Monday, November 30, 2015

Screenshot of the Week #61: Tactical innovation!

                Screenshot of the week is late once again, mostly because I’ve been battling with my mixed feelings about Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void this entire weekend as I was trying to turn my experience and opinions about the game into a review (which I did and the result is coming soon).
                Lately I’ve been going through video games like candy, shortly enjoying the taste of one until jumping to the next. I think I’ve played like 5-6 different games at the end of this month and I still couldn’t settle on one and play it through until the end so I can write something about it. Aside of my usual doze of online gaming taken from Armored Warfare and Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns (soon probably from R6 Siege and Squad), I’ve been switching between Hard West, Mordheim: City of the Damned, Secret Ponchos and now Call to Arms. It seems like I’m manifesting some sort of gaming AD&D because all these games are great in their own way and I can’t settle for anything.
                Speaking of Call to Arms, the game is the latest installment from Digitalmindsoft following the same tactical RTT approach of Men of War but now in a modern setting. Compared to Assault Squad 2 which wasn’t much of an improvement over its predecessors, Call to Arms has some visible changes aside of the landscape. The most important and innovative feature the game has is a new aiming system which allows the players to take full control of their units aiming, shooting at the enemies from some sort of 3rd person perspective. It might sound arcady, but it works pretty well (the control is skimpy) and doesn’t take away from the tactical focus of the game but rather enriches it in a weird and fun way. I’ve always been a sucker for tactical and realistic games and Men of War has satisfied my need for such games  many times and by the looks of it so will Call to Arms.
There’s a ton to talk about this game but as is still in development and much of the features in Early Access are subject to change (including the UI, finally!) I will wrap things up here.  I can say with certainty that it looks promising and I’ll continue playing it from time to time as I follow its development.
Nothing can protect you from this!

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



Monday, November 23, 2015

Screenshot of the Week #60: Bullies!

                This week spoiled those who love to play tactical games with turn based combat and the two indie games that came out could keep a lot of players busy until next year’s XCOM 2. Hard West and Mordheim: City of the Damned have finally arrived and as someone who got to play them I can say that players are in for a treat.
Both of these games come from indie developers so there are a lot of shortcomings especially when it comes to production value and QA, but they make up for that with good gameplay mechanics and a few innovations here and there.
                Hard West is a Weird West themed tactical RPG that has you facing demons and all kind of supernatural creatures in a world of cowboys. Weird West is a subgenre that has seen much attention through literature and even board games with the well known Deadlands. Hard West capitalizes on the somewhat dire need for a new and unique setting in video games and that’s where most of its charms stand. The combat is fun and the narrative driven gameplay makes for interesting moments, but  the lack of character progression might upset some players.
                Mordheim: City of the Damned is part of the big wave of Warhammer licenses that Games Workshop has spread to the developers of video games in order to expand their influence much further than the table top industry which they almost monopolized. The game action takes place in the Warhammer’s Fantasy city of Mordheim designed to serve as a battlefield for skirmish matches between Warbands in the tabletop game with the same name. Mordheim game captures the atmosphere and the rules of the tabletop game pretty well and with procedurally generated maps and some grim looking graphics it has the perfect recipe for an addictive tactical game. Its biggest flaw stands in the low production value of an indie development (I feel like I’ve said this a lot lately).
                Both game are flawed, yet both games have a lot to offer and while they might be extremely annoying at times and some of their shortcoming can’t be fixed through patches I can sincerely recommend them (at a sale, not necessarily now) to anyone who loves tactical and challenging gameplay.
Nowhere to run!

In the meantime, please share our articles and follow us on Steam, Twitter and on Facebook!!



Monday, November 16, 2015

Fallout 4 Review!

                Ah, Fallout 4.. Bethesda’s new game has been one of the most hyped titles of 2015 and has given birth to huge controversies at its launch. One only needs to take a look at the discrepancy between its very favorable reception from the mainstream gaming press and what players actually think about it on Steam or Metacritic to see that something feels very odd. It is even stranger since this is the first time this has happened with one of Bethesda’s titles, as the other ones received fairly good receptions on both ends of the spectrum. Naturally, I felt compelled to investigate the causes of this radical division and spent 30 hours with Fallout 4. With that being said, I am now ready to share my opinions and verdict on the game.
A new journey.

The Fallout series has been in the hands of three developers: Interplay, Bethesda and Obsidian. I am one of those weird people who much prefer the way Interplay handled things in the first two Fallout games and after playing them, I was terribly disappointed with how Bethesda continued the series with Fallout 3. The lack of an engaging story, shallow and one-dimensional characters, too few choices and consequences.. there were so many things that turned the game into a bad experience. Despite that, Obsidian managed to make a new game in the universe and New Vegas is one of my favorite RPGs out there, featuring a great story, multiple fully fleshed out factions and characters, choices that actually matter and the absence of black and white morality. Coming into Fallout 4, I hoped that Bethesda took notes from what things Obsidian did right and integrated them into their game. I also took two decisions regarding the game and this review. The first one was that I would start from a blank state, ignoring my experience with Fallout 3 and giving Fallout 4 a chance and an objective approach. The second one was that the review will not contain any comparisons between the old Fallout games (1 and 2) and this one, since they are way too different and are aimed at different audiences. Thus, any comparisons I will make will be restricted to Fallout 3, NV and 4.
                Let’s kick off with the review. The events of Fallout 4 take place in Boston – now known as the Commonwealth - in 2287, a decade after Fallout 3 and six years after New Vegas. You play as the Sole Survivor of Vault 111, who emerges 210 years after the day when the nuclear attack took place and the world was changed forever. The game’s intro sequence happens exactly on that day: you are given a peek at the pre-War life before you and your spouse and son take shelter in Vault 111 as the bombs fall. Frozen in the Vault cryopods for somewhere between 100 and 200 years, you wake up when a mysterious group enters the Vault, kills your spouse and takes off with your child. It is now up to you to escape the Vault, explore the Commonwealth and find those who have wronged you.
Leaving "home".
Out in the world.

