I have to hand it to DreamHack for dedicating a section of their Anaheim, CA, show to independent video game developers. This inaugural West Coast appearance of a convention heavily geared toward online competition made room for creators demoing over 50 video games, four tabletop games and 11 student games.
Among stages and play areas set up for esports, an expo area provided a venue for the Indie Playground. This is where I demoed games and spoke with their developers or representatives. Works in progress included Cepheus Protocol and Adventures of Chris, which I cover below. Delphyq, WaveBreak, Undying and Kynseed will follow.
A video showcasing the latest build of this isometric squad-based tactical shooter was my first introduction to the game only a week before the show. Based on that video, this became a must-see demo for me. It had the appeal of a tactical squad-based shooter like Ghost Recon and a top-down survival horror aesthetic like Dead Nation.
Cepheus Protocol is a real-time strategy game by Halcyon Winds that tasks players with controlling units sent into San Francisco to deal with the spread of a destructive virus. A Defense Team protects a home base, while an Away Team is deployed to pursue objectives. The game features eight-person teams and multiple formations for tackling each challenge.
Players select units by dragging the cursor across them, choose a formation, then right click to select a destination. Individual movement is also an option. When grouped, formation selection is important. For instance, a V formation can funnel the enemy into the middle, but teammates will lower their weapons and not shoot to avoid friendly fire.
In that case, players can select a different formation. But in the middle of a firefight, players can also rotate the formation while holding down the right mouse button. This also helps cover the flank when in formation. Units will fire on enemies in front of them but if attacked from behind, enemies can grab and turn units around. If they get too close, a bar will fill and, when full, units will die and attack the team.
I learned this lesson the hard way when I was preoccupied with the area and enemies ahead of my team and neglected an attack from behind. Thankfully, controls are fairly intuitive, especially with a HUD that includes a lot of information such as icons for actions or formation selection. Combined with well-integrated mouse control, planning and reacting are equally helpful, and pivoting on one’s six is easy.
One thing that I thoroughly enjoyed and likely spent way too much time on was adjusting the dynamic isometric camera. It allows for complete control of pitch, angle and distance, adjusting zoom with the middle mouse wheel, lowering and raising the view while clicking the wheel, and rotating the view by moving the mouse. Players can view from any perspective with fluid camera movement and detailed graphics.
In fact I was distracted with how good the camera was and put my team in jeopardy. After selecting an objective with a right click of the mouse, my team ran toward it and I zoomed in on the action, oblivious to the threat that lurked off camera. It's a good thing, then, that the camera is so easy to control, as players can quickly zoom out, re-center on foes, and reposition units if necessary.
Team members, which represent classes like spec ops and medic, are armed with assault rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns, shotguns, pistols, etc., each with a certain range. Players can order their teams to fire, but they'll do that without instruction as long as the enemy is within their sight – lines of sight appear on screen, but can be turned off if too distracting, which can be the case on occasion.
If a team needs ammo, players can grab the ammo icon and place it in front of the team. Ammo will parachute down and players can select the team and spam the refill option. It’s relatively simple. When at an objective, a team member can be placed on the objective to trigger the next scene/action. Of course, I couldn’t because the icon was over water, until I chose the pier directly beneath the icon.
As team members gain experience, their ranks and skills likewise will increase – the more they fight the enemy, the higher their ranks and the better their ability (at the beginning they’re hesitant but as they fight the virus more they’ll become more confident). Opposing them are several kinds of infected, from smaller foes to larger tank-like enemies to hulking beasts.
Enemies have different capabilities. Tall, skinny foes can leap at the team, some enemies spray caustic spit, heavier adversaries can blow up when near, and a colossal juggernaut can overwhelm. Settings can be adjusted to add a red outline for visibility of enemies, which spawn from nests that have to be destroyed. A nice option is dropping an airstrike by selecting the nest, though friendly fire is a risk.
I mostly encountered standard foes during my brief demo. They are generally quick (with fluid animation), so although you can race to your next objective, a more cautious approach is a good idea. Indeed the team can get overwhelmed if too hasty. I did manage to find a nest, but either due to location and/or proximity, could not implement an airstrike before the captain was killed and mission failed.
Your teams, conversely, have a home base they must protect. The Defense Team can be set to defend against attack, including establishing patrol points. Fast travel allows the Away Team to return as necessary. For instance, DNA samples collected by your scientist in the field are turned into the command center for points that can purchase better weapons or abilities for the team to help it fight the virus.
Halcyon Winds has crafted a living, breathing world where threats can emerge anywhere at any time. If the Away Team spends too much time in an area, the AI will start attacking other areas to keep players on their feet. The AI in fact will behave differently every time, so enemies might attack from a different area during a new play through.
Whether playing the really hard missions later on in the game, or replaying Cepheus Protocol, players will want to keep their options open. For instance, units can be controlled individually or grouped into small or large teams; and teams can be made up of different classes or a single kind like assault or spec ops. But there’s always a trade-off to consider. In the end, choices become very strategic.
There’s so much to do that a keyboard is best suited to the gameplay as opposed to a controller. Halcyon Winds in fact looks to bring the setup for MMOs over to the game because many are used to that. And while they’ve taken inspiration from games they love that are RTS, MOBA, etc., hoping it satisfies players that want a strategy game, they’re also differentiating this game from others in the genre.
The game is designed so everyone can play it differently, as opposed to RTS titles that can be linear experiences. Players select where to go on the map, and each grid will have a color that corresponds to the threat level. So a green area might have fewer foes than a red area. Players can then decide squad makeup, size and formation, and opt for a tight formation or sending units to the left, right and down the middle.
The Away Team and Defense Team both can be customized. Players can build an entire team with one class, like spec ops, or choose one or two snipers only. The home base and its defenses, such as turrets, likewise can be built by the player. One way to accomplish this is to take down bounties – or minibosses – like the juggernaut in order to earn in-game money for spending on upgrades.
Bounties are important because the game has no microtransactions. Everything is bought with in-game money earned while playing. Taking out a bounty like the juggernaut can net a reward like $60,000 for buying weapons, defenses, etc. Earning bounties and experience like killing infected also raise ranks for better target acquisition and overall combat. Also helpful is conducting virus research via the scientist.
Besides focusing on gameplay, the developers wanted players to care about the characters. The lead writer, whose game-related novel provides a backstory to Chelsea (patient zero) and explores why Capt. Winter joined the CERC (think CDC), crafts a story of how Winter is sent to combat the virus and Chelsea, who is using the infected to take control while trying to resist the alien infection within her.
Steam early access for the PC game starts May 15 and includes a free roam mode on Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island. This mode is basically an open world chess match battle against the virus, which should play differently with each attempt. The full release is planned for Q4 with a different game mode(s), storylines and (replayable) missions in areas like Alcatraz, the Presidio and downtown.
Cepheus Protocol has been in development by Halcyon Winds for 1-1/2 years with 20 people working on the game. I came away impressed with the vision of the developers and with the demo. I'm not an RTS fan (or PC gamer), but this had an arcade feel despite how deep it can be, meaning controls are intuitive, the HUD and gameplay are well integrated and it's just plain fun to play. I can't wait to see how this evolves.
Adventures of Chris
I've been following this game's development for a while now so was eager to demo the game for myself. The side-scrolling platformer by Guin Entertainment (lead developer Chris Guin, to be precise) is inspired by '90s TV children's cartoons and sports a similar aesthetic and sense of humor that, along with clever gameplay, help this creative title stand out from the crowd.
Conceived as a story-driven, character-rich, hand-animated '90s-style cartoon, the game follows an ordinary overweight nerdy kid in 1995 (modeled after the developer's own childhood) as he and other children are abducted, taken to Transylvania and turned into toys. Chris can change into a balloon and uses his new superpower to try and free the other children and, ultimately, save the world.
Chris learns how to control his power in the Kingdom of Lost Balloons, and discovers that the world is filled with supervillains like the kind that you might have seen in Darkwing Duck, Captain Planet or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They are in settings like Los Angeles, Mexico, Chile, Malaysia, Tokyo and the Great Barrier Reef, accessible when Chris floats up and off the screen.
In the demo I visited Malaysian swamps (including a sunken temple) with flying fish and mosquitos (there's a mosquito boss), some of whom spit acid; Tokyo rooftops with bats and ninja cats that hurl stars (the villain there is a big ninja cat, basically); and the underwater reef teeming with jellyfish, predatory fish, crabs and sea urchins that shoot spines (a large urchin is the villain).
Apparently two of the settings I visited are among the more difficult. And my journey was no piece of cake, though I'm not the best platform gamer out there. Thankfully controls are fairly nimble and responsive, with basic moves like jump and crouch simple to pull off. Helpfully, Chris can inflate to reach higher areas for exploration, a tactical advantage or to avoid danger.
For example, Chris can float above flying fish, underneath ninja cats prowling rooftops (using his hands to move along the eaves), or around mosquitos and bats. He can float among the clouds, or underwater as he's pulled by a sub while avoiding jellyfish, hungry fish and prickly urchins. Of course navigating such platforming elements can present a challenge.
Whether it's platforms above swamps, eaves underneath rooftop foes, underwater tunnels or an elaborate system of ducts/vents, players will need to judge when to inflate or deflate, or how to control the sub, to avoid the various threats of each setting. My judgement and timing leave something to be desired, but such obstacles can provide a rewarding challenge with a little practice (and help, in my case).
