Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Editorial | Exploring Skyrim's beauty.

By Sam Coles:

Skyrim, a name that everyone knows even if you don’t play video games. It’s hard to believe it has been nearly a decade since its release, and also doubly unbelievable is the fact that people are still talking about it. Skyrim was a game that I was anticipating back in 2011, this was due to my undying love for Oblivion that I first played when I was 13 years old. When Skyrim released in 2011 when I was 18 years old, I was enamoured with the game and explored the frost laden land of the Nords. 8 years later I’m still finding new places to explore, and find the game beautiful as I capture it on my PS4 and share my experience with others. As a disclaimer, with the exception of the title card all screenshots were captured by me on my PS4.

Skyrim opens in a linear fashion like Oblivion where it drags you by the nose via a meat hook, but once you get past that part the game opens the world up to you and it is awe inspiring. You have this sprawling and mountainous world ahead of you, it’s a nice breather after the intense dragon attack which helped your daring escape. When I looked across the horizon I thought to myself, I can go there? The game waggling its eyebrows at me almost telling me “Damn right you can”, it was here where my love affair for Skyrim flourished.

The world itself is something that grabbed my attention immediately, back when I heard the game was going to be set in Skyrim I was sceptical as I thought Great nothing but snow but the landscape is more varied than I thought. You still have the frost laden mountains to the north, but you also have lush pine forests that have god rays soak through as you traverse the dangerous yet beautiful land. You have bustling towns, cities and quiet out of the way villages that may greet your or perceive you as a threat.

It’s this level of detail within Skyrim is why people come back to it over and over again, it also stems to the wilderness too not just towns. I always find small things or big things such as a lonely hermit sitting down fishing while reading a book, to the more grandiose with Azura’s statue looming over on top of a mountain which gauges one’s curiosity.

When exploring Skyrim I was get this sense of wonder that I haven’t had since I was child, where you are in awe in realm that is so beautiful that you can’t believe it exists. This sense of childlike wonder is glorious, and it takes me back to when I was five years old when I’d played Spyro the Dragon for the first time. That maybe a strange comparison, but they both have a high fantasy setting with beautiful and open ended worlds, which to a child is limitless. That is what Skyrim almost is, limitless, with endless opportunities to form your own stories where you can share said stories with friends, family and colleagues of what adventures you have had in the Nordic realm.

Skyrim has always been an emotional bond for me, as it has got me through some tough times where I would load the game up and explore the world with no particular goal in mind as I hear the godly tones of Jeremy Soule. Speaking of the soundtrack, it is amazing in this game. As much as I love the Oblivion musical score it felt like it was just there, Skyrim’s feels more diegetic and is a part of the world rather than it playing a certain track when you are here. It takes a more atmospheric approach, where sometimes you won’t notice it but in a good way as it blends perfectly as you hear the omniums tones gently play in the background.

Skyrim is a place I can just forget about all of my worries, and just explore to my heart’s content. It’s hard to believe it is pushing nearly a decade ago since its release, but it honestly doesn’t feel like that long ago. Its world has stood the test of time, where I still find new things to this day, with magnificent architecture, statues and towns folk that go on about their business. If you are one of the few people who haven’t played Skyrim, I urge you to because is truly a great piece of art.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Editorial | Far Cry 2: Alone and outgunned.

By Sam Coles:

It’s often strange yet amazing how we look back on a certain video games as time goes on; we show more of an appreciation compared our young hot blooded selves that always craved action. That was my attitude with Far Cry 2 back in 2008, I never really got into it back in the day but over the years it has become my favourite instalment in the series. I thought after playing and reviewing Far Cry: New Dawn recently, I would go back and examine it over a decade later.

Far Cry 2’s story is minimalistic intentionally so as it has this fog of ambiguity, all you have to go on is that you are sent in to kill an arms dealer simply called “The Jackal”. However as you go deeper through the journey The Jackal is not the villain, it’s the war itself that is the ultimate evil. Yes he is playing both sides by selling weapons to them, but he is actually trying to end the conflict, which he eventually does at the end of the game when you help him.

If you take the time to explore both open ended maps you’ll find tapes in areas that have been devastated by conflict, where The Jackal talks about horrendous scenarios. There is one that got to me where there is an abandoned and rusted school bus; it shows how desperate they are in this war where it details seeing a child sat there with an AK-47 his lap. I think the narrative in Far Cry 2 is often overlooked as it doesn’t shove it in your face; it takes a page out of Half-Life’s book with its hands-off approach where you choose your level of immersion.

