Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Editorial | Embracing F.E.A.R

By Sam Coles:

The horror genre can come in predictable forms with jump scares and monsters but there are certain games within the genre that switch gears in an instant. F.E.A.R is one of those games, if you watch reviews on Youtube or on other blogs; people often harp on about the combat and the “advanced” A.I. However that is only one half of the game and I want to go over why F.E.A.R’s atmosphere is totally unique, and will completely catch you off guard.

The game begins with main antagonist Paxton Fettle breaking out of confinement; however he has a unique ability to take control of a clone army known as “Replicas” telepathically. You are then sent in to investigate and bring Fettle in, but it doesn’t go to plan where he knocks you out and taunts you for a bit. It is a typical villain set up, but it’s not the story that captivates in Fear it is the atmosphere where it can juxtapose from high octane action to unnerving horror. There is also a child named Alma stalking you throughout the game, with her intentions unknown.

The game starts off as a gruff military shooter, where you are fast roping out of a helicopter and gunning down Replicas as they rag doll in their as meaty giblets fly in the air as you spray buckshot at them. However in most cases when a firefight finishes, what do you hear? Nothing! This is what always gets to me in Fear, after having a lot of fun in a gunning down soldiers in slow motion it suddenly switches gears and becomes very quiet with nothing more than the sound of your footsteps.

Like Monolith’s other game Condemned which released the same year as Fear, it likes to play with your expectations because when you walk down a corridor and there is a suspicious corner your natural human instincts think there is going to be a jump scare. However when you turn the corner there is nothing there. This is what elevates the atmosphere as you think you know all the tricks that the game has but the game plays with you and almost taunts you, and catches you off guard after a gunfight as most would think that this is a standard action game.

The music or lack thereof is what also increases the tension of the atmosphere, as the game goes for more audio ques instead of a traditional soundtrack. You will mostly here diegetic sounds this can consist of objects falling off shelves, moaning of unnatural entities and just general industrial hums as you traverse in the darkness. It is this oppressive weight you feel in these moments, that I get twitchy and paranoid when I’m playing late at night.

As I said earlier you are stalked by a child named Alma, her back story is dark as she was experimented on by her own father we she has become this godlike figure where she can literally make people explode with her mind. She is always there watching you throughout the game, what I like about this is that you can miss her sometimes as she is in the darker corners of an area, or you see her shadow as she slinks away into the shadows. It creates a paranoia within the player, especially when you clamber down ladders she has a strange fascination with ladders and it still gets me with the audio ques and her playful yet creepy laugh as she taunts you.

F.E.A.R’s tense atmosphere is something that catches you off guard as it uses the downtime in between firefights to play with your expectations. If you haven’t played the 2005 classic I would recommend it, you can play it on 360, PS3 and PC the PC option is probably easiest option.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Editorial | Majora's Mask's dark atmosphere.

By Sam Coles:

There are certain games that take a more unconventional approach to their sequels, I say this because Majora’s Mask is one of those games that stands out in the Zelda series as it only had an 18 month development and doesn’t really feature the titular character. Its dark atmosphere is something that is brought up in gaming discussion 18 years after its release, spawning theories about the subject matter in the game. I want to talk about the game’s atmosphere and Termina’s impending doom!

Majora’s Mask is an unusual start to a Zelda game because it’s a direct sequel to Ocarina of Time, Nintendo don’t often have direct sequels to Zelda games but this is one of the few exceptions. Link is walking through what we presume to be the Kokiri forest in search of Navi (we think); he is then accosted by Skull Kid who is wearing the titular mask. This is where the downward spiral of doom begins, as Link is turned into a Deku Scrub which makes him useless as he is not allowed to leave Clock Town and people are prejudice towards him. He encounters the Happy Mask Salesman who promises Link to return him to his Hylian form; however he will do it in exchange for Majora’s Mask, there is also a catch you have only 72 hours to do said task.

It’s not long to realise that there is an overarching threat to the land of Termina, all you have to do is look up and you see the intense grimace of the moon looming over as it slowly descends towards the sleepy carnival town. What I like about Clock Town is that its inhabitants to begin with are none the wiser to the moon, however as the days progress they become more paranoid to where then realise they are about to die on the third day. It’s the juxtaposition that makes this game work where the people of Termina start off in denial, worried and finally the realisation of their fate, it makes you want to rush to finish the task to save these people.

The point of contention of this game is that there are only four dungeons, which if you look at it with a close mind set it can be perceived as a short game. However that is not the focus as it is all about the citizens of Termina, the side quests are the meat and bones of this game where you help people out with their last wishes or get them out of horrific situations. The most terrifying was the quest when you find a girl’s father as a Gibdo, the deformed face as he contorts is horrific.  

