Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A word on Immersive Simulations

Coming off the back of completing Prey, Dishonored 2 and Deus Ex: Human Revolution + Mankind Divided over a period of 2 glorious gaming months, I felt compelled to post some thoughts about this most rare and incredible of gaming experiences: The Immersive Sim.

IMMERSIVE SIMS ARE RARE. And they probably always will be. Mainstream gaming tastes do not, mostly, match up with the kind of mature, considered, well-designed and carefully crafted immersive experiences that have been created by incredible developers such as Creative Assembly (Alien Isolation), Eidos Montreal (Deus Ex: HR + MD), Ion Storm (Original Deus Ex), Arkane (Arx Fatalis and Dishonored) and the oh so mighty Looking Glass Studios (Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief). These are special, deep gaming experiences which don't come along very often because the market does not "demand" them nearly as much as Generic Sports Game -insert year-, Generic Open World Collectathon, Generic First Person Shooter, etc.

This is sad. There is art to the game logic / visual / sound / level design to any game but with Immersive Sims these things become far, far more important and are often executed to a standard that very few other developers match. I cannot wait to play the new System Shock and Underworld games. The rewarding learning, exploring and discovery offered by Immersive Sims are the gaming experiences I crave the most. Apart from Demon's Souls and classic 90s shooters like Doom, Blood and Descent... most other gaming experiences just fall flat for me.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

STALKER Call Of Pripyat

(2016 Note: In February 2010 I wrote this piece about the third Stalker game intending to post it somewhere but never got around to it. Here it is!)

Call of Pripyat shares none of the frustrations of Clear Sky, it brings back the FUN of the original game, and improves upon it in a multitude of ways.  Yes, this is still Stalker, and the game mechanics are similar: open world, shoot blokes, avoid mutants, hunt anomalies etc.  But the faction wars are toned down, and you feel like you actually stand a chance from the off.  At first you are somewhat fragile, but not stupidly vulnerable.  I started venturing out to places and noticed that, like the better-tuned RPGs, there were areas that I could just about tackle, but others for which I'd have to improve myself before I could return to them.  Feels just right.

Call of Pripyat is designed to be "open world" immediately. The main plot arc isn't entirely linear, the first 5 "quests" for it can be tackled in any order. The "world" comprises 3 large, distinct areas that are naturally shaped and do not feel like long corridors.  Keep walking in any direction and you'll see one completely different thing after another, a wrecked ship, swamps (very scaled down compared to Clear Sky), chasms, bridges, burned farms, anomalies, plateaus, and buildings.

Day and night cycles are still there, and you have a permanent clock in the main hud. There are two weapons slots, in which you can put whatever you like.  This was curiously limited in Clear Sky. CS got one thing right with artifacts: they were hard to find.  This is still the case, and detectors are required, making for a tricky but compelling challenge whenever you attempt it.  Earning money is tough, but a little easier than Clear Sky, and feels about right.  Shotguns are no longer nearly-useless, and the new Protecta is a solid, satisfying weapon.  Weapon upgrades are present again, but futher tuned, and even more essential.  Some of the dread and scares of the original game are present, if not to the same extent.  There are a lot of things that, if not frightening, are certainly odd and will put you on edge.  There's more "weird" in this game than "scary", put simply.  How many FPSs engage your imagination as much as your trigger finger?

And I found it absolutely reliable, too.  No crashes here.

Realistic but frustratingly small carry limit early on.
That damned view-bob.
Vanilla game could do with more AI spawns.
Short, some are saying 20 hours.
Could do with more dungeons!
Weapons degradation is a more prominent factor than Clear Sky, and if anything happend a tad too "rapidly" for my liking.
You'll wish they mapped more of Pripyat (but what's there is fantastic).

To conclude:
One of the best first-person-shooters ever but certainly not perfect.  A unique, compelling and satisfying experience, and recommended to absolutely everyone.  Google for the "SMRTER mod" after you have played the full game, to add more goodies and replayability.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Dark Souls 2: Soulless Fanfiction.

Dark Souls 2 is a reasonably successful experience on its own terms, but stumbles and sometimes outright fails for a variety of reasons when examined closely.

40-50 hours into Dark Souls 2 I came to the conclusion I just wasn't enjoying myself. What was different? Something had to be, after all, I eventually became used to Dark Souls and learned to greatly appreciate it for what it was. I still believe DkS achieves masterfully what it sets out to do and to those with the right mindset it is an engrossing experience.

If Dark Souls ever was "fun", that "fun" has been carefully syphoned from its sequel leaving greater frustration than ever before. It seems obvious to me that the changes in the dev staff have displaced the careful design present in DkS, because its sequel is full of issues. I'm simply not enjoying it as much. Don't play it solo, play it online and request help wherever possible, is my recommendation. And use a character that has good magic and / or a decent bow. Melee characters are just not fun this time.

