Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “March, 2014”

Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry for PS4, PS3 and PC

I really like the idea of releasing DLC separately from the main game. It means I can trade things in for maximum pay back and not miss out! Freedom Cry skipped the Wii U, so the PS4 release was my only opportunity to give it a go. I’m glad I did, although it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I hadn’t.

Freedom Cry takes place several years after the conclusion of Black Flag, and follows Adewale, a former slave and Edward Kenway’s ex-quartermaster upon the Jackdaw. Now an active member of the Assassin Order, Adewale’s ship is sunk during a battle against Templar forces, and he washes up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. There, he is caught up in the Maroon Rebellion against the French colonialist slave-owners, and sets about freeing as many slaves as he can.

There’s a certain satisfaction in a game where you just know that you’re on the right side. Assassin’s Creed games tend to tread a narrow moral line; I mean, those guards you just dispatched probably had families right? They were just doing their jobs. That moral ambiguity is gone in Freedom Cry. Adewale is a former slave, and these are slavers. Go forth and murder. Still ,there are affecting moments. One scene in particular was as stark and disturbing a condemnation of the horrors of slavery as Twelve Years a Slave. Adewale is a great protagonist, with the best combination of charm and nobility we’ve seen since Ezio. It feels a shame to see him relegated to DLC supporting role; he could easily have headlined his own game. Freedom Cry is a satisfying, self-contained narrative which feels relevant to the overall story of the series, unlike the disappointing Tyranny of King Washington DLCs for Assassin’s Creed III.

Freedom Cry plays basically much the same as Black Flag before it, taking place on a small stretch of Haitian coast and Port-au-Prince itself. Adewale is armed slightly differently to Edward, with the twin swords swapped for a single, large machete and the pistols for a big ol’ blunderbuss. They’re more brutal weapons than we saw Edward armed with, but satisfyingly so. New items and weapons are unlocked by freeing as many slaves as possible, with new numbers of freed slaves offering new rewards. I’m not quite certain if I’m comfortable with the horrors of slavery being quantified this way, but it is how it is. Slaves are freed in a series of ways, with some simply being one at a time as they’re transported between jobs, with others being more elaborate, such as the taking of huge slave galleys and the stealthy elimination of all the guards on a plantation.

There are some good new musical cues for Adewale, which suit the setting well, and the visuals are as nice as ever. I was surprised to find that the visual difference between Wii U and PS4 was less than I expected, with the PS4 doing very little with its vastly higher graphical capabilities. I would still argue that the Wii U is the definitive console version of the main game.

Freedom Cry is more of the same, which is fine, because I loved Black Flag. In some ways it’s quite a conservative DLC release, particularly compared to Assassin’s Creed III’s nuttiness, but it’s still a well-made, polished experience which loyal fans of the series will enjoy.assassins-creed-4-freedom-cry-cheats

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inFamous: Second Son for PS4

Ok, so my perception of this game was always going to be slightly warped by the fact that it’s my first PS4 game, and first step into the next-gen (sorry Wii U, you don’t quite count). As a purely technical display of the potential for a console, it’s certainly worthy, but it’s actually an extremely fun and compelling game in its own right.

I haven’t played the original two inFamous games, not having had a PS3 last-gen, but you really don’t need to have for this game. It picks up in a world where super-powered humans known as ‘Conduits’ have been re-labelled as ‘Bio-Terrorists’ and are now pursued by the government organisation known as the DUP. The protagonist is Deslin Rowe, a Native American delinquent who discovers his unique Conduit ability to absorb powers from others when a DUP truck crashes on his reservation. Augustine, leader of the DUP and a Conduit herself, arrives and interrogates the tribe to discover if Deslin has powers. They cover for him, but are left with life threatening injuries from Augustine’s concrete power, which can only be cured by Augustine herself. Deslin and his cop brother Reggie travel to the DUP headquarters in Seattle so Deslin can absorb Augustine’s power and save his tribe. There’s a morality system, so the methods Deslin uses to get to Ausgustine will vary between different playthroughs.

The actual plot of Second Son isn’t especially interesting, and attempts some pretty ham-fisted social commentary. An incredibly awkward and out of place Rosa Parks reference is an example. What saves this game is its wide range of compelling and believable characters. Deslin is a great protagonist, one who goes on a genuine character journey, and actually enjoys his super powers rather than moping about them. He’s a funny, likeable protagonist and a refreshing change from the gravelly voiced badasses we’ve gotten used to. Reggie plays a good straight man to Deslin, acting as the game’s moral centre. Augustine is probably my favourite character though; a lot of the best videogame villains are the wackiest, but Augustine plays it fairly straight and dominates each scene simply by her presence.

