DLC Review

DLC Review-Valiant Hearts: The Great War

ValiantHearts2

Ubisoft Montpellier’s exploration of the First World War (a setting not often explored in the medium) focuses on the human conflict, weaving a multi-stranded narrative based on actual letters from the front. The highlight of this downloadable title is the audio and visual design. With gameplay reminiscent of point and click adventure games, Valiant Hearts combines Historical documentary with the swashbuckling adventure of Indiana Jones. While the juxtoposition of the lightheartedness serves to give the emotional moments more impact, the humour does sometimes feel at odds with the games subject matter.

The third title to use the Ubi art engine, Valiant Hearts striking 2D animated aesthetic looks like a moving comic book (rather than the Child of Light’s watercolour visual design or Rayman Origins Cartoon style),  even using on screen panels to highlight the action. The first of these titles to use multiple planes, the environments are full of minutiae that really brings them to life- civilians fleeing falling bombs in the background or soldiers charging across no-man’s land- transitioning into buildings (revealing a cutaway of the inside) or moving from foreground to background is seamless and feels like moving between the sets of a theatre production. The beautiful environments perfectly reflect the tone of the game (from the comedic sight of a French Officer shouting orders to his troops in his breeches after you’ve stolen his uniform, to the terror and carnage as as your platoon attempts to tale an enemy position). From  the well known battles of The Somme and Passchendaele to lesser known events such as the Taxis of the Marne, Valiant Hearts makes the events of the First World War accessible (Each chapter has a number of information cards- like you may find in a museum-  that expand on the events depicted in the game, illustrated with real photographs from the war these help ground the game in reality).

The games soundtrack is comprised entirely of instrumental pieces, using both original tracks and music from the period. Daniel Teper’s beautiful yet melancholy title track ‘Little Trinketry’ is a pino composition with string accompaniment that’s indicative of the soundtracks overall tone. There are more upbeat pieces, in one memorable sequence (that can’t fail to make you smile) the player has to dodge falling bombs and roadblocks in a taxi in time with ‘The Infernal Gallop’ from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (the music most often associated with the Can Can). The exceptional sound design combines the bombastic (the thunderous noise of shells falling on the battlefield and the chatter of machinegun fire wouldn’t seem out of place in Call of Duty) with more nuanced audio design- the music that plays when sucessfully completing a puzzle produces a Pavlovian response in the player. The developers decision to use spoken dialogue sparingly works incredibly well and because of this the voice acting has a much greater impact. Communicating through animated thought bubbles (talking to a guard who blocks your path a bottle of wine appears above his head as an indication of how to proceed), each character expresses themselves through their animated body language and the tone of their vocal expressions; a gruff shout of anger from a commanding officer, or a heartfelt thank you from a supposed enemy. Most impressive is the sense of  personality that’s conveyed by characters that may only have a few minutes of screen time.

Valiant Heart’s follows the lives of four characters as their paths intersect throughout the course of the First World War. Email and his Son in-law Karl find their family torn apart as Karl is deported and Emil conscripted with the outbreak of war (caught on opposite sides of the conflict). Freddie, an American soldier drawn into the war by his desire for revenge and Anna, a young woman searching for her father. The colourful and stylised visual design belies a game that doesn’t pull any emotional punches. Split into four chapters (each ending with a cliffhanger styled after early adventure serials), Valiant Hearts character driven narrative explores the human cost of war- both on the battlefield and on those left behind. The narrative missteps in its cartoonish portrayal of the games “villain” Baron Von Dorf (a perfect example of Ludonarrative dissonance). More reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons than the balenced picture of the conflict presented throughout the rest of the game, adhering to gaming archetypes to provide the player with Boss fights.

The majority of the gameplay centres on finding various interpretations of keys for various interpretations of doors in the classic adventure game manner. Such is the variety over the course of the six to seven hours it takes to complete the game, I was always excited to see what came next. The enjoyable puzzles have a well balenced pitch, rarely providing frustration. For those who need it the game offers a hint system (helpfully delivered by homing Pigeon). Partially revealing the answer to a puzzle, this mechanic has a timed cooldown and for experienced players the harder difficulty setting removes this feature. The developers translation of familiar mechanics from other games onto a 2D plane provides a fresh take on the military genre. A side scrolling vehicle section where the player pilots a tank, emphasises the need to protect your troops from enemy fire as well as provide offensive support. I was equally impressed by the games unexpected transition to stealth gameplay (in one memorable moment during an escape from a POW camp, moving through a cornfield the player has to carry a scarecrow- using it as portable cover, hiding behind it when patrols search the nearby area). One of my favourite moments sees Emile tasked with destroying a German barrage which has halted another characters progress (in homage to modern First Person Shooters). Making your way to the artillery gun, the player has to find a way to manually load the huge shell. Lookingthrough the viewfinder Freddie acts as a spotter directing your shots over the radio (his instructions appearing as pictures you have to match with the landscape). It’s one of those moments where gameplay and design work hand in hand. Adding levity are music chapters a la Rayman Origins. The game uses a number of rhythm based mini-games, most prominent is a Guitar Hero inspired mechanic when Anna treats the wounded (though surprisingly tense, it feels overused). Rayman Origins and Child of Light embraced their respective genres (Rayman Origins is arguably one of the most pure platforming experiences), but it’s bold inclusions like these that help Valiant Hearts break away from that of classic side scrolling gameplay.

