Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Editorial | One year with the Yakuza series.

By Sam Coles:

In early 2017 the folks at Sega gave me the chance to review Yakuza 0 a full month before the game was released here in the west, I wasn’t expecting much but it blew me away with the excellent storytelling and fun bone crunching action. I had a brief spell with the series in 2015 with the 4th game on the PS3, but I couldn’t get into probably because of the stupid decision of playing the 4th game first. I want to go over a retrospective over the past year with my experience with the series with the lead up to Yakuza Kiwami 2.

As I said before my first experience with Yakuza was the fourth game back in 2015, I couldn’t get into it because stupidly I decided to play the fourth game in a decade long franchise so I left it on my shelf to collect dust. In early 2017 with my position of writing for a popular online local magazine, I was given the opportunity from Sega to play and review Yakuza 0 almost a full month before its release in the west. At first I was a bit indifferent about it as it has a slow start, but I found that was intentional as the game builds tension and it starts off mundane to shirtless punch ups in the second half. It’s an excellent way of building up to the action, while they build context with the excellent voice acting from the Japanese cast.

Why I fell in love with this series was because of the main protagonist, Kiryu Kazuma is such a fantastic character he is really sympathetic and his determination to help those who he loves is wonderful. You would think a hardened gangster would not fit for a sympathetic character, but you would be wrong because most of the time he is trying to escape his blood soaked past and life as he wants to settle down. Throughout the past 13 years of the series we see him go from hardened gangster to a loving father figure to his adopted daughter Haruka.

Kiryu is not the only character that I love in this franchise; you can’t talk about Yakuza without talking about the absolute lunatic the Mad Dog of Shimano aka Goro Majima. He is mostly known for acting like an absolute weirdo who dresses as if he woke up in a locale sex shop, but in Yakuza 0 he is a fairly level headed person who has second thoughts as he is tasked with assassinating a woman so he can get back into the Yakuza. Not to say that he doesn’t gain glee for kicking seven shades of blue out of someone, I mean you just have to look at the introduction of him in the game and he still treats his customer well even when he is being attacked.  

It wouldn’t be a video game without the fundamental feature of a game which is gameplay, and Yakuza does not disappoint. It is a mixture of classic brawlers such as Streets of Rage and Final Fight coupled with the open hub exploration of Shenmue. You explore fictional regions of Tokyo, Hiroshima and Osaka; where you can eat food, drink, gamble, disco dance, partake in karaoke, play old Sega arcade games and the list goes on with how much you can do in this game, where it turns into a faffing about simulator. The crippling amount of detail they put into the regions in these games is insane, if you see something nine times out of ten you can interact with it, it’s something we don’t see with most triple A games.

The combat is where the game really shines, like J-RPGs combat is split up from the exploration as it acts like random encounters, where you are pursued then you are transported into the combat zone. This is how you do hand to hand combat with feedback and controls, it is really brutal with blood flying everywhere as you smash someone’s teeth in with an everyday household object from tables, chairs, a box of nails and my favourite bicycles where Kiyru and Majima wield them with impossible finesse. I can never get bored of the combat in these games as it is a great outlet when you have had a stressful day, plus the implausibility of some of heat moves make me laugh, such as Majima balancing a metal pole in his mouth for him to throw it in the air and kick it square into his opponents nose. In most encounters I found myself sprinting in, for me to then do a fly kick and repurposed someone’s nose cartilage as shoe polish.

The Yakuza series is something I would have not touched five years ago; however these days I’m open to try any genre as it comes with the territory. I’m glad I got the opportunity to try the series and I have a new love and it is up there with my favourite franchises such as Metal Gear Solid, The Witcher and The Elder Scrolls. If you haven’t played these games and you’re looking for emotional tales and fun gameplay I can’t recommend these games enough.

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Editorial | Atmosphere in video games.

By Sam Coles:

There are times where we the players stop and take in the environment we are in, this can be because the situation is tense in horror or we are in awe as we explore a beautifully crafted open world as we drive, ride or fly through it. I want to go through a few examples of atmosphere in video games, from the dark and oppressive to the serine and calm and why they had an impact on me.

