Sunday, 30 September 2012

Review: Final Fantasy XIII

JRPGs ain't what they used to be. In some ways that's a good thing- you can't make the same fantasy game with turn based uninvolving combat forever, no matter how good your visuals and soundtrack are. However I must note that as far as I can tell they've gone in three directions.

The first is that they have become absurdly complicated, and all manner of abstract and contrived systems are involved in combat and character development. This is what strikes me when I look into games such as The Last Remnant or Infinite Undiscovery. This excessive abstraction is intended to obfuscate the uninvolving nature of such games and try and give the illusion of player agency in a world without any.

The second is to eliminate the turn based menu combat and interaction, and use more real time or tactical features, making it not really a JRPG at all and something more gameplay driven entirely. Check out Kingdom Hearts or Nier maybe. Very Japanese RPG in style, but not turn based at all.

The third, which I have only noted in the case of FF13 is to take note of all the problems posed by JRPGs, and rather than fix them with new systems, create ways of working around them that solve nothing whatsoever and just kind of pretend that's okay. This is the worst kind by far.

So here we have Final Fantasy 13, in no way the thirteenth final fantasy game ever made, which takes the design approach of spotting something broken and throwing a gigantic noncommittal rug over it. I'll get straight to the point - there is almost no gameplay in this game.

 Sure, there's the idea of gameplay, just like there's the idea of good or evil or the perfect summer's day or Patrick Bateman, but it's no deeper than a shadow and far less interactive. The game gives you plenty of options but they're almost entirely meaningless and player agency is but a distant memory.

Let's start over. FF13 is a story about some people who live in a floating country called Cocoon, who are accidentally embroiled in a terrible conflict when creatures from the surface world below (called Pulse for some reason) whom they are all terrified of (for a fairly decent reason.) There's a lot of conflict regarding how the government deals with this incident (i.e.. really badly) and then they all get infected with some sort of curse by the creature from Pulse which basically removes any agency they have in their own lives and either turns them into monsters for not doing what it wants or turns them into statues (who may or may not have done terrible things) if they obey their orders.

 In a way it is almost logical for a game about how you deal with having any choice taken away from you and being forced to soldier on hoping desperately for a positive conclusion to take away almost all choice from the player and force them to soldier on whilst hoping desperately for things to improve. However that does not make for an at all interesting, involving, or especially playable game, and regardless of clever allegory and direct narrative allusion through gameplay mechanics, it just plain sucks.

 I'll admit that the story does seem to be one of the better ones, and though I only spent 13 hours with the game I should be qualified to determine the story quality as probably 6 hours of that was spent watching non interactive scenes and reading through the back story. Yep, for a game that forces almost no involvement upon you in favour of story it does an appalling job of grounding you in the basic facts of the game world. Reading the rather lengthly Datalog is literally the only way of understanding what Cocoon and Pulse are, what the Fal'cie and L'cie are, who PSICOM or the Guardian Corps are, what some war that's casually mentioned was, what any of this shit even means in context- basically anything that isn't happening right now or recently is skimmed over in favour of direct action in the moment.

 I hardly have to say these days that the visuals are pretty splendid as this is a Final Fantasy game. Everything looks pretty fancy and flashy although I must say the character design is a little uninteresting- with the exception of Lightning and Sazh everybody looks a bit generic. Monsters are likewise mostly fairly formulaic- similar to how Pokemon have devolved into random shapes with faces, many of the enemies are just animals or weird robots with patterns on them- but there are a few exceptions that make up for that mainly in the form of boss battles.

The sound is all round pretty awful and does an appalling job of complementing what little gameplay there is. Music is bland and entirely forgettable, and doesn't really fit the mood at any point in the game. Surprisingly the sound design itself is also really poor,for a game with so little interaction the least you could expect would be a decent report from the menu or when performing magic but everything is pretty weedy and overly synthesised. There's just no life to it, no heart, no soul. It is purely functional.

 Outside of the aforementioned cut scenes and reading there are three things: walking forwards, fighting a bit, and managing your character development. Walking forwards is pretty straightforwards as you can imagine, the game layout is hyper linear and there is almost nothing to be gained from exploration, although it does try and make this a little more challenging by swinging the camera all around your arse all the time and having Lightning run like a complete dickhead.
 Managing character development is deceptively linear. At any point you have access to a range of character classes dependent on character and story progression. You can spend exp upgrading your stats and skills in one of these character classes in the pointlessly convoluted crystarium, which is basically a big windy path of subsequent upgrades. You get up to six different character classes which you can switch during battle and affect what skills you have at your disposal and how effective you are in certain situations, but more importantly they affect how your team AI works. Upgrading these is super basic and you don't really need to think that much about which to develop because there are only six and you keep having your party changed all the damn time anyway.

