Article

“Come on you apes! Do you want to live forever” – Helldivers; how Sony is redefining the isometric shooter.

Helldivers-spaceship

Heavily influenced by Robert. A. Heinlein’s novel ‘Starship Troopers’, this Playstation exclusive- first announced at Gamescom- is developed by Stockholm based Arrowhead studios (the creators of PC title Magicka). Informed by classic twin stick shooter franchises like Contra and Metal Slug, Helldivers incorporates familiar mechanics from other franchises to produce a new gameplay experience.

Players are placed into the role of an elite military unit known as a Helldiver (comparable to Halo’s ODST), set in a future dystopia where Earth is ruled by a managed democracy and Mankind fights for its very existence (this aspect of the narrative directly informs the games unique dynamic difficulty). The isometric design is reminiscent of last year’s Shadowrun Returns; but rather than the neo-noir cyber punk aesthetic, Helldivers opts for the more industrial militaristic look of 1980’s Science fiction (The ships are evocative of the U.S.S Sulaco from Aliens). The procedurally generated environments run the gamut; from barren wastes where the deep and driving snow can slow your characters movement to white hot desert planets their surface cracked and scorched by the sun, with dynamic day and night missions the bright colour palette contrasts with the gun-metal grey of the Helldivers making these worlds feel even more foreign.

From your ship- hovering ominously over a planet- players explore the available missions through a Mass Effect style galaxy map. Almost roguelike in their structure missions require players to complete a number of procedurally generated objectives before extracting, with no checkpoints or do-overs this adds a sense of weight to your actions. Much like in modern FPS games, here you can kit out your Helldiver with your preferred loadout of: weapons, perks and stratagems (more of which are persistently unlocked as you level up your character) before dropping in from orbit (players can actively choose their dropzone). Played cooperatively with up to three other players, Helldivers is the first title I’ve seen to really promote cross-play (available on all three of Sony’s gaming devices), while at the same time it heralds the return of couch co-op (With the prevalence of online multiplayer there’s a sense of nostalgia that comes with playing games split screen with friends next to you and It’s encouraging to see a developer fostering that communal experience) to which the inherent challenge of the game seems a natural fit. The constant threat of friendly fire on the chaotic battlefield (which much like playing hardcore mode in call of duty cannot be turned off) necessitates teamwork. Death can come from anywhere; supply drops can crush players unlucky enough to be caught underneath them (something anyone whose recently played Titanfall will be familiar with), even friendly equipment can pose a threat (turrets can’t distinguish between you or an enemy should you walk in front of them). To help balance this players are locked onto the same screen (even when playing on a vita) allowing for greater coordination and less “accidents”. This sense of tension is compounded by the pressure to perform manual reloads and call in stratagems in the heat of battle. Stratagems- think Call of Duty’s care packages- range from calling in extra ammunition or reinforcements to requesting heavy ordinance or a unwieldy but powerful mech (these are done through a complex series of inputs on the D-pad comparable to pulling off moves in fighting games). Like Medal of Honour Warfighter’s ‘global war’ meta game, each mission feeds into an overarching intergalactic war which takes place over a two month period. If the community manages to pull together and survive then the difficulty for everyone will rise and the war begins anew, should they fail the difficulty will drop (this is an exciting new way to handle difficulty in games that I certainly haven’t seen before).

helldivers-mecha

Destined to become a cult hit amongst its community, Helldivers is a rich homage to the shooter genre but with modern sensibilities and I can’t wait to play it when it releases sometime this summer.

 

Advertisements

Article

Murder, he wrote (Why Murdered: Soul Suspect is one of my most anticipated games of 2014)

Murdered soul suspect

Around the crossover period between console generations there always seems to be some experimentation with triple A titles on the older console (Second Sight on the Playstation 2 is a prime example of this), while traditionally gameplay stagnates on new consoles as innovative gameplay is superseded by a focus on improving the technical aspects of games. Murdered: Soul Suspect definitely falls into the prior category. A supernatural detective thriller developed by Airtight games and published by Square Enix. The title was first teased back in February with the enigmatic tag line “what is the hardest case to solve?”, this certainly got my attention as did the subsequent CG trailer. But it wasn’t until I saw the stage demo from E3 that the title really impressed me (if you haven’t seen the demo and would like to check it out, click on the link here).

What looks to be a combination of the PS2 title Ghosthunter and L.A. Noire. The player assumes the role of Ronan O’Conner, a detective in the Salem Massachusetts police department. After being killed in the line of duty, Ronan finds himself trapped in limbo (a place called the Dusk) unable to pass on and sets about investigating his murder. The premise for the game certainly sounds unique (the idea for the game apparently arose when Yosuke Shiokwa -Square Enix’s creative director- tried to envisage what would have happened in Die Hard if John McClane had died halfway through the film) and while I look forward to learning more about the plot, It’s the originality of the games mechanics that stuck me the most.

The main mechanic in Murdered: Soul Suspect revolves around deducing the answers to questions that will further your investigation, this is done through a similar system to the Capcom’s point and click adventure game Glass Rose (in Glass Rose during conversations you could highlight words to investigate the subject further). It’s the way that Airtight Games have utilised several features with which you can search for clues that take beyond the usual adventure game mechanics. Because Ronan is trapped in corporeal form he can’t interact with real world objects. Instead you’ll find that objects hold important information through psychic imprints, these remnants of memories reveal brief flashbacks to scenes relating to the object and then the player has to interpret what they’ve seen. Possession can also be used to learn more about a case, whether possessing a police man to view his notebook as you look at the world through his eyes or alternatively whilst possessing a witness manipulating her train of thought to reveal new information.

