Saturday, 12 November 2011

Batman: Arkham City [PS3]

A truly brilliant game with lots to do and see. Took Arkham Asylum, cranked it up to 11 and squirted it out over a city.


Sandbox full of toys
This is how I feel a sandbox should work. There is a huge area to explore with an absolutely massive array of goodies to find within it. Some areas are unavailable until you have gone further in the game and will take a particular gadget upgrade to get to. There is as many bad guys as you want as target practice - and there is a massive number of ways to take them down (stealth, combat, gadgets, batarang to the crotch).

A bit of a challenge
It's also not a walk in the park - the difficulty level is fairly well-balanced, offering challenge if you try to press ahead too quickly but not stagnating if you just want to mess around. This is the difficulty level that I like to play at. Some of my friends (Psykomotor in particular) like to feel invincible and breeze through a game for the cinematic value and for pure fun. I prefer the challenge - to perfect the mastery of the control system and feel that great sense of achievement while watching the end credits roll.

Infinite scope for custom fun
This is pretty much GTA Gotham and it WORKS. It's dark and moody in the streets, colourful and bright when villains hit the town and there is so much scope for hilarity. Get a friend round to try out some of these excellent Pass-And-Play games:

  • Drinking Combat Challenges - no shots if you get a perfect round - one shot for each round not achieved.
  • Drinking Predator Challenges - no shots for stealth round - one shot for each time detected.
  • "Who can throw the funniest remote batarang?"
    • "50 points for hitting a thug's crotch and making him fall down a flight of stairs".
  • Take out groups of enemies with challenges - no gadgets, no punching/kicking 
  • Really, the possibilities are limitless.
It's fun - more fun than most stuff around at the moment (by the way, I'm writing this a week before Saint's Row 3 is released so currently my comment is valid - and I hope things are changing for the better). What it really needs is some on-line multi-player involvement, even if just watching someone else take their turn while trying out some of the games listed above.


Baddies go bye-bye
The involvement of some of the baddies in the game is a bit pants - several villains are attacking Batman one minute viciously, then pausing and smiling and asking Batman oh-so-softly if he'll just go and do something for them - which Batman accepts and trots off happily to do (only to be stabbed in the spine the second he spins around) *Freeze in particular. Others show off some top-quality superpowers but when it actually comes to the showdown with Batman they are locked up within seconds *Deadshot, Bane. I suppose this is the "comic book effect" - when you have a dozen baddies coming at you from all angles, some of them will be taken down instantly just so you have time to reach the cliffhanger at the end of this week's issue.

Side missions everywhere
Although there is a massive variety of side missions, with each requiring a slightly different use of gadgets, detective work and acrobatic skill, some side missions are stupidly awkward to find. I suppose you could say traipsing round the whole city and its little alleyways looking for the next piece in the puzzle adds to the immersion. But only slightly. A bit. Annoyingly. Sometimes I wonder whether you are playing the role of an elite detective or just a guy who spends a little too long in alleyways and accidentally solves some murders along the way.

Time dilation and it's negative consequences for street brawls
My third criticism is that the new bad guys thrown into combat can upset the flow of battles somewhat. You take down guys in fights by either hitting them or countering their attacks. These counters need to be carried out during a particular interval (while the enemy has a symbol over their head). Guys with knives need to be countered thusly three times with an instant takedown available if you hold the counter button between attacks. Now my issue is that some of the upgrades and special attacks cause time to slow down suddendly (after 15 consecutive hits or something) and this distorts when you need to counter mid-flow! Then Mr. Knifey gives you a big, friendly hug. Several of those and the game lets you repeat the experience of meeting Mr. Knifey all over again. Yay! *Massive sarcasm*

Conclusion
Textbook gaming. A real masterclass in ingenuity and variety. The scope of the city and it's baddies lets the game down at points but this is made up for by having enough here to keep you going for many, many hours. With Arkham City's secrets slowly being revealed to you through story unlocks, side missions and gadget upgrades, you really get under the skin of this giant criminal playground - and it can really get under yours.

Skyrim [PS3]

It's huge, open and immersive - until you want to go wild and then you'll be glitched back into line.


You can always get what you want
Doing pretty much whatever you choose in this epic, sprawling fantasy environment is great.  

