Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “October, 2014”

Advance Wars for GBA and Virtual Console (Wii U)

Now this is a franchise that needs to come back. After a rather odd gritty reboot for the DS, Advance Wars has slipped off the radar slightly. I realised recently that I’d never actually played the first one, so I decided to give it a go.

Advance Wars picks up during the war between the Orange Star and Blue Moon nations. The player is the commander of the Orange Star COs, mostly teenagers inexplicably, to defend from the Blue Moon invasion. As a whole bunch of other nations are caught up in the conflict it quickly turns out that things aren’t quite as they seem. It’s not much of a plot, particularly compared to something like Fire Emblem, but its fine. It doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay.

Advance Wars is a turn based strategy game, where the player commands an army made up of infantry, vehicular, sea and air units to either obliterate the enemy or capture their base with infantry. Different units have advantages over others, with some ground units being very effective against air and some units which can only fire if they haven’t moved in the same turn. Managing this wide variety of units is where Advance Wars really finds its challenge. Unlike in something like Fire Emblem, you can create new units at factories, and determining which would be most useful for any given situation adds another layer of strategy. Money for new units is gained by capturing cities with your infantry, but your opponents will have the same idea. Advance Wars is tough, probably more so than Fire Emblem, with that classic mantra of ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ which runs through many of the best strategy games.

In different missions you can use different COs with abilities which can be activated when enough enemy troops have been taken down. The CO power for Andy, the protagonist, heals his troops and gives them a power boost in the next turn. Different COs also have passive advantages and disadvantages, such as Max whose troops are less mobile but hit much harder. You don’t have much control over the COs in the main game, but the side maps allow a fair bit of experimentation. This is a massive game, with a lengthy campaign and a whole bunch of unlockable extra maps to play as well. Advance Wars has a great soundtrack and a clean and stylish look. The battles look cool and it’s all very satisfying when you blow up an enemy’s troops.

Although I would still argue that Dual Strike was the apex of the series, Advance Wars is still a great game. If you own a Wii U and haven’t played the series before, this is a good place to start.advance_wars_box


PullBlox World for Wii U

I really enjoyed the original PullBlox on the 3DS, but the sequel FallBlox didn’t appeal to me nearly as much. I liked that it shook up the formula, but I found the inability to tell whether you’ve screwed up beyond repair very frustrating. PullBlox World is therefore a welcome return to the gameplay I enjoyed in the original, although admittedly little has changed.

As with the original, a bunch of kids have been trapped in PullBlox and it’s up to Mallo to rescue them. There are a large series of puzzles which are solved by dragging and pushing platforms in a structure to reach the top. The mechanics are just as simple and brilliant as they were in the original, with new wrinkles introduced regularly to keep things interesting. Returning features such as buttons which push out all blocks of that colour or shortcuts to other areas on the structure keep things from getting stale. New mechanics are explored in side levels, such as structures where pulling or pushing a block also moves all blocks of that colour.

PullBlox World is a lengthy experience with plenty of challenging puzzles to keep you mulling over for a long time. I suppose the only really bad thing that can be said is that is really doesn’t add much from the original, with several puzzles lifted straight from the 3DS version. This is probably the definitive PullBlox experience though, so if you only buy one, definitely go for this one.

The extra power of the Wii U makes PullBlox look even nicer and cleaner than it did in the original, but this isn’t exactly a technical showcase. The music is still fairly annoying, but this is a game meant to be played watching something else so it doesn’t really matter.

There’s not much to say about PullBlox World. Did you like PullBlox? You’ll like this. If you haven’t played PullBlox even better! This is an addictive and charming puzzle game and well worth a play.TM_WiiUDS_PullbloxWorld

Valiant Hearts: The Great War for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC and iOS

There’s a reason the First World War is rarely done in games; it’s very difficult to extract anything fun from one of the most nightmarish conflicts in history. From a purely gameplay standpoint, the prominence of trench warfare would make an FPS a difficult proposition. Valiant Hearts opts for a different path, presenting us a moving and emotional tale of bravery and sacrifice as an adventure game.