What really stands out in Far Cry 2 nearly 11 years later is the world, it’s an oppressive yet beautiful with it sun kissed deserts and humid jungles where anything is ready to gun you down. For a game that came out in 2008, this game has aged really well visually and I’m playing this on an Xbox 360 and I don’t say that often about games from that period. The beauty doesn’t stop there, to awake from ones slumber to see the glowing hot fireball that is sun rise over the horizon as it paints the open desert is truly spectacular.

The gameplay is a contentious part as Far Cry 2 from its marketing looks like an over the top shooter, but that very far from the truth as it is more like a survival horror. Your resources are finite in terms of medical supplies, ammunition and the condition of your weapons, well initially. You have to juggle with the fact that your weapons may explode in your hand due your over use of them, this makes exploration and combat precarious as going in head first will leave you with more holes than the average flute.

Let’s address the standout feature of the game weapon degradation, over time your guns will start to jam the more you use them and I’ve heard a lot of people say this is an annoying feature. I would however disagree and say it adds an extra layer of atmosphere to the game, you see when you are in a gunfight and this happens it adds tension which makes you panic as you scramble to take a gun off a fresh warm corpse. It adds to the oppressive and the quite literal third world atmosphere, as you are in a country that is deprived of basic needs such as clean water and food, so it thematically makes sense.

Another aspect that seems to ruffle gamer’s jimmies was the malaria mechanic. Shortly after starting the game you contract the disease and have to keep on top of it with medication, however it only happens a few times in the game and most of the time it’s scripted and your buddies can rescue you and it doesn’t really effect the game at all.

Far Cry 2 is often a game that is regarded as the black sheep of the series and is often forgotten, I understand some of the mechanics are a bit quirky however it is a tense game that even nearly 11 years later holds up. This game was a standout back in 2008 and is still great now, this was before Ubisoft turned it into a tower climbing simulator as if you were working for British Telecom. It’s tense, oppressive and beautiful, you are doing yourself a disservice by not playing this game and I would highly recommend it!

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Editorial | Arthur Morgan: Loyalty turned to doubt (spoilers).

By Sam Coles:

Arthur Morgan was a character that I thought I wasn’t going to like as much as John Marston; however I grew to love him throughout the long journey in Red Dead Redemption II. As the game goes on, Van Der Linde’s senior gun goes from a loyal comrade to someone who starts to doubt him, but he doesn’t know any other way of life. I want to talk about Arthur’s character and his transition, plus it gives me an excuse to talk about Red Dead Redemption II more, oh there will be spoilers.

When Red Dead Redemption II begins we see Arthur as this brother to Dutch, where he is loyal no matter what happens. To begin with Dutch as I discussed in my other editorial acts like a father figure to his fellow gang members, this is before he turns insane. Arthur is his right hand man and acts like a brother rather than a son; he does questions and debates with Dutch regularly when he thinks a plan is a bad idea.

Arthur has a cynical outlook on life as he sees what he does is his only way of life as it is all he knows, but he is not naïve and understands that the world is evolving as the world enters the 20th century where civilisation is gripping the wild west. He understands that the world needs to move on and to quote him “We’re thieves… in a world that don’t want us no more”, but at the same time he doesn’t know any other way of life so he carries on to make as much money as he can.

It’s one pivotal moment in the story Arthur starts to realise Dutch’s “plan” is nothing more than smoke and mirrors, it’s when he contracts tuberculous he has nothing to lose and starts to doubt Dutch as he slowly descends into madness. Towards the final stages of the game, Arthur realises that Dutch doesn’t care about anything but money so he does what he can for John Marston, his family and others who want to flee his tyranny.

As his illness grips him throughout the game, Arthur takes John under his wing and puts his rivalry aside as he wants to see him to live a normal life with his wife and child. It’s after a train robbery towards the end of the game where Arthur loses complete faith in Dutch, where he is betrayed by his former brother due to influence from the conniving Micha. Dutch starts to care more about money than the gang itself, where he makes the decision to leave Abigale to hang at the hands of the Pinkerton’s. Arthur with one last breath goes out of his way to save Abigale, where he then confronts Dutch and Micha where he then helps John flee. He takes one last stand against the Pinkerton’s, where he confronts Micha but unfortunately meets his demise as we watch the sun rise where his illness final gets the better of him.