Despite the fact that I knew that the narrative had never been strong in any recent Bethesda games I was still disappointed with Fallout 4’s story. I also felt annoyed at the laziness of the developers: once again, you are forced to look for a family member, just like in the previous game. The introductory sequence did not succeed to make me care about the husband – I played as a female – or the child, since it is very short and they almost get no screen time, or anything that may make you be interested in them besides the fact that they’re family. Fallout 4 lacks the things that The Witcher 3 got right: you’re also looking for your daughter in that game and it could be just as banal as here, but there are plenty of sequences which build her into a character you easily care about and want to find.
                Fortunately, in order to find your son you have to ally yourself with one of the four factions in the game, which prove to be more interesting than looking for him. We have the Brotherhood of Steel, who want to protect the Commonwealth (kind of strange, since they don’t usually get involved with people and only seek the preservation of technology) and destroy the Institute. The Institute is formed by scientists who possess the knowledge and technology required to create synthetics that are identical to humans, and are considered to be a major threat to humankind by the Brotherhood. The matter of these synths and whether they should be allowed to exist in this world eventually becomes a main part of the story. There’s also the Railway, a group that seeks to liberate the synths from the control of the Institute. The last faction is not a faction per se, as it is represented only by Preston Garvey, the last Minuteman. However, you can join him and fight to rebuild the Minutemen and liberate the Commonwealth from all that threaten the lives of its citizens, be it mutants, raiders or synths.

                I chose to join the Brotherhood of Steel, mainly since it has been the thing that I do in almost all the Fallout games and also because the other factions did not appeal to me that much. Their quests are hit and miss: one has you attack an objective with a vertibird and feels pretty epic, whereas other just ask you for materials to build.. something, which isn’t that interesting. There’s also a quest about one of your companions which was among the best in the game, countered by the penultimate mission which is almost entirely copied from Fallout 3. Unfortunately, three of the groups have almost the same questline and endings, and even though the faction system is a step up from Fallout 3, I still feel like there’s not too much replayability here. You can also do quests for all groups up to a certain point where you have to choose one and stick with it.

                There are thirteen companions to help you on your adventures, from your own dog to several robots and a few members of the factions. This is where I think the game is clearly superior to Fallout 3: I’ve only used two of those companions (Nick Valentine and Paladin Damse) during my travels, but I liked them both, which is much more than what can be said about the insipid characters from the previous game (who could’ve have been dead inside for all I knew). The new companions each have their own personal quest, rarely intervene during conversations, like or dislike your actions and approach you in order to talk when they like you enough. They also talk to you about your decisions after you finish the main story, which is something I liked. You can give them orders like follow, stay, attack a target or move somewhere (I didn’t feel the need to use these commands), and they cannot die, which is.. convenient for the player, but breaks immersion. You can’t kill them either, since they’re considered to be “essential” characters.
Your immortal best buddy.
One of the few interesting characters.
And another one.

                Unsurprisingly, the writing is mediocre overall. If you expect something at the level of New Vegas, you will be disappointed. Besides the two companions that I’ve mentioned, I haven’t come across any other really interesting characters, as most of them lack depth and are one-dimensional. Note: I am mostly referring here to the characters found during the main and side quests, since I can't comment on the quality of the few other companions whom I didn't take with me on my travels. Consequently, I didn’t feel too interested in finding the son or taking sides in the conflict regarding the synths. The writing simply falls flat and provides little emotional investment from the player.
Not a great tale, though.

                In terms of actual roleplaying (since we have an RPG here, right..?), things aren’t that great. To start off, you can’t even create your own backstory or play a blank state character like in the TES games, since you must be the concerned parent and ex-soldier (male) or ex-lawyer (female) who will do everything to find his/her child. I also couldn’t empathize with my character, who woke up after 200 years and never seemed to care or comment on anything new he found in the post-apocalyptic world. There are only a few people (two or three) to whom you can mention that you're 200+ years old, but the game doesn't take advantage of it and barely scrapes the surface of what could have been done with the unique condition of your character. To make matters worse, the brand new dialogue system is one of the worst I’ve ever seen. The system uses a dialogue wheel and will only allow you four types of responses at any time: affirmation, negation, question and sarcasm. Moreover, the few words that describe your responses sometimes don’t even match what you actually say or the options all point towards the same type of response – you sometimes can’t even refuse quests -. Sure, your character is now fully voice acted and that is supposed to help immerse you, but I found that being unable to say what I think and being restricted to those four options stopped me from actually roleplaying. Even Fallout 3 had a much better dialogue system, not to mention New Vegas.
Affirmation, negation, sarcasm and question.