Final Verdict:

8.0

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CGGR: Dead Space

Current Generation Game Review: Dead Space

Released in October 2008 across all platforms, Dead Space- developed by EA Redwood Shore- is one of the few survival horror IP’s to emanate from this console generation. Characterised by deep world building, Dead Space’s pastiche to Sci-Fi horror draws on everything from Event Horizon to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The cloying atmosphere and superb pacing sets it apart from its peers, while innovative gameplay and visceral combat breathe new life into a well trodden genre.

In space no-one can hear you scream:

Dead Space environment concept art

The utilitarian industrial art design of the USG Ishimura (influenced by Ron Cobb’s work on Alien) encapsulates the developers combined dystopic vision of 2414. While there are more sterile environments- all sleek lines and phosphorescent white- they feel cold and serve to emphasise the player’s isolation. Minutiae in the environments offer intriguing insights into the lives of the ships inhabitants (the sustainable vegetable gardens in hydroponics speak to the mentality of a species too late to adapt these techniques to an already depleted homeworld), subtly drawing the players attention to the juxtaposition of these signs of life and the inherent emptiness creates an oppressive atmosphere which underscores the experience. Distinct level design; from the game’s opening as the transport shuttle approaches the Ishimura (beautifully framed by the planet it hangs ominously in its orbit, the planets ‘cork’ still tethered to the ship) to the tight claustrophobic interior corridors convey an imposing sense of scale. The clean UI leads to a greater sense of immersion, with all of the pertinent information built into the characters rig. The spine represents the player’s health bar, while real time 3D projections are used to explore the map and inventory (a perfect example of design marrying gameplay and fiction). The Necromorphs design can be seen in the recombinant Alien life form of John Carpenters: The Thing- all flailing limbs and necrotic flesh. Their designs feel consistently innovative in a genre saturated with competing interpretations of “undead” enemies (culminating with the Leviathan, one of my favourite boss encounters of this generation that’s akin to fighting inside a giant washing machine).

The exceptional sound design perfectly complements the industrial aesthetic with a sparse instrumental score (composed by Jason Graves), the game relies more on ambient noise to set the tone- the slow turning of a ventilation fan or the clanging of pipes somewhere just out of sight. It’s the restraint shown in the audio design that creates the greatest impact; sometimes the player will go for prolonged periods in total silence creating a palpable sense of tension. While I feel it was a mistake to not give the main character a voice (a silent protagonist doesn’t gel with the games narrative) the excellent voice acting- especially the work of Peter Mensah as Sgt Zach Hammond and Tonantzin Carmelo as Kendra Daniels – really helps to get players invested in these characters from the opening moments, I only wish these interesting characters had been developed further (with what I felt to be anaemic in-game dialogue, that leaves the player wanting more).

‘Days since last accident: 0’

USG Ishimura

Hundreds of years in the future mankind has exhausted all of Earth’s natural resources.  In order to survive, humanity has mastered space travel and developed a process known as planet cracking (Whereby a celestial body is split into pieces and its minerals are strip-mined and melted, returning the by-products to Earth). On a routine mining operation all contact is lost with the largest of these planet cracking vessels, the USG Ishimura. Players take on the role of systems engineer Issac Clarke; part of a maintenance team dispatched to investigate and repair the communication blackout, with a vested interest in the safety of one of the Ishimura’s crew.

Dead Space immerses players in the games narrative through its striking facial animations (which still stand out today) and seamless presentation. Using ingame cutscenes and real time video- via Issac’s riglink- to convey the story, the game maintains a constant sense of urgency through player agency. The narrative threads are mainly explored through audio logs and text files (with ingame dialogue and character interactions also fleshing out the plot), these documents offer an insight into life on board the Ishimura (as well as expanding on the games unique sci-fi setting) providing a stark contrast to what players find. The only problem with this approach to storytelling is the occasional overlap between an audio log and a player triggered event, more importantly though Issac’s lack of an emotional response to situations leads to a disconnect between the player and the narrative.

Written by Anthony Johnson (with art by Ben Templesmith), publisher Electronic Arts released the Dead Space motion comic as a supplement to the games campaign. Released in weekly instalments, the six episodes take place shortly before the game focusing on the mining colony of Ageis VII.  The well written narrative (which subtly shifts from thriller to psychological horror) opens with a startling vidlog before taking it’s time to develop both characters and setting by exploring the day to day lives of the miners, gradually introducing concepts like planet cracking and Unitology. P-SEC (Planet side security) officer Abraham Neumann, Dr Tom Sciarello and Capt Benjamin Mathius are all referenced to in logs aboard the Ishimura creating a wonderful sense of continuity between the two mediums. This brief series is one of the best pieces companion pieces I’ve seen and is single handedly responsible for my initial interest in the game, I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to get into Dead Space.

