Monday, November 14, 2016

Sunless Sea

Remember (Sid Meier's) [i]Pirates![/i]?

If you liked that game and have been complaining for 25 years about the lack of any true successor, here it is. Sunless Sea is fantastic.

This is a game about exploring distant and mysterious lands, where the disconnection from history, which was the brilliant but inherently limiting foundation on which Pirates! was built, gives the authors the tools to surprise us and to create the best seafaring game ever made in an unexpectedly original mix of Lovecraftian and Vernian atmospheres. As I mentioned, it takes a while to understand what the hell is going on with the UI and what is it with the inventory and quest log (?), but once you crack the surface of what was originally a clever browser game ([url=http://fallenlondon.storynexus.com/Home/LoggedInViaApp]Fallen London[/url]) you'll probably sink in the Sunless Sea and won't come out until you'll have explored every port at least once.

This game does an incredible job in making you feel like an epxlorer of unknown lands, and I can't remember any other game where I felt the urge to discover [i]just another[/i] port only to see what stories it had to tell and what secrets or treasures or weird culture it could hide. This is the biggest strength of this game: the dark, bloody impenetrable underground sea rewards you with the best pioneering experience to date, as the hand-crafted locations, even when painted with broader strokes, are masterfully rendered and meant to inspire, unsettle and make you giggle. All at the same time.

Eventually, it is also a game about surviving. Making sure your boat is fueled, your crew is fed, and you don't go crazy and start eating your folks instead of leading them. It's a game about giant monstrosities, about romance, and not getting lost in your nightmares, not being killed by evil and unnameable forces, and not disappear without leaving a trace. It's not just another sandbox where you like the premises but can't expect a complete package for another three years. Sunless Sea politely asks you for your goal when you start playing, and then invites you to find the solution to the searing enigma that you created for yourself inside its pitch black pit of haunting maritime prose.

But is it fun? If you like reading, exploring, and exploring while reading, then yes, it is some of the best fun videogame money can buy.

The Cat Lady

To call this "a gem" would be an understatement. This is a fucking treasure chest. Technically, it belongs to a different era, but who cares? Artistically it's just fantastic. There aren't many games like this and there probably won't ever be. Granted, not everyone will like it given its peculiarities, but is there something that everyone likes?

You are Susan Ashworth, a woman that has killed herself. Your intro to the game is her suicide note. And suddenly her beautiful, narrating voice transports you into her nightmare and all that happened after she ingested the pills.  
This is a very intense story about depression, sorrow, friendship and sisterhood. For once it's really not about men, and it doesn't sport sexy girls in any shape or form. It is a deeply introspective travel into the mind of a forty years old woman who has chosen to end her own life, but gets forced into a series of events which will make her fight her own struggle with newfound tools.

It's hard to say anything without spoilering something, but this really is a surprising game best enjoyed without too many forewords. Lynch inspired nightmares fade comfortably into mundane scenes, and spikes of pure horror and gore do not interfere with the emotionally charged exchanges between Susan and the people she meets. The bad interface is what you'd expect from a 90s game, including dialogues slowed down by the way the engine works, but as soon as you'll get over it you will be teleported in a eerie, oppressive, dark but fascinating dimension full of character, characters, and stories to tell. Sure, there are times where you feel things have been cut too abruptly, and it would be great if some characters and topics could be explored even further, but here's probably where concessions to the limited funds had to be made. The author is an actual nurse working in a hospital, and according to him he still makes games on his free time as a hobby.

It's not a long game (it can be finished in 6 - 8 hours) and the puzzles are super easy, which is good because they don't trip the narration. The artistic direction is just incredible for a game of this kind, and the music is very good and perfectly placed. Even in big AAA productions it's rare to find a game where the soundtrack and songs blend so well with everything else, so imagine my delight when I realized what a good job Mr. Mihalski has done here.

