Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “November, 2013”

The Walking Dead: 400 Days for Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, PC, Mac, iOS and Ouya

400 Days is a cheap DLC pack for The Walking Dead, which contains everything that made the original so great in microcosm.

400 Days follows five characters that will apparently appear in the second series of The Walking Dead. We only gain brief snapshots of their lives, but Telltale’s characterisation is still so good that that is really all we need to begin caring for and understanding them. We pick the order that we play these stories, and they intersect and cross over each other, before finally converging in an epilogue at the end.

There’s none of the awkward wandering around busy work that marred the main game, with a simple focus on tight, intense interactive storytelling which was the clear strength of The Walking Dead. The voice acting is wonderful as usual, and the cartoony visuals remain bizarrely effective at creating this sinister and unpleasant world.

For such a low price, 400 Days is an essential toe dip back into Telltale’s marvellous Walking Dead world, offering more of what made the main five episodes so great with an interesting new plot structure to boot. With very little, it makes me attached to five new characters that I cannot wait to meet again in Season 2.images

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Batman: Arkham Origins for Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Well, Batman: Arkham Origins is pretty much exactly what I expected…actually, no, it’s worse than I expected. This is quite obviously a cash in game to tide us over until Rocksteady release a new Arkham game of their own, and it looks like WB Games are going to be going the annual release path with this series, with two studios working on games at the same time, as Activision do with Call of Duty and Ubisoft with Assassin’s Creed. The difference is that with those examples both teams are of roughly equal competence, but Arkham Origins fails to even come close to the quality of Arkham Asylum or Arkham City. Don’t get me wrong, there’s the odd flash of the old magic, but it’s buried under a pile of inadequacies. The least I hoped for was an uninnovative game that simply offered more of Arkham City; instead we got a game that’s significantly worse.

Arkham Origins isn’t Batman’s origin per-se, as it takes place around two years into his career, but it does show Batman’s first meeting with some classic supporting characters, such as James and Barbara Gordon and, most importantly, the Joker. Black Mask has orchestrated a break out at Blackgate Prison and put a $50million bounty on Batman’s head, and so eight of the world’s deadliest assassins descend on Gotham to claim it. There’s more going on than it seems, and Batman is drawn into the labyrinthine Gotham underworld to find the real story behind the bounty.

Arkham Origins’ plot is probably its biggest asset, and by not simply retelling the tired old origin story it ends up being genuinely surprising. This may not be the start of Bruce Wayne’s costumed hero career, but it’s probably the beginning of him being Batman. You get the feeling that before Arkham Origins, he was just an unhinged nutcase beating criminals half to death, but that the events of this game, and the new threat of the Joker, forge him into something better. Not all of the assassins are well handled; Electrocutioner and Firefly are just plain dumb, and Deathstroke (one of my personal favourite villains) was terrible underutilised. The star is, once again, the Joker, proving that even without Mark Hamill the character can still steal any show.

By and large, the gameplay is unchanged from Arkham City but slightly worse. It’s the little things that make Arkham Origins so disappointing. The combat, which in previous games put other similar games, such as Assassin’s Creed, to shame, is much less satisfying here. That free flowing movement which was so fun in the previous games never seems to quite work out here; it’s not an issue of making it more challenging, it’s just more frustrating. The previous games had a strong Metroidvania influence, which incentivised exploring and returning to previous areas. I very rarely bother to 100% games any more, I just don’t have the time, but I did so with Arkham City. I felt absolutely no impulse to do so here, with the collectibles and trinkets usually hidden in plain sight, reducing them to simple busywork. The only real gameplay addition are the new crime scene investigations, but it’s incredibly basic with precisely no player thought involved. They look cool, but it’s really only skin deep.

However, the biggest shortcoming in this game is Gotham City. It’s a blizzard, and so everyone is inside, leaving the streets…well, exactly the same as Arkham City. It made sense in that game, but the idea that the supposedly populated Gotham City can be so deserted is ludicrous. Yahtzee said in his review that the overworld failed because he couldn’t tell whether the areas were simply taken from Arkham City or were new, so either way the world design must be dull. It’s a good point, but I’d actually say it’s worse than that. I could tell the difference between the Arkham City stuff and the new stuff because the Arkham City stuff looked interesting. I finished this game less than a week ago and I’m hard pressed to remember a single part of the new areas. I loved zipping and gliding around Arkham City, but it was always a chore in Arkham Origins. There are all sorts of clumsily placed walls to Batman’s movement, I suppose to clumsily mask load times, but it only contributed to the dull, inorganic feeling that Gotham has in this game.

