E2 2017 Highlights: Ubisoft

Assassin’s Creed: Origins

My first reaction to this new game at the beginning of E3 2017 was not overwhelmingly positive, but the more I see of it, the more interested I find myself becoming.  Given that the franchise is now a decade old, returning to the beginning point of the Assassins is most likely a soft reboot in order to bring in new people, or old fans, like myself, who drifted away.  The genius of Assassin’s Creed is that the game is not focused on one person, or a small group of people, but rather is an anthology that tells the stories of different people from different countries in different time periods.  That being said, I felt the series became somewhat stagnant.  Origins looks like it could be something fresh again, telling a story of a man in Ancient Egypt.  While certain elements seem a little off to me (does he have a telepathic link with that eagle?) the location is beautiful and the game looks like it could be a lot of fun.

Far Cry 5

The game that has vexed angry white men by making it’s bad guys angry white men.  I never played a game in the series until Far Cry 4, and I played that to death, so naturally I’m excited for more.  The main character is all alone in a closed off area in Montana and so has to build up relationships with the locals in order to survive.  Same goes for the ‘guns for hire’, who are no longer just generic soldier you call upon but rather people with specific skills that you assign positions and designate targets to.  There’s also a dog, which will also respond to commands to attack, because ever since I played Torchlight, it’s like every game has to have a faithful companion.  Visually, it looks wonderful and I suspect will be a lot of fun to explore.  The game looks like a lot of fun to play and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Beyond Good And Evil 2

The game everyone has been waiting a decade and a half to play.  Technically a prequel to the original, not much is known at this stage.  But after the trailer at the Ubisoft conference, two of the developers came onto the stage and their love and enthusiasm for the project was clear for all to see.  It’s hard not to be excited for the games eventually released.

E3 2017 Highlights (Sony)

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

After the disappointing news that there will be no Tomb Raider related announcements at this year’s E3, a trailer for Uncharted: The Lost Legacy was a welcomed beginning to the Sony conference.  While the two series have only surface similarities, it’s enough to scratch the itch.  Instead of focusing on the main characters, we are now playing as Chloe, occasional co-worker of Drake, and just as much of an entertaining rascal.  It contains that same balance of drama, character development, and comedy that has made the Uncharted series so popular, and the trademark over-the-top action seems to be firmly in place.  I love the idea of Uncharted branching out and telling the stories of the secondary characters, and putting two female leads front and center is very exciting.

Days Gone

Zombie games are fast becoming this generation’s World War 2 first person shooters.  After Dying Light a few years ago, I felt I’d had my fill of zombie apocalypses, but this has had my attention since last year’s E3.  The open world presented here is dirty and miserable.  There are bodies strung up by the ankles, giving Tomb Raider (2013) a run for its money when it comes to creepy grossness. And there are herds of zombies that run at you and can kill you pretty quickly.  The trailer also showcases the stealth elements of the game, which is less Sam Fisher and more doing bad things that will injure people and even leave some dead, if it means you will stay alive and achieve your goal.  The main character seems, on the surface, to be the generic tough guy, but there’s clearly more to him than that, and every time I see footage of this game, I become more and more curious about him and the world he is living in.

Shadow of the Colossus

The only game to ever make me feel nauseous, and the only game that ever had me kill innocent creatures for my own selfish desires has been remade for the PlayStation 4 and it looks stunning.  I dare say there are plenty of people who missed this game the first time around, or were too young to play it when it first came out, so it’s wonderful that they’re getting another chance to experience it.  The original was a rather short affair with little to do outside of killing the colossi, so here’s hoping the developers have put some extra content in to make it a worthwhile second purchase.  And here’s hoping they’ve done something about the dodgy frame rate and questionable control layout.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – VR

It’s not terribly difficult to get frustrated that six years after Skyrim‘s release we have yet to see a hint of The Elder Scrolls VI.  That being said, this is the perfect kind of a game for VR, especially given that you are meant to immerse yourself in the world it creates and explore every nook and cranny.  VR could really help to convey that feeling of living another life in another world.  Then again, it could be Bethesda attempting to milk Skyrim for all it’s worth.  I guess the gamers will decide that one for themselves.