Rating: The Cat Lady is fantastic.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Mad Max

Luckily this is not a movie to game game. This is just a bunch of things that might have happened to Max after Beyond Thunderdome and right before Fury Road. You CANNOT live up to the glory of Fury Road in any way, but the representation of the Mad Maxian wasteland in this game is nothing short of fantastic. If you think it's bland by looking around for the the first few hours you are so missing out. The world is immense. Sure it has a lot of the same theme, but the different areas are characterised with wonderful attention to details. Even camps and minor loot areas tend to be diverse from each other and when you thought you've seen everything you end up in a cave, or an abandoned subway station, or a buried church, or a condemned gas pipeline or (my favourite) a secret, and immense, airport.

There has been some complaining about the gating in the first few days, but I would assume that came mostly from people trying to rush the story. Yes, I believe that's the case if you choose to go that way, but it would be a mistake to rush the story exactly because there is so much to discover in the open world that even when you are done with the main quest there's still plenty to look around. Lots of huge areas aren't even touched by the main story which is nothing but a vague indication of where to go next. Mad Max The Game is proudly story-light which was a winning choice by the Devs you ask me since anything more specific would have just clashed with multiple personal interpretation of Max exactly for the reasons Stray mentioned. Instead of characters, this game is about the world which faithfully to the most recent rendition of the Mad Max universe chooses to bother you very little with plot and other questionable motives leaving you the time and space to settle in, dig it up, and enjoy what feels enjoyable and forget the stuff that just doesn't (the damn mine defusing). Criticism is fair when people point out that characters are too streamlined, but this is probably a nod to old games, where NPS and dialogues were short and to the point, and to the Mad Max tradition where action and atmosphere -more than words- make the movies.

In short, I think that this game doesn't succeed or fail based on some absolute metric, and that's probably why it's getting such incoherent ratings, but more on how much you enjoy the immersion in a huge postapocalyptic world made of killer cars and hundreds of explorable and mostly depressing locations. And even though this game is not directed by a George Miller, it isn't often that you find such attention for mood and tone in a blockbuster action game.

There is NO game without repetition and deifnitely no open world game without repetition. It makes sense that Mad Max doesn't click to some so it starts to feel like a grind pretty soon. Hell, I love Diablo but after a week I have to put it down, even though I still love it. At least here, all the gameplay elements are solid and flow like silk albeit certainly simplified to the extreme, and the presentation is so beautiful that it isn't rare to just get out of the car, sit on a hill, simply listen to the wind and gaze at the horizon as the sun sets over some sand dunes. Only to see some faint lights glimmer in the distance and get back in the Interceptor for more exploring and scavenging. Side note: this might have the longest viewing distance of any game I've ever played, and it adds SO MUCH to the whole experience.

"But is it fun?" Obviously yes if you ask me. But even more than usual, this is a moody one: you have to be into a particular theme, and have a certain appreciation for solitude, to appreciate it in full. Otherwise, yes, it's as boring as Shadow of Mordor, Batman or Far Cry are to me.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Ether One.

Ether One looks like a Walking Simulator at first but it's actually more like an evolution of Myst/Riven combined with the new Dear Esther line of games. A meatier Gone Home if you like. While you will spend most of the time exploring a masterfully handpainted British coastal village of the 60s (powered by the latest Unreal Engine) getting sound cues whenever you approach something meaningful, you will have to collect pieces of the various puzzles scattered around and put them together to learn more about the story of this now abandoned village and its long gone inhabitants.

While one could maintain that the environment is beautiful and extremely fascinating by itself, and the puzzles easy enough that you feel compelled to complete them even if you are usually not a big fan, it's the story that draws you in. It begins without telling you much, other than you are someone willing to undergo a certain experiment apparently dealing with memory recovery and memory loss. You enter a high tech facility and sit on a weird chair that sends you back to the magnificent Pinwheel Village and its wonderful tangle of intense, dramatic and lovely little stories. As a detective of memories, that you will somehow piece together, you will learn about a slew of minor facts and most importantly what led the village to its downfall, not to mention the most important task you've been sent to solve: who are you.

