Monday, 23 March 2020

Editorial | The Witcher 3 - The White Wolf's adventure 5 years later.

By Sam Coles:

The passage of time is one that is often a fast journey, what may have been a few minutes or days ago turn into a decade ago. Anyway monologue out of the way The Witcher 3 is slowly crawling its way to being 5 years old, and wow just writing that makes me confused where I have to keep checking my calendar to see what year it is. I want to take a look back at the game, and plus it gives me a good excuse to gush about the game again!

The lead up for The Witcher 3 was a rather long wait for me, I first got a taste of The White Wolf’s exploits when I first played The Witcher 2 on Xbox 360 and read The Last Wish in the summer of 2012. I was instantly in love with the series, where it took traditional fantasy tropes and turns it on its head. The characters were engaging and the political intrigue within its world was fascinating. After finishing The Witcher 2 multiple times I waited patiently for a sequel, fortunately I wouldn’t have to wait long as The Witcher 3 was first unveiled at E3 2013! From that point it was the main reason why I wanted an Xbox One or PS4, then a year later I got one but I had to wait until 2015 to play Geralt of Riva’s next adventure.

When 2015 finally arrived I found myself playing The Witcher 3 5 hours straight (yes really), what captivated me first was the story. The Witcher 2 had an issue with its story mostly stemming from performances, don’t get me wrong it was miles better than the first game as people spoke like…. people. However a lot of the performances were stilted including the White Wolf, but in The Witcher 3 everyone is fleshed out and the performances are excellent. The same voice actor reprises his role as Geralt of Riva, but he feels more comfortable in the role where Geralt feels more alive in this game. I felt like I cared for every character in story, especially the relationship between Yennefer and Geralt although a chemically imbalanced relationship they love each other nonetheless (in my playthrough). They are all fleshed and leaped from page to game effortlessly; it kept me invested throughout the 50 hour story.

Gameplay was where things took a huge leap from the second game in a good way; combat was improved greatly as The Witcher 2 felt a bit clunky as if it were a poor man’s Demons Souls. It had unfair hit detection where they could chip at your health even when they are not even hitting you, you had great advantages such as backstab damage but so did enemies. Combat was manageable with one enemy as it felt like it was designed like that in The Witcher 2, however the game would often throw groups of enemies at you and it felt like you were trying dodge attacks with your trousers pulled down and this was very noticeable on harder difficulties.

The Witcher 3 fixed everything with the combat, it felt more smooth and responsive, the animations look like they have been pulled straight out of the books with Geralt’s twists, turns and pirouettes. Combat was fair but still challenging especially on difficulties hard and above, no longer did enemies have an instant advantage over you when they were in groups but they could still overwhelm you if you got careless. Geralt’s signs were utilised more, as they added flavour and depth to battles as well as being more effective against certain types of foes you come across.

Exploration was expanded too as it is an open world now, The Witcher 2 wasn’t open world in the traditional sense, let me explain. The Witcher 2 was split up into four chapters (if you include the prologue), where the areas are open ended first you are in the town of Flotsam, then Vergen and then Loc Muinne. They are open ended, however you can’t just go off the beaten path and explore as it is rather linear in that regard. The Witcher 3 on the other hand went full open world, you could now explore the Northern Realms at your own pace.

Now when a franchise that isn’t an open world in its initial stages decides to go in that direction it often doesn’t work. The Witcher 3 made sense to go in this direction, as you are a travelling monster hunter across the land, so the jump to a sandbox made perfect sense. Each city, village and locale felt unique and looked exactly how I would imagine them being in the books. CDPR did a wonderful job fleshing out this open world, with crisp and beautiful visuals with awe inspiring sunsets as you see the sky turn crimson with its shepherd’s delight.

Not only that the quests and side quests added to the new layer of exploration, they were all memorable and the side quests weren’t shafted as filler content no CDPR treated them with the same importance as the main story. You could go off and explore, where you can take a side quest that involves as something as stupid as finding an old woman’s frying pan but they bother to include comedic jabs at this seemingly mundane and trivial task.

