscapes and good graphic effects, all powered by the in-house DreamWorld engine. On the other hand the performance and stability of the game can be terrible. I can’t run it using DX11 on my current rig because it causes all kind of graphical glitches (without TXAA active, water goes crazy) and my fps is very unstable. The game crashes often and the loading screens are huge despite the fact that sometimes the textures are not even fully loaded when the game starts.
Welcome to Kaidan, Tokyo!

               The sound effects add up on the production value of a game that was designed for a subscription model with fully voice acted cut scenes and dialogues, but terrible lip sync. The ambient sound effects and the music are exactly what a game about occultism and nightmarish creatures should have, creating a creepy atmosphere for this game which I love.

During its subscription time, The Secret World received content DLCs quite often, but after Funcom laid off some of the staff working on the game and switched to a buy to play business model the DLCs have become rarer. Currently there are 11 DLCs released with Issues #1 to #4 being free for everybody who purchased the standard edition of the game and up to #7 if buying or upgrading to Massive Edition. Stand alone, a DLC costs 10$ and while this doesn’t seem like such a steep price, adding up all the available for purchase DLCs it goes way over the price of the game. On top of the DLCs there are purchasable side stories packs which further expand the missions in the game.
There is a Cash Shop as well integrated since launch, which sells a wide variety of vanity items, from different outfits and clothing accessories to pets and weapon skins. There are some questionable items like boxes that have a chance to give end game tokens or in game currency (PAX Romana).
While I understand why Funcom release only paid DLCs, I still have to disagree with this business model as it separates the community into chunks of players having access to different zones and missions, but more importantly, to the continuation of the story in a story driven game. This could be easily addressed by allowing all the players to experience the main story missions while the paying players could have access to all the secondary missions and content that comes with a DLC. If Funcom didn’t go for the subscription option at release, which was extremely farfetched for a game that barely had any advertisement they could have prepared a much more solid buy to play business model with a much better designed and structured cash shop (Guild Wars 2). The decision of going buy to play seemed rushed to me at that time and I don’t think the game was fully prepared for it.
They call this a hub!!!
Look like good friends!
Business or pleasure?!

               I’m going to stop this review here, before it becomes an even bigger wall of text than it already is. There is much to say about The Secret World, but this is a review not a complete guide. I covered most of the important aspects of the game, which are many, from its basic content and game mechanics to the DLCs it has received.
If there is something I want to point out about The Secret World is the fact that it is a niche MMORPG, a game that isn’t designed to be on everyone’s taste. Its unordinary setting and action, the complex game mechanics with the hard missions and huge progression system are features that scare the players away and it is a shame, because behind the difficult and unpolished exterior hides a beautiful adventure.
This is a game (together with Guild Wars 2) I always come back to after getting disappointed by other MMOs I try, because of the advanced gameplay elements it provides.
               The Secret World is and will remain one of the defining MMORPGs of the last years, reshaping the older gameplay into something newer and better for the most part and grasping concepts that should be mandatory for newer MMOs. The game didn’t fear change, it’s in fact an avatar of courage for a genre that hides behind the corners built by older title and I want to thank it for this tremendous achievement.
Let innovation and winds of change come as they are what drive everything forward!

+ Good graphics
+ The setting
+ Great story and lore
+ Unique feeling
+ Complex skill system and character progression
+ Challenging dungeons with great level design
+ Buy to play
+ Helpful community

- Optimization problems
- Grindy end game
- Questionable business model
- Lots of bugs and glitches
- Lacks proper tutorials (to be fixed soon)


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Screenshot of the Week #25: En Taro Tassadar!

