Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “January, 2014”

Broken Age: Act One for PC

Broken Age is my first Kickstarter gaming crop to flower. It’s been a really interesting experience, watching this game germinate from an unnamed promise to the beautiful and charming game that we have before us now…well, half a game. Therein lies the problem, Broken Age is unfinished, and I can’t help but wish that Double Fine had weathered the delays and released the entire game in one.

Broken Age has two parallel storylines, both following a young person seeking escape. There is Vella, a young woman who has been chosen as a potential human sacrifice to Mog Chothra, a Lovecratftian nightmare which attacks her village every year. Vella manages to escape her fate, potentially dooming her village in the process, so she journeys through a selection of strange and wonderful locations in pursuit of a weapon that may be able to destroy Mog Chothra. Our other protagonist is Shay, a young man who lives on a space ship ruled over by an A.I that believes it is his mother. She sets up a daily routine of fake perils for him to overcome, to make him feel like a hero. Shay manages to escape this cycle, and encounters Marek, a strange creature in a wolf costume, who sends him on missions around the galaxy to save helpless creatures.

Broken Age tells one of those stories so wonderful that I’m careful to even analyse it too much as I really don’t want to spoil anything. Vella and Shay aren’t necessarily particularly deep characters, but as with all of Tim Schafer’s protagonists, they’re deeply likeable and easy to imprint ourselves on. I think a lot of us were expecting a full blown Monkey Island-style comedy, but Broken Age really isn’t. Don’t get me wrong; it is funny, in fact it’s frequently hilarious, but it actually has a curiously sinister and melancholy tone throughout a lot of it. Vella and Shay’s worlds are really messed up places to be, with both protagonists stand as the sole voice of reason in a world where pretty much everyone has gone mad. Without saying anything more about it, the ending is incredible and is going to make the wait for Act 2 unbearable.

Double Fine haven’t reinvented the wheel gameplay wise in Broken Age, but, well, their Kickstarter pitch was to make an old fashioned point and click adventure game so…that’s what they made! That said, it never quite gets to a particularly complex level. In fact, Broken Age is one of the easiest adventure games that I’ve ever played. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. None of the puzzles reach that level of pixel hunting convoluted stupidity that these things can reach; I’m looking at you The Longest Journey (I kid, I love that game). Broken Age flows beautifully, and although it’s never challenging the solutions are always clever and amusing, which is much more important to me than fiendish complexity. Still, if what you’re after is something on the level of Monkey Island or Sam & Max Hit the Road, you may be out of luck.

Broken Age can perhaps be described as style over substance, but as has become something of a refrain in this blog; so what? The art style for Broken Age is simply stunning, like a painting come to life. The characters are so expressive, the environments so imaginative and gorgeous. Double Fine games have always been imaginative and wacky in their environments, but the polygonal 3D has never quite done them justice. With this hand drawn style (which I’m sure takes just as long, if not longer than traditional 3D), Double Fine are finally able to make their vision reach its potential. Alongside the gorgeous visuals, the music is delightful yet understated, but it is the voice acting that deserves the most praise. Double Fine’s surprisingly star-studded cast are used well, particularly Elijah Wood as Shay. Jack Black’s performance as a cult leader is enjoyable but he’s perhaps underused, with the less famous Masasa Moyo’s understated turn as Vella also standing out. Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time fame’s, turn as a man stuck in a tree was my favourite, but Wil Wheaton also deserves major credit as a lumberjack convinced that the trees are out for revenge. Tim Schafer is clearly a man who has made some influential friends over the years, as it’s hard to imagine that they would have found space in the budget for big name actors. Broken Age is simply put, a wonderfully presented game, an honest-to-God feast for the senses.

The thing is, as wonderful as Broken Age is, it does feel disjointed. The cliffhanger at the end is epic, but it would have fit just as well as a midpoint to the story, and with no release date in sight for Act Two, it’s slightly depressing. Broken Age: Act One is a brief, joyful experience, but I’d recommend holding off until the entire game is ready. download (4)


Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag for Wii U, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC

Well, talk about a pleasant surprise. After Assassin’s Creed III, a game I consider to be an utter disaster, my hopes were not high for the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The prospect of a new game the following year didn’t fill me with enthusiasm, and I thought I was done with this series. Happily, I’ve been proven completely wrong with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the best Assassin’s Creed game since the second one, and a game which scratches an itch I didn’t even realise I had.

