Little Legends: The Battle for Willow Lane – Competition in a Casual

ImageBetween a busy semester and waiting on games to show up at my door to play, I’ve decided to fill the gap with some short write ups on a few casual/Indie games. Here’s Little Legends: The Battle for Willow Lane by indie-developers Reentry Games that I saw on Reddit.

The game plays as a tile-matching puzzle (match 3+ corresponding objects together, yada yada) but stands apart by adding a few fun little mechanics into the mix. 

ImageRather than a solo game where you advance through a series of increasingly difficult levels, leading to your inevitable defeat, the game revolves around a multiplayer factor where live-players go head-to-head against each other in real-time. You have a small arsenal of abilities to use against your opponent until one of your health bar depletes. Abilities correspond with certain stats like attack, health, magic, trickery. (Don’t judge my score, its hard to screenshot accurately and play.) 

Players have six slots on their character (Warble, I think? It’s like a toad had sex with a tennis ball) that allows them to equip gear that increases stats. You can earn the equipment through chests, or for purchase by the in-game currency (nuggets, embers).When you go to begin a match, you have the chance to wager a certain amount of nuggets on the match (the more you wager, the more you win).

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This all adds a really cool competitive factor to an otherwise casual game type. Rather than play against your own score or a big score chart, you have to outmatch (literally) your opponent and pummel him with things like a mentally handicapped looking bird that shoots a laser from its mouth.

Casual games like this aren’t really my thing, but even I found it to be a fun way to spend a little time. I can definitely see the appeal and recommend it if these types of games are your style. 

Either way, give it a shot. Support the Indie-Devs dammit. 

-Nick Thompson

@notnickthompson

 

Bioshock: Infinite – Using Combat to Drive A Story without Distracting

ImageLike most fans of the game, I was really surprised and pleased by the progression of the storyline and how well done the quantum mechanics were used as a way to make sense of the insanity that was the ending of Bioshock: Infinite, so I’m not going to beat a dead horse. The developers at Irrational Games deserve praise for a job well done, but I did find one component a bit rough that many games don’t seem to master.  I wanted to approach the game from a somewhat (at least from what I have read) less talked about perspective in this review.

For those that haven’t played it, (Do it right now, your “job” and “family” doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things) the newest Bioshock has you running around with a companion, Elizabeth, who has the ability to open up ‘Tears’ in the space-time continuum (explained in a spoiler filled headache of awesomeness). ImageThese tears are used not just in the storyline, but also as a component of combat. The player has the ability to tell Elizabeth to use these tears that are fixed onto the map during a combat scenario in order to do things like bring in allies, gain health packs, grab weapons, etc.

As you progress through the story, you encounter various groups of different guards, rebels, abominations, and whatever else you happened to upset during the course of the game that attempt to kill you and kill/take Elizabeth. Being a first-person shooter role-playing game, you are in combat a hell of a lot. Combat steadily increases and becomes really fun and engaging as you have a variety of different weapons and abilities to dominate (or barely live through, if you’re playing 1999 mode) these scenarios that pop up frequently.

The problem that arises with games that have a strong and compelling story is finding the happy medium between boring gameplay, and frequent combat (or other elements, I’m looking at you Uncharted puzzles), that distract you constantly from enjoying the game.  The boring gameplay doesn’t make you feel like you earned your “reward” (reward being the accomplishment of the game, in this case), and constant combat disrupts the story’s drive and removes the immersion from the player.

ImageBioshock has a great story, one with a uniquely intelligent mechanic and is supported by the discovery of recorded messages and videos. I loved the characters and the gameplay, I could not wait to figure out what in the fuck was going on, and the graphics are beautiful (I literally was awestruck when you first ascend to Columbia). Unfortunately, I found the combat scenarios, not the actual combat, to be a huge spoiler of my immersion. My character would enter a new area, and before me lay a shit ton of cover, weapon drops, and tears that were tactically set up across the map. You knew shit was going to get serious if there was a ton of sky-line around. I almost always knew when I was going to be in a fight, and I could tell how big or small it would be depending on what was laid out before me.