Also helpful against foes are special skills, such as a powerful punch or fireballs; specialties like a super bounce (to jump high), a dash kick, or a super punch (where Chris rockets forward – a powerful move that comes later in the game); and a bunch of spells (i.e. fire, ice, lightning). The regular punch and fireballs are easy to pull off and effective, with the latter also helping light dark areas.
All told, players can acquire a significant roster of attacks, as well as upgrade health, magic and helium. The latter is possible in the Bakery when visiting the Kingdom of Lost Balloons: a strawberry shortcake upgrades health; keylime pie, magic; and a cola float offers additional helium. Chris can also purchase shirts – a red one, for instance, provides armor.
For an even more custom experience, players also can change difficulty mid-course by using the menu button, selecting options and choosing the difficulty of their choice. Once players unlock everything there's still more to do as they can use those abilities and upgrades upon revisiting different parts of the world where new opportunities have opened up.
The Kingdom also includes a Library with books that have been collected from different levels. A secret treasure/prize awaits those players who find them all, but they're also filled with lore, explaining the backstory of all the villains. Levels also include collectible flags of the countries Chris visits. Books and flags figure prominently because the designer enjoyed them as a child.
Adventures of Chris has a charming design and creative gameplay, and my time with the demo reinforced my excitement for this title. The varied settings, their impact on gameplay, and the compelling action including platforming make for a consistently entertaining experience. It's a thoughtful concept and a fun journey that I look forward to hearing more about.
For more photos from the show floor, visit here.
Cyberpunk is having a resurgence of sorts in pop culture, a development that is especially pronounced in video games. High profile titles have garnered attention, and smaller releases are helping raise awareness in general. But there is an indie game that lately deserves a higher profile. 7th Sector released this week on consoles, and it is a creative and atmospheric side-scrolling puzzle game that entertains on multiple levels.
Developer Sergey Noskov and publisher Sometimes You have found a winning formula with a unique experience that not only alternates between different avatars and varied gameplay mechanics, but presents a narrative that is at once appealing and confounding as it centers on a main character (or characters) that is either human or artificial or both and is desperately fleeing an existence and society in disarray. It is enigmatic and relatable.
Players, after all, begin as a figure on a TV screen that breaks out of the picture tube to become a spark traveling along circuitry. At other times players will control objects including an RC car, an electronic sphere, a mech or robot, a kind of drone and a person. Sometimes the transitions are seamless between avatars, other times they are implied or imagined. Is it the same essential spark that energizes each avatar? What is the connection, if any?
These are mysteries that gamers are encouraged to figure out for themselves. And in case you wonder whether I spoiled too much, I'm still coming to grips with what I experienced and in no way feel like I have all the answers. In this way, 7th Sector is a puzzle itself that needs decoding, from control panels, computer interfaces and mechanical obstacles that use math, pattern recognition or another test, to its dystopian world of organic/mechanical conflict.
The puzzles themselves offer a refreshing array of challenges. Math skills will be sorely tested as there are multiple obstacles that require the correct combination of data though sometimes in different formats. A variety of tests involve pattern recognition but in assorted displays. Physical obstacles demand speed and precise timing across varied settings. And melee or ranged attacks also factor in to different scenarios. It's a wealth of puzzle content.
Thankfully controls are relatively simple and reasonably configured on the Nintendo Switch. Movement is responsive and fluid, and interaction with objects is simple and intuitive. To facilitate actions, animation is smooth. Depending on the avatar, players will sprint, crouch, traverse gaps, operate controls or machines, avoid detection or assault, attack, solve problems, etc. And apply each ability in a range of situations that keep such tests fresh.
I don't want to give away too much about the puzzles as they represent the chief element of gameplay. But I will say that they can be challenging, though for most gamers that's likely a positive. I definitely enjoyed the broad variety of challenges and the consistent entertainment value, still there were times that I was frustrated either due to the nature of the puzzle, how the presentation could interfere, or the precision timing involved.
As a spark, traversing cables while evading disruptive charges is fun, but attempting obscure mathematical puzzles -- including one with unclear symbols -- was not. Using a mech to clear a path is a blast, except when fired upon from foes offscreen. Traversing an obstacle course is exhilarating, but not when there's precious little margin for error. And controlling the RC car is a nice option, except for unintuitive 3D movement and items that get stuck in irretrievable places.
Of course, fans of 2D side scrolling games can expect trial and error gameplay. And most gamers seem to enjoy a tougher challenge than yours truly, who just wants a fun escape at the end of a hectic work day. So while I might chafe at an obscure math problem or rage at my umpteenth attempt to avoid the same obstacles, I suspect most gamers will appreciate the challenge. As long as they keep the Switch docked; details are too small to be helpful when portable.
Did I mention there are four possible endings? The one I unlocked (and that I've seen online) reinforces the enigmatic nature of the narrative in general, though it does give rise to some suspicions I have about the story. That said, I'm curious if the other endings might contribute any more to one's understanding of the game. But to be honest, I prefer its mysterious nature and how it can be open to interpretation.
Combine the varied and challenging gameplay with a mysterious if spare story, a genuinely compelling setting and a classic art design that appears to take inspiration from Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, and you have the ingredients for an entertaining journey. The score and sound FX also complement the game well. All in all, it's an excursion into a dystopian cyberpunk world that's worth taking for those with a sharp mind, steady hand and quick reflexes.
(This post was based on a review code of 7th Sector for Nintendo Switch. The game released February 5 on that platform as well as PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, following an initial release on PC.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
I’ve been a fan of sniping as a gameplay element at least since 2005 when I played the original Sniper Elite on PlayStation 2 (still my favorite sniping game). The franchise has made a considerable niche for itself in the FPS genre, and various other series have long incorporated the mechanic into their titles with mixed results. With Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts, CI Games has crafted a solid, entertaining game and its Sniper: Ghost Warrior franchise has emerged as a serious competitor.
For the record, this is my first experience with the series, and I’ve played through the first four areas (including training) of the game’s six, including starting the fifth. But I’ve put in many hours pursuing the multiple objectives and contracts on the sprawling maps. The impression I come away with so far is of a game that is eminently playable, benefits from good map design and production values, and impresses on occasion, though at the same time it can fall prey to some typical game design missteps.
To begin with, the game introduces a scenario of rebellion in Siberia, with breakaway forces declaring independence from Russia. Its leaders are a typical rogue’s gallery of self-serving brutes. The setup is nicely done but unnecessary as your role – at least in the first three-fifths of the game – doesn’t rise above mercenary taking down rebels. Up to that point, there’s no character development or emotional investment, just superficial context. Though a doubt raised by your character might presage something more.
Gratefully, the gameplay is strong enough to sustain the player’s interest and involvement. The training grounds provide a good introduction to weapons, ammunition and tools, and allows for as much hands-on practice as desired. But, of course, the real fun begins when players start their contracts. There are five expansive areas that unlock in sequence, though players don’t have to have 100% completion in each area to proceed (I think I have around 40% each), though I think all contracts have to be resolved.
Reportedly, CI Games chose to limit the scale due to the reception of the prior game’s open world. As is, each area in this game is plenty large, with multiple facilities that each contain one or more contracts and several side objectives in the form of challenges, bounties or collectibles. And in between are wilderness or roads that are dotted with patrols, checkpoints, encampments and minefields. Players are deployed in the wilderness, and can pursue each contract or objective in any order.
A HUD mini map displays tagged enemy location and movement. A larger map shows the general location of targets – when it works. Select any contract and the map will show you the area it can be found in. This is helpful to plan which facility to tackle at any given time, though in my experience it only seems to work on your first foray – such indicators disappear when reloading a mission, and can lead to backtracking. Also helpful are general locations of bounties, collectibles and exfiltration points.
Navigating each area is a fairly standard exercise. There are some situations that require the character to crouch, crawl or jump, and others marked by rope where characters can climb. Characters can kneel (crouch) or lay down when lining up a shot, which generally works fine and can help provide cover. Sometimes, however, my character will stand instead of moving while crouched. Also, windows tend to require precise positioning to pass through. Both situations can be frustrating in a firefight and near fatal.
Once players are ready to engage the enemy, binoculars can be used to tag targets. The drone also can be used for this purpose. The benefit is that tagging not only displays enemy movement but distance to target, too. The one exception is when a jamming device disables electronic surveillance, though binoculars can still note distance when in use. Players can then factor in distance, as well as wind direction and speed, to gauge each shot. Rifle scopes are helpful in this regard.
If the distance is revealed, players can calibrate the scope accordingly, usually in increments of 100 (25 on lower settings). When enemy distance falls in between settings, players need to guess how high to aim to score a hit. Another factor is wind speed and direction, which appear as an intermittent line that drops down – often in a curve – from the baseline. Targeting becomes a process of calibrating distance, adjusting vertically, aligning horizontally to account for wind, and holding one’s breath for a steady aim.
An alternative to tagging that I still can’t get to work is literally sizing up one’s adversary with in-scope measurements. Thankfully, tagging is reliable and jamming devices can be disabled with sniper rifle or drone. But players will have to avoid being tagged themselves, either by camera, spotters, drones, turrets or regular foes. Enemies will be quick to target you with rifle fire, grenades or mortar shells, and will converge on your position. That said, there are usually convenient hiding locations including foliage.
