Monday, 15 October 2018

Half-Life Review - "They're waiting for you Gordon..... in the test chamber".

By Sam Coles:

To say a game had an impact on the industry as a whole may come across as hyperbolic, but Half-Life did have a huge impact on first person narratives where first person shooters tried to replicate its first person storytelling. This game was one of the first introductions to the FPS genre, as I remember my oldest brother bought it around the year 2000 when he was still at secondary school. I remember playing it a lot and yes I know was a bit too young but you know what it’s like being the youngest of four. The game creeped me out as a child with the weird and slender zombie creatures. These days I find them rather comedic because there are not much of a threat, but this game got me into shooters and they are one of my favourite set of games to play.  

The story takes place in a fictional research centre in New Mexico called Black Mesa; you play as 27 year old MIT graduate Gordon Freeman. It is his first day at work and he is running late, they are testing a new material in the test chamber however things go wrong and they accidentally open a portal to another world and aliens pour through. What I like about Half-Life’s story is that it is up to you how much you want to take in; you can choose your own immersion. If you want to get the basic gist and start splitting zombies in two with buckshot then carry on, or you can examine the environment and find that there is far more going on that meets the eye. This type of storytelling is great and the only game I can think of that replicated it is Dark Souls. What is also astounding is that Gordon is completely silent, he lets his crowbar do all the talking, and you never see him with the exception of loading screens and box art.

Gameplay at the time was a departure from other shooters, as most games within the genre followed the formula of Doom where you have to collect colour coded keys and guns floated in the air. Half-Life had a more free flowing structure, as you continue on one continuous path as appose to the level by level and episodic structure.  It’s presented in a more realistic manner, well as realistic it can be as it is filled with mutant zombies, but what I mean is that guns are no longer floating in the air and they are place in believable places the world feels more believable.

Now to the actual firefights you’ll engage in and these are varied and never get tiresome, you start off in a survival horror setting where you are fighting off head crabs with nothing more than a crowbar. Later on you are granted access to a pistol where you fight off zombies, Vortigaunt, Houndeyes and Ball Squids. Then when your arsenal as equal as the Terminator’s, you face the more organised alien forces and the military to wipe out the problem with both aliens and scientists.

What I like about the enemy encounters is that you have think outside the box and take note of enemy attacks, as all of them have different patterns and weaknesses. The Vortigaunts are purely based on line of sight with their attacks, so if you are in front of them that is the only time that their attacks have an effect on you. The human soldiers are more organised and will communicate with each other as they assess the situation, not that they are particularly clever as they are nowhere near as organised as the Replicas in Fear, but there are still formidable.

Visually for 1998 the game doesn’t look bad; it runs on the golden source engine which is a modified Quake II engine. Character models for the time look fine and have decent detail, yes it is rather laughable for me to say that now but put yourself back in late 90’s and you can understand. The atmosphere in general when it comes to visuals is spectacular, as it is not just relentless action as there is a lot of downtime in this game where the horror aspect really kicks into gear with distant industrial hums. 

Are there any issues with Half-Life? Yes there are, for starters this is most definitely a shooter from the 90’s, so you know what that means? First person platforming where you don’t know where your feet are, because you are a floating camera with a gun. The other issue is that your allies have a habit of getting in the way, the amount of times I’ve unintentionally gunned down a scientist because he thought he was made of Kevlar was ridiculous.

Over Half-Life is still a fun game to play 20 years later, yes it has aged visually but the gameplay is still really tight. There is a reason why people still discuss today, with its great gameplay and storytelling that lets the play choose what he or she wants to take in.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Editorial | My strange love with Final Fantasy.

By Sam Coles:

Final Fantasy is a strange love to me, what do I mean by this? Well if you told me to play a Final Fantasy game 5 years ago, I would have more than likely laughed at you, chugged down another cup of coffee and played another round of Battlefield or Call of Duty. However as I have gotten older and with the privilege of being able to try any game I want with my writing, I found I’m open to more genres. Not only that a very close friend of mine got me into them as I witnessed her passion for the series.