As I mentioned, I don't have the patience for puzzle games anymore, but Ether One got me hooked since the very first minute. The smartest idea White Paper Games came up with is that you DO NOT really have to solve the puzzles if you don't want to. You can advance the main story simply collecting some red ribbons in the each area you visit, but it goes without saying that by doing so you will skip the large amount of content they filled Pinwheel village with. Every house has a story, every office of the mining facility seems to have some memories worth uncovering and every character you find traces of in one part of the little town might have more of his/her personal story revealed later on as the lives of all these people were intertwined with each other, and their sons and daughters, as you would expect from such a tiny community. Thing can get emotionally intense, which is a bonus for me, but never in a suffocating way. For a puzzle game this does a really good job in leaving the players freedom to play it the way they like.

Took me about 15 hours to go through all the content I could find only to realize there's a whole extra section I missed that will totally make me replay the game. I feel like I am from Pinwheel too now, and I care about my neighbours or at least the memories of my neighbours, and feel bad for what happened to some of them or happy for the positive outcomes of some others. While I am sure that more expert puzzlers than me can finish the game in about 8 hours, there's much more to see and do than I was expecting from a 7€ title. The visuals are great and so is the level design, and a special mention deserves the audio department which does a wonderful job in giving life in an otherwise empty and abandoned village.

Rating: Buy it.

Everlasting Summer, by Soviet Games.

Everlasting Summer looks like your usual Japan-inspired dating-sim visual novel but you know something odd is going on when the name of the company making it is "Soviet Games" and the title screen greets you with hammers, sickles and Lenin busts.

Don't get me wrong, this really is a Japan-inspired dating-sim visual novel, but it takes place and has been made in Russia so you should expect lots of quirky stuff even when they are just trying to fit a stereotype. The premise is that you are a twenty-something internet addict with no friends and passions, who get sucked in a 1980 Pioneer Camp, the Soviet version of boy/girl scouts, before the Berlin Wall collapse. Trying to understand what the hell happened to you and how to get out from the Past you got stuck into turns out to be only half of your quest, while the other half is, of course, getting acquainted with all the girls in the camp, have sex with them, and live amazing things you couldn't experience in your actual, dull, apathetic timeline. Over the course of 7 days you will make some sparse choices that will decide what ending you get access too. This is weird cause at first it totally looks like you couldn't choose much, but the game has 13 VERY different endings and I would say that this is where it shines.

I got undeniably hooked when I realized how different the story can get based on what "branch" you pick. The problem is that without a guide, and after your first clean playthrough, it isn't clear at all how to get into a different branch or what you could have done differently. But as soon as you try to get a little deeper into the mechanics you'll realize the amount of story(es), for a game of this kind, is quite huge. This doesn't change the fact that Everlasting Summer is definitely too long in some sections and the writing is uneven at best, which might have to do with a different cultural style from what I am used to, I'm not sure. The different endings though, including a few crazy ones, are interesting and while some interactions and dialogues are beyond childish, there are also times when you can appreciate the education background of the writers.

The characters get more interesting through replays, since the first trip through the 7 days don't leave much room for their personalities, but whenever you take a different branch you get to know them better. As I mentioned before, this is the strength of the game: the 13 endings paint a whole picture. I am not a completionist but this is one case where you can only really say you finished the game when you got all the endings since only then you will really know Sovionok Camp and the story of the guy who got trapped into it.

The character design is weird at first, as pretty much everything that wants to look Japanese but it's not Japanese, but you'll get used to it soon and will probably appreciate it after a while, and the background pictures/paintings are honestly beautiful. Finally, the 1980s Soviet Union setting is just unbeatable.

Don't forget to download the Hentai patch from the official website, since the Steam version will just give you a black screen where you are supposed to see sex or breasts. It is not much at all, this is not a hentai game, but it's better to see all the stuff instead of censorship blankness.

Rating: It's 100% free, on Steam, so yes go ahead and buy it.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Neo Scavenger, or Apocalypse Manager.

Neo Scavenger is on Steam with the now usual Early Access formula, so approach with caution as many things are unfinished especially the plot/story, but what we have here is a incredibly detailed game about surviving a post-apocalytpic wasteland in a vast Michigan area (including Detroit) while dealing with all sorts of potential problems.

This doesn't sound new, I know.