The first time I played The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion I wasn’t expecting it to impact me as much as it did when I first played it on PC when I was 14 years old. It started off by dragging me by the nose through a linear corridor within the Imperial Dungeons curb checking cult members, however it was when I left the darkness of dungeon is when I was encapsulated. The first time I emerged from the dungeons into the world of Cyrodiil, I was enthralled as sun shined over the green rolling hills as the magnificent musical score of Jeremy Soule chimed in.

Oblivion has a calm and collective atmosphere, I feel safe when I play this game as it is a game I like to play to relax with the vast towns, cities and rural villages, which I have yet to discover all of them over a decade later. Not to say that game can’t be action packed and tense, all you have to do is enter a cave or dungeon with the music switching from relaxing to dark and foreboding. When I play Oblivion I don’t necessarily partake in specific quests, I generally just roam the lands exploring, greeting NPCs and just soaking in the markets of the various towns as if it were my own region where I know the ins and outs of the area. The game is certainly crude by today’s standards but if you can ignore the character models and just take in the environment, it is almost tear inducing with how beautiful it is this why I hold this game in higher regard than Skyrim.

Another game that had me just exploring and just taking in the environment was The Witcher 3, I played The Witcher 2 before hand in 2012 when it debuted on the 360 where I then went back and read the two books that were translated into English at the time. The second game had detailed environments, but lacked the exploration of the world that I felt when I read the books as Geralt hunted monsters with his sharped witted friend and bard Dandelion.

When first started to explore the open world of The Witcher 3, I felt like Geralt did in the books where he was searching every nook and cranny for his prey while asking the locals, it represented his character from the books more in the third game compared to the second. As I walked through the streets of Novigrad and Oxenfurt it is as if they have leaked off the pages and onto my television screen, coupled by the beautiful musical score provided by the Polish folk band Percival.

Now we have the other end of the spectrum of atmosphere with the dark and oppressive environments in the world of F.E.A.R, this game at first seems to be another action game following the popularity of the Matrix of the time but it is more than that.  F.E.A.R is more than just an action game; it is dripping with atmosphere, with its deep and dark corridors with music at a minimum. When there is music it has an industrial tone as you trudge through the oppressive environments as you hear are your footsteps echoing, coupled with the distant whispers of threats that are unknown which can be sweat inducing.

F.E.A.R is a game where you have to embrace the darkness, 99 percent of the game is enveloped in a thick layer of pitch black darkness, you would think this would hinder the experience but it doesn’t as it makes you feel uneasy as you have no idea what lurks human or not. The game is over the top with the gunfights, but after firefights the game slows down as all you can hear are the subtle laughs of Alma as well as objects flying off shelves as the restless ghosts are trying to push you away.

Resident Evil 4 although predominantly an action game, has a surprisingly solid horror atmosphere, don’t get me wrong you’ll be mainly knee capping monks and suplexing them. However the game can suddenly change and be very tense, as it disarms the player making them think this is a harmless action game and then it goes quiet and you just hear the ambient noises or the terrifying Regenerators. It was always a good juxtaposition to the action and a good reminder that it is a Resident Evil game, you have high octane action for it to then to switch the atmosphere to terrifying, and again the lack of music in these segments coupled with the sound of the environments is all you need.

Atmosphere in video games can be something that comforts you or it can be used to terrify the player and keep them on edge, when a game gets it right it is absolutely beautiful and it sucks you into that world.

Monday, 23 July 2018

Halo: Combat Evolved Review - A landmark title for console shooters.

By Sam Coles:

When people think about Xbox these days it seems to be in a negative light, but honestly I don’t understand why, and yes there are a lack of exclusives but if you think about exclusives released each year on consoles during the 360 and PS3 I can count on hand how many were released. However 17 years ago when they entered the console market with their Xbox people were unsure if they could compete with the likes of Sony and Nintendo, but there was one green armoured clad hero that put them on the map and that game was Halo. Halo was originally going to be an RTS for the Macintosh, however Microsoft so the potential in the studio and bought the studio, Bungie scrapped the RTS idea, made a third person game until they settled on the shooter we know today.

