Sunday, October 25, 2015

Screenshot of the Week #58: Gliding Madness!

               Installing and testing new hardware and playing Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns like a maniac, this was my end of the weekend.
As I was expecting, with the release of Guild Wars 2 expansion everything will be put on hold. This week’s announcement about the game getting an action camera (I’ve been waiting for this since release) my interested in the expansion peaked and I dived into the game with much enthusiasm.
Heart of Thorns retains the progression style that was added with the Living Story Season 2 with instanced story missions and big open world maps filled with events and exploration attractions. It’s probably the better choice over the original progression which had lots of map objectives (the infamous hearts). The downside of this progression style comes from the fact that it’s extremely group focused and going solo can be problematic if not impossible.
The new areas are beautiful (except for the 3rd which is an actual nightmare) despite being extremely verticalized to befit the new (awesome!) glider mechanic. The glider allows hovering over large open spaces in order to explore some hard to reach areas.The whole expansion is designed with the glider mechanic in mind and while the gameplay feels a little like that of an arcade platformer the benefits this brings to the exploration feeling makes it worth it.
               There is much more to this expansion than experiencing the new story, exploring the new areas and having fun with the glider. The PvP, both WvW and Structered PvP, has received new content, numerous tweaks and a league system will be released soon. The PvE content has been increased with “end game” activities including raids (!!), a revamped Fractals system and additional legendary items. Overall, there are a lot of new things to do in Heart of Thorns and considering the constant free updates that ArenaNet provides and the fact that the base game is free to play, the future of Guild Wars 2 feels secured.
               Guild Wars 2 will clearly be my primary focus for the next weeks (if not months), but I’m not sure if I’ll get to write a review about this expansion anytime soon (or ever).
If only we knew what horrors waits for us down there...

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Hearts of Stone Review!

                There are a few things worth mentioning before kicking off with this review. I have a love and hate relationship with CD Projekt Red. Why love? Well, I'm a Witcher fanboy. I've read all the books, played the first two games at least three times each and Geralt is one of my favorite characters in the fantasy creation. I even have a witcher medallion and am very happy with how CDPR handled the series in a way that got the characters and themes right and proved consistent with the already established universe. Regardless of my feelings about the games, I don't like CDPR too much mostly because of the shameless false advertising which preceded the launch of The Witcher 3, out of which I'll mention the downgrade fiasco and their promise to release Redkit, for which they have recently announced they have no plans. It really isn't cool to tease stuff you're not actually going to release even after delaying the game two times. There's also their gradual transition from PC to consoles - clearly seen in the evolution of the games - since that's where the big revenue comes from. After all, the business that they run and taking care of themselves come as a priority, despite their claims of being gamers just like us. This all may sound harsh and we're not talking about EA or Ubisoft here, but they have been caught lying a few times and more transparency wouldn't hurt.
Here we go!

                The Witcher 3 is my most played game of the year - clocking in at 165 hours on Steam - and is a title that has surprised me greatly. Simply put, I loved it. It featured an engrossing and emotional story, memorable characters, a beautiful world to explore and superb visuals and music. It also felt very faithful to the books, dismissing my worries that CDPR wouldn't get the characters of Ciri and Yennefer right. However, a closer and more objective look at the game revealed multiple flaws such as the arcade combat system, the low overall difficulty even on Death March, poor itemization and repetitive points of interest that hindered any sense of exploration. All in all, albeit enjoyable, the gameplay was pretty poor and the ending section also felt somewhat rushed. Despite all of these flaws, some of which are quite big, I loved the game and the ending left me feeling grateful to CDPR for ending Geralt's story in a great way. It also left me excited to play the first expansion out of the two that were announced, Hearts of Stone, but also curious to see whether they would manage to address the issues from the base game.
                Now let's get going with the actual review, since you're probably telling yourself that this introduction lasted forever. Hearts of Stone promised a new 10-hour adventure set in Velen and Oxenfurt, where Geralt would take on a contract from the Man of Glass, an enigmatic figure from his past. This new content can be accessed at any time after hitting level 30 or by using the given option to start a new playthrough which has Geralt start at that level and ready to dive into the action. I'm happy to start by saying that CDPR have really delivered something great with this expansion, providing an experience that goes toe to with the base game and is perhaps more impressive at times.The expansion features two main characters with stories and backgrounds that feel more intriguing and emotional compared even to the Bloody Baron, who is considered to have one of the best quests in the main game. There's also a possible romance - AND SEX SCENE - with Shani, Geralt's old friend from the books and the first game. And to add to all that, we have some additional gwent cards - GWENT!!! - and monster types, a new item upgrading system as well as an expanded map in the north region.
Is anyone willing to offer me some serious work?