What is new (although presented in a very old style) is that you literally micro manage thousand of items, containers, conditions, and most importantly actions your character can undertake. You move on an hexagonal map that represents the surrounding areas and while everything is highly stylized (you never see your character, you are just a silhouette in the global map) what happens to you is expressed through detailed lines of text that you can react to by taking actions among the ones that are presented to you based on your skills, traits, items and many other things. What is surprising, as I said before, is the amount of details that seems to be tracked by the game, a task made easy by the quite complete absence of visuals (except for a map, some locations stills, and vast inventory screens).

Here's an old (2012) trailer.

You start the game by waking up in a lab where you've been cryogenically frozen for years and realize that world has gone to hell and you are wearing nothing, it's damn cold, and something is coming, growling, from the dark corridor in front of you. Based on what you pick at character creation (among talents and flaws, which allow you to pick additional talents if used) you are offered different ways to deal with the situation, and get a taste of how the game always offers you different ways to do something, and different rewards based on it. For example, I started a game as a medic, and I was offered the chance to wake up people in other cryogenic tanks to distract the beast. As an electrician, I could reconnect the lighting in the place and make it my new base camp. As an eagle-eyed person I could spot a weapon that I would have otherwise missed, and as a tough mean melee fighter I could have just punched the attacker into oblivion.

The general feeling is that you are playing something between a management simulation, a roleplaying game, an overdeveloped Oregon Trail, a piece of interactive fiction and Pick Your Adventure of book. All adorned with a seemingly impressive amount of items you can collect, craft and interact with, about a hundred "story" encounters, a meaningful amount of randomization between each game, and the obligatory perma-death as in any rogue-like (yeah, almost forgot about that) inspired game. The author is super active on the Steam community, and basically jumps in to discuss and debate every meaningful topic and seems very open about ideas and explaining the gears and bolts behind it.

The UI, while clearly in need of a lot of work, is somewhat pleasant to deal with once you got the hang of it as the actions you can partake are presented to you as buttons, with new ones popping up whenever you have a chance for something you couldn't do before, so there's almost a sense of discovery that comes by playing through the interface itself. Fight is another text-buttons based thing. It reminds me of Bard's Tale and Wasteland (the original ones) but with many more options and details, which reinforces the feeling you are playing the last great game of the 80s more than with a tiny indie project from the 2010s, but that isn't a bad thing unless you simply can't deal with a lack of visuals.

But is it fun? Yes!

Rating: Buy it. 

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

MechWarrior Online review (updated for October 2nd 2013)

Just for fun, I'll try to put down my 'Evaluation" of MechWarrior Online as of today. This tries to stay away from my feelings for the game, which would easily award it a perfect 10 considering simply how much fun I've been having with this for the past 14 months.



Aesthetics – 4

No doubt the 'mechs look good if you have everything maxed up and you stop for a while to look them up close, but the game and the designers decision make a solid effort to try and make it look like shit. The UI is so ugly that your pretty 'mechs are basically hidden in the store and mechlab screens, so no matter how much you paid them they are for the most part held hostage by the shitty UI. There is never a point in the game, be it in or outside of a match, where you can enjoy some fulfilling [i]'mech porn[/i]. And it doesn't help that so many maps seem to have some sort of film grain or heat distortion or fog, snow, night, or whatever else just to take away even more from the beauty of the 'mechs. And aside of the 'mechs, let's face it,  the maps are a piece of junk. Scale is fucked up, details are ridiculous (oh my eyes every time I see the little cars in River City or Crimson strait!), vegetation and trees are literally a bad joke from EQ1 times, and most importantly colours are an insult. About ten maps and not a single one that makes an effort to vibrate outside of its own washed out palette. I really would like to know what is going on here, it's like they put an effort to make sure the maps look as colourless and bland as possible. And sure I understand the need to make sure it all keeps together a certain rugged feel and it all doesn't degenerate into some crazy carnival extravaganza (after all, the 'mechs are already colourful enough), but there has to be some middle ground between HYPERBROWN and a Rainbow Brite convention. As much as I love the 'mech models, aesthetics in this game are unjustifiably terrible for a 2013 game based on the CryEngine 3, and while they make a great comeback when it comes to the actual fighting, with laser scarring 'mechs' armours and autocannon shot booming all over the place in a blaze of what would seem like real 'mech combat from the 31st century, it is simply not enough to save the day.