Halo is about the titular rings which are held in high regard by the alien race known as the Covenant, they regard the rings as holy relics but they are a weapon to cleanse the galaxy when the parasitic race known as the flood take over. You play as the Master Chief, who has been stasis since the UNSC have been fleeing from the planet Reach, where the Covenant invaded and destroyed the planet. When you are fleeing a Covenant armada is on your tale where they then catch up and begin to board your ship, Captain Keyes decides to wake Master Chief out of stasis to give the Covenant a good seeing to. Then the game begins, you drive the aliens off the ship and escape via an escape pod and land on the Halo ring, the story is not terribly deep, but it has a lot of intrigue due to the mysterious nature of the Halo ring.

I played this game on Heroic via the Master Chief Collection as I wanted the higher frame rate, as 60 frames per second is nice for a first person shooter but I did play my original Xbox copy for comparison. I found Heroic difficulty was the perfect balance of fun and challenging because playing on Legendary on your own is the equivalent of putting your gonads in a vice. When I played on Heroic I found myself switching and using all the weapons at my disposal, with the exception of the assault rifle which is about as useful as harsh language on higher difficulties as enemies shake off shots from that gun like butterfly kisses.

All the enemies have different ways of taking them down, you have the Elites which are the commanding officers on the field which if you kill them the Grunts and Jackals will panic and run about the battlefield, the Grunts and Jackals are the cannon fodder, the Hunters are hulking beasts that hunt in pairs but can be taken down with a single pistol shot to the back. Finally you have the most irritating enemies in the game the Flood, the Flood are zombie like creatures that can take control of dead enemies, now you would think this would add a new and interesting dynamic for combat. Wrong, they are the most frustrating enemy due to the small parasites that roam the battlefield, as they can take control of enemies you have already killed where they one shot your with a  rocket launcher where you fly in other direction as if you’re in a Looney Toons cartoon. It’s doubly annoying as this can happen behind you which catches you off guard, where I thought about repurposing my controller as a wall mount.

Presentation is fantastic, especially in the anniversary edition although this was at a time where developers had a complete obsession with bloom which would make Ray Charles squint. The great thing about the anniversary edition is that you can switch to the original Xbox graphics, and yes it is crude by today’s standards but there was nothing like it at the time on consoles with the huge wide open spaces coupled with the animations from the enemies. I played the Master Chief version and the original Xbox version and the Xbox One version of the game is the way to go, as it runs at a smooth 60 frames per second for the most part. The game does stutter in parts during busy gunfights, but this was the case in the original release as well but it was more noticeable as that game targeted 30 fps and it would drop to the low 20’s stuttering like the local drunk.

Halo Combat Evolved is still a fantastic shooter even nearly two decades later, and wow I just realised that the Halo series is approaching 20 years old. If you haven’t play this game there are many ways to play these days there is the original Xbox, PC, Xbox 360 and the Xbox One via the Master Chief Collection.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Editorial | The importance of "Quiet Time" in video games.

By Sam Coles:

Video games generally want to hold your attention, whether it is pulse pounding action or a captivating story with characters that you have grown to love throughout the game or series over the years. However there is one small but important part of a game and that is “quiet time”. I feel that it is important as sometimes a game can be overwhelming when it is nothing but non-stop action, where you almost get a headache after exploding heads as your gun has continuously coughed cordite for two hours.

What do I mean when I say quiet time? It’s where you have finished an action sequence or a particularly intense moment and the game dials back and slows down, it is a time for you to reflect upon what has happened and the situation finally sinks in and plays with your emotions. These parts are generally remembered in games because everything slows down and you can smell the roses both figuratively and literally. I’m not saying that every game needs it, but there are times in games where you feel overwhelmed you have to step back a bit and slow down, a game with relentless action can get stressful sometimes which I found when I played Doom 2016. I want to go over a few examples that utilise quiet time.