Enemy AI in general is very good. Take out enemies in eyesight of others and all are alerted, unless you quickly dispatch those who saw, too. If patrols find a body, they’ll stoop and check then alert others. They also find cover quickly, though sometimes might be partially exposed. They might peek from behind cover and can spot you with binoculars. Take a few shots from the same spot and they might zero in. Plus they tend to stay on alert for a while. And they’re good shots, whether up close or at a distance.
Occasionally the AI can fall prey to typical shortcomings or glitches. Depending on the map, enemies might seek the same cover, even if their comrades are piled up (see photo). Similarly, they might not always react to a felled comrade beside them. And sometimes you can get off two shots before they flee. For some reason, there always seems to be one enemy that ends up under the water. And there was even one who I’m pretty sure blew himself up with his own mortar (see video). But these are exceptions.
The enemies in general put up a good fight in the game, and come in varieties that include a standard foe, a heavy submachine gun enemy and rival snipers. Thankfully the game provides you with different weapons, weapons upgrades, mask and suit upgrades, tools and gadgets for overcoming each challenge. These include different sniper and assault rifles, pistols, frag or smoke grenades, tank mines, detection devices, drones and turrets, along with various barrels, scopes, magazines and mask/suit or drone/turret modifications.
A key element is the special mask your character wears, which enables increased awareness, utility and scouting. Mask mode detects nearby items of interest/interaction and is especially helpful when identifying beneficial objects or attempting to avoid hazardous ones like mines. It can also help identify bodies to loot, especially in tall grass, though I’ve found infrared works better for live or dead bodies. Upgrades can improve its range or capabilities in the same way that the suit has health or armor mods.
New weapons or upgrades can be purchased with cash and tokens. Cash is rewarded for completing contracts or challenges and finding collectibles. Bonus money can be earned by one’s performance or collected as loot. Tokens are received for finishing contract missions or challenges and collecting items or bounties. Although I’ve purchased good rifles and upgrades, some mask/suit modifications, and a drone, I don’t pursue challenges so can’t unlock higher tier items or the turret with related tokens.
All these elements demonstrate solid game design, which likewise extends to the maps of each large area, which feature multiple paths between and within each facility or location. Variations in terrain and facility layouts allow for plenty of cover and opportunities for sniping, avoiding or otherwise taking down enemies. Verticality is built in, whether different elevations or stories, including subterranean. Platforming works fine, as does stealth, though sneaking up on an enemy doesn’t always go as planned.
Speaking of, stealth is a solid option despite issues alluded to before, as well as the problem of not triggering actions on occasion when sneaking up on an enemy. But when they work, which is most of the time, stealth kills and interrogations are helpful actions, the latter yielding the locations of nearby foes. Besides foliage, there are containers and lockers to hide in, and crouching in general is a quiet means of getting around undetected while you snipe cameras, drones and spotters or distract with rocks or fuse boxes.
Side objectives like bounties and collectibles can be entertaining diversions, but the core gameplay offers a fun experience with intuitive controls. I played on the default Sniper difficulty (there’s an easier Marksman and harder Deadeye) and the sniping mechanic works well once you get the hang of it. Targeting feels spot on, hit detection is sound, and enemy AI represents a good challenge that reacts well in general without being clueless nor freakishly perfect. Item interaction, gadget use and navigation all are good.
Bottom line, I never felt cheated. My character did die repeatedly (I’m pretty bad at stealth) but the frequent hard save checkpoints kept me from backtracking too far, though on occasion I was forced to replay sections where I carefully sniped a couple dozen foes. The closest I came to frustration is one impenetrable facility where killing practically anyone raised the alarm and countdown on a contract until I avoided detection and a minefield to find the one advantage I needed.
Still I knew I had to keep poking at the defenses until I found it, though it did verge on trial and error gameplay. But this proved a good example of how the game forces players to think carefully and plan accordingly for success. Despite occasional missteps, Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts is a solid, entertaining game that rewards patient strategy and tactics with steady progress toward one’s goals. It immerses gamers in its world with compelling gameplay and an impressive presentation.
CI Games has not only crafted good shooter mechanics, but a Siberia that is at once beautiful and foreboding. Snow-blanketed, frozen landscapes have patches of hardy foliage or concrete structures, while forested areas are lush and feature wooden buildings. Textures are detailed, lighting is dynamic, and animations of foliage and people are smooth (including ragdoll physics). Ambient and weapons sounds are good, the music is taut when necessary, and the bullet cam is well done (if gruesome).
Taken together I enjoy my time with the game and look forward to completing it. Some gameplay can feel familiar, objectives can be similar (i.e. find, steal, destroy, eliminate), and a few issues can annoy, but this is a well-crafted game in general that offers some of the best sniping in the genre and related gameplay and setting that provides an all-around enjoyable journey so far. It facilitates player choice while requiring a disciplined approach, and ultimately rewards with its satisfying execution overall.
(This post was based on a review code of Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts for PlayStation 4. The game released November 22, 2019, on that platform as well as Xbox One and Microsoft Windows.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
A Fisherman's Tale is a small game by most standards but it achieves more than some games that are much longer or come with big budgets. The experience it crafts is an intimate affair in story and scope that nonetheless bursts with innovation and charm, taking advantage of its virtual reality gameplay to cleverly immerse players in a thoughtful and entertaining adventure.
This game by InnerspaceVR (published by Vertigo Games) unfolds like a fairy tale, recounting for the player the story of a fisherman's puppet that existed inside a model lighthouse. The narration is told with effective amounts of awe and sentiment conveyed by a strong script and skilled voice actor, and accompanied by an art design that is simple, playful, colorful and endearing.
The prologue doubles as a training level, introducing players to a few intuitive actions that will provide the basis for the core puzzle-solving mechanic. On Oculus Quest, locomotion uses standard controls: Flick the thumbsticks right or left for respective snap turns, or move them in the direction of a point on the ground to teleport. Squeeze the grip or trigger buttons to grab an object, and use the X or A buttons to extend your hands.
Movement, targeting and hit detection are very good, enabling easy interaction that proves important in a game that effectively plays out like a series of escape room challenges. Finding itself trapped inside successive model lighthouses one day, the puppet must make its way to the beacon and light it in order to save a fisherman at sea in a storm. This simple premise sets up clever puzzles based on perspective.
Players regularly have to use objects found in the puppet's room that they find themselves in, or in the replica model-size room that they both overlook and inhabit, sometimes transferring items between the two. Reach into the model, and a giant version of you reaches into your room. The effect is akin to playing with Russian nesting dolls or losing oneself in an Escher illustration.
The scenarios present unique challenges that are both unusual and entertaining. Objects will need to be opened/closed, lifted/placed, or fetched for strange but endearing companions. Scale and perspective can shift in the process. The design of each area, which is beautifully rendered in a kind of storybook fashion that captures childlike wonder and a seafaring life at the same time, facilitates experimentation and problem solving.
Explaining the puzzles in any greater detail risks spoiling the central gameplay hook and the joy of discovery that helps make A Fisherman's Tale such an engaging experience. The puzzles in general are well designed to take advantage of the medium without being too demanding, though I did find the final puzzle a little frustrating in relation to its execution as opposed to its design.
But this could be related to my own skill or even the ingenuity of incorporating multiple perspectives in puzzle design. The game took me only 2-1/2 hours to complete but that time was spent enthralled by the distinct puzzle challenges and the fairy tale context. The bizarre gameplay was set up by appropriately surreal story elements that remind of Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid while crafting its own appealing tale.
InnerspaceVR in fact has crafted an entertaining fairy tale in its own right. The story is enchanting, dialog and voice actors inject personality and humor into charming characters, the score is lyrical and appropriately whimsical, settings are beautiful and dynamic, animation is fluid and responsive, and the core gameplay is clever and intuitive, taking full advantage of the virtual reality platform.
A Fisherman's Tale is both a delightful narrative and a captivating interactive journey that is a rare combination in a video game let alone a virtual reality experience. The short playtime is nonetheless rewarding and well worth $14.99. For the price of a movie, players get an immersive VR adventure that will transport them to an engrossing storybook world that's a thrill to visit.
(This post was based on a review code of A Fisherman's Tale for Oculus Quest. The virtual reality game released November 27 on that platform, and is also available on PlayStation 4 and Steam.)
It’s tough to share one’s impressions of a game when its strongest elements are the story and character interactions. The Outer Worlds is a solid game all around, but it presents just such a dilemma. I’ll therefore address the game in general first to avoid any spoilers, then talk specifically about what makes the narrative and characters so darn appealing, leaving potential spoilers till the end. Hopefully, many will have already read about it or watched streams and gameplay video, which should cover at least the first major story mission that I’ll discuss.
Comparisons with the Fallout series are inevitable given that developer Obsidian had created the popular New Vegas entry in the franchise. Indeed, the kind of dystopian future and ragtag populace of that franchise are on display here, once again shown off with strong dialog and voice acting, and thoughtful, dynamic dialog options for the player. Likewise, similar robust role playing options include character creation, deep inventory management and varied skill trees.
In this regard it also reminds one of BioWare games whether Mass Effect or Dragon’s Age. The story, meanwhile, is reminiscent of BioShock games with its tale of a failed society, idealistic devotees and desperate individuals. All such comparisons speak to the success of this game, but The Outer Worlds also carves its own enviable niche. The excesses and limitations of both corporate greed and individual pursuits, and the explosive and tragic areas in which they intersect, are at the heart of this space-faring saga.
The epic tale features a stirring score that hits the right notes whether during combat or in quieter interludes; imaginative art design that perfectly realizes its sci-fi/fantasy setting with futuristic structures amid inspired alien flora, fauna and landscapes (including a beautiful color palette); and an immersive world further anchored by quality ambient sounds, detailed textures and particle effects, solid draw distance, smooth animations and fluid (if sometimes exacting) environmental interactions.
The characters I’ve encountered thus far feel like distinct individuals with unique personalities and motivations. Related side quests feel more organic than contrived, and can be relatively complex, sometimes involving varying objectives or character interactions for their resolution. Of course, it’s not terribly distinctive but does fit well within the context of this particular story and universe. Especially compelling for me was the companion(s). Besides having depth and feeling three-dimensional, Oblivion anchors them in the world around you by including them in scripted and random encounters.
These surprising interactions occur regularly. Speak to another character, and that character will not only greet or refer to your companion, but might actually turn to address them and carry on a side conversation (with the camera likewise focusing on them both, which could be awkward when the character you’ve addressed ends up turning their side or back to you). Your dialog options might even include comments addressed to your companion at which point you’ll be involved in a side discussion. Random NPCs on occasion will also greet and engage in brief discussions with your companion while out walking.
This also demonstrates how dynamic dialog and dialog options can be, helping further immerse players in this well-crafted world. Dialog trees offer a range of responses, including options to persuade, intimidate, lie, etc. (which are skills that can be upgraded) and even belittle, support, etc., with a healthy dose of humor sprinkled throughout. I usually upgrade strength, health and melee or range attacks, but with Spiders’ GreedFall (in which you play a diplomat-warrior) and now The Outer Worlds, I invest a lot more in charisma/persuasion, and it’s paying off. (More on that later.)
Thankfully, I haven’t had to invest too heavily in combat-related skills or attributes. Between player controls, the time-slowing targeting system (which can be upgraded to a kind of VATS like option found in Fallout 3 and 4), one’s arsenal and companion aid, fighting creatures or marauders is manageable and fun. Targeting and hit detection are fairly precise, weapons and related upgrades (and weapons selection) provide a range of options, and companions can be set to aggressive or defensive and related commands allow for added strategy.
AI is pretty good especially for human characters. Enemies will move or take cover on occasion when under fire, though creatures tend to just charge. Depending on what skills are upgraded, foes might also cower when shot (though not for long). Similarly, players can choose to make companions draw more or less fire. And selecting the right weapon helps, such as charged for armor or plasma for flesh. There are also consumables to provide boosts. All this promotes more strategic and tactical decisions during combat.
All in all, The Outer Worlds provides an impressive living, breathing setting where players will want to spend time exploring and enjoying the intricate detail and grand elements in equal amounts. Still, there are issues, such as load times when transitioning between some buildings/areas (though it’s limited), small typeface that can make reading a challenge, bodies that can be difficult to find in tall grass (making looting a chore at times), and exacting item interaction (that requires some patience).
But even taken together, these are minor irritations at worst. I’m not far enough to judge whether or not quests, characters or foes, for instance, become repetitive, or whether or not dialog and other choices have real consequence down the line. Still, the gameplay, presentation, story and characters are so strong in the early going that they certainly bode well for the game’s longer term playability. To that end, I’ll now turn to the strongest element of The Outer Worlds – the exceptional story, dialog and player choices reflected in the first story mission.
I’ll try to spoil only as much as is necessary to share why this left such a strong impression with me without getting into details when it can be avoided. The premise is this: Your character finds themselves effectively marooned, and to leave you must retrieve equipment that, in the process, will benefit one community at the expense of another. To Obsidian’s credit, siding with either community is not a simple choice. There are pros and cons to each option. So much so that I agonized over it. Nonetheless, I found myself more sympathetic to one side’s plight as they were just trying to live free of the restrictions and dictates of the other.
Still, the other side, despite having made awful decisions, was forced into choices that varied from bad to worse due to limited resources. Indeed, I found their spokesperson to be eloquent, reasoned and practical. However, I also chafed at their rules and beliefs that codified a kind of class system. So I had made my choice to side with the free folk but was interrupted by my companion, who was skeptical and made a convincing plea on behalf of the other side. It was so thoughtful and well worded that it convinced me into changing my mind!
I didn’t just take my companion’s word for it. Their argument prompted me to revisit other considerations raised by the one side I was initially against, as there were examples that in retrospect supported their position. I still had sympathy for those trying to live free, but felt the others were doing their best with a bad situation. To my gratification, there were still opportunities to help salvage things for the formerly free folk after I made my decision. And thanks to building my charisma/persuasion, I was able to get everyone on board with my choice.
It wasn’t easy and took some shuttle diplomacy but the end result was a hard fought peace. Nevermind that the outcome rested in part on a particularly distasteful turn of events, but at least there was an option to resolve the situation in a manner that could accommodate most if not all. That it all rested on the seemingly spontaneous intercession of my companion – especially given how well written the characters and their opinions are, and how the arguments of both sides were so well balanced – is testament to Obsidian’s skill in this regard.
In this way, the first several hours of story and gameplay suggest rich possibilities for a journey that not only spans the stars but looks to plumb the depths of human existence in ways both serious and satirical. I’m hopeful the rest of the game lives up to this auspicious start and continues to reward gamers with an experience that is fun, entertaining and enthralling all at the same time. After all, studios could do worse than to model the example of The Outer Worlds, but might be hard pressed to do better.
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
L.A. Comic Con always proves an interesting show, and this year's convention was no different. To begin with, there was practically a stampede for the show floor entrance on Saturday. Having attended for many years prior, this disorganized spectacle was a surprise development, though one could hardly blame attendees for being impatient.
After all, this day would showcase reunions of two Hellboy (2004) stars and The Office cast, as well as a main stage appearance by the director of Zombieland: Double Tap with a "surprise" (which, unsurprisingly, included cast members like Jessie Eisenberg and Rosario Dawson). Stan Lee's vision for a competitive local comic con keeps growing each year.
This year, being a huge fan of Ron Perlman and the original Hellboy films, I was most interested in the reunion panel including Doug Jones (Abe Sapien). I also wavered up till practically the last minute but ended up splurging on the Hellboy Photo Op with both actors, something I never do but just couldn't resist the opportunity.
The Hellboy Reunion panel was only a half hour but touched on how the actors got their parts, working together, director Guillermo del Toro, cast mates Selma Blair and John Hurt (Liz Sherman and Trevor "Bloom" Bruttenholm, respectively), and the challenges and prospects for wrapping up the trilogy. See the following excerpts and clip(s) below.
Ron Perlman: I heard of Hellboy exactly seven years before we started filming (the first) Hellboy, cause that's how long Guillermo took to get the movie made.
Doug Jones: I had not heard of the Hellboy comics, so when Guillermo came and offered me Abe Sapien he gave me the script and a pile of graphic novels at the same time and said, "Read up, and get back to me tonight." I had, like, hours to study up and say "Yes, I love it; I'll do it." and I did.
Perlman: I had nothing to do with getting the film made, I had a lot to do with telling Guillermo if he wanted to get it really made, he should stop using my name, because I was not going to get anybody to write a check of that magnitude since I was obscure and invisible, basically. But he has his quirky little idea -- these directors, they're so weird -- and he stuck to his guns and that's why it took him seven years. But it was all Guillermo versus the studios and I was basically just in the background, waiting, listening to some of the anecdotes, some of the notes that he got. ... One of the notes that he got from some really brilliant executives at Universal Studios was, "Does he have to be red?"
Moderator: Guillermo had you [Perlman] in mind, and then Mike Mignola had his character that he'd been doing since the early '90s and he also had a specific actor in mind, and they said "Well, who are you thinking of?" "Who are YOU thinking of?" and at the same time they said the same person. Is that the way you heard it?
Perlman: That's the way I heard it. I never believed it, but that's how I heard it.
Moderator: How did you guys meet on the set?
Perlman: We knew each other for seven months and I had no idea that that was Doug Jones under all that blue shit. He used to get there three or four hours ahead of me and I was there for five hours in the makeup chair, and I don't think we saw each other for real until the wrap party.
Jones: I think we brushed at the concierge level of the hotel for breakfast one day and I was like "Hey, Ron," and he's like "Yeah? Who are you?"
Moderator: How long did you shoot for when you're spending six, seven, eight hours in makeup ...?
Jones: Still film a 10, 12 hour day; 18 hour days were the norm, honestly. Hellboy 2, especially: six months in Budapest, Hungary, six days a week.
See the clips below for more of the panel discussion, including a funny on-set anecdote from Jones, reminiscing about the late John Hurt, a message to attendees from Selma Blair, the Hellboy reboot, and plans for completing the original Hellboy trilogy.
The Hellboy Photo Op afterward was a virtual rollercoaster of emotion as fans lined up early as requested, then we had to wait for about 30 minutes beyond the scheduled time. Once the line began moving, it raced at practically breakneck speed with barely time to even say "Hi" and pose. Thankfully the photo turned out okay.
