Thursday, 30 August 2018

Book Review: The Godfather By Mario Puzo.

(Some Spoilers)

By Sam Coles:

A bit of a different post this time around, if you follow me on Twitter you would know I’m a bit of a book worm. So I’m going to give my overall thoughts of my new favourite book that I read over the summer and that book is The Godfather. Most people remember The Godfather for the film trilogy which started all way the back in 1972 which was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. However it was based on a book written by Mario Puzo which was first published in 1969, and I have to say the book is better as we get more of an insight into certain characters, coupled with some spin chilling moments.

The Godfather follows the exploits of the Corleone Family; they are a mafia family based in New York under the guise of an “olive oil company”. Don Vito Corleone is a respected man throughout the criminal underworld, he is a man who is known for helping people and not a man for violence, not to say he doesn’t solve issues with physical violence but that is generally last minute. The book chronicles the family throughout the years from Vito’s daughter’s wedding all the way up, to when the torch is passed to his youngest son Michael.

What I like about the book compared to the film, is that it goes into more detail about characters that were side characters in the film, and we get more of a back story of Johnny Fontane where Puzo goes into his downfall as a singer which is merely teased in the film. Johnny Fontane’s story is interesting because to begin with he is presented as a broken man, with a singing career going down the tubes with a wife that mocks him constantly until he snaps and beats her. It’s not until he visits the Don at the wedding where he begs for help, which leads him to picking himself back up and getting on with his life as a film producer.

This added detail adds an extra layer of the overall story, but it can drag sometimes as it can add padding to the book as he goes into back stories where it is not needed. An example of this is Michael’s bodyguard Neri, this goes into his backstory when he has only one major input of the narrative by assassinating one of the Dons, but besides that he has no real input to justify that backstory.

The extra back story that was good and was necessary was Luca Brasi, this man had maybe a few scenes in the film but in the book he is built up to be this almost supernatural entity as he is cold and shows little human emotion. His back story is told to Michael when he flees to Sicily as he has to go into hiding, and is taken under the wing of Don Thomasino. He is told by a maid on the Don’s estate, where she use to be a midwife in New York, she tells Michael about how she was called out by Luca as he had impregnated an Irish woman. He pays her a high price to deliver the baby, not only that he wants her to “dispose” of the child, this leads to a chilling moment of where he throws the child into a furnace. It was a horrifying moment, and actually gave me nightmares that night of how someone could do that without flinching and just carry on as if it were normal.

The character arc of Michael Corleone is fantastic, as we see him go from an innocent young man who has little to do with his father’s organisation to hardened gangster with a cold demeanour.  It’s great character development because when he flees to Italy, he realises that he can’t rely on the law to help all the time, as the mafia act as an unestablished enforcer for the downtrodden.

Puzo has an unflinching approach when it comes to detail especially when it comes to violence, it’s amazing and yet disturbing how he can describe someone being gunned down in different ways and I found it rather of putting with the crippling detail.

Overall The Godfather is an excellent read, it is a fast paced, engaging and brutal tale that will have you hooked from start to finish, there are moments of unnecessary padding but these are far and few. I highly recommend reading this book.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Editorial | Grand Theft Auto V 5 years later

By Sam Coles:

It’s hard to believe that Grand Theft Auto V came out 5 years ago; I remember the anticipation of the game back in 2013 with the lead up to its release as we have been waiting for the game for a long time. It was first announced all the way back in 2011 with a short teaser trailer and to say people were excited would be an understatement; it became one of the most view videos on Youtube in 2011.  When the game finally released on the 360 and PS3 in 2013 at the tail end of the generation of those consoles, I was astonished how this game was possible on aging hardware, as those systems where puffing out dust by that point. What made the game special? Why are gamers still playing and talking about it to this day where it is still in the top 10 gaming charts in the UK.

I think the first thing that really captivated people when this game came out were the three characters you play as, yes Rockstar Games were bold by having three protagonist which you could switch on the fly at any point of the game (unless the story dictates). The events that transpire for this three characters to meet are fantastic, you start off as Franklin a thug living in the rough area of Los Santos, Michael a retired bank robber who lives in luxury and Trevor an amoral psychotic who represents every player’s mind set when playing GTA by shooting and hitting any person he sees. 