Hearts of Stone begins in a rather banal way with Geralt investigating a notice board and taking up on a contract for a monster in the Oxenfurt sewers. This is how he meets the man who posted the contract, Olgierd von Everec, the last member of a noble family and leader of a bandit company. During and after his quest to get rid of the threat in the sewers, Geralt eventually encounters both Shani and the Man of Glass, also known as Master Mirror or Gaunter O'Dimm. Through a series of events, Geralt finds himself indebted to O'Dimm, who asks him to perform three impossible tasks for Olgierd to pay off his debt and who also brands his face with a red mark in order to incentivise him to do so. The player finds himself caught between the two main forces of the expansion, Olgierd and O'Dimm, who form a mysterious and imposing duo despite the fact that they are at odds. One of them is a tragic and morally ambiguous character who perfectly encompasses the idea of loss and gives true meaning to the expansion's title. The other one can be antagonised if the player chooses so, and through multiple excellent apparitions during the game in which the malevolent nature that hides behind his chilling smile is revealed, he proves to be a much more terrifying and fleshed out enemy than the Wild Hunt ever were. Although I was initially wary of an expansion that did no longer feature Geralt's loved ones - Ciri, Yennefer, Dandelion, etc -, the new characters are so memorable and intriguing that my worries were proven to be unfounded.
More terrifying than the Wild Hunt.
There's a price for everything in the Witcher world.

                Olgierd's tasks and what follows after take Geralt through a few of the best main quests in the Witcher games. One of them has you accompany Shani and a ghost to a wedding and is perhaps just as funny as the witcher drinking night in Kaer Morhen, whereas another has you planning, recruiting a team and executing a heist, although its conclusion falls a bit flat. Another quest turned out to be my favorite in the entire game and involved a visit to a painted world, which is stunningly beautiful and atmospheric but also evokes great sadness and regret while explaining much of Olgierd's backstory and character. Overall, there are enough choices to be made, out of which the final one reinforces the central theme of the Witcher universe of lesser evil and moral ambiguity. The game has two endings with no final boss fight - since they are abundant anyway, but I'll come to that in a moment -, and one of them features a pretty interesting riddle, which is a more than welcome change.
Common wedding activity.
Wanna bet?

                Side quest wise, we have an investigation that can be unknowingly failed if the player doesn't make an extra effort to figure it all out, which is how most of the quests in the base game should have been, since using Detect-ahem, Witcher mode to solve stuff gets old really fast. It's only too bad that this investigation is the only place where this happens. There are also no other contracts beside the one I've mentioned before, which is not necessarily a bad thing after their abundance in the original story. To conclude with the quests, I'll voice my frustration towards a side quest that I was forced to take where the quest giver kept on calling me Puss Peepers. Now why would you force me to accept a quest from someone like that, CDPR? Nonetheless, that issue aside, I was pleasantly surprised and entertained by the quests, so let's move on to combat and see if the game actually challenges the player this time around.
Painted world, so beautiful.

                Ready for the game's biggest surprise? Hearts of Stone is actually pretty challenging, at least on Death March. I've mentioned previously that there are no contracts except for the one in the beginning, and that is mainly due to the greater number of bosses: six, to be specific, although one can be avoided through a dialog choice. CDPR has clearly put some extra work in the encounter design, as all of them have specific abilities and pose a greater threat than any of the bosses in the main game. Two of them were so challenging that I kept getting a Dark Souls vibe while I repeteadly tried to learn their attack patterns and perfect my strategy until I finally downed them, which felt very rewarding. On the negative side, there is still a noticeable HP bloat that drags fights on longer than normal. The control scheme also fails spectacularly sometimes, as was the case during one boss encounter where I was forced by a mechanic to exit combat and my character would jump instead of roll, which led to multiple one shots from the boss and increasing frustration on my part. Lastly, the skill system has received five new skills, but they're not that impressive and for that reason I didn't change my build at all.
The final showdown.
True nightmare.

                Onto the rest of the new stuff. Shani is back and is romanceable, to the satisfaction of those who did so back in the first game and were dissapointed with her absence from the following titles. She is the third main character of the expansion and provides some invaluable help to Geralt during his quests, as an optional quest objective completed with her grants access to the second ending. Despite the fact that I was never too interested in Shani, the romance that takes place during the wedding quest - pretty obvious, as that provides the perfect opportunity - is fairly enjoyable and carefree, despite my Geralt's frenzied attempts at friendzoning her. It also offers a pretty nice sex scene - no, I didn't romance her, but I had to look it up! -. To wrap up with Shani, I have two complaints: her voice acting isn't that great and I also felt that there are some missing dialog options, such as declining her advances due to the fact that you are with Yennefer or Triss.
Pretty, but not my type.

                Beside the new character, the map has been expanded in the north and features about 30 points of interest, a few of which are more interesting this time and involve a story about the Order of the Flaming Rose. Some of these feature a new type of enemies, some sort of huge spiders which fight annoyingly well in a group and take forever to kill. Moreover, items can now be customized further with runewrights, a new type of upgrades which are incredibly expensive but offer all types of permanent buffs, such as making burning foes explode or automatic Quen whenever you start a fight. A bit redundant considering how much you have to invest money wise, but it can prove useful for Hearts of Stone and completely overpowered for the base game. I've also noticed that the expansion is well integrated in the main game: you can ask Ciri or Yennefer about the mark that O'Dimm left on your face, there's a new scene regarding Vesemir and one ending provides some great tips about the choices you make in the base original story. The last thing I'll cover is the soundtrack, which is - unsurprisingly, given their previous work - amazing and features eleven new tracks that perfectly encompass the mysterious and sinister themes of Hearts of Stone. One of them (A Gifted Man Brings Gifts Galore) accompanies a powerful scene that hints heavily at the crossroads devil and left me very impressed. Overall, there's a ton of new stuff and it took me 18 hours to go through it all, so the expansion is more than worth it for its current price.

