Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Editorial | What makes an open world game compelling?

By Sam Coles:

(All screenshots were taken by me via photo modes)

Open world games are ubiquitous these days, but whatever you think of them they are a compelling way to convey exploration. I remember a time when they use to be special when they were here and there, when one would come along nine times out ten would be fantastic. Digressions aside I want to talk about what makes an open world beautiful to experience and explore, yes they are in abundance these days and I would honesty take a more focused experience these days but they are still great to traverse when done right.

Let’s get the obvious element out of the way first, graphics! Now I know there are those who champion that graphics aren’t important, but every game I have ever played has them you see I can play with words and statements too. Anyway sarcasm aside, beautiful visuals do help with the immersion with open world games they make the world for a lack of better words believable. Yes you are right graphics do not equal a good game that is one hundred percent correct, but we are human and let’s face we do like to look at things that are aesthetically pleasing.

Exploration may also come across as obvious, but it is amazing how many games get it wrong within the genre. Rockstar Games have this down perfectly, where their worlds organically open up to the player as you progress where it doesn’t remind you that you are playing a game *cough* Ubisoft *cough*. Of course I couldn’t forget to mention The Elder Scrolls IV and V when it comes to exploration, as they are the true definition of freedom in open world games. You can finish the first main quest or tutorial, do a complete 180 and walk in the other direction. This is great as the game doesn’t penalise you, because Skyrim especially rewards you for being a curious cat by sniffing around each nook and cranny.

Atmosphere can be looked at from many angles, but for me it comes down to weather effects, day and night cycles, random encounters and of course music. Let’s start off with Red Dead Redemption 2 what can be said about its atmosphere that already hasn’t been said, it perfectly simulates the great outdoors with different weather from sweltering heat in the desert to the blizzards in the frost laden mountains. Rockstar in general seem to nail it with believable weather effects, even their older titles like Grand Theft Auto IV which still give off this ominous atmosphere with thick fog, as you see a red traffic light bleed through as you get closer to it. Not only that the downpours that cover Liberty City still hold up nearly 12 years later, as rain drops land on the roads and cars.

Atmosphere is not just the effects or visuals in general, but music can also attribute to one’s immersion when explore a majestic landscape. I know I made fun of Ubisoft’s open world design earlier, but one cannot deny that they craft beautiful soundtracks to go with their games as they are always thematically appropriate. Take their recent Assassin’s Creed game Odyssey, where the tracks are calm and relaxing which reflect the warm regions of Ancient Greece with good use of Mandolins to help sell the player of this Greek adventure. The Assassin’s Creed series in general always expertly craft their soundtracks, which help complement each time period they decide to explore, from Reissuance Italy to the golden age of piracy where you almost have law suit levels of similarity to the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack.

Lastly we get to the gameplay section of any open world game, to put it simply stuff to do within them. This can be double edge sword where you can either have too little or too much in them again something Ubisoft is known for. Games like Red Dead like to take a more thematic approach to it, where it makes sense to include side quests or mini games to a time period because it was actually there. Where on the other hand you have games like Watch Dogs or Far Cry which give you a huge checklist, which don’t really go through instead you obliterate it. The happy medium would be The Witcher 3, where the side quests have just much importance as main quests where they don’t feel second nature and have an overall purpose where players feel compelled to complete them.

When a developer takes the time to craft an open world they can be spectacular, but these days they are as common as Tic Tacs and are just as disposable. Granted given the choice I would rather take a more focused and linear experience these days, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and explore a world that was craft with care and attention.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Editorial | Master Chief: Struggling with his inner humanity.

By Sam Coles:

There are certain people built to follow a specific path, it may not be moral or justified but it is the only way of life for them and they know nothing else. Master Chief is one of those video game characters that come across as a strong figure, but underneath is a broken man who struggles with his inner humanity. I want to briefly touch on his character where he goes from a monotone killing machine to a… well human who finds love and compassion for others. There will be a few spoilers for Halo 3, 4 and bits of 5.  