Valiant Hearts takes place from 1914 to 1917, a year before the end of the war. It follows a group of characters from both the German and Allied sides whose stories intertwine and separate throughout the course of the game. Karl is a young German man living in France with his wife and young son who is deported at the start of the war. He is drafted by and sent to the Front. Emile is Karl’s father in law, and the main protagonist of the game, who plays a large number of roles from chef to sapper to prisoner of war. Freddie is an American man who joined the French army after his wife was killed by German bombs. His sole purpose is to take down the German General Von Dorf, who was responsible for the raid that killed his wife. Finally we have Anna, a Belgian nurse who seeks to rescue her father who was captured by Von Dorf.

Valiant Hearts conveys very well the utter horror of war in the best way I’ve seen since Spec Ops: The Line. The story is told largely without dialogue, but with a narrator orating to us the plot. The cartoonish art style conveys the emotions of the characters vividly, with a plot that is genuinely emotionally engaging. There are also scraps of information to be found which detail real events of the war, often crossing over with what’s happening in the game. The biggest issue with Valiant Hearts is its tone; despite attempting to humanise both sides of the conflict, Von Dorf is a ridiculous villain and some moments are laughably over the top. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with moments of levity in even the saddest of stories, but Valiant Hearts doesn’t always get it right.

This is an adventure game by and large and a fairly simple one at that. Everything takes place on a 2D plain, with the main gameplay being the solving of simple environmental puzzles. There’s no inventory stuff, with the solution to each puzzle always to be found in the area that you’re in. Some puzzles involve throwing objects and many involve your canine sidekick, who can be ordered to squeeze through gaps and pull switches and the like. There are also some more action-y moments, some which work well such as frantic dashes through No Man’s Land and some which are a bit silly, such as a boss fight against a tank. There’s not much to be said for the gameplay here, it’s simple but clever enough and a good vehicle for what the game wants to say about World War One.

The art style is gorgeous, with characters human enough to convey the horror of the conflict but cartoonish enough to be accessible. The music is also quite lovely, but Valiant Hearts is also capable of conjuring a really hideous soundscape on the battlefield as we hear the crashing of explosives above the moaning of the injured. Once again, the UbiArt engine may struggle with substance, but it can more than make up for it in style.

Valiant Hearts taken purely as a gameplay experience is a rather bland experience, but Ubisoft do deserve credit for attempting to tell the stories of those who bled and died in the First World War. The story telling is uneven, but when it works is really works. I like that Ubisoft are also putting out smaller games alongside their blockbusters and will continue to follow the UbiArt games with interest.Valiant_Hearts_Key_Art

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Shadow of Mordor is proof of something I’ve been banging on about for ages; there’s nothing wrong with nicking other games’ ideas if you have one really good one of your own. Sure, Shadow of Mordor takes a lot from Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham Games, but it also has a killer feature, one guaranteed to be plundered for many years to come.

Shadow of Mordor takes place in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and details the final downfall of Mordor into the desolate wasteland we see in The Lord of the Rings. Talion is a ranger of Gondor, who watches the Black Gate of Mordor. He and his family are murdered by a senior member of Sauron’s army, but Talion is returned from the dead possessed by the wraith of a mysterious ancient elf. Talion travels Mordor seeking revenge against those who wronged him and to discover the secret behind his elven companion and the reason for his resurrection.

The actual plot of Shadow of Mordor is serviceable, but not especially exciting. Perhaps I’m just not versed in Tolkein lore enough to pick up on a lot of stuff. There are some great moments, such as appearances from Gollum and any moments involving the scene-stealing Dwarven monster hunter Torvin, but by and large this is your standard revenge story. Don’t get me wrong, Talion’s better than Aiden Pearce of Watch Dogs, my new gold standard for generic vengeance driven protagonists, but he’s not exactly dynamic. Shadow of Mordor’s appeal isn’t in its actual scripted plot, but in the best emergent storytelling I’ve ever seen in a game. I’ll get to that.