                To sum it all up, CDPR proved with Hearts of Stone that less can be more, delivering a new set of memorable characters involved in a story that is more focused and is filled with sinister, emotional and also joyful moments. The expansion manages to improve on certain aspects of the base game by having a better antagonist, multiple challenging boss fights and overall better quality and diversity of quests. All my complaints feel minor when compared to the experience that Hearts of Stone provides and I can't find a reason not to recommend it, considering the great value you get for such a small price. Naturally, I can't wait to see what CDPR does with the next expansion. Blood and Wine will be set in Toussaint, a duchy already featured in the books that I feel will provide the perfect playground for more witchering. Bring it on!
CDPR's victory isn't bitter this time.

+ A captivating and intriguing story
+ Mysterious and memorable characters
+ Difficult and well designed boss fights
+ The painted world quest
+ Small scenes that connect it to the main game
+ Plenty of new content that gives the expansion great value for money
+ Amazing soundtrack

- Lack of appropriate replies in a few situations
- Heist quest ends in an underwhelming way after an interesting start
- Shani's voice acting
- The control scheme goes crazy sometimes
- Enemies still suffer from HP bloating
- The runewright system and the new skills aren't that great
- Puss Peepers?!

Written by Wolfe for The Game Slashers.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Screenshot of the Week #57: Surprise attack!

                I thought October will be a much easier month than September, but I was wrong. The games start to pile up in my queue and despite being two people working on articles, it’s not enough. I still have an article in the works from September and more games waiting to be reviewed.
                I got my hands on Secret Ponchos which is a pretty cool twin stick shooter with an almost desolated online scene despite the fact that it deserves better. I’m also grinding my way to Leopard 2A5 in Armored Warfare while preparing my Guild Wars 2 characters for the Heart of Thorns expansion which is release this Friday (let’s see you ArenaNet!). But this is not all!
                I’ve got access to Sword Coast Legends, which I’ve been anxiously waiting for since it was first announced. It’s been ages since I tasted a Dungeons and Dragons RPG and Pillars of Eternity really increased my appetite for them. I’m not sure what’s the deal with the license for DnD games, I know the situation is quite complicated, but I’m really glad a new title made it through and it’s not an MMO.
I haven’t had the time to play much, but from what I’ve experienced so far Sword Coast Legends is a pretty hard game. I should have expected a challenge from the highest difficulty setting, but at the first glance it seems much more difficult than the other RPGs I’ve played this year. It forced me to come with some really crazy tactics just to win what looked like some banal fights. This difficulty reminds me of the beginning area in Divinity: Original Sin, but unlike Divinity I hope Sword Coast Legends will keep up this difficulty for the entire campaign.
Another thing that I noticed is that DnD changed a lot. I haven’t kept track with the rules after Mask of the Betrayer, but they seem much more streamlined than they used to be and maybe I’m a bit old school but I prefer the older style.
                So far the game looks promising, but I haven’t dived deep enough to make a general opinion and as usual I’m going to save the rest for my review. The press embargo lifts Monday at midnight, but there is no chance I will finish the game and write the review that fast (I’m still working on the Satellite Reign article…). But a review is to be expected in the closest future.
Come here!

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Friday, October 16, 2015

Star Wars Battlefront Beta Impressions!

