XCOM 2 Review

Lieutenant Vaclev Skorski is stood atop the burning ruins of an alien warehouse. He’s wounded and down to the last shot of his sniper rifle. Ahead of him, crouched behind the low cover of a clump of rocks, is his squadmate – the last remnant of what had been a five man team. Bearing down on his comrade, who is making a final dash for the evac zone, are a hulking robotic walker and an alien assault trooper. Skorski is the last thing between the success of the mission and a slaughter. He takes aim, knowing that, with enemy reinforcements inbound, covering for his teammate means certain death for himself.

Such moments are scattered throughout XCOM 2, the sequel to 2K and Firaxis Games’ squad-based tactics game XCOM: Enemy Unknown from 2012. There are very few games that can be punctuated with snapshots of pure emotion, drama and, at times, rage while leaving the player wanting so much more. XCOM 2 is one of those games.

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In Enemy Unknown the player is tasked with defending Earth from an unknown alien threat, using the might of the world’s combined nations to be a bulwark against the extraterrestrial menace. XCOM 2 reveals just how fruitless that effort was. 20 years on the aliens have almost totally subjugated Earth’s population, installing themselves as governors, overlords and even deities under the umbrella name of the ADVENT. Only a few still try to fight back against these outer-space oppressors, and it’s up to you to lead them from scattered bands of fugitives to a full-fledged rebellion.

Read the rest of this review at GameGrin

Telltale’s Game of Thrones Episode 6 Review

It feels like a long time since I first started playing Telltale’s take on the phenomenon that isA Game of Thrones. Perhaps, like a person who has binge-watched the shows and then powered through George R. R. Martin’s book series, I entered a wide-eyed innocent and emerged a brow-beaten veteran.

A Game of Thrones Episode 6: The Ice Dragon arrives almost a year after the first episode in the series popped up on my radar. Telltale, a company with which I had become familiar with thanks to their great Walking Dead series, were just beginning to stretch their creative wings (and court as many IPs as possible) when Game of Thrones Episode 1 arrived in my steam library. Episode 6 is much like the preceding five in the series, which you will be familiar with unless you’re some form of sadist who likes to play games backwards. The new chapter features the same quick-time dialogue and action in a two-hour chapter that fans of Telltale will be familiar with.

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Making a comeback, too, are the sort-of cel-shaded graphics that have made Telltale’s previous titles stand out. Though many were unsure whether it could work in the grim and brutal world of Westeros (and Essos), Telltale have done a fine job in recreating the best-loved scenes and worlds from the television series. Characters are lovingly crafted to look almost identical to their television counterparts and are voiced superbly by their HBO actors. Telltale’s own characters, too, created from their writers’ imaginations, are so well steeped in the traditions of the lore that you half expect to see them crop up on the next season or in the next book.

It is a shame, then, that as the final credits of the game rolled by me I fell back into my chair with a disappointed sigh. The things that Telltale got so very right with this game feel so excellent that when things hit the rocks they hit them hard and with such force that your entire immersion (in what is a lovingly crafted world) is jilted.

Read the rest of this review on GameGrin.com

Total War: Attila – A Study in the Standalone Expansion

A standalone expansion is like an argument between a married couple:

A man sits down to dinner with his wife. She serves him up an eagerly anticipated meal he’s been waiting for. As she stands above him proud, she notices that he’s scowling.

“What’s wrong?” she asks him. “I did my best, I think it’s the best dinner I’ve ever made you!”

The man looks up at her, arms folded.

“I don’t like peas. Next time can you just keep the carrots?”

“But the meal is much nicer, don’t you think?” She pleads.

“Oh yes,” he agrees. “But I just wanted carrots. Next time just make sure its carrots.”

The next day she leans out of the kitchen: “I’m making your dinner with carrots this time!”

The man is happy (even though he’s had to eat two dinners) and so is the woman, even though she’ll experiment with her next meal and he’ll complain again.

For me it depends on the mash.

Such is life with Creative Assembly. The dev team behind one of the most successful real-time strategy series on the planet: Total War. Their legions of fans lapped up everything they released initially. Shogun, Medieval, Rome, all hailed as cornerstones in the genre. Many still count those among their top 5 games.