The fundamental gameplay of Shadow of Mordor will be very familiar to many people. You’ll do lots of Assassin’s Creed-esque climbing and assassinating, with a stealth system which is actually significantly better than that seen in Assassin’s Creed. The combat is almost exactly the same as the Arkham games, down to the specific button presses for different types of finishers. As opposed to gadgets you have wraith powers with not dissimilar effects, with the enemy types of the Orcs in Mordor also paralleling that of the goons on the streets of Gotham. This really isn’t a bad thing; no open world action game has hand to hand combat as satisfying as the Arkham games and it’s oddly gratifying to see a game company giving up even trying to improve on it. The addition of a bow and arrow does shake things up ever so slightly though, with the option to take out foes from afar. The upgrade system is complex but very satisfying. You can use Mirian, earned from side quests, to upgrade things like your health and ability to slow down time when aiming your bow, as well as traditional EXP to boost your abilities. Your weapons can also be upgraded, being infused with runes taken from fallen Orc Captains. It probably sounds overly complicated, but Shadow of Mordor has one of the most satisfying progression arcs of any game, you start out weak and powerless, but by the end you’ve gained enough fun and varied abilities to be a true force of nature. I know that the received wisdom is that games should get more challenging as they go along, but I actually quite like this approach of a game getting easier and easier as you become more and more powerful. I completed the second half of this game’s content in about half the time I completed the first and it was very satisfying to be able to confidently stride into encounters that I would have shied away from previously. For example, caragors are deadly Mordor creatures and early on in the game something to avoid at all costs, but by the end you’ve gained the ability to instantly tame and ride them, allowing you to take down swaths of foes which might have previously caused you serious trouble.

The main selling point of Shadow of Mordor is the much touted ‘Nemesis’ system. In each of the two main areas, five Orc Warchiefs command Sauron’s armies, and you must work your way to the top and take them down. To do that you must work through the randomly generated group of orc underlings which make up the command structure. If you defeat an orc their space in the command structure is left empty, and if one beats you its power is boosted and it may be promoted. You can interrogate low ranking orcs to find out intel on higher ranking, such as strengths and weaknesses. Early on in particular, knowing these details is absolutely vital. Some captains are highly armoured, immune to ranged and stealth and surrounded by armies, but have a terrible fear of fire, so luring them towards barrels and oils and setting them off can leave them terrified and defenceless in your hands. Each Warchief has bodyguards which can be taken out to make the eventual final conflict easier. You can either hunt particular orcs by scanning their general locations or waiting for events marked in red in your map, which see the orc involved in some kind of event that you can ambush. These can be hunting trips, duels between orcs, feasts or a range of other events. Later in the game you gain the ability to ‘brand’ orcs and brainwash them to your side, sending them to perform particular tasks like assassinate other orc leaders. There’s something wonderfully satisfying about branding all of a Warchief’s bodyguards then sending them all after the chief at once. In such encounters, if you keep your branded orc alive they will gain in power and be even more useful for your bidding. Although randomly generated, the orcs are bursting with personality, and you will soon come to hate particular orcs who you clash with again and again, as they taunt you anew each time. Finally taking down an orc you’ve battled and lost to repeatedly is a truly wonderful feeling. It’s this emergent storytelling which is the true star of the game. The Nemesis system is a fantastic idea that I cannot wait to see stolen by every other developer under the sun.

Shadow of Mordor is a lengthy game, with a decent length main campaign and a hefty amount of genuinely fun side content. You could spend hours and hours messing around with the Nemesis system though, so once you’re done with the assigned tasks I think that this is a game world you could genuinely want to spend time in. The complaints about this game are mostly quibbles; I really hated that failing in side content, such as getting spotted in a stealth mission, forced you to run back to the mission start point rather than letting you just go in fresh. It felt like an irritating way to punish failure, in a game which generally punishes failure in one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever seen.