Since we’re talking about roleplaying, let’s take a look at the quests in the game and how you can affect their outcome. We have the main story quests, side quests and Radiant AI quests. I felt that way too many quests involved forced combat and going through multiple levels of enemies until you reach the end, although most of the side quests offer you a choice that decides the outcome and this almost always depends on your Charisma stat. No other SPECIAL stats are checked during conversations. Oh, I also found that the way Charisma works in this game is fairly absurd: each dialogue check for it has a difficulty (yellow, orange and red) and there is a roll involved that decides whether you pass or fail it. This means that you can repeatedly reload a save until you pass the check. I’ve even read about people who failed romances with their companions even though their Charisma was maxed out, which is ridiculous. Anyway, the original Fallout design stated that there should always be at least four ways of solving a quest: through combat, speech, skills or stealth. From my experience with this game, only combat and speech work, and speech not even all the time. I haven’t used stealth too much, but there are plenty of quests which explicitly require you to kill enemies and the two skills in the game - lock picking and hacking - can’t be used to complete quests in a different way, such as bypassing groups of enemies. Nevertheless, there are a few decisions to be made, especially during one or two of the main quests, most of the side quests and with regards to your companions. It doesn’t come close to what New Vegas had to offer, but is on par with Fallout 3.
                Concerning character creation and progression, we still have the SPECIAL stats and perks, but the skills have been integrated in the perks and no longer exist on their own. I personally enjoyed having both skills and perks in the previous games since they were a way of showing you how proficient you were with anything. Each SPECIAL stat now functions as a threshold for the 10 perks associated with it, which can be unlocked when you level up and have multiple ranks. You can also invest points directly into the SPECIAL stats as you level up, which is a questionable design decision since you can even max them all. Despite the fact that apparently your character is now somewhat of a master of all types of weapons - when you're not using VATS you shoot perfectly and only Perception affects accuracy in VATS -, there are perks which allow you to heal more, be better at lock picking or hacking, run longer, be more stealthier or deal more damage, improve your companions’ performance with your charisma or improve your crafting abilities. Besides that, they don’t really make much sense: there’s as a perception perk that increases the damage of rifles, multiple charisma perks that affect your combat capabilities and many others. The new perk system allows the creation of a few different play styles, as there are so many perks and ranks that you can’t unlock them all on the same character, unless you invest hundreds of hours into it. I personally went for a charismatic and intelligent gun master, since I finished the game at level 35 and managed to invest in plenty of perks and stats. All in all, the new system didn’t impress me in any way: I felt it was average and would have preferred the old one, as it made way more sense and allowed for deeper character customization.
The new perk system.

                One of the game’s main problems is that the feeling of character progression is destroyed in the first two hours of the game when you find a suit of Power Armor and you gun down a Deathclaw. I know that Bethesda is a fan of the “let’s empower the player and make him feel awesome” type of game design, but even so I don’t see how giving the player the most powerful and iconic armor in the universe and making him kill the ultimate post-apocalyptic predator in the beginning of the game is a good design choice. Do I also have to mention that my female character was a lawyer before the War and had no experience with weapons, yet she destroyed that Deathclaw with no problems whatsoever? Nothing made sense about this. The game throws awesome stuff (gear, enemies) at you in the beginning and this didn’t encourage me to continue, as later on I felt like my character already faced the worst and wasn’t visibly progressing anymore. You also advance through the ranks of each faction in a rhythm that is way too fast to feel rewarding or realistic, just as you could become the leader of all guilds in Skyrim. Oh well.
Become awesome!

                Since the story and roleplaying aspects of the game aren’t that strong, let’s move on to the exploration of the open world, as this is the main attraction of all Bethesda games. This is one of the elements where Fallout 4 is pretty successful. The Commonwealth is a smaller game world but is denser and I felt compelled to explore it due to a few reasons. Its locations are somewhat varied, from the more peaceful north side of the map to the semi-destroyed towns and cities patrolled by raiders and mutants and to the Glowing Sea, a zone in the south which is completely irradiated and inhabited by deathclaws. The world atmosphere is most of the time decent: I’m not really a fan of how non-post-apocalyptic and calm the world looks from a weather point of view, but when the electrical storms kick in, it’s extremely immersive. There are also plenty of collectibles to be found under the form of bobbleheads that improve your stats and give you special traits, games for your Pip-Boy and all sorts of comic books that improve your abilities. One of my main gripes with Fallout 3, the absence of farms and places that could sustain life, has been fixed now and the world feels more coherent and believable. The people in the Commonwealth also react better to you, commenting on your choice of armor (especially Power Armor) and acknowledging some of your deeds in the quests you’ve completed. Sure, there are some exceptions to this as well, such as some quest givers that tell you to scram after you’ve done quests for them, but the world is generally improved when compared to the one from Fallout 3.
The Commonwealth can be a very atmospheric place at times.
Collectibles #1
Collectibles #2

                Moreover, I played on Hard and the game was pretty challenging as I made my way down south (you start in the north-west corner). The Commonwealth is inhabited by all the traditional enemies you could expect from a Fallout game: raiders, super mutants, ghouls, Deathclaws, radscorpions, mirelurks, etc. Their AI is pretty good this time around and they require different strategies. Ghouls are incredibly fast and are best countered with shotguns or VATS. Raiders and super mutants make good use of cover, sometimes flank you and are crazy good at throwing molotovs or grenades. Depending on the difficulty you play on, there is a varying chance that legendary enemies will spawn. This feels like such a MMO mechanic: their behavior is identical to that of the normal mobs, but they have a huge HP pool and defeating them rewards you with better items. Even so, they’re a pain in the ass to kill and made me want to lower the difficulty.