Medieval 2 came around to much celebration, too. It was also the first in the series to include an expansion – Medieval 2 Total War: Kingdoms.

“10GB for an expansion?!” fans cried. “What’s in this thing?”

The answer was a bucket load of content including four new campaign maps.

Fast forward past the bug-riddled Empire and the diamond-in-the-rough Shogun 2 and we get to Total War: Rome 2.

Without a doubt this had been the game every fan had been waiting for since Medieval 2. The hype train was heading full speed towards release, egged on by CA’s (admittedly) well thought out and inclusive behind-the-scenes previews.

Then something went wrong. What had been promised as a Total War game steeped in political action, intrigue, guile and clan and family-orientated conquest (seriously, compare what’s promised in the trailers to the release) arrived as a withered husk.

Previews of the game had shown a campaign based around promoting your family to glory, tailoring your generals and armies to suit your needs – giving them personalities and histories. What fans got was forgettable characters that could be replaced as soon as they died and a half-finished political system that barely worked.

Perhaps it was the early release date, no doubt clamped down by SEGA, who seem to solely rely on their dev studios to make up the losses they make on evermore awful Sonic games. Perhaps it was the pressure of emulating the original, which had been named as the best PC game of all time by PC Gamer, beating Half-Life and Half-Life 2.

The fans, which had been eating out of CA’s palm a few days prior, began to bite and snarl. The release of day one DLC only served to enhance their ire. The rallying point focused on the fact the family tree – a feature that had survived through all previous Total War games – was gone. The connection it created between a player and their avatar general was effectively gone.

Not even a joke, this is what the soldiers look like.

Despite a continued program of patches, which saw CA release fixes in large packs every two weeks, the damage had been done. Play the game now and it is a good (not great) RTS set in the ancient world. Compare it to release and it’s a shining ray of holy light gifted from God Himself.

Now CA has evidently decided to sweep everything under the carpet. Having prostrated themselves in front of fans again by updating the game to “Emperor Edition” for all existing customers, the studio has announced Total War: Attila.

Attila will be a standalone expansion in the same mould of Shogun 2’s “Fall of the Samurai” – Pushing the clock forward to implement a number of features the studio never got to try in their main game due to time constraints.

During its reveal there was an audible cheer when a screenshot showed the return of the family tree. Pandering to the fans, perhaps, but it does show CA are willing to take on board criticism and work on their flaws. Atilla proves to be everything Rome was not: family ties, political intrigue, and religious strife. It even introduces the option to raze and remove cities from the overworld map – an ambitious feature well liked by most fans.

Attila promises a realistic depiction of the dawn of the dark ages. Apparently you can’t play as the huns though…

People will always be divided by standalones. Is it a neat way to bridge the gap between old and new games or a shameless money grab. Perhaps it’s a way of testing new mechanics and features?

One should look no further than EA for a perfect example of how not to do this. Every tournament and World Cup they push out a standalone “World Cup” or “Euros” game – even if they released a game for that year. On top of that they expect people to pay £40 for a game that features just one mechanic (people still buy the damn things though).

I feel that if a studio is going to take the standalone route, they should ape CA in doing so. Essentially fans should feel like they get enough content for the amount of money they have spent. If you drop £20-40 on a game and get less than 10 hours then I don’t think you should be blamed for grabbing the proverbial pitchfork and taking to internet forums.

It’s down to the developers to decide. With rumours persisting of a Total War: Warhammer down the line for CA, the argument of whether they’re “selling out” will continue for some time to come it seems.

Review: Prison Architect (PC)

There’s an alarm blaring, guards are rushing around the corridors brandishing batons while discarded food trays splatter food across a canteen floor. A crazed murdered, having been released from solitary for no more than half an hour, begins to stab everyone around him with a spoon. In quick succession he kills one guard and incapacitates one. The inmates around him see his victories and join the fray. What started as a fracas in the mess has turned into a full blown riot. Low-security prisoners and informants scurry from the mob of criminals as they make a rush for the armoury.

I sigh and click “new game”. Such is life when you attempt to run a correctional facility in Introversion’s prison sim Prison Architect. The game combines the best from classic top-down sims like Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper to create an engrossing take on management games that can often slide completely out of control.