Master Chief or simply called John was kidnapped as a young child with the early stages of the Spartan program, Doctor Halsey justified it because children are easily indoctrinated because their minds are developing so they can mauled them into the ultimate killing machine. John from a young age has known nothing more than combat; he became a living legend across the galaxy where he gains the moniker of “Demon” from the Covenant. However as Chief gets older his humanity slowly starts to reveal itself, from Halo 3 he becomes a more compassionate person and the one person or should I say A.I. that makes him realise this is Cortana.

Cortana was the first real companion that Chief became attached to and over time he grew to love her, she showed him that not everything revolves around the battlefield and soldiers are human and have feelings too. As he began to age Chief started to develop a more soft side, where made new friends such as Sargent Johnson who unfortunately loses his life in Halo 3 as well as making friends with former enemies. The Arbiter was once Chief’s enemy but even when he was fighting against him he had respect for him, they were both warriors and he sees the honour Chief had where their relationship blossomed. He stuck with him till the end of the fight in Halo 3, where after that Chief was alone with no one else but the comforting voice of Cortana.

In Halo 4 Chief has been drifting through space for 5 years, it’s not until they are awakened by a Covenant search party when they realise they still haven’t been found. After escaping the Forward Unto Dawn that’s when things start to take a turn for the worse, Cortana as an A.I. is now 8 years old and she explains that they start to breakdown after 7 years. Chief scared like a lost child starts to repeat a name “Halsey, Halsey! We have to find Halsey”! Where Cortana asks him to stop, where she repeats a line from Halo 2 “Don’t make a girl a promise, if you know you can’t keep it”. Chief finally wakes up and realises that things and people who he loves don’t last forever, and his humanity creeps out of his shell.

As you get further and further into Halo 4, Chief comes across as a broken man and when Cortana finally goes and leaves him it is heart breaking. She emerges in human form, well as the same blue vixen where she does what she has always wanted to do and that is to feel John’s heartbeat. She then leaves him in the void of space, as his stance is no longer imposing but instead weary and tired with his shoulders have sunk and shows signs of giving up. He is then completely broken only speaking in one word sentences, as he just stares at the Earth from the Infinity completely lost without the guidance of Cortana, he loved her and now he is on his own again.

Chief keeps his mind off it by going on mission after mission after mission, where his old fire team start to worry about him. It’s not healthy for the human mind to overwork themselves in order to distract from sensitive subjects, but Chief doesn’t know that as he didn’t have a proper childhood as he was kept away from the real world until he was a man.

The Master Chief is a more complex character than most like to let on, as he struggles to comprehend normal human behaviour but when his inner humanity creeps out he doesn’t know what to do as he has not been taught basic life behaviours. Cortana was once his saving grace, but when she left him he was like a scared child with no one to help protect him. It’s the subtle details both Bungie and 343 got right with his character as he got older in the series, and it is both beautiful and tragic.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Editorial | Mass Effect 2: Shepard's best adventure a decade later.

By Sam Coles:

Mass Effect was a name that once held a title of prestige, but since 2017 has gone swiftly downhill. Now I’m one of those who didn’t hate Andromeda, but one could not ignore its flaws which mostly stemmed from dialogue and awful writing but I digress let’s talk about when Mass Effect was good. Mass Effect 2 a title that turned 10 years old recently, which me being fixated on how old games are at the moment mostly because I grew up with these games as a teenager I wanted to talk about why it is so good.

Mass Effect 2 has a special place in my heart because at the time when I bought it I was ill, so I went to my local Blockbuster (yes children that long ago) and picked it up in a sale. I popped it into my Xbox 360 and was immediately enthralled with the game, with the story, characters and the much improved gunplay from the first. Anyway Mass Effect takes places directly after the first game, where Commander Shepard is on a routine search for Geth activity. However everything goes wrong as they are attacked by a new force called The Collectors who work for The Reapers, and Shepard dies. Yes Bioware had the balls to kill you in the first 10 minutes of the game; however this was just a platform to create a new Shepard as he is revived by the organisation Cerberus via their Lazarus project (obvious religious reference).    