It was around 2014/2015 where I first got to know my friend Kim; we would talk about games here and there. This was when my Twitter community was somewhat small where I was only just breaking a thousand followers, I started to notice her deep passion for Final Fantasy and at the time I just shrugged my shoulders at the matter. However as the months passed I began to take more notice of her posts about the games, and I thought maybe I should give them another chance. It was around early 2015 I started to write reviews for 365bristol, which were much bigger than me compared to the infant state my blog was in.

I got the opportunity to check out Final Fantasy Type 0 HD, a bit of an obscure game in the series but I fell in love with it. Why? It was the somewhat dark story in that game, where they are training children to become soldiers and killing machines and the emotional intro cutscene to the game got me hooked. After playing and reviewing that game, I went back and played the older titles and I was enamoured with the world, characters and music especially the music.

The worlds are something to behold even the old original PlayStation titles, there is something appealing about the pre-rendered backgrounds from the old PlayStation games. I went back and played Final Fantasy VII, I know people like to bang on how good the game is but they are right as it has beautiful world to explore with a mix of science fiction and high fantasy. The environments are truly beautiful and yes even in Final Fantasy XIII (more on that game later), with its crystal aesthetic which is thematically appropriate with the story.

The characters are what also drew me into the games to with their goals and flaws. Lightning controversially is one of my favourites, now I know people say she is bland but honestly I disagree. I would say she is reserved and trying stay strong for her sister that she is trying to save, where she is withholding tears to show she is strong.

It’s not just Lightning, Noctis and his friends are another group of characters are people I can relate to. It reminds me of my years doing my A-levels where me and my friends during the hot months, we would pack some things up and just explore and camp sharing stories and experiences around the orange glow of a fire. Final Fantasy XV as unfinished it was, is one of my favourite games of the generation and one of my favourite games in the Final Fantasy series, due to it having a simple yet relatable plot of sticking with your friends until the end.

The music is also something that sticks with me; I don’t think I’m the only one who sits there on the main menus just listening to the calming and sombre tones especially in FF XIII. The music can either be grandiose and epic to really emotional which heightens scenes which can make the most hardened of people shed a little tear.  

Final Fantasy is a series that I would have never thought I would love, but here we are where I have a deep love for the characters, worlds and superb music. I know it’s not for everyone but maybe give it a chance, and perhaps you’ll be swayed like me.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Editorial | The horror of war in video games.

By Sam Coles:

War has been depicted in video games as far back as I can remember, but the usual argument is that it glorifies it which is mostly untrue but I can understand why people think this due to the interactive nature of the medium. War games have shown us the true horrors of war, with harrowing endeavours from the beaches of Normandy to the dark and damp rat tunnels of the Vietnam War. I want to discuss a few examples of how it shows how horrible it was for these men and women that serve in the military.

Call of Duty: World at War

Call of Duty: World at War when it as first announced I was rolling my eyes, because at that point I was feeling the fatigue of World War II shooters as I had been playing them for 10 years almost. However what we got was one of the most unapologetic depictions of the Second World War as they ramped up the gore as well as the tone being really dark.

It throws it in your face at the start of the game, there is no patronising tutorial it starts off you being a prisoner of war at the hands of the Japanese where your squad mate is being torture where he then has his throat sliced open. It’s a memorable moment as I thought Is this how they actually acted in the war  as I was a na├»ve 15 year old at the time. Surprisingly the BBFC only gave this game a 15+ probably due to historically context, but even when PEGI rated it they gave it a 16+.

The game also takes the battle tactics of the time with the Japanese, the don’t just sit there plinking at you from cover they Banzai charge you, lay traps and send in Kamikaze pilots. It shows an unapologetic authenticity with the Second World War, because the game doesn’t give a damn about your feelings.

