Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Editorial | Exploring the world of Red Dead Redemption II.

By Sam Coles:

Red Dead Redemption II has to be one of my favourite games of this generation; it was a long and staggering wait for me as I had been anticipating a sequel ever since I finished the last game in the summer of 2010. There is something about the open world in this game that stands out from others in the genre, I want to go into it and talk about why it is special. Let’s go on a journey as we explore the world of Red Dead Redemption II.

The problem I have with most open world games is that they don’t feel like a living breathing world, where you are dumped in this visually stunning looking environment where it then reveals its two dimensional nature where you have a check list that you obliterate. Rockstar somehow makes the world interesting to explore, and it doesn’t matter that map is huge I never found myself using fast travel at all because the world is that interesting where anything can happen.

Once the game has finished its prologue the world is more or less yours to explore, this is what I like about Rockstar open worlds since GTA V they no longer restrict you from exploring all of its world from the word go. Things open gradually and organically, there are never any objective markers above an NPC, they will shout to you if you need your help. In Ubisoft open worlds they get this wrong on every level, as it seems they want to constantly remind you that you are playing a video game with their tooltips and constant reminders of events like they are a nagging spouse.

The game’s activities are delivered to you in an organic manner; you don’t see flashing icons in front of you. Say you want to hunt down a bounty all you have to do is find a wanted poster and talk to the sheriff, it makes exploring the world believable and dare I say it “realistic”. It’s something that kept me exploring the world, even the random events are fleshed out more due to the unique scenarios. These can be events such as people trying to blow open a safe on the side of the road, needing a lift to town or stopping a robbery. What makes this great is that you can react how you want to, you can help people or you can pull out a sawn-off shotgun and full their face in with buckshot.

It is the design of the world which encourages players to go off the beaten path and see what they can find, which there is a lot you can find. Whether it is abandoned camps where you piece together what happened or hermits that have decided to live outside of society and reject cultural norms.

What helps with the exploration of Red Dead’s open world is the HUD, or should I say lack thereof. There is a HUD but ever since Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto IV they have gone for a minimalistic look, where they only really display a map and your ammunition as they want you to see the landscapes. What I loved doing is turning off the HUD entirely, as you can really appreciate all the effort that Rockstar have put into crafting this beautifully realised world from frost laden mountains with snow creasing as you walkthrough, to damp and humid swamps with crickets chirping in the darkness.

Red Dead Redemption II is an open world experience that has me captivated with its beauty, it’s been a long time that I felt genuine love for a video game’s world, last time I felt this wonder was when I played Oblivion for the first time. Rockstar have truly created something special, where I want eat, sleep and live in for years to come.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Luigi's Mansion 3DS Review - A GameCube classic in the palm of your hand.

By Sam Coles:

In 2001 Nintendo released the GameCube; a console while good struggled to find a market with gamers. 
For one it probably didn’t help that it used tiny discs which could barely hold 1gb of space, compare to the PS2 and Xbox’s DVD format that could hold over 7gb. However the console housed a lot of great and unique games, Luigi’s Mansion was one of those games. Luigi’s Mansion was met with hostility initially due to it not being a traditional Mario game; however it was a fun and silly spooky horror game although it was not scary and was more like a child version of Resident Evil. 17 years later Nintendo have remastered it for a portable console, and it is mind boggling how I can play a console game in the palm of my hands. How does it hold up? Fine although it does have some control issues, let’s get into it.

You step into the shoes of the green clothed titular plumber, but this time Luigi is not saving the princess with his brother Mario, instead he has won a mansion in the lottery. However this turns out to be a ruse, where Luigi goes to meet Mario but it turns out that he has been kidnapped by King Boo who is well…. King of the Boos. The mansion is flooded with all manners of super natural entities, and Luigi must deal with them with the Poltergust 3000, which is a vacuum cleaner. The game’s story is great it does not take itself seriously, plus Luigi’s cowardly personality really stands out in this game as he hums nervously down the dimly lit corridors.  