Combat suffers due to less accurate controls (I'm using the same controller), finickier parrying, unpredictable back-stabbing (when I managed to, I was never once standing "at the back" of an enemy, only off the side a little), and worse of all: unreliable invincibility frame placement during rolls. Agility changes this, but it never becomes entirely "learnable". Weapon degradation is too rapid. The reason for joining covenants is never explained, and leaving them has no penalty any more.

The considered one-on-one battles of Dark Souls were tense and compelling, but much of DkS2 has the player face multiple enemies at once. In fact enemy placement is sometimes a total clusterfuck and tends towards unreasonable. The Black Gulch must surely be a level design nadir for From Software. Really, F*CK the Black Gulch: Hundreds of poison spitters and instant-death submerged trap hand mouth things that shields do NOT protect you from. The boss is ridiculous as well, and ALWAYS locks on to you. (Many bosses conform to a formula: oversized humanoid with oversized weapon, a few similar melee attacks, and a way to catch you when you're behind them.) Soldier's Rest is a mess: teleport to it, exit the building housing the bonfire, and then THREE old ironclads are on your tail within moments, plus a few undead soldiers. The run from Huntsman's Copse -> Bridge Overview to the Undead Purgatory is endlessly frustrating, punctuated by those "dark staff" monsters that kill in seconds. Many bosses, like the Pursuer, just take far, far too long to kill even with upgraded weapons. I'm struggling to think of occasions in DkS where the game felt as unfair, slow, or tedious. Maybe, maybe going through the Undead Burg the first hours, but that is rather due to player inexperience, not poor design.

Level design is haphazard, sometimes lazy and boring, other times inspired. But never coherent. I'd love to see the invisible elevator that takes one from Earthen Peak to Iron Keep... from the OUTSIDE. After killing the four boss souls (why?) ... some stones are removed from an arbitrary invisible wall to allow progress. The Tower Of Flame is essentially a series of linear corridors with a few battles and a single branching point. There's much more, but the game is littered with these issues.

Useful items are scarce for a great deal of the game. Titanite is given out so frugally, and cannot be bought from an "unlimited" source until very far into the game, meaning upgrades must be chosen with extra care. It's quite possible to be stuck with a character that is otherwise well built, but has rubbish weapons that cannot be upgraded due to a lack of souls and titanite. Oh and due to the monster spawn limit, farming isn't an option. I faced the Iron Keep with weapons that just weren't quite good enough and I'd spent all the souls and Titanite I could. An ARBITRARY limit on purchasable Titanite shards is then lifted after completing the Iron Keep.  WHY ??  WHY??? Another boneheaded decision!

Most NPCs have no reason to exist other than to provide items, complain to the player, and then sit in Majula and do bugger all for the rest of the game. Why must I talk to a specific NPC to level up? This is one of the few hold-overs from Demon's Souls that seems pointless. And why am I in Drangleic in the first place? This is never clearly explained, I'm just here to ... kill four bosses? Why? DkS1 made it clear the player is there to succeed Gwyn and ignite the first flame.

Not a successful sequel, Dark Souls 2 strikes me as ill-conceived fan-fiction. Those that remember Ultima 9 know how that plays out. This game is not recommended unless you can forgive all these issues.

I also recommend watching Matthewmatosis' video:

Edit: Operating very much at the extreme end of the critical scale Michael Thompson's particularly damning article thrashes the game. While I would argue some measure of suspending disbelief is always necessary when gaming, in this case, Dark Souls 2 is simply not worth it. But Thompson comes across as though gaming - for him - is a penance, so it's difficult to resonate with his thoughts.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

The Dark Mod: PC Gamer's Mod of the year. Stealth action at its finest, and it's FREE.

The Dark Mod

Of course it's the Mod of the year. TDM is an exceptional example of creative minds coming together to create a cohesive, immersive stealth action experience in a brilliantly-realised dark-ages-fantasy world. Superb. Highly recommended.

Note: Doom 3 is no longer required. As of TDM v2.0, it is a completely independent game that doesn't need anything else to play, just download and install.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Mastering Technique And Discussion With Matt Colton

An insightful and educational video that takes a hands-on (ears-on?) approach to discussing the art of mastering. Very much worth a watch.

Or watch it at Youtube.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Mainstream gaming and Ludonarrative Dissonance

Today I wish to draw attention to a collection of mails between Matthew Milewski and Clint Prentice of the gaming blog Error! Not Found. They discuss the so-called ludonarrative dissonance that occurs during the course of the new Tomb Raider game. Suffice to say, I played two hours of it and then uninstalled it in extreme disgust: