Friday, November 25, 2011

Review This! The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Skyrim review thumb
Don’t worry, I’m not going to spoil anything here – I’ll steer clear of anything story-related beyond the premise. With another game, that would be tricky. With Skyrim, the stories that come from how the game works are often the best ones.

It’s a frozen nation, just to the north of where the previous game, Oblivion, took place. A pleasantly brief introduction sets up the plot: Skyrim is in the middle of a revolt, you’ve been sentenced to death, and dragons have just shown up. Good luck!

At that point, you emerge from a cave into 40 square kilometres of cold and mountainous country, and that’s it. Everything else is up to you.

Even after spending hundreds of hours in Morrowind and Oblivion, the sense of freedom in Skyrim is dizzying. The vast mountains in every direction make the landscape seem limitless, and even after exploring it for 55 hours, this world feels huge and unknown on a scale neither of the previous two games did.

Spells: cooler than previously realised.
Not all of the landscape is subzero, and even among the frosty climes there’s an exciting variety: ice caverns that tinkle with dripping frost crystals, hulking mountains with curls of snow whipped up by the howling wind, coniferous forests in rocky river valleys.

The mountains change everything. Wherever you decide to head, your journey is split between scrambling up treacherous rocks and skidding down heart-stopping slopes. The landscape is a challenge, and travel becomes a game.

It’s hard to walk for a minute in any direction without encountering an intriguing cave, a lonely shack, some strange stones, a wandering traveller, a haunted fort. These were sparse and quickly repetitive in Oblivion, but they’re neither in Skyrim: it’s teeming with fascinating places, all distinct. It was 40 hours before I blundered into a dungeon that looked like one I’d seen before, and even then what I was doing there was drastically different.

These places are the meat of Skyrim, and they’re what makes it feel exciting to explore. You creep through them with your heart in your mouth, your only soundtrack the dull groan of the wind outside, to discover old legends, dead heroes, weird artefacts, dark gods, forgotten depths, underground waterfalls, lost ships, hideous insects and vicious traps. It’s the best Indiana Jones game ever made.

That's a giant he's roasting, to give you an idea of scale.
The dragons don’t show up until you do the first few steps of the game’s main quest, so it’s up to you whether you want them terrorising the world as you wander around. A world where you can crest a mountain to find a 40-foot flying lizard spitting jets of ice at the village below is a much more interesting one to be in. But fighting them never changes much: you can just ignore them until they land, then shoot them from a distance when they do.

Your first dragon kill is a profound, weird moment. I rushed to the crashed carcass to loot it, then looked up. The whole town had come out to stand around and stare at the body, a thing as vast and alien to them as a T-rex in a museum.

I tried shooting an ice bolt at it, just to demonstrate it was dead, and the force unexpectedly catapulted the whole thing violently into the distance. A beggar looked at me and said, “Oh sure, just throw your trash around.”

Save the world: electrocute a dog today.
Your character gets better at whatever you do: firing a bow, sneaking up on people, casting healing spells, mixing potions, swinging an axe. There’s always been an element of this practice-based system in Elder Scrolls games, but in Skyrim it’s unrestricted – you don’t have to decide what you’re going to focus on when you create your character, you can just let it develop organically.
That alone would feel a little too hands-off, but you also level up. When that happens, you get a perk point: something you can spend on a powerful improvement to a skill you particularly like. Every hour, you’re making a major decision about your character’s abilities.
They’re dramatic. The first point you put into Destruction magic lets you stream jets of flame from your hands for twice as long as before. As you continue to invest in one skill, you can get more interesting tweaks: I now have an Archery perk that slows down time when I aim my bow, and one for the Sneak skill that lets me do a stealthy forward roll.
Again, the freedom is dizzying: every one of 18 skills has a tree of around 15 perks, and the range of heroes you could build is vast. I focused on Sneak to the point of absurdity – now I’m almost invisible, and I get a 3,000% damage bonus for backstabs with daggers. It’s the play style I’ve always wanted in an RPG, but I’ve never been able to achieve it before.