The Witcher 3 stands as a classic in the halls of video game history, it shows at the time you don’t need a big team to create something passionate and fun. It is the gold standard with game design, storytelling, exploration and visual fidelity. It is easily one of the best games of this generation and it’s hard to believe that 5 years down the line we are still talking about it. The adventures I have had with the Geralt of Riva are times not wasted, but time well spent.

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Editorial | Sleeping Dogs: 8 years later and still beautiful.

By Sam Coles:

The Xbox 360 generation had a lot of games that were really great, but didn’t quite meet certain audiences. This could be a number of factors, such as marketing being more or less non-existent or in the case of Square Enix releasing Sleeping Dogs in the middle of the summer when people don’t really buy games. Anyway now you know what the topic of the article is, Sleeping Dogs is a game that got overlooked, not because it was bad far from it as it was an amazing open world game set within a virtual recreation of Hong Kong. It’s just a game that people overlooked, and I want to take about it nearly 8 years after its release.

First release on the Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2012 with a later remaster on Xbox One and PS4 in 2014, Sleeping Dogs had a bit of a rough development cycle. The game was originally conceived as a new instalment of the True Crime series with the subtitle Hong Kong; however Activision lost faith in the project due to the last game in the series New York not faring well with critics. It got put on the back burner where Square Enix picked up the project, where the title was changed to what we know today as Sleeping Dogs. I remember this game being one of my most anticipated games of 2012, the setting, the combat and the story looked dark and unique.

Sleeping Dogs takes place in Hong Kong where you play as Wei Shen, who is an undercover police officer infiltrating the Triads who he happens to know from his childhood which is the perfect cover. At first Wei is very uncomfortable with what he sees, as he watches people get brutally murdered and it conflicts with his morality of upholding the law. It’s an interesting setup with the story as he has to choose to uphold law or be a gangster, even when he goes home he as PTSD moments where has nightmares of past events which adds a layer to the story. Now like most open world games the tone does conflict with the gameplay, as Shen guns people down without flinching or kills them in brutal ways during hand to hand fights. However this is always the nature of open world games, because let’s face it they do have to be fun at the end of the day.

Gameplay wise one could be cynical and look at this and think of it being a standard GTA clone, but honestly the gameplay has more depth than GTA and dare I say it more fun. Let’s start off with the melee combat, which may come across as mimicking Batman combat, which it does. However it was a breath of fresh air, as the different martial art combos felt like a more brutal and grounded version of Yakuza’s combat. You have contextual finishers, which can range from slamming someone’s face into a table saw, pushing them into a junction box or to the more cartoonish of throwing their head into a set of speakers. It was over the top yet grounded, as the graphic violence help elevate the tension coupled with the intense voice acting when you brutalised someone.

The gunplay was no slouch either; it took the standard cover mechanics of the time from popular third person shooters such as Gears of War and added its own flare to it. You took cover and shot at people, but this being inspire from popular action films such as Hard Boiled you could leap from cover and it will go into slow motion which gave you an advantage in gunfights. It wasn’t flashy for the sake of cinematic aesthetics. You could pick off your enemies one by one, which showed the excruciating detail of bullets entering and exiting a thug’s skull.

Driving took a more arcade and less realistic approach as you could perform physics defying sideswipes, but also you could perform “air jacks”. What this entails is that you can leap from your current vehicle to another one, where you then proceed to throw the driver out into traffic. It’s slick, stylish and ties physics to a burning truck as it speeds off a cliff.

Moving on from gameplay the setting and presentation is another highlight of Sleeping Dogs, the city of Hong Kong to my knowledge hasn’t really been used in video games in terms of open world games. In 2012 it was a breath of fresh air after the countless games set in the US, the neon lit streets as the rain covered the roads was and still is beautiful even today. The rain effects and character models especially were ahead of their time, characters would get wet in the rain and water kicking up as you drove on the soaked streets looks amazing. You have to bear in mind that this game was running on very dated hardware at this point, and it was amazing how they managed to utilise and squeeze every bit of life out of the 360 and PS3.