God of War

Either I’m reading this wrong, or this is a study of toxic masculinity and how that affects young men growing up.  I probably am.  But still, despite not having played a God of War game in a number of years, this has got me interested.  The father/son relationship actually looks like something that could add some depth to what I’ve long been perceiving as a rather shallow hack and slash.  The world looks lovely in all of its dangerous glory, and I’ll be curious to see to what extent combat changes now that Kratos has a child in tow with him.

Detroit: Become Human

Building on from E3 2016, this time we are following a different character, Marcus.  While the trailer still shows us that this is a game of choices, it is focusing more on story this time.  Marcus is an android who sees his kind as a slave race to be freed.  Last year’s trailer caught my interest, but this makes me downright excited for the game.  A futuristic, neo-noir story about slavery and rebellion sound like my idea of a great game.  There’s no release date and I get the impression it’s still a while off, but this will certainly be one I’ll be keep an eye on from now on.

Spider-Man

This was – forgive me – marvelous.  Spider-Man leaps from wall to ground to iron beams effortlessly and quietly as he picks off enemies one by one.  He doesn’t just attack, but uses his webbing to ensnare them, or hang them up, or catch them when they fall off the side of a building, like something right out of the pages of the comic book.  And of course, the action only gets bigger from there.  Whether he’s leaping from surface to surface, or full on web-slinging, Spider-Man looks awesome and the whole thing looks like a tremendous amount of fun.  Even the quick-time-events, which I usually hate, look like an adrenaline ride.  Sony really did leave the best for last.  This looks like a hell of a lot of fun and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

From The Vault: Homefront

06.jpgThe first thing you will notice about Homefront is that its story is rubbish.  For months now, promotional footage of this game has gone out of its was to remind us that it’s written by John Milius of Red Dawn and  Apocalypse Now and that he’s created an oh-so-plausible future of Korean expansion and domination.  You’ve probably seen the infamous opening sequence in which you are dragged from your home, put in a bus and forced to watch the brutality of Korean occupation.  People are beaten, tied up and a child watches as his parents are shot.  All very dramatic stuff, all very shocking.  It gives you a reason to hate the enemy, something that’s been sorely lacking in a first person shooter since gamers decided they’d had enough of Nazi’s.  Sadly, that opening sequence is one of the only times this game achieves anything dramatic and shocking.  It will try later on, but will rarely succeed.  Considering how much they promoted John Milius’s involvement and how much they talked about the setup of events, you would expect a strong story and interesting characters.  But what you get is a game that has no story and relies on shock moments to pretend it’s deep.  It really isn’t and I assure you, no one is more disappointed about that than I am.  I had such high expectations for this game, it’s story and it’s bold depiction of an occupation.  Once that initial bus ride was over the game might as well have said, “Right, we’ve shown you they’re bastards, now go kill them.”  Everything just turns into an uninspired, generic, third person shooter with a story that at best, is simply going through the motions.

01.jpgWhat a joke

For example, early on once I was rescued from the bus, I was taken to a rebel hideaway. I was told about the place and it was suggested to me that I talk to the locals before heading off on the next mission.  I talked to two of them before realising I getting one line answers from people who wouldn’t even look at me while they said it.  I decided to just go on the mission straight away.  Later, I came back from a mission to find the Koreans had found the base and killed everyone.  The woman did her crying shtick and the guy did his whole, “Farewell, old friend, I’ll cry when no one’s looking,” routine.  But me?  I felt nothing.

05.jpgApparently, I’m suppose to give a shit that this guy’s dead.