Cut off their limbs:

Dead Space dismemberment

This bloody epitaph scrawled on a wall encapsulates Dead Space’s unique mechanic of ‘strategic dismemberment’. By removing the “aim for the head” gameplay ingrained in action games (Necromorphs can only be killed by removing their limbs) it forces players to re-evaluate how they play. Using a control scheme that will be familiar to anyone that’s played Resident Evil 4 (or any subsequent third person action game) Dead Space builds on these core mechanics. Introducing the ability to move and shoot combat is more frenetic (allowing for faster and more aggressive enemies); when aiming, the camera pans in close over the characters shoulder immersing the player in the action and allowing for greater accuracy. Built into the rigs are two other repurposed mining tools (which are used in the games simple puzzles). Kinesis enables players to move heavy objects which can then be thrown at enemies turning any environmental object into a weapon, even a dead Necromorphs limb (a mechanic that was greatly refined in the sequel). And stasis, which is used to slow down fast-moving objects (represented by a finite meter next to the rigs spine). The rigs navigation tool (which can be used at any time by pressing R3) streamlines the gameplay experience reducing the amount of unnecessary backtracking. The developers have designed the interface to reduce the amount of time players spend in menus; this ethos is reflected in the weapons holographic ammo counters and the seamless load times (hidden behind door opening sequences).

The zero gravity gameplay captures mankind fragility when faced with the vastness of Space. These ethereal sections juxtapose some of the most original gameplay I’d seen this generation with terrifying audio and visual presentation. The central mechanic draws on the centrifuge in 2001: a Space odyssey and Robert Capa’s Space jump in the sci-fi thriller Sunshine, allowing players to walk on a vertical plane. The washed out colour palette highlights the games excellent lighting effects, it feels as though light is being drawn out of the environments. Entering the void the muted silence of the vacuum removes one of the player’s senses conveying the disorientation and claustrophobia in the rig. As blast doors open into these decompressed sections of the vessel you can see the oxygen rushing out (a great homage to the airlock scene at the end of Aliens and accompanied by the same howling audio design), having to rely on the limited air supply in the rig (represented by a holographic timer) it brings the survival gameplay to the fore.

Final Verdict:

Dead Space is a masterful exercise in tension that perfectly marries horror and action, only marred by disappointing character development. While the sequels refine and build upon the core mechanics, this leads to greater focus on action (being able to control Issac in zero gravity with thrusters removes that feeling of helplessness) detracting from the original game. Standing out from its competitors in almost every way, Dead Space has stayed with me even six years later.

8.5/10

CRGR- Batman: Arkham Origins

Current Release Game Review- Batman: Arkham Origins

Batman: Arkham Origins serves as a prequel to developer Rocksteady’s Arkham series. Handing over the reins to new developer-Warner Bros Games Montreal- brings a new lease of life to the franchise; with an engaging narrative that feels right of a Batman graphic novel, a more robust detective mode and amazing set piece boss encounters (that are some of the most challenging in recent memory). Unfortunately the game is hampered by the mechanics imposed by previous entries in the series and a reliance on free flow combat over innovative gameplay. 

T’was the night before Christmas:

Batman: Arkham Origins Artworks & Konzeptgrafiken

Batman: Arkham Origins uses the games Christmas setting to great effect; Christmas lights illuminate the boulevards, Christmas trees decorate shop windows and as you ride in an elevator Jingle bells plays over the speakers. It’s very thematic and also helps to differentiate itself from the previous entries (Though I wish more had been done with the weather effects, strong winds blow in flurries of snow. But silently taking down enemies as a snowstorm rages would have made for an interesting set piece). The game looks great, showcasing much sharper graphics (with an impressive draw distance, I never once experienced pop-in). Gotham city is larger than in earlier games encompassing two islands (joined by the pioneer bridge), with seven distinct districts. The industrial district combines familiar locations-like the Sionis steel mill-while introducing new ones like The Final Offer (a run-aground ship serving as The Penguins base of operations), rundown warehouses and cranes dominate the landscape while the Diamond district gleams with storefronts and towering skyscrapers that house the rich of Gotham. The developers use the Neo-Gothic architecture to unify the visual design (placing the look of the game somewhere between the gritty realism of Christopher Nolan’s films and the more overt Arkham City). While there are a few visual inconsistencies (most notably Shiva’s’ character model looks significantly less detailed), the highlight of the visual design is the beautifully rendered and highly detailed character models that reflect the more grounded ethos of the games design. Warner Bros Games Montreal introduce new villains from Batman’s rogues gallery that mirror his physicality. The graceful and efficient attacks of Deathstroke (whose armour and weapons deteriorate as you battle) and the quick and lithe movements of Copperhead are perfectly conveyed through the games superb animations.

The voice acting in Batman: Arkham Origins is uniformly great. The stand-out performance is Roger Craig Smith in the title role, perfectly conveying a younger and more inexperienced Batman whose emotions break through his usually calm veneer. Brian Bloom portrays Black Mask with refined menace and Troy Baker adds a sense of dynamism to The Joker (While Nolan North’s portrayal of The Penguin doesn’t match the other excellent voice work, the character is more in keeping with the tone of the game than in the previous entry), everyone- from main characters like Deathstroke (voiced by Mark Rolston) to the supporting cast like Captain Gordon- add to the immersive audio presentation. The soundtrack is equally excellent. A brooding orchestral score (that recalls Hans Zimmer’s work in Batman Returns), it perfectly captures the darker tone of the narrative. The track ‘The night before Christmas’ (one of my favourite tracks in the game) uses sleigh bells to evoke connotations to classic Christmas carols: juxtaposed against the string instruments, church bells and cymbals the track feels decidedly ominous. Unfortunately not all of the music is as strong. Due to the demanding nature of the gameplay during boss battles, tracks like ‘Deathstroke’ and ‘Copperhead’ tend to fade into the background (I did appreciate how each of the tracks reflected an aspect of the character, Deathstroke’s music is very precise and regimented).

Batman year two:

batman year 1

Written by Corey May and Michael Wendschuh, the story perfectly captures the ethos of the graphic novels evoking comparisons to Jeph Loeb or Scott Snyder and features some of the strongest writing in a Batman game to date. Set on Christmas Eve during Batman’s second year in Gotham the story focuses on Black Mask as he attempts to consolidate the remaining Mob forces in Gotham and take over organised crime in the city. A taut detective thriller, the story is the highlight of the game.

This strong narrative is somewhat absent from the disappointing side missions, as is the inventive and fun gameplay that characterised the side missions in Arkham City. Gone are the engaging minigames, showcased best in “Cold Call Killer”.  Players had to answer ringing payphones across Gotham and trace the calls (via a clever mini-game) as Victor Zasaz taunts the player. This particular side mission ends with a tense stealth segment, where if you’re spotted Zasaz will kill his hostages. This highlights how a range of gameplay mechanics can combine to create a tense and interesting storyline. Not all the side missions in Arkham City were this good; but unfortunately none of them in this prequel reach the same high points either. The most disappointing aspect has to be the anticlimactic boss battle with Lady Shiva, reducing her attack patterns to those of basic enemy types after the amazing set piece boss battles in the main campaign comes across as lazy. Missed opportunities abound, except for a brief cameo near the beginning of the game Calendar Man (who I expected to be a key figure) is completely forgotten. The developers could have further utilised the games thematic setting, introducing a side story where players discovered grisly Christmas tableaus across the city until you can track him down. Missions that tested something other than the player’s combat skills would have broken up the repetitiveness of the gameplay. Perhaps an ariel chase across Gotham’s rooftops utilising the excellent grapple and gliding mechanics as you attempt to catch Man-bat. The Riddler returns- under the new guise of Enigma- using his intellect to hold Gotham to ransom with blackmail. While I prefer the excellent riddles from Arkham Asylam, these puzzles are still compelling (many of them requiring specific equipment to complete them, much like in the Metroid franchise); it’s just a shame that some of the puzzles reuse assets from Arkham City.

One night to kill the Bat:

Deathstroke concept art

The genre defining combat and stealth of Batman: Arkham Asylum returns. Combat still feels as weighty and satisfying as ever, players use the square button to land blows on opponents chaining together attacks to increase the combo meter and using triangle when prompted to counter enemies attacks (Countering has been tweaked and using the triangle button to counter now needs far more precision than before lending the game a greater sense of challenge). Using gadgets during combat you can momentarily stun enemies with your Batarang or separate a group by using your Batclaw (switching between gadgets is simple, mapped to the D-pad). There are some new enemy types that make for an interesting new dynamic to fights- having to counter them multiple times before you break their defence- but overall this doesn’t change combat. The standout moments come from the superb boss battles which perfectly put all of your skills and reflexes to the test. Even on the normal difficulty setting I found these battles challenging (I died a number of times before I beat each boss), but never unfair. A lot of game developers could learn from the examples In Arkham Origins that boss fights don’t just have to be about spectacle, that you can create a boss fight that combines amazing visual production with great gameplay. The only problem I had with these battles was the restrictiveness of the environments, this made them feel a lot like arena battles whereas id have preferred to see a multi stage boss or one that required you to move around the environment (like the CG trailer implied), maybe even taking on two bosses at the same time.

Players use detective mode by pressing L1, this highlights enemies and useful objects in the environment . The biggest addition to the gameplay is the use of detective mode during key story moments, when examining crime scenes Batman can build a reconstruction of events based on the evidence he finds (this resembles Remember Me’s memory manipulation, with players able to scrub backwards and forwards through the crime to look for additional clues. The most memorable moment in the game for me came about a third of the way through when Batman has to decipher a crime scene at Black Masks safe house. With an amazing resolution, this player interaction drives the plot forward, helping the player feel more engaged with the story (so much so I found it difficult to put my controller down). While I appreciate the developers attempts to make players feel like a detective (even setting a number of side missions where the player has to solve a series of murders with this new mechanic), gathering evidence needs to be more involving than holding down the X button (more in line with L.A. Noire or Condemned: criminal origins), players could use a blacklight to locate fingerprints and pick up and manipulate objects in real time to find clues.

Players traverse Gotham by grappling from building to building with the R1 button and glide by holding X, while this feels as quick and responsive as ever the incorporation of a quick travel system (using the Batwing) is my favourite addition to the gameplay (even requiring players to tackle a series of puzzles to allow you to access each of the districts, these are comparable to the Radio Towers in Far Cry Three).

Multiplayer:

Batman-Arkham-Origins multiplayer 2

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the game for me was the fun and addictive multiplayer. Developed independently by English studio Splash Damage the multiplayer focuses on a three sided conflict, casting players as one of the Jokers Thugs, a mercenary working for Bane or Batman. This allows the developers to integrate both the mechanics of a third person shooter and the stealth based gameplay from the campaign. The one game mode available at launch-Invisible Predator- is a team based mode for a total of eight players that takes place on one of the four available maps. Matches last up to fifteen minutes as two teams of three attempt to capture and hold various points across the map, while reducing each other’s reinforcements (shown at the top of the screen) to zero. Batman on the other hand wins by completely filling his intimidation meter; done so by stealthily taking down enemies (this meter is reduced if he dies). The dynamic between the three teams is great and the mechanics work fluidly together, producing a multiplayer mode that feels fresh and original.