                I finally got invited to the Heroes of the Storm Closed Beta, almost everyone I know had access except me. Maybe this is Blizzard way of saying that they know I don’t appreciate everything they do (:D).
                MOBAs are not my thing anymore, I used to play League of Legends a lot a few years ago when it wasn’t so popular, but I got tired of the community and quit it just before the game made its entrance to the e-sports scene.
I gave DOTA 2 a fair try as well, but it wasn’t really to my taste. I felt the game mechanics discouraged team play in favor of soloing and that’s not for me. Probably looking from a premade team perspective, things are different, but when playing public games it can be awful.
                 I am an elitist at core (much more casual nowadays than I used to be) and I do care a lot about team work and victory, so I often get mad if the players involved play like headless chickens or act weirdly (tuning it down from idiots) and in MOBAs this happens more often than in any other genre. There are many players coming unprepared and refusing to read up on tactics and heroes mechanics ruining everybody’s day, sometimes trolling as well, forcing terrible reactions from the other players. It is a vicious circle in online gaming that continues endlessly. This is what determined me to stop playing League of Legends, I got tired of people wishing other people to get cancer.
                Heroes of the Storm does derail from the standard MOBA pattern dictated by the original DOTA and goes for a more different and casual approach. While the lanes with spawning creeps, leveling heroes and the main objective are still the same, the way to get there is a bit different.
                The game has an objective oriented gameplay with many side missions on the map that can give the edge to the team that completes them, this makes for increased team work and more variety in the gameplay. To better counter the soloing problem that these games have, here from the experience to the kills that the players have participated to, everything is shared between the members of the same team, rendering soloing futile. The chat has been restricted to teams only, avoiding the possibility of scandals between the teams, still this doesn’t stop people from trolling their own teammates.
                On the other hand the game goes out of its way to be as newbie friendly as possible with constant warnings both as pinging on the map and through announcers that almost never shut up.
The itemization has been removed so there are no items to make builds around them or use them to adjust to the situation or the enemy team setup. Instead there are some passive skills to choose from at certain levels enhancing the heroes’ combat capabilities and their abilities. While this sounds good, the builds are much more limited and pretty straight forward with no real surprises, but this system makes it a lot easier to get into the game as a beginner.
                Blizzard did put a lot of its traditional touches into Heroes of the Storm. Every hero in the game is taken from the lore of their three franchises and this is the thing I probably like the most about this game. It gives me the chance to play as Arthas (more like Lich King), Jaina Proudmoore, Raynor and many other emblematic characters from Blizzard’s stories (waiting for Medivh, Artanis or Imperius!).
The daily quests are here and so is the gold grinding to help unlocking new heroes. The unlocking goes extremely slow and can take several days as a casual to unlock one of the expensive heroes (10 heroes are required to join ranked games).
The mounts are here, with a decent variety for a game in Closed Beta, with different color schemes and many cash shop options.
Most of the spell, abilities and their icons in the game are the same with the ones seen in the other Blizzard games, which can be quite welcoming for the fans. Even the graphics resemble Starcraft II a lot, being the same engine used to power up this game as well.
                All in all this isn’t a bad thing, Blizzard has to address this game to their fanbase first before trying to steal players from the competition and I think they did manage to create a cozy feeling for their fans making their entrance into this game a lot smoother.
                The Heroes of the Storm has its problems, but is still in beta phase so most of them will probably be addressed before its launch. One of the things that worry me is the optimization. Starcraft II engine might be able to create games to run on older and newer game rigs, but these games don’t run great on many configurations, the engine being very pretentious at high settings when the screen gets full of moving units.
Overall, Heroes of the Storm is fun and enjoyable, which I didn’t expect. It helps a lot that every hero is very familiar for me, as I used to be a huge fan of Blizzard’s lore. The MOBAs market is quite crowded, but considering Blizzard’s fanbase, their focus on quality and the fact that this game is easy to get into, Heroes of the Storm will probably find its place on the market.
                There is much more to talk about this game, but I will rather write a full review about it in the future after more content for is released, in the meantime I think I’m going to have an enjoyable time playing it for a while.
Fear me, I destroyed the Zerg Overmind!

