Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “December, 2015”

Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House is one of those books which was quite clearly just written for the sheer hell fun of it. The Bone Clocks is an incredibly ambitious book and Slade House builds on the worldbuilding done there to just have a bit of a laugh. This is one for the Mitchell superfans. 
 
Every nine years, someone is invited to Slade House and never returns. Slade House tells the story of this strange place from 1975 until 2015 as a range of people come to the house and we discover more and more about the mystery at its core. I won’t say more than that. Slade House is a tightly focused book, taking place entirely on one small road in London, with a range of interesting characters narrating their experiences in the house. Probably the worst thing about The Bone Clocks was the jargon heavy and somewhat clumsy worldbuilding, but with that foundation now built Slade House is able simply to have fun with it. Without the need to have someone explain Atemporals and Horologists you can just focus on the story, which is a doozy.  
 
Mitchell captures the camp fun of vampire movies in Slade House, whilst not necessarily pulling back from the horror. It’s a tricky balance to pull off but Slade House does it well. The range of protagonists helps keep things interesting, even though we essentially see the same thing happen about five times. The first character is an autistic boy, whose unique world view is both amusing and touching. The next is a xenophobic divorced policeman. Third is Sally Timms, an insecure and overweight student. Finally there’s Freya, Sally’s much more successful journalist sister. I won’t tell you anything about the final character because…well, if you read it you’ll see why. Every character was enjoyable to follow and was like a classic full Mitchell novel in microcosm.  
 
Slade House is a breezy and enjoyable romp, at least by Mitchell standards. I’m looking forward to Mitchell’s next epic, but I quite like the idea of him putting out the odd lighter novella between them. Slade House is definitely one for Mitchell completionists, although it may rely too much on The Bone Clocks arcana to be accessible to those who haven’t read it. If you have, give Slade House a go!

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Fallout 4 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Fallout 4 was one of my most hyped games of the year. People criticise it, but I’ve been a fan of the ‘Bethesda’ game for years; Morrowind is potentially my favourite game of all time. Fallout 4 really is a great game, with a huge amount to recommend it, but 2015 was not a year where it’s easy to dominate the open world genre. Fallout 4 has been outflanked on two open world fronts; the storytelling, world design and general mission variety has been outdone by The Witcher 3 and in terms of pure mechanics it doesn’t have anything on Metal Gear Solid V. In such as amazing year for the genre, Fallout 4 ends up feeling underwhelming.

In a break of series convention, Fallout 4 begins before the nuclear holocaust which led to the post-apocalyptic wasteland we all know and love. Our protagonist lives a happy suburban life, but is rushed into Vault 111 with their spouse and baby moments before the bombs drop. As with all the other Vaults, Vault 111 is unique and here the subjects are kept in cryogenic stasis. The protagonist slumbers away for over two hundred years before raiders arrive in the vault, kill their spouse and kidnap their baby. The main character is released into the post-apocalyptic Boston known as the Commonwealth to find their child. Along the way, they are embroiled in a conflict which will shake up the entire power structure of the Commonwealth. On one side are the Institute, a mysterious organisation which has become the boogieman of the Commonwealth, scientists which have created ‘synths’, artificially intelligent robots with unknown aims. On the other are the Brotherhood of Steel, still with their familiar motivation to horde technology setting them on a warpath against the Institute. In the middle are the rag tag band of do gooders known as the Minutemen and the Railroad, who seek to liberate synths who no longer wish to work as slaves for the Institute.

The core narrative of Fallout 4 is probably my favourite in the 3D series. A lot of people have criticised the fact that the protagonist is now fully voiced, with their own motivations separate from the player, unlike the relatively blank slates seen in Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I do understand why this bothers people, but I must say that I actually prefer this approach. There is a genuine moral ambiguity between the four factions which define the story. The Minutemen are a bit dull, but the Railroad, Institute and Brotherhood all have some serious good points, but also some real downsides; all are blinded by dogmatism. Choosing who to work with ultimately is wrenching, but powerful. That said, I hated the ending, full on loathed it, which sees the player thrown into an unconvincing conflict which feels barely justified and utterly unnecessary for the sake of ending with a bang. Plot and nuance is sacrificed on the altar of spectacle; in my opinion Fallout 4’s ending makes Mass Effect 3 look pretty damn good. The best stories are found in individual side missions, although there aren’t as many intricate tales as there were in previous games.