                Even if this concept is part of a marketing scheme, EA DICE Open Beta tests are a good sneak peek into what a game has to offer and what the expectations from that game could be. Having the opportunity to play a “demo” of an online game just before its launch is great, especially if we take in consideration the fact that most of the singleplayer games don’t have a demo even after their release. But Beta tests can be misleading and one has to be careful in selecting the information (good or bad) based on the Beta experience as not everything is relevant.
                I’ve given Star Wars Battlefront Beta a fair share of my time and I’ve analyzed it gathering enough information so I can give a detailed impression about the game. But keep in mind that this impression is still based on a Beta test and (some) things are subject to change.
                Star Wars Battlefront should be the 3rd installment in the well known series inspired by DICE’s Battlefield and set into the Star Wars universe, but it’s not. LucasArts was acquired by Disney in 2012 and the in-house development was halted and a multi-year Star Wars license for PC and consoles games development was given to EA leading us to this moment. The 2015 Battlefront is not a new iteration in the series but a reboot envisioned by EA DICE.
The new game’s action is set to take place in locations from the original trilogy and through DLCs in locations from the upcoming movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This is a bold decision by DICE to ignore half of the current existing cannon and movies which were part of the content in the previous Battlefront games.
                At its core 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront is still a shooter involving large scale battles with a higher than usual number of players fighting for the Rebel Alliance or the Empire, but things are much more different now than they look in the summary of the game.
The Beta had the players choosing between two PvP multiplayer game modes: Walker Assault and Drop Zone, each with its own map and the Survival mode which serves as a singleplayer or cooperative PvE experience. Each mode was radically different, but the basic game mechanics remain the same and they are somewhat different from what the fans of the series are used to.
                The Walker Assault mode had the biggest map in the Beta. In this 20vs20 game mode the Empire was pushing the Rebels with the power of two AT-AT Walkers which represent the main objective for both factions. The Empire has to defend the two Walkers by stopping the Rebel Alliance from controlling some radar dishes that allow them to call AI controlled Y-Wing ships as support to damage the Walkers shields making them vulnerable to the players attacks. This map and game mode had the closest design to what the older Battlefront games used to be, the players can take control of ground vehicles, static weapons and ships in a decently scaled battle.
The twist of this mode were the heroes. The players can take control of Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader through pickups, a mechanic that I will talk later about. The heroes are extremely powerful and quite resilient and can one shot any player with their lightsabers. Their presence on the field provides a huge advantage for each team and using them properly can slightly change the course of the round.
                Overall, this sounds like a tactical objective based map that combines some of the elements from Conquest and Rush modes into one, but in reality is a chaotic and not cleverly balanced winter battlefield where the Empire seems to have the upper hand because playing as part of the Rebel Alliance requires a lot more skill and coordination in order to take the objectives down in time.
Powering through!
Are you freezing?
Die big chunk of metal, die!

                The Drop Zone mode is an 8v8 objective based skirmish that takes place on a smaller and rather labyrinthine map on which Drop Pods spawn and have to be captured while stopping the enemy team from doing the same thing. The instantaneous respawns, the smaller map and closely placed objectives make the Drop Zone a much faster game mode which at times seemed more like a Team Deathmatch than anything else.
I was trying something!

                Last but not least is the Survival mode, which seems to be DICE’s response to the overall displease towards the singleplayer campaigns seen in their latest games. In Beta the mode took place on a small rocky region on Tatooine and could be played solo and coop but only on the lowest difficulty level. Those expecting something innovative out of this game mode are out of luck, because the Survival is a standard Co-op mode which has the players hunted by various AI units that spawn in waves from randomized locations which do a rather decent job for a lower difficulty in keeping the players engaged. I imagine that on increased difficulties Survival can get quite insane and this could make it more interesting, especially for those who are more completist by nature.

                The other content available in the Beta aside of the three maps and game modes was the unlocking system which nowadays is customary for almost every online shooter. There wasn’t much to see through unlocks as DICE probably didn’t want to spoil the fun of finding out what cool weapons and gadgets the game has in hold for the players, but there was enough to make an idea of what can be expected. The unlocking system is general and applies to both factions as the game doesn’t have any classes and it’s separated in two distinct categories: weapons and Star Cards.
The weapons are all too familiar for the Star Wars universe fans including various blasters and laser pistols seen in the movies that can’t have their stock stats modified. The Star Cards on the other hand are where the unlocking system gets more interesting. Based on their nature these cards can be equipped in hand as a sort of mini-decks that has useable weapons and gadgets. In addition to those equipped in the hand, there are also Star Cards that grant passive bonuses and are categorized as Traits. The weapons and gadgets provided through the Star Cards work on cooldown and/or charges, while the Trait cards grant passive bonuses according to the player’s performance during a round. As part of the mini-deck various things could be unlocked including multiple types of grenades, a blaster immunity shield, a sniper rifle with kinetic rounds that could pierce through shields and most importantly a jet pack!
There was also a character customization panel, but it wasn’t available for testing. This will probably provide various appearance customizations through skins, which wouldn’t be so bad, since the standard outfit for Rebel soldiers makes them look like hobos.
Unlocking new weapons and gadgets should provide enough variety fitting for each player’s style in such a way that not everyone runs around with identical loadouts (or at least that’s the hope). Time will tell how many more items are there waiting to be unlocked.
My killer loadout!
Remember this is a Beta.

                With the Beta content detailed I’ll now dive deeper and talk about the game mechanics because this is where DICE changed the game the most compared with the Battlefield series and the previous Battlefront titles.
For starters, the new Battlefront is still a 1st or 3rd person shooter. The two extremely different cameras provide certain advantages and disadvantages based on the situation. The 1st person camera is playing an important role in aiming, allowing for a better zooming and a correct gun to crosshair synchronization which facilitates a much more accurate aiming. The 3rd person camera is way better at seeing the surroundings and spotting the enemies sometimes before they spot you (especially if they play first person) as you can see over small obstacles, but doesn’t work that well at shooting stuff (at least not in the beginning). While a combination of the two cameras will make for an exploitable way of playing the slow switching between the two does prevent this from occurring straight in the middle of the battle.
Both cameras have their strengths, but there is always a problem in games that have such a system (ARMA 3, DayZ), the advantages that a 3rd person view provides usually outweigh what you can do through aiming. Considering the fact that Battlefront is a fast paced shooter with no recoil, quite accurate guns and just a slight “bullet” spread the 3rd person becomes insane at some point. After I unlocked the DLT-19 weapon, I’ve rarely found myself switching to first person and I mostly did it for long distance shots that were more of a caprice of mine than efficient playing.
You can't escape first person aiming and the upper ground advantage!