                A new review is in the works, it is about an older game that I play often these days, since I didn’t have enough time to play more of This War of Mine and write about it (but I’m not abandoning the review for this game).
If I can find a balance between the games I play, work and my personal life I will finish more of my articles that have been a work in progress for a while now. I had to abandon many articles in the past because of the huge gap between the time I played the games and the time I started writing about them. Even so, I’m thinking of new ways of increasing my articles output and I’m toying with the idea of doing something on a daily basis (at least Monday to Friday).

In the meantime, please share my articles and follow me on Steam and on Twitter!!


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Dying Light Review!

In a decade and a half of gaming development, Techland made lots of games from different genres, but what put them on the map was their ability to create fun first person shooters with good combat. The western, Call of Juarez, showed their true talent and it continued with a great prequel, Bound in Blood. But in the last years, when gamers talk about Techland they think about the Dead Island series, which is a mix of first person action combat, RPG and a few elements of survival horror in a world filled with zombies, the perfect combination for mindless fun.
Techland managed to deliver most of the time an immersive experience and up to date graphical fidelity with the help of their in-house Chrome Engine. Their games for 2015, Dying Light and Hellraid, promise to add new elements to improve on their recipe.
But how much can they improve without damaging the fun focused gameplay while possibly increasing its complexity?

               Dying Light is another first person action shooter filled with zombies from Techland and published by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment.
               The action takes place in the fictional city of Harran which is under quarantine after it was hit by a viral outbreak that turned most of its inhabitants into aggressive zombies. The player takes the role of Kyle Crane, an undercover agent sent into the city by the Global Relief Effort (GRE) to recover a file that could damage the image of the agency from one of their operatives that went rogue.
Not long after being parachuted into Harran, Crane is attacked by bandits and bitten by a zombie only to be saved by the runner Jade Aldemir which takes him to the Tower, a building that serves as sanctuary for many of the survivors.
Waking up days later, Crane finds out that the people of the Tower attempt to help the survivors and struggle with their supply of antizin, a drug that suppresses the infection as long as it is constantly administrated. He is trained into parkour discipline by Rahim, Jade’s brother, and starts doing various missions for him and the other survivors as he attempts to find out which one is the man he is looking for.
Things become edgy when in order to get contact with the other major faction in the city, Crane is ordered by GRE to destroy a supply of antizin putting the lives of everyone in the Tower in grave danger.
Crane is a tough, resourceful and sarcastic person, willing to help anyone, but also taking a lot of shit from the people in Harran for no apparent reason. He is easily manipulated by GRE to do stupid things for the sake of the dramatic evolution of the story. These moments will clearly have a terrible outcome and could easily be avoided, but there are no decisions left to the player and the story development seems to mock the player with this.
Protect them! Infected children are some of the worst!

               The story of Dying Light had potential, but instead of trying to expand on it and make it something outside of the comfort zone of FPS games, the people at Techland decided to go with the same generic presentation. Because of this, the end result is an extremely linear narrative which puts the player in predictable situations with an unchangeable outcome as there are no choices involved.
The characters met in throughout the game gave a Far Cry vibe, with crazy and eccentric being in abundance even for a zombie apocalypse setting. It is like Harran was a giant loony bin and the outbreak just gave everyone the liberty to act accordingly.
The villain tries too hard, making him unbearable, he is nowhere near Vaas but he is definitely grinding the attention from the player through forced actions and unstoppable talking. The ending moments are anticlimactic being nothing more than a QTE fest which is extremely disappointing for a game that showed little elements of a console port.
                It is quite a shame that Techland didn’t push it past the most common features for this kind of game. I would have preferred to see less secondary missions, which Dying Light has in spades, in favor of a better developed story. Instead the story pushes onto the player some wannabe memorable moments with the hope of obtaining an emotional response, but I felt nothing for those that died or for my immoral actions since there wasn’t anything I could do to save them.
There was no other option...