At its mechanical core, Fallout 4 is essentially unchanged from the previous 3D games. You’ll still be wandering through a desolated wasteland, shooting raiders and collecting loot. The combat VATS system returns, but is tweaked slightly to encourage a more active shooting experience. They claimed to have taken inspiration from Destiny, which is laughable as the shooting really doesn’t stand up. Part of me wonders if (and this will be sacrilegious) Bethesda need to choose a world to live in. Do they want to be a turn based RPG or an open world FPS with RPG elements? The compromise doesn’t quite work as well in 2015 as it did in 2008. There are two major changes in Fallout 4. One I cared about and one I didn’t. The companion system is expanded, replacing the morality system as characters pass judgement on what you do. Earning a character’s affection will gain you a new perk to boost a particular skill, but the real reward is further conversations discovering more about these characters. I really liked most of the companions and swapped them around a lot depending on what I was doing. My favourite was Nick Valentine, a synth based on the personality of a hard boiled noir cop with surprising character depth. The other major addition is a massive expansion of the crafting system, which now sees you able to mod any weapon or piece of armour to your heart’s content, finally making your junk useful as you salvage it for parts. It’s not too important though, as the weapons dropped by enemies, particularly those with the mark ‘Legendary’ tend to be good enough to get you through the game. You can also build and maintain settlements, but I never was able to muster much motivation to delve into this side of the game. For a start, the interface is horrible, but second of all I couldn’t find a compelling reason to care. Some people love this feature, but I’m glad that Bethesda didn’t make this an integral part of the experience.

My biggest issue with Fallout 4 comes from a direction that I actually haven’t heard criticised as much as I expected. The Radiant Quest system was introduced in Skyrim and saw randomly generated quests joining those more crafted ones. In Skyrim these were clearly marked under ‘miscellaneous quests’, meaning that you could focus on the core ones if you chose and ignore them. They were there if you wanted them and sometimes I did, but they didn’t detract from the experience. No problem. This is not the case in Fallout 4. By the time I wrapped up my time with Fallout 4, I was drowning in dull radiant quests. There are some awesome, clever, exciting side missions with great characters and interesting situations, but they are vastly outnumbered by dull ‘go here/kill this’ missions. It feels like padding; I vastly preferred the approach of Fallout 3 and New Vegas of fewer quests overall but those that were there being intricate and complex. It feels petty to complain about lack of content in a game this size, but the actual quality of what we have to do feels cheapened and stripped back. This is confirming my iffiness about procedural generation; you just can’t beat a strong developer’s vision being put into place. A mission generated by an algorithm is never going to be as good. When the missions in Fallout 4 are good they are very good, among the best in the series, but it can be hard to pick the wheat from the chaff.

That said, wandering around the Commonwealth and discovering new places and people is still a thrill and Bethesda’s best asset. The Commonwealth is stranger and more varied than the Capital Wasteland, with a genuine variety in locations which makes it satisfying to explore. All told though, no one could call Fallout 4 beautiful, particularly after playing The Witcher 3. The other Fallout games were ugly and Fallout 4 does look better; it’s far more colourful for example which I very much liked, but it can be a bit underwhelming. The character models are a big weakness, with stiff animations and facial expressions, still. It’s engine updating time at Bethesda methinks. The voice acting is very strong, thankfully strong enough to rescue the fact that the characters move and react like awkward robots. I played a female protagonist and her voice actor was excellent, inhabiting a variety of roles and showing genuine range. I can’t imagine how much work must go into voicing the protagonist of an open world game, but she pulls it off.

I want to make something clear; Fallout 4 is a really good game and I don’t regret any of the time I’ve spent with it. It does a lot of things right, but the series is beginning to feel like a series of compromises, in a way that The Witcher 3 does not. I would love to see Obsidian get another go at the Fallout series as they did with New Vegas and I’m certainly not done with this series, but this is the most underwhelmed I can recall feeling about a Bethesda game and that’s a shame.