Call of Duty is not known for its subtlety, most people would think of a Michael Bay extravaganza. However they are actually one of the few good examples for dialling it back in their campaigns, well in the early days. Yes in Call of Duty 4 and Modern Warfare 2 they have moments where they slow things down and let the player breathe as you it changes gears.

In Call of Duty 4 you are tasked with capturing Al Asad, as you and Captain Price kick the doors in and he guns down all the arm guards and then proceeds to kick seven shades of blue out of him, you hear a phone ring and then he says one name “Zakhaev, Imran Zakhaev”. The game then switches gears and we are told an anecdote about his exploits in Chernobyl where he was tasked to assassinate Zakhaev unsuccessfully of course. However instead of being thrown into a warzone with explosions everywhere, there is nothing but an ambient track, the baron wasteland and Captain McMillian accompanying you. It was a complete juxtaposition from the rest of the game, and might I add that this was a game where a nuke goes off, it was a nice change as it let you relax and take your time before it threw you back into the fray.

Metal Gear Solid 3 is another good example, now I know what you’re going to say “Sam it’s a stealth game of course it’s always quiet”, which you are partially right but the tense situations keep you on edge whether it is the boss fights or slipping past guards. No there is a moment and I think you will know if you have played or heard of this game, and that moment is the ladder scene. After going through a lot from fighting The Pain, The Fear and The End, you are tasked with meeting EVA at the top of a mountain, but Kojima was not sure how to transition that so he created the ladder scene.

Now this may sound boring and tedious but is great, as all you hear are the sound of Snake’s boots hitting each step of the ladder and a distant voice singing the main theme. This is a time to reflect on what you have been through because you have been through a lot by this point, not only the player but you could argue that Snake is reflecting on what he has done and the foes he has slain.

Red Dead Redemption is great, as you would think that it being a western it would be nothing but gunfights and bar fights, but most of the time you are alone with nothing but the sound of wildlife, horse shoes clopping and the ambient soundtrack that cuts in now and again. It is a great break from the missions where you may have been firing a Gatling gun continuously to clearing a gang hideout; it lets you collect your thoughts. Not only that there are certain scenes that work in the same way, when you first enter Mexico a track by Jose Gonzalez plays this is a reflection of John Marston’s situation of being alone and far from home, which lets you reflect of how far you have come in the game.   

Quiet time is not only a good way to reflect on what has happened it is also great for creating atmosphere; Dark Souls is a prime example of this as majority of the game is nothing but silence. You’ll traverse these dark and oppressive environments with nothing but the sound of your armour laden feet, flesh tearing under the pressure of your sword and the distant moans of torture souls. It’s only in boss fights where there is any kind of sweeping musical score and prominent sounds, but in general gameplay it is quiet making you feel uneasy, where there is dread around every corner you turn and every door you cautiously open.

Quiet Time in video games is essential, it is a great way to take a break from the action and reflect upon what you have just been through letting you think in depth about the situation. Not only that, it can be a powerful way to build atmosphere to make you feel on edge and catch you off guard. The next time a game slows down and changes gears really have a think about why it is doing it and you might be surprised why.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Call of Juarez: The Cartel Review - It's not that bad.

By Sam Coles:

There are certain games that I don’t understand why they get so much hate, now don’t get me wrong there is no such thing as a perfect game *cough* Last of Us *cough*, however there are games that get lambasted when they are perfectly functional for the most part. Call of Juarez: The Cartel is one of those titles it is a decent game, but it is not a perfect game. It was heavily criticised back in 2011 so much so it was even called racist, while I don’t agree with that as it is more stereotypical like all of the Call of Juarez games with Southerners and Mexicans. Politics aside it is a fun romp with an interesting concept, where they make a western but set in what was at the time present day.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel takes place in Los Angles in 2011; the city has gang and drug problems due to the local Mexican gangs importing weapons and drugs from the borders of Mexico. The DEA is also bombed by the Mendoza Cartel, which forces the US government to put together a task force consisting of the LAPD, FBI and of course the DEA. You can pick three characters to play as; you have Kimberly Evans a sassy FBI agent, Eddie Guerra a wise cracking Mexican DEA agent and Ben McCall the reason why they call this game Call of Juarez as he is supposed to be a descendant of Ray McCall. The story is fun, with good voice acting but there are some parts where the delivery is rather awkward and just not good, but I do enjoy the lines that Ben McCall spouts as he comes across as this old and very angry cop constantly using four letter words like pepper mints.