                In terms of combat mechanics, the game plays exactly the same as Fallout 3 and New Vegas. VATS is still around and now it only slows down time instead of completely stopping it. The real time shooting and all the guns feel much more natural. Speaking of guns and implicitly ammo, I found that a big part of what was challenging about the game was the fact that I always had to be careful with how much ammo I consumed. I would spend almost all of my caps on ammo for different guns and stimpacks to keep me running, and it was something that I actually liked since it made me feel like I was fighting to survive in the post-apocalyptic world. So in order to have an easier time, it is probably recommended to use VATS whenever possible to conserve ammo. I honestly thought that the game felt more like a FPS than a RPG so I didn’t follow my own advice and went all guns blazing.

                I mentioned that legendary enemies drop a few of the better items in the game, but that is not the only way to get your hands on better loot. Weapons can now be fully customized with different mods, such as sights, barrels, muzzles, stocks and many others. The same goes for armors, since they are now split in different categories based on body parts: helmet, torso, arms and feet. There is a pretty great deal of customization available for Power Armors, from colors to neat upgrades such as jet packs (this one is awesome), extra shields, auto stimpacks or the ability to see enemies in red. All in all, I consider the addition of customization for your gear to be a great one.
Weapon customization.
Armor customization.

                Speaking of Power Armors (PAs), the way they work has been changed completely. All the suits that you find require Fusion Cores to function. Depending on whether you walk or sprint around in your PA, the Core will drain slower or faster. These Cores can be found all over the Commonwealth (especially in generators), although they are somewhat rare and expensive to buy from merchants. I was very annoyed with this change for several reasons. First, you will most likely exit your PA in a random place on the map (which will be marked on your Pip-Boy map), so when you want to use it again in a different place, you have to fast travel close to where you left it (loading screen), then fast travel close to where you want to use it (another loading screen), and then most likely leave it there when you’re done or take it to a power armor station (another loading screen). The entire process is time consuming and I found myself not wanting to use a PA at all, even though they’re probably the coolest thing about the Fallout universe. Second, it doesn’t make sense and feels like such a gamey mechanic: your companions who wear PAs or the members of the Brotherhood don’t even have to bother about depleting Cores, and the generators where you find them have been running over the past 200 years, but your Core only lasts for one hour at best. Perhaps it’s my fault for expecting some coherence in this new design, yet I also don’t get why this change was necessary since it felt so much more rewarding to find your PA later on in the other Fallout games. Despite all that, the actual PA gameplay is realized very well, in the sense that it feels great to walk and shoot while you’re in them: I liked the special HUD (especially the way water drops fall on your visor when it’s raining) and they feel extremely heavy, bulky and impressive. Thankfully, there’s already a mod out there that eliminates the draining of the Fusion Cores, so if the stats for the PA would be nerfed as well, all would be back to normal.
Power Armors are the best!
Hate them.

                Besides the new way in which PAs work, there’s also a new addition: settlements building. Using materials scavenged from the Wasteland you can now build your own settlements, giving them sustainability through generators and farms and reinforcing them with defensive structures. NPCs will also flock to your newly constructed areas and establish communities. Bethesda once stated that you can invest up to 400 hours in Fallout 4, and I guess that this is what they were mostly referring to. I personally did not bother too much with this feature: after building my first settlement (which was actually only a house with a farm surrounded by barricades and guarded by turrets), I gave up because I didn’t see how it is related to the game or what the point of it all was. Apparently you can build multiple settlements and tie them together to bring in more revenue, but I always had just enough caps to keep on going. The places you build are also supposed to come under attack from raiders or mutants and you’ll have to defend them, yet that never happened to me. If I have to compare it with other games I can say I had a much better experience with base building in ARK: Survival Evolved, since over there things actually made sense and you had to defend against other players. In Fallout 4, it just feels like.. Sims? Nonetheless, despite the fact that I’ve found it all pointless, I’m sure many players will have fun with building their own places in the Commonwealth, as there were so many similar mods in the previous games and now this has become an actual feature.
Build it up.. or not.

                Onto the way the game looks and performs. The Commonwealth is a much more colorful and lively place to look at than the Capital Wasteland, which can be both a good and a bad thing: it is a welcome change if you were tired of the dark palette of colors from the previous games, but also feels less post-apocalyptic (with some exceptions: electrical storms and the Glowing Sea). On a closer inspection though, things get worse: most of the textures are low resolution and ugly to look at and the animations are still off-putting, robbing characters of any notion of liveliness. The view distance isn’t great either, with the same type of artificial fog present in The Witcher 3 being used to reduce the amount of details in the distance. The particle effects are also lacking, from fog and dust to fire and explosions, which slightly affects immersion due to the first person perspective of the game. All of this isn’t really surprising, as the game runs on a modified version of the Creation Engine, first used in Skyrim. I played the game on a system with a 4690k, 970 (neither were overclocked) and 8GBs of RAM and the performance was very disappointing. The system was capable of holding up 60 fps in the northern areas of the map, but once I got to the first towns and cities, the frames dropped drastically down to even 20 fps, which was almost unplayable for me. This is apparently caused by some issues with the shadow distance, although I’ve noticed no improvement while playing around with its quality. There’s also the matter of god rays from NVIDIA, where there is absolutely no difference between the low and ultra presets, despite affecting performance pretty hard. All in all, Fallout 4 doesn’t really look like a game worthy of 2015 – but hey, mods will fix it, right?! -. Compared to The Witcher 3, which is one of the best looking open world games of the year, it looks and performs worse, which is something to wonder at since Bethesda most likely had a way bigger development budget than CDPR.
This is disturbingly ugly.
2015 textures.