  • "Today, I will mine some gold and make a nice shiny bracelet, then wear it to chat up butch guys". 
  • "I'm going to buy a house, get married and wear fancy pantaloons".
  • "Perhaps now I will run to the other side of the world to see what's there".
  • "I think now I'll go and stab some dogs". 
These options are all available to you and many more - the game and story is just about non-linear enough to allow you to feel like you are finding your own adventures in this massive, massive world. 


And when I say "massive", I don't mean "fairly big", I mean "takes you half an hour to walk from city to city and bloody ages to get to the top of the highest mountains big" - as you would hope. The landscape is not only epic but also nicely varied: there are large mountainous regions, forests, valleys, barren vistas, towering cities and tiny villages. The environments feel very organic - it's not just a straight road between towns but at points it's a dirt path winding alongside a river, just as a real pathway would be.

The designers have clearly taken the time to make each environment feel natural and each settlement to have a "living" feel to them - with houses, shops and inhabitants all interacting in a noticably natural way. This doesn't quite work out when scrutinised closely - with some towns having more shops that residential buildings - but we'll just assume there's a regular and rich transient community who come to town a lot to do their shopping.





Live out your destiny, Dragonborn
If you actually play through the story quest and start building up your skills, the game can grab you for days at a time and not let you go. 


The story involves most of the major factions that you engage with throughout the game, and seeing each one rise up heroically, or die tragically actually carries some weight. Making your affiliations and fighting on one side of an epic conflict or another can be rewarding and remarkable fun. "Aha Ulrick von-Prick! I betrayed you at the last minute! And I'll also betray the guys we were fighting - being a double-triple-uber secret agent!".


Getting the higher-level skills to unleash mid-battle is also fun and rewarding. The spells you can cast are not only visually-spectacular but also satisfyingly tactical - using "runes" (basically magical mines), destructive spells, corruptive spells and healing spells at the right times for maximum effect takes a little while to get used to but later on is smooth and flows blissfully.


The final stages of the story are suitably epic and there are loads of challenging battles in the last couple of quests which serve to bring together everything you've done thus far. 

The only problem is that the conclusion of the main quest feels quite hollow, with very limited reference to your actions throughout the game. I have yet to play through the main story a second time, but I find it hard to see how the end would play out any other way - the only difference being the key characters are still alive and ready to follow you into battle. 


Perhaps if the relevant factions had some sort of bonus or perk that they had available that could be used to beat the big bad dragon (not that any help was really necessary for this one). If you had such perks then these could be unlocked by completing side quests for one faction or another - giving more reason to actually bother completing these.



False Freedoms
Now would someone be so kind as to tell me if I was stupid for expecting these qualities in the first place: 



I thought that in an epic sandbox game where there was an emphasis on FREEDOM and the wonderful STORYTELLING allows you to carve YOUR OWN PATH through the world.


Right


This world is explicitly set out in the first five minutes of play to be dominated by an evil empire in vaguely turn-of-the-BC/AD-era, Mediterranean imperialist empire uniforms. 


As such I decided to be chunky, fiery Boudica-esque character, cunningly named "Boadicea" (Sly, eh?). I kitted her out with all the axes and heavy armour I could find and decided to go on the rampage against my oppressors in my quest for Breton freedom... well... actually just pretty much every NPC (Non-Player Character) I could find in a Viking-style berserker rampage... anyway, the point is that most of the people in the game can't actually be killed. They just take damage and fight back, then crouch for a while before regenerating all of their health back! 


Now unless there is some sinister underplot to Skyrim that I've not quite appreciated yet whereby the majority of its inhabitants are in some kind of undead cult and so I'm pretty much just fucked if I want to go up against them, or otherwise I've missed something here. 


In a free choice game where you are loaded up with axes and an open world and told to go wild - are you actually restricted to not killing the people in it? Or just some people? Yes, the ones that are part of meaningless side-quests and hard-nut guards can be killed off. 


Booooooring


I wanna kill a King. Then take the throne and decree that all God declare unto me that all non-ginger people are genetically-defective night walkers *insert sinister laugh here*.




Talky Talk - Not Happy Talk
There are many glitchy issues present within Skyrim and so I'll spend a little while discussing them. 


The first that kept rearing it's ugly head every hour or so was dialogue overlap. By this, I mean that one NPC was telling me something important about what I was meant to be doing next on my quest and suddendly someone else walks in and starts blabbering on loudly about the town's crops. "Ah wonderful Mr. Bob Everyman, the barley is in season, you say? Right.... and so where exactly is the ring that will help me kill daemons? You didn't hear either? Great....." *stabs* *runs*.