It’s strange actually, I’m noticing as I write this that I’m talking about these characters like they’re actors. This is probably because Second Son has some of the most genuinely human looking and moving character models that I’ve ever seen. You stop seeing polygonal models very quickly, and just see people. The excellent voice acting and motion capture do a fantastic job at bringing these characters to life. The visuals overall are stunning, with a smooth frame rate throughout. The music is nice too, and ramps up well during the action scenes.

Second Son plays as well as it looks. It’s an open world game, with Seattle being the playground for Deslin to show off his powers. There are four powers, of which I’ll only mention the first two, smoke and neon. Smoke allows Deslin to throw fireballs and blast away foes, where neon is more precise, letting Deslin zap certain parts of his enemies and traverse the environments with greater ease. The movement mechanics are certainly fun, but this is the first open world super hero game that I’ve played where the highlight is actually the combat. You’re encouraged to constantly move around, varying between melee and ranged attacks as well as different powers, with a recharging health bar to keep you on your feet. It’s frantic, but never too chaotic, and I always felt in control of the situation. That line between exciting and chaotic is a difficult one to get right, but Sucker Punch did it with aplomb. There’s a levelling mechanic as well, as Deslin can upgrade his powers by draining ‘shards’ from the world.

The main story isn’t particularly long, but it’s exciting throughout with nothing that felt like filler. The side quests aren’t quite so exciting; they’re focused around liberating Seattle from DUP control, and involve completing a series of missions in each separate area. The problem is that these missions get old fast, and quickly feel like a chore. Much more interesting are the Paper Chase missions, which are being released for free over the course of 6 weeks, and link to your computer with an ARG component. It’s interesting stuff, and even if it doesn’t end up working out, Sucker Punch should be applauded for A) trying something new and B) not charging for it.

inFamous: Second Son is a brilliant display of what this console generation will be capable of, and a damn fun game at the same time. The plot is at its best when not taking itself seriously, and I’d certainly be happy to see Deslin appear again. If you already own a PS4…well, you sort of have to buy it, it’s the only exciting AAA game out there and if, like me you didn’t, Second Son is a great place to start.infamous-second-son-ps4-wallpaper-1080p

Weapon Shop de Omasse for Nintendo 3DS

Well, this has been a rather divisive little game hasn’t it? I’ve seen some people absolutely slate it, but others seemed to really like it. I’m probably somewhere in the middle; it’s not really a good game by any sense, but it has a charm which is hard to deny. In fact, this is the kind of game for which the term ‘guilty pleasure’ was invented.

Weapon Shop de Omasse takes place inside a fictional JRPG, in which you play as Yuhan, an apprentice blacksmith who helps run a weapon rental shop for the heroes of this world. The Evil Lord is returning, so Yuhan forges a series of greater and greater weapons for a series of heroes to ensure that they are well equipped for the inevitable confrontation at the end.

Published in Japan as part of the Guild 01 series, Weapon Shop de Omasse was actually created and written by a group of comedians. The humour is very…erm, Japanese, but the localisation team has done an absolutely fantastic job, and I found myself chuckling away more than once. There are a range of weird and wacky characters Yuhan rents weapons to, from a giant drag queen to a ridiculous French knight. A lot of the laughs come from the ‘Grindcast’, which is basically Twitter, which plays along the screen as you forge and maintain your stock of weapons. The localisation team really nailed the Twitter style, complete with hashtags and pop culture references, all tied up in the JRPG setting. Ok, not everything translates, and the story itself isn’t particularly interesting, but it’s still an amusing little conceit executed well.

Sadly, the actual gameplay is abysmal. Weapon Shop de Omasse is mainly a rhythm game, but not a very good one. The weapons are forged by tapping the lump of metal to the rhythm of a song, but it all seems very arbitrary, and the quality of the weapon at the end often seems to have nothing to do with the quality of your performance of the song. The item management element isn’t much better, with the potentially interesting mechanic of deciding which weapon best suits each client being done for you with the overly simplistic ‘affinity’ check. It can get very monotonous, and reminds me slightly of those early DS games which were built only around dodgy touch screen mechanics. I’m looking at you Project Rub.