 Now for my primary issue with the game. The story was fine, I was even okay with having to read some of it myself. I don't care about the music and the sound design would have simply been a nice bonus. The upgrade system is pointless, yes, but at least it's slightly more involving than fixed character classes. Even the absence of anything to do other than move forward, watch things happen, and get into fights would have been acceptable if those fights had been anything other than a completely pointless, uninvolving, almost deliberately and unashamedly anachronistic waste of my time.

 It's pretty simple really. You get Lightning (or maybe somebody else depending on your point in the game) to do actions like the classic ATB. Wait for your turn, navigate menu, select target, off you go. However that's about as far as it goes. Your team mates are 100% AI controlled. The enemies are generally incredibly simplistic. There's even an auto battle function which you will use a whole lot more than you expect, because most fights are so utterly devoid of intellectual substance that you can just get the computer to guess its way to the cake. The game even tells you that the Auto Battle will always choose the most appropriate commands for any given situation. All it can't do is use an item or special command (of which I only ever got 1, Libra, which tells you enemy weaknesses and basically enhances the player side AI even further), or change the current paradigm (class loadout for the team. 

 Essentially, combat boils down to hitting auto-battle over and over and waiting for the correct time to change your class configuration to either heal, debuff, or build up a combo attack. The only decent addition to the combat is this combo system which will eventually 'stagger' an enemy and cause you to inflict tonnes of damage on them with subsequent attacks for a period of time. You're specifically told to do this as much as you can so there goes another tactical decision straight into the FF13 one button attract mode gameplay model.

 That's it.

 In the past people have complained that JRPG combat is uninvolving, and doesn't require much player interaction than choosing some stuff from a menu and hitting A repeatedly. Rather than involve the player further Square have chosen to run with this and get a computer to do these menus and mashing A for you. It has removed you from the equation. I'm sure that if they'd have wanted they could have made your paradigms switch according to context and you'd never have to do anything other than hold forwards on the left stick and occasionally hit A to advance text. Maybe that's what Final Fantasy 15 will be- a sixty hour movie where you have to hit a button every time you want the next scene. 

 People complained that towns are only there for you to buy stuff for your guys and generally ignore before continuing with the story. (These people were wrong, and NPCs and setting are vital in building a living, breathing, believable game universe.) Thus we have no shops, no NPCs you can actually talk to, no chance to explore or experience the world of Cocoon (and presumably Pulse) other than what we are explicitly shown.

 People complained about random encounters being incredibly annoying. They were right in many ways, and to fix this now enemies are shown in the environment, and you simply can't avoid fighting them 95% of the time. Now rather than random battles, you have fixed, linear, preplanned battles. This also deals with the complains about grinding, as there's no scope for that because there's no random battles and enemies don't respawn. This does however leave no scope for self driven character development (lets be honest, a little bit of time spent just fighting can be fun for the level rewards) and once again the player is given no choice in the matter.

 In software development seeing a problem and developing a workaround is a way of handling bugs in a game when you don't have the time to fix straight away. As far as I can tell it was Square's entire strategy in designing the interactive portion of this game. The appallingly pointless gameplay is there only to remind you that this is in fact a game you're playing, and not simply an absurdly long movie (with crap sound and character design (this story would have been better told as a novel.)) I should note though that they've finally included an option to skip cut scenes, so if pointless detached combat is really your thing, you have the choice to remove the only thing that might make this title worthwhile.

 I've been told that the game gets better after twenty five hours. If you're somebody who can trudge through twenty five hours of mind numbing shit in order to get to the 'good bit', feel free to play Final Fantasy 13. I, on the other hand, actually have things to do other than put up with another 12 hours of this game, and it's kind of sad if you can devote twenty five hours of your life to dealing with poorly designed rubbish just to enjoy a payoff that literally can not possibly be worth it. 

 Just go read a book instead.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City

Operation Raccoon City is a game about Raccoons running a hospital in a big city. Things don't always work out for them but when they do boy is it hilarious!

Oh, wait. Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon city is actually a team based shooter set in the world of Resident Evil during the events of Resident Evil 2 and 3. The basic premise is that you are part of Umbrella's crack squad of mercenaries (one of many crack squads presumably given how many Umbrella Mercenaries we've seen throughout the series) and you've been called in to deal with an incident which immediately spirals out of control and everything goes to shit. You're then expected to clean up this whole mess through a combination of running around and shooting everybody.