Still, the complaints to be levelled at Shadow of Mordor are far from deal breakers. It steals from and then betters many other games with similar mechanics; I have a feeling that the developers of Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Batman: Arkham Knight might have been made slightly nervous by this game. The bar has been raised.2687622-5233999916-middl

The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

After a really strong debut for the series with The Long Earth, I wasn’t quite so enamoured with the follow up, The Long War. It was with a pinch of trepidation that I started The Long Mars, the third in the series, but thankfully this is a much stronger book than the previous one, even if it has some of the same issues of focus and overall narrative coherence.

Following the eruption of Yellowstone at the end of The Long War, people have fled Datum Earth in greater numbers than ever before, with the United States relocating their seat of government several steps west. Five years later, Joshua, estranged from his family, is recruited once again by Lobsang, who has deduced the existence of a higher form of human which has evolved in the Long Earth, seeking his help in finding them. Meanwhile, Maggie Vasquez, the captain of the twain Neil Armstrong II, is sent deep into the Long Earth with two missions; to go further West than anyone else has before and to discover what happened to the Neil Armstrong I. The third main arc is the one that gives the novel it’s title; Sally Lindsey is recruited by her father, Willis Lindsay, the creator of the Stepper Box, to travel across the Gap to explore the Long Mars and hopefully find sentient life.

Once again, the plot feels slightly unfocused. Although Joshua and Maggie’s stories link, the Mars story arc is very distinct from the rest of the book. It opens the doorway for some interesting developments in future books though, so I guess that’s something. The main reason The Long Mars succeeds where The Long War didn’t is that it manages to recapture that sense of wonder and awe which made the first one so good. Each of the books has contained a journey through the Long Earth, basically as an excuse to show us as much weird stuff as possible, but here this feels a little less contrived than it did in the previous book. Long story short, I enjoyed The Long Mars the whole way through.

The differences between the Pratchett and Baxter sections have grown starker. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t help the lack of cohesiveness which is becoming the biggest issue with this series. Individually though, both are on top form, with Baxter’s focus on slightly harder science fiction contrasting well with Pratchett’s sharp wit.

There’s not much in the way of character development for the main leads, although Lobsang remains comfortably the best character. Lobsang’s relationship with humanity is beautifully explored, although not necessarily as much as I would have liked. He’s a very odd character and a brilliant one. He’s also used relatively sparingly since the first book, which is probably for the best to keep a sense of mystery surrounding the character.

The Long Mars is a much stronger book than its predecessor and leaves us in an interesting place for the continuation of the series. Whenever it happens, I’m looking forward to it.18586487

Hyrule Warriors for Wii U

I was really nervous about this game. I’m pretty much as big a Zelda fan as you can get, but I wasn’t particularly well versed in Dynasty Warriors and what I had encountered I didn’t like. I picked up Hyrule Warriors to be fan serviced hard and that was about it. I was pleasantly surprised; maybe I do like Dynasty Warriors (or perhaps I’m such a Zelda fanboy I’ll enjoy anything with Link on the cover).

Hyrule Warriors shows Zelda in command of her kingdom with Link in training as a member of her army. Dark forces attack Hyrule Castle, and behind them is the evil witch Cia. She seeks to gain the power of the Triforce and conquer Hyrule, and in the process she opens a portal to three different time periods; the world of Skyward Sword, the world of Ocarina of Time and the world of Twilight Princess. Link and a collection of Hyrule’s greatest heroes from across time unite to stop Cia and the dark force which lurks behind her.