Compare this to a sequence in Half-Life 2 which, in many ways is quite similar: you meet up with the other characters, hang out, chat, then it all goes tits-up.  You watch Alyx have the tiff with another scientist, her father has a chat with you and then Alyx then takes you on a tour of the facility.  Remember her words, “That’s the old passage to Ravenholm. We don’t go there any more,”?  They’re full of sorrow, without being overplayed.  We feel for her, but then we enjoy her company as we play fetch with Dog.  What makes Half-Life 2’s attempt so much more successful is, it works to make you, the player, connect emotionally with the characters around you.  Homefront does not.  While Half-Life 2  has character interact with you and talk to you, Homefront’s character’s regard you the way they would regard an invisible, non-corporeal life form: like you aren’t there.

If the game had had me spend more time with these people, and had me care about them, I might give a damn when they die, but it didn’t.  Failing this, the game tries other ways of making you feel the human drama, but these attempts similarly fall flat on their faces.  Once event early on has you defend a house in which a woman and her baby are inside.  That baby does nothing but cry from the moment the first shot is fired.  Realistic perhaps, but also infuriating. Imagine your favourite gun fight in Modern Warfare 2, then imagine a baby crying over it.  It doesn’t help either that the child’s mother was constantly screaming things like “Don’t hurt my baby!”  I was sorely tempted to leave America to its fate right there and then.

The only other time the game came close to evoking an emotional feeling in me was the now infamous mass-grave moment, in which you and your team mates climb in among the bodies and play dead in order to avoid a patrol team.  You lie there for a good minute or so, staring at dead faces, while in the background the Koreans have a scout around.  It’s quite disturbing, and evokes memories of World War 2 documentaries, though sadly much was made about it prior to release so I knew it was coming.

04.jpgHad they not publicised this so much, it might have been a truly disturbing moment.

Unfortunately, for a game that wants us to think about the human element to war, the other man on your group seems emotionally detached.  He tells you to get into the bodies like he’s telling you to hide behind a rock.  A little less “Stop being a pussy” sentiments and a little more “Oh, Jesus, we’re climbing into a mass-grave” would have helped.

You have three team mates, who have the personality of a wooden chair.  The game tries to make these people interesting by having them argue with one another, but it usually ends up being an annoyance.  Leaving aside the fact that they are badly written, walking stereotypes (the guy’s overly aggressive, the woman’s overly emotional and the other one’s a token Korean-American), their arguments always happen after hitting the checkpoint, not before, and they usually come just before you storm through a door.  So if your die and go back to the checkpoint and you have to listen to their drivel all over again, instead of just being able to storm the door again.  Pretty soon, I was cringing every time these people opened their mouths.  They never had anything interesting to say or add to the moment and most of the time I really wished they would just stay quiet.  Add to that, the voice actors are badly directed and conversations just don’t flow together properly.  It feels more like they’re talking at each other than to each other.

The other major problem is on a technical level.  More often than not, people’s dialogue cuts out mid-line, before the other person starts talking only to stop mid line.  I heard people holding conversations with someone who wasn’t responding to them, I saw people voices go out of sync with their lip movements.  I saw people holding conversations with very noticeable gaps between lines.  And then, of course, there were the one liners in battle, and if ever there was a reason to go into the menu and just turn the voice volume down to zero, this is it.  These guys have one or two lines at most and they say them over and over.  Angry-Guy’s favourite was “Take that, you fucks!” and he must say it about four or fives times a fight.  Thinking on how many fights there are in the average First Person Shooter, I assure you, those fuck took that.  A lot. 

03.jpgI hate these guys.

Gameplay has its ups and downs.  The first person shooter elements are competent, if uninspired.  It’s pretty much a copy-cat of Call of Duty: you look down your sight, aim the red dot, enemies go down in a few shots.  Enemies do have an annoying tendency to re-spawn and keep coming until you move forward and trigger the next event.  The animation of these guys is also a bit ropey, and at times they don’t so much stand up from behind cover as pop up out of thin air.  Their AI is also rather suspect and they tend to run into your cross hair before adding themselves to the growing pile of bodies on the floor.  While the game is a bit more forgiving when it comes to how much damage a grenade will do to you, you will go down in just a few hits and the game can be a bit cheap about this.  It seemed like the enemies could shoot through some kinds of cover, which is expected in shooters these days, but when I made a point of trying to shoot through the same cover myself, I couldn’t.  I also noticed far to many times that the cover itself was not always high enough to keep me fully  covered while crouched.  I could have gone prone, I suppose, but that seems more like a design fault that basic cover wont protect me from enemy fire.