The story here takes an interesting turn as he begins to work for Cerberus, which if you have played the first game you would know that they are not exactly the best people as Shepard him or herself admits destroying some of their facilities. However they have an equal goal, as the Illusive Man is one of the few that believes Shepard about the incoming threat of The Reapers. Shepard has to go on what has been dubbed a “Suicide Mission”, where he has to recruit people from across the galaxy to help combat the threat. This is the highlight of the story because they flesh out each crew member you bring into your squad, they all have in-depth backstories and you can do certain favours for them to gain certain abilities and so they don’t die at the end of the game.

Gameplay got a huge boost from the original; let me be frank when it comes to the original game it wasn’t very good to play. The framerate would stutter like me after several coffees, the gunplay was sloppy and the Mako controls like Master Chief after a bender and decided to take the Warthog for a joyride. Anyway Mass Effect 2 improved on more or less everything, the shooting took ques from popular third person shooters at the time such as Gears of War.

Shooting was tight and felt extremely satisfying, especially when you nailed a headshot or get close and personal with the shotgun. The Mako was removed which some could see as a negative as it got rid of the more open ended planet exploration, but it fleshed out the established areas more so not a big deal. It’s not all sunshine and roses where they did boot the Mako out the airlock, they instead replaced it with the rather tedious and monotonous planet scanning and probe launching which was there to gain resources for weapons and the Normandy.

The dialogue system was mostly the same, but they added the ability to interject where you could either be a renegade or paragon. Obviously I mostly go with renegade, as I love being able to give someone a smack if they say something stupid mid conversation or just shoot them if they annoy me, but hey that is just me. It added a more dynamic and organic feel to the dialogue, you know it felt like an actual conversation where you could interrupt if you disagree or if something of note pops up.

Visually it was a step up from the original (obviously), but compared to the first it had a more dark tone with its lighting and it did fit with the overall motif  as the story was darker where people get killed off in horrific ways. There is a good use of shadows in this game, especially when you go to the seedy underbellies of the galaxy where smugglers, murders and crime lords reside.

Mass Effect 2 even 10 years later is an absolute classic still, one of the best role playing games of the last decade. It has great characters, world building and tight and responsive gameplay that will have you smiling from ear to ear. If you haven’t you need to go back and play this masterpiece of a video game, it truly is fantastic!

Friday, 31 January 2020

Editorial | Isolation in video games, how it crafts atmosphere.

By Sam Coles:

Isolation in everyday life is perceived as a bad thing, which too much of it is as the human mind requires interaction with their fellow man. However in video games isolation is used as an effective tool for exploration, and of course my favourite aspect video games atmosphere. I just want to talk about for a few paragraphs about how isolation in the context of atmosphere is effective in games; I’ll go through a few examples which are horror and non-horror games.

Horror is an obvious start when it comes to building a thick atmosphere with games when being alone, as isolation and dealing with horror whether it be literal or figurative monsters. Dead Space the first to be specific is a perfect example of this; Isaac Clarke is mute throughout with the exception of when he is being torn in half by a Necromorph. He is alone throughout when slowly traversing the dark corridors of the space station, you hear the scratching in the vents as the terrors are plotting what they are going to do to you.

It’s this tension that elevates this game with the use of isolation, until the sequels. Now don’t get me wrong I like Dead Space 2, but all tension is lost when Isaac started to talk and I get he had to have some dialogue to push the story forward but it lost the atmosphere from the first and the less said about Dead Space 3 the better.  When they added in co-op and voice acting for the protagonist, you can’t really get a sense of isolation when your main character is constantly giving running commentary, or if you have enough fire power with a friend to arm a small militia.

Now I know I’m about to somewhat contradict myself, but the Resident Evil games specifically the remake on the GameCube utilise isolation for horror. Yes your character talks and you are backed up by support characters, but nine times out of ten you are on your own with the expertly crafted soundtrack and intense sound design. It’s those moments that lack music and all you can hear are your foot steps and the fast and terrifying shambling as a Crimson Head smells the blood flowing through your veins.