Gameplay - 9

Luckily, poor visuals do not impact the amazing gameplay. This is where the game shines and earns its right to be played, over and over. First of all, the gameplay is unique. There is no other game on the market that sports big giant metallic things fighting each other in slow motion with a deep layer of tactical and strategical management of your own vehicle and your team. The concept of heat and multiple weapons has always been the genius idea at the core of BattleTech, and while in MechWarrior Online this mechanic has been twisted in dubious ways to remove the dice rolls, the end result while questionable still puts a lot of emphasis on choices, choices and more choices, from the 'mechlab part where you have to conceive and build not just a 'mech that is universally considered efficient, but one that suits your needs and playstyle, on to the actual fighting part where you will have to always be aware of your heat gauge in order to avoid a dreaded self shut down which is the closest thing to self-inflicted Crowd Control and pretty much always leads to a very bad outcome. So, as I was saying, no other game on the market allows for people to test their aim in a FPS environment while at the same time having to constantly consider what weapon to shoot in a pinch (or IF you can afford to shoot at all) based on range, generated heat, size and relative speed of the target, ammo left, state of the portions of their armour based on the 'mech type and so on. This game is one of a kind and while at first look it might just appear to be some sort of 'meched-up' version of World of Tanks the two games don't really share much. Customization, horizontal progression (this is huge: every 'mech including the lightest ones pose a threat to all the other ones. So no chasing higher tiers, cause your weapons will always damage other  'mechs and you will always be dangerous, no matter how new or tiny your robot is), manual aiming mechanics, multiple weapons on a single 'mech, and most importantly different spots on the enemy vehicles to aim to based on different circumstances are what earned this game the infamous definition of "shooter for the thinking person". I jokingly prefer to call it "The first FPS in slow-motion" but that definition doesn't do it enough justice. This game hits a spot that didn't exist before in the gaming world, and while it certainly might not be for everyone, for a multitude of reason ranging from the steep learning curve to the amateurish visual department and up to the lack of features as we speak, it still managed to achieve something unique and obviously engaging enough to keep a vast community on the hook for more than a year based on its gameplay alone.



Longevity - 5

Considering the absolute lack of any persistent element in the game outside of the expansion of your 'mech stable for the sake of it, longevity should be an absolute zero. Community Warfare, a complicated mechanism that will put every single random match into the context of a large scale war with shifting fronts in the huge BattleTech lore is coming, along with the possibility for groups of players to form Merc Corps and wage war to each other in what would be a very simplified version of EVE war for territory. But this stuff has been promised more than a year ago and it is still far away in the future, so the score has to be based on what is there now. And it should be a perfect zero, but as with any game there's no objective evaluation of fun. This has been the game I've played the most in ten years and for that I should [i]subjectively[/i] give it a 10. At the same time, in what seems to be a return to the Quake deathmatch times of the 90s not everyone will find enough motivation to stick with it. While the learning curve is a challenge in itself, that pushes you to become better and feel rewarded for it, too much random Public Grouping can easily kill your progress, and even the self-assigned quest to improve your personal stats isn't made any easier when said stats are hidden somewhere on the webpage, outside of the actual client. The game(play) has legs, but in its current state there is simply not enough to do outside of racking up game after game after game of random arenas where the ELO system seems to try hard to make sure you are gonna win and lose pretty much the same amount of games over time, no matter how good you are.