There’s more than just the enemies getting in your way, though.  First off, there’s your team mates.  In far more competent games like Modern Warfare, if you want to stand in a spot another soldier is occupying, he’ll move out of your way.  In Homefront, your team mate aren’t moving for diddlysquat, and they hold their ground like a tank.  Even brushing past them can stop you in your tracks and you have to give them a wide berth before moving on.  What will also grind you to a halt is bits of debris or rubbish on the ground.  At one point I was hiding behind a concrete barrier that was torn apart by machine gun fire.  I tried to run for new cover, but was stuck in place.  By debris

You’re team mates are also morons and while they do occasionally shoot at something, they mostly just aim at nothing and shout their stupid one liners.

02.jpgMaybe there’s a bad guy inside the walls…

They’re also very guilty of causing events to grind to a halt. They’ll yell at you to do something like charge through a door or crawl through a hole in a wall, but it’s pretty obvious the game wants them to go through first.  Instead of being able to pass through the door I would hit an invisible wall and would have to wait for them to pass through first (usually after another pointless conversation.)  One time they were yelling at me to run up a stairwell to get to the roof.  I went running past them and to the stairs only to realise, when I got to the top, that they hadn’t followed.  They were still down the bottom, yelling at me to get up the stairs.  I had to run back down and stand behind them in order to get them to go up.

I’ve heard some people complain that the game has far to much “Hollywood Blockbuster” moments in it, too much over the top action in it.  Really, that didn’t bother me so much.  It bothers me in Modern Warfare 2, because I know that series can do better than over the top action and shock moments.  Homefront can’t, and I know it can’t, so the over the top action was all I could look forward to.  Things like the white phosphorous going wrong were honestly fun to watch, and I also enjoyed the change of pace at the half way point where I was sneaking about and sniping people from a bell tower.  But still, it’s not enough to make you forget that this game has no central villain, no boss battles and no real stand out game play moments.

You really get the feeling that Homefront’s trying, but it never gets there.  When Batman: Arkham Asylum was delayed, it was to take the extra time to give the game a polish, and it showed.  Homefront could have done with the same.  It wouldn’t have fixed all of the games problems, but it may have sorted some of them.  Gamers and critics are happy to ignore the stupid story in Modern Warfare 2 because the game play is superb.  But the hollow, near non-existent story, in combination with a lot of game play annoyances come together to make one big mess of a game.  I had high hopes for Homefront and more than anger or annoyance I just felt disappointment from beginning to end.

From The Vault: Alan Wake

alan-wake-cover-hqMuch like Heavy Rain, Alan Wake is an experiment in storytelling in gaming. Unlike Heavy Rain, however, this game appealed to me because it more closely resembled an actual game. The irony is that it is mainly the game play that I have problems with, though the execution of the story is also flawed.

Alan Wake is a writer who has a severe case of writers block. He and his wife, Alice, take a break in the secluded town of Bright Falls and wackiness ensues. Alice is lost at the bottom of a lake, taken by the dark presence in the town. He then looses a week of memories and discovers that during that week he wrote a horror story that is now coming to life around him.

The story is told partly by cut scenes and partly by voice-overs. The voice-overs are problematic because they are presented like a first person narrative in a book. Books tell us what happens, games show us, and while they often sound good, they feel out of place, such as when Alan stands on a bear trap. The player can see what has happened and yet a monologue is heard, telling us, meaning the same information is being conveyed in two different ways, rendering one of them redundant. Voice overs in games can work, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver did it brilliantly, but it did it by tapping into the thoughts and feelings of the main character and fleshing out the world the player was exploring. While this does happen at times, it’s odd that a game released over a decade earlier managed to execute it so much more successfully.