In other cases the characters will just give up altogether and stop talking - though your quest menu will assume you've been given all the relevant details. It can then be difficult to try to work out what's happening in the plot from the very brief summary in the quest menu, e.g. Meet Witch. Do you have a chat with the witch? Free the witch from jail? Stabby stab stab the witch? You can most often find this out when you arrive at your destination but it does leave you feeling disconnected from the adventure when you run halfway across the world and through a labyrinthine dungeon to meet someone for reasons completely unknown to you.


Then there are the guys who will push you around and cut off conversations. Some leave the room as you are trying to start a conversation. Others spend conversations bouncing up and down eerily so that you don't know if they're talking to you or having a fit. All of these really detract from the grand overall immersive experience, hence the points knocked off this game's score.




Giant and Bugs. And Giant Bugs.
O.K. next on the list of issues that brought the fantasy back to reality was the major failings in the physics engine and difficulty balance. 


At one point fairly early on I decided to go monster-hunting big-stylee. I attracted the attention of a dragon and bludgeoned it to death within minutes. Why are they so fucking easy to beat? They look sensational, really. Absolutely gorgeous. But the fact of the matter is they're just not scary when I have killed 3 within the first 5 hours of play (and 20 in as many hours). But that's fine, I'll get the experience and powers anyway. 


Then a giant appeared behind me. "Oh bugger", I thought. "I don't know if I can take on a giant"

Splat.


I was hammered into the floor and then hurled into the air in a crazed ragdoll fashion. Spinning past a dragon around 200m in the air, I thought to myself "Hmm, I wonder if I hit you with my corpse if you'll die with me, you weak pile of crap"


So this is the world I live in, is it? A newb fighter can take dragons down like flies with a fly swatter if the fighter was swatting flies, and my first encounter with a creature I haven't met leads to me being catapulted into the sky. This also lost me the experience earned through the past 2 dragon swattings so I was back to square annoying - left to decide whether to waste 15 minutes killing a couple of dragons or simply go somewhere else to hope that no giants come sneaking my way. 


Anyway, my time as St. George then led to a rocky mountainous section with snow so thick I couldn't see more than ten feet in front of my face and was set upon out of nowhere by a troll. "Aha!", said I. "A troll, the miniature version of a giant - this may be more up my street!"


Splat.


"Riiiiiight", says I with heavy annoyance in my tone, "so this is one of those games where the big bad buggers that have been hyped up to shit are popped off willy nilly but all the little creatures you'd have thought you could take on eat your face in insta-death moves"


This saddened me slightly as I realised that balance was going to be an issue - maybe the developers thought that setting dragons too hard would have meant that no-one could gain the necessary dragon magic that you need to get through the game. However, you could have at least made them a mid-game challenge or, alternatively, bring the smaller baddies' damage down a bit to make the difficulty level smoother. 




Innocent Man
The next major issue I faced was when I killed a "person". That must of been what the reason behind it because the bounty on my head was HUUUUUGE. So, apparently I had murdered someone and also must have evaded capture because the moment I walked into Whiterun territory I was assaulted by every single NPC I faced. 


And I could do nothing about it. 


I put my weapons away, put my hands up and was cut into pieces. "Righty-ho!", I mused, "Looks like I'm going to have to find the right person to hand myself in to. I'll try the guard station, and I must be quick about it as a guy with a sledgehammer is running towards me"


As I entered the door (loading animation begun) I heard a cry of pain. When the guard station  had loaded up, there was I - dead and floating in mid-air - near the door way. Glitched to shit. Not meant to happen. It kept auto-loading on the glitchy death animation until I woke up from the annoyed shock to manually load up an earlier save.


Didn't matter a blind bit because the guard station is just full of guards who are keen to kill you. There was no way I could pay a fee for my crimes, nor go to jail - the only option was to die. 

Great. So that's this save file ruined. 


And which save file shall I go to? Well that's a very good bloody question as I haven't been to Whiterun for ages so I'm not sure what exactly I'm meant to do about it. 