Following the current trend of persistent unlocks, players gain experience for completing objectives (as well as being awarded bonuses for keeping your captain alive, getting a killstreak or winning a match). This Experience increases your overall level; unlocking new weapons, gear and customisation options. Using in game currency you can buy consumable items from the Penguin’s black market; these act as one-time-use stat or bonus boosts that reduce damage taken from headshots or increase the total amount of experience you gain at the end of a match. It’s an interesting way to introduce perks to your game without them drastically altering the playstyle (in the same way that Titanfall is using burn cards). The third person shooting mechanics will feel very familiar to any fan of the genre. L1 brings the camera in behind you giving you more accuracy when aiming (but restricting your view making you less able to watch your surroundings adding a sense of tension to the hunter/hunted dichotomy of the multiplayer), while R1 fires you weapon. R2 uses grenades (more of which can be picked up on the maps with helpful ammo drops at various points throughout a match), triangle swaps your weapon, Circle snaps you into cover (where you can blindfire or aim) and holding X lets you sprint (this is a limited function shown by a grey bar on the bottom left of the screen) while double tapping allows you to evade as well as being used to interact with the environment. These core mechanics feel alot tighter than in the Tomb Raider multiplayer. Playing as Batman the mechanics are identical to the single player campaign, R1 grapples to a gargoyle, you use the D-pad to select your gadgets and L2 to enter Detective mode. One of the main draws of the multiplayer is being able to play as Bane and The Joker, these characters are unlocked at a certain point throughout a match when a number of criteria have been met. Both teams are funnelled to the same point on the map (the first player there assumes direct control of them) emphasising the need to work together. With a large amount of HP and powerful weapons playing as one of these two characters feels empowering and they can drastically alter the outcome of a match. Using in game currency you can buy consumable items from the Penguin’s black market, these act as one time use stat or bonus boosts that reduce damage taken from headshots or increase the total amount of experience you gain at the end of a match.

Because each gang level independently I think the multiplayer would have felt more engaging if players had to choose one faction to persist with (like MAG) rather than switching between them each round, fostering a greater sense of community. My only concern is the sustainability of the community and how long the servers will stay populated after the games release.

Final Thoughts:

The perfect game for Christmas, while the strong writing and narrative make this the best entry in the series it also conversely helps to highlight the anaemic nature of the gameplay. With a wealth of in-game content and a fun and original multiplayer component it’s the developer’s over-reliance on Rocksteady’s blueprint that ultimately leaves the player with a sense of dissatisfaction.

7/10

DLC Review

Brothers: A tale of two sons

brother campfire

This excellent story driven downloadable action game- developed by the Swedish Starbreeze Studios- released in late 2013 to critical acclaim. The beautifully realised fantasy setting provides a fantastical backdrop to the games emotional story, dealing with the themes of adulthood and the loss of innocence. I’ve never played a game before where the control scheme is an integral part of the narrative experience.

The games gorgeous visual design brings to mind a child’s storybook bought to life. Not only informed by Scandinavia there are elements from classic children’s literature like Mary Norton’s ‘The Borrowers’ and Jules Verne’s ‘Around the world in eighty days. With a bright and vibrant colour palette, the elegant but minimalist style most reminds me of Beyond Good and Evil and belies the mature tone of the games story. Each chapter transports players to a familiar fantasy location; the castle ruin or the mountain village, but because of the art direction and the way players interact with the environment they feel fresh. While the whole journey flows seamlessly, the disparity between the aesthetic design in the latter third of the game leaves the game feeling disjointed. The developers manage to convey a grand sense of scale, not just through the two brother’s interactions with each other (Little brother will attempt to grab a chain that hangs just out of their reach needing Big brother to help him up) but also in the clever level design. Stunning vistas reward players willing to take the time with intriguing glimpses of what lies ahead or a sense of progression showing the path already taken.

Brothers tells the story of two siblings- Big brother and Little brother- as they journey to find a cure for their ailing father. Forgoing typical storytelling techniques the developers communicate the narrative through character interactions, told in its own language the obvious comparison would be Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. Early on in the game you meet an NPC sweeping her floor with a broom. If you choose to interact with her Big brother will dutifully help her with the sweeping, while Little brother tries to show off balancing the broom on his finger. Its little touches like this and the superb animations that help flesh out their personalities. The narrative does falter in the final few chapters with the introduction of a female character, adhering to videogame tropes she is used to drive the brothers apart. In a game that feels like its advancing what can be done with an interactive narrative, this dated convention feels oddly forced.

Each analogue stick on the controller represents one of the two characters with the back triggers allowing them to interact independently with objects, players simultaneously control both of the brothers to solve the simple yet clever cooperative puzzles and platforming. This unique mechanic perfectly captures the challenge of two people learning to work together (with the controls offering the player a physical representation of the bond between the two brothers). From the very first puzzle- carrying your father into town on a cart- the game teaches players the cognitive process they’ll need to complete the game; introducing new mechanics at a steady pace (and discarding them just as quickly) helps to create a huge amount of gameplay variety, making each chapter feel memorable. Those players looking for a challenging adventure game like Limbo may be disappointed, the gameplay experience is more on par with Journey.