Horror is not the only way you can use isolation to craft atmosphere, it is also a great way to craft a sense of exploration. Metroid Prime is a perfect example of this, although you could probably throw any Metroid game in here (not Other M) as they all do it beautifully but Prime in my opinion is the pinnacle of it.
Metroid Prime manages to convey its story and exploration without any dialogue, as you explore the world you get this sense that these ancient alien worlds were once thriving societies but now rot in decay infested with space pirates and parasites. This is not shown through cutscenes where it sits you down for 10 minutes to explain with laborious exposition, no it is done through environmental storytelling coupled with flavour text when you scan lifeforms and objects.

Samus starts off weak and at first the isolation is daunting and almost terrifying, but as she slowly understands the ins and outs of this hostile world she becomes stronger both mentally and physically. Her isolation becomes her ultimate strength to overcome the trials and tribulations of the situation, as she becomes accustomed to the parasitic lifeforms. 

The Metroid Prime games (well the first two), have conveyed the situation through the eyes of Samus Aran, and don’t need extra characters to fill out the lore as Samus’ isolation already does that coupled with the haunting musical score that to this day sticks with me ever since I played the first game as a child. It is a testament of how you can use isolation as means to build atmosphere, to help compliment the exploration and storytelling without saying a word.

Isolation goes hand in hand with video games when you want to convey atmosphere, as well as exploring storytelling with certain themes. It is not just a tool for horror tropes, as it can also be used for exploration as you know most of us find interesting things when explore on our own.

Friday, 24 January 2020

Editorial | In times of darkness: My "Safe Place" games.

By Sam Coles:

There are certain games that we all turn to whether we are feeling down or ill, what I like to call my “Safe Place” games these tend to be games that I just get lost in when things become a bit overwhelming in life or I’m in a bad mood. Now I’m not saying that you should shut yourself out from others, when life gets the better of you whether it be through anxiety or depression talk to someone as that is the best medicine overall, but sometimes a bit of escapism can really help the mind focus. I just want to go over some games that are special to me that were a part of some of my low points in my younger life, let’s get into it.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion:

Now there is a very good reason that I consistently talk about this game as it was part of my growing up in my early teens, plus it was during a time where I was not in the best of places during secondary education. During this period I was bullied due to my background of having a “posh” accent due to me coming from a middle class family, not only that my nerdy tendencies and long hair were often subject of ridicule. Let’s just say I wasn’t the happiest person during this period, and it was a dark moment in my life where I hated going to school but I kept my head down got on with it thinking about the world I can explore when I got home.

I first experienced this game on PC when my Dad bought it for me, after installed it and first experienced that moment when you exited the imperial sewers my 13 year old mind was blown by the beauty of the world that was unfolding in front of me. Coupled with the tones of Jeremy Soule with his superb soundtrack, I was immediately immersed where to this day I get a childlike wonder when I boot this game up.

When I was exploring the land of Cyrodiil my worries just washed away off my back, the dark cloud over my head would part to make way for a ray of sunshine as I converse with the town folk on my adventures. It’s a game that I constantly boot up to this day when I find things getting the better of me, and I have the soundtrack saved in a playlist on my Youtube account and listen to it often.

Red Dead Redemption:

Now I won’t go too much into detail about this game as I did recently, but this game was a big part of my late teens and early 20s. My A-level years were certainly a better time in my life as I reunited with friends from primary school, but that didn’t mean I did not have high levels of anxiety during my studies because I did due to the pressure.

It came out just before the summer of 2010 and I had just finished my first year of A-levels, my anxiety kicked into overdrive as I awaited my results of my AS exams. When they finally came, my grades were not exactly great but I just remember those hot summer nights as galloped across the desert in the spurs of John Marston. The beautiful ambient soundtrack helped me relax, as I lived the life of a gunslinger exploring the deserts of New Austin and the hostile wastes of Mexico during the civil war. It is a game that stuck by during the summer and all anxiety was forgotten, as I heard the pleasant sound of nature and the horse shoes pounding the dirt.