It doesn’t stop there when you play as the Soviets, it focuses on story more as the gameplay is stock and generic as you have the Germans fight more regulated as oppose to the barbaric and guerrilla nature of the Japanese.  You start off in the streets of Stalingrad with your dead comrades surrounding you, you fortunately survive the endeavour and you find Sargent Reznov where he wants revenge for the massacre.
This is truly where the campaign gets dark with the subject matter, because the closer you get to the heart of Berlin the more blood thirsty the Soviets become. They start doing things that just as bad if not worse than what the Nazis are doing, where they execute surrendering soldiers in horrific fashion by throwing Molotov’s at them and mowing them down with machine gun fire. Some of these happen just off screen and you can miss them. The hypocrisy from the Soviets is at a high because they acting are acting in the exact same manner as the Germans did in Stalingrad, acting as if it justified. Call of Duty World at War’s campaign still sticks with me even 10 years later with its tone as I can’t think of one moment of levity.

Halo: Reach

Now I know what you’re thinking “Halo? How is that a good depiction of war”? Well compare to the other games in the series, Halo: Reach’s tone is completely different it doesn’t have an over the top and epic atmosphere. The tone is serious and it shows that Spartans are not unstoppable killing machines, as they are well… human.

The fate of the playable character is sealed at the start of the game as you see your helmet stick out of the ground, after the heat of battle as the ash settles on the ground. Noble team are picked off one by one over the course of the game, and this it’s not built up half the time as sometimes they will be taken out in mid-sentence. It shows a darker side of the conflict between the human race and The Covenant, plus the ending of the game where it is just you and enemy where you have to “Survive” which is impossible and you die fighting for Earth.

The Spartans in this game are not shown as super soldiers in this game, although they have those abilities but they act in a more down to earth and believable manner as there sarcasm is realistic.

Spec Ops: The Line

Now I expect you are sick of me talking about Spec Ops The Line, but this is the ultimate example of showing horror of war where it puts the weight of killing people on your shoulders. The game never backs down and shows you horrific images, where the game starts to berate you for your actions.

As I have said before the scene that still sticks out to me to this day which makes me feel horrible every time I play it is the white phosphorous section. You are tasked of clearing a camp which you think is filled with enemy combatants, however after the dust has settled you are forced to walk through  your destruction as you see soldiers writhing around in pain screaming and moaning. It’s not until you come across a crowd of civilians chard to a crisp, this is where the story of the game flips and the main character snaps, it shows what a soldier goes through in war and how it affects the mind.

War is not easy to depict in a respectful manner in video games, as you have to make the game fun. However these examples deliver dark and horrifying stories where soldiers are trying to survive whether it is physically or mentally.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Shenmue I & II HD Review - I understand the influence but it's tedious.

By Sam Coles:

Nostalgia it’s one powerful drug, I say this as it applies to this game well to those who have played it. I for one have never played these games and I’m sorry they are not very good, now I don’t care how old a game is as I long I can pick it up and enjoy it. Shenmue is clunky and boring to play, plus this is just poor remaster with some technical issues that prevent me from enjoying the story.

You play as Ryo who has returned to find his father is being attack, it’s not long until he is murdered and Ryo is injured during the endeavour. He wakes up and begins an investigation of who attacked and killed his father. It’s a classic revenge tale nothing wrong with that, here is a tip for playing through this story switch the voice acting to Japanese with English subtitles. The English dub is atrocious, now I know it has its charm but when the game tries to convey an emotional scene, it’s like a child’s rendition of Hamlet as the dialogue is wooden and ear grating.

The gameplay is all about exploring and talking to people as well as just taking the world in, all inhabitants have their own schedule which was impressive especially for a console game in 1999. There are combat sequences similar to the Yakuza games, which to no surprise some of the developers who worked on this game moved onto the Yakuza series. They are not great they lack impact and unlike Yakuza you can’t stove someone’s face in with a bicycle, it feels like a rough draft of what is to come. You can also play mini games and iconic Sega arcade games, you can really tell that Yakuza took notes from these games, but unlike Shenmue the Yakuza games are exciting rather than tedious.