Black Flag takes us back in time from Assassin’s Creed III, focusing on the adventure of the stoically dull Connor’s grandfather Edward Kenway, a Welsh pirate who left to seek his fortune during the Golden Age of Piracy. Edward soon becomes a pirate of some renown, rubbing shoulders with historical pirates such as Bartholomew Roberts, Anne Bonny and, best of all, Blackbeard. A chance encounter sets Edward against the Templars, who seek access to a First Civilisation temple with the help of an enigmatic figure known as the Sage. Although not a revolutionary such as Connor or Ezio, Edward’s personal material interests align with the Assassin’s as he works with them to find the Observatory before the Templars and achieve the fame and fortune which he believes to be his right.

Of course, this is an Assassin’s Creed game so you’re not actually playing as badass pirate Edward Kenway, you’re playing as someone reliving the genetic memories of badass pirate Edward Kenway. After series protagonist Desmond reached his confusing and nonsensical end in Assassin’s Creed III, the present day story shifts to a new, unnamed silent protagonist. You are an employee of Abstergo Industries, a game company which seeks to create videogaming experiences from genetic memories taken from an Animus. They’re working with a French company known as Ubisoft (hmm) to create a game based on the life of Edward Kenway, and you are a researcher for the game…yeah. Of course, there’s a wider conspiracy going on, and it’s not long before our protagonist is recruited by a figure known only as ‘John from IT’ to investigate the Templar cult at the head of Abstergo.

The plot for the 18th century stuff is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the actual stories of piracy and adventure are incredibly compelling and enjoyable. The stories of great pirates such as Blackbeard and Mary Read are compelling, exciting and surprisingly emotional. I loved the story of the pirates defending their haven of Nassau from the auspices of the British Empire, and overall Black Flag has the best cast of supporting historical figures in any Assassin’s Creed game. However, there are some major draw-backs. I’ve always been a staunch defender of the First Civilisation, Assassins vs. Templars storyline which has underpinned the series, but in Black Flag for the first time it felt tacked on and forced. Edward’s reluctance to join the Assassins means that the wider plot often feels remote and pointless, and returning to it drew from the far more enjoyable grounded narrative of Edward’s adventures with history’s greatest pirates.

One element of the plot that I did love though was the present day sections. Is showing the development studio of the game you’re currently playing self-indulgent and silly? Well, yes. It’s not necessarily even done particularly well. Still, for a major AAA game release from a huge publisher to attempt something so meta and clever must be applauded. This is the territory of quirky indie games, but with the resources that Ubisoft have at their disposal we have both a really interesting undermining/parody of the AAA focus grouped game development of a blockbuster, as well as an expanding of the intriguing modern world setting. That said, the Juno storyline is forwarded an infinitesimal amount, and is more about deepening our understanding of this setting and what’s going on there. The self-deprecation of these sections was highly appreciated, and a couple of intriguing connections to the heavily anticipated Watch Dogs certainly don’t go awry either.

So, from a gameplay perspective Black Flag bears most in common with Assassin’s Creed III. The combat is the same, the free-running similar and the stealth systems and sailing pretty much the same. See, I hated the mechanics of Assassin’s Creed III, so I’m as surprised as anyone that Ubisoft was able to salvage those mechanics into working well. The free running feels satisfying again (if not quite as much as in the first two), and combat is, at least, functional. Best of all though is the massive improvement in stealth mechanics. For a series based on assassinations, the Assassin’s Creed games have had some horrible stealth mechanics. They were worse in III, but they weren’t great to begin with. Although it’s not going to exactly give Dishonored a run for its money, stealth is finally a viable option in an Assassin’s Creed game! It’s much easier to tell where you are hidden from the enemies, and although it’s still irritatingly contextual, the indicators are finally clear. Ubisoft subtly fixed the broken mechanics of III, but it’s impossible to deny that the mechanics are still pretty clunky. Much like GTA5, I can’t help but wonder why these huge companies are seemingly incapable of creating satisfying controls. Still, all said Assassin’s Creed IV simply plays well, which cannot have been said for III.

The main draw of Black Flag is the massive expansion of the sailing sections from III, but with us now exploring an open world filled with things to do. The ship combat was epic in III, but an extra element of chaos and strategy in Black Flag ticks a nautical itch I didn’t even know was there. Boarding an enemy vessel is a surprisingly fluid, organic and fun experience which never stopped feeling epic the dozens of time I did it during my time with the game. This is the most content packed Assassin’s Creed game to date and best of all it’s all actually fun. Alongside the story missions filled with epic set piece moments are optional assassinations, naval contracts and a handful of other fun diversions. Now, I’m an adult and collectibles in games don’t hold much draw for me anymore, but goddam it if I wasn’t going to meticulously seek out and collect every single optional sea shanty for my crew. As a side note, I played Black Flag on Wii U, and although having the map visible at a glance was nice, it’s a shame that nothing else was done with the tablet controller. Still, it’s pleasantly superior to the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions (if not quite up to the PS4, Xbox One or PC versions), so I was happy enough with it.