When exploring Ronan will encounter evil spirits, trapped for too long in the Dusk they will try to consume him. Because enemies are much more powerful than Ronan, direct confrontations must be avoided. This introduces the games unique sudo-stealth mechanic (and definitely my favourite aspect of the game). You have the ability to pass through objects (this is such a simple concept but Airtight games have implemented it to great effect), this is key to outmanoeuvring enemies as you play hide and seek passing seamlessly through walls. Possession can also be used to avoid enemies, hiding in NPC characters till it’s safe to move again. There is an upgrade system (though the specifics haven’t been detailed yet), you can clearly see the player receiving experience for completing objectives and dealing with enemies. One of the other abilities we saw was a short range teleport. During the demo the Dev team showcased one enemy type, with more variety in the final game we’re promised that enemies will force you to create new strategies to deal with them.

Puzzles and exploration will revolve around more than just procedural investigation, I mentioned that Ronan had the ability to walk through walls but this is only when in the interiors of buildings. When he needs to enter a building this poses a problem (in the demo, he had to wait and follow a police officer through the lobby door when he opened it) it’s getting around puzzles like this that adds more variety to the gameplay.  There are side missions to explore which reveal more about characters trapped in the dusk along with Ronan as well as about the sordid history of the town of Salem. I’m anxious to see if the narrative incorporates mechanics like psychic imprints in its story telling and whether we’ll be able to discover more information the towns inhabitants by being able to walk through houses and apartments as the residents go about their day to day business (this mechanic was fascinating in Silent Hill 4: The Room). The final mechanic that intrigued me is the ability to interact with the environment, almost like a poltergeist. In the demo this was only shown of in a limited capacity when Ronan made a stove switch on attracting the attention of the flats occupant, so it will be interesting to see to what extent they include this in the game and whether this can be utilised during puzzles segments and what impact it will have on combat.

Murdered: Soul Suspect looks to be a completely new take on the action adventure genre. Evolving the mechanics seen in point and click adventure games (much like L.A. Noire did) the game looks to combine these with supernatural elements and a compelling narrative. This title already has me very excited and I look forward to learning more about it before its release sometime next year.

Article

The Evil Within: the survival horror revival

wraith-evil within

Recently announced The Evil Within is the brain child of Shinji Mikami the man credited with the creation of the survival horror genre with Resident Evil, fitting then that he should return to this genre for his final game as director. But could this title lead to the re-emergence of survival horror games on consoles?

It does seem risky for publisher Bethesda to release a brand new IP-touted by developer and publisher as a pure survival horror game-in a genre we’ve seen stagnate this generation. Series like Resident Evil have now swapped their survival horror mechanics to fall more in line with action games like Gears or War and to appeal to a wider demographic. Deadspace, perhaps the most promising console horror IP of this generation has also fallen prey to this with sequels feeling derivative of what made the first game so appealing. Nintendo’s failure to release the fourth game in the Project Zero series-Mask of the Lunar Eclipse-outside of Japan shows a lack of belief for this genre on the Western market. Survival horror now seems to exclusively reside on the PC, with titles like Amnesia: the dark descent.

Recently though there have been a small number of console titles that seem to be reigniting interest in the genre. Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead stands out in a market saturated with zombie titles with its mature storyline, adventure game mechanics and episodic nature. Released in June, The Last of Us represents the next step in survival horror. With a compelling narrative, the game uses recognisable staples of early survival horror games and incorporates both stealth and the over the shoulder gunplay seen in modern third person shooters. Last year The Walking dead was nominated for game of the year on many videogame sites and I’d be surprised if The last of us isn’t nominated this year. These two games have both been commercial and critical successes (The last of us held the number one spot on the charts for five weeks in the UK) showing there is a market for such games.

From the Demo of The Evil Within shown at this year’s E3, it seems to be continuing the trend of moving the genre forward. The story of The Evil Within revolves around Sebastion, a detective called to investigate a mass murder at a mental asylum, after being attacked at the scene of the crime he wakes to find himself strung up in an abattoir surrounded by dead bodies. Understandably plot details are being kept under wraps for now but needless to say the premise is intriguing. The game incorporates elements from Mikami’s previous works like the over the shoulder camera angle from Resident Evil 4 and the lack of ammunition familiar to anyone that’s played the original Resident Evil, but subtly tweaks them; the camera is now lower and the HUD is very minimal giving the game a more cinematic feel. The game also looks to include gameplay elements from classic survival horror series like Clock Tower: The player has to flee from the chainsaw wielding “Butcher” who can insta-kill them if caught, Sebastian has no means to fight back and has to use stealth to get past him, hiding behind crates to evade him and using bottles as distractions. Mikami stated in a recently released behind the scenes video for the game that the key to survival horror is balance, giving the player the ability to fight back but not empowering them too much. In keeping with their goal weapons will be restricted to small fire arms(with access to traps as well), but the player can now move whilst shooting and strafe bringing it in line with modern third person shooters. Like in the first Resident Evil game though running away will sometimes be an option. There will be action sequences in the game, one set piece sounds reminiscent of the house siege from Resident Evil 4, trapped in a log cabin the player has to survive an onslaught of enemies to make this feel different each time enemy placement and behaviour is dynamic forcing players to adapt to the situations on the fly. We’re also promised that the game will feature psychological aspects; one such scene sees a wave of blood rushing at Sebastian. Some of the effects will be scripted but others we’re told will be dynamic, changing with each playthrough. Hopefully we’ll see more about the title at Gamescom later this week.

the evil within

While I’ll admit it’s not quite a revival yet, there have been positive steps forward for survival horror in the last year. I can only hope that in creating a modern triple A survival horror game Mikami can reinvigorate the genre and show that there is still an audience for this type of game on consoles. I’m very excited to see the finished product and look forward to finding out more about the title before The Evil Within’s release sometime in 2014.