Final Verdict:

Brothers: a tale of two sons will grip you right up to the final emotional pull of the trigger. I finished the game around the three hour mark and it speaks to the involving story and engaging gameplay that I was driven to complete the game in just one sitting.

8/10

DLC Review

Hotline Miami:

hotline miami pizza

Released in 2012 on PC and the following year on the PS3, Hotline Miami-created by a two man team at Dennaton games-combines the 2D top down aesthetic of the first Grand Theft Auto game with the neo-noir sensibilities of films like Drive. One of my favourite downloadable titles, It’s easy to learn but hard to master gameplay is a blast to play, providing a substantial but satisfying challenge.

Set in the late 1980’s, the 16 bit top down presentation adds to the games retro charm. Wearing its Miami Vice inspired setting firmly on its sleeve from its neon drenched title screen-complemented perfectly by the track “Horse Steppin” by Sun Araw, the visual design combines to create a neon fuelled hallucinatory journey through rundown apartment buildings and convenience stores that characterise 1980’s exploitation cinema. The impressive use of colour in the game as a representation of a mood or a characters aspect juxtaposed against the visceral and over the top nature of the games violence it brings to mind the writing of Hunter S Thompson come to life. The bright and colourful design sets the game apart from the green and brown colour palate of other shooters on the market. The games soundtrack drives the gameplay, inspired by classic 1980’s electro pop- with a modern twist- it’s comparable to French artist Kavinsky and provides one of the most memorable indie videogame scores. The story is fed to players piecemeal fashion through in-game dialogue and documents found in the players’ apartment. Assuming the role of a nameless; letterman jacket clad vigilante, receiving leading messages on your answer machine- “Hi this is ‘Tim’ at the bakery. The cookies you ordered should have been delivered by now… a list of ingredients are included… make sure that you read them carefully!”- that seemingly direct you to kill (This is the framing device for the games four act structure, comprising of a total of fourteen chapters with a prelude and epilogue). The expertly crafted narrative may appear deceptively simple but is subject to the player’s interpretation.

After a brief tutorial that explains the basics of the twin stick shooter controls (it took me a while to acclimatise to this older style of play), players are given complete freedom from the outset. The fluid gameplay provides flexibility with its mix of: stealth, brutal melee combat and gunplay. The games animal masks allow you to further tailor the game to your playstyle by augmenting your character. The game certainly provides a challenge and rewards players for planning ahead but the unpredictable enemy AI means that you’ll have to change your strategy on the fly (sometimes it comes down to luck). Because the players character is no less susceptible to damage than the enemies (dying  in one hit) the game emphasises experimentation and while this trial and error approach may put some players off, the instant reload allows you to get straight back into the action removing the feeling of being punished and giving the game a frenetic pace (testing this ethos, I did find that the final boss was excessively hard). Players receive a graded rating at the end of each chapter based on their performance which can be improved with successive attempts; points earned go towards unlocking new weapons giving the game a sense of progression.

Final Verdict:

A beautiful homage to both retro gaming and the games thematic setting, the storyline and gameplay combine in such a way that I don’t think it would translate as well in another medium. Priced at £6.99, with a high amount of replayability I can’t recommend this mature title enough.

8.5/10

PGGR: Resident Evil

Past Generation Game Review: Resident Evil

In 2002 Capcom released Resident Evil on the Nintendo Gamecube, a remake by Creative Director Shinji Mikami of his seminal work from 1996. The original game blended the puzzle mechanics of adventure games, inventory management and action horror to create a new genre, “Survival Horror”. Staying true to the series horror roots the remake introduced improvements to the visual design and gameplay mechanics while serving as a coda to the Resident Evil series up until that point, it’s a combination of these improvements coupled with a sense of nostalgia that makes it one of my favourite games of all time.

REmake:

Resident evil remake environment

Resident Evil’s visual design is sumptuous. Returning to the pre-rendered backgrounds of previous instalments in the franchise, environments look almost photorealistic still holding up against games from the current generation. Environments are rich in detail; moths flutter around a bare light bulb and each blade of grass reacts to your characters movements. It’s this minutiae that really brings the environments to life helping immerse the player in the game, as does the lack of any visible HUD. What struck me most was the use of light and shadow, it really helps build a foreboding and Gothic atmosphere that when combined with the static camera angles brings to mind Hitchcock thrillers like Psycho and The Birds. 3D character models look great with naturalistic movement (characters will move their heads to look at enemies, the game is full of these subtle visual touches) and emotive facial animations. But it’s the creature design that really stands out, zombies and other B.O.W’s (Bio-Organic weapons) look truly terrifying. The designs stay true to the original concepts but the updated graphics allow for more detailed enemies. Zombies look different from one another convincingly portraying them as ominous but ultimately tragic figures and the snake like Yawn (one of the great boss fights in the game) seems much larger and much more deadly. The Spencer mansion-the main setting for Resident Evil-is one of the most iconic game settings. To provide a new challenge to players the layout of the mansion was changed with new areas added. Capcom commented at the time of the games release that around seventy percent of the game had been changed or reworked, with different item locations, enemy placement and new puzzles this certainly helps keep the gameplay fresh.