The Witcher 2:

Now I might be cheating a little bit with this one as my mind was fine somewhat during 2012, as I was studying film and creative production within media so I was mostly happy. However The Witcher reminded me of myself from the past, as Geralt of Riva is treated like an outsider due his mutations and how he looks. His piercing cat eyes and long white hair are constantly under scrutiny, he looks different and people constantly judge him and it evoked feelings from my past when I was an outcast at secondary school and that is why I fell in love with The Witcher.

The story of The Witcher 2 instantly hooked me, unlike most fantasy stories this game doesn’t treat you like a child it presents real world problems such as political discourse and prejudice within society. Now one would say that this game is heavy handed to be a “Safe Place” game, but the world crafted around it is beautiful coupled with the superbly written characters which are voiced well (mostly). It’s just a game that I got lost in with its rich lore and storytelling, and each area was unique and different to explore.

Those were a few examples of my “Safe Place” games with some history behind them about me as a person. Remember though do not replace games with actual help, if you are ever feel that depression or anxiety are really taking hold on you talk to someone as loved ones whether it be family, friends or your partner are there for you no matter what. However games can help as they can unravel beautiful worlds and stories, which can help you forget about those worries temporarily. Just remember there are always those out there for you.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Editorial | Why you should play Yakuza.

By Sam Coles:

Let’s move on from my recent emotion filled articles and let me turn tone dial in the opposite direction, yes I’m of course talking about Yakuza and why you should play it. The now long running series that will turn 15 years old this year (2020), has always struggled to find its footing outside of Japan. However it wasn’t until 2017 with the release of Yakuza 0 is where things started to gain momentum, why is that? Was it marketed better compared to past instalments or was it just the fact it was just a good game. Anyway I’m going to convince you why you should play this series, which is rather fitting with Yakuza 7 releasing at some point this year as well as the Xbox releases of 0 and Kiwami 1 and 2 as well.

Yakuza takes place in Tokyo in the fictional district of Kamurocho, where you step in the shoes of hardened ex-gangster Kazuma Kiryu who is trying to live a life of a civilian but is always pulled back into the criminal underworld. He generally solves the issue the only way he knows how, by polishing his shoes on someone’s nose. Not to say that he doesn’t try solve things diplomatically, because nine times out of ten he tries to warn his foes but it turns into a frenzy of blood, teeth and a nearby bicycle wheel as Kiryu decks someone with a 700c rim. He is generally a calm and collective character, however if one is going to antagonise him he will show you what for and break your jaw with a nearby traffic cone.

On the other side of the coin you have Goro Majima who is a complete lunatic, he is the Ying to Kiyru’s Yang and he pretty much just beats people up who merely twitch at him in a funny way. He gets off on being hurt or getting into scraps, but honestly it is always entertaining when he is on screen as you hear in the distance as he shouts “Kiyru chan”.

The story is not the only highlight with this series the city of Kamourocho is a character within itself, with lively crowds, music from vendors and random people wanting to deck you. There is almost an unnecessary amount of detail within the city with skill tester machines, Sega arcade games and questionable activities that involve online chat rooms and telephone conversations, but I won’t divulge any more than that, just do it for the trophy.

Now we get into the meat and potatoes of game, and that is the incredibly brutal and satisfying melee combat. The combat is what sells the series to me outside of the narrative; it’s completely over the top with bone shattering blows as Kiyru makes someone’s jawline explode into a red mist. You can also use weapons around you which can be something as mundane as a chair or bat, or you can pick a neon lit sign and slam it into someone’s head. It’s this flexibility with the combat which makes it fun and fresh, not only that you have the Heat finishers. The Heat gauge goes up when you land hits, block or dodge incoming attacks, when you fill it to a certain point you can pull off brutal moves which can include the standard stamping on someone’s face to the more ridiculous of kicking a metal pole into someone’s eyes. You learn more of these moves as you progress, and it is actually insane how animations there are for these moves and shows the lengths the developers are willing to go.