                For those used with the Battlefield series accommodating to Battlefront’s play style might take some time because as I mentioned before the game plays at a much faster pace and it’s extremely action centric with a smaller emphasize on group tactics. But the time lost getting used to the actiony style it’s won back through the simpler shooting, which should be easily mastered by any player of a more complex FPS game. The shooting is a spam of lasers from the recoilless blasters that are easy to aim with and don’t require reloading and the only truly controllable effect they have is their overheating.
The movement system is in a complete accord with the shooting, there is no leaning left or right to surprise the enemies and check the areas or any complex combat positions. The game resumes to a crouch and jump combination which works better with the frenetic gameplay and the 3rd person camera.
This gameplay bodes well with the Star Wars movies, which was never keen on masterful strategies and the battles were won through numbers, technological power, courage and of course the help of the Force.
I don’t mind this shooting style a bit, but the way the maps are designed and the game modes work make me think that Battlefront was oversimplified just to make it more “fun” which can be translated in accessible. Yes, tactics can created even with such gameplay, but they aren’t as important as they should be in a team versus team game and things get worse.
Overheating danger.

                The newest gameplay mechanic and probably the most controversial is the pickups system, which for those who played the old school shooters is exactly what you think it is. There are some holographic icons spawning all over the map which when picked up (hence the name!) provide various new things to use in combat.
Through pickups the players get access to secondary weapons, gadgets, ground vehicles, ships and even the heroes that were playable in the Walker Assault mode. It’s a system that stops the vehicle spawn camping by randomization, while also giving access to other cool new toys that could be overpowered if they were part of the Star Cards.
I found the way this mechanic is represented in the game completely arcade and somewhat out of the series’ and universe’s context. The pickups system is clearly an attempt to make Battlefront look less like a Battlefield game at something that should have remained the same as in DICE’s main series. Taking control of vehicles through map loot is an annoying decision that takes away even more of the strategically decision making, but worse than that it lures the players into running for icons on the map in the hope of getting a better secondary item or jumping into a vehicle.
Loot from floating stuff!
This feels more like Battelfront!
Die rebel scum!

                The Battlefield series has been accused in the recent past of being a slightly better reskin with each new title and this makes me believe that DICE’s changes to Battlefront were prompted by this. The Battlefield skeleton is still there, mostly because of the Frostbite engine, but layers of changes have been added over it in order to hide it resulting in a much different game and not exactly for the better. The original Battlefront games were appealing to both Star Wars and Battlefields fans because they had enough of both to make them interesting. DICE’s Battlefront is more impressive through the technical parts than the gameplay changes.

On the technical part Battlefront doesn’t seem to disappoint, the Frostbite 3 engine does its job as good as ever providing amazing looking landscapes showered with immersive lighting and shadows while running as smoothly as possible. The particle effects from explosions and weapon shots are amazingly detailed and I couldn’t get enough of them.
To top off the graphics, which are some of the best I’ve seen this year, the game has an extraordinary sound design that is hard to describe using words. The racket and vibration sounds caused by grenades are so refined that I could feel them with my whole body, while the sounds of blasters and shields colliding was transcending.
                Despite its greatness I do have a few complaints related to the technical part. On the graphics side of things there seems to be a lack of fluidity on the flying animation of ships which I’m not sure if it is caused by server lag or the way the ships fly. Also the hero’s animations are skimpy and sluggish and cannot even be compared to the standard characters.
On the audio part there is no technical complaint, the one thing that bothered me was the lack of audio settings other then the master volume, but this might be a Beta only issue.
                For a Beta, even if the game’s launch is only one month away, Battlefront’s graphics and sound were almost flawless and I’m excitingly looking forward to see the vegetation maps.

For me, the Star Wars Battlefront Open Beta didn’t have the initial impact that Siege’s Beta had. It took me a while to come back to the game and give it another try but it grew on me. Might have been the unlocks that made the game more interesting (jet pack!) or the fact that I got to play it with more friends or is purely superficial and I came back just for the sound design and graphics, but I came back and played much more than I thought I will. The game is fun in its own way, but I’m not sure how much is there to keep this gameplay entertaining for a longer period of time. We shall see at release how much of the beta impressions were accurate and relevant to the entirety of the game and if the content that comes with the release is going to keep this title alive for more than just until the upcoming Battlefield release. As I’ve seen it the game might be a hit or miss for either of the Battlefront or Battlefield fans, but surely is going to resonate well with the starved fans of the Star Wars universe. 


Monday, October 12, 2015

Screenshot of the Week #56: Embrace the Dark Side!