The characters are well written (for the most part), but the standout is the performance from Steven Ogg where he plays the unhinged madman with a funny yet disturbing performance. You never know in some scenes if Trevor is going to laugh with fellow characters or if he is going to get angry and blow that character’s head off with a 12 gauge, it is really convincing with each line he delivers.

The world of Los Santos is one of the most beautiful open worlds within the genre, and considering the hardware it initially released on it is amazing the crippling amount of detail there is. They have recreated a condense version of Los Angeles with all the famous landmarks there, from the Hollywood sign or Vinewood as it is called in this game, to the Chinese Theatre. Not only that they included rural areas for players to explore with the meth fuelled deserts, dense forests and of course mount Chiliad where you can hurl yourself off with a motorcycle and parachute.

It never gets old driving to the top of the hill where the Vinewood sign is and witness the sunset, as the orange glow of the sun slow fades away into darkness and the street and neon lights of Los Santos light up as the nightlife begins to thrive. I can’t praise Rockstar enough of how beautiful GTA V’s world is, it is something they have shown time and time again with their games and as I said about Red Dead with my last editorial the worlds are organic and don’t feel like a video game.

After the somewhat anaemic offering of content with Grand Theft Auto IV, V took what they had with San Andreas and put a modern twist on it. You could once again customise cars with huge selection of aesthetic choices, from different bonnets (hoods for US readers), bullet proof glass, and armour to protect you from gunfire the list goes on. You can customise each character to a certain extent with clothing and tattoos, plus there are minor stat upgrades but they don’t make a massive difference minus the fact you can carry more ammo when you improve your shooting.

Let’s address the elephant in the room that is GTA Online, this was the other aspect that was heavily marketed which had to be delayed 2 weeks after the initial release. When it did finally drop it was a complete and utter mess as many players try to log in at once, which led to servers crashing and players losing their characters. I have a feeling that this mode was too ambitious for the Xbox 360 and PS3 due to the aging hardware, the promised heists where not implemented until we were two years into the life cycle of the PS4 and Xbox One. GTA Online was and still is an unbalanced mess, yes it is fun to cause chaos with your friends but it is a frustrating mess based purely on how much real money other players can spend.

Grand Theft Auto V is a landmark achievement within the video game industry, it is astounding that people are still playing and talking about it today 5 years later for better or worse. This is a game that we will still be talked about 20 years from now.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Beta Thoughts

By Sam Coles:

When Call of Duty Black Ops 4 was announced back in May I was rather disappointed, this was because Treyarch decided to not to include a story mode in this year’s game which they are known for producing well written campaigns. This year’s Call of Duty will be a multiplayer experience only, which is fine as long as it can stand on its own legs and compete with other games within the genre. Activision was kind enough to grant me access to the private beta on PS4, I got to play around with a few modes, specialists and select weapons. Just as a disclaimer, this game is not finished yet so certain features, modes and weapons are subject to change so keep that in mind.

I got access to several game modes such as Domination, Hardpoint, Chaos Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy and a new mode called Heist. Most of the modes are staples of Call of Duty and have been in the series for the last 10 years, Heist is the mode which is interesting as it is not a new idea because if you have played Counter Strike you have played this mode. How it works is that you start off with a small amount of money with nothing more than a pistol, you gain more money by killing other players or reviving and helping team mates. What you have to do is steal cash to take back to your base, which is similar to the blood money mode from Battlefield Hardline expect you have one life. It’s an interesting addition but it’s not new as I have had the same experience from Counter Strike and Battlefield Hardline.

Specialists make a return from Black Ops 3, all the familiar characters are back although you can no longer run on walls or jump seven feet in the air as advanced movement has been scrapped.  They all have their uses and I what I do like is that their special abilities are not all offensive tactics, they have support roles such as healing team mates, granting extra protection via body armour and setting up barbwire barriers to slow down and kill enemies. It really encourages team work instead of the old ways of Call of Duty where players run like chickens with their heads cut off, plus you can no longer have players pick the same specialist as this creates tactical variation on a team.