Value – 7

It is a free to play game. It really is free. There is literally nothing you need to spend your money on unless you feel like it. Sure, as a non-paying customer your progression will be slowed down by about 100% as opposed to paying customers, but this doesn't change the fact that you are enjoying the full game for absolutely free and the only thing you are missing on are a few "Premium" ' mechs (here called Heroes) which are in no way better than the standards 'mechs and don't look any different from the in-game currency purchasable variants. Different yes, but better? Not really (although they provide another boost to your in-game currency earning hence speeding up your growth a bit more). So yes, considering the game is absolutely free I just can't see how this could be a negative score. PGI being a company that has to pay salaries, the game has plenty of ways for you to spend real money on it if you feel like it, but for a game with horizontal progression, where every 'mech is efficient and you can pretty much buy the one of your dreams in a couple of weeks and not need anything else ever to be more competitive I say this is a great break from games with infinite tiers of collectible tanks/planes/spaceships where you always feel that you just got owned because you are a tier or two lower than your enemy. This game's business model, at the moment, is in my opinion the best you can ask for from a free to play game. And while I think cockpit flavour items and banners are overpriced, I am not silly enough to care about them, so big 'whatever' here. I am not giving it a higher score simply because I try to balance the "value" score with the lack of general features that are haunting every other aspect of the MWO short of gameplay.



Social – ZERO

This is just the lowest, ugliest aspect of MWO. Sure, a new UI is coming and Community Warfare is coming too. This score could easily jump to a 10 in a few weeks should all the promised features make it into the game the way they have been promised. But as of now, this is a perfect ZERO. Worst UI ever, worst social interface ever, it is close to impossible to do anything with your friends unless you coordinate outside of the game. No private chat, abysmal friend list and party tools. A true disaster. Sure, this is a placeholder system, but one that should have NEVER made it to release if they didn't want to earn a zero in this department.



Polish – 4

The lack of polish is what connects all the issues mentioned so far. There isn't a single polished aspect in this game. Even the celebrated combat part feels so raw polish-wise when you see 'mechs rubberbanding into each other due to a disabled (because buggy) collision mechanic, or when your weapons fail to reach a target stopped mid-air by the invisible corner of a terrain texture, or when hits clearly on target don't register due to a wonky netcode (this has been in fairness greatly improved and almost eliminated recently), or your giant warmachine struggles to climb a 3 feet step or gets hindered by a negligible bump in the terrain. Outside of the combat NOTHING is polished, the interface is a placeholder mess but it seriously looks like something that wouldn't have been that good even in 2002, and everywhere there are signs of what is clearly a project that started small and had to build on top of unstable code in order to keep pushing forward. While many things are about to be dramatically improved, there is no way to say when this will happen and what will happen, so the score for polish as of now can't be any good.



Innovation – 9

This isn't so apparent at first. But as I said before this game managed to do something that hasn't been done before (that I know of), not in an online game anyway. Introducing simple but effective mechanics borrowed from the tabletop game to create a slow-paced while still skill-based gameplay with lots of room for solo and team based tactical and strategic decisions are what set this game apart from anything else more than the giant robots setting. Having different weapons with really different mechanics is just icing on the cake, and for once a game of this kind deserves an additional mention for having found a way to implement a defense-mechanic which heavily relies on positioning instead of pressing a button (or none at all). Maybe 'innovation' isn't the right word as this game will probably never set a trend, but at the same time there's a need to acknowledge its peculiarities which offer us a new and unique breed of FPS. It might not be everyone's favourite, but there's no denying its gameplay is truly unique and for that the game deserves the highest praise.



THE VERDICT - 70%

The countless flaws of a project that started with an odd lack of talent in many departments and a shortage of money don't overshadow the goodness of the gameplay itself which would shine even if it wasn't for the everly charming giant stompy robots. Having nailed the difficult part down, the actual combat, there is no doubt PGI can improve everything else and eventually bring this game up where it deserves to be, but it is undeniable that they have strained everyone's patience to the limit through bad communication and endless delays. Evaluating only the present state and not what the game could be or become, what we have here is a niche gem with all the problems and issues of 'specialist' games, the shortcomings of unstable software houses and uneven development teams, but with a solid, unique and rewarding core game that is just too engaging and one-of-its-kind to be passed on. Obviously not for everyone, in the rubble of a messy product there's something that didn't exist before which creates a itch that can't be scratched in any other way. It deserves to be tried and have copious amount of slack cut for a good dozen of matches to see if, flaws or not, this is that game you've been looking for for years but couldn't find anywhere.