Gameplay consists of exploring, light puzzle solving and combat, you explore the mansion looking for keys, money and objects of interest that will lead you to find Mario. The puzzles are not anything too taxing on the brain; it merely comes down to using the correct elemental medallion on certain enemies or doing certain things in a specific order. You have to bear in mind that this game is aimed at children first and foremost, so the puzzles are not going to be enigma code levels of complexity.

Combat is where things start to feel a bit clunky and this is due to me playing this game on an original 3DS from 2011. Luigi’s Mansion on the GameCube relied on a dual analogue stick control scheme, the original 3DS lacks a second stick but it does try different schemes to help improve the situation such as gyroscopic movement. This however was a real pain in the backside because I would find Luigi staring at the ceiling, because I would readjust to get comfortable and my 3DS would register that as movement. I found myself getting very frustrated in some combat scenarios, especially when I was ambushed by ghosts from either side as I could not swing around with ease due to the lack of a second analogue stick. I would recommend playing it on a New 3DS as that has a second stick.

The game has been given a new coat of paint when it comes to graphical fidelity, with Luigi’s character model looking cleaner and smoother instead of the blurry look of the GameCube original. However there are some graphical features missing in this version of the game, there are certain smoke and fog effects not present I expect this is to keep it at a stable framerate. This doesn’t overshadow the experience, as you will only notice it if you own the original game like myself.

Overall it was fun to revisit this classic in a portable environment, if you told me 17 years ago if you could play a game like Luigi’s Mansion on the go I would have laughed. It is astonishing what type of games we can play in the palm of our hands these days. Luigi’s Mansion is still a charming and fun adventure; despite some of the control issues which I got use to eventually it is a very enjoyable game.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Editorial | Why Dragon Age is special to me.

By Sam Coles:

If you know me you would know I have a deep love for high fantasy, whether it is in books and of course video games. Dragon Age is a series that I have deep love for, as it has a special place in my heart because it got me through a tough time in my life. I just want to talk about why the series is so special to me, and detail my personal feelings towards the series.

In early 2011 I was in the second half of studying my final year of A-levels, I just got back from the Christmas break and honestly I was feeling low. The days were dark, miserable and cold and I just felt too much pressure from my studies. As I was cycling home one afternoon I went into my local Blockbuster, I perused the shelves as I usually did and I saw a game called Dragon Age: Origins. At the time I didn’t follow the gaming industry as I all did in terms of writing about video games were reviews for my local newspaper, but the Bioware logo stood out to me as I had played Mass Effect 2 the year prior. I thought Wow a high fantasy RPG made by the same people who made Mass Effect, as I was just starting to read through the Lord of the Rings trilogy at the time, so I was enthralled with the setting. When I got home and put the game into my 360 I fell in love, as I explored the world of Thedas.

What I noticed about Dragon Age when I first booted up the game are the characters, they are all well written from the lustful and beautiful Morrigan, the cheeky and clever remarks from Alistair to the wise, calm and collective demeanour of Duncan. Even the sequels that people like to hate have some wonderful characters, such as the sly but charming dwarf Varric, the intimidating Seeker Cassandra and the noble hawk. Even the Inquisition with its returning cast has a few new ones that had me grinning ear to ear, such as the playful Sera the elven archer who is friendly but is not afraid to slit your throat if you get on her bad side.

It’s these characters that you genuinely get to know throughout all three games, you really connect with them when you sit around a fire and talk the night away in Origins, visit them in their homes in Dragon Age II or share an ale in the grounds of the Inquisition’s fort. They all feel dare I say it, realistic and believable you want to swap stories with them, whether it is a troubled past, sexual encounters or just conflicts they have had on their adventures.

The music is something that still sticks in my mind; every main menu has a beautiful theme. From the calm and soothing tones of Origins, the haunting and almost creepy atmosphere of Dragon Age II to the epic orchestral score of Inquisition which evokes the epic nature of the open world adventure you are about to embark on. It’s a soundtrack that I listen to in my spare time when I’m writing, it has a good mix of relaxing Celtic folk and adrenaline pumping orchestral scores when you are slaying Darkspawn in the Korcari Wilds.