To go back to the schedules with the people of the world, you can only visit people or complete tasks at certain times, so far not so bad. However in the first game you cannot fast forward to time, so you find yourself waiting around, loitering in the streets like a hotdog vender. Fortunately they did fix this in Shenmue II and I know they want you to explore and play around with mini games and talk to other characters, but some people just want play the main story and don’t want to waste their time.

I can’t really critique the visuals to today’s standards as these games are from the late 90’s to the early 2000’s, but what I can say is that they are very impressive for a console game from the late 90’s, as the best looking games at the time was Metal Gear Solid or Ocarina of Time. The scope of the open world is really impressive and we had not seen anything like it on console before.

Let’s talk about the technical issues; this has to be one of the poorest remasters I have ever played. First the cinematic scenes run in an aspect ratio of 4:3 even when you choose 16:9 in the main menu, I thought this was a bug when I started the game originally but no the widescreen aspect ratio only applies to the gameplay. It gets really distracting when you’re running around, and suddenly the screen shrinks like automatic doors that stop halfway. The first game also has terrible audio when it comes to dialogue, it is heavily compressed and it crackles all the time where it sounds like they recorded it in a bathroom.

Overall I can understand the framework of what Shenmue established, but as a video game it is tedious and snore inducing. With its technical issues and laziness of the port I can’t recommend this game, while I understand the influence for the future of open world games, which Grand Theft Auto III did better 2 years later it’s just not fun to play with a story that is poorly written and mind numbing gameplay.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Editorial | "Would you kindly" play Bioshock.

(Some spoilers)

By Sam Coles:

Sometimes when I think back to games that I love, I’m always surprised with how old they are due to it still being in the spotlight of gaming conversation. This is the case with Bioshock I remember being intrigued about the game before it came out, but at the time I didn’t have a 360 and PS3 as I made the poor decision of getting a Wii initially. I played Bioshock in 2009 when I first got my Xbox 360, where I bought it off my friend for £5 for the special tin edition he had. When I booted the game up I was introduced to the dark and foreboding atmosphere that is Rapture.

Bioshock’s story is one for the ages; you play as Jack who is on a plane that crashes into the ocean. He lives the endeavour and then finds a mysterious lighthouse which is unlocked where he then enters and is enveloped in darkness before the lights turn on. He is greeted by an ominous statue of Andrew Ryan with banner exclaiming “No gods or kings. Only man”. He then finds a mysterious lift like contraption which takes him to the underwater city of Rapture, where is greeted with the now famous speech from Andrew Ryan.

The reason why this story is remembered is its twist, half way through the game when you confront Andrew Ryan you find out that one simple phrase has been controlling you , “Would you kindly, powerful phrase… familiar phrase”. This revelation shocked players, as it was genius and before you brutally kill Ryan with a golf club he shouts a powerful statement “A man chooses, a slave obeys”.

It’s not just the story that had players hooked in Bioshock it was the fun gameplay, it is a hybrid of first person shooting and light RPG elements as this is a spiritual successor to Systemshock. You have a wide array of weapons from the standard say it with me now pistol, shotgun, machine and rocket launcher to the more unique such as the chemical thrower which can shoot fire or liquid nitrogen and the crossbow which is good for pinning enemies to walls.

You don’t just have guns to help you out during the tense combat, you have Plasmids think of them as magic but they have been genetically inserted into your body. These are really fun to you use, you have your standard lightning bolt and fire balls to the more unique such as being able to throw bees at people which seems rather juvenile now I think about it. These give you an edge in combat where it can be used in tandem with your weapons, such as the one, two punch with the wrench and lightning bolt where you to quote Atlas “Zap ‘em and whack ‘em”.