So, the story of Hyrule Warriors isn’t exactly interesting, but its fan service-y with plenty of appearances from classic characters. I enjoyed it, but this may again be due to my lack of ability to be objective about Zelda games. The only real disappointment is the focus on merely three games; elements from others appear, but I’d have loved to see more influence from games like Wind Waker, Majora’s Mask and A Link to the Past. Hell, I’d like to see them go for the underrated classics like Link’s Awakening and Minish Cap as well! This focus on three games means that Hyrule Warriors isn’t quite the complete Zelda fan service you may have been hoping for, but it is undoubtedly nice to see characters like Darunia and Midna again.

You’ll spend pretty much all of your time in Hyrule Warriors hacking and slashing through huge armies of foes as one of several characters, including obvious choices like Link and Zelda, but also fan favourites such as Impa and Midna and even a new character, Lana. Each character has a different move set, with each having a special attack which can be charged up. The move sets vary drastically, from Link’s standard sword and shield to Sheik’s harp to Darunia’s hammer. They all control pretty much the same though, and what works with one character will likely work with another. Some characters have multiple weapons, with completely different move sets. For example, Link can be equipped with either a sword and shield or the Flame Rod, each playing differently, with loads of hidden weapons to be found. Although the grunts can just be torn through, the stronger enemies require some Zelda-esque locking on. These enemies will be hard to damage with regular attacks, but can be damaged after dodging their attack, filling up a meter which unleashes a special attack on them. It’s a great system which manages to capture what makes Zelda combat good but in a Dynasty Warriors context. The boss fights are great as well, often using items you discover throughout the game. The final boss fight is actually one of my favourites in any Zelda game, it’s that fun.

Whatever your weapon, each level of the main campaign sees you seeking to dominate a battlefield. This can be done by capturing enemy keeps by defeating a certain number of foes, or by killing enemy captains or simply by following mini-missions the game throws your way. Defeat will normally find you if your home base falls or certain allies are forced off the battle field. Hyrule Warriors is often called mindless, and while it’s no strategy game, I don’t really think that’s true. As you rush around the battle field you frequently have to make decisions about what to prioritise. Do I rescue my ally who is in danger or do I shore up home base? Do I attempt to end this quickly by taking out the boss or do I play it safe. These aren’t complicated decisions, but they are there, and underpin the gloriously over the top combat nicely.

There’s a huge amount of content in Hyule Warriors. Each character levels up, and can be upgraded with ‘badges’ which bestow battlefield advantages. You can also create new weapons by fusing old ones together to make them more powerful. The story mode is a reasonable length, bringing you to a variety of locations. The ‘Adventure Mode’ is a real treat, showing us the map from the original NES The Legend of Zelda. Each square holds a different short challenge with a different reward. Sometimes these are just mini-fights in the style of the main game, but sometimes the challenges are a bit more interesting, such as the ones which upgrade you and your enemies weapons to insta-kill. The rewards can be new characters, weapons or items from Zelda, which are used to unlock secrets on the map. It works surprisingly well, and it was a lot of fun making my way through this mode.

Hyrule Warriors is far from the prettiest game around, with some fairly hideous environments which fail to capture those of their source games. Some are better than others; Skyward Sword’s Skyloft feels about right, but Gerudo Valley feels way off. The character designs for the classic characters are much better, although there’s a streak of over sexualisation (e.g massive boobs) in Cia which felt a bit out of place in a Zelda game. The attacks look incredibly cool, to the point that they almost carry the simplistic combat. I never really got tired of some of these moves despite having looked at them dozens of times. The music is good, mostly cheesy rock remixes of classic Zelda tunes.

Hyrule Warriors is a very generous package and a pleasant surprise to boot. This is a better game than it really had any right to be, and I wonder if maybe, just maybe, it could turn me into a Dynasty Warriors fan. If you actively hate Dynasty Warriors which, to be fair many do, give this a miss, but if you’re a Zelda fan on the fence, I really recommend taking the plunge. I wasn’t sorry and I don’t think you will be either.zeldaHyruleWarriors_featuredImage

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