You take on the role of a new warden at a budding prison – charged with building holding cells, offices and kitchens for inmates that will arrive by the busload every in-game day. Depending on your stipulation (or how confident you’re feeling) these cons will be minimum, normal or maximum security prisoners. Each has differing levels of needs, addictions and aggressiveness. You’re paid into your bank account depending on how many you take on, which in turn gets spent on cell blocks, yards, security offices and those all-important guards to keep your prisoners in line.

Some prisoners are more dangerous than others.

The game’s beauty is in both its complexity and its simplicity. Getting to grips with the needs of your prison – electricity, water supplies, connecting hallways and corridors, staff research – can be difficult at first. When mastered, however, the game becomes a fluid experience in which hours of real-life time will drain away as you try to reform your disarmingly cute prisoners before they tunnel out, arm themselves with spoons or jump at each other’s throats.

A measure of challenge is added in the form of grants – objectives you can take on for a monetary boost. For example, you can take on the mantle of a small detention centre bent on reforming those who come through its doors into productive members of society. Conversely, though, you can turn life inside your walls into a living hellhole where the guards hand out regular beatings and searches and prisoners are cramped six-to-a-cell.

Things can quickly go wrong at any moment.

I found myself trying to act benevolent. I set up workshops, classrooms, kitchens and lessons for my cons, and made sure they ate well and got plenty of exercise (thanks to Prison Architect‘s impressively in-depth “regime” and “reform” panels). In return I was rewarded with multiple escape tunnels, contraband flowing through the halls in rivers of whiskey and drugs and rampant on-guard violence.

Getting the balance right can take a few tries, but once you do the game rewards you with a highly efficient prison filled with scurrying actors that sometimes you just want to sit and watch go about their day.

Sometimes small bugs can turn out to be hilarious, like a alcoholic prisoner taking his booze to the shower.

The game is still in alpha, and has been for quite some time, yet the developers have taken a pro-active approach: they release regular YouTube videos detailing every planned change and every new feature, meaning the fanbase are never left in the dark.

It currently lacks any form of end goal, which can mean that after a while you begin to run out of ideas for your facility other than just adding more cells. Alternatively, you can go out of your way to start riots and fires, like I did (cackle).

Prison Architect can be picked up in the current Humble Bundle package for $10 (about £6.20) and considering you get a batch of other great games in with that, you can’t say no – especially as I can only see this game going from strength to strength in the future.

8/10

Day Z – human nature simulator 2014

Day Z has been a bit of phenomenon for a while now in the video game world. Where zombie games are a dime-a-dozen, the game that started out as a mod for ArmA II has become a stand-out in the genre.

Possibly the main reason for this is that it is not just a game about zombies and the killing / avoiding thereof. It’s a game purely about survival, and what that goal can do to other people. Play a few hours of Day Z and you’ll soon stop being afraid of Zombies (sometimes they turn into a mere annoyance). What you will become afraid of is other players.

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Probably the complete opposite of what creator Dean “Rocket” Hall intended, when gearing the game towards helping people band up and deal with the undead threat. “This is one of our big issues. So this is what we found, why so many people are bandits: I think it’s because they’re bored, and there’s nothing to do,” He told Kotaku. His new implementation of survival into the game – making it easier to be hungry, thirsty, ill or exhausted – he hopes, will encourage more co-operation. “Now, notice I didn’t say forced to cooperate. Because I think that’s a key difference. They’ll be forced to interact, maybe on a neutral footing, so there’ll be sort of these very high-tension trades occurring between groups of people.”

Everyone has a story of meeting someone in Day Z only to be murdered on sight and viciously robbed. There are literally scores of dead players with their trousers looted in the big cities of Day Z’s huge map.

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I once met someone who followed me through a number of towns, wordlessly, as we looted food, clothes and makeshift weapons. About twenty minutes in we came across a gun – something quite rare in the Day Z standalone – and my erstwhile ally bludgeoned me over the head with a fire extinguisher before I could pick it up.

Not that this has diminished the appeal, for me or for any other player. Many love it for what it is, a raw uncompromising survival simulator. One that will only get more deadly as the game reaches Beta.

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