Gameplay has been changed up and some of it good and some of it questionable, for starters you no longer have regenerating health as you have to heal yourself with a  syringe. I do like this as it adds an extra layer of depth and tension to firefights because you and your opponent are on equal ground in terms of vulnerability; you have to make decisions of when you are going to heal. You now start off with 150 hit points and this fine, but the problem is that the time to kill which is how long it takes to kill an opponent is too high, I found myself in situations where it took more than half a magazine to kill another player.

Other issues I had with this game was and bear in mind that this game is not finished, the framerate is all over the place, it targets 60 frames per second but it struggles when things get busy with explosions and gunfire and it gets rather jittery.  Visually at the moment the game seems to look worse than Black Ops 3, which I may remind you came out in 2015 and was also shoehorned onto the Xbox 360 and PS3, character models like rather low in quality hopefully it can be fixed.

The main menu and user interface is also rather cluttered, now this may seem to be rather nit-picky, but when your main menu is a chore to navigate then there is something fundamentally wrong. I found during gameplay that there is too much on screen, with icons and status of your character etc. cluttering the screen where it almost distracted me from engagements.

One last gripe I had is that the spawning system is botched as I found myself spawning next to enemy players during matches as well, as enemy players spawning behind me. This lead to me dying in a continuous loop, where wanted to repurpose my controller as a boomerang.

Overall I’m left feeling confused, Call of Duty Black Ops 4 in its current state is trying to be Overwatch, Rainbow Six Siege and Counter Strike it is trying to be everything but a Call of Duty game. Now I’m all for change and innovation but this is a mess, it currently does not have a focus as it seems to be taking what is currently popular. I remember a time from 2007-2012 Call of Duty were setting the trends not following them, what is here is interesting but it lacks the soul of a Call of Duty game. Let’s hope all the issues that I have are fixed by time the game releases on the 12th of October on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Editorial | Why is Red Dead Redemption special.

By Sam Coles:

As of time of writing this Red Dead Redemption came out 8 years ago, I was a na├»ve 17 year old at the time studying my A-levels. At the time I didn’t really follow the industry, but I would check the Xbox Live store for up and coming games, I remember Red Dead Redemption being on the store for a couple of years and I wondered when it was coming out. It wasn’t until early 2010 when Rockstar kicked the marketing into overdrive, and in May of 2010 I received my copy in the post and what I play was one of the most beautiful pieces of art. Why is this game so special? Why do people still talk about it nearly a decade later? Well with the upcoming release of the sequel I want to talk about the magic that is Red Dead Redemption.

The intro is a great way to start the game, as the main protagonist John Marston doesn’t speak for about 10-15 minutes as he is escorted onto a train and then takes in the politics from different people from various stages of life. This is very much a trope from westerns during the 1960’s as the main character will barely speak, this is usually to build an intimidating profile, but in Red Dead this is to build more of a mysterious fog around John until he first confronts Bill Williamson. The introduction of the game does  a fantastic job of establishing the world, as John sits there on the train listening to people, where they discuss the wild west dying as a more civilised age is coming to take over, where they discuss automobiles and even people flying as this game is set in 1911.

Once you’re unleashed into the world Red Dead Redemption doesn’t hold your hand or shut you off from certain areas (Mexico being the exception until later), you can do… well anything you want. You wanted to ride across the deserts of New Austin and look for treasure and rob stage coaches? Go ahead! Want to get drunk and get into inebriated bar brawls with your fists or six shooter? Fill your boots and go nuts! It’s a classic Rockstar open world where it opens up in an organic manner, compared to other games where you’re going down a checklist list where you obliterate tasks rather than complete them (I’m looking at you Ubisoft).

The world in general is a joy to explore because you never know what you are going to run into, you could come across an abandoned stage coach with nothing more than dying embers of a camp fire, blood and shrivelled upped corpses. You can think about what happened here, then you are ambushed by a wild animal or bandits trying to rob for everything you have, where you then gun them down in a spectacular fashion. It’s the organic nature of the world is what is so appealing to explore, I remember the first time I found a gang hideout and thought I didn’t see that coming and looked into every nook and cranny where I started find the more bizarre “strangers and freaks” missions.

