Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “microsoft”

Thumper for Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC

Thumper has one of the best marketing descriptions I’ve ever seen; ‘rhythm violence.’ It’s a lovely way to put it and sums up the general vibe of Thumper very well. I’ve played a fair few rhythm games in my time, but none that filled me with the anxiety and genuine sense of dread that Thumper does. A mechanic introduced later in the game killed a lot of my enjoyment, but for most of my time with it Thumper was an intense and unique experience.

In Thumper you play as a little beetle thing, making its way along a track in a bizarre, fractal hell-scape. There are 9 levels, with each culminating in a boss battle with a hideous, demonic face. It may not have a story, but it certainly has an atmosphere and it can be genuinely unsettling and oppressive. You must avoid obstacles in a variety of ways. The simplest are barriers, where you must simply hold a button to smash through them. Some require you to lean your beetle in a particular direction, or change into different lane to avoid sinister snake things. It’s fast, intense and noisy and it’s easy to get into the trancelike groove that the best rhythm games create. The boss battles involve you having to tap a button on these green glowing patches on the track; if you hit them all, you can launch a laser at the evil face and after four hits it goes down. It’s an interesting way to apply the mechanics to a boss fight structure. The whole thing can be punishingly hard, with it only taking two hits for you to die and then have to retry the section you’re on. For most of the early parts of the game, it generally feels fair, but an infuriating mechanic had me turn on Thumper somewhat.

Around midway through you are introduced to these gates, which mean you have to hit blue glowing paths like in the boss fights for the particular run. If you miss even one, a laser descends and damages you. This was fine at first, but when combined into boss fights it becomes punishing for the sake of being punishing. Normally when you are fighting a boss, if you miss one of the green patches you simply restart the section, with no damage or death. There’s an element of trial and error, of getting better and better at each section’s timing that’s very satisfying. In some of the later bosses you’ll hit it three times, with one to go, but then the gates will descend and you know that if you fail you will not be able to try again, but have to start the entire boss fight again. It’s a needlessly cruel mechanic and one which punishes you simply by wasting your time, utterly negating the fun sense of trial and error seen in the rest of the game.

The visuals are striking and there’s a sense of barely restrained chaos at all times. This being a rhythm game, most credit should go to the music. It’s not something I think anyone is going to be listening to for fun anytime soon, being mostly made up of pounding drums and intense synths. The sounds of your beetle as it careens around the track, smashing off walls and through barricades, adds more percussion to the brutal rhythm which pervades the whole experience. I could maybe have done with a bit more musical variety between levels, but I can also see why they went for one style of music and completely leant into that.

Thumper is one of the weirdest rhythm games you’ll play. I felt that in the latter portions its difficulty tipped too much towards arbitrary and cruel, rather than challenging and engaging. Still, when you’re working your way through the levels, utterly immersed in the beat, Thumper takes that classic rhythm game experience and twists it into something evil and oppressive. That’s pretty cool.

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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

Far Cry 3 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Far Cry 3 is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting games that I’ve played in a long time. It’s a game which sticks in the mind and refuses to leave, a fascinating experience which offers something which feels truly new. I loved the original Far Cry, and appreciated the ambition and scope of Far Cry 2 (although it’s telling that this is one of the very few games which I never bothered to finish). After the huge disappointment of Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3 goes a long way to redeeming Ubisoft in my eyes (although the Rayman Legends delay puts them on bloody thin ice).

Far Cry 3 takes place entirely in the first person, from the perspective of a young American by the name of Jason Brody. Jason and his friends had skydived onto a beautiful island somewhere near Thailand as part of a thrill seeking holiday before being captured by human traffickers and sold into slavery. Jason escapes the stronghold of Vaas, the local pirate leader, but at the cost of the life of his brother. Jason embarks upon a quest to rescue his friends from Vaas, eventually being drawn into the local tribe of the island, the Rakyat, and becoming profoundly affected by the unimaginable violence which he is committing.