               The gameplay shares many similarities with the Dead Island series with lots of secondary missions and challenges, weapons crafting and a strong focus on melee combat. With the action set in a verticalized open world, Dying Light sets itself apart through its core game mechanic: parkour.
               The parkour is the main element of the game and it opens up the gameplay for some pretty amazing fast paced action and stealth.
The city’s architecture seems designed for this discipline and waiting for the moment when this would be put to good use. Most of the buildings have a low to moderate height and have a wrinkled exterior aspect so it is easy for the players to grab on anything and pull themselves up. The suffocating infrastructure with small roads and buildings hugging each other gives a connectivity feeling to the city like a circuit waiting the electric current to pass through it.
In the two months of quarantine the city was adjusted by the survivors to serve their needs. Traps have been set everywhere and can be used to slow down the chasers and walls full of spikes are ready to receive some zombies and if the night proves too dangerous there are many safe houses that just need to be secured. Harran is a paradise of slaughtering zombies and freedom of movement.
Jumping over obstacles, zip-lining and being in a constant running is how the action goes in Dying Light from the very beginning until the final cutscene. The learning curve for this mechanic isn’t too steep, but it takes some time to get used with it and learn how to optimize it. There is an ever present sense of vertigo in this game that caused for me more deaths than the zombies did (my extreme fear of heights didn’t help me either).
But what Crane can do with his basic training is not enough, especially for the night time and the second half of the game, his abilities can be improved with the help of a skill system.
Circus training.

               The skills are split in three different categories each with its separated progression. Survival is leveled by completing missions and makes the life in Harran easier by improving crafting, offering discounts for vendors and allowing the usage of advanced traps and the awesome grapple hook (Attack on Titan!).
Agility increases with each jump or parkour trick performed. Leveling Agility makes the character better at this discipline increasing the threshold for getting tired while performing any parkour actions.  It also opens up abilities like sliding, jumping over the zombies and many others.
The last skill tree is Power and it serves as an enhancement for the combat system. The Power tree is leveled through fighting and upgrades the combat with various new abilities like throwing the melee weapons, aerial drop kills and other spectacular and unrealistic moves. It also increases the character’s life and helps with the maintenance of the melee weapons.
Grinding my way to be the best!

               The day-night cycle in this game is more than an immersive feature, instead it separates the action in two distinct stages. During the day the zombies pose a threat mostly through numbers or because of the player’s mistakes. The streets are filled with Biters which are the generic slow walkers and don’t represent much of a threat unless they surround their victim. Things can get a little difficult when trying to take on a Goon which is a big zombie wielding a giant pole that can smash anything into pieces. Causing noise through explosions or gun fires can wake up the Virals which are quite fast and agile and can climb buildings chasing the player. Yet, the Bombers might be the most problematic as they tend to use the element of surprise, coming around corners or waiting behind closed doors, one slow reaction or an instinctual hit on them and they explode killing everything in their proximity.
There are many different zombies under the warming lights of the sun with more appearing as the action progresses and while they can be quite a nuisance at the beginning, most of them rapidly become obsolete and no more than practice targets. But as the sun sets, things start to change.
The night is a dangerous time to be out of the safe zones as the Volatiles awake and start searching for prey. These are extremely fast zombies that can match the agility of the player and gather in a pack quite quickly after spotting someone. They are resilient and require several hits from a high damage weapon to be killed and their only weakness is UV light. This makes the Volatiles a dangerous enemy and it is not indicated to fight them except when facing them one on one and with the help of UV lights.
               The night time is intense and has a special feeling to it, being chased by the Volatiles and desperately trying to escape by grabbing on anything and blindly jumping into the dark in front can get the heart pumping. This is the perfect time for those that seek something more challenging in the game or want to test out their sneaking skills. The night is not only harder but also more rewarding as during this time the experience gained for each skill tree is boosted exponentially.
Looks so peaceful.
Get off me!