Probably the worst sin is that there aren’t enough tunes, and lots of them aren’t very good. There was only really one of them that I felt was really enjoyable, which just isn’t enough in a game built around music! There are some nice elements in the presentation though, such as a sit-com style studio audience that laugh, applaud and groan along with the action.

I’m perhaps inclined to be a bit kinder to Weapon Shop de Omasse than a lot of people, and I think that this is partially because of the way I played it. I never played more than 10 minutes in one sitting, which helped starve off the tedium. It’s completely understandable that a professional game critic working under deadlines would experience this game a very different way. If you want something light, amusing and mindless to fill the odd spare moment, Weapon Shop de Omasse might be worth a look, but don’t go in expecting anything special. Weapon-Shop-De-Omasse-art-logo-Review-Game-Play-Screen-Shot-625x351

South Park: The Stick of Truth for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

It’s really nice when a game comes out and it’s exactly what you hoped it would be. I’m a long time South Park fan, getting into the show at an inappropriately young age. The movie is a solid contender for my favourite of all time. So…yeah, I love South Park. I also love RPGs. South Park: The Stick of Truth is not only great South Park, that was pretty much guaranteed, it’s a pretty damn solid RPG too.

In Stick of Truth you play as a new kid moving to South Park, who is almost immediately caught up in an epic play-fantasy war between Eric Cartman’s Kupa Keep Klub (the KKK) and Kyle Brofloski’s elven horde. This being South Park, the children’s games escalate quickly to ridiculous levels, becoming caught up in a wide ranging government conspiracy.

Look, Stick of Truth is essentially a 12 hour episode of South Park. If that thought horrifies you, this game won’t be for you, and we’ll probably never be friends. Stick of Truth is absolutely packed with references to classic characters and episodes, and is a real love letter to the long-time South Park fan. Pretty much every classic character makes an appearance, with my only real sadness being the lack of Satan and Saddam Hussein. Stick of Truth, being South Park, goes to some weird and disgusting places. Like, worse than the show. Matt and Trey really pulled out all the stops on this one. One of my favourite regular pieces of shtick in South Park is treating the silly or ridiculous with insane gravity, and it was these moments which I most enjoyed.

Visually, it looks like South Park. What else is there to say? That ‘crappy but actually really good’ art is completely intact, and there are moments you’d think you’re watching the show. The voice acting is performed entirely by the regular cast, so…mainly Matt and Trey. The amount of dialogue, both in the story but also in incidental dialogue, is extensive, and it’s brilliant to see that Matt and Trey did not skimp in this regard. The music is great too, both in call backs from the show to the Skyrim-esque main theme which plays as you explore the town. The biggest irritation was that the dialogue would regularly get out of synch with the animation in cutscenes, before snapping back. This happened far too often to be just a mild annoyance.

Stick of Truth could probably have gotten away with bad gameplay, and got by on the strength of its writing and style. It doesn’t though! The gameplay is a lot of fun, largely influenced by Paper Mario. In fact, Stick of Truth is the best Paper Mario game since The Thousand Year Door! The battling is turn based, but with timed button presses and mini-games integrated. There are four classes, fighter, mage, thief or…Jew. I, of course, went for Jew. They don’t affect your gameplay a huge amount, but they each have some fun special abilities. Joining you for most battles is a companion, which can be switched (usually) at will. You can choose from Butters, Kenny, Jimmy, Stan, Kyle and Cartman, and each have different abilities and special moves. Each turn you can use an item and an attack move (a melee, ranged, special attack or magic aka farts), making things incredibly easy. I didn’t die in combat once. Still, it’s fundamentally fun to play, and that’s what we’re actually here for right?

Outside of combat there’s a fair bit of exploring to do, but it’s obviously not quite on the scale of Obsidian’s other RPGs. Still, being able to actually walk from one end of South Park to the other is an undeniable thrill for long-time fans. Like with Paper Mario, the environments are more reactive than your typical RPG, and there’s often hidden things to do and interact with. One of my favourite ideas is that you can use the environment outside of combat to take out waiting enemies before battle even begins. It’s not particularly intricate or anything, but it’s a nice, fun, satisfying mechanic. There’s a fair bit of customisation in the weapons and armour your character can equip, and both can also be upgraded. There is a half-baked usage of companions outside of battle to perform particular task, but it’s used very rarely and feels bolted on.