Far Cry 3 takes place on two islands, both fairly large, and incredibly beautiful to look at. Ubisoft are incredibly good at creating gorgeous worlds for the player to explore, from my personal favourite, Beyond Good & Evil’s Hillys through to the Renaissance wonder of Florence in Assassin’s Creed II and the Maharajah’s palace in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Far Cry 3 is, in some ways, the apex of this development philosophy, the idea that it isn’t enough to be doing fun stuff in a game, but that the actual environs of the game must be equally compelling. I absolutely loved exploring the islands of Far Cry 3, with new areas of the map revealed by scaling high points, in a mechanic cheerfully borrowed from Assassin’s Creed. The world of Far Cry 3 can sometimes feel like too much of a good thing; the unrelenting glory of the locale can actually lead to everywhere feeling a bit…samey. It’s important in open world games to show some variety in their locales. Bethesda, arguably the masters of the open world genre, really get this; Skyrim may follow a clear snowy Nordic theme, but the icy wastes of the north of Skyrim differ greatly from the cooler, more idyllic lands in the south. In Far Cry 3, everywhere shares the same basic look; don’t get me wrong, it’s a hell of a look, and if you are going to only have one look in your game you could do a lot worse than this, but a bit more variety would have been nice. The introduction of the second island would have been a great opportunity to show us somewhere a bit different, but Far Cry 3 makes the exact same mistake as Far Cry 2 in giving us a second area very similar to the first. Ok, this all sounds a lot more negative than I mean it to; Far Cry 3 has one of the best open worlds I’ve ever seen, and without a doubt the very best that I’ve ever seen in an FPS, but it could have been better.

The plot of Far Cry 3 has had so much said about it, been subject to so much controversy, and been the topic of so much discussion that, in an odd way, it’s inherently validated. Anything that provokes this much discussion and debate can’t be that bad right? Far Cry 3 tells one of the most interesting and psychologically complex plots I’ve ever played in an FPS; other FPSs with great plots such as Bioshock and Half Life are focused upon the world, and things external from their (silent) protagonists, but Far Cry 3 is a very different beast, a journey inwards. Jason Brody’s journey from generic frat boy douche to brooding killer is accomplished with remarkable subtlety, and although it isn’t quite convincing that Jason is so able to adapt a life of death and carnage, it’s certainly interesting nonetheless, dealing with themes covered extensively in literature and film, but rarely unexplored in games. It’s not as fun to massacre thousands of people if your protagonist is ruminating on the morals of what they’re doing. That said, there’s a lot about this game that I felt to be repugnant; the presentation of the Rakyat tribe seems incredibly racially insensitive, with Jason’s induction into their tribe reeking of colonialist fantasies, and there were elements of the game which felt uncomfortably misogynistic and homophobic as well. Jeffrey Yohalem, the lead writer of Far Cry 3, has dismissed criticism of racism by claiming that Jason is an unreliable narrator, that we cannot take what we see at face value, and that the game is in fact a satire of a Western colonial attitude towards ‘tribespeople’. Now, there are some hints towards this in the actual game, notable some trippy dream sequences, but if the intent of the narrative was to suggest that Jason is in fact losing it and that everything we are witnessing is tainted by his madness, then this intent has entirely failed. For the vast majority of the game, there’s no hint that what we are seeing isn’t to be taken at face value, and no, a few Alice in Wonderland quotes during loading screens is not enough to convey this. A variety of Poe’s law has to be applied there; if your game is indistinguishable from the Western racial preconceptions it intends to satirise, that satire has failed. Now, I’m not saying that the writers of Far Cry 3 are racist, I honestly think that they were going for satire, but if that is the case they failed. Honestly though, I’d take the magnificent failure of Far Cry 3’s plot, filled with complex ideas which fuel debate, over other generic FPS plot any day. I enjoyed how much Far Cry 3 made me think.

Although I’ve played lots of open world RPGs with FPS elements, such as Borderlands 2 and Bethesda and Obsidian’s Fallout games, this is the first successful open world FPS with RPG elements. It’s a subtle difference, but in those games the focus is very much on being an RPG, with the shooting mechanics taking a back seat. Sure, there are lots of FPSs out there which operate within large, tactical environments, such as Crysis and Halo, but they’re not truly open world, simply a series of discrete areas. This is not the case in Far Cry 3, which lives up to the promise of its predecessor as a fully open world game. The shooting mechanics are solid, and the enemy AI is decent enough. The real triumph of this game is the open ended approach taken to missions. In Assassin’s Creed III, there was only ever really one way to do things, but here it’s really up to you. When approaching an enemy outpost, you could go straight in, all guns blazing, or maybe start a fire in the building to drive them out into the path of mines. Both work, and both are fun. How about picking everyone off from afar with a sniper rifle? My favourite way to play this game was to strip away the technology, to attempt to succeed with nothing but a bow and machete, with the reluctant withdrawing of my highly powered Israeli made assault rifle a last resort. This game succeeds in making you feel awesome, because it respects your decisions, and the rights of the player to do things how they want, something which Assassin’s Creed III entirely misunderstood.