Combat in an FPS-RPG should be directly supporting the storyline. Immersion is just as important of an element to really drive the story for a player as any other component and removing a player from that can be what stops a good game from being great. Not to say that Bioshock: Infinite didn’t have this, it very much did. The overwhelming and increasing opposition that you must face as a result of your character’s status or choices is a huge accomplishment of the game. What I didn’t like was the removal of immersion that I got when I walked into every new area and knew if I would or would not be in combat. It happens so frequently that it really disrupts the story. In many situations the combat felt like filler rather than a means to invoke distress in the player, something you should expect a FPS that seems to pull from more RPG elements than action-adventure to do. This isn’t a run and gun game.

Fortunately, the story is so well done that you easily get re-immersed and forget how distracting these predisposed combat situations are, until you encounter the next one.

The combat itself is beautiful, and I don’t want to come across as hating the game or that Irrational Games dropped the ball in any way. The mash-up of the quantum mechanics from the story into the combat, along with your regular arsenal, adds a real kick into each fight, but I would have liked to see a smoother transition between regular gameplay and most of the fixed combat situations. Something as simple making you think you would enter combat without it happening just as often as you actually enter combat could have kept you guessing and trying your best to always be prepared.

As I said, the game is wonderful. Anything that may have been poorly executed is extremely eclipsed by the fantastic story and gameplay. I wish I would have had a chance to play it so much sooner than I did and I recommend it to all of my gaming friends, regardless if they are fans of the series or not. Can’t wait for the DLC: Burial at Sea.

-Nick Thompson

@notnickthompson

Sleeping Dogs – Focusing on Core Mechanics (No Spoilers)

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— Generally, when I play these games, I try and avoid as many reviews as possible. I like to be unbiased when I go into a game and not be influenced by others opinions or findings. To not do so would take away from this entire design exercise that I try and do for myself, ultimately making this blog irrelevant. I also strongly feel that it is wrong to take one game, with its own merit to be viewed upon, and put it next to another game (outside of its own series) and compare and contrast. It is an extremely lazy damn way to review a game and makes no sense to me to do so when attempting to write a legitimate review or focused perspective. —

After playing Sleeping Dogs, with a rough idea of what design component I would focus on, I hopped online to see what people had to say about the game. You may be able to imagine how upset I was to find most of the reviews, even the positive ones, focused around comparing it to the Grand Theft Auto series. This irked me (maybe more than it should) so I decided to throw away my original idea and come at this game from a different approach.

Sleeping Dogs, the open-world action game from United Front Games, doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t. While playing, I didn’t feel like the developers were trying to make a ground-breaking game, and I don’t mean this in a bad way. They didn’t seem to be striving to be like any other game (well…I’ll get to that), nor did I feel like I was playing a knock-off that maybe they weren’t intending to replicate.

I will admit, I did feel that the developers were replicating a game I had played before, but it wasn’t GTA, Sleeping Dogs played very similarly to True Crime: Streets of LA. Both games had a story that revolved around undercover cops and crime, they both focused on a hand-to-hand martial arts combat system and less on weapons, and both games, though open-world, still strongly related all the side objectives and games around the main story.

True_Crime_HK_cover_artI looked it up after I finished playing and, to no surprise, found that Sleeping Dogs is the revamped version of a previously cancelled project called True Crime: Hong Kong (Activision scrapped the almost completed project until Square Enix picked up as UFG’s producers and loved it). Needless to say I was put at ease and went back to being pleased with the finished product the developers made.

What makes Sleeping Dogs a good game is a strong emphasis on its core mechanics. The core mechanics are so well done, you can tell the developers were able to focus primarily on them, rather than implementing a series of others, and leaves the game with a solid foundation. In a time where so many AAA games are attempting to push the boundaries in order to stand out, Sleeping Dogs did it by doing the opposite.