I also made time to attend the Press Start: Scoring for Video Games panel with composers of titles like Journey, Flow, The Banner Saga, Assassin's Creed Syndicate, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Total Warhammer and Grand Theft Auto. They discussed their work on new games Telling Lies, Erica, John Wick: Hex, BattleTech, Disintegration and Call of Duty: Mobile. The revealing discussion included game and behind the scenes clips. See below for a link.
One standout panel I missed due to a conflict with the photo op was Storytelling in Video Games. It advertised an inside look with studio Machinegames into their Wolfenstein franchise. The casts of The New Order, The New Colossus and Youngblood were scheduled to discuss the stories and acting for these games. Director Tom Keegan was going to provide insights into the casting process of video games.
Cosplayers continue to be drawn to this comic con, and likewise continue to be a draw for plain clothed attendees. The wide variety of cosplay costumes included a female Predator, Aloy, Monster Hunter, Samus, an Endgame Iron Man, Wookie, Polaris, Thanos and Gamora, Gandolf and Thranduil, and a drag queen Deadpool. I always come away impressed with the skill on display, and invigorated by the enthusiasm. See photos below and in the Photography link.
Last but by no means least, vendors provided an equally impressive array of wares. I can often find cool, relatively obscure action figures (i.e. The War of the Gargantuas, Ray Harryhausen feature creatures, kaiju, etc.) at the Collector's Edge booth, where this year I picked up a rare Giant Robot figure. I also liked the Japanese-inspired T-shirt collection at the Baby Panda booth. But the exhibitor that most fascinated me this year was a Japanese artist whose stylish prints and T-shirts expressed a unique cultural flair.
Yasunobu Shidami displayed a variety of prints and T-shirts depicting samurai and geishas, not an unusual subject but his creativity and talent result in images that are impressionistic, dreamlike and powerful. Sometimes accompanied with messages about courage or strength, the black and white or color illustrations/paintings evoke character and beauty with a style that is breathtaking.
All in all, the show again succeeded in keeping me informed, entertained and thrilled at the vast pop culture choices on display whether in the form of panel discussions, cosplay or merchandise. It's also been a wonderful tradition to carry on with my child. Here's to many more!
For information, details and videos of the panel discussion including video game composers, visit L.A. Comic Com 2019: Scoring for Video Games Panel.
For more photos from the L.A. Comic Con show floor, visit the Photography section of this site.
Press Start: Scoring for Video Games was a panel at this year's L.A. Comic Con that included composers of titles such as Journey, Flow, The Banner Saga, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate and Killzone: Shadow Fall talking about their work on new games Telling Lies, Erica, Call of Duty: Mobile, BattleTech, John Wick: Hex and Disintegration. They were there to discuss their creative process, how they broke into the industry, and what goes into creating the music for their video games. It was an often informative, sometimes fascinating look at the process of scoring video games, and included clips of several of the games discussed. See below for a few of their comments and videos of the panel.
Walter Mair (Call of Duty: Mobile, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Total Warhammer, Grand Theft Auto) I did work with Activision before in the past on a different game and I was on the radar and just happened to be in Los Angeles because I was trying to come to LA two or three times a year. I was there, I met with the audio leads, we had a quick coffee and they mentioned [Call of Duty: Mobile] ... I hadn't heard back from them for three months, and eventually you get a phone call, an email, that says you're invited to pitch for the game and then you're up against a dozen or more other composers and then you do your best.
There's always an expectation of the fan base, which is us players, and the game directors, the audio leads, the entire team -- and everyone has a different opinion of what the game is supposed to sound like. And then of course you want to do the best, and do something different. ... Just trying to find something that's new and different or kind of unique for the franchise. So I've been doing this a lot for Call of Duty.
There's one mission in there which hasn't dropped yet, though it's been announced, it's the zombies. And in zombies, you experience a totally different kind of setting. Of course it's gruesome, it's dark, it's dirty, there's a lot of blood in there. ... And the music had to reflect that. Instead of going to add a 60 to 70 to 80 piece orchestra, I decided to just record a few instruments.
[Hear more about Mair's work in Part 2 and following parts, and watch a clip of Call of Duty: Mobile in Part 3.]
Jon Everest (Disintegration, BattleTech) I think I got really lucky with Harebrained Schemes, the developer who made BattleTech, because they kind of gave me carte blanche to approach it the way that I wanted to. I kind of said from the outset I didn't want to be too beholden to the history of BattleTech because I think it would weigh me down a little bit as a writer. So luckily I was able to take it in a direction that I saw fit the game the best.
One of the pitches for me was Game of Thrones in space, which was all I really needed to hear. I used to play BattleTech a lot when I was young. I think it does a little bit of disservice to BattleTech fans to just kind of rehash old things again and again just for nostalgia value and stuff like that so I was happy that nobody tried to murder me over the score.
[Listen to more of Everest's approach in Part 3 and following parts, and see a clip from BattleTech in Part 3 and from Disintegration in Part 4.]
Nainita Desai (Telling Lies) I started off as a sound designer on feature films and I transitioned into working for a games publisher in the UK over 20 years ago doing sound effects for video games. It was a brief period that I flirted with. ... My career digressed into writing music for film and TV. About three years ago I got this BAFTA Breakthrough Brit accolade and it put me on the radar of a lot of people in the industry, and I got this Twitter message from Sam Barlow the director/developer of Telling Lies and he said would you like to write the music for an interactive movie/video game and I thought it was a friend playing a prank on me.
For me it was a dream project because I really truly believe that the future of entertainment is this hybrid form of sophisticated narrative storytelling in video games combined with live action. ... Sam wanted someone with linear cinematic storytelling sensibilities, as opposed to a video game composer who would come at it from a totally different approach.
The role of the music [in Telling Lies] is more cinematic in terms of I use the London contemporary orchestra and I wanted to get inside the minds of these characters. When you don't have music is as important as when you do have music, and for me silence is music as well. So I decided to write a theme for each character ... In a way I had to sum up a person's character; multifaceted, complex characters in a single piece of music and that was hard. I spent 18 months working on it. It was a long process.
[For more on Desai's challenge in Part 1 and following parts, and see a clip of Telling Lies in Part 1, below.]
Austin Wintory (Erica, John Wick: Hex, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, The Banner Saga, Journey, Flow) Erica took three or four years. It's definitely not less than three; it was a good long while. But it was odd because normally games are not so segmented into pre-production, production, post-production the way a movie is, and therefore it's just a continuous kind of river of development where you're able to participate in varying degrees throughout. But this one, by virtue of it -- also like Telling Lies -- relying on footage shot on a set with props and costumes and actors, it did have much more of a pre-production, production, post-production. So, let's say it was three years, I'd say two years of that was pre-production. So it was like, make tiny little, incremental steps and then suddenly go as fast as possible. ... The complexity of this was astronomically beyond anything I've ever attempted before so it felt like there's no time. You could tell me I have 100 years and I'll feel screwed.
Erica is a filmed game. If it's a coin, I would put Erica very much on the game side but using tricks of film. It's filmed like a movie, it thinks like a movie from a cinematic standpoint. But it definitely is a game, and a pretty sophisticated one in terms of branching narratives. There's just millions of variables that the game is keeping track of.
It almost killed me, honestly. It was the hardest score I've ever had to write in that regard because it was like something in the neighborhood of 350 cues spanning not even 90 minutes of music I think. ... The analogy I've come up with is that it's sort of like a chain-link fence where every cue is touching every other cue in all directions. ... There's a linearity of sorts but everything had to be built to be so nimble.
[Learn more of Wintory's process in Part 1 and following parts, and watch clips of Erica and John Wick: Hex in Part 2.]
For general convention coverage, including the Hellboy Reunion panel and cosplay, see L.A. Comic Con 2019: Hellboy Reunion, Cosplay & More.
For more photos from the show floor, visit the Photography section of the site.
Politics has become a dirty word. Well, more than usual. People dislike it, and publishers assure that their games avoid it. Which makes GreedFall a welcome breath of fresh air in a too-often stale and uninspiring medium, at least when it comes to taking risks with in-game content. Politics is front and center in this new RPG and, thanks to developer Spiders, it’s all the better for it.
GreedFall might be the most ambitious of Spiders’ titles (which include Bound by Flame and The Technomancer). It’s a relatively open world game that takes place, for the most part, on the large island of Teer Fradee. With reportedly dozens of hours of gameplay (I’m several hours in), players will spend lots of time exploring cities and the wilderness, fighting people and creatures, and leveling up their character and companions.
In this way, the game (published by Focus Home Interactive) checks off a lot of the elements players have come to expect from role playing games, beginning with character customization. It's not a robust feature but does offer an opportunity to select gender and preset models, and choose from options for face, hair, eyebrows, skin color, hair color and eye color.
Players then select from Warrior, Technical or Magic classes (though the skills of any archtype can be unlocked over time). Warriors employ melee combat, especially one-handed heavy weapons, blades, firearms, strength, endurance, craftsmanship and vigor. Technicals control the battlefield with traps, firearms, blades, accuracy, agility, science and lockpicking. Magic involves offensive spells from a distance, a magic ring, stasis, one-handed heavy weapons, mental power, willpower, science and intuition.