                With graphics and performance out of the way, let’s take a look at how the game sounds. The soundtrack is another of the game’s stronger aspects. There were a few songs that stuck with me and overall it is pretty good, although not very memorable or capable of making the audience shiver. Weirdly enough, it has a Scottish vibe (bagpipes?) which sounded nice but felt out of place. I also thought that the voice acting was pretty hit and miss: it’s really good for some characters (Kellogg and Nick Valentine), decent for the player (both male and female) and sometimes cringe worthy (Piper and some general from the Minutemen). The good thing is that I didn’t notice too many cases in which the voice acting is the same for different characters, which is surprising for a Bethesda game. Besides soundtrack and voice acting, everything else is good: gun sounds, explosions, the ambience of the environments in the Commonwealth, etc. So Fallout 4 fares well in the audio department.

                Now, it wouldn’t be a Bethesda game without a terrible release, and Fallout 4 makes no exception to the rule. Besides the poor performance that I’ve already mentioned, there are plenty of bugs that I’ve come across. For example, it was generally more surprising to notice when my companion was next to me than when I would find out that he got lost somewhere on the way. Companions usually get stuck in different places and somehow teleport next to you after a while. Your weapons automatically reload when you switch between them (casual feature confirmed or bug?). Sometimes my framerate would drop to half of its initial value when I would zoom in with a weapon. The subtitles from a dialogue sometimes lag behind what is actually being said at that moment and you can even be kicked out of a dialogue by random NPCs that are walking and pushing you away from the NPC you were speaking to. The game also crashed at least 10 times during the 30 hours I spent with it and there are so many loading screens that I lost my interest to explore buildings, knowing that I would spend at least one minute getting in and out. To make matters worse, the game’s interface is very clunky and hard to work with. You still have to browse through an alphabetically sorted list in your inventory to get to the item you’re looking for and moving through the Pip-Boy menus is a pain. The same goes for the settlement building interface, for which I didn’t even know that I had to press E to browse the submenus because it wasn’t indicated anywhere! Finally, the game is somewhat of a mess from all these points of view and I don’t know if even Bethesda (who have got a pass for all their previous titles) can get away with such a release.
How is this even possible?
We can't both fit in this elevator..

                With all of this being said, it’s time for my verdict on Fallout 4. I remember how when I was younger, my parents would keep going on about how games aren’t a productive way to spend time on, and I would say that some games can be art and you can actually learn something from them – I’m looking at you, old school CRPGs -, just like you can from books. Well, Fallout 4 isn’t one of those games. I had some fun with it, but that’s about it. There’s just not enough depth involved in its story and roleplaying aspects to make it a compelling RPG. At its best, you can forcefully create your own story and character in your mind and just explore the Commonwealth, maybe building settlements and constructing some sort of empire. I started playing with the hope that Bethesda learned some things from Obsidian’s successes with New Vegas, but quickly found out that was not the case. From the middle of the game onwards I decided to play it more as a FPS than a RPG and I had more fun that way. So if you’re expecting a strong RPG from Fallout 4, I think you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re just looking for some pretty mindless fun shooting things up and exploring an interesting world, then this is just the game for you.
It's fun if you make everything explode!

+ The open world is interesting to explore and atmospheric at times, feels a bit more reactive to you
+ Shooting mechanics have been improved
+ The companions are much better than the ones from Fallout 3
+ There are multiple factions to join
+ The enemy AI is pretty good
+ Weapon and armor customization
+ Power Armor gameplay is great
+ Building settlements (for some..)
+ Good soundtrack, generally ok voice acting

- The story isn’t too interesting and parts of it feel recycled from Fallout 3
- Abysmal new dialogue system
- Not much roleplaying going on
- Some faction questlines are way too similar
- Bethesda’s design school of making everything awesome ruins the character progression
- Legendary enemies
- The change to how Power Armor works
- Building settlements feels disconnected from the rest of the game
- Graphics aren’t on par with 2015 standards and the performance is terrible
- Character animations are still very poor
- Very unstable and buggy release
- Hard to navigate through the clunky interface
- Loading screens are too many and take too long


Sunday, November 15, 2015

Screenshot of the Week #59: My life for Aiur!