                Another Beta test is about to end and it helped me tremendously to form an impression about the upcoming release from EA DICE: Star Wars Battlefront.
Battlefront Beta test was a lot smoother than Siege’s. I had little to no problems related to the servers and the game runs smoothly and it’s pretty fleshed out. But this was to be expected considering the release date is quite close. The big difference between Battlefront and Siege is that the latter kept me hooked for the entire testing period despite the unstable servers and problematic matchmaking, while Battlefront needed a lot more time and a solid party to get me going.
                Star Wars Battlefront is a fast paced shooter which allows little time to think about tactics as you have to blast your way through enemies until your laser weapons is about to melt. It’s something different than I expected from this series reboot and DICE, but in a way it’s understandable. Getting into the game was hard as it didn’t enthrall me as a Star Wars game should but it became more fun as I played it a little more and got my hands on some cool unlocks better suited for my play style, but still wasn’t as captivating as I was expecting (wanting) it to be.
What bothered me the most is the obvious attempt from the developers to hide the fact that Battlefront is something else than it actually is hurting the game in this process. There are some questionable gameplay mechanics that have inexplicitly made their way into the game instead of the features that made the original titles great.
As usual, I will go in more details in my upcoming Star Wars Battlefront Beta impressions.
Luke, come to your father!

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Shadowrun: Hong Kong Review!

                Shadowrun Hong Kong is the third installment in Harebrained Schemes’ Shadowrun series and my second encounter with this universe after the recent addictive experience of playing Dragonfall. Left with a craving for more shadowrunning in the same dystopian “technology meets magic “ futuristic setting , Hong Kong’s release came at a perfect time. Featuring a campaign that is 15 to 25 hours long, the new Shadowrun game has players visit the iconic cyberpunk city of Hong Kong which is engulfed in a battle between corrupt corporations, triads and shadowy mystical forces. Having said all that, let’s dig in and see if this title is a worthy addition to the series.
                The game starts in the standard fashion of the series with the creation of your shadowrunner: choosing the sex and race, assigning karma points in different categories (Body, Quickness, Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma) and skills (decking, conjuring, ranged or melee combat, drones and etiquettes, etc). As disappointing as it was to see that the skill trees haven't received much attention in terms of new additions, the great variety in the way you can build your character is still present and this increases the game’s replayability value. I personally went for a charismatic sniper who was also very skilled at decking, which was extremely fun to play but quite expensive to develop, both in terms of karma points and currency. More on that later.
The skill system, mostly unchanged.
There's more cyberware to choose from now.

                After creating your character, something unusual for the series happens:  a narrated cinematic! Raymond Black, the player’s foster father, asks them to come to Hong Kong to help him, as he says that his time is running out. The cutscene ends with a group of armed men led by a masked individual entering a shop and opening fire on Raymond.
                Unlike the previous games, there is now a backstory attached to your character. You, along with your friend Duncan Wu, were once orphans on the streets of Seattle and were taken in and raised by Raymond. Eventually, you got into trouble with some corporations and were imprisoned, thus being separated from your foster father and brother. Raymond’s message comes at a short time after your release from jail and you travel to Hong Kong to come to his aid.
Upon arriving by ship, you reunite with Duncan, but Raymond is nowhere to be found. By investigating the area around the docks you meet the Gobbet and Is0bel, two shadowrunners and future companions who inform you that Raymond had hired the entire group for protection. From there, the situation goes south and through a twist of events the player and his new found allies are forced to hide from the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF), who put an APB on their heads. To get out of this situation, the two shadowrunners take you and Duncan to Kindly Cheng, the leader of the Yellow Lotus triad and their fixer. She makes an offer you can’t refuse: if you agree to work for her as shadowrunners, she promises to get rid of your SINs – effectively erasing your identities – , to make use of her position and connections to find Raymond and discover who set the HKPF on your tails.
Welcome to the real world!

                From here, the structure of the game is quite similar to the previous Shadowrun titles. You find yourself once again on the path of a shadowrunner taking missions arranged by a fixer, investing your earnings in an expanded range of weaponry, gear and cyberware and spending your spare time talking to your crew members. There’s also a new main hub, Heoi, a village built on the outskirts of the Walled City, an overpopulated and nightmarish slum that emanates negative Qi. All in all, the design feels comfortably similar, albeit a tad repetitive.
                The story progresses in an interesting manner with the main actors in the play remaining in the shadows for the first half of the game. All the people in Heoi, including you and your crew, are having nightmares on a nightly basis, nightmares which all share a common element: teeth. This adds a note of fear of the unknown and intrigue to the atmosphere and is maintained until the end of the game, when the mystery regarding Raymond and the main villain is resolved with a spectacular and somewhat unexpected appearance of the latter. That is, if you hadn't paid attention to the dialogue with a few companions. And this time around, there are even more possible endings to the story - five, to be specific -, all which feel satisfactory and wrap things up, with the exception of a story thread that will be covered in the upcoming mini-campaign.
Can I sleep now?