Stick of Truth isn’t Obsidian’s lengthiest game, but there’s still plenty of stuff to do. The main campaign is the perfect length, and there are a fair few really cool side quests. Sure, a lot of them are very much ‘go here, kill x’ affairs, but when its South Park characters it’s hard to be annoyed. There are plenty of collectibles, for those that way inclined, from Chinpokomon to Facebook friends. Stick of Truth doesn’t outstay its welcome, and is a master class in videogame pacing.

If you like South Park, you’ll like Stick of Truth. It’s a great tribute to a long running series, as well as being genuinely hilarious in its own right. Go play it. StickOfTruthLogo-Small

Dust by Hugh Howey

Dust is the final book in Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy, and offers a worthy conclusion to the series, even if it’s not without its faults.

Dust picks up on both the Silo 18 narrative of Wool and the Silo 1 narrative from Shift. In Silo 18, our protagonist Juliette has been elected mayor, and is seeking to dig her way through to Silo 17 to rescue Solo and the children still trapped there. There’s significant resistance though, with a large number doubting Juliette’s story entirely, including the existence of other Silos. In Silo 1, Donald and Charlotte are reeling from their discovery of green land outside the Silos, so Donald plots their escape, as well as the downfall of the entirety of Operation 50.

For a book that’s a fair bit shorter than its predecessor, it’s not brilliantly paced. The first half drags, particularly on the Silo 18 side of things. I would have liked to see more from Silo 1, as Donald and Charlotte appealed to me as protagonists more than Juliette and Lukas. Towards the second half, things ratchet up considerably, and the pace stays high. I suspect that these pacing issues aren’t really Howey’s fault, but more an unavoidable side-effect of the series of internet novellas being anthologised as a novel. These books look like novels, so it’s easy to forget that they’re not, so perhaps I’m judging them by the wrong standard.

The dialogue can get a little bit cheesy at time, but by and large Howey’s writing is evocative and atmospheric. In my opinion, the peak of Howey’s writing came in the claustrophobic, melancholy sections focusing on ‘Troy’ in Silo 1 towards the beginning of Shift, and there aren’t really any points in Dust that quite reach that level. The ending is very well written though, with Howey really inciting a strong emotional response without resorting to mawkish clichés.

There isn’t really a huge amount in interesting character development in Dust. The only character who really grows or changes is Solo, but this mostly happens ‘off-screen’ as it were. His chapters in Shift were some of my favourites in the series, so I was sad to see his role limited in Dust. Juliette and Donald are a pair of good protagonists, but they both lack that edge that can make a character really leap off the page.

This review probably reads more negatively than I intended it to. Dust is a good book, and a worthy conclusion to the ‘Wool Trilogy’, but I nonetheless felt that it was on the verge of being something more. The Wool Trilogy is very good, and I’d certainly recommend it to any fans of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, but it’s not the masterpiece that some have proclaimed. download (12)

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

As much as I enjoyed the First Law trilogy, I couldn’t really muster a huge amount of enthusiasm for this book. Perhaps it was the truly horrible title. Despite that old adage regarding books, covers and judging, it’s difficult to not get a worrying vibe from a book with a cringe worthy name like Best Served Cold, and the generic cover art didn’t exactly engender confidence either. I was seriously wrong. Best Served Cold isn’t just a gloriously entertaining novel, It’s comfortably Abercrombie’s best that I’ve read so far.

This novel takes place in Styria, which is essentially Italy, and takes place not long after the conclusion of The Last Argument of Kings. Although there are important links to the original trilogy, it is by and large its own beast. Best Served Cold is the story of Monzacarro Murcatto, a feared mercenary in the employment of Grand Duke Orso, who has been steadily conquering the lands of his neighbours to become the first King of a unified Styria in many years. Standing against him is the League of Eight, and Monza, alongside her brother Benna, has returned to Orso’s region of Talins after destroying one of them. Orso, fearing the popularity of Monza and Benna among the people, murders Benna and throws Monza from the window of his castle. She miraculously survives after being rescued and healed by a mysterious figure, and swears vengeance for her brother on Orso, and six others involved in the murder. Monza recruits allies and cuts a bloody swath across Styria in pursuit of her revenge.