                It has been a while since I posted a Screenshot of the Week. Last time when I tried to write such an article it turned into something else entirely, this time that won’t be the case.
I have been distracted lately so I haven’t been writing much if at all but I still played video games. I think my batteries have recharged and I’m ready to come back (not in force, but still coming back). I finished the Satellite Reign review (that took a quite some time) and while Wolfe is almost done writing about Fallout 4, I’m turning my focus to Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void.
                Legacy of the Void launched this Tuesday and I’ve already finished the game which marks the end of the story for more than 15 years of Starcraft (video games and books). I didn’t have extremely high expectations from the singleplayer campaign but I was sure I will enjoy it considering I got to play as Protoss this time. Even so, what I wanted the most out of Legacy of the Void was to see the story concluded and I did. I can’t say I’m satisfied with the ending or how things went until that point, but Starcraft II is much different from the original games and while I haven’t found my peace with this idea the ending is in tone with the trilogy. As usual, I won’t give further details as I’m saving most of the details for the review on which I’m already working on and it should be done as soon as I get to better experience everything that this standalone expansion has to offer on the multiplayer side of things.
Until the very end, old friend...

I feel obligated to say that big things are about to happen with this blog in the close future so stay tuned!

In the meantime, please share our articles and follow us on Steam, Twitter and on Facebook!!



Monday, November 9, 2015

Satellite Reign Review!

                I’m one of those gamers that got to play a lot of old school games, but wasn’t born early enough to catch all the great classics in time therefore never really managed to play all of them (I’m working on this). Syndicate is an example of a video games series that made history and it’s imprinted in the memory of many gamers, but such is not the case for me and because of this the review won’t serve as a comparison between old and new.
                Satellite Reign comes as yet another Kickstarter project set on rekindling the magic of the older and tactical games that didn’t break through into the new era of gaming. With the creator of Syndicate Wars on board, 5 Lives Studios aims with Satellite Reign is to deliver the atmosphere and gameplay of the Syndicate series adapted for the current time period, serving as another spiritual successor that we so got used to see nowadays.
                Satellite Reign’s action takes place in a flashy neon cyberpunk city separated in a few major districts which are under severe surveillance and control of various powerful corporations. A rather dystopian and bleak landscape for a future that is brightened up by the city’s commercial panels instead of an improved quality of life that should come with better technology.
In this world immortality has been achieved through a system which can upload one’s mind to a new body. This unnatural technology sets up the main goal for the game as it’s currently controlled by the Dracogenics Corporation making it the number one power in the world and of course the main enemy in the game.
                The player takes control of a squad of four mercenaries that are dropped into an open ended world with the ultimate goal being to infiltrate into the Dracogenics Tower and putting a stop to this corporation’s reign of power. How and when you get there is up to you.
                I would like to have more to write about the story, but that’s about it. The story is minimalist and doesn’t do much besides setting up the action of the game while describing some of the working wheels behind this corporate world opening up a playground that has the means for the players to create their own story. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but the world doesn’t have much to it in order to make this concept work and the story ends up being what you get at the beginning and at the end of the game with few information and radio communications in between.
                Even if the story isn’t the main focus of such a game, its lacking adds for a disappointment factor that keeps growing throughout the game. I didn’t expect the in depth non-linear choices focused on moral conundrums story of an RPG, but considering the number of factions in play I felt the need for more context than having to stop an evil corporation and others that stay in my way through means that can only be described as evil themselves (the road to Heaven is paved with bad intentions?! Hmm… this doesn’t sound right).
Satellite View
Only if such messages where better represented into the game...

                With the story being on a tertiary level much of Satellite Reign’s focus goes into the game mechanics that shape the overall gameplay and for the tacticians out there this might sound like a blissful dream (hold your horses!).
                After choosing the game’s difficulty, completing a short tutorial and gathering some of your group’s agents, the game has you jumping into this rather massive world without knowing where to start and just having a blurred idea about where it will end. The beginning is overwhelming since the game mechanics are not something you see in the more common isometric tactical games of today and while learning them doesn’t take long, progressing into the game doesn’t come so natural.
                The game’s world is open and split into multiple districts with each district requiring a pass to enter. The districts are unique in architectural style and layout and none of them are free of the corporate shadow that engulfs this world as a whole. Private patrols are roaming the streets, surveillance cameras are forever watching and much of the area of each district is private and heavily guarded to keep safe the secret researches and protect the ton of money that these corporations maneuver.
Money plays a big role in this world (what a surprise!) and with this comes one of the steepest economies I’ve seen this year in a game. While this doesn’t say much considering the examples (Pillars of Eternity, The Witcher 3, etc.), gathering the resources necessary to move on pose a challenge and considering the dizzy beginning this task would definitely feel scary for a while.
The future is bright!
Religion still exists.