Gameplay is a first person shooter like the other instalments in the series, you have decent cast of weapons to use and yes they are pretty stock standard where you have let’s all say it together now pistols, shotguns, machine guns and rocket launchers. Each character specialises in different weapons, Kimberly is good with long range weapons such as sniper rifles, Eddie is good with close range weapons and Ben is good with revolvers and can duel wield pistols more efficiently although it is redundant when machine guns exist. To be honest I did not notice much difference between each character with the exception of Ben as he can reload revolvers faster, I played as Ben as he probably the most likable character and I use likable very loosely. 

Problems I have with the gameplay is that the hit detection can be spotty, I’ve had instances where I’ve aimed at their head dead on for my bullet to travel through them which lead me to my death many times. Speaking of death, the time to kill is very inconsistent there are moments where I could take lots of bullets to the face and then there were other times I would get obliterated immediately, which make me want to turn my controller into a new wall mount. I also got very irritated by my partner’s dialogue, where they would comment on how bad my accuracy was when I was nailing headshots where they themselves could not hit an obese cow hogtied on a railroad.

Visually the game is not bad, but it is inconsistent as sometimes it can look fantastic with beautiful desert levels with abandoned towns which were once thriving communities to washed out and bland streets in LA. It’s just odd as there are some parts of the games that look genuinely good; on the other hand there are parts where it looks like someone slapped Vaseline on the camera lens, so much so that I thought my glasses were misty where I had to clean them on many occasions.

Call of Juarez: The Cartel is a decent game; yes it has some flaws with the gameplay, dialogue and visuals however it has an entertaining story with over the top action. I picked this up for my PS3 for the low price of £1.50 and I believe it is a similar price on the 360 so if you see it pick it up, it’s a fun 6-7 hour shooter to pass the time, plus it is a treasure trove if you’re looking to boost your trophies or achievements.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Red Faction Guerrilla Re-Mars-tered Review - Blow everything up!

By Sam Coles:

If you know me personally or on Twitter you will know my strong opinion on Remasters and Remakes, I’m not opposed to them but they have to be particularly old games with 10 years being the minimum. Red Faction Guerrilla Re-Mars-Tered (what a stupid title), is a remaster that I am fine with because the game was released all the way back in 2009 and plus it ran badly on the PS3 and 360 due to the ambitious destruction physics which weighed down on the limited hardware.

Red Faction Guerrilla’s story takes place on Mars, where the people of Earth have colonised it and it is under martial law due to a small rebellion started by some miners. You play as Alec Mason a miner who has been transferred recently, his brother is killed by the Ultor cooperation as he was a part of the Red Faction resistance and gets mistaken for being a part of the Red Faction due to his association with his brother. Alec joins the Red Faction to get revenge against Ultor, what transpires is Alec smashing, shooting and exploding anyone or anything that gets in his way. The story is not particularly interesting it’s a standard revenge plot, plus the voice acting is spotty it has some decent delivery where other times it just sounds off.

Gameplay is a third person shooter and open world, although the world is rather condense and is not the most varied, see one dusty and sandy path you’ve seen them all. But enough of the dull world you want to hear about the explosions and destruction you can cause on Mars, and I must say being an almost human embodiment of a thunderous Norse god is rather fun. If you see a wall, building watch tower or pretty much anything you can reduce it to dust and cinders, and I always have a grin ear to ear when I’m playing this game because of how fun it is to go around and cause mayhem.