Arthur Morgan is a character with flaws, but he ultimately upholds his integrity. He can be cold in one light, and then the next moment he can be this caring and endearing person to protect those who he loves. To see him slowly lose faith and start to doubt the man who brought him is both heart breaking and understandable, as the man he once knew is no longer there. Arthur’s realisation that the world is better off without people like him is tragic, as he goes out suffering, but he passes the torch onto the younger generation with John.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Pode Review - An adorable adventure.

By Sam Coles:

There are times were I like to switch gears and review games where I’m not killing someone or something, where I’m not sending someone’s jaw bone in eight directions. Pode is a beautiful puzzle platformer and I feel it deserves more recognition, with its somewhat brain taxing puzzles, great soundtrack and beautiful visual art style.

Pode’s story is minimalistic with exposition, as there is no dialogue at all and that is the strength of a great video game narrative where you have to piece the story together for yourself. Of what I can tell two entities meet, one made of stone and the other made of some sort of star matter, the entity made of star matter falls out of the sky and they journey together to send it back to the depths of space. Right off the bat the game is truly adorable with how they communicate cat with low and high pitch noises.

Gameplay is simple but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, it is a puzzle platformer where you can either play solo or in co-op I would recommend playing the latter as it makes for a smoother experience but solo play is not necessarily bad. You take control of each character to solve precarious platforming puzzles; these can range from simple to somewhat obtuse as it can be somewhat unclear of what you are supposed to do. However most of the time it is rather straight forward and can be a bit tricky, this can range from raising platforms, jumping on each other’s head to get to higher ground, weighing down switches or just memorising basic patterns.

Each character has a special power trait that is thematically appropriate to them, one is a star so they can emit light to make plants and wildlife flourishes, whereas the other is made of stone which can make rocks sprout out of the walls… look don’t question the logic just go with it. These abilities are used to solve certain puzzles, such as being able to create ledges to climb or holding down specific buttons. It keeps things varied and does present some unique and intriguing scenarios, but after a few hours it can start to feel a bit samey.

The visual presentation is beautiful; especially the opening scene when the two characters first meet and they walk into the distance with the warm glow of dusk setting upon them. When you start off the game may look bland, but as you traverse these dark caverns it starts to open up with rich flora, with plants escaping the cracks of the caves. Character design of the main protagonists is wonderful, they juxtapose from each other where one is bright and the other dark, and it is the perfect yin and yang.

The soundtrack is something that stuck with me throughout the adventure; it is relaxing which goes with the tone of this slow paced journey. It has nice violin pieces that almost echo throughout the caves, which accompany you on the journey, I hope there is somewhere I can get this soundtrack officially.   

Overall Pode was a pleasant surprise, it was nice to take a break from the over the top and violent games that I have been covering recently. It was truly anadorable adventure, and something that I can recommend to anyone. You can get it on Switch but it recently came to the PS4 recently if that is more your cup of tea.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Editorial | A Fable retrospective: "And so are story begins"

By Sam Coles:

Microsoft tends to be the punchline for jokes these days due to their lack of exclusives, which honestly I sigh with despair due to its juvenile attitude but I digress. Fable was almost a strange addition to the Xbox library back in 2004, because most of the games on the Xbox were generally shooters, racing games and sports game etc. Fable was like a Disney production if Monty Python got their hands on it, which is funny when I say that as John Cleese is in the third game. I want to look at the games and talk about why people thought they were so special, and why we want a current generation instalment.

Fable was first released in 2004 for the original Xbox, and it was an RPG that we didn’t really see before, I’m talking more about its setting and themes as it goes for a Disney aesthetic, but with naughty undertones. The game’s story wasn’t anything particularly special, as it was the bog standard destined hero saving the kingdom which was the story with all the games, but with different motivations. It was how the story is delivered with great and fun performances throughout, although I’m not sure if I should laugh or be offended with the exaggerated West Country accents, as I am a native of the region. It had fun combat mechanics which feel a bit rough now, but they were fixed in the sequel 4 years later.

Fable II expanded on everything from the first, it had a bigger world, more weapons and fleshed out combat options, more activities, a larger cast of well-known British actors and the list goes on. It was my introduction to the series, as years prior I had a PS2 and when I bought the game in 2009 I was enthralled with the beautiful world coupled with the wonderful soundtrack.

The first time I step into the world of Fable II, I was excited to explore every nook and cranny. A lot of people like to see Fable as a shallow RPG, but I think they are looking at it in the wrong light as I see it as an open ended action adventure with role playing elements and not something as a kin to Oblivion.