I chose to be a Warrior with attributes of strength, agility, mental power, endurance, accuracy and willpower. Talents involve charisma, vigor, craftsmanship, science, lock-picking and intuition. Skills, attributes and talents all can be selected with points earned under the Character Development section. The skill tree is impressive but small icons can make selection a challenge. Trees for attributes and talents are more user friendly.
Main character De Sardet (Madame in my case) has been appointed legate (senior diplomat) of the Congregation of Merchants on Teer Fradee. She is accompanying her cousin Constantin, newly named the island's Congregation governor. He is the son of Prince d'Orsay, in whose court De Sardet was raised. They hail from Serene, largest city of the Merchant Congregation and one of the most important ports on the continent.
The Congregation's neutrality had made Serene the ultimate diplomatic city, but over the past 20 years its relations with Nauts (a sailing guild) has deteriorated and an epidemic called the Malichor has reduced its prestige and population. Still, they maintain cordial diplomatic relations with the Bridge Alliance (a union based on science) and Theleme (basically a theocracy) – a triumvirate that might seem contrived but expertly lays the foundation for the fascinating diplomacy at the heart of this game.
Commerce, science and religion, as embodied by the three main factions respectively, are the disparate interests that conflict over the fate of Teer Fradee. How that plays out resembles the power struggles, colonial aspirations and competition for resources of 17th century Europe, which was Spiders’ inspiration for the setting and story in general. It’s a rich tableau that the developer takes advantage of.
Playing as diplomat is an unusual but ultimately rewarding choice, especially as the character of De Sardet is a warrior-diplomat and can embody the carrot-stick approach to diplomacy. Dialog trees aren’t deep but on occasion do present players with clear choices. I haven’t been playing long enough to know long-term ramifications but the sometimes stark options are welcome and suggest consequence.
For example (spoiler alert), when confronting accused heretics, players can arrest them on behalf of a faction, let them go or inquire with another faction about asylum. Later, when addressing their pursuers and depending on one’s choice, players can lie, tell the truth, or choose confrontation. My choice resulted in wording that could fuel worse conflict between the factions involved. I would have worded my reply differently, but this is a good example of potentially unintended consequences.
Rather than be upset about the outcome, I felt the discussions are so well written that exchanges are realistic and character behavior and reactions are authentic. In this way you can’t always plan for how diplomacy will play out, though in some situations certain responses will show 100% confidence in the outcome, especially with upgraded charisma. That’s unrealistic, but isn’t a factor every time and still might not play out exactly as expected.
In some ways these conversations remind me of games like L.A. Noire, where your primary role as investigator means you might help or hinder your inquiry by pushing your luck with others. What helps in this regard is that every character thus far feels unique in terms of their dialog, voice acting and models. They feel like fully fleshed out people, instead of archetypes, stereotypes, etc. Though each is subject to the dictates of their faction.
As for each faction, players are presented with the machinations of state or institution but in a way that, again, feels authentic and to an extent reflects their historical inspirations. Reasoned and carefully cultivated public facades are stripped away over time to reveal a complicated picture of compromised moral and ethical behavior that De Sardet must cautiously navigate. (Spoiler alert.) The Alliance’s interest in a “charlatan,” the Theleme’s pursuit of heretics, and even the Nauts’ origins all chip at their reputations.
The delicate balancing act De Sardet must pull off is a full time job. The legate will acquire companions on her journey that not only represent different kinds of fighters but also the game’s factions. For instance, having outspoken companions like Kurt of the Coin Guard or Siora of Teer Fradee’s indigenous people means outbursts are possible during diplomacy. How players manage those can impact De Sardet’s reputation with all involved.
De Sardet's relationship with Siora in particular, like the colonists' interaction with the indigenous people of Teer Fradee, is fraught with the potential for misunderstanding or outright confrontation and conflict. The anger and frustrations of a people forced to accommodate the intrusions of others is palpable, especially when expressed by advocates like Siora. De Sardet's perspective is a window onto the inequities and injustices of this world, and players' choices invest gamers in its fate in compelling ways.
De Sardet’s relationship level (for Congregation of Merchants, Bridge Alliance, Theleme, Coin Guard, Nauts, Natives) is a main character stat among Pause menu options that include character development, inventory, maps (including quest-giving characters, merchants, blacksmiths, alchemists), journal (quests, side quests, missions), world map (Serene and Island of Teer Fradee) and codex (characters, places, creatures, ingredients, guides, notes).
Character development is spread across skills, talents and attributes that players can unlock with points earned during the game such as when their character levels up. The mechanic is fairly standard, though I was surprised to note that a character roll, for instance, has to be unlocked. The default dodge is more like a limited sidestep, so locking a much better and more common move like a roll in the skill tree was an unwelcome surprise.
One thing I opted to pursue more than in other RPGs is charisma. Given how the game emphasizes diplomacy in a way that feels compelling and worthwhile, it seemed natural to want to invest in that talent. Intuition could be likewise useful considering it reportedly opens contextual dialog options. And then there’s the mental power attribute, which is needed to wear rings that can cast spells (though stasis apparently is a default spell).
Bottom line, there are many key skills, talents or attributes that provide helpful options like combat moves, exploration aids (like climbing higher or lockpicking) or dialog choices. There’s more appeal to having many such options unlocked by default at least on a basic level, as in some other games, though their relative scarcity makes character development a more thoughtful – and consequential -- choice than in some RPGs.
More combat options would come in handy early on though the game does a good job of alerting players to the level of challenge they face. Besides having a choice of difficulties that can be adjusted on the fly, enemies are displayed with life bars, shields and sometimes a red skull to denote an enemy that would be a considerable challenge for one’s skill level. A Nadaig magamen (a Guardian of Teer Fradee) provided a good example.
This hulking Guardian has 10 shields and a long life bar. Players can make use of primary and secondary attacks, Fury (which builds to release a special attack), dodge and sprint, as well as a tactical pause menu to help plan the next move. Two companions come with their own move set. On normal difficulty at my character’s level at the time, we could pare it down to half its life bar. But on easy, it was defeated. However, it guarded a lair filled with red skull creatures.
My lower level troupe clearly was not meant to take on this challenge just yet, or even be in the same region as practically every creature had a red skull. This adds authenticity to the experience, instead of scaling foes to the player’s level. I loaded a prior save, returned to normal difficulty, and farmed experience points off bandits; vailegs (think wolves); brown, black and alpha ulgs (bears); and large bat creatures that spew poison to build experience points against.
There’s also the Coin Arena, like Oblivion’s arena, where players can fight competitors in progressively more challenging battles with the goal of becoming champion. The difference is you take your companions with you. Reportedly you gain some nice loot at the end, and presumably some points. Presently, I can’t get past those darn bats! But this option is a nice alternative to regular combat, though still fighting the same foes.
Thankfully combat itself can be fun, with effective parrying and switching between melee or range attacks instantaneously. In some games, successful parrying demands precise timing, but here it feels like there is a greater window of opportunity to deflect attacks. And instead of fumbling with a menu to change weapons, buttons can alternate primary and secondary melee weapons and the directional pad equips your gun(s).
The shooting mechanic is a little peculiar, as pressing the directional pad both equips and fires a gun in the same move. That makes locking on an enemy first, as opposed to targeting, an important tactic. Shooting takes a little getting used to but works well. One caveat is that your lock on an enemy can switch to another target if they stray too close. It can be frustrating when you end up attacking a weaker foe despite having locked on to a stronger enemy.
The primary melee attack utilizes an equipped weapon (blade, hammer, etc.) while the secondary involves a kick that can destabilize an opponent. Truth be told, I often forgot to use my kicks, relying on effective slashes or Fury attacks (which build up during combat and can be unleashed on a pretty regular basis) as well as shooting. I likewise have neglected spells, having never really learned how to deploy the default one(s) (I’d presumed I needed rings for any spell casting).
Companions do a good job of contributing during combat, as they are constantly on the attack and sometimes deploy group effects like Siora’s heal ability. They can fall during combat, but can be revived (I think with a potion). I should note they do well outside combat, too, getting out of your way relatively quickly especially in tight quarters, and engaging in thoughtful conversation immediately following discussions with other characters.
Speaking of tight quarters, that’s one of the situations where the game camera can fail you during combat. If inside, for instance, the action might be obscured. Similarly, I found it odd that outside combat the camera follows from behind, but in combat you have to control it (perhaps to encourage use of the lock-on feature). I’d prefer that the camera followed from behind at all times by default, but the lock-on camera helps mitigate that issue.
One last comment about combat involves enemy AI. In general it works well, with foes attacking en masse with both ranged and melee combat. Imagine getting knocked down by a gunshot in the middle of a sword fight. By that same token, if you attack an enemy similarly engaged, they’ll eventually turn on you. Bandits will parry or backpedal as much as attack. And larger foes at least (like the magamen) will mix up (ranged and melee) attacks. But note that if you leave an invisible boundary, creatures will withdraw with all their health.
GreedFall also offers RPG staples like alchemy, crafting, lockpicking, etc., but I’ve been spending experience points on things like strength, charisma and blade attacks, so haven’t unlocked other skills like the former just yet. It can annoy, especially when points are doled out sparingly and some areas or abilities are just out of reach, literally and figuratively. But I don’t feel cheated. Hopefully the game will continue after the main storyline is complete or will offer a new game-plus feature.