There’s a lot going on in this game, such a robust levelling system, which unlocks a slew of fun abilities for Jason, and a decent crafting system to create medicines and new gear. My favourite gadget at Jason’s disposal was the wing suit, acquired during the second half of the game, which allows Jason to glide from any high point. My favourite aspect of this though is that you really don’t need to be that high to use the wing suit, so my preferred way of getting around became leaping off small rocks, deploying the wing suit and then releasing my parachute, which is not only a fast way to get around, but also an incredibly fun one. The driving is a bit tricky at first, as with the rest of the game it’s all first person, and whilst it can be a bit clunky and awkward, there’s no denying that it can be incredibly exhilarating, especially during some of the hair raising chase sequences in the campaign in some of the incredibly fun driving side missions.

There’s a lot to do in this game too. Unlike in many open world games, the actual central story missions are usually incredibly fun. Whilst most of the game allows the player to go at their own pace organically, the main story missions are a fair bit more scripted, but this isn’t really a bad thing. The sheer mayhem inflicted in these missions is sheer giddy fun, and they don’t get old, particularly if you space them out with some of the more thoughtful, inventive side activities. As well as liberating enemy strongholds, you’ll be sent out on assassination and hunting missions. The hunting missions are initially a lot of fun, with the player often required to kill dangerous animals with completely silly weapons, but it does wear slightly thin towards the end. There are some side missions with stories as well, and these don’t work nearly as well. I can only think of two which were actually engaging, and when compared to other open world games Far Cry 3 is entirely lacking in this department. That said, Far Cry 3 does have much better main story than most open world games, so this can be forgiven. I wish that there had been a bit more variety in the side missions, but the basic mechanics of Far Cry 3 are so accomplished that even the most rote missions are fun.

Far Cry 3 is a very nice looking game, but as with many games in the last year or so it really pushes current generation consoles to their limit. I can’t really blame Far Cry 3 for this, and it certainly isn’t the barely playable mess of Assassin’s Creed 3. The voice acting is something of a mixed bag; the main characters generally work really well, but the minor NPCs are truly terrible, I’m talking ‘worse than Oblivion’ terrible. The voice actor for Jason does a fine job during the main story, conveying the building rage within our young protagonist extremely convincingly, but during side missions he sounds hilariously disinterested and unengaged, which only contributes to the half baked feeling to these side activities. The clear highlight in the voice work is Vaas, a brilliant character who, despite his prominence in promotional materials for this game, doesn’t play nearly as vital a role in the ultimate plot that he should. I’m convinced that Vaas has climbed up alongside GLaDOS and Andrew Ryan as one of the best videogame villains in recent years, and a lot of this comes down to the manic and chaotic voice performance by Michael Mando. Mando was motion captured for the role as well, and deserves a huge amount of credit for creating this wonderful character. As mentioned before however, the voices for minor characters are often laughably bad. The average islander talks with a bizarre Maori accent, entirely inappropriate to the setting, and is usually played for laughs. Far Cry 3 points at these hapless islanders and says ‘oh look at these ridiculous locals and their bizarre problems, thank God our strapping young American hero is here to say the day!’ It’s probably the most offensive part of this game, and really drew me out of the experience in a way that nothing else did. Far Cry 3 does wield a dubious honour however; it is the game which made me understand the point of dubstep. I’m not what you would call a fan of this popular musical genre, but the use of it during some of the most tense moments in the game was incredibly immersive and exciting, working brilliantly.

Despite a story which falls short in its grand ambitions (whilst still being incredibly interesting in its own right), Far Cry 3 is an absolutely superlative experience. This is the most satisfying FPS experience which I have played since Bioshock back in 2007; Far Cry 3 is one of those games which make other games look bad. If you enjoy shooters, or open world games, Far Cry 3 is a great example of both. Far Cry 3 is a fascinating game, one which will be debated and discussed for a while, and I look forward to the continuation of the discussion which has engulfed this game since its release.far_cry_3_0_241245411566_640x360

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