The story is strong and compelling, and part of that reason is, as stated above, the fact that all of your side objectives are related to that main story. There is solid character development amongst your protagonist, Wei Shen, and even amongst smaller characters. At no point was I not aware that I was playing an undercover cop being a triad. The main characters didn’t have a 2-dimensional feel or provide cliche personalities. There are mini-games available where you can do things that don’t really have much of a connection to the main story (cock fighting, street racing, car theft), but they counter that by providing the ‘Face’ mechanic where the player gains a reputation within the community, awarding unlocks and perks that help the player progress through the story.

sleepingdogspc_06The combat engine isn’t gimmicky, and gives a very well done hand-to-hand system for the player to improve upon throughout the game. The environment is successfully utilized during melee fights, enhancing the system even more. When weapons are used, they are almost always related to the story, and aren’t just a part of your day-to-day arsenal (Using an assault rifle you picked up to make it out of an ambushed scenario by rival triads). But just because weapons aren’t always used, many of your actions and rewards through side-quests give you the ability to enhance your weapons use (running melee weapon attacks, moving from cover in slow-motion, etc.). This further provided evidence that the developers really cared about focusing on the primary mechanics. Any of these things could have easily been made trivial or executed poorly, instead they were all very solid.

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There is remnants of a ‘dating’ mechanic in the game that was scrapped. Whether the developers did this because they knew it didn’t mesh with the rest of the games story-focused quests, or simply because something got in the way (deadlines, poor execution, etc), I don’t know, but it was a smart move.What is left of the dating system helps partially develop Wei Shin as a character, and more importantly providing story progression and unlocking access to different abilities or quests.

Sleeping Dogs is a solid game and is a great example of how a modest approach to a AAA game can still deliver, not only a good game, but one that can still compete in the market. We need a reminder, especially within mainstream gaming, that simpler (and well done) can often times be better.

-Nick Thompson

Twitter: @notnickthompson

Hitman: Absolution – A ClusterF*ck of Broken Mechanics (No spoilers)

Hitman__AbsolutionI threw Hitman: Absolution into my console hoping to relive the glory days of Blood Money and Silent Assassin. Rather than assume command of the master assassin once again as we take down a series of targets in a variety of fun and unique ways, we blandly progressed through the storyline (albeit, it was surprisingly better) in a convoluted mesh of formerly well-done mechanics that were removed, toned down, or just fucked with beyond recognition. The only remaining characteristic that this game seemed to have that was relatable to its predecessors is Agent 47. Replace 47 with some randomly generated protagonist and change the title and this would just be a run of the mill release that hardly gets noticed. I put the game down several times, taking way longer than it should have to complete the game, and strongly considered not finishing it and reading a synopsis, but I didn’t (because I have to write these with at least some credibility).

For a game whose main theme has always revolved around strongly emphasized stealth by encouraging the players, often through rewards, to remain undetected, frequently change disguises, hiding bodies, etc., someone at IO Interactive decided to shit on most of these and create a generic game that appeals to what I can only imagine as the casuals. (I just read an article by Shaun Munro from WhatCulture! on ten reasons Hitman: Absolution sucks and he made the point that they seemed to be driving it toward the Call of Duty crowd [gross]. We also bring up a lot of the same issues, so feel free to just read his instead of mine. He can write better)

Though the story is relatively interesting comparatively, it takes away from what made previous Hitman games fun. 47 is on a rampage to redeem what he’s done in the beginning of the game and rescue a young girl who is sought after for unknown reasons by the agency and 3rd-party individuals. Hitman-Absolution-Cinematic-Trailer_5There are still assassinations to be done, but they aren’t really set contracts that the player gets to carry out. There is no safe house, or bringing gear into the main story like with Blood Money, rather we have the option to play a ‘contract’ mode that isn’t as fun as it sounds. Since 47 is constantly on the move and having random things happen to him rather than doing his prep work before a contract, I guess IO decided there wasn’t room for him to come in to a mission prepared.