The games audio design is exceptional, helping to create a sense of claustrophobic tension and the use of silence in the game as you explore the mansion really accentuates your characters isolation. All of the sound effects are excellent; from the realistic sound of firearms and the characters echoing footsteps (the sounds incrementally different from one another depending on the surface you’re walking), to the ambient effects like the sound on an encroaching thunderstorm (another nod to classic horror) that breaks the silence with only a flash of lightning as warning. This helps the world feel more immersive. Resident Evil’s soundtrack comprises entirely of instrumental pieces. Tracks like ‘Underground’ are slow burning and ratchet up the tension as players explore, with more urgent pieces like ‘Neptune Attack’ inducing fear and panic during the games set piece boss battles. The relief that comes with finding a save room cannot be understated, these save havens bring respite from the monstrosities that roam the mansion and their discovery is accompanied by Resident Evils iconic track ‘Safe haven’ which has been tweaked slightly for the remake. The most notable change to the audio design is the quality of the voice acting. The awkward pauses between characters speaking have been removed and Joe Whyte and Heidi Anderson as Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine are great in the lead roles and all of the characters performances draw you into the narrative. This is also partly a reflection of the games improved writing, dialogue no longer feels stilted.

All of the improvements to the audio and visual design give Resident Evil a more serious tone, this is most apparent in the game’s opening CG rendered cutscene.  No longer a homage to schlocky B movies the intro has a much richer atmosphere that takes cues from classic Gothic horror literature like Frankenstein and Dracula (even referencing Sherlock Holmes and the hound of the Baskervilles). Combining this with elements from modern horror; zombies are similar to the undead from George A Romero’s ‘Night of the living dead’ and the changing perspective between the S.T.A.R.S members and the view from their shoulder mounted cameras a reference to the colonial marines in ‘Aliens’. This reworked opening and changes to the game makes the remake feel more modern and relevant.

Jul .1998, Raccoon forest:

resident evil remake intro cutscene

After a series of bizarre murders on the outskirts of the Mid-West town of Raccoon City, the police send their elite task force S.T.A.R.S (special tactics and rescue service) to investigate the incident. During their search all contact is lost with the Bravo team and in response Alpha team is dispatched to find their compatriots.

Resident Evil’s storyline is seen from two different viewpoints. At the beginning of the game players choose between two playable characters, and while both characters stories touch upon the same events different dialogue options and story threads open up adding further context to the games narrative. The biggest impact is in the gameplay, even through you’ll complete the same puzzles and encounter the same enemies the challenges of the mansion have to be tackled in different ways. Story sequences change depending on the players actions. Resident Evil takes the choice based gameplay mechanics from point and click adventure games using then in real time situations. As Jill Valentine you discover an injured Richard Aiken-a member of the Bravo team-suffering from a bite wound from a giant snake. In order to help him players have to find an antidote to the snake’s poison, if the player doesn’t get the necessary item in time and return to Richard he won’t make it. Alternatively saving Richards life adds additional exposition to the story and he will help you during one of the boss encounters. There are a number of these diverging paths in the game, these have a bearing on which of the multiple endings the player receives. For players wanting to experience everything Resident Evil has to offer it will take more than one playthrough, really encouraging replayability.

Collectible documents and recordings that players find throughout Resident Evil reinforce the feeling of carrying out an investigation (which changes the tone of the game to a mystery thriller with horror elements); uncovering information expands on the games setting and puts the narrative in context. Documents range from files describing gruesome experiments to private journals, one of which borrows elements from the body horror genre detailing its owners slow transformation into a zombie (players can even take the film from the shoulder mounted camera of a deceased S.T.A.R.S member, revealing his final moments). For the remake new documents have been added not present in the original game, most of these retroactively introduce prominent characters from subsequent games like Umbrella researcher William Birkin. Capcom have also reinstated a sub-plot concerning George Trevor (The architect of the Spencer mansion) and his family, which was dropped from the pre-release version of the game.

Horror³:

Resident Evil REmake Yawn

Resident Evil’s control scheme is based around the original games “tank” controls. By pressing up or down on the D-pad the character will move in the corresponding direction but to rotate the character players use the left and right directional buttons (with B used to run). While these mechanics certainly feel tighter and provide a sense of tension, it won’t sway anyone who wasn’t a fan of the original games gameplay (and players of current generation consoles may find the controls cumbersome). The remake incorporates all of the small changes the gameplay mechanics have undergone as the series has progressed, players can perform a 180⁰ turn using the C stick on the Gamecube controller and instead of a loading screen between floors (the classic opening door loading screens are still present in the remake) characters can move up and down staircases freely. For some of the puzzle segments players will need to move objects, to do this they approach the object and press up on the D-pad.

Players ready their weapon by holding down the right trigger (doing so restricts player movement. Strategically choosing when to attack and when to move is a large part of combat, especially during boss fights, giving combat a risk/reward dichotomy) and fire the weapon with the A button. If faced with more than one enemy, players can switch between targets using the left trigger. Players start the game with a handgun and limited ammunition, discovering more powerful weapons- like the shotgun and grenade launcher- as they progress through the game (character models are shown with their currently equipped weapon during cutscenes). One of the remakes new features is the use of defensive items. These consumable items can be used when being attacked by any of the standard enemy types by pressing the left trigger and like ammunition these items are scarce. Both Chris and Jill can use daggers (these only knock back enemies, but provide some breathing room) and each character has a character specific item, Jill can use a taser and Chris flash grenades. The game introduces the necessity to burn zombie’s bodies. If you don’t destroy the zombies head when you shoot it (in a throwback to the original game there is a randomised chance that one of your shots will be headshot) then any zombie you down will reanimate as one of the games new enemies, the Crimson head. These enemies resemble the rage virus infected zombies from Danny Boyle’s film ‘28 Days later’, they are fast and deal a higher amount of damage. Unless players conserve their ammunition it’s entirely possible to get stuck on a boss fight and have to reload a previous save or restart the game (even on the games easiest setting), instilling a sense of desperation as players have to quickly decide whether to use valuable ammunition or flee from combat.