The first thing I thought when playing this was that this game didn't know what it wanted to be. The dramatic difference in combatative approaches from fighting zombies and engaging in gunfights meant that one of the two seemed to suffer at any moment. For the most part it was the gunfighting, which for my chosen gameplay style was pretty poor and unengaging. Fighting zombies was more fun but also seemed a bit unbalanced in terms of functionality.

However as things progressed, and I tried out different characters and equipment loadouts, things improved. There were other ways of playing I had not originally tried that were far more satisfying. The level design was rarely brilliant, but did get more and more focused as the game went on. More interesting enemies were introduced to make combat more complex and intense. Perhaps most importantly of all I discovered a whole bunch of stuff about the game that it hadn't bothered to explain to me. 

 Which is really one of the key problems, and I understand some of the more negative reviews given that non-awareness of these features would inevitably leave the game lacking and frustrating. For example, as a team based game, there are certain classes that are almost useless outside of multiplayer. Survelliance and Field Scientist fit that description, and ironically those are the classes I insisted on using for my first playthrough. Additionally, certain weapons are a waste of time too- in particular shotguns and in most situations sniper rifles. There are even game mechanics that are largely unexplained- the never mentioned dodge move (activated by pressing Left Stick+Left Stick Direction+A at the same time) is essential to surviving against enemies such as Hunters and Tyrants, and the blood frenzy mechanic which allows you to force zombies to attack enemy gunmen during a three way fight is never really mentioned outside of the loading screens (although it makes certain battles infinitely easier). 

 Even the Quickdraw move which has it's own bloody button has literally no explanation whatsoever given aside from the button to activate it, and it's up to you to figure our how it works. (I will add notes at the end of the review for anybody planning on playing the game. This knowledge will almost certainly make your experience more full and enjoyable.) As a game that doesn't seem like it knows what it wants to be, it certainly doesn't make any efforts to help the player decide on that either.

 Outside of the mysterious but highly effective game mechanics, the visuals are neither offensive nor anything special. They're highly functional with occaisional flair, and the enemies look decent. There are some nice environments but sadly you'll spend far too long walking around concrete and steel corridors underground rather than experiencing the Raccoon City overworld proper. The sound is however much more interesting, with some great atmospheric pieces and incidental music, as well as great ambience and sound effects. Even the music from the main menu is pretty great, and though unexpected this is one of the game's stronger suits.

 Despite being based around a survival horror series the game is rarely making an effort to scare- though there are plenty of hairy moments to get your heart pounding- it's hardly going to have you in a fit of terror. This is due in part to the heavy focus on action, and the fact that the game is oriented around multiple players. Multiplayer is rarely scary as you have strength in numbers, and there aren't the same stakes involved unless you play solo due to the revival mechanic (you get killed, somebody rezzes you and vice versa, death is more inconvenient in co-op than anything)

 Having six playable characters with different play styles works reasonably well, and gives the game mnore replay value as well as a stronger team aesthetic, what with different characters performing different roles. I'm going to tell you now the best character is undoubtedly Lupo, the team's assault weapon specialist, and this shows something of a lack of balance. Granted, I was unable to get into a co-op game (probably because many reviewers slammed this aspect of it and nobody wanted to play), so obviously you can't all play as Lupo. Behind her come Bertha, the team's Medic/surprisingly badass tank; Vector who specialises in close combat and stealth, then after that Beltway (bombs) Four Eyes (Antiviral) and Spectre (surveiilance-useless in single player, almost essential in deathmatch) lag far behind in effectiveness. The main problem being that supportive classes are great and all for the people who aren't using them, but need them as backup. The AI alternate between tactical brilliance and completely bumbling idiocy, therefore you can't possibly play a supporting character (aside from your masochistic medic) and be able to lead the team properly. Playing second fiddle to Lupo just isn't that cool.

 In terms of narrative it's pretty poor, even by Resident Evil standards. Birkin has been discovered to be a right arse and you're part of the team sent in to kick his...arse. Things go wrong, all hell breaks loose and Resident Evil 2 and 3 play out in the background (although I never did work out the continuity between those two). You're constantly sent on wild goose chases for some reason or another, before eventually getting fired, and just ending up killing zombies for the fun of it. Then you get rehired for one last mission blah blah blah. It's hardly engaging and doesn't really have any direction to it. At the climax there's a moral choice to make which involves you either having a really hard boss fight if you're a bastard, or a pifflingly easy one if you're nice. The only difference is in which achievement you get at the end of it, and this game isn't canon anyway so really it just feels tacked on. Then again, did anybody ever really play Resident Evil for the story? I think that's what Silent Hill was for.