Gene tonics are also useful, think as these as passive perks which have an effect on yourself, firearms and your wrench. These can range from sending electric bolts every time an enemy hits you, to your wrench freezing enemies where you can smash them into ice cubes for your glass of Scotch later. These came at a cost as you had to use the game’s currency known as ADAM, how you gain this currency is by either saving or harvesting Little Sisters. You get more ADAM if you harvest them but this gives you the bad ending, if you save them you get less but they do give you better items in the later stages of the game.

The main aspect of Bioshock that has stuck with me the past decade is the atmosphere; it is a dark and foreboding place with blood that line the walls. What is scary is that it was once a thriving community, but then it turned into this uncivilised society where ADAM consumed people’s souls. When you walk the corridors of Rapture there is rarely any music, must music is present diegetic manner as you can distant radios play in the distance as well as the tortured moans of Big Daddies.   It is easily one of the best atmospheres from that period of gaming, alongside the original Dead Space.

Bioshock along with other titles from the 7th generation such as Red Dead Redemption will be talked about for the next 20 years. If you haven’t go and experience this masterpiece of a game, there are many ways to play it you can play it on the 360 and PS3 or on current gen hardware such as the PS4, Xbox One or PC. It really stands the test of time and his aged remarkably well.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Editorial | Metal Gear Solid 20 years later.

By Sam Coles:

1998 was one hell of a year for video games, we got titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, F-Zero X and of course the game I’m going to be discussing Metal Gear Solid. The first time I saw Metal Gear Solid I was five years old, it blew my mind how good it looked visually, now I know you can look at that statement and grin with how stupid it may come across these days but it was a technical show piece for the PS1 back in the day.

Metal Gear Solid had a huge impact on how linear games are made; even today you can feel the game’s routes with cinematic storytelling. Not to say it was the first of its kind when it comes to storytelling, as Final Fantasy VII had cinematic scenes. However Metal Gear Solid stood out as it had voice acting that didn’t sound like someone’s first rendition of Shakespeare or someone in a pornography film trying to persuade someone to perform sexual favours to pay for their pizza. No Metal Gear Solid’s voice acting actually has weight and emotion, yes it can have awkward pauses in some places, but overall you get invested in the story due to the dialogue being performed extremely well.

Gameplay was a standout too, now stealth was not anything new as the superb Thief was released the same year, but Metal Gear Solid relied more on line of sight as oppose to lighting. Stealth gameplay was tight where you can run and crawl or if the guards don’t notice you can flip them over your shoulders like a lumberjack, however the problem is you can’t walk slowly which is something they fortunately fixed in the sequel.

You have a huge inventory of weapons and gadgets; these can range from standard fire arms like a Socom pistol, assault rifle to more explosive offerings like homing missiles. You have gadgets and items to help you with sneaking around, such as inferred goggles to see laser trip wires, to the absolute ridiculous scenario where enemies are fooled by a cardboard box. Just because you are armed to the teeth it does not mean you can run around gunning down guards like the Doom marine, as the enemies will surround and you can take as many hits as an asthmatic bong user.  

The A.I was rather smart (at the time) as well, now I know it may sound hyperbolic to say that it was shocking when they would see your footprints and say “Who’s footprints are these”. But it was mind blowing for 1998; we had not seen anything like it before then.

Not to say that it is purely stealth as there are boss fights, which are completely ridiculous where you’ll be fighting mind controlling Soviet commandos, to a minigun wielding shaman. They are all unique and have different tactics to take them down, and of course this wouldn’t be a Metal Gear Solid article if I did not talk about Psycho Mantis. He starts off by reading your mind which is your memory card, where then proceeds to talk about the Konami games on your card as well as critiquing how often you save. He can read your every move during the fight where he seems to be invulnerable, however if you plug your controller into the second port he can be attacked. This is why this game is remembered to this day is because of its self-awareness, where it would even print important in game information on the back of CD case.   