I don't care about the environment, Spriggans damn well have this coming.
The enemies you encounter are, in some cases, generated by the game to match the level of your character. In Oblivion that sometimes felt like treading water: progress was just a stat increase, and your enemies kept pace. That doesn’t apply now that your character is defined more by his or her perks, because the way you play is always changing.
Levelled content is also just used less: at level 30, my most common enemies are still bandits with low-level weapons. And I still run into things too dangerous for me to tackle.
Taking a narrow mountain path to a quest, something stops me in my tracks: a dragon roar. I check the skies – nothing, but I hear it again three more times before the peak.
At the top I find a camp full of bodies, with a large black bear roaring over them. Hah. He’s still more than I can handle in straight combat, but as he reaches me I use a Dragon Shout. It befriends any animal instantly, and he saunters casually away. Feeling slightly guilty, I stab him in the back before it wears off.
Which is when the dragon lands, with an almighty crash, six feet from my face.
I run.

Oh this thing? I thought it was a Cliff Racer.
A roar of frozen air catches me in the back, but I keep going – over a ridge, down a short drop, and straight into a bandit. I dodge the bandit, straight into a Flame Atronarch. There are five more bandits behind it. The dragon is airborne. I throw myself off the mountain, several hundred metres into the river below.

I plummet to the riverbed, and swim until I run out of breath. When I surface, the sky is alight with fireballs and flaming arrows, the dragon is spewing a stream of ice down on the bandits, and I’m laughing.

The stealthy character I built in Skyrim would have been less fun in Oblivion. Whether you were detected was a binary and erratic matter. Skyrim cleverly gives you an on-screen indication of how suspicious your enemies are, and where they are as they hunt for you. It makes stealth viable even against large groups: if you’re rumbled, you can retreat and hide. And there’s a slow, methodical pace to it – long minutes of tension broken by sudden rushes of gratification or panic.

Magic, meanwhile, has been given an incredible crackle of raw power. Emperor Palpatine would be a level one mage in Skyrim – unleashing two torrents of thrashing electrical arcs is literally the first trick you learn, and it doesn’t even get you tossed into a reactor shaft.

The man in the silly hat is my companion. I make him wear it.
One tweak is a huge loss, though: you can’t design your own spells. Oblivion’s spellmaking opened up so many clever possibilities – now you’re mostly restricted to what you can buy in shops.

While we’re on the negatives, physical combat hasn’t improved much. There are cinematic kill moves when your enemy is low on health, but whether they trigger seems to be either random or dependent on whether the pre-canned animation fits into the space you’re in. Too much of the time, you wave your weapon around and enemies barely react to the hits.

The exception is archery: bows are now deliciously powerful, and stealth shots can skewer people in one supremely satisfying thwunk.

What does improve the general combat is a feature I didn’t quite expect: you can hire or befriend permanent companions. I did a minor favour for an elf at the start of the game that earned me his loyalty for the next 40 hours of play. Sidekicks add a wild side to fights: an arrow from nowhere can end a climactic battle, or a misplaced Dragon Shout can accidentally knock your friend into an abyss.

The Dragon Shouts, gained by exploration and killing dragons, are like a manlier version of conventional magic. One can send even a Giant flying, one lets you breathe fire, another makes you completely invincible for a few seconds. Even the one for befriending furry animals is macho: it can turn four bears and a wolf pack into obedient pets with one angry roar.

Two seconds before the most satisfying kill ever.
Before I got the animal shout, I had a Sabre Tooth problem. Crossing a fast-flowing river at the top of a waterfall, a huge feral cat spotted me. A good shot with a bow made no dent on its vast health bar, and it splashed into the water to get to me. The current was too strong to get away in time, so I did the one thing it couldn’t: turned invincible and threw myself off the waterfall.

After seconds of freefall, I hit the rocks, got my bearings, and looked up. The cat – a speck above – seemed to be looking over the falls at me. Then it slipped. Its lanky ragdoll smacked every rocky outcropping on the way down, and wedged between two stones directly above me, his huge head glaring emptily.

The first few quests you’re nudged towards get you the Dragon Shouts. After that, the main quest is a bizarre mix of some of the best moments in the game, and some of the worst.

It fails where the previous games fail: it tries to make your mission feel epic by making it about a prophecy, then does all its exposition in the time-honoured format of old men giving you interminable lectures. The acting is stagey at best, painful at worst. And it adds a new problem: your dialogue choices are now written out in full, and your only options are to react like an incredulous schoolchild to every predictable development. It doesn’t make it easy to feel like a hero.