               While the parkour is what sets this game apart from previous Techland titles, the combat system is what makes it fun and it does manage to overshadow the latter.
The combat in Dying Light is similar to the one in the Dead Island series being centered on melee combat and following a similar items progression.
 The fights are relatively reactive based on the enemy faced with both melee weapons and firearms being capable of blowing off the body parts they are hitting. From the classical exploding heads to the maiming hits directed towards legs or hands, the combat offers possibilities and the visual effects support it in such a manner that is bloody, visceral and satisfying.
To further enhance the violent action and the great feeling of the fights, features like slowing time when melee hits have a devastating effect or an x-ray image of the target showing the broken bones by the critical damage have been implemented into the combat system. While these features can be seen hundreds of times during a playthrough, I never felt like they got old and had the same effect as the first time I’ve seen them.
               Abilities gained through the skills system allow for more freedom in combat, combining the parkour moves with combat actions for a bit more complexity and expanding the ways zombies can be killed.
But a head on approach might not always be the best or fun option. Using the terrain or various items to create a distraction and gather the zombies in one place so they can be easily blown away by explosives or burned by Molotov cocktails never gets old.
You don't need that anymore!
Your left arm seems to be the problem!

               The combat is not only about the attacks, but also about the weapons used to deliver them. Dying Light features and extensive arsenal which consisting mostly of a wide variety of melee weapons to play with, including different types of axes, swords or maces, divided by quality and stats. Each weapon type has its distinct attacks suited for different playstyles and combat situations.
The durability of melee weapons is used quite fast and they can be repaired only a few times, making the idea of backup weapons very important. Upgrading them can increase their durability and other stats, but eventually no weapon will last forever. To keep the flow of melee weapons going the game has a crafting system based on schematics and using items found throughout the world or purchased from vendors. The crafting is decent and gives access to some crazy weapons that use lightning and other elements to damage the enemies. But as good as it sounds, the crafting doesn’t seem to be at the same level with the Dead Island games, having fewer patterns and less interesting weapons.
The firearms are poorly represented with only four types available and always using the same models. Besides the lack of variety and the fact that they can’t be upgraded in any way, some of the firearms act quite weirdly and bug out when being hit and during aiming or reloading being quite irritating when surrounded by zombies.
It is well known that Techland’s latest games have been more about slashing and smashing than shooting your way out through enemies. But for a shooting fan like me the firearms just feel lazy, like they were added just to make everybody happy, which is too bad because the shooting is above average and could compete with many games of this genre that are completely build around it.
Half Life 3 confirmed!!!
Uber pipe!

               What diminishes the intensity and enjoyment of the combat system is the difficulty level. The developers seem to have gone out of their way to make the game easy and it shows. Most of the zombies are quite easy to kill and it takes one or two fights to learn most of the tricks for each of them and the action turns into faceroll pretty fast. To make matters worse the item progression in the game allows for incredibly powerful weapons that turn zombies into a pile of meat in the blink of an eye and there isn’t even an option for adjusting difficulty at the start of a new campaign.
The AI is adding up on this problem by not reacting as it should, faster zombies get stuck in all sorts of objects and act quite strangely sometimes and no enemy seems to react to the flashlight.
But the biggest issue that mainstreams the level of difficulty even for the night time is the minimap, which serves as a radar for all non-Biter enemies and includes the vision for the powerful zombies that show up at night. This feature is such a killjoy as it increases the readiness of the players to such levels that they can hardly ever be surprised. There is not even an option to disable it, which points out that the developers didn’t even think of the impact it can have on the level of difficulty (seriously, are challenging AAA games a dying breed?).
30 minutes into the game.

               For those who want to survive the zombie apocalypse as part of a team, there is a Co-op mode with support for up to four players and the possibility of an additional player to take the role of a powerful zombie to hunt down the survivors. The team play is extremely fun and includes competitive challenges, but does oversimplify the game even more.