 The game encourages you to complete challenges (stay in a suit the whole mission, kill target by blowing up the tunnel) in order to get an accumulated score that only serves a purpose to compare with friends and other players. If you are a completionist like me, you still want to do all of the challenges. The issue is the game is so fickle on some of the mechanics, that you will fail a challenge for some menial thing. At some points the game will show you being undetected for silently shooting two guards with their back to you during the ‘point shooting’ mode. In another instance, sometimes the exact same situation, it will say that the guard detected you somehow. Or stabbing a guard from behind cover as he approaches occasionally registers him as detecting you, even though you just put a knife into his throat. It blows some of the challenges and causes you to restart if you want to beat them. The list goes on for both combat and non-combat scenarios you’ll find yourself in.

IO thought a solution to this would be checkpoints. After a certain point in the level, you could hit a check point where you will respawn at if you die/restart. A sound idea, but poorly executed. When the player restarts (which will be often if you are going for challenges, personal or otherwise) the entire level resets. That means that when I just went through an entire floor of a building, meticulously killing each and every bad guy silently and hiding the body in order to counter lost points, and hit my checkpoint at a different point, everyone I just killed is back. If I need to back track on a level (which again, happens often either for challenges or level design) then I have to spend another 20 minutes doing what I did at the beginning of the level. This leads to even longer gameplay that is just a repetition of what you have previously accomplished. The only thing I can think of for IO developers to include this is to prevent players from relying on restarts to push through the level unscathed, so to speak. This would be acceptable if the fickle mechanics discussed earlier weren’t as big of an issue, but it just leads to even more frustrations.

The disguises “mechanic” is hardly even a resemblance of its past use. It might as well be called ‘Agent 47 puts on different outfits to no effect” (but I guess that isn’t as catchy). Even at normal difficulty, you don the same disguise as those around you and you have a very limited window of not being spotted. screenshot_292251_thumb_wide620They give you limited ‘instance’ where you become “invisible” to them, but it serves as less of a new challenge to get past, and more of an annoyance that doesn’t serve the gameplay well. Rather than being a fun feature that is, often times, almost mandatory to get through parts of a level, it has become a shotty version of itself that serves very few purposes since the player can almost always get through the whole level in a suit without much of a challenge. The only upside to it is how poorly the cut-scenes work in disguises and weapons, purely because its as amusing as it is terrible for player immersion. One minute 47 is taking out everyone in a construction workers uniform, and strangles the target from behind. The next minute we are in a cut scene where 47 stands over the target in a suit with a gun and the target is full of bullet holes. IO didn’t really seem to give a shit about linking gameplay to cinematics.

The most troubling out of all the issues this game had was the layout of the levels. Everyone else has bitched about them, so I’ll keep this short…they’re terrible. All the levels present the players with almost linear access, rather than the “open-world” approach from previous games. While there are variations to how you may approach, I still felt forced to pick lane A, B, or C rather than providing me that Hitman experience of taking down a target as I see fit (let’s not even get into how there are fucking trash bins in every. goddamn. room.). Some of the levels had potential to be pretty interesting, like a level with chinese new year, but they were so small and limited they didn’t get a chance to live up to it.

I think it might be time to hang up the series for a while, or hand over the reins to a new studio. Hitman needs to get back to its roots and get with a team of developers that seem to care about putting out quality, rather than shooting for (and missing) that mass market. If IO would have stuck to what made the previous games great and put forth the effort, I think the game would have still been well received by fans of the series and new hitmen. Instead, the game felt like a forced out project because someone high up in IO or Square Enix demanded it so.

Tomb Raider has done well with a series reboot, maybe it’s time for Hitman to do the same.

-Nick Thompson

@notnickthompson

XCOM: Enemy Unknown – Squad Tactics

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based tactics game that gives the player (commander) control of a squad of 1-6 soldiers as you hunt down various types of aliens.

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XCOM was at the bottom of my “pick-up” list, so I was a little disappointed that it showed up in the mail over some other more sought after titles. I had never played the earlier X-COM series of games, but I was curious to see what the decent rating was about and what made it warrant a FPS continuation here soon with Bureau: XCOM Declassified.