Best Served Cold is one of the best structured and paced books that I’ve ever read. Fantasy is a genre prone to excess and unnecessary length, and whilst Best Served Cold is certainly a very long book, the sense of urgency doesn’t let up for a second. What Abercrombie does brilliantly is to continually raise the stakes as Monza moves from target to target, with early parts of the books having a distinctly seedy and grotty feeling, rendezvousing with the criminal undergrounds, before raising the stakes to entire cities and the nation of Styria. The message that the nobles who rule are equally terrible to the petty murderers in the streets is clear, making Best Served Cold one of those rare books which manages to have a great message whilst also telling a fantastic story.

As with the First Law books, Best Served Cold is savagely funny. Abercrombie has a really dark sense of humour, and although he’s very good at deploring senseless violence (and, my God, is there a lot of senseless violence), he is also willing to take a step back and simply marvel at the ridiculousness of it all. A brief mention has to go out to the sex scenes, which are magnificently terrible. They are seriously the most off-puttingly realistic and unpleasant sex scenes which I have ever read. I don’t know if this was intentional, but every single one had me in peals of laughter, so it doesn’t really matter, I enjoyed them either way.

Although the struggle to be a better person is one of the central themes of the book, with almost every protagonist musing on their own morality, there’s a good lack of authorial judgement on these characters. We’re not invited to hate them, or judge them, but simply to enjoy them as brilliantly rounded characters. Monza is a fantastic protagonist, and helps to make up for the shortfall in good female characters in the original trilogy. I also enjoyed the Northman Shivers, who fans of the original trilogy will remember, who travelled to Styria in an effort to become a better man. Although he swore vengeance and hated Logen Ninefingers of the original trilogy, he steadily becomes more and more like him, and it’s fascinating to see. Of course, the standout character is Nicomo Cosca, who is rightfully promoted from his supporting role in the original trilogy. I love characters that are gleefully unhypocritical, who know exactly who they are and have no intention of improving. Cosca is gleefully entertaining in this capacity.

Best Served Cold is one of my favourite books in a long time, a gloriously entertaining read which happily justifies its length. If you enjoyed the First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold is even better.BestServed.jpg.size-230

SteamWorld Dig for Nintendo 3DS

Have I mentioned how much I love the 3DS eShop? SteamWorld Dig is a compulsive, complex and deeply fun little game, which is nonetheless held back by an abrupt end and a distinctly dodgy pace.

SteamWorld Dig takes place in a distant future where the Earth has reverted to a Wild West-style society…populated by robots. The protagonist is Rusty, a ‘steambot’ who inherits his uncle’s mine, and sets about digging deeper and deeper, reviving the village of Tumbletown as well as discovering the secrets hidden beneath the earth.

SteamWorld Dig is one of those games which combine a whole bunch of unoriginal ideas to make something which feels entirely fresh. The main objective of SteamWorld Dig is to…er, dig. Downwards. Rusty’s main aim is simply to keep digging, unlocking new upgrades which speed up the process. Rusty starts out with a basic pick-axe, but this can be upgraded until Rusty can hack his way through the ground with satisfying speed. Rusty gains a wide range of gadgets, such as drills and boosted jumps, which are also upgraded as Rusty makes his way down.

There’s a harvesting element, as Rusty collects materials which he then sells up in Tumbletown. These have the double effect of introducing new traders to the town and allowing Rusty to upgrade his gadgets, weapons and water capacity. There’s a strong sense of resource management, as Rusty can only carry back a limited amount of materials, as well as being limited by his oil levels for his torch as well as water levels, which are needed to use the drill and a boosted jump. At first, you’ll only be making brief trips, but they get longer and longer as the game goes on.

It’s hugely satisfying, and the movement mechanics make the basic act of moving downwards entertaining for the entire length of the game. It’s a game with a strong sense of rhythm, which is easy to lose yourself in. For all the time it lasts, SteamWorld Dig shows all the signs of standing as one of the best games on the eShop…and then it ends.

Now, I’m never usually one to complain about a game being too short. If not overpriced, a short game has narrative possibilities that an epic doesn’t. A game like Portal wouldn’t have benefitted from doubling in length. SteamWorld Dig is too short though. Just as interesting new mechanics, and interesting plot points, are introduced, they’re wrapped up suddenly. SteamWorld Dig feels like half of a great game, leaving us simply with a good game.

If SteamWorld Dig had the time to extend and follow through its good ideas, it would have been an instant, easy recommendation. As it stands, it’s a frustrating glimpse of what it could have been. I can only hope that a sequel is made which develops this game as it sorely needs to be. download (11)

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