               One of the strongest features of this game is its technology. Using an upgraded version of the Chrome Engine, Dying Light delivers an immersive experience through graphics that are reaching today’s standards.
Even in its disastrous state with streets filled with blood, with bodies everywhere and hordes of undead, the two districts of Harran are still nice to look at with beautiful landscapes and unique buildings. The level design was done with parkour in mind and serves its job amazingly and the keen attention to details adds up to the exploration feeling. Things don’t stop here, the animation both of movement and combat are spectacular and fitting the purpose of a dynamic game very well. The lighting and shadow effects make the day feel like a vacation and the night time a visual and terrifying pleasure. But the game has its baggage, like most of the new releases nowadays, making sacrifices where it shouldn’t and having all kind of tech related issues. The zombie models look terrible up-close and the overall chromatic effect can be upsetting for some people, but this could have been tolerable if Dying Light didn’t have huge performance problems.
The optimization was a mess at release and there are settings that are still unusable. The advertised NVIDIA Depth of Field makes the cut-scenes lag behind so much that they can’t be watched. The view distance can cause serious frame drops when is set above 50% and vsync has the potential to cause massive freezes.
Despite being patched multiple times and GPU drivers being dedicated to it, it still has some troubles with performance and is better to avoid the options mentioned above.
               Dying Light didn’t skip much on graphical fidelity but it did ignore physics to a high degree. While bodies have their own physic and some indoor areas are filled with destructible objects, the world of Harran is composed of an unmovable and unbreakable environment. Most of the things are made to stand still and very few objects can be moved or destroyed. This is quite a letdown as physics should always be an important part of an FPS game and I could only imagine how much more amazing the action would have been if cars would blow up and the walls of the buildings could be destroyed and so on.
Horrible quality shirt.

               The sound effects in Dying Light are wonderful. There is a considerable amount of details put in the environmental sounds, from the constantly moving leafs of the trees and the wind passing through them to the sound made by every structure. But the best part is related to its best feature, the combat. The slashing sounds of weapons cutting through the rotten flesh and the vile sounds of the zombies when they are hit repeatedly are amazing. The night time is a blend of chilling cries and creepy noises made by the restless threat that could make your skin crawl
The game has high quality voice acting covering all the dialogues in the game with every voice capturing perfectly the personality and quirks of each character.
I did feel like the music wasn’t always in tone with the action and didn’t intensify the feeling and atmosphere as much as it should do. By the end of the game I realized that despite being activated the music never really caught my attention.
Zombie attempting parkour.
Dacia 1310?!
Looks familiar.

               Dying Light gave me a strong feeling of a challenging survival at first and I loved that. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that it is going to follow the same path as the Dead Island series and this left me with a bitter taste. I imagined this game taking a step forward and becoming more complex and difficult while tuning down some of the arcade gameplay elements, but I was wrong. The story is decent but underdeveloped resuming itself to a linear and predictable evolution and a villain that sets a new standard for annoying (I think it beats Diablo in talking nonsense). The game isn’t polished either with various annoying bugs, AI problems and terrible performance issues.
               Even so, looking from an action standpoint, Dying Light does serve its purpose very well. It doesn’t have any unique elements, but it combines mechanics that have been used in the past to create a dynamic gameplay, full of zombies slaughtering and mixed with heart racing and acrophobic moments for great entertainment. It might not be everyone’s coup of tea, but it is fun and quite a good training to fight fears or train for Mirror’s Edge.

+ Good graphics
+ Atmospheric sound effects
+ Visceral, fun and addictive combat
+ Parkour
+ Night time
+ Open world
+ Wide variety of melee weapons
+ Plenty of side quests
+ Co-op

- Linear story with plenty of moments of predictability and full of clich├ęs
- Optimization problems
- Arcade elements (cars preventing fall damage, etc.)
- Various glitches and bugs
- Small variety of firearms
- AI can go crazy
- Terrible last boss fight
- Way too easy