They really nailed the authenticity of the culture of the city, especially with the dialogue throughout the story. During the excellently directed scenes the characters will mostly speak English but sometimes in mid-sentence will switch to Cantonese on the fly, this mostly happens when they decide to throw profanity at other characters but it adds a layer of believability nonetheless.

Overall Sleeping Dogs is an underappreciated gem and you should play it, as it captures the world of Hong Kong perfectly and has its own spin on the open world genre. It's a shame that we never got a sequel, but maybe one day. It’s widely available on the Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One and PC! Go and give it a go!

Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Editorial | Why you should be excited for the Resident Evil 3 Remake.

By Sam Coles:

Capcom have been on a bit of a comeback for the past 3 years, after their somewhat bad streak since Resident Evil 6. Since 2017 Capcom went back to the drawing board and produced games that what made them great, we had a soft reboot of the Resident Evil series with 7th entry, the resurgence of Mega Man, Devil May Cry returning with the white haired demon hunter and of course the remake of Resident Evil 2 in 2019. Now they are bringing back the somewhat underappreciated third mainline entry, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. I want to talk about the original game, and why you should be excited for the remake that is coming out in April of 2020.

Resident Evil 3 takes place on the streets of Raccoon City, where it both takes places before and after the events of Resident Evil 2. This time we step back into the boots of Jill Valentine, where she is sitting in her apartment when the viral outbreak happens where she has nothing more than her pistol and casual attire to help her get through the night. It’s not long until she discovers that she is being stalked by a B.O.W (Bio Organic Weapon) called Nemesis, who has been tasked to hunt down the remaining members of the S.T.A.R.S unit who were involved the Mansion incident of the first game. The story was actually more involved with this game, but that doesn’t help the dreadful voice acting that was still present in the series at this point.

The gameplay took the familiarity of Resident Evil 2, but it put more of an action spin on it as you were against all odds in the scenario presented to you. The zombie count on screen was turned up to eleven, while at the same time you were constantly stalked by the titular Nemesis as he could break through walls at any point of the game or just randomly turn up in alley ways or offices in the police station. There was more of an emphasises on fighting than running away in this game as you had more ammunition compared to the first two games, yeah sure the camera was still fixed and you had to managed your inventory but combat was put the forefront especially with the Nemesis encounters which will get into now.

Throughout the game you will be pitted against the terrifying hulk that is Nemesis, where it will give the option to either fight or flee. Most players at the start of the game will understandably flee, however if you choose to fight the high risk and reward situation is great as you will be given gun parts for high powered weapons. This incentivises for players to get their hands dirty and face what seems to be an opposing foe right off the bat, the rewards for doing so are worth the player’s time.

What helped was Jill’s increased movement speed and mobility, now this may sound like a trivial addition these days but the addition of a quick 180 turn made combat feel less of a chore plus made the Nemesis fights more bearable. Not only that she had an extra dodge ability so you could move out of the way of zombies, but it was a bit temperamental as it was eerily precise to execute.  

You would think that the ramp up to action would sacrifice genuine scares; you would be wrong as you have this overhanging anxiety of when Nemesis is going to burst through the wall. There are moments where all you can hear are your footsteps, and then you hear the hulking the monster mutter “Stars” and he suddenly comes crashing through a wall. You then have this sudden panic wondering how the controls work as you struggle to fight or run away, and it is glorious as the tension goes through the roof.

Resident Evil 3 is a game that was a different take on the series, and it makes me very excited about the upcoming remakes with how they are going to take the current gameplay methods and amplify them. If you can I would recommend playing the original Resident Evil 3 before hopping into the new game, as it will give you a better outlook of the remake when it arrives in April.

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.