Similarly to Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the out of Animus gameplay is completely different to the in-Animus gameplay. Rather than running and assassinating we’re walking and…er, hacking. There are a handful of different hacking mini-games, which aren’t nearly as challenging and cool as those of Assassin’s Creed II, but certainly weren’t bad enough to get dull. Ubisoft probably take the right approach in Black Flag by making the large majority of the modern day stuff optional. You probably only have to play about half an hour outside the Animus, but if you’re one of those people (like me)who enjoy the modern setting, there are plenty of intriguing chunks of lore to be gleaned by exploring the Abstergo Offices, and hacking it’s computers, in more detail. The voices to abandon the modern setting have gotten even louder with this instalment, and I do wonder if Ubisoft will one day make the modern stuff entirely optional. This would be a good way of pleasing long term fans such as me without potentially alienating new-comers to the series, or those who are simply sick of this element.

Black Flag succeeds well in its presentation, although the usual Assassin’s Creed niggles are present as well. Although the environments are gorgeous, and the ocean highly atmospheric, there are all of the little glitches and weird moments that we’ve come to expect from this series. Still, this game provides that immersive pirate experience I’ve always wanted, and the visuals play a large role in that. The music is suitably pirate-y, with the sea shanties standing as the clear highlights. The voice acting is up to usual Assassin’s Creed standards, with Edward’s voice actor helping to make him stand up alongside Ezio. The supporting cast are brilliant, such as the cross-dressing Mary Read, with the surprisingly nuanced portrayal of Blackbeard standing as the highlight.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has rescued the reputation of a series which, at its best, can be one of the most inventive and interesting in mainstream gaming. If the rumoured pirate spin-off is real, I’ll be thrilled, but I’m mostly excited to see where Ubisoft go next. It feels good to be excited about the future of Assassin’s Creed again. images (1)

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

Last Argument of Kings is the third, final and best instalment in Joe Abercrombie’s enjoyably dark and twisted ‘First Law’ trilogy, although in many ways it feels like the beginning of a larger story. If all you want is plot resolution, there’s a huge amount left hanging, but it wraps up many of the arcs from the first two books beautifully and is overall a hugely satisfying and enjoyable conclusion. Endings are hard, and few completely nail them, but Last Argument of Kings really does.

Last Argument of Kings picks up just as Jezal, Logen, Ferro and Bayaz return to Adua after their failed journey to the Old Empire to recover The Seed in Before They Are Hanged. Logen makes his way back North, re-joining his old crew, now under the leadership of the Dogman, to ally with the Union (and Collem West) in their war against Bethod. Jezal’s epiphany after his scarring in the Old Empire has led him to seek a simple life of happiness with Ardee West, but the machinations of Bayaz leave him with a greater role to play. The murder of Prince Reynault has caused an election for the heir to the throne, and Sand dan Glokta uses his terrible skills to ensure the election of a candidate who is amenable to his master, Arch Lector Sult. With a war in the North, the threat of Gurkish attack and a fermenting peasant’s revolt, Adua and the Union is in an extremely precarious state.

After the wider focus of Before They Are Hanged, Last Argument of Kings is a much more focused and tightly structured book, with the lion’s share of the story taking place in Adua. Although I enjoyed seeing more of the world in the previous book, I did not enjoy how both the Old Empire and Dagoska storylines ended with a whimper. In many ways, they felt like time filling, but that is certainly not the case with this book. It’s a long book, but fast paced and compulsively readable. I enjoyed the first two books, but it’s Last Argument of Kings which has thoroughly cemented me as a Joe Abercrombie fan.

One thing that I really like about Abercrombie is his twistedly dark sense of humour, which crops up at the strangest moments. Don’t get me wrong, there aren’t any belly laughs, but it’s not uncommon for things so horrible to happen that the only way response is a grim chuckle. He switches over to tragedy well though, and the dialogue is naturalistic and strong. He’s improved hugely in action scenes. The scene in The Blade Itself where Logen and Ferro were chased by the Practicals of the Inquisition through Adua was pretty painful to read, but things improved in Before They Are Hanged and have reached epic status in Last Argument of Kings. Abercrombie’s writing has improved with each book, and it started in a pretty strong place to begin with!

Abercrombie has an interesting approach to characterisation. The only protagonist that could truly be called a good person is the Dogman, with each of his protagonists containing at least one massive flaw. Before They Are Hanged flirted with the idea of redeeming his awful characters. It suggested that the twisted Glokta may still have some humanity in him, that Jezal was capable of more than his pathetic selfishness, that Logen could stop killing in droves. Last Argument of Kings is less optimistic, and generally the characters fail to redeem themselves fully and revert to their own ways. All of the characters are aware that they are bad people, and seek to be better, but none of them are brave or strong enough to do it. Redemption is something which, if handled well (think Jaime Lannister), can be so fascinating, but if handled poorly can be confusing and unnatural (Thomas Covenant, or to an extent, Darth Vader). Abercrombie offers a sort of anti-redemption for his characters, that doesn’t take away from the complexity and nuance of their personalities, but refuses to give his readers a simple waving-away of his characters darker sides.

Last Argument of Kings is a brilliant ending to a series which I haven’t always been completely sure on. He’s announced a second trilogy, which I can’t wait for, but until then I have the three spin-offs set in the same world to tide me over. download (3)

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

Along with the death of Iain Banks, the Alzheimer’s of Sir Terry Pratchett is one of the biggest recent tragedies in the world of genre fiction. Happily, fans who were concerned that Pratchett’s horrible illness would heavily impact the quality of work have been proven wrong in Raising Steam, the 40th Discworld book and the 3rd in the Moist Von Lipwip subseries. It’s a flawed piece of work, but one which shows that Pratchett is still capable of delivering some of the smartest, funniest and most relevant fantasy around.

Raising Steam, although following the enterprising former conman Moist von Lipwip from Going Postal and Making Money, it is in many ways a sequel to the Commander Vimes starring Thud!, dealing as it does with the fallout of the Koom Valley Peace Accord between the Trolls and the Dwarves. It also has a strong link to the most recent Discworld book, Snuff, which saw equal rights given to goblins, who play an important, funny and oddly moving role in this book. Mr. Simnel, an amusing Yorkshire parody engineering genius, has created the Disc’s first locomotive, and Lord Vetinari recruits Moist von Lipwig to run the business for the benefit of Ankh-Morpork, with funding from the ‘King of Shit’ Harry King. This is a time of huge change for the Disc, but not all are celebrating this brave new world. The grags, conservative dwarves who oppose integration with humans and trolls, have been launching terrorist attacks on the Clack Towers, and the new trains make an attractive new target.

Although the central narrative about the creation of the train is funny, it was the Dwarven element of the narrative which I enjoyed most. The parallels between the grags and Islamic fundamentalists are too obvious to ignore. Pratchett has never shrunk away from dealing with heavy subjects, in fact the theme of multiculturalism and the fight against bigotry has become the prevailing theme of the series. In Raising Steam, Pratchett makes one of his boldest and most dangerous parallels, but he pulls it off brilliantly and with sensitivity and respect. The reaction of the Dwarven King to the terrorist actions of his subjects is actually really powerful and moving. Of course, it wouldn’t be Terry Pratchett if alongside all this insightful social commentary was also a really funny story about trains! The train narrative is a bit weaker, but once it fuses with the Dwarven narrative the whole thing improves significantly.

There are some problems; Raising Steam feels slightly sloppier than his other books, and is edited in a really strange, jarring way. It’s not necessarily that any of the writing is bad, it just sometimes feels like paragraphs are placed in seemingly random order, and it takes a while for the plot to gel together into something coherent. The second half is significantly better than the first.

In some ways, Moist feels like a guest star in his own book during Raising Steam, but he still stands as one of Pratchett’s best Discworld protagonists. Raising Steam contains plenty of cameos from figures that we’ve come to expect in Discworld books, such as the City Watch, the Wizards and Death, but also a few that caught me by surprise. Simnel is a great new character, and one I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing again, and the Dwarven King Rhys Rhysson emerges as one of the most sympathetic and interesting characters in the series. Above it all, Lord Vetinari remains one of the best politicians in literature.

Raising Steam probably isn’t Pratchett at his best, but nonetheless it is a lovely book and one that all Discworld fans should read. Pratchett is an author so prolific that it’s hard to imagine that one day we won’t get any more books from him, but tragically that day is getting closer and closer, so let’s enjoy every single moment that this national treasure is still writing for us. The_front_cover_of_the_book_Raising_Steam_by_Terry_Pratchett

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