Like Oblivion this is one of those worlds I feel the life within it, where people go by their everyday activities and routines. I almost get to know the locals and know the world better than my own city, where it still carries on even when I switch the game off and go on with my day.

Considering the game came out 8 years ago graphically it is still a joy to look at and I can’t say that for many titles from 2010, yes some textures look a tad rough on and character models look like a processed vegetarian sausage although that maybe the entire point given the time period. It’s the environments that really stand out to this day, from the thirst inducing deserts to the more civilised cities.

The main reason why Red Dead Redemption is special is because of John Marston, he is one of the best video game protagonists from the past 20 years of video games. He is a man who is trying to leave his blood soaked past, but gets dragged back into it when the government kidnaps his wife and son. Unlike his past self, John is calm and collective as he handles most situations like a gentleman where he gives you the warnings to walk away before he pulls his revolver from his holster with lightning speed. When he is finally allowed to live his normal life, it is cut short when Edgar Ross decides to double cross him and cut him down like an animal, it proves his point of how the government is no better than the bandits they hunt.

Red Dead Redemption is a piece of art that will be held in high regard for the next 20 plus years, perhaps the sequel can recapture that magic with current generation technology and make an even more convincing world to explore. We only have to wait until the 26th of October find out.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Halo 4 Review - A personal tale for the Master Chief.

By Sam Coles:

Since the Halo series was taken over by 343 Industries, people often say they have “ruined” Halo which honestly these people need to look up the word hyperbole as that is not the case with 343. However they have done some questionable design decisions when it comes to the gameplay, and Halo 4 is no exception but what we got with the campaign in terms of story is rather good as we get a more of a look into the personal relationship between Cortana and Chief.

Halo 4 takes place 5 years after the events of the third game, where Master Chief and Cortana are still drifting through space on the Dawn. Cortana is awakened by a mysterious scan of a ship, where it turns out that they are in orbit of a Forerunner planet as well as being boarded by a Covenant armada. Things go smoothly and they land on the planet, but all is not well as Cortana is acting strangely, it turns out that she was put into service 8 years ago where she reveals that A.Is start to malfunction after 7. Chief being attached to her for many years begins to panic, as she has been the only one that he has really cared about and wants to get her back to Dr Halsey to fix her. I love the story in this game because we start to see Chief breakdown as he has not really had proper human interaction, as he has always relied on Cortana to comfort him and to see him panic as she slowly fades away is heart breaking.

Gameplay is where Halo 4 starts to falter a bit as the changes they have made to A.I behaviour makes me want cough up blood, as Covenant and Promethean encounters are arduous and frustrating especially on higher difficulties. Let’s start with Covenant behaviour with how the Grunts and Jackals use Plasma Pistols and Neddlers. In prior Halo games, they were projectile based and they still are but the tracking of both weapons are insanely strong where you have to take cover like you are in a Call of Duty game as you can’t dodge them. Elites frames of animation have been changed too when they perform melee attacks, these again have been sped up where you can no longer dodge and they kill you in one hit on Legendary.

Let’s talk about the Prometheans, they are almost worse than the Flood because encounters as they play out in a random manner (not in a good way) and take far too long to kill as they can regenerate their shield and can be revived by Seekers. These are the majority of encounters and it becomes a slog, as you will run into another problem the lack of ammunition. The amount of times I ran out of ammo is ridiculous, now I’m not expecting a dragon’s horde load of ammo but this is Halo and not Resident Evil, I feel like I’m playing a survival horror with amount of ammo there is or should I say lack thereof.

It’s not all bad what I like are the updated UNSC weapon models as well as the updated sounds, which give the weapons more of a beefy grunt instead of sounding like a playing card attached to a bicycle wheel (I’m looking at you Halo 3 assault rifle). However you barely get the chance to use these weapons, which as I discussed earlier there is a lack of ammo and you’re stuck using the terrible Promethean weapons, which have as much impact as a wet sponge.