Arkham Origins runs poorly, with frequent graphical irritation. I’ve heard that the PS3 and 360 versions are filled with game breaking bugs, but not the Wii U version that I played, but even that is a poorly running mess. How is this game running worse than Arkham City, a game that came out two years ago? There are some cool looking set pieces, particularly one on Gotham Bridge, and the character designs are excellent, but they’re only occasions of brief respite from the mediocrity. Thankfully the voice acting is superb, and Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker admirably live up to the seemingly irreplaceable Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and the Joker respectively. The overheard dialogue between the grunts is still as amusing and fun as ever.

A strong story and voice cast can’t save this mess of a game however. I expected more of the same, a Fallout: New Vegas to my Fallout 3, but instead we get a massive step backwards. Don’t get me wrong, Rocksteady can certainly save this series, and a post-credits tease suggests an amazing spin-off, but I don’t think I’ll be buying any Batman games made by anyone else for a while. Batman__Arkham_Origins_Collector_s_Edition_13738170108141

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies for Nintendo 3DS

The Ace Attorney series is probably my number one gaming guilty pleasure. The gameplay is thin on the ground, and only gets thinner in this instalment, and the stories are utterly ridiculous, but the charm of the characters and the strength of the writing cement this series as one of my favourites. After taking a break from protagonist duties in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, Phoenix returns to his rightful position as protagonist, in what will hopefully be the first of a whole new 3DS series of Ace Attorney games.

Dual Destinies opens in the most dramatic manner possible, with an explosion going off in the iconic courtroom. The perpetrator and reason for of this explosion is the driving mystery of the game, which takes a non-linear approach throughout its cases. Phoenix Wright has come out of retirement following his disbarment before the events of Apollo Justice, and now he, Apollo and new attorney Athena Cykes work together to defend the falsely accused. Phoenix’s disbarment, and the conviction for murder by the rising star prosecutor Simon Blackquill, has ushered in the ‘Dark Age of the Law’. With public trust in the legal system at an all-time low, lawyers and prosecutors are increasingly using any means necessary to further their goals, with the truth of the matter becoming secondary to results. Phoenix, Apollo and Athena work through five cases, culminating in the mystery of the courtroom bombing, and the links that this has to the ‘Dark Age of the Law.’

It took me a while to warm to the core plot of Dual Destinies, but by the final case I realised how cleverly everything had been plotted together. The plot of Dual Destinies isn’t quite as labyrinthine as series highlight Trials and Tribulations, but it’s still fairly dense with some really stunning twists. I like the ‘Dark Age of the Law’ backdrop, which actually questions the fundamental precept of the series that colourful prosecutors and exciting trials mean actual justice is being served. There aren’t quite as many links back to the old games as I would have liked, but by and large Capcom did a good job of balancing appealing to new players with fan service. Unlike a lot of people, I liked Apollo Justice, so I was happy to see him taking a prominent role alongside Phoenix, even serving as the player character in the second episode. Athena Cykes is in some way your typical Ace Attorney insane spunky female side kick, but I think I prefer her to Maya Fey and Trucy Wright (who does play a small role in Dual Destinies). She’s more competent than they were, and actually serves as the player character for the third case. Maya and Trucy often felt like useless hangers-on, but as Athena is a fully trained lawyer she stands alongside Phoenix and Apollo as an equal. I missed the loveable presence of Gumshoe, but there are other characters which make up for it. Probably my biggest gripe with the story was the utter lack of acknowledgement of a major twist at the end of Apollo Justice, but by and large Dual Destinies scratched the unique itch of an Ace Attorney game.