Bears are tough. They're not that tough.
The main quests themselves are mostly good: a happy mix of secrecy, adventure, and exploring incredible new places. One location, which I won’t spoil, got an actual gasp. But then there’s an abysmal stealth mission that seems to work on a logic entirely its own: guards spot you from miles away, despite facing the wrong direction. And the boss dragons it keeps throwing at you never get any more interesting to fight – adding more hitpoints just makes the repetition even harder to ignore.

Everywhere else, the quests are magnificent. Chance encounters lead to sprawling epics that take you to breathtaking locations, uncover old secrets, and pull interesting twists. Even the faction quests are better here. It feels like Bethesda realised these became the main quest for many players, and built on that for Skyrim. They start small, but each one unravels into a larger story with higher stakes. Some of them feel like the personal epic that the main quest has always failed to be.

We got a review copy of Skyrim the day the game was officially finished, but it’s curiously buggy. Among a lot of minor problems such as issues reassigning controls, there’s glitchy character behaviour that can break quests, and AI flipouts that can turn a whole town against you. And the interface isn’t well adapted to PC: it sometimes ignores the position of your cursor in menus. There’s an update due as soon as the game’s out, but there’s a hell of a lot to patch here. Next time, maybe don’t commit to a specific release day just because it has a lot of elevens in it?

The aurora. Sweet Jesus.
These aren’t engine issues, though. Skyrim is based on tech Bethesda built specially for it, rather than the middleware engine used by Oblivion and Fallout 3. It’s a lean, swift, beautiful thing. New lighting techniques and a fluffy sort of frozen fog give the world a cold sparkle, and the previously puffy faces are sharp, mean and defined. Even load times are excitingly quick. On maximum settings, it runs at 30-40 frames per second on a PC that runs Oblivion at 50-60 – a decent trade off for the increase in scenery porn.

There’s a lot of that. There’s a lot of everything, and you have totally free rein of it. Skyrim feels twice the size of Oblivion, despite being the same acreage, just because there’s so much more to see and do. Searching for Dragon Shouts is a game in itself. Exploring every dungeon is a game in itself. Each one of the six factions is a game in itself. So the fact that the main quest is a mixed bag doesn’t hurt Skyrim’s huge stock of amazing experiences.

The games we normally call open worlds – the locked off cities and level-restricted grinding grounds – don’t compare to this. While everyone else is faffing around with how to control and restrict the player, Bethesda just put a fucking country in a box. It’s the best open world game I’ve ever played, the most liberating RPG I’ve ever played, and one of my favourite places in this or any other world.

In case I’m not getting it across, this is a thumbs-up.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Review This! League of Legends

League of legends is one of the best games I have ever played in a long time and this review will help you decide if it’s worth your time. It is ‘free to play’ (more on that later) so anyone can check it out with no risk to see if they’ll like it.  It’s a 5v5 team game based on a Warcraft 3 custom game: DotA (Defense of the Ancients), the objective of the game is to destroy the enemy’s main base.  But in your way will be enemy towers, waves of minions and the enemy team itself.  You will need to kill other enemy players and their minions, as you kill minions and players you will earn gold to purchase items and experience to level up your hero’s skills, you will need good teamwork to win.  Anyone can play it for free but you will have limited access to the heroes, only a handful of heroes are randomly chosen out of the 72 possible heroes.  Each hero has a unique set of abilities, strengths and weaknesses.  There are some balance issues between heroes and they are listed and ranked in different league of legends tier list.

Graphics of the Game
Each ‘hero’ has a small back story but they are only there for flavor and there is no major single player option.  Multiplayer is where the game shines, because it is free you can get any of your friends to play with you, as you win games you will earn points that you can spend to purchase upgrades, access
to new heroes and cosmetic skins to customize the look of your heroes.  You can purchase points to spend on ‘bundles’ to access more heroes and upgrades quickly if you really love the game.

The graphics are very well done and are satisfying for the nature of the game and its gameplay, they are nothing ground breaking but they are crisp and clear enough to keep you hooked onto the action.  The sound and music are good but I hate the announcer’s voice, it doesn’t suit the game to hear an ‘elderly grandma’ say: ‘double kill’…  You can replace sound files but I’d prefer to have the option at the start.