The villain of Majora’s Mask Skull Kid doesn’t really have an overall goal such as taking over the world like Ganondorf, all he wants to see is the world to burn as he wants to smash the moon into Clock Town. There is no motivation all he wants is chaos, and I must at admit this is a good villain with no obscure reasoning behind his plan as he just wants to destroy the world. Skull kid or should I say Majora controlling him is unnatural, as he stands there twisting his head as you hear his body creak as he walks it’s almost like something out of The Ring or The Grudge as he stares at you contemplating his next move.

Compared to Ocarina of Time Majora’s Mask is more colourful with its environments; however that doesn’t mean it is a happy game I like to interpret this as a false sense of security. The game presents the player with these colourful environments, where it then presents you with the first dungeon with its ominous tribal music which use to frighten me as a child.   

That’s what catapulted Majora’s Mask’s atmosphere was the soundtrack, you have jaunty tracks such as Clock Town and the classic Zelda theme for Termina field. However it’s when you enter the four regions of Swamp, Mountains, Ocean and Canyon is where it journeys into creepy and hopelessness. They all share the same track, but what makes them unique is that they are thematically appropriate for each area from the haze and subdued beach music with steel drums to the winter inspired jingles of the desolate tundra of the mountains.  However what all of these areas with the track share is the utter hopelessness of the situation, with the swamps waters poisoned, the Goron’s land frozen coupled with starvation and of course the dead that are restless in the canyons.

Majora’s Mask is an unusual instalment in the Zelda series with its deep and dark atmosphere as you can feel the oppressive nature weigh on you. It is certainly a unique game in the series, and is a must try for any Zelda fan or someone looking for a good story with a dark tone. If you are going to try this game get the 3DS version as the N64 edition has not aged that well, and prepare to journey through the depressing land of Termina.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Shadow Warrior (2013) Review - "Ancient Chinese secret"

By Sam Coles:

After the release of Duke Nukem 3D a couple of games came out using the build engine, we had Monolith’s Blood and of course 3D Realms’ Shadow Warrior. Where Duke had controversy with misogyny with women, Shadow Warrior was being accused of being racist. While I mostly don’t agree as I see it more as a harmless stereotype, I can see why as you play as a Chinese man with a comedy broken English accent running around with a sword cutting demons in two, but racist? No. Nearly two decades later Flying Wild Hog Studios decided to do a reboot to the series in 2013 for the PC, which it then released on the PS4 and Xbox One in 2014.

In Shadow Warrior you play as Lo Wang, and yes he makes that joke many times throughout the game. He has been tasked to acquire an ancient sword for his shady boss from the Yakuza, however things go wrong and Wang has to get things done the bloody way as he clears things up with his sword. The story is interesting as you get further in, with tales about the shadow realm but it is over shadowed when Lo makes a penis joke again. Look I’m all for crude humour as I’m a huge fan of Duke Nukem, but when he shouts “come and taste some wang” for the 50th time, it makes me want to take his sword and commit hara-kiri but no such luck.

Shadow Warrior is one of the revivals of the old school shooters, with a level by level structure where you have to find colour coded keys with a modern flare. It plays more like Serious Sam unlike the original Shadow Warrior, as it puts you in a closed off arena and tells you go nuts and fill you boots with blood until the game gives you an arbitrary 5 star rating which I still can’t figure out. Yes this is one of my first issues with Shadow Warrior is the rating system in combat, it is inconsistent, where you use varied attacks 2 stars to leaning on the fire button in a turret sequence 5 stars which is baffling.

You have a decent selection of weapons with the usual pistols, shotguns and machine guns. However this game has a great focus on sword combat, it’s not exactly the most sophisticated system, but it is great to slice your enemies in half like a surgeon who has finally snapped. You have light attacks where you can chip enemy’s health down which helps with big crowds, or you use heavy attacks to cut enemy’s body parts off like Necromorphs from Dead Space.

You also have access to magical powers where you can cause a shock, a force push and the most useful the healing spell. These can be upgraded, but my problem with this is that there are far too many upgrades where it can be overwhelming and somewhat confusing what to unlock. I’m all for progression systems, but when you have three to four pages worth of upgrades something is wrong here.  

Visually the game looks fine; it’s not the best looking game considering the time it came where we had games such as the Last of Us and GTA V. Those games came out on aging pieces of hardware I may add, but to be fair this game was made by a small team and it aims for a target frame rate of 60 frames per second, keyword being target. I played this on Xbox One and my god does it really stutter when there are lots of explosions and body parts on screen, most of the time in quiet moments the game runs fine but when combat starts it stutters like Porky Pig. Environments do get a tad repetitive, seen one pagoda and arcade machine you’ve seen them all, it does start to weigh on you especially after a long session.

Shadow Warrior (2013) is a largely enjoyable game, but it does get a tad repetitive with its level design and combat encounters, plus there is only so many times I can listen to Lo Wang reference his penis. We get it Lo your name is innuendo for large penis, now stop before I reach into the television and duct tape your mouth shut.  If you’re looking for a cheap and decent old school shooter then I can recommend it overall, it’s available on PS4, Xbox One and PC as well as in a bundle with the excellent sequel.

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.