Now this may sound silly in today’s climate, but visually it is an impressive game as it was a full 3D game with both characters and environments. What generally was the trend with PlayStation games was that only the characters and certain objects were in 3D, and the environments were generally pre-rendered backgrounds, this was not the case for Metal Gear. Character models were very impressive for the time, and yes these days the faces look like potatoes on a pike bobbing up and down and their motions look like something from a Gerry Anderson production. You have to be in the mind of 1998, where most games went for a cartoonish look which honestly has aged better than most games that shot for realism, but it was a breath fresh air with its grounded setting.

Metal Gear Solid is truly a wonderful game, which influenced the industry of how they make singleplayer games with its cinematic flare. If you have any means of playing this game I would recommend it, as its storytelling is wonderful, the gameplay can take a while to get use to but it is fantastic nonetheless.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Gears of War 2 Review - "I have a rendezvous with death".

By Sam Coles:

The Gears of War series has been going for 12 years now, I remember when the first came out and my 13 year old mind could not believe the visuals being shown. Although crude by today’s standards, you can’t deny the visual spectacle that the Xbox 360 was pushing with the original Gears of War. Two years later Epic would follow up with a sequel, and I have to say it’s probably one of the darkest games in the series in terms of subject matter. What stood out to me when the game was announced was the trailer with a voiceover, and one of the lines that sticks in my head to this day is “I have a rendezvous with death”. This line is rather fitting as you see your squad mates and comrades in general dying around you.

Gears of War 2 takes place after the events of the first, where it turns out their attempt to wipe out the Locust Horde was unsuccessful as the light mass bomb only killed a sizeable chunk. The leader of the Locust Queen Mira reveals herself along with her chainsaw wield general, who is more agile and flexible compared to the hulking behemoth that was General Raam. It turns out that the Locust are kidnapping humans, processing them and torturing them, this part of the story is very grim and dark as you see people wasting away or ending it all due to the sadistic acts that the Locust conduct. The story is really good, but leaves me feeling a bit cold due to some the dark moments compared to the first game due to the subject matter.

Gameplay has been tweaked compared to the first, I feel that Epic Games got a real feel for the gunplay in Gears of War 2 as everything feels snappy and fluid compared to the first where it felt stiff. They added a few new weapons such as the Grinder Minigun, Boomshield and the Gorgon Pistol which fires three bullets with each use. Squad commands are now gone, but to be honest I never used them in the original games as my A.I teammates would never listen to me. 

This was also the introduction of Horde Mode, where you face 50 waves of Locust as it climbs in difficulty. This was a period where all games were either trying to copy four player co-op like Left 4 Dead, imitate Modern Warfare and of course the Horde Mode in Gears of War. It’s not a bad mode, however it does start to get a tad repetitive and boring after a while.

The only real issues I had with the gameplay is that A.I squad mates would run in with the tactics of a suicide bomber and be in a downed state, that is something they did not fix with the first game. The other issue is the camera when you sprint, it is like someone who is drunk behind you filming who has kneecaps made of elastic, where it is almost headache inducing when it bobs up, down and side to side.

Presentation is still superb considering the game came out a decade ago it still holds up in the visual deparement, even the character models look pretty good still. What I like about the visuals in this game are the Locust structures, there is a gothic like look to them similar to Warhammer 40k, which Gears borrows from heavily. The only really issue I had was performance, this was 2008 and games were shooting for good graphics (at the time) and unfortunately sacrificed framerate, Gears of War 2 is no exception and the game stutters like a bicycle rear derailleur that hasn’t be indexed correctly in certain parts of the game.

Gears of War 2 is still a great game to play a decade after its release, it does have framerate problems and questionable friendly A.I but it has a dark and interesting story coupled with intense and gory gameplay. You can pick this game for insanely cheap these days, I see it going for 50p in a lot shops and if you own an Xbox One it is playable on that via backwards capability and is also Xbox One X Enhanced.