Visually the game looks fantastic; it’s hard to believe that this was released on the Xbox 360 as it looks like it could have been an early Xbox One game. The detail is staggering with the details on Chief’s armour where you see the wear and tear from battle. The environments are big and impressive, with beautiful Forerunner architecture to the cold and industrial corridors. The animation is stunning from the characters; this was all done via motion capture which makes scenes more convincing.

Halo 4 has a great story, but the gameplay can be frustrating and tedious especially on higher difficulties. I’m all for the introduction of new enemy types, but when you make them more frustrating to fight compared to The Flood then you have done something wrong. If you are going to play this game for the story I would highly recommend playing it on normal, as it is not worth the hassle on higher difficulties.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Editorial | The portrayal of mental health in video games.

By Sam Coles:

Mental health is never an easy task to talk about especially within video games, but there are times where it can show the struggles of people that are affected by such stigmas in life and it can be disturbing and emotional. I want to cover a few examples that got it right with the portrayal of mental health. Now I will be talking about some heavy subject matters, so you are warned if you do not wish to go in depth about the subject. I’m going over a couple of examples that I thought portrayed it in a respectable manner.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice  

When I first heard of Hellblade I was not expecting much, but after seeing the coverage when it initially released on PS4 and PC it had my curiosity. It was until May of 2018 when the folks at Ninja Theory were kind enough to send me a code for the Xbox One version, I booted the game up and what I played was dark and disturbing and emotionally got to me that no piece of media has for a very long time.
Hellblade delves into the mind of Senua a Nordic warrior who is trying to resurrect the soul of her dead lover by travelling to the underworld, the setting is perfect with the mythology and folk lore with the monsters and runes she sees as she questions what is real or figment of her imagination. The game has a lot of moments where it is quiet where all you can hear is the ambient track and the whispers in Senua’s head, they constantly taunt her saying she is weak that she cannot do it and must turn back, but she perseveres with her quest.

The portrayal of this condition stems from the performance of Melina Juergens, she nails the twitches and the way she looks directly at the player in some cutscenes is unsettling as she almost has an angry and savage look on her face, you really feel her struggle. Throughout the adventure her psychosis is used both as a hindrance and a gameplay feature, when you’re exploring or in combat the whispers and voices in her head guide her and tell her when something is attacking from behind or hint at certain puzzles. It is also a hindrance because she is constantly told she is worthless and she has no chance of pursuing her goal.

There was one powerful sequence where Senua can’t take it anymore with the voices and she explodes in anger and they stop. What transpires is that she becomes more paranoid and alone, as she has been used to having them around we she then breaks down. It is a powerful moment and one that got to me where she was already alone with nothing but her thoughts, to then go to complete and utter silence.

Hellblade is an excellent example of the struggles of those who suffer with psychosis, and they utilise the setting of Norse mythology perfectly. It’s an emotional tale and I would recommend experiencing it for yourself if you haven’t.

Spec Ops: The Line

Now I know Spec Ops: The line was more of a critique of the modern military shooters of the time, but what Captain Walker goes through in this scenario shows symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Walker is tasked with finding his former commanding officer Joseph Conrad and yes that is a reference to author of The Heart of Darkness. As you get further into the game, Walker starts to break but still soldiers on.

There is one scene where Walker finally breaks and this is when they are tasked with clearing out a camp full of enemy combatants or so we think. They use white phosphorous to clear out the camp, which if you don’t know this weapon essentially sticks to your skin and burns it off which is no longer allowed in combat. When the dust settles Walker, Lugo and Adams slowly walk through seeing the suffering soldiers in extreme pain as what was once their skin replicates the last embers of a wood fire. Then he see what they were really housing in the camp and Walker finally snaps, as he is confronted with a pile of civilian bodies with a chard corpse of a mother cradling her child trying to hide them from incoming death. This is when Walker realises what he has done but he carries on thinking nothing of it.

Walker gets worse and worse so much so he starts to blame Conrad, which if you would know he’s dead. Lugo and Adams act as his mental psyche, Lugo is his biggest critic always questioning what he is doing when it comes to morality to certain situations and Adams somewhat takes issue with him but ultimately follows and agrees with Walker as he thinks there is no choice in the matter.

Towards the end of the game, Walker is confronted with what he has done as Conrad has been nothing more than a manifestation in his mind and has been dead all along. He realises what he has done and does not know what to do, as he thinks that he was helping people or to quote him “What happen was out of my control”. It really shows how war can shape a person’s mind, with the player and Walker both come out of this with blood on their hands.

It’s a story that still sticks with me to this day, where it is again where a piece of media really got to me.

Those are my examples I wanted to cover about mental health in video games, this editorial was rather draining emotionally as I had to replay these games and they get to me every time. I do recommend these games, but prepare yourself for the emotional roller-coaster that they will take you on.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Halo 2 Review - Not so heroic on Heroic difficulty.

By Sam Coles:

Halo 2 was one of the most anticipated games of 2004, and for good reason for one it was the continuation of  Combat Evolved but it was the forefront of Xbox Live, the paid service (which you shouldn’t be paying for) to play games online. I’m going to talk about the campaign as I have finished it on Heroic difficulty recently and I must say it has some questionable elements on the higher difficulties when it comes to A.I., hit detection, ammo scarcity and bullet sponge enemies. Does this make the overall experience bad, no but it did make me want to repurpose my controller as a picture hook in my wall.

Halo 2 takes place directly after the first game, where it starts off from the perspective from the Covenant as a high ranking Elite is on trial for the destruction of the last Halo ring. He is branded as a heretic and is put on display to be made an example of, but the council have other plans and make him the Arbiter and send him on a suicide mission where “the council will have their corpse” to quote one of the prophets. It then switches back to The Master Chief and he is back to be rewarded for his actions from the first game, and it is not long until the Covenant attack and board the space stations situated above Earth. What I like about this game is that you get to see both sides of the conflict; it shows that some races within the Covenant are not as evil as the UNSC think; it’s a nice change of pace rather than just seeing it from the “heroic” Master Chief.

Gameplay has been changed from the first game, you no longer have a fix health bar instead you have regenerating shields only where you can take a few hits when they are down. This was the period when regenerating health was becoming the norm with Call of Duty 2 adopting the style the next year. I played the campaign on Heroic difficulty and compared to Combat Evolved it is not fun, it becomes unfair with the amount of damage you take and the damage you output especially when they introduce the Flood (again) and Brutes.

The problem with playing Halo 2 on Heroic or above is the fact is you are as fragile as a mouldy peach. Now look I understand that they have to turn up the amount of damage that enemies output, but to randomly have my head blown off by a Jackal sniper that I could not see is where the game starts to test my patience. Let’s talk about the Brutes, they replace the Elites half way through the story and you would think great a new enemy to fight, but no they are slog. Now I understand presenting a challenge at a steady curve, but when the Brutes are introduced it turns into a gradient as steep as Cheddar Gorge as they take gunfire as if you were flicking beans at them. The only effective weapons against them are precisions weapons such as the Battle Rifles, Carbines, Beam Rifles and Sniper Rifles, but this still takes a few shots and you will find yourself constantly out of ammunition.

They somehow made the flood worse in this game, they introduced the Elite class of flood who now have shields and yes that is just as irritating as it sounds as the flood were hard enough to kill with conventional weapons. They spawn behind you more in this game compared to CE and there are more parasites that revive fallen Flood, where I found myself going around with an energy-sword chopping bodies up like an OCD murderer.

What is new with Halo 2 is duel wielding, where you can use two one handed weapons at once, which range from very effective to what I am I shooting feathers, I’m looking at you duel SMGs. The most devastating combination are the duel Needlers, which can destroy any enemy that gets in your way so much so that they had to tone it down in Halo 3 as you could only use one at a time.  

I played the anniversary edition of the game via the Master Chief Collection, and it is absolutely beautiful as they remade this game from the ground up in terms of visuals. What is fascinating is that you can switch from the new visuals to the original Xbox presentation, and it is jaw dropping with how far we have come in the visual department in the last 10 plus years. The game runs at 60 frames per second in the remake, although it does have a bit of a wobble when things get busy during intense firefights.

Halo 2 is not a fun game on higher difficulties, the firefights become unfair with the brutes and The Flood are more irritating than they were in the first game. If you’re going to play this game, play it on normal because Heroic or above is not worth the strain.