Character Selection
With a near infinite variety of possible games there are dozens of free guides on the internet that will teach you how to play a hero and what items and skills to get for that hero, these are called ‘builds’.  One example of these league of legends builds, there is a melee hero called ‘Master Yi’ he is strongest with physical attacks so its best to get items increase his damage or attack speed.  This requires you to learn (even study) a lot about the game, it’s heroes, strategies, league of legends items and even the enemy heroes you are facing against!!  This fact makes it pretty daunting for new players but league of legends has a Co-Op vs AI option so that you can learn the game easier then move on to matches against other players.

One note about the game that is ambiguous; league of legends has a system of ‘masteries’ and ‘runes’, these are Skill or Talent Trees that will improve whatever hero you play, these are irrelevant because they only give minor enhancements to your hero and you do not need to invest a lot of time into it until you are level 30, and by then you’ll learn what you need in these systems.

The League of legends requirements are not too trying and nearly any system with a dual core processor and a decent video card can handle it easily.

3 GHz Processor
GeForce 8800 or better
(After you’ve installed and started the game, you may need to increase some settings like the resolution.)

Summary; the game gives you free access to a random group of heroes each week, if you have a free afternoon try it out.

Multiplayer   9/10 (Takes time to learn)
Gameplay       9/10
Graphics         8/10
Sound              7/10 (WTB Alternate Announcer Voice)
Fun                   9/10 (Get some friends to download it for free and have a party!)
I highly recommend playing this game, the link below goes to the league of legends download, its free and worth a try, even if you and your friends have never played it before you can match up against Computer Bots and practice.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Review This! Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

It would be easy to dismiss Modern Warfare 3 as just another iterative update to the massively successful shooter series. After attending a preview event this summer, I left with concerns that the Infinity Ward/Sledgehammer Games collaboration shelved the multiplayer innovation Treyarch introduced with Black Ops in favor of more minor, underwhelming updates. Some of my early concerns proved valid, but many of the incremental tweaks are smart additions to the multiplayer experience. Modern Warfare 3 does little to fundamentally change the well-known franchise formula, but it offers enough enhancements to recommend it to any fan.

On the surface, this Call of Duty experience is similar to the other Modern Warfare games. If a casual fan sat down for a few rounds of team deathmatch or domination, it would be easy to forgive them for mistaking this for a map pack. Its visuals are familiar, most of the weapons are recycled from previous games, the tight gunplay feels similar, maps are still fairly cramped affairs for the most part, assembling a party operates the same, and many of the killstreak rewards return. Modern Warfare 3’s most noteworthy tweaks may be smaller changes, but they add up to contribute in a big way.

Custom classes are as crucial to online play as always, and players can choose between three new strike packages for their loadouts. Assault is for offensive-minded players, as its rewards are mostly death-dealing instruments like remote control assault drones, devastating air strikes, and the proximity-based I.M.S. (Intelligent Munition System). If you’re outfitted with this package, your killstreak progresses as always – it builds as you rack up kills, but resets to zero once you’re taken down. Considering I’m usually heavy on offense, I stuck with the assault package for my first few hours of multiplayer.

The Support package killstreaks are defensive in nature, like SAM turrets, recon drones, and counter-UAVs. They don’t have the flash of the deadly assault rewards, but they’re still helpful. Unlike the assault package, this package’s killstreak count doesn’t reset upon death. You wouldn’t normally reach one of the crazy 18-kill assault rewards without dying, but now it’s feasible to earn the most valuable support items in a single game. This package was even more appealing to me when I unlocked a few offensive rewards, like the remote sentry turret, the B-2 bomber, and the recon juggernaut suit. Once I realized the value of this package, it became my default for the majority of my future rounds.

The final package, Specialist, is for tacticians who strategize formulas for specific game types. Specialist allows you to unlock a specific order of perks as you rack up kills. For instance, let’s say you want to create a specialist package for use in Domination. You start with whatever three perks you normally have available, but you could then unlock Extreme Conditioning after a few kills to help you sprint from flag to flag. If you live long enough to capture a few flags, you’ll probably be running low on ammo. Not a problem – you can set your specialist package to unlock Scavenger to help you pick up more ammo. To reap the rewards of this killstreak package, you have to analyze how you play and where you’d benefit from the unlocked perks most. For the hardcore crowd, this is an ideal pick.