                With a new setting and a new fixer, there also comes a new crew, and this is one the best parts of the game. There are five new companions, three of which I’ve already mentioned: Duncan, Gobbet and Is0bel. Before I say a few words about every character, I must mention that the dialogues with them are extremely text-heavy. Now, I’m a big fan of well written RPGs and the dialogue in this game fits that criteria, but sometimes I felt like the companions had way too much to say compared to how much time was spent in missions. However, talking to them during missions would not have been realistic, as jobs would require complete concentration. Since I don’t see an alternative to the way the companions’ dialogue has been handled, I’ll mark my complaint as a warning: this game involves a LOT of reading! This also applies to all the characters in the main hub: their willingness to share so much information with the player feels unjustified. Whereas your companions should and are inclined to tell your about their background due to the fact that you’re in deep shit together and need to act as a team, the characters in Heoi do not have a reason for being so talkative, since they live in a dirty slum where their life standard isn’t too great and they have all the reasons in the world to be suspicious to strangers.
Well-written indeed.
Stop talking, will you?

                Onto the actual characters and their personalities, Duncan used to be a police officer, but has had his ID revoked once the APB was put out. As such, he is an expert in security with experience in both crowd control and lethal force. Most of the dialogues with him revolve around the period you spent together in Seattle and around Raymond, so he is a great source of finding out more about your past. You also need to reach a certain conversation with him to access a secret ending. Duncan complains a lot and is easily affected by things, but I thought that the reasons for his behaviour are believable – considering his past – and as such, I always kept him in my party. He’s the only companion who doesn’t have a side quest because the main story that involves finding his foster father feels very personal to him.
Duncan's ready for revenge!

                Next up, we have Gobbet. An ork shaman and a follower of Rat, Gobbet feels like a replacement for Dietrich in terms of gameplay. Due to her experience as a shadowrunner, she takes on the role of mentor to you in-between missions. Her lessons are structured in the following way: an account of a past mission in which things may or may have not went wrong, followed by a prompt for you to say what you would have done *better* in that scenario. A few of these lessons involve her life in another “community”, where she eventually returns for a brief time and will require the aid of the player. Gobbet is easy going, carefree, has a good sense of humor and is very likeable, and through her interactions with the player she finally learns how to reflect and learn from her mistakes.
Learning from mistakes.

                The third companion is Is0bel. I won’t dwell too much on her because I didn’t like her enough to take her on more than two missions, and I also wanted to be a decker. No point in having two deckers on the team, sorry! Is0bel is a dwarf decker who grew up in the Walled City, the worst place in Hong Kong, so her introvert personality and preference of living in the Matrix come at no surprise. She is the second companion to hold vital information about the Walled City that is required to access a secret ending. Her side mission involves finding a way to restore her memories which have been locked away, but the conclusion of this mission isn’t too happy.
                Let’s talk about Racter. He’s a rigger who is always accompanied by his custom-built drone, Koschei, and they can be found on the bottom level of the ship you claim as your new home in Heoi. The two form an epic duo in combat and are a must in any team, mostly because of Koschei, who can be specialized on melee or ranged weapons and is extremely powerful. There’s more to them than it initially appears and uncovering their mystery is very satisfying, although quite unnerving. Racter is a posthumanist who appreciates pragmatic and maybe slightly evil decisions taken by the player, and upon getting to know him well enough he will ask for help with concluding his business with two scientists from his past who determined him to come to Hong Kong. I don’t want to say any more about him since he is a character worth getting to know on your own.
I hope we'll meet in posthumanity, Racter
Always on the same page!

                And now, about Gaichu. On par with Racter in my companion top, he’s the one who stands out immediately, mostly because he’s a .. ghoul. Perhaps the reason why I like him so much is because he reflects the theme of humanity in monsters compared to the inhumanity in people. Gaichu is found in a situation that strongly incriminates him, but further investigation reveals him to be on the higher moral ground. It is completely up to the player to decide if he will join the crew or not, although I strongly advise everyone to take him, as he's a complete badass with a great backstory and personal quest. He's also an ex-member of Renraku's Red Samurai, one of the most feared security forces in the world, and is being hunted by the members of his old squad who consider him to have broken his samurai code by not committing suicide after he contracted the ghoul plague. Although his new condition made him blind, he is able to put his ghoul abilities to use and even exceed his former capabilities. Gaichu stands as a symbol, inspiring the player to always aim to improve and perfect himself. My only minor complaint about him is that he is rarely noticed by other people, which is a bit immersion breaking as ghouls are not accepted in society.
Welcome to the team!
Experience has taught the exact thing.

                It’s hard to choose my favourite companion. I initially thought it would be Gaichu, but as Racter’s story evolved, I found myself liking them in an equal manner. The most ironic fact is that both were rewards of the Kickstarter campaign additional stretch goals, so hooray for Kickstarter! All in all, I felt that Harebrained Schemes did a great job with the crew members, even more so than in Dragonfall. Well, maybe with the exception of Is0bel, but that may be just because of my preferences.
The crew!

                Despite that what we have here is more of the same Shadowrun, the game never struck me as repetitive or boring, mainly due to the amazing variety of shadowrunning missions. These include investigating a series of murders, attending a party in order to extract information and incriminate someone, affecting the flow of Qi in a corporate headquarters, obtaining the prototype of a super weapon and many others. What’s even greater is that you can go through all of them in multiple ways, through the use of skills or by making choices. You can also make use of your crew members in case your skill levels aren't high enough, which proves to be a very logical and helpful addition. One of the missions in the second half of the game has you exploring several levels of a corporate building, all of which are heavily guarded. Through the use of decking, charisma and different etiquettes, it is possible to completely avoid fights until the last section, where combat is mandatory. It’s always great to see a game that encourages and rewards different playstyles.
                Speaking of decking, the Matrix has been revamped. It now involves memory and pattern matching puzzles, as well as a real time stealth element, beside the usual combat featured in the previous games. Each Matrix map has several Watcher IC that patrol the area and attack you in case you enter their field of view. In case of detection, they become hostile and also increase your trace in the system, up to the point where additional ICE spawn and attack you. However, managing to stealth past them gets you to the Blocker IC which guards data or access nodes and can be hacked. The hacking is done by a mini-game with two parts: the first one is a memory puzzle that extends your time left in the Blocker by remembering and typing in sequences of digits; the second one ultimately unlocks the access to the node and involves putting together a pattern of symbols from a series of symbols that flash on the screen. All things considered, I appreciated these additions and thought they made decking more challenging and interesting.
Just.. stealth.. it!

                When words or decking fails, you can always resort to the old-fashioned combat, which is exactly the same as in Dragonfall with a few exceptions: fights can now be initiated whenever you want with the press of a button, gaining the upper hand, and there are many more spells and weapons to choose from. The skill system is mostly the same, although a new tree for cyberweapons has been added for the main character and the skill trees for crew members remain lackluster. More diversity or depth in this regard would have been great.
On guard while the decker is doing his job.

                Unfortunately, there’s no Very Hard difficulty, which is a great shame. I started the game on Normal and while it was a bit challenging for the first missions, the difficulty falls off and I eventually switched to Hard but still found the combat too easy. I suspect one of the reasons for this is the fact that I obtained an extremely powerful sniper rifle early in the game which somewhat trivialized the combat, hitting for 18-40 damage per shot. Truth be told, acquiring it involved a rather tough decision that made me feel a bit guilty, so I’d say that balances it out. Another reason for why the combat may have felt so easy is that Koschei can have up to 5 action points and wreak havoc each round. I also had a strong team composition in which the members – Duncan, Gaichu and Racter – strongly complemented each other. Thus, I felt challenged in only two or three situations, and the ending boss was a complete pushover.
To be fair, that prototype laser was so powerful it was worth waking up ancestors for it.

                There are also a few other minor complaints that I'd like to mention. A few times I felt that my response options in dialogue were a bit limited and did not include what I would have actually wanted to say. There's also the matter of the loading screens, which become unbearably slow in the second half of the game, so slow that I stopped reloading earlier saves to try different approaches. I also ran into a money problem even though I did all the side missions and almost all of their optional objectives. I only managed to buy my character a full cyberware set and a mediocre deck, and didn't have enough nuyen to purchase gear for my team or buy better weapons or the best deck. I don't know if this is intended or if I had spread my skills too wide - decking, sniping and cyberware gear -, so I have to admit that it didn't bother me that much in the end. More items would have made the game easier, and that is certainly something I wouldn't have wanted.
                The last aspects of the game that I will cover will be the way the game looks, sounds and also feels. Graphically, Hong Kong looks better than Dragonfall, due to its splendid art direction and detailed environments, characters and bigger levels. The whole eastern setting look is pulled off very well and all the locations, especially the outdoors ones, look amazing. Sound wise, I feel that this game has the best soundtrack in the series, featuring a multitude songs that support the visuals and reinforce the eastern thematic, creating a mystic atmosphere which gives the tense impression that danger always lurks nearby. As mentioned in the beginning of the review, this is the first Shadowrun game to have a few voice acted cutscenes, featuring slideshows of nicely painted backgrounds that present the narrated story. All in all, Hong Kong scores highly in its graphical and sound components.
Party time!
Hong Kong slums.

                Ultimately, Hong Kong represents more of the same Shadowrun, which can be both a good and a bad thing. Much of the way the game is structured will feel very familiar to the veterans of the series, whereas for newcomers this title may be the perfect entry into the universe. Regardless of the somewhat repeated formula, what we have here is a fascinating new setting that features a very well-written and text-heavy story with strong characters and addictive gameplay. For those who want more Shadowrun and don't mind the absence of radical changes to the formula, there is no reason not to get Hong Kong. I have greatly enjoyed my time with it and look forward to the upcoming mini-campaign.

+ More of the same Shadowrun
+ Great story in a new setting
+ Memorable cast of characters, especially Racter and Gaichu
+ Good overall writing: story and companions
+ Improved Matrix
+ Beautiful art direction, visuals and soundtrack
+ Incredible variety in the type of missions and various ways to approach them
+ Multiple endings

- Combat is way too easy
- Lackluster skill development for party members
- Unbearably slow loading screens in the second half of the game
- The dialogue options are sometimes a little restrictive
- A few unresponsive menus
- Gaichu not being noticed while in public
- Involves a LOT of reading
- People are unnaturally open and talkative to the player

Written by Wolfe for The Game Slashers.