Fable II elaborated on everything that the original did, combat was improved greatly, you still have melee, firearms in the form of crossbows and flintlock guns and magic. What is great is that you are rewarded XP in different categories, this depended on what type of combat you used to slay your foes which were labelled by different colour orbs. Green was for melee and general skills, blue for range combat and firearms and red was for magic. This was great as it encouraged you to mix up your combat skills, which also added variety to encounters.

I’ve always had a lot of fun deviating from the main quest and getting into trouble in towns, where I would become a terrible person and smack someone in the face that would look at me funny. It’s this level of freedom of morality that it gives is what makes it fun. Yeah this may seem trivial by today’s standards, but this was somewhat of a big deal with a console game in 2008 as a lot of console games were still somewhat restrictive with their design.

Fable II made me fall in love with this series when I was 16 years old, and it made excited in anticipation for a third game. Fortunately I would only have to wait 2 years for the next in instalment; however it was a bit of a disappointment.

Released in 2010 I remember the marketing for Fable 3 as it was really pushing it to be the next great instalment, to say the hype train was in overload would be an understatement. Honestly the game’s premise was great, where you are starting a revolution to overthrow a tyrannical dictator where you become king and are burdened with difficult political choices.

The design choices were somewhat questionable, mostly stemming from the user interface with the pause menu. How it worked is that the inventory and pause menu was like a wardrobe you could walk around in, sounds like a novel concept right? It was a fun idea, however it is rather fiddly when you wanted to check your clothes go to a different room, check your treasury go to the next room and so one, it added faffing about where they didn’t to be any.

When you became king in the game that is where it started to standout, because your choices actually had weight to the overall world. Well it would if there wasn’t an exploit of buying all the expensive properties, jacking the rent up and leaving the console on overnight where you could fund your political goals yourself. I know it’s a mechanic, but it kind makes the weight of your decisions falter a bit. Fable 3 wasn’t necessarily a bad title, but it did feel a bit rushed and that was due it being released 2 years after Fable 2, but I do still recommend it.

Fable is a series I want to see again, it is truly one of Microsoft’s most unique games, with beautiful worlds to explore, fun combat and a fun stories that do not take themselves seriously. If you have to time go back and play these titles I would recommend it. If you have an Xbox One it is easier than ever to start your story and leave a mark in the land of Albion.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Editorial | Halo: An 18 year legacy.

By Sam Coles:

These days people tend to think that the Halo franchise has stagnated, due to the last game Halo 5 being okay but nothing that lit the world on fire but it wasn’t inherently awful either as I enjoyed it for what it is. However it was the series that put Microsoft’s Xbox on the map and is a franchise that I love and fond memories of, where I could play with my friends as I play those long humid summer nights away. I want to look back at Halo as the franchise turns 18 years old this year, where I took a look at why it is special.

Halo was first announced at Mac World before the turn of the century and initially it was going to be a Mac exclusive, and at first it was not a first person shooter. Halo in its conceptual stage was an RTS, however a few programmers at Bungie played around with the camera by zooming into the back of a soldier, then it blossomed into a third person shooter. Then one thing lead to another and it became an FPS, but it was not destined to be an exclusive to Apple’s Mac but instead Microsoft’s answer to Nintendo and Sony with their own console.

When Halo first launched in 2001 I don’t think people were expecting much, however what we got was something we have not seen on a console before. Its level design was huge in scope, with big wide open spaces that were similar to Epic Games’ Unreal. The beautifully (at the time) rendered world of the titular ring was something to behold, as you ramp a Warthog through the rolling green hills to frost laden valleys. Not only that there are tightly designed indoor sections, but that is one of the criticism from both fans and critics as they tend to repeat and I agree.

The gameplay is what really stands out in this game nearly 20 years later; it really holds up and defined the next wave of console shooters where it excelled what Goldeneye laid out. By this point dual stick controls in console FPS were the norm, where a little unknown game on the PS1 Alien Resurrection laid down the foundation, where you move and strafe witht the left stick and control where you look with the right stick. It may sound trivial to praise this these days, but it was a very new control scheme back in the early 2000’s, where you had the stiff controls of Medal of Honor still being used.

The weapons were unique such as the UNSC weapons that were somewhat standard but had a unique look to them. Such as the assault rifle which was good for taking down Grunts, the shotgun, rocket launcher and of course the god tier pistol which was the cause of many arguments in multiplayer. The Covenant weapons are great with the Needler which can cause a chain reaction when you fire multiple shots resulting in a pink mist, to the plasma weapons which are good against shielded enemies.