Besides diplomacy and combat, exploration is a major component of this game, and it similarly does not disappoint. In much the same way that characters are unique in appearance, voice and speech, and help ground the fantasy in a seemingly real world, the exotic yet familiar art design, detailed natural and artificial environments, realistic lighting and beautiful overall presentation go a long way toward making Teer Fradee’s cities and landscape a full-fledged setting.
The cities (and clothing of their inhabitants), especially, reflect their 17th century inspirations. Serene and New Serene, governed by the Congregation of Merchants (and presumably San Matheus, ruled by Theleme, which appears based on Spain and its Inquisition), display European influences, while Hikmet and its governing Bridge Alliance resemble Ottoman Empire (or Middle Eastern) designs. The manifestation of these different cultures provides an appealing juxtaposition.
The indigenous population of Teer Fradee and their villages, which reflect their relationship to the island, appear to provide a strong counterpoint to the colonists without falling into caricature or stereotype – an important aspect to a setting that explores the impact of colonialism. Their language, translated by Siora but otherwise indecipherable by the colonists and player, exemplifies the barrier to understanding that must be overcome.
NPCs help inhabit and animate the game’s population centers, though not always to its benefit. They’ll walk across a square only to pause at the opposite end and then return, effectively pacing back and forth for no discernable reason. They’ll stand facing walls or walk in place when their path is blocked by others. They’ll clean spotless walls. And they’ll walk right up to your diplomatic tete-e-tete and stand still as if eavesdropping (that one’s kind of disturbing).
Of course, that’s not uncommon in RPGs. Neither are companions who can get stuck (I left behind Constantin when he got stuck in the crowd at the Charlatan’s booth). Players might find that they likewise will get stuck (I got myself into a pickle at Serene’s docks). That said, there are a nice variety of character models and enough people to make areas feel alive. Even when they’re dead.
Victims of the plague are everywhere in Serene and bring home its horrors. People clutch their sides in pain, cough or beg for help from passersby. Bodies line the streets, fill wagons and rest atop funeral pyres. Doctors sell medicine, craft potions, tend to patients or pray for their souls. In fact, you’ll find many praying – regular colonists, soldiers and indigenous people. Faith is ever-present amid the squalor and conflict-ridden areas.
Players can engage most NPCs, who will afford De Sardet a measure of respect that comes with the upbringing and the office of legate. Official duties will send De Sardet on diplomatic or investigative quests at the behest of other characters, which might involve gathering information, tracking someone or something down, negotiating a deal or crafting a solution, etc. Quests usually involve multiple objectives and thus far in my experience fit well with the context of the story or setting.
In the process, players will navigate Teer Fradee one section at a time. It’s not a wide-open, free-roam open world, but a series of large interconnected areas based on the roads or paths you elect to take. The transitions represent some of the only scenarios with load times, however brief; one aspect of the game that impresses is the relative lack of load times, especially when passing through doors together as a group (with a transition for daytime glare, to boot).
Players can setup campsites outside cities for opportunities to fast travel, craft and switch companions. Another welcome feature is how players sometimes auto proceed to the next objective in a quest or are given a choice at other times to instantly proceed to it (I can’t recall, but this might be in cases where you are returning to someone or someplace previously visited in the quest line).
The structure of the world should please gamers that don’t want huge open worlds with little to do. One’s journey through each area can meander but feels more directed overall than in a truly free roam environment. And because Teer Fradee feels thus far like a fully realized fantasy world grounded in the complexities of real world commercial, ideological and theological competition, it’s a journey that is rich with fascinating encounters.
The degree of detail lavished upon this world impresses, whether the language of statecraft, clothing or architecture indicative of each faction; the dialog that characterizes each individual and defines their relationships; examples large and small where Teer Fradee intersects with or deviates from 17th century history; or the attention paid to the random corners, inconspicuous areas and backdrops of interiors, city streets or the island landscape.
GreedFall is world building at its best, at least to judge by the first several hours of gameplay. It’s been awhile since a game has grabbed me with its story, characters and quieter moments, let alone an overarching narrative with serious implications. It’s not a perfect game, but it shines thus far where it counts, that is, with heart, ambition, verve and a kind of bold pursuit of old school story telling that I can't get enough of. If such elements interest you, GreedFall just might be worth your time as well.
(This post was based on a review code of GreedFall for Xbox One. The game released September 10 on that platform as well as PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Windows.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Wreckfest looks like the kind of game committed racing fans can sink their teeth into, with options to customize the racing experience by tweaking game settings, tuning a variety of vehicle specs, upgrading key car components, and purchasing various parts and other vehicles. It only looks like it to me because instead of tweaking I’ve spent all my time consumed by the unadulterated joy of flooring it inside a giant pinball machine.
Bugbear Entertainment’s destructive racer might be a spiritual successor to the developer’s own FlatOut series and even reminded some of the Destruction Derby games, but I was hoping for a game like Criterion’s Burnout titles – specifically Takedown and Revenge – and I was not at all disappointed. And while it doesn’t have the set piece hazards of Split Second, every race can boil down to one big set piece of potential carnage.
For me, the game is a lean-forward, laugh-out-loud experience through to the finish line, if players can make it that far. Early on I’d try to sit back and enjoy the competition, but inevitably the taut races forced me to sit up and lean in, and the crowded field and resulting mayhem often had me laughing at the sheer chaos from moment to moment. The cherry on top is – like in Burnout – using that chaos to your advantage.
Players at the main menu can choose between Play (Career, Custom Event, Multiplayer, DLC Store), Garage (My Cars, Paint Shop, Upgrades, Tune, Market) and Miscellaneous (Settings, Profile, Credits). Among Settings, if I recall, you can select AI difficulty – I believe the default is Novice. But I’ve noticed that even at this setting, opponents race aggressively and will sometimes drive you into a barrier or off your line.
Most content is unlockable, so gamers begin by choosing from select unlocked Regional Junior events in the Career path. Tiers beyond that are National Amateurs, Pro Internationals, Challengers and World Masters. Events at least among the first two tiers include Lawnmower Deathmatch, Demolition Racing, Banger Racing, Demolition Derby, Folk Racing Series, Scandinavian Tour and Survival Race Challenge.
I’ve played several hours through events in Regional Junior and National Amateurs and am currently a rank 10 driver, just to give you an idea of how far I’ve progressed. I’ve only driven a few different vehicles and upgraded one with multiple new parts and a paint job. With opponents still set to Novice difficulty I can usually rank high though some races require multiple attempts either to win or also achieve secondary objectives.
Secondary objectives typically involve the level of destruction you cause in your wake. That damage might be calculated in dollars, number of opponents spun out, how many other cars your wrecked, etc. They’re fun goals in and of themselves and some will happen spontaneously without you even trying. But on the downside, attempting them while also trying to place is a risk-reward calculation on the player’s part.
Of course, players will want to take advantage of opportunities to dispatch the competition and, like Burnout Takedown and Revenge before it, those moments make for some of the most fun. Driving an opponent into the guardrail or obstacle, crashing them into others including oncoming traffic, spinning them out, and bouncing off them in a turn all are easy to pull off strategic choices that are rewarding moments in and of themselves.
That satisfaction is due to how cars handle, their physics and damage modeling. Vehicles all drive realistically and careen into each other and obstacles in a believable way. I’m not saying it has the authenticity of a sim racer – especially when your car is reduced to a frame on wheels – but this arcade racer sells its driving and carnage in an immersive and thrilling way that rains debris and raises your pulse in equal measure.
If you fail when trying to waylay your competition, it might result in you losing time or position, and can be catastrophic for your finish. Then again, you can be sidelined even without sticking your neck out. The worst feeling is when you’re leading into the final lap and someone careens into you spinning your car and requiring either a reset or maneuver back into the lane that in many cases will send you to the back of the pack.
That said, I’ve never really felt cheated by the game so far. Drivers don’t rubber-band to the front of the field, they don’t go out of their way to total you though events can have that effect, and your racing isn’t undermined often enough to feel it’s by design. Still, some track designs are simply devious and made to encourage disaster at seemingly every turn. But such creativity is appreciated even when head-on or cross-traffic sends your car flying.
That’s right, there are times when opponents will come straight at you or even cross your path simply due to the layout of certain tracks. Also, many tracks will funnel drivers down sharp turns or into narrow paths or roundabouts. These choke points invariably lead to carnage, made even worse when laggards (perhaps including you sometimes) are barreling down in the opposite direction. The chaos can be nerve-wracking and hilarious at the same time.
There’s one track in particular that’s shaped like an incomplete oval with small circles at either end (think a bracelet joined by a chain, but without the chain). Cars turn around in the circle and race to the roundabout on the opposite end. Not only does this cause vehicles to crash into each other in the roundabouts, but face head-on collisions with cars racing in the opposite direction. It’s sinister, and thrilling.
Another track, if I recall, is shaped like two parallel straightaways with two sets of turnarounds at both ends and merging traffic in the middle. Even now I’m honestly not sure how this track works and just floor it till the race ends, hoping not to get a wrong-way heads up in the process. How I end up placing or even winning I’m still not sure! But as with other racing games, the journey is an end in and of itself and it’s a fun track.