The other big problem I had with the story was that things occasionally happened not because they flowed naturally from the narrative, but because they padded out the game. For example, at one point I had to make my way to a radio station, which was an hour long journey through a wooded area on foot. When I finally got to my destination I was there for about a minute before the police showed up and I had to go on the run again through the woods. It was hard to ever feel like I was making any kind of meaningful progress, because whenever I reached a goal, I would just be given more of the same to do.

The graphics are lovely to look at and combined with a haunting soundtrack do a nice job of bringing everything to life. The times I was running around forest areas made me think that this is what I wished Final Fantasy XIII had been. That was a game that created the illusion of openness, but the player was often running down an invisible corridor which restricted your movements. Alan Wake, on the other hand, dropped me down in an area, told me where I had to go, but would then leave me to get there at my own pace, whether that was going directly, or taking my time to do some exploring, which often lead to finding extra supplies. One complain about the graphics, though, is facial expressions, which tend to look rubbery and expressionless, making it difficult to connect to the character during cut scenes in the way that the game clearly wanted me to.

Combat is a bit different from the typical third person shooter, in that you don’t have a cross hair on screen, instead you aim your flash light at at enemy. The enemies being nightmare creatures they are weakened by light, so the player has to keep the light trained on them until they become vulnerable enough to kill. The deadliest weapons in this game are not shotguns or assault rifles, but flares and flash bang grenades, which was a nice contrast from something like Resident Evil‘s gore and decapitation. Unfortunately the novelty wore off after a while, because the game play remains largely the same throughout, and the enemies rarely change. In Resident Evil 4, we begin with standard people to fight with, then once night falls, their heads often explode to reveal the parasite. This parasite comes in different variations as the game progresses, from simple bladed tentacles to a worm-like creature that will eat Leon’s head and result in an instant death. There were times when I got overwhelmed with larger numbers, but I was fighting the same enemies at the end of the game that I was at the beginning. This is something the game really missed the mark on. The enemies come from the pages of a book which should allow for some crazy stuff to happen, for creatures that are over the top, or even go against the laws of physics, logic, or sanity.

This game never claims to be survival horror (and just as well since it’s not scary) but still, I couldn’t help but develop a survival-horror mentality: save ammunition, only shoot when necessary, and never use the powerful items, like the flash bangs, because there will be a boss battle eventually. At the end of every chapter, I lost my entire inventory. Everything I had spent a couple of hours collecting was gone, and I would be completely defenseless again. Granted, this makes sense from a story point of view, such as when Alan is jailed by police, who are hardly going to lock him up with his weapons. But with a little imagination, the game could have found a way to get them back, for example, retrieving them from an evidence locker. In the last section of the game it started happening mid-chapter, for example, when Alan had to jump out of a helicopter. When he landed, he gave us a voice-over about loosing his guns in the fall. It was frustrating, and it felt like the developers were trying to artificially create more challenges by taking away the items that made fights easier instead of coming up with a variety of enemies that require different strategies to defeat. Those boss battles never came. Perhaps if you want to be generous, there are a few confrontations that a boss battle label could be slapped onto, but they were never anything more than slightly beefed up versions of regular enemies. Once I learned to use the items I had when I had them, the difficulty of this game plummeted. Then final battle is essentially a tornado. There is a box of unlimited ammo at the players feet.

Still, I’d say give Alan Wake a go, if you can pick it up cheap. The graphics are, for the most part, lovely, and the way the game plays around with darkness and light is something different to the usual third person shooter. The story, while not executed as well as it could be, is still compelling enough to keep you playing. While it never truly delivers any memorable game play moments, you’ll be intrigued enough to stick with it till the end…an ending which might as well say: “To be Continued in the Downloadable Content.”