                The player’s group of four agents has to make it through this hopeless world which is befitting for their aptitudes. A soldier, a hacker, a support and an infiltrator each specialized in tasks according to their class name are the agents that the players have at their disposal to deal with any potential problems and while these agents cannot be changed they can be constantly improved through a cloning and conscious transfer process. This unnatural technology not only allows the transfer of the agents mind into more powerful bodies, but also grants them a sort of immortality as their mind is never lost but also such is the case with the fear of permanently losing an agent.
As part of the process of improving the agent’s physical capabilities, better cloning bodies have to be provided and in order to do so the player has to take control over the mind of people found on the streets, being civilians or the corporate goons. This entire system is a good touch with the game’s reality, reminding the players that the line between moral and immoral has been wiped clean leading to a controlled world where the most important thing is the struggle for power in order to climb in the hierarchical ladder. This is an eye-opening matter for those that think there is a battle between good and evil in this game and when realizing how things work, the game mechanics are the limit.
                Through the agent’s classes system and the intricate level design Satellite Reign’s gameplay supports a wide variety of play styles that can make each new playthrough a completely different experience. Stealth and nonviolent approaches are as much of an option in this game as is full out war.
                The agents synergize extremely well with one another but the possibilities put at the player’s disposal make their importance to the group vary according to each player’s approach. This system opens up all kind of crazy strategies from the 4 man army that goes in with the weapons blazing to having one agent sneaking by himself and hacking his way to the corporation’s base core. The variety in gameplay is one of this game’s strongest points and it shines because of the world design which offers multiple ways of solving a mission. Climbing through the ventilation system, using the terrain as cover to sneak around and even sliding on zip-lines from one building to another are some of the conveniently placed weak spots in each heavily secured area which provide the tactical freedom required in such a game. But this complexity and freedom of movement comes with a severe price that was paid in mission’s quality.
My zip-line specialist.
Looks toxic

                Saying the missions are repetitive could be an understatement as Satellite Reign seems to be this year’s champion at repetitive content (the competition was fierce). Almost every mission resumes at infiltrating in a corporation base as each player sees fit to steal intel, blueprints or money and to make matters worse in an ironical way, each objective door looks identical. But as with The Phantom Pain, the missions in Satellite Reign could be looked at as a good way to test the better game mechanics which are the focus of both of these games. Even if the use of repetitive missions is a common practice in open world game, Satellite Reign doesn’t even try to break out of the repetitive trap it’s stuck into and continues in the same way for almost the entirety of its length.
A door.. every time...

                Getting back on the track of positive things, the great world design has a lot to offer but this wouldn’t be enough to build a higher gameplay quality if the players didn’t have the proper tools to exploit this world. In order to do so, there is an agent’s progression and a research system that expands the game mechanics by providing new ways of dealing with various situations.
                Each of the agents has a unique set of skills specific for their specialization. These skills can increase the passive stats of the agents, but also provide abilities that make the agents more efficient in combat or non-combat situations based on their proficiency. To reinforce the character progression system, Satellite Reign has a lavish research system which provides much more depth than expected. The players can choose to research various cybernetic augmentations or equipable gear, but what stands out is the good number of weapons and upgrades available.
Death from afar!

                The research system is extremely progressive coming with few available possibilities in the beginning but their number increases drastically as the player steals more prototypes from corporation’s facilities or buys them on the black market.
Researching new items is extremely resource consuming, not only the time required to unlock something is measured in gameplay time but a lot of money are needed to keep the research running until is complete and then again to purchase the newly researched item. This is where the steep economy of Satellite Reign comes into play. Researches and players choices make the economy important not only in the beginning but for the most part of the game and considering the cash inflow is well balanced (but exploitable) unlocking new items through research always feels rewarding.
I'll blow off with you then come back!

                This whole level of complexity that is achieved through intelligent level design, clever game mechanics and a strong character progression system should serve as great tools for Satellite Reign’s combat, if only the combat was that good to be worth all this trouble.
                Satellite Reign has a real time combat system in which the player can control four or even more characters at a time during battles. While the number of controllable units seems a joke compared to what is seen in Real Time Strategies, for a game like this it is more than enough to complicate things in an unnecessary way.
                The choice of making a real time combat without a pause mechanic weighs heavily on the gameplay and the combat system itself making each fight when the agents are outnumbered a challenge, but not in the good way. In theory it shouldn’t be too hard to micromanagement four important units, but the reality is shockingly different.
I used to play Starcraft 2 at a casual competitive level (if I can call it that way) and I had difficulties dealing with my group of agents in this game. Abilities pile up as the game progresses and the enemies become stronger as well and while in the beginning there are a few commands to use in order to deal with the enemies, by the mid game that situation changes. Having to use each agent’s abilities, while having to select each agent’s weapon, while having to position each agent in cover and select their targets it’s a cascade of micromanagement hell that can turn even an easier fight into an absolute nightmare. It doesn’t help that the character control is extremely sluggish and the queue movement that was put at the player’s disposal is not as accurate as it should be.
                The multitude of problems that come from heavy micromanagement and unpolished character control shapes the available options for strategic play into unwanted ways making the engagement much more important than the real fight itself. Having to deal with all these problems made me avoid combat as much as possible focusing more on two agents stealth play while running like crazy between heavily armed guards when things went wrong.
Lasers power!
Traffic stopped for a mild inconvenience.

                The stealth gameplay is good but inherits the clunkiness that comes with a bizarre character control. But compared with the combat situations, this problem can be overcome much easier when sneaking around. Moving from one cover to another and sneaking behind a patrol to take it down silently with a pistol makes up for satisfying stealth gameplay in an isometric game. But even the stealth has its shortcomings that take away from this enjoyable experience. The lack of a crouch or prone option is inexplicable and piles on the number of complaints related to character’s controls, but these missing features are nothing compared with the enemies AI which doesn’t behave properly in stealth situations.
This wasn't a bulletproof plan.