The gameplay of the Ace Attorney series has always been thin on the ground, but sadly in Dual Destinies it feels even thinner. Some of the cases in the previous four games could get mind-bogglingly complex, but I felt that none of them ever quite got to that level here. The only real gameplay addition, Athena’s ability to read the emotions of others, is fun but there isn’t any real change here. Apollo’s reading of tells returns, but only a handful of times, as with Phoenix’s Psychelocks, which were intimidatingly complex in previous games but insultingly simple here. The endless investigation stages are simplified, with far fewer examination stages, which is welcome, but nothing is bought in to replace them, leaving the investigative portions feeling hollow and linear. Ok, this series has never been about the gameplay, but if you’re going to take something out at least put something meaningful in to replace it!

I was a bit cautious about the move to 3D character models; the 2D sprites had so much character! My concern was misplaced however, and the personalities of old characters transfer beautifully into 3D and new characters are equally vivid. I never failed to laugh at Athena’s ‘overwhelmed with emotion’ animation. There are a handful of voice acted anime cutscenes, which are nice but so sporadic as to feel quite pointless. The music is a bit disappointing; I have no idea why they bothered to change the old ‘Pursuit’ theme when the protagonist corners the perpetrator, which despite the fact I was simply picking items from a menu made the experience feel more tense and exciting than most FPS games that I’ve played. The new tunes aren’t quite as effective, and there’s a case of ‘if it ain’t broke’ going on here.

Still, Dual Destinies is a solid Ace Attorney game, and for its budget digital only price I really can’t complain. It’s not quite a triumphant return for the series, but it’s still one which I thoroughly enjoyed. Hopefully future games build on this so we can get this series back up to the devilish complexity of Trials and Tribulations.Ace-Attorney-Dual-Destinies-logo

PopCo by Scarlett Thomas

I really enjoyed The End of Mr. Y, and was definitely enthused to read more books from Scarlett Thomas. Although there were many elements I enjoyed about PopCo, there were also many that I found deeply irritating. Like The End of Mr. Y, PopCo doesn’t shy away from big ideas and complex concepts, but the actual core narrative and characters are much more suspect.

PopCo follows Alice Butler, an employee of the titular toy company PopCo, who at a company retreat is selected to be part of an elite group of employees to create a new product for teenage girls. Alice begins to question the morality and honesty of what she does, whilst at the same time receiving mysterious notes in code. We also have the parallel story of Alice’s childhood with her mathematician grandparents, and the mystery of the unbroken code hidden in her necklace.

There’s not an overabundance of plot in PopCo, but it does establish a really great atmosphere and what is there is interesting. I probably enjoyed the childhood storyline more than the adult one, which involved a lot more introspection and whining. There’s nothing wrong with writing with a political slant, but in PopCo Scarlett Thomas often gets very ‘soap box-y.’ Whether it’s veganism (ugh), homeopathy (double ugh) or corporate greed (ok, that one’s fair enough), Thomas imparts her views with all the subtlety of a hammer to the face. Seriously, during the depictions of homeopathy I was rolling my eyes so hard I thought that I’d do myself serious damage. Writing with a strong social or political message must be reinforced within the plot, and at best it feels organic. Good political writing weaves its message into the narrative; for example, Margaret Atwood’s environmentalist message in the MaddAddam trilogy over, say, John Galt’s rant in Ayn Rand’s contemptible Atlas Shrugged. PopCo reminded me a lot of Iain Bank’s The Business, which cover similar themes, but I felt that The Business did so with considerable more nuance. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of compelling, interesting stuff here, but it’s undermined by Thomas’ brute force approach to conveying her message.

One thing about The End of Mr. Y that I really enjoyed was its scientific focus on quantum mechanics, a topic which I found fascinating. PopCo has a similar focus on mathematics and code breaking, topics which I didn’t find quite as interesting. That’s just me though, and I highly appreciate the well-researched effort that Scarlett Thomas puts into her books. She’s a really great writer, and is truly excellent at conjuring a sense of place. She has a knack for naturalistic dialogue, and making her books, even when they’re about something bizarre, feel ‘real.’

One major issue that I had with PopCo is that it’s protagonist, Alice Butler, is one of the most irritating that I have ever read. She shares many similarities with Ariel Manto from The End of Mr. Y, but with a wearisome anti-hipster attitude which just makes her even more of a hipster. I liked child Alice a lot, but during her adult storyline with PopCo I found her constantly grating. The supporting cast has a few stars though, with my favourite being Esther, the foul mouthed, constantly weed smoking employee with a mysterious job for PopCo.