The enemies are fun and unique such as the commanding presence of the Elites, the cowardly Grunts who run away when you emerge from the shadows to the imposing force of the Hunters as they destroy your shields with one hit. All have there strengths and weaknesses, where you have to utilise your arsenal to full advantage especially on Heroic difficulty and above.

How can I not include the music when I talk about Halo, I know the term epic is used beyond redundancy but Halo happily wears that title with its orchestral score. It even begins in the main menu, as you have that Nordic choir singing the main theme, which to this day still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up! Or one of my favourite tracks “Pale Rider” which compliments the action perfectly during the Assault on the Control Room level. It starts off subtle with violins building up the tension of the action, then a full orchestral sweep comes in as the action intensifies. I don’t think I can praise the soundtrack enough in Halo, it’s one of the main reasons why the series is truly iconic and is still regarded as one of the best games ever nearly 20 years later.

Halo is a series I love, yes it has had a rather rocky journey in recent years with such debacles like the Master Chief Collection, but it still has a special place in my heart. I recommend anyone to go back and play the original Halo and experience where the titular ring’s legacy started.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Editorial | Abe's Oddysee's Atmosphere: "Follow me. Okay".

By Sam Coles:

If you know me on Twitter or in person you would know I love atmosphere in video games, it’s a major factor for my enjoyment in certain games whether they are horror, RPGs or even first person shooters. A game that sticks in my mind even 20 years later is Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee. It’s a game that even over two decades later still holds up with its visual style, gameplay and atmosphere. It’s a game that I had played a lot as child and I remember it scaring me. Now of course that is different now as I’m a grown man and games don’t scare me (for the most part), but I want to talk about the atmosphere in this game.

Oddworld takes place in a world that has been gripped by capitalist greed, where a corporation called Rupture Farms have almost butchered all animals towards extinction. Abe is a worker at said farm, but there is one catch he is a slave and works long hours with no breaks. It’s one evening when he is cleaning the floors he stumbles on a meeting, it turns out they are running out of animals to farm, Abe being naïve thinking they have plan (which they do) doesn’t think anything of it. That is until it is revealed that they are planning on killing Abe and his race, where they want to turn them into meat lollypops. Understandably Abe flees the scene and tries to escape, making himself a wanted criminal in tandem. The story for original PlayStation standards is rather engaging, yes it’s dark but there are scenes of levity where the game can swap out the serious mask for a more humorous outlook.

Gameplay is slow, intentionally slow as it encourages you to take your time as Abe has the durability of a block cheese left out in the hot sun as he can take as many hits as asthmatic bong user.  The point of the game is to take your time and be methodical about your approach, as stealth is key as well saving your fellow Mudokons.

Gameplay is not the discussion of this editorial; I want to talk about the environments and atmosphere from the different areas, sound design and music. The environments are what truly stand out in this game, even over 20 years later these pre-rendered backgrounds hold up really well. The different areas you explore are varied, oppressive and sometimes beautiful, from the blood soaked and rusty floors of Rupture Farms to the ever stretching trees of the forest of Paramonia. Each area is distinct from one another, and these can fill you with dread or make you relax it is truly is a testament of how creative the level design is in this game.

The music and sound design is something that has stuck with me throughout the years; it even begins before the game starts. As the game loads you get a noise which I can assume is being made by Abe, then the ominous main theme slowly chimes in and you see Abe’s adorable face appear greeting you with “Hello”. Honestly as a child this main theme scared me a bit, it was due its unnatural sounds with that deep bass note in the background constantly droning. It’s something that carries on throughout the game, from the industrial and metallic tones of Rupture Farms to other worldly realms of the temple of the Mudokons.

Sound design is something that haunted me as a child as well; the team at Oddworld Inc. did a fantastic job with sounds. This can be the more comedic sounds of sneaking around, which sounds like someone to trying to break in a pair of rubber pants to the heavy breathing of Sligs as they sleep. The sounds that get to me to this day are from the wildlife, the hisses that the Paramites make as they defend their nest truly get to me or the Slog’s barking and growling as they chase me down left me in a state of panic. Speaking of panic, the noise that Sligs would make when they spotted you terrified me, coupled with when I’m running away I can hear their mechanical legs getting faster and louder as they chase me down.

It’s easy to see why people still talk about this game in a good light, even over 20 years later people reference it whether be certain lines, noises or the soundtrack. Abe’s adorable little face has been solidified in gaming history, which it makes me want more from the titular Mudokon. If you haven’t given this game a play, I would recommend the original as I think the art style is better but the remake is also good.