You are tasked in each area of Mars of taking out high value buildings or targets which are generally high ranking officers within the Ultor Corporation. You do this until you have total control of the area, you can also help the cause by freeing POWs or just causing havoc around the open world. It is fun but some of the activities do get a tad repetitive due them never really deviating. You can get the job done with a decent cast of weapons, from you low range but powerful hammer where you can smash through walls like the Coolaid Man to explosives which can level an entire building in one sitting if you lay them out in the correct manner as well as an assault rifle to dispatch Ultor goons.

Visually the game is rather dull, now I’m know what you’re going to say “It’s Mars what do you expect”. That is true but the environments are really boring and flat, this was during the period of gaming where developers were shooting for a “realistic” look with grey and brown hues, which was the equivalent of rubbing faecal matter in my eye. This is a game from 2009 and the character models definitely look like a game from 2009, this is a remaster rather than a remake so they have done the bare minimum by touching up textures, resolution and framerate characters have stiff animations like manikins. I also had an issue with the pre-rendered cutscenes as they look really washed out and compressed, it’s really jarring because when you jump back into gameplay it looks really crisp. Performance is good for the most part, it runs at 60 frames per second but it will stutter a bit when you start to get carried away with explosions.

Red Faction Guerrilla Remastered is a good game, if you have played it before then there is no real reason for you to come back as they have done the bare minimum instead of a massive overhaul. However if you have never played this game before you are in for a treat with plenty of things blow up and tear to pieces.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Metro 2033 Review - Nothing but you and the endless tunnels of darkness

By Sam Coles:

There are certain games that completely immerse you in the atmosphere; Metro 2033 is one of those games that has a great story as it is told through dialogue and the environment itself. Based on the novel of the same name by author Dmitry Glukhovsky, the game was a loose interpretation of the novel and was released in 2010 on PS3, 360 and PC, it also got a re-release in 2014 in a redux collection on Xbox One and PS4. What we got was a tense and immersive first person shooter mixed with survival horror and it is truly a beautiful game.  

Metro 2033 takes place in the titular metros in the year… well 2033, you play as Artyom a ranger who is tasked with destroying the mysterious creatures known as the “Dark Ones”, which sounds more racist every time I hear or say it. He traverses through the dark and for a lack of better words moist tunnels of the metros; he will battle mutated monstrosities that will want to rip his jugular out. He will not only fight mutants, but he’ll have to combat human forces such as the Communists who go by the old rules of Russia and the Reich who are a set of Nazis that are brutal and believe they are the ultimate super power.

Gameplay is a first person survival horror shooter, but there is more of an emphasis on stealth, not that supplies aren’t plentiful although that does vary on the difficulty you play it on. The game wants you to take a more stealthy approach, but it works as well as eating soup with a folk because enemies spot you instantly when they see a spec of your backside sticking out. To be honest it is easier to shoot your way out of most situations especially if you’re playing on normal because most enemies drop ammunition like a piƱata. Shooting feels good, guns have a satisfying punch from the magnum revolver to the earth shattering shotgun which you can upgrade to have four barrels, and yes it looks as ridiculous as it sounds.

As I said earlier ammo is not in short supply, but if you find yourself running low you can use gold Kalashnikov bullets for your AK-47 but this comes at a cost as these function as currency. You come at an impasse where you have to weigh up the odds and think about if you use your gold bullets to get out of a fight or flee knowing you can purchase more supplies later.

I played this on the Xbox One via the Redux collection and it looks fantastic, but even for 2010 it was and still is a looker. They really capture the depressing and oppressive atmosphere of a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland. Character models are a bit rough around the edges, but honestly I’ll look past it as the environments looks stunning so I can ignore them for the most part, plus it is a 2010 release so I expect them to be a bit angular.

Ignoring the weak stealth elements, Metro 2033 is an immersive game with good gunplay and a story that will keep you intrigued. I would recommend picking this game up on PS3, 360, PS4, Xbox One or PC console wise I would recommend getting the current gen version as they run at a higher framerate and resolution.