                The AI doesn’t shine, it has its moments when patrols react properly putting an abrupt end to a bold sneaking move or they assault the player’s group vantage position putting destroying a courageous attack, but more often than not the AI causes troubles through high numbers and advanced firepower instead of intelligent behavior.
As Satellite Reign is an indie game that was made possible through a Kickstarter campaign, my expectations for the AI weren’t that high to begin with, but I’m still bothered by the fact that the AI is missing on behaviors that should be mandatory for a game mixing combat and stealth mechanics. The fact that the enemies react to weapons and shooting sounds but are not alarmed by dead bodies not only simplifies the game, but these unplausible situations break the immersion. And speaking about immersion breakers, the city of Satellite Reign is in a continuous motion yet it’s one of the most lifeless settings I’ve ever got to experience. The NPCs move in all directions following somewhat logical patterns and are alarmed by combat or shady activities while the cars stop so pedestrians can cross the street or even jaywalk, yet it still doesn’t feel natural. The problem comes from the lack of details for the AI behavior. There are no dialogues or activities, every NPC is just going into its set direction creating a general feeling that they are moving aimlessly just because they have to be moving as part of the decor.
Corporation troops fighting each other.
One of those moments when the AI hits a wall.

                Despite the things I’ve said above about the combat system those of you that love to see some tactical action in video games aren’t going to be fully disappointed with Satellite Reign. The combat might be problematic through controls, but unlocking the grenade makes things much easier because it’s so powerful that it manages to streamline the tactics reducing some of the more difficult situations in the early and mid-game to a pyrotechnic show (I haven’t had so much fun with a grenade since Deus Ex). I’m not saying this is a good answer to the problems but it does bring the combat balance back into the player’s favor in a fun way without having to stress out with each fight. By the end of the game when more weapons, augmentations and gear have been researched it gets easier to engage in combat, leading to a point where the most effective options is to go in gunning everything in the way.
An explosive plan!

                There is a lot of potential wasted with the combat system and the final fight comes as a cruel reminder of how poorly some of the combat features are implemented while teasing the players of how much more engaging and challenging this game could have been if everything was done right. I feel that the pause mechanic seen in RPGs with real time combat would have come in handy here. In all fairness during difficulty selection the players can choose to have a time slowdown ability which makes the combat a lot easier because it gives room for micromanagement. This ability can be obtained manually in the game through one of the agent’s skills and while it’s useful and has a redeeming quality is still not enough.
                In its majority, the gameplay of Satellite Reign is solid offering a ton of options that add greatly to the replay value especially if combined with the Iron Man difficulty mode. The game steps off when it comes to combat and controls and it doesn’t help that the missions are madly repetitive, but it wasn’t such a turn off for me as I was expecting it to be (I might be a farmer undercover) and none of these problems stopped me from finishing the game.

                For its shortcomings in every aspect I’ve mentioned until now, the graphics in Satellite Reign are impressively impeccable for a 3D isometric perspective. Some of the details might wash away when zooming down bit it’s unrealistic to expect much more from an isometric game being AAA or indie. It feels like the bulk of resources that 5 Lives Studios had was mostly invested in the map design and its graphics details leaving little to the rest.
                The colorful neon art style of the city covered in screens depicting futuristic commercials is befitting for a cyberpunk and quite an eye candy view if powerful colors don’t cause you nausea. The rain pouring down the city creating reflections on the asphalt amplify even more the illumination of a city that looks like a futuristic Vegas during night time. It is a play on color, light and shadows that make Satellite Reign one of the most beautiful games of the genre and if the city didn’t have such a lifeless feeling the overall view could be truly majestic.
The only things that could wake you up from the trance state that this dystopian yet so lovely looking city can put you in are the performance problems that Satellite Reign which includes freezes and fps drops, common issues for 3D games using the Unity engine. Much of the problems seem to be triggered by the game’s physics, which besides making the game unplayable for a short period of time add up to the technological beauty and the available tactical options. Bugs are also common in Satellite Reign with weird things happening like ghost cars passing through other cars or even characters, but this was to be expected.
Dracogenics are everywhere.
Flashy stop point.

                The background music works perfectly with the city atmosphere and the cyberpunk theme of the game inducing a techno dreaming state that blends with the state projected by the neon graphics. The futuristic sound effects serve the game well despite not delivering the highest standards of quality that we got used within the latest years. The sound design might be fuzzy at times but it works for the induced atmosphere and not against it.

Something went wrong...
I don't think red means friendly.

                Satellite Reign is in a paradoxical state of being a disappointing game despite being pretty good. Its extensive potential is sadly (once again) limited by an indie development which didn’t allow squeezing more quality because of a tight budget and so another great opportunity goes away just partially explored. Its gameplay mechanics feel unpolished and incomplete at times while the need of more production value is visible at every corner. Despite being flawed, Satellite Reign stays strong with its liberty of action reinforced by great level design and in depth mechanics which allow the players to approach the game in their own unique style.
                The strains of indie development might stop Satellite Reign from achieving the greatness it deserves, but surely don’t stop it from being a cyberpunk delight that the fans of this setting are going to consume despite its problems.

(This article is based on a press copy of the game provided by the developer.)

+ Amazing neon cyberpunkish style graphics
+ Great level design
+ Suitable music
+ In depth character progression and research system
+ Plenty of tactical options
+ Interesting game mechanics
+ UI design

- Repetitive missions
- Problematic combat system
- Sluggish controls
- Performance problems
- The story needs way more development
- The city feels lifeless
- Lots of bugs