PopCo is a good book, but I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as The End of Mr Y. It has some really interesting things to say about marketing towards children, but the brute force approach that Scarlett Thomas takes to her message undermines the whole book. Don’t get me wrong, PopCo hasn’t put me off Scarlett Thomas, I definitely want to read more, but I hope that the nextone I get to is more The End of Mr. Y and less PopCo.download

The Walking Dead for Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, iOS, Ouya, PC and Mac.

I’ve been a fan of Telltale games for a long time. They have a knack for adapting my favourite things into hilarious, tricky and fun episodic adventures games. After adapting Homestar Runner, Wallace & Gromit and Monkey Island, they were cemented as one of my all-time favourite game companies. I wasn’t as much of a fan of their Back to the Future series, but it was the awkward middle part of their transition from old fashioned adventure games to a new kind of interactive story. Although I hope that they one day return to their roots, this exciting new genre is incredibly exciting, and Telltale used it to great effect in the Walking Dead, creating one of the most genuinely moving and emotional game experiences that I’ve ever enjoyed.

The Walking Dead opens with history professor Lee Everett in a police car following his mysterious arrest. The appearance of zombies, here called ‘walkers’, drives the car off the road and Lee makes his escape. Soon he comes across a young girl named Clementine, whose parents are away, and it’s not long before Lee becomes her guardian through the zombie apocalypse. Lee meets up with a small group of other survivors and focuses his attention on protecting Clementine, his new surrogate daughter.

Telltale’s leap into the dramatic over the comic is handled incredibly well. I knew these guys could do irreverent and funny, but moving and tense? They nailed it. Lee is a highly likeable main character, although I suppose depending on the player he could also be an aggressive jerk. Lee is just how characters in games like this should be; plain enough that the player can project their will on them, but also with an independent personality of their own, something even Bioware never quite managed with Commander Sheperd. Although the supporting cast are interesting and likeable, what kept me coming back was the moving and heart-warming relationship between Lee and Clementine. Lee is a man who has lost everything, even before the rise of the walkers, and in Clementine he finds the motivation to be a better man.

The actual gameplay on the other hand? Truly terrible. There are a lot of quick time events and hurried decision making, and these work well, but whenever The Walking Dead tries to be a proper adventure game it fails miserably. The terrible character animations as we move Lee around break the immersion, and the puzzles are never more than a matter of go pick up A and bring to B. Although I liked it when Telltale made adventure games, I’d almost rather they go the whole hog and abandon that element, and focus entirely on the interactive story telling. It’s rare that I’m asking for more QTEs and less gameplay, but I honestly feel that that is what these games need.

The cartoony visual style, reminiscent of its comic book source material, works well and doesn’t detract from the sense of menace. The biggest visual irritation is the poor character animations, and hopefully Telltale with their new success can afford to invest in some motion capture for future projects. The voice acting is, unsurprisingly, superb. Much like with a great animated film, you forget that these figures are just polygons and start seeing them as people, and that’s really all down to the great voice performance. The poor facial animation means that the voice actors have to pull double duty to make their characters convincing, and all of them do.

The Walking Dead is a game which creates a new genre, and one which really nails the episodic gaming concept. After a shaky time with Back to the Future, I’m on board with this new, dramatic Telltale. Telltale is we knew it is dead. Long live Telltale. TWD-game-cover

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD for Wii U

With every passing year, nostalgia becomes more and more powerful. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was first released in 200 and is one of my favourite games of all time. The visuals, the sense of adventure and the heavenly soundtrack combined to create a truly magical experience, and a peak which I believe the Zelda series has yet to reach again in any of the subsequent games. Replaying the HD remake for the Wii U I’m more canny, and notice the flaws and the areas where the game was clearly rushed, but nonetheless The Wind Waker holds up as a truly incredible experience.

The Wind Waker has one of the better plots of the Zelda series, taking place in a post-apocalyptic flooded Hyrule, after the three Goddesses saw no alternative to halt the resurgence of Ganon. Hyrule is gone, and in its place is the Great Sea, a massive ocean populated by a few tiny islands. Link is a young boy on the idyllic Outset Island, whose peaceful existence is shattered on his birthday when a massive bird swoops in and kidnaps his sister Aryll. Link joins a crew of pirates, led by their tenacious captain Tetra, to rescue his sister and along the way discovers a greater threat looming over the Great Sea.