You would probably laugh at me when I say the environments are beautiful, and yes even for 2009 Dragon Age: Origins wasn’t exactly on the cutting edge of tech. To be honest it is just the unique locations, such as Brecilian Forest which has one of the best character interactions with the Rhyming Oak Tree. It’s when Bioware switched to the Frostbite 3 engine for Inquisition was when they captured the beauty of Thedas, with lush green fields of the Hinterlands to the extravagant and ostentatious cities in Val Royeaux.

Dragon Age is a series where I can lose myself in world with well written characters, and worlds that feel lived in and believable that have a deep history. Yes the first two games are not the best looking games, but it is the lore and characters that keep me coming back where I feel genuine grief when I lose them whether it is through death or a disagreement. Even nearly a decade after its debut, Dragon Age is something I can revisit over and over again as it can always get me through a tough time and it can always make me smile no matter what.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Grip Review - Which way is the right way up?

By Sam Coles:

The 90’s were a strange time for gaming, more in a good way as game developers were more experimental with established genre tropes. This was the case with a racing game called Rollcage that released on the original PlayStation back in the late 90’s, as it was a racing game with an interesting gimmick. If you grew up in the 90’s you will perhaps remember those remote control cars which drive no matter which way up it is, Rollcage was a racing game with those in it which made for a fun and unique racer. Grip tries to recapture that in modern gaming, where it mostly succeeds.

Grip does not concern itself with a story as it is a racing game, it lets the gameplay do the talking and I must say racing games have been rather exciting in 2018. This is not realistic, I mean how realistic can you make a game that takes a remote control car that drive not matter which way up it is that also shoots rockets. The emphasis of this game is verticality, you don’t have to drive in a straight line, well you can if you are boring. What’s great about this emphasis on verticality is that you can find different ways around the track, with interesting shortcuts and plus it looks amazing spinning in the air as you break the sound barrier.

I found throughout my experience races never really fell in my favour completely, because usually in racing games once you are in first you generally just speed off into the sunset. However in Grip the races are very unpredictable due to the verticality and the emphasis of keeping momentum, because if you don’t keep your top speed up you will lose as the A.I opponents don’t mess around. If you do find yourself behind in a race you have access to items which are either offensive of a way of speeding up. You have two slots where you can stock one more item; these can range from speed boosts, machine guns or missiles to turn enemies into a pile of shrapnel on the asphalt.

Visually the game looks okay, not bad by all means but okay it’s not the best looking game and that is odd considering it runs on the Unreal Engine 4. However I can see why this game looks okay as it shoots for performance over looks which is something I will take, as this game is blisteringly fast as you hit speeds of 500 km an hour which requires ones utmost attention because if you fumble you will be tumbling off a cliff. Honestly the track design is what stands out rather than the visuals themselves, but let me stress it is not a terrible looking game but it’s just okay.

Grip is a game that evokes the 90’s where developers were daring with current genres; it is fast, frantic and will keep you on your toes. I highly recommend picking up this game if you are a fan of Rolecage that was released on the PS1 and you want a modern interpretation as it is really fun. The game is out now on PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Editorial | The resurrection of mascot platformers.

By Sam Coles:

The past couple of years we have seen a resurgence of mascot platformers, as they have been somewhat absent during this generation of gaming and last gen, with a few exceptions of indie projects. However there were none from triple A studios, well not any good ones I’m looking at you Knack. With the release of Ratchet and Clank back in 2016, there has been this slow resurrection of genre, where we eventually got a remake of the original Crash Bandicoot Trilogy and now Spyro. I want to discuss what makes these games so special, and why we suddenly have an interest from triple A developers again recently.

The mid to late 90’s was a wash of platformers since Mario 64 proved it can be done in 3D, others tried to cash in. It is true Crash Bandicoot did it six months prior, but it was basically a 2D game because it was a linear plain where you moved forward instead of side to side. Mario 64 had full 3D movement, so naturally other companies would capitalise on this. We had anything from Bob Cats, Mice and personified gloves, no I’m not joking if you remember Glover from the N64.

Why do people have such fond memories about these games? It wasn’t necessarily the gameplay, which wasn’t bad but it was run of mill mostly. No it was the characters and how unique the worlds were, from the Artisans Realm of Spyro the Dragon with its high fantasy aesthetic to the rain soaked jungles of Crash Bandicoot. The characters and worlds were just realised in such a beautiful way, with their popping colours and well written characters with self-aware humour.

The wonderful aspect about these types of games is that the developers could base it around anything, the only limitation for devs are their own imagination. We had characters like Earthworm Jim, Banjo Kazooie and hell I would even give credit to Bubsy the Bobcat the most irritating platform character in history just because it took some creativity. You could make a platformer about a jar of pickles and make it entertaining somehow.

As funny it maybe to say now given how spoilt we are with visuals now, the graphics with these sorts of games were something we had not seen before giving us what was at the time a Saturday morning cartoon look. Yes some of these games look crude by today’s standards but some of them have aged surprisingly well, such as Crash Bandicoot with his expressive eyebrows as he is about to mount an unfortunate Wild Boar.

In 2016 Sony released a remake of Ratchet and Clank for the PS4, which ignited an interest in genre but why did it spark an interest again? Well to be honest if we think about it and this is just a theory, the people who grew up with these games are now working in the industry and want to bring back that childlike wonder again with people who are still playing video games. Plus sometimes we just want to sit back and take a break from games that have heavy subject matters, don’t get me wrong I like a good narrative but I like to switch gears and play something that is light hearted and fun.

I think mascot platformers are slowly making a comeback, with remakes of Crash Bandicoot and of course the recent release of Spyro Reignited Trilogy. It evokes of a simpler time where the games industry didn’t take itself seriously and could have fun and laugh at itself.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Editorial | Stop and smell the roses.

By Sam Coles:

As I have said before, as I get older my gaming choices tend to take a slower pace. Now this is nothing to do with my reflexes being shot, far from it my reflexes are the best they have ever been. I just like to slow down and zone out where I figuratively and literally stop and smell the roses. I want to go other some of the games that have enthralled me over the years, where I can just look around with no particular goal or just games that take a more relaxed approach.

I can hear you all sigh with content and thinking “Oh god he’s talking about Oblivion again”. Yes while I do like to talk about this game a lot, that is because it has had a massive impact on my life even 12 years later I have a sense of wonder when I boot it up. The beauty of Oblivion is that you can take things in your stride; the game doesn’t really force to do a certain thing in a set path, with the exception of the dungeon escape. I always find myself exploring to see what settlements I could uncover and what ruins there are to uncover artefacts and weapons. Not only that Jeremy Soule’s melodic tones really help, with the soothing welcoming tunes as you walk through the market at dawn, to the emotional scores as you are traverse the fields of Cyrodiil. It never gets old and ages better (mostly) as the years go by.

The original Red Dead Redemption (yes I have to say that now), is one that is truly special to me, it got me through a tough time when I found my A-Level studies were weighing on me. When the game came out it consumed my summer in 2010, I could just load the game up and explore the plains of New Austin and Mexico. Like most Rockstar open worlds you can just do anything, but Red Dead took a slower approach which was thematically appropriate given its western setting. It is always a joy to lose oneself in the world of Red Dead, were you can stumble across interesting characters who want to talk, or rob and mutilate your corpse. Again the game doesn’t really force you down a set path, I can’t tell you enough the amount of things I found just going off the beaten path. Where I found camps left for the wildlife, to poor and helpless men and women with broken down stage coaches.

I know it may be a stock standard answer when it comes to The Witcher 3, but you have to recognise an achievement in terms of storytelling and role playing in interactive form. When they first said that The Witcher was going open world, I was hesitant but as I thought about it more it made sense. Every time I boot up The Witcher 3 I tend to just slowly walk around taking things in, whether it be the cobbled streets of Novigrad or the boggy swamps of Velen. It’s the attention to detail which make me to take my time and explore the nooks and crannies of the environments, coupled with the fantastic musical score from the Polish folk band Percival. It’s a game that encourages you to take your time, and almost pokes you saying “do you see that abandoned hut over there? Take a look”. It’s that organic nature of the game that makes it fun to explore.

Now this last example may make you call my gaming credibility into question just hear me out, Two Worlds II has a beautiful environment that makes you want explore its entirety. Yes this game has a lot of issues with animations, voice acting and to put it politely questionable controls. However it has this slow and steady pace to it where I like to look around the varied environments which you don’t often see in medieval style RPGs, you start off in a beautiful African Savanna to a village that resembles Feudal Japan. It’s not the most technically polished game, but it is a true testament of how they managed to produce such a visually pleasing world to explore, it was an apology letter in video game form after the disastrous first game.

Those are just a few examples of games where I just like to slow down and take my time, or smell the roses as it were. The next time you play a game just stop and take the time to appreciate the subtle things, you may find something special that others will not even bat an eyelid at. This is what makes the interactive medium special, that everyone has a different experience.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Editorial | John Marston - Outlaw to Gentleman (spoilers for RDR 2)

By Sam Coles:

Red Dead Redemption II is one of if not my favourite game of 2018; check out my review if you haven’t. It has given me a new outlook on John Marston, he is not the main focus of the game well not in the first three quarters of the game but it does shine a light on the character. I want to go over John’s transformation from a hot headed and blood thirsty outlaw to a gentlemanly cowboy.

When the game begins, you are transporting your gang through snow laden tundra of the mountains after a heist gone wrong, John goes missing and Arthur has to go and find him. Arthur retorts with “He’s gone riding off again” suggesting that this is something quite common with John, Arthur goes and finds him like an obligated father. John is injured which gives me his signature scares that are tattooed into his face, once John is back in good health he is up to no good.  

It’s clear that Arthur has some reservations with John, as he is reluctant to do any jobs with him mostly due to his impulsive nature which leads them to a cordite filled situation. However as the months go on Arthur begins to warm up to John, and Marston begins to realise he can’t keep the criminal life up and starts to doubt Dutch’s words of a life in a tropical paradise as he keeps saying “Just one more time”. John starts to realise that he can’t continue like this, as he has a child and partner and he can’t raise a family with empty promises of paradise. So after one thing after another, he leaves the gang after Dutch goes insane, where he then retires to a normal and mundane life as a ranch hand.

When John leaves the outlaw life he tries to go straight and find a legitimate job, however he has trouble adjusting to normal life at first as his violent tendencies have a habit of surfacing in certain situations. He stumbles on a farm as he is delivering food and supplies to them, he sees that they are being hounded by a small time gang where he then chases them off. He is taken on by the ranch where he and his family can stay on site; he slowly warms up to the ranching life as he is shown the ropes as he slowly falls into a routine.

John’s violent tendencies seep through once again, but it’s not through malicious intent as he is trying to defend the ranch he works for against bandits. His partner Abigale doesn’t see it that way, she sees it as John going back to his old ways and then she leaves. John now alone and broken decides to prove himself, he hears about a piece of land in Beechers Hope and wants to settle there. With some help from his boss he is able to take out a loan, gather materials and build his home where he can settle, what I like about this character development we see Marston mature and shape into the man we know in the original Red Dead Redemption. He truly turns into a man of honour and respect.

With his home built John finally gets his wife back, it’s a touching moment and we see him turn into a sensitive soul as they go and do normal things such as going to the theatre and getting their photo taken. We see the sensitive side of John show, and his violent and outlaw life have finally faded away as he can leave the madness of Dutch behind and live it out with his family, for now anyway.

It was great to see John Marston’s character to shape in Red Dead Redemption II, from a na├»ve and violent outlaw to an emotional and gentle soul who wants nothing more than to live the rest of his days with his family. It makes it doubly hard to deal with his fate in the original game, and makes me shed a tear more as it shows that he genuinely wants to make a difference in his life.