 In fairness though if you ignore the boring plot and just play for the action, it works really well. The level design as mentioned before is mostly just functional, but there are some really great areas too, for example sprinting around Umbrella's lab as you continuously accidentally release more BOWs on yourself all whilst being chased around by a Tyrant. Or the city streets sections where Hunters attack you and you have to dive around cars whilst avoiding the government troops in the distance. When it gets going it really hits the mark, so it's a shame so much of the level layouts seem to be just getting you from one point to another whilst having a bit of a fight. On top of the basic gameplay there's also a weapon shop and upgrade system so you can customise each character's personal skill set to make them more powerful, and this helps give more of a sense of progression even when the literal progress through the story falls flat, as well as adding some vital replay value- the campaign is at best eight hours long, and that includes a lot of stupid singleplayer deaths.

 Moving on to what may or may not be the intended focus of the game, the multiplayer gameplay. I never got a chance to play campaign online, either due to time differences, lack of players, or perhaps it simply doesn't work. However from my experience of single player I can infer that the campaign probably worked quite well, and that the team mechanics would probably mesh quite nicely, allowing for a more coherent and flowing player experience than the single player which suffers from pacing issues due to the reliance on AI who are simply unreliable. There's no splitscreen sadly, which follows a trend of not bothering with allowing splitscreen play these days despite the fact it is clearly more fun than online play.

 For the competitive multiplayer you get to fight it out over what are arguably the best bits of the campaign, implying that perhaps they build these first and then structured the campaign around them. After all, the multiplayer was touted as the main appeal of this game. There are four game modes- standard team deathmatch, a capture the flag variant, survivor in which you all fight for a bit to earn points but after a while you all have to race to a helicopter that only four people can get in (this is genuinely interesting but drags on a bit too long), and Heroes (or something like that) in which you get to play as super powerful characters from the series such as Leon, Hunk etc and generally kill each other in that manner.

Team Deathmatch as usual is where it's at, and the game really shines in multiplayer. In this format the supportive character's skills are actually incredibly useful. For example, the surveillance man I mentioned earlier who's skills are useful in singleplayer is actually capable of showing his whole team a better map and indicating enemy and item locations. Now the whole team benefits from him. Likewise for the field scientist who can turn enemy players into zombies or attract hordes of zombies to their location to mess them up. Team play really comes in here and the significantly varied styles of each character make every encounter more interesting due to their asymmetrical nature. Oh, and speaking of zombies, they really serve to make this something other than your standard 'kill the other team' deathmatch. They're a third party, who attack whoever is nearby. You get points for killing them (although not half as much as for killing players) and you can use mechanics such as blood frenzy to utilise them to your advantage. Also having them turn up in the middle of a gunfight send things totally nuts- they're wonderfully chaotic and make the game infinitely more interesting for it.

Overall I was pleasantly surprised by Operation Raccoon City, especially given how much negative press I'd seen about it. The game is a little rough around the edges, but it takes co-op shooting and injects it with enough Resident Evil flavour to set it apart from its clear rival from Valve, and a head above the appalling Resident Evil 5. I'd recommend it to any fan of the series, or anybody into team based shooting. Single player isn't fantastic- but it's not bad either- and the multiplayer will give you hours of replay value. I truly hoped that they'd keep what they learnt from this game in the development of Resident Evil 6, and I'm pleased to see that it seems they have. Perhaps finally Capcom are going manage to modernise the series rather than making the key challenge in the game how to get across the room without having to perform a three point turn.

We can only hope.

[Oh hey, those tips I mentioned. Right, first of all, the secret controls:
Dodge: Left Stick Click +Left Stick Direction+A. This allows you to dive immediately in any direction and is invaluable for defending against hunters and Tyrants. You can still fire whilst you're flying through the air and even whilst you're getting up, so you can defend and attack simultaneously. It's super handy.
Quickdraw: Hold LB /L1. Then point in any direction with the left stick to fire your sidearm at anything you see. This is also incredibly handy when dealing with groups of zombies, as not only can you instantly aim in any direction, the camera pans out so you can walk and fire through a crowd, and your character only fires when there's a target, making the attack surprisingly accurate. In the right situations this will save your arse. Those situations being when you're surrounded by zombies. This can also function as a quick turn once you get the hang of it.
Blood Frenzy: Shooting humans in the head is a good way to kill them, but shooting their bodies enough will cause them to bleed. Bleeding people are incredibly attractive to the undead for some reason, and will cause zombies in the area to gravitate towards them quite rapidly. This is really handy for three way fights where there are groups of soldiers together, as wounding one will allow you to draw the zombies to them and totally mess them up. Be careful though, as the same goes for you if you end up in bleeding status. One of the attributes a weapon can have is its chance of causing blood frenzy, so if you're expecting loads of human opponents this is something to consider.
Redhead creation: I know they're called Crimson Heads but redhead is much simpler to say. Anyway, wounding, but not killing a zombie will cause them to undergo a transformation into these if you leave them alone long enough. You don't want that, because they're lightning fast and fucking hard to kill. 