Item management is an integral part of Resident Evil’s gameplay (Players access the status screen with the Y button. Here you can equip weapons, use items and read files. Players can also examine items, this feature allows you to manipulate objects in full 3D to reveal more about them), Jill can carry more items in her inventory but can take less damage from enemies, whereas Chris has a more robust heath system but only has six item slots. The player will also find item boxes around the mansion, here they can store excess items. This does lead to backtracking in the game as players have to swap between key items to solve puzzles and useful items like heath and ammunition. The map screen can be accessed instantly (using the Z button on the Gamecube controller); the map keeps a record of which rooms you’ve investigated (rooms that are uncoloured on the map have yet to be entered and those with a green tint have been fully explored), which doors are locked and also displays the players location. Perhaps most helpful is the indicator that tells players if there are items still to find in a room (these rooms have a red-ish tint on the map). Items now give of a distinctive visual cue to show that they can be interacted with separating them from the environments. This helps to reduce the frustration with finding key items (reducing the amount of backtracking in the game) without removing Resident Evil’s puzzle oriented gameplay.

Final Thoughts:

The remake of Resident Evil is a masterclass in how to remake a game. It builds on every facet of its predecessor, refining the Survival Horror experience. It’s the fluid way that all of the gameplay mechanics interact that means there are few games that can recreate the same sense of fear as your ammunition runs low or the thrill at defeating one of the games bosses. It’s a shame that this genre has seen such a decline, Resident Evil for the Gamecube is one of the pinnacles of Survival Horror and deserves to be played.

9/10

DLC Review

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

the walking dead 400 days

The Walking Dead was perhaps the surprise hit of last year. Released episodically in five parts throughout the year, Telltale games provided a fresh take on both the survival horror and zombie outbreak genres with the games point and click puzzle mechanics and an emotionally engaging storyline that much like Robert Kirkman’s original graphic novel series focuses on the on the human element. 400 Days is the sixth episode to be released acting as a mid-season special that looks to bridge the gap between the first two seasons and help introduce a new cast of characters. This is one of the best pieces of DLC I’ve played and a worthy follow up to season one.

400 Days retains the comic book aesthetic of the first season, but perhaps because of the narratives focus on a single setting I did find that the environments were more detailed than in previous episodes.  The DLC takes place over five chapters. These can be completed in any order and are manually chosen by the player from a missing person’s board by selecting the relevant characters photo, this clever mechanic helps tie the narrative together. The mechanics are the same as in the previous season. The left analogue stick moves the character while the right controls a cursor that allows you to interact with the environment. All of the dialogue options and in game actions are mapped to the face buttons on the controller, with the occasional quicktime event during action sequences. The mechanics do feel a little tighter though especially when the player has to shoot their gun in first person sequences, but the DLC also explores some different ways of utilising these mechanics. One of my favourite segments is reminiscent of the early Spielberg film Duel, though some of the situations the player sees in the chapters will be familiar tropes to anyone that’s a fan of the genre. The pacing in this episode is excellent, puzzles remain a challenge but have been streamlined so that there’s less trial and error and while there is alot of action Telltale still provides enough downtime to show those little moments of human drama; whether that’s playing a game of rock, paper, scissors to decide the outcome of an important decision or taking a break to watch someone play the guitar. Playing season one I encountered quite a few drops in the frame rate (especially during episode 3), but 400 days seems to run much more smoothly. My only complaint is that two of the five chapters could have been longer allowing us more time with the characters.

The DLC continues Telltale’s legacy of brilliantly written dialogue and incorporates the tough choices and player decisions from season one, some will test the resolve of even seasoned players. The music and voice acting were once again impeccable and each new character introduced felt unique, I never once felt that any of the characters were replacements for those from season one they each added something new to the game. Because of time constraints instead of focusing the narrative on a single character for the episode, the developers manage to weave an engaging non-linear narrative as we see the effect of the outbreak from multiple view point at a truck stop and diner in Georgia over a 400 day period from the beginning of the outbreak. The individual stories intertwine and it’s neat to see something that goes unexplained in one episode later explained in another. It also incorporates some of the decisions from season one and ties up a few of the loose ends. Though these vignettes may seem disparate to begin with, the episode ends in a very satisfying way that both incorporates the decisions you’ve made throughout the episode but also hints at what might be to come in the second season of The Walking Dead. One of my favourite aspects is that because of the focus on a single locale it allowed the developers to explore the effects of humans and zombies in more depth, using the truck stop as a microcosm of the outbreak.

Final Verdict:

Reasonably priced at £3.99 and offering a great amount of replay value, 400 days took me around two hours to complete a single playthrough, with each chapter taking between twenty and thirty minutes. It’s great to see a piece of story based DLC that’s not only well plotted but attempts something different than the main entry. By changing up the narrative style and using the existing mechanics in new ways it helps to keep 400 Days feeling fresh, something I hope Telltale continues to do in the second season of The Waking Dead when it releases this autumn.

8.5/10