With some reluctance I booted it up and found myself with some seemingly bland graphics, and a poorly written and super generic opening story (that never developed into more than that). I played the opening tutorial and wasn’t drawn into the game by any means. I set it down for a bit since I started it rather late and didn’t pick it back up for a day or so, the desire just wasn’t there.

Once I gave it a proper chance, the game did draw me in, but not because of a gripping story or even overall phenomenal gameplay. What drew me in was the squad and single unit tactics mechanic that the gameplay itself revolves around. I tried thinking about when I last personally played a game that utilized true squad-based strategy and couldn’t come up with anything since Full Spectrum WarriorImage in the early 2000’s (though I’m sure there have been plenty).  Now, there are some vital differences between the two games, most obvious being that FSW only allows you to control your fireteams (seen right), rather than each individual like with XCOM (seen below), and FSW is more real-time, but the similarities still exist. FSW was one of my favorite strategy games growing up and XCOM really felt like I was utilizing a squad properly for the first time since way back when.

ImageI was able to take control of each member of my team, each with their own special abilities, and place them around the map, or issue orders, to best suit the environment and enemy presence. Enviroments were destructible, so a car or wall you were hiding behind could be gone next turn, and there were multiple layers to which you could set up your squad.

The game took into account visibility and viewpoints in relation to accuracy, such as setting up your sniper onto a rooftop will give him an almost perfect chance of hitting the enemy below within his range and visibility, as well as determining how well you, or the enemy, can mobilize around the battlefield in order to flank the enemy or provide over-watch to your own team as they infiltrate. I can honestly say I was immensely satisfied with how well the squad-tactics mechanic worked in each levels environment, and how well it meshed with the squad-leveling aspect of the game.

As the commander loses men, or opens up a new spot within the squad to fill, he can recruit new soldiers to boost his ranks. Typically, these new recruits start off as rookies with no designation. As they rank up, they will be randomly assigned a squad ability. You then can outfit your squad as you see fit in order to fit your play style. ImageDo you want to have heavy over-watch and covering fire as you advance up to your objective? Throw two snipers into your squad with a heavy gunner for suppressive fire, and have your assault bound forward with relative safety. Each mission objective and environment will decide how to best outfit your squad, each member can be equipped with their own special armor, weapons, and equipment best suited to them, and who should go on what mission.

The most interesting aspect I found of all this as I played through the campaign was how ready you have to be to quickly adapt to not just the missions (often sporadic occurrences), but to loss of your men. I found myself having a favorite sniper who went on every mission and was leveled to the max. He had all the best gear by this point, and was often the deciding factor on most missions if we were to win or lose. Then, without any warning, I found myself flanked, he missed his reaction shot, and my sniper was killed. Just like that he was out of the game forever. I had no other sniper really prepared, and I had to compensate greatly with more heavy elements until another sniper was higher trained. It showed me how quickly your entire gameplay or personal tactics will have to change in order to push through the game (Rest in Peace, Col. Nick Thompson, you brave sonuvabitch).

The game allowed you to somewhat compensate for potential loss with better equipment or revival techniques, but even if a teammate wasn’t killed, there was a long wait time depending on wounds sustained to each member. If every member of your squad took a hit at some point, they may be out of play for 3, 6, or 14 some-odd days. During that time you may have to respond to abduction sites or UFO attacks, and you don’t have any of your go-to squad in play.

All these elements created a surprising amount of fun to an otherwise bland story and meshed with the tactics mechanic in such a way that made the combat continuously challenging, and the game intriguing, that I did not expect. Though there were some frustrations within some other mechanics (like getting critically shot through 3 walls across the map and losing an important member of your team within the first few damn turns), I think it meant the overall goal that the developers at 2k wanted. I’m a little hesitant how Bureau will hold up, considering how cliche and under-written the story here was, but 2k earned my appreciation for XCOM: EU and I look forward to seeing what else they may surprise me with.

-Nick Thompson

@notnickthompson

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