Tracks come in all shapes and sizes and sport a variety of surfaces including pavement or dirt and sometimes on the same track. Players will find themselves drifting through corners with the Handbrake and flooring it down straightaways. At least these are the only controls I’ve used for the most part so far, though I’ve since discovered that applying the Brake into hairpin turns has its advantages. I’ve yet to use Clutch or Gear Down(?).
The controls are another example of options that I haven’t gotten around to trying simply because I’ve been enjoying myself that much with default settings and basic driving options. But it’s also testament to how well the vehicles themselves control. Granted, I have only two or three in my Garage right now and tried perhaps two or three others depending on the race, but in general they control tightly and don’t float around the tracks.
The one exception are vehicles in certain Challenges such as Lawnmower Deathmatch Challenge – Eat Dirt, Survival Race Challenge – Great Escape and Sofa Race Challenge – Couch Craze. The lawnmowers actually control relatively okay, but the Supervan (I believe it’s called) in the Great Escape and the motorized couches in Couch Craze are nightmares to control, though I suspect this might be by design.
After all, one would presume that a three-wheeled deathtrap (especially against buses!) and a sofa on wheels would control poorly and indeed they do. The best that players can manage are subtle presses of the thumbsticks at a moderate pace to prevent careening out of control. The races themselves are somewhat manageable but really require a high degree of patience and commitment to see them through.
The lawnmower appears in a deathmatch that is, albeit to a lesser degree, representative of destruction derby competitions. In this and the derbies, opponents face each other on the outskirts of a circular field and race to the middle with the goal of knocking the other drivers out of competition. An car icon in the corner of the screen tallies the toll to parts of your vehicle as the event plays out and you take increasing damage.
This is a pretty nifty feature, especially in destruction derbies, as you can monitor the wear and tear and adjust your strategy accordingly. For instance, if you’ve taken too much damage to the front of your vehicle and the engine, you can focus on driving backward into opponents. You’ll have visual cues, too, like a smoking engine that turns to flame when you’ve wrecked, but the monitor and alerts keep helpful tabs.
Like in races, sometimes the best strategy is to pick your battles. Going all out to destroy everyone will result in you wrecking your ride, but biding your time, choosing carefully and sometimes escaping a crowded field can prolong your troublemaking ability. And, it turns out, driving in reverse is not too difficult, thanks to the controls and handling. Though targeting vehicles in an open field takes more skill than on enclosed tracks.
Even when things go wrong in Wreckfest, they go oh so right. Random crashes never cease to entertain. But the wrong-way carnage that can result when players surrender to a losing proposition plays out like Burnout’s Crash mode replete with maximum carnage but minus the juicy multipliers. The fact the game doesn’t rein in players too strictly, allowing you to drive the wrong way for a while or stray a little off course is appreciated.
Add to all this a custom event feature and players can generate their own brand of vehicular mayhem. Choose the event, track, time of day, vehicles and, I think, opponent AI then let the festivities begin! For the one event I created, I dropped my car into a field of lawnmower riders. It might not have been fair, but it was definitely fun. There’s also a camera mode/option to commemorate your destructive tendencies, though I haven’t experimented with it.
A couple caveats about the game that don’t impact my enjoyment but are noticeable elements that take me out of the experience from time to time. Collisions sound more like a ping than the crunch of crumpling metal, so much so that I often imagine it’s part of the hard rock background. Speaking of, I think I’d prefer my racing music to be the electronica of menu selection screens instead of the more metal driving tracks.
All told, Wreckfest has already given me more than I could have hoped for despite spending little time exploring the considerable depth it appears to offer including online competition. It’s been a long time since an arcade racer has given me the kind of frenetic thrill that this joyride has generated, using solid controls and handling plus deep damage modeling and creative track design to reward players with a wickedly fun drive.
(This post was based on a review code of Wreckfest for Xbox One. The game released August 27 on that platform and PlayStation 4.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Authenticity is not a term that one might commonly associate with a fictional setting or context. But Red Matter developer Vertical Robot has crafted a world and a locale in Cosmobase Strelka that is impressive not just in its art design, lighting, score and gameplay, but also in how this futuristic Cold War mirrors our own recent confrontation between the U.S./NATO and the Soviet Union.
Indeed the conflict between the Atlantic Union (stand in for America and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the People’s Republic of Volgravia (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Warsaw Pact) is steeped in the language and imagery of the 1950s mostly, whether state iconography or propaganda posters, and even a score that harkens to Cold War thrillers.
I was reminded of pop culture treatments such as the classic film The Manchurian Candidate. The same suspicion, paranoia and state machinations are in place here, the same foreboding and taut experience from beginning to end. A chess game is even central to the goings on. The studio definitely deserves credit for so successfully recreating this in a compelling fictional setting.
That setting is the Volgravia base on the Saturn moon Rhea. You’re an agent of the Atlantic Union known as Epsilon and are sent to investigate the now abandoned facility and retrieve vital enemy documents. How you navigate and interact with this setting reflects intuitive controls that increase immersion and help contribute to the authenticity of this world and the story it has to tell.
Navigation itself on the Oculus Quest is well implemented as it allows a variety of options for player comfort. Default options of leap teleportation and snap turns worked best for me as the former fits perfectly with the low-gravity space setting and allows for traversing gaps or varying heights while the latter eliminates discomfort. But players can also hold a button and point to move along the ground.
One of the caveats I had while playing relates to how the locomotion options can interfere with the gameplay controls. Because snap turns on the Oculus Touch controller are mapped to the right thumbstick and smooth locomotion is mapped to both right and left grip buttons, I would sometimes try to turn with the left thumbstick, which changes your left tool’s configuration. Just a minor irritation.
I also wish that the leap teleportation could be interrupted to change direction. Thankfully, players can use the right thumbstick to increase or decrease how quickly leap teleportation is implemented as a comfort option. But because it plays out like an animation it can’t be interrupted to change course. One could argue that if jetpack equipped then it could make sense, but it might be too jarring.
Navigation actually is very well implemented overall and part of game controls that are precise, responsive and intuitive, lending themselves to a gameplay environment that feels real and goes a long way to rooting the player in this world. The right tool includes grip and teleportation/movement controls, the left has grip, scanner/translator/mission, flashlight and movement controls.
The grip controls to an extent are the workhorses of the game. You’ll use them to pickup or move objects; turn switches or valves/controls; operate levers; open/close doors or cabinets; push/pull items, etc. And as mentioned they are responsive to your movement, precise in their targeting and hit detection, and just feel intuitive and supremely functional in the virtual reality setting.
Changing the left tool’s configuration between grip and its other functions is easy with the respective thumbstick and visual cues in the form of related icons on the tool face. The animations involved are relatively quick and realistic. The flashlight is a peculiar choice to me as I used it maybe twice and even then it really wasn’t necessary. But maybe I missed a crucial clue or object?
The scanner/translator/mission function, on the other hand, was a key tool used throughout the player’s journey. The scanner analyzes objects and downloads data from digital files or key cards, allowing operation and access to options or areas otherwise locked. The translator will decipher signs, diagrams, memos, letters, etc., and is the main method for learning about the base’s staff and what happened to them.
Many actions are accompanied by (sometimes long) vibration, especially turning and mission updates. The drain on controller batteries was significant, even leading to a restart when a dead battery allowed my glove and item it held to float into the scenery. It's not a big issue, and I could have replaced the batteries earlier, but the option to turn off vibration (which I usually do) would have been appreciated.
The narrative itself is an intriguing mystery about the ties that bind these workers, how and why they frayed or didn’t, and the nature and impact of a red substance encroaching on the facility -- a literal Red Menace, reflecting the ideological one represented by the Communist USSR/Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. All of it influenced by the totalitarian Volgravian state and its Big Brother policies.
As gamers progress and start to unravel the story, their grip on reality likewise starts to unravel. Visions encroach on Epsilon’s experience, a mysterious figure intervenes and the red matter of the title begins to loom larger. The denouement is breathtaking, if a little cryptic for this gamer (I admit I had to look up a little help for processing it). The journey is an impressive one and shouldn’t be missed.
And the journey as in most things is an end in and of itself. Puzzles, like exploration, are a key gameplay element and with the intuitive, responsive controls are a joy to solve. Some are basic logic puzzles, others involve pattern recognition, for instance. They aren’t overly simple but neither are they too challenging. For myself, they were a perfect challenge and fit very well with the game’s setting and story.
It’s tempting to delve deeper into the puzzles and story but experiencing both are what Red Matter is about. That they are executed so well, and complemented by controls and a setting that are so immersive, creates a unique virtual reality experience. The stunning presentation allows each of these elements to shine in a way that highlights the expert craftsmanship on display.
The moon base inside and out has a variety of surfaces all of which are highly detailed whether natural or artificial (though the red matter can appear flat and artificial). Lighting and shadows are exceptional and add to the realism of this fictional setting. Animations are fluid. Colors are subtle and well chosen. The score is perfect and the principal voice actor and dialog are well suited to the retro-futuristic setting.
Red Matter is that rare virtual reality game that fully immerses players in its setting, especially as that world is a retro-futuristic one that expertly recreates the context of a historical period in a fictional future. Vertical Robot has combined masterful controls, well designed puzzles, an intriguing story and high-quality presentation for a superlative VR gaming experience that’s not to be missed.
(This post was based on a review code of Red Matter for Oculus Quest. The game released August 15 on that platform.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
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