Start my whole game again? Fuck. (Or, more accurately, Fuck That)


This bind meant that I had to replay the past 3 hours worth of main quest missions because I had been speeding through the story as an oblivious criminal. As it turned out, I worked out, it was because much earlier on I had met someone on the road who gave me something to look after (dodgy stuff I guess) and then was going to run and hide when suddenly he fell off the 3 foot ledge he was standing on and landed on me. In the collision he obviously cracked his skull and damaged his brain slightly because he became concussed and therefore slightly confused. While getting up from the floor he pulled a dagger out and went for my throat, to which I replied, "Fire spell! Ha!", and he crumpled to the floor in a heap. I guess there was a guard around 250 meters away who witnessed me "stealing" some dodgy items off someone and then "defencelessly" burning his face off. 


I then walked off on my merry way unaware that I was in any trouble but that guard certainly got the message around - Boudicea had stolen, possessed illegal goods, murdered, poked him a bit once he was dead, and then evaded capture from a long-range guard. 


What a bitch. 


If this was the case then fine, yes, I deserve to be butchered non-stop. Otherwise I demand to be given a fair trial. What? That's not a thing here in Skyrim? Oh. Bugger. Then just above the shoulder please - I want to be left as a commemorative bust to my family.


Conclusions
The main problems in the game are it's glitches and it's limitations. If you were truly free then this game would have been 100 times more enjoyable.

With a few extra months of quality testing and a few tweaks to the story mechanics, this would certainly have lived up to the hype.

As it stands, this is a very good game - fantasy as it should be. The world, creatures and magics all look fantastic - plus the dialogue with characters is much improved since Oblivion.


FIFA 12 [PS3]

The football giant is back with some addictive, fresh features but still a bunch of little annoyances.



Adding some contact to non-contact sports
The big selling point in this new FIFA title is the "Impact Engine", which is where momentum and weight are taken into account when players collide - meaning that slight tactical nudges can knock a player off his run for the goal. However, in other cases a slight jostle will lead to one player cartwheeling across the pitch like a Catherine Wheel - slightly ridiculous to say the least. I'd say that it feels like they were trying to build a "mud wrestling simulator" and then thought it might work as a football game. Now don't get me wrong, the impact engine does add a lot of depth and realism to the game. Sadly, there are many other instances where 4 players will get stuck together and start glitchy humping each other, which makes me feel the need (as a totally straight, heterosexual, not-gay, masculine manly man) to put the controller down. This isn't why you play FIFA! Well, maybe for some it is. But not for me! It was for the skilful, athletic, testosteroney glory! Man against man in combat which avoids contact in any significant way. Not like the brutish rugby or American football! Minimal physical violence but lots of balls moving very fast. It's a middle class Englishman's thing. We like cricket, golf and football. We may not know it straight away but one day the inherent trigger will just switch and then that'll be it. Poof. Turned into a golf watcher. Or worse: a golf video game player (for reference, see my upcoming review on Tiger Woods 2012 - The Masters on PS3).


UPDATE - FOUND I COULD UPLOAD VIDEOS AND SHARE THEM.
See below for some examples of the glitches I was describing:


Video 1: Watch the end of this video for some glitchy cuddling

Video 2: And this is a tackle gone wrong

Ultimate Team turned me into an eight-year-old
Possibly the most remarkably addictive addition to the series is the "Ultimate Team" mode, which can be most likened to the childhood pursuit of getting packs of footballer stickers and filling in an album. This was something I did as a primary school child (ages 6 - 10 maybe) so appeals to the still ever-present child within me. The feeling of going to the shop and spending money (both in-game credits and real world cash - between £0.25 and £1.99) is quite a giddying feeling. The game also does an exciting sequence of: Pause, Rip packet, SEE SHINY RARE STICKERS! This addition was present as DLC in last year's game, but having it in all its wallet-burningly addictive glory right off the disc is a welcome change. I spent quite a lot of my time in this section getting better and better players, which you in turn use in a squad and participate in single player and on-line tournaments. The on-line rankings show you who the week's best/richest teams in the world - and either some people are spending a shit load of money or have no life whatsoever, which amounts to the same thing. 


Shiny, Shiny, Shiny
Presentation is very good overall. The whole game has a polish and shine that closely resembles TV football presentation and it enhances the realism greatly. There are many occasions where you can forget that you are looking at a video game and truly believe you are watching a real-life game. There is something quite giddying about going over a replay to see how exactly the players fell over each other, or checking in slow-motion how your free kick went millimetres wide of the post. Seeing the action from a variety of angles and at stop-frame speed just goes to emphasise the fluidity of the animations and the top-quality graphics on show.