Ok, so the Zelda games never have the most complex stories, but at their best they can tap into an epic, mythical vibe, telling a story by showing rather than telling. Although the apex of this was, of course, Majora’s Mask (duh!), Wind Waker does this better than most. For a game so vibrant and joyful, Wind Waker conceals some seriously dark themes, and some of the most interesting and nuanced characters in the series. Wind Waker’s Ganondorf isn’t the power hungry maniac of Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess, but instead a melancholy and faintly tragic figure too far gone into evil ever to return. Wind Waker is one of the games which most closely builds upon the plot of a previous game, and it’s ties to Ocarina of Time give this game a much more epic and dramatic vibe.

The sheer joy of sailing around the Great Sea is intact, and there still really hasn’t been a game like it since. Nintendo are constantly being accused of ‘remaking Ocarina of Time over and over again.’ I think this is incredibly unfair, and the only game that this might be accurate towards is Twilight Princess. Although the core mechanics are the same, the Zelda series is generally wonderful at building utterly surprising and original experiences with them. Ok, the basic gameplay of Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker may be the same, but the melancholy and oppressive world of Majora’s Mask couldn’t be further from the joyful and uplifting world of Wind Waker.

Although basically the same, there are a handful of additions for the Wii U. Some of these are a silly and fun, like the ability to share photos through MiiVerse and the ability for Link to take selfies, but there are a couple which do fundamentally improve the game. The infamous Triforce Hunt is vastly improved, with far fewer maps to be decoded by Tingle, with many mini-dungeons which once gave charts now giving the Triforce piece directly. The best addition is, for reasons that I cannot fathom, hidden in an obscure and dull mini-game and barely advertised in the game itself. The swift sail, which ratchets up the speed of the King of Red Lions and eliminates the need to use the Wind Waker to change wind direction, improves the pace of this game by a staggering amount. I occasionally switched back to the old sail, and I couldn’t believe how slow the boat went. The epic and huge feeling of the Great Sea remains, but the tedium is cut out. It’s a shame that the sail can only be attained through the auction on Windfall Island, as many players are going to miss it. Still, those who do get the swift sail will find the game’s pace markedly improved. The Wii U touch screen speeds up item management, and gyroscope aiming for the bow markedly improves accuracy.

Things aren’t all perfect, and coming at this game a decade later I’ve noticed issues that I hadn’t on the Gamecube. It’s clear that The Wind Waker was rushed, with some very clear moments where further content was planned. As wonderful as Wind Waker is, I can’t help but wonder what it could have been with another year of development time. Whilst Wind Waker’s musical combat is some of the best of the series, the targeting is a mess, particularly when compared to modern games with similar control schemes such as Darksiders. Wind Waker has one fairly key deficiency; none of the dungeons, or even the bosses, are series standouts. They’re fine, don’t get me wrong, but a Zelda dungeon at its best is a symphony of devilishly clever game design and planning, and they all feel just a little bit basic in Wind Waker. It’s amazing that, despite these fairly glaring flaws, Wind Waker still manages to stand as one of the best in the series.

Wind Waker is ironically the game least in need of a visual makeover, and whilst the HD looks lovely, Wind Waker already looked lovely. The more recent Twilight Princess is much more in need of a visual overhaul than Wind Waker. There’s a little too much bloom for my tastes, but by and large the HD update is well done, and helps to make Wind Waker even more beautiful. Probably the biggest disappointment in this update is the lack of remastering of the original music. Wind Waker has one of the greatest soundtracks in any game ever, but the actual sound quality was very low, and only the most marginal improvements are made to this. Super Mario Galaxy taught us how powerful a fully orchestrated game can be, and for a remake this might be asking a bit much, but maybe they could have at least done the Great Sea theme?

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is a game that has genuinely earned the often hyperbolic appellation of timeless. It’s a beautiful, stirring and swashbuckling experience, and one which really hasn’t been rivalled in a long time. The Wii U update adds some new strength, and even if it exposes a few old flaws, I think that Wind Waker will never stop being a wonderful experience. Wind-Waker-HD-1

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