The Specialist package isn't the only addition that the hardcore crowd will love, as the new Call of Duty Elite service is an overwhelmingly in-depth feature with many different tools. The team at Beachhead has created a performance tracker that is equal parts comprehensive stats database, clan management system, loadout customization tool, social networking site, and improvement guide. You can see graphs of how your kill/death ratio is trending, customize your clan’s callsign and tag, analyze the map locations where you die the most, add friends directly from your XBLA/PSN/Facebook accounts, and even push a new custom class to your console from a free app on your phone. All of the uproar about a premium membership fee seems to be misguided after seeing the final product, as the large majority of the content is free. Members of high-performing clans (of which you can only be a member of one at a time) may want to consider the premium membership, as they make you eligible for prizes like cameras and a free trip to Paris if you’re good enough. If you’re a casual Call of Duty fan, you can still have a fun time in multiplayer without ever touching Elite. However, this new feature is a boon if you’re the type that likes to prestige multiple times.

Strike packages and the Elite service are the biggest additions to online play, but smaller multiplayer features contribute to overall mode improvement as well. Completing objectives like flag captures adds to your killstreak count, and players can cycle through killstreak rewards with the d-pad and select them in the order they wish. Prestige mode counts for something now, as players earn coins to spend on new custom classes, double XP time, or special callsigns. Leveling individual weapons unlocks proficiency abilities like reduced kick or faster fire rate. Customizable private matches allow for absurd and entertaining variations of Juggernaut, Infected, and Gun Game. You won’t respawn in the middle of a massive air strike nearly as often, either. Players won’t notice many of these changes if they’re just popping in for a quick round, but those who spend a lot of time in multiplayer will appreciate them.

Call of Duty’s bread and butter has always been its deep multiplayer, but the campaigns deliver their fair share of memorable moments as well. Modern Warfare 3 doesn’t stray from the oft-emulated Call of Duty 4 formula. This large-scale, linear, global, and sometimes controversial campaign can be finished in less than six hours.

For the first two or three hours, the game hurries from country to country with a jarring narrative that doesn’t succeed in getting much information across. All you know is this Makarov fellow is a bit unsavory, and he wants to kill a lot of people. In your efforts to find and kill him, the game finds excuses to have you shoot up the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, protect the Russian president on a jet, attempt to stop a chemical attack in Paris, and watch a supposedly offensive scene that’s essentially a less effective and less necessary version of Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission. These early scenarios are more concerned with topping the big set piece moments from previous entries in the series than with putting forth a coherent narrative. In one scripted sequence that’s awesome, terrible, and hilarious at the same time, I was even forced to shoot a hyena multiple times in the head while I was in a church.

My concerns with the early portions of the campaign have as much to do with gameplay as narrative. It’s a constant “run here, trigger the enemies, now click between the trigger buttons until everyone is dead” experience. As much as the first few hours disappointed me, it gets its act together around the halfway mark. You learn some more about your primary character and his motivations, and the latter half of the campaign isn’t filled with the convoluted double-crosses of Modern Warfare 2. Setpiece moments become more intriguing from a gameplay perspective, with one mission involving an approaching sandstorm and an air assault mission that switches perspective back and forth from the ground to the air. By the time the credits roll, the globetrotting ordeal meets a satisfying conclusion.

If you’ve wrapped up the campaign and want a break from the standard multiplayer, Spec Ops serves as a great third pillar. This mode is broken into two distinct sections now, with one dedicated to co-op missions like those seen in Modern Warfare 2 and another that’s essentially a Horde mode variant. This survival mode is a blast with soldiers, dogs, and vehicles that are far more engaging than plodding zombies. Plus, it has its own in-game economy and ranking system.

When it comes down to it, Modern Warfare 3 meets expectations. The core elements of multiplayer and the campaign remain fundamentally unchanged, but the game serves as a great example of how many subtle tweaks can add up to an improved overall product. Even with the recent turmoil at Infinity Ward, the remnants of that team (in conjunction with Sledgehammer) have put together a worthy sequel to one of the most successful franchises of all time.