The Yakuza series is one of the best story driven experiences in gaming, not only that it packs in a densely detail world to explore coupled with teeth smashing combat. If you haven’t I recommend giving the series ago, it’s easy these days as all the games are easily available with remakes and re-releases on PS4. Give them a go, you won’t regret it!

Friday, 17 January 2020

Editorial | Red Dead Redemption: A decade long legacy.

By Sam Coles:

Sometimes I have to look at my calendar and go “Where the hell has the decade gone”? Anyway the past decade we have had some truly beautiful gaming experiences, as well as a console generation transition which is coming to close this year. A lot of games are turning 10 years old this year and one of my favourite games of last generation falls into this camp, and I think you know what it is Red Dead Redemption. I know what you are going to say “Sam it turns 10 years old in May”, which you would be correct but to be crude about it I couldn’t keep it in my pants. Anyway let’s look at the decade legacy that is Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption’s concept was first announced all the way back in 2005 at Sony’s E3, where it was titled “Wild West Project” which was nothing more than a tech demo to show the power of the PS3. However we wouldn’t get a proper reveal until early 2009! When the game was first announced I must have been 15 at the time in early 2009, at first me being a cynical teenager I thought of it as nothing more as Grand Theft Auto in the Wild West which it does share elements from that series but it separates itself from that series. However when it got more marketing in 2010 it began to interest me, so I did more research into the game and it was the first game I have ever pre-ordered and when release day came I couldn’t put it down.

What captivated me first was the narrative, stepping into the shoes of former outlaw John Marston he is being blackmailed by the federal government to track and hunt down his former allies. To make him do this they have kidnapped his wife and son, which makes John reluctantly accept the mission. What transpires is a tale of revenge, betrayal and tragedy which I will openly admit was the first video game narrative that I shed a tear at its ending.

What I like about the narrative are the contractions of what is right and wrong, because the government claim that they want to bring order to the dying days of the outlaw but on other hand their methods are no better than the criminals they are hunting. It’s great and John himself notices this and constantly provides commentary about it, as he knew what he did was wrong but he saw his gang as a Robin Hood type of outlaws as they stole from the rich and only killed those who deserved it, well initially if you have played Red Dead Redemption 2.

John Marston as a character also grabbed me because he puts on this tough exterior, where he threatens people with his fists or a gun to their forehead. However underneath all of the gruffness he is a sensitive soul, he is someone who is trying to rebuild and redeem (get it) his life. He knows what he has done in the past was wrong, but on the other hand he sometimes thinks it is the only way of life that he knows. Don’t get me wrong he solves most conflicts diplomatically, but there are moments where his rage and impulsive nature take over and he shoots people with even blinking. However as the story progresses he starts to calm down, especially when he is reunited with his family even if it is brief.

Now the open world and gameplay was something that we really didn’t see on consoles at the time, yes at its core the gameplay is what one would expect form third person action games. However coupled with the unique setting it comes together with this mix of shooter, role playing game and a faffing about simulator alright that last one is a bit of stretch but the possibilities were almost endless. The dynamic nature of the world with its wildlife systems was brand new to consoles at the time; the only game I can think of that even comes close is Far Cry 2. Animals would react to the player in an organic manner, where they would look up if they heard even a slight sound from you and run away (obviously) when you start shooting.

The world itself was something I had not seen before back in 2010, I mean yes I had put dozens of hours into Oblivion beforehand but Red Dead’s world felt more organic and believable. It’s a world I can just slowly explore for hours on end, as it slowly unfolds its secrets to me coupled with the ambient soundtrack which can be relaxing and eerie at the same time. To this day 10 years down the line the visuals look great, Rockstar by this point started to get into the grove of producing high quality visuals with their games and Red Dead Redemption to me is where it started. Character models still look decent, and the overall attention to detail in each environment still look fantastic.

Red Dead Redemption is a game that people will be discussing for the next 10, 20 or hell 30 years; it’s the combination of story and open world exploration that has stood the test of time. This truly deserves to be in the archives as one of the best games in video game history!