Other tips: Some quick time events aren't obviously that. Not noticing them will get you killed.
Shotguns are appalling. I upgraded to the best one as soon as I could and still spent the whole game struggling to kill your average zombie. Sniper rifles are good in multiplayer but not much place else.
Lupo is the shit. She'll kill everybody, so use her liberally.
Melee attacks are nowhere near as effective as they are cool looking, don't be tempted by their stylish nature when you'd be better off shooting somebody in the face.
Anti Viral Sprays stop you being a zombie. If a team mate is going to be a zombie, just kill them. In single player if you get infected without a spray you're done for. Your team mates respawn- you don't.]

Identity Crisis

Okay guys. It's time to be (sort of) serious(ish) for a moment.

Been doing or not doing this blog of random humour and commentary on stupid shit for a while now, and it's not really what I fancy doing any more. Of course, I love writing, and I like jokes and humour and all that. However, I also want to write serious things, and talk more about games and all the other stuff I love rather than imaginary diseases or conspiracy theories about squirrels trying to steal my eyelids.

Thus it has been decided. This isn't just a blog where I try and be funny for a bit every once in a while when I have time.
There will be made up stupid things.
There will be silly science.
There will be sarcastic satire.
There will be awesome and interesting games.
There will be real shit*
It will be epic

 *not actually shit shit, you know, shit as in stuff.

This way I figure I can just let myself write whatever and if you want to see it fine and if not you can sod off back to eating jellybabies with a spoon or however you spend your free time. It's not like I have an established fanbase, so I think I'll just keep spitting out things here until I strike gold and inevitably become rich and blah blah I think we all know this ends in porridge explosions.

The key thing here is that I don't have to make myself be funny, it'll happen naturally and work better then. Plus I can write about all the things I'm really fucking angry about (I'm looking at you government!)

Without further ado, a review of Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City.

(PS, I'm having a lot of trouble when I copy and paste text from Evernote into here, what with fonts going all irregular and looking fuck all like they do in this box when they appear on the blog. Sorry about that. It's definitely Google's fault. Yep. All them.)

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Essexy Beast

Oh my shit did you hear the news recently? There's a lion in Essex!  What next? A gorilla in brighton? Elephants in Scotland Yard? A bunch of retarded dogs in parliament?

 Well, this is news indeed. Real news, not like the Olypmic/Paralympic rubbish, or all that murdering being done by the government in Syria, or even Julian Assange bumming around in the Equadorian Embassy. No, this is the absolute MOST IMPORTANT bit of news going around at the moment. Nothing could be more important than a totally real lion in Essex.

You know why? 

Because it's basically proves the 'Big Cat of Ilkeston'!

I should provide some background.

The 'Big Cat of Ilkeston' (or Big Tom as I shall now refer to it for convenience) is a legend that we've had around these parts for a good time now. There's been reports in the paper of folk seeing a panther like creature, a 'big cat' if you will, lurking about the streets, fields, and canal ways for years now. Some say it's an escaped pet of one of Ilkeston's richer resident's. Some say it's a man cursed to spend every fifteenth sunday night as a panther wandering Ilkeston and being spotted by idiots. Some say it's just a dog that's far away or something. Nobody knows the true identity of it.

 I know one witness personally (he's a complete twat) so there must be some truth to it, and now the existence of a totally real lion in Essex basically proves that these big cats are for real, and that people don't make stupid perceptual mistakes they can't accept are untrue, and that everybody should be shitting themselves in case it's standing behind them right now.

 Have you checked yet? Then the coast is clear (for now).

Now that we know that the Essex Lion totally proves Big Tom exists, I expect we'll have to start watching out for great big cats wherever we go. With that in mind, here's some advice on how to handle them.

1) Big Cats love jelly, so be sure to carry some around in your pockets in case you come face to face with one.

2) Never travel alone at night without an elephant gun.

3) Learn to whistle. It fucks the male ones right off and they have to go back to Australia or wherever lions come from. It makes lionesses proper horny though, so try not to get raped. Unless you're into that sort of thing. You dirty bastard.

4) Grow longer legs so that if all else fails, you can leap to safety.

I'm off now to barricade my doors against great big smelly old Big Tom, because I'm certain he's about to come and steal my milk. 

Fucking cats...