The ONLY gripe I have in terms of visuals is one that is present in ALL football games. The players look life-like. The grass sways in the breeze. Stadiums tower above you and gleam in the sunlight. And the spectators look like cardboard cut-outs painted by a five year old. I understand that in order to maintain a high frame rate on the high definition players that there needs to be some sacrifices, but these could easily be worked around. Camera focus - have it so players are sharp and the backgrounds (all the spectators) are slightly blurred - then it doesn't matter that they look like crap! And certainly don't do what I keep seeing happen in FIFA 12, which is to have camera angles that look directly at the awfully drawn fans! That just highlights the fact that it's a game. On a machine. And you're not actually the puppet-master god forcing Rooney to cuddle Messi.


Sounds & Commentators
The sounds in match are almost spot on and it must be said that the commentary has moved on a lot in the past few years, and the new commentator (Alan Smith) brings a fresh feel to the comments provided. Sadly, the instances where one man would shout "And is it going to be a goal?!?!", when no player was anywhere near having a shot again breaks that web of immersion offered here. The level of customisation available in the soundtracks is spot on too. The on-disc music is fairly rubbish but you are able to select playlists from your Hard Disk Drive (HDD) for different situations, such as matches, menus and modes, gives you the opportunity to play whatever sounds you want (my personal favourite being Christmas songs given the time of year).


Menus & Modes
The menus are still brutish to work through - reminiscent of old football manager games on the PC - make it a chore to get to things like squad management and transfer options in career mode. A more streamlined team management interface is sorely needed. Also, having the season play out day-by-day and having brief-but-barely-readable messages flash past is somehow both too fast and too slow. Just skipping to the next match day instantly would be great, otherwise show each day's headlines and have a button press to move to the next day would allow you to read the messages that were interesting. On this point, there is a very organic feel to the seasons and leagues - but as I have said, you often don't have time to read what has been going on. 


The on-line modes are both grand in scale and highly depressing all at the same time. All your in-game actions add to the tallies that are displayed on-line, so the fastest goal or most goals in a match will be compared with other players through the "EA Sports Football Club". This is obviously to offer bragging rights and on-line cred, but if like me you're a little bit shit at football games then it just highlights how really shite I am. "Yay! I just about made it and have taken Brighton and Hove Albion to the top of the Premier League on Normal difficulty! Yay! Oh, bollocks. One of my friends just scored his 1 millionth goal as Sheffield Wednesday on Legendary difficulty! Oh sod off FIFA 12, you've upset me now".



"There is an issue connecting with the EA server"
Constant connection issues for everyone, everywhere - particularly in the first couple of months post-release. Doesn't really help a game that relies on on-line involvement so heavily that it cuts you out every other time you sign in. Then there's the lag issues while in games - players seem to stand there looking confused when you try to get a bit of a kick around going and the only thing that gets their heads back in the game is a ball stop and slow dribble. Quick 1-2? Not on your life. 


Another joy was the experience of getting to the end of a tournament only to be booted out of the final game that I HAVE JUST WON because "There is an issue connecting with the EA server". Pile of pants. 
Play again or throw my controller at the screen? 
Perhaps one, then t'other.


So then after weeks of games cutting out and some bizarre AI lag issues, the latest massive patch, which has made no discernible improvement, added in a podcast which started harping on about how they've sorted everything out! No no no no no! Sort things out and then have 2 overpaid EA nerds smugly talking over my graceful football finesse - don't you dare talk again until you've sorted the technical issues out. Go on, FIFA 12, into the corner with you. Bad FIFA 12.


I will say that the lag issues are rare enough so as not to really put you off playing on-line, but having several games won that are never registered because of the EA error message of death will make you think twice - and certainly doesn't persuade me to put card details in and pay money.


Conclusions
It's certainly a step up from previous incarnations, offering a very deep, immersive and interactive experience. The only problem is the niggles that are still present bring the whole illusion crashing down - and can be a credible risk to valuable gadgets.


I still recommend this thoroughly to anyone who likes football games and if you're willing to give this a go then I think even non-football gamers could enjoy this. If you're willing to be laughed at by the on-line community for the first 6 months of play, that is.


Have a go. It's realistic, exciting and shiny. And only a little bit annoying.

There was an error in this gadget