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Game of Thrones for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, OS X, iOS and Android

I can’t describe how excited I was for this game. I love Telltale and I love A Song of Ice and Fire, so this seemed a match made in heaven. The reality hasn’t quite lived up expectations, with Game of Thrones having been overshadowed month after month by the vastly superior Tales from the Borderlands. There are some great moments, but fundamentally the Telltale Game of Thrones takes the flaws of the show and blows them up hugely, whilst doing the same with the Telltale games.

Game of Thrones takes place between Season 3 and 4 of the TV show and picks up in the midst of the Red Wedding. Lord Gregor Forrester is killed and survived by his squire Gared Tuttle. The Forresters are a minor Northern house of Stark Bannermen, important primarily for their large forest of Ironwood, a material very useful for the creation of weapons and armor. For years, the Forresters have feuded with the neighbouring Whitehills, but this conflict was kept in check by strong Stark leadership. With the Starks destroyed following the betrayal at the Twins, the Boltons have raised to ascendancy in the North and rule with none of the diplomacy and honour which defined Eddard Stark.

Game of Thrones follows several characters, as with the books and show. The first is Ethan Forrester, the new young lord of the house in their home of Ironrath who must contend with the increasing arrogance of the Whitehills as well as the unpredictable wiles of the newly legitimised Ramsay Bolton. Next is Mira, a handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell who seeks to use her position in King’s Landing to support the fortunes of her house. Gared Tuttle was Lord Gregor’s ward, who follows his master’s dying words to ‘Protect the North Grove’, a mysterious location which sees Gared sent to the Wall and beyond. Finally there is Asher, who was banished across the Narrow Sea several years before and is now working as a mercenary. When he hears of the danger befalling his family, he seeks the help of Daenerys Targaryen, positioned outside Meereen, to sail back to Westeros to save his family.

There are some truly outstanding moments in Game of Thrones, particularly in the first few episodes. There are scenes which are as visceral, shocking and upsetting as the moments the show is known for, but some begin to feel contrived as we move on. One of the biggest problems with setting this game during the show’s timeline is that everything could feel irrelevant, like a sideshow to the main event. Cameos from the shows cast actually make this much worse; it’s difficult to accept that Tyrion and Cersei Lannister were chatting away to a minor Northern handmaiden in the days following the death of Joffrey, or that Jon Snow was gabbing away with a young squire before heading to Craster’s Keep. The only show character used well is Ramsay Bolton, due to him being such a wildcard that every moment he is on screen feeling like its about to descend into chaos. The Forresters are clearly meant as analogues for the Starks, particularly Mira as Sansa. This makes them fail to come alive as characters in their own right, with the notable exception being Asher, whose hot headed arrogance sets him apart from any of the other major Stark characters.

From a gameplay point of view its business as usual, although there are some thrilling combat encounters towards the beginning, which begin to shrink and get less interactive as the series trundled on. The glacial release pace didn’t help matters, with an unacceptable four month gap between the penultimate and final episodes. In that time Telltale somehow managed to get out two Minecraft: Story Mode episodes, which suggests to me that they got greedy. The biggest issue is the utter failure of the illusion of choice; the lack of meaningful choice in Telltale games has been known for a while, but it feels far more naked and exploitative here than it did in games like Tales from the Borderlands or The Wolf Among Us. The need to set up the announced second season means that this Game of Thrones lacks any sort of satisfying resolution. The only Telltale game with two seasons so far (I’m not counting Sam and Max) is The Walking Dead, but the ending of season one was a genuine conclusion, just with the door left open for a sequel. Tales from the Borderlands is in a similar position, but Game of Thrones leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Game of Thrones does look nice; the handpainted art style has been a bit controversial with some, but overall I like it. Take into account that every other Telltale adaptation has been from a graphic novel or stylised videogame and the art style of Game of Thrones seems like a reasonable compromise. The voice acting is good, although there aren’t necessarily any stand out performances. The music is a pleasant surprise, with a distinct theme for the Forresters being a recognisable musical motif which recurs throughout the story. Nothing can beat when the Game of Thrones TV theme kicks in though.

Telltale’s Game of Thrones isn’t a disaster and, based on what I’ve played so far, seems to be stronger than Minecraft: Story Mode, but it is the first time I’ve felt the Telltale fatigue kick in. Tales from the Borderlands was so good that it can’t help but reflect poorly upon Game of Thrones; hopefully the second season is an improvement, with some characters left in some interesting places, but my hopes aren’t particularly high.

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