Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Review: Bastion

Bastion is an action adventure game developed by Supergiant Games and published by Warner Brother Interactive. It's features include: arcade style combat, full voice narration, base building, player tailored difficulty, mini-challenges and much more. Released as an indie developed game, Bastion was created with a small team and minimum budget.

Bastion is set after an apocalyptic event called the Calamity. The Calamity has either destroyed or warped what remains of a once populated and industrious world. Players assume the role of "the Kid", a young soldier who survived the Calamity, and now ventures to learn the truth and to restore the bastion - a beacon of hope in a broken world. Along the way you will meet other surivors, like the wise narrator Rucks, former ambassador Zulf and outcast Zia. As Rucks narrates, the Kid moves from area to area recovering artifacts to restore the bastion.

Gameplay is arcade style, with players choosing weapons, weapon skills, alcoholic passive buffs and enemy difficulty scaling. Weapons in Bastion have an associated challenge area and prizes are won with each level of difficulty. Increasing game difficulty, through a set of god idols, also scales currency rates and XP bonuses. Players have a shield for both defense and counter attack, and an evading roll to tumble out of danger. The action is fast paced, but for the majority of the game players can go at their own speed, taking their time and planning their next fight.

Bastion's music, art design and narration are delightful, making Bastion a very unique experience. As an indie development, Bastion really showcases how much quality you can deliver with a minute budget and small development team. It is also unique in the way it hands gameplay decisions over to the player, a very interesting design choice, trusting the player to tailor their own experience.

The game does have a few minor faults, some difficulty choices make certain weapons generally useless; for example, close range melee weapons are handicapped once the monsters have contact and explosive damage upgrades. Bastions also tends to rely heavily on static turret based monsters, I would have appreciated more lively encounters similar to the first and last quarter of the game.

Bastion is a solid gaming experience, a tour de force for Supergiant Games and independent game development. Bastion's storyline delivery is quite unique, and all types of gamers should enjoy Bastion's adventure, story and arcade style combat.

Bastion is available on Steam and a wide variety of other platforms here.


Note: This is a review of the PC version of Bastion using mouse and keyboard.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Review: X3 Albion Prelude

X3: Albion Prelude(AP) is the latest installment in developer Egosoft's X series of games.  At its heart, AP is a sandbox space sim, blending elements of military, economic and strategic management across an expansive universe. Built on top of X3:Terran Conflict, AP adds new plots, ships, scripts(ship AI) and stock exchange system. AP's story seeks to fill the gap between the end X3:Terran Conflict and the start of X:Rebirth, Egosoft's next game.

X3: Terran Conflict finishes with the discovery of the lost Terran colony in the Aldrin sector and the reconnection of the Terran home sectors with the universal gate network. With new found strength in the Aldrin colony and a new access point to their former enemies, the Terrans have an opportunity to settle an old score. However, before the Terrans are fully prepared, an Albion terrorist/freedom fighter named Saya Kho destroys Earth's orbital ring, forcing the Terrans into war.

AP begins with the player choosing a starting role; roles are split up between races and starting assets. Some roles start with a large ship and wads of cash, while others start with an out-of-date fighter and a poultry sum of credits. Curiously, AP's story isn't told through a Terran plot line, instead it's told through an Argon plot, which is available to all starting roles but the Terran commander. Players should choose their starting role carefully, as some starts are much harder than others.

After choosing a role, you are dropped into your ship and unleashed into the universe. If available, players should take lessons from the flying-school ships in the starting sector. A new player's first goal is, usually, making money, upgrading their ship or preferably both. Station missions, plot missions, trading, fighting and piracy are all good ways to make cash. Depending on your skill level, knowledge and experience, starting can either be a growing pain or delightful challenge. If you are new to the X3 series, you may find the learning curve quite steep, but dogged persistence will lead to success, fortune and a fleet of ships.

Ship to ship fighting, trading and exploration are AP's core gameplay elements.

Drones, fighters, heavy fighters, corvettes, missile frigates, battleships and carriers are some of the fighting craft you will command and encounter during your adventure. AP is set during a warring period, and some sectors are constantly swapping hands between Terrans and the Argon lead Commonwealth. War sectors feature large capital ship battles, which are glorious to behold and participate in. Pirates, Xenon and Kha'ak are naturally hostile towards the player, occupying their own sectors, they need to be either eluded or destroyed.

If fighting is not your style, trading is a simple and lucrative way to make money. Freighters, large and small, are available to transport goods from station to station; AP features scripts for automatic trading between stations. Building your own space stations and trading shares on the local stock exchanges can also create wealth. Space stations can be amalgamated into huge complexes producing many products for player use and sale. AP introduces stock exchanges for players to buy and sell shares, making profit from speculation - buy low, sell high.

AP is a beautiful game, players can just wander from sector to sector, enjoying the view, looking for either trouble or opportunity. Wandering into a hostile sector, full of enemy carriers, is quite scary and often deadly. Scouting, finding new resources and stations, opens new trade routes and targets of opportunity for ship hijacking players. AP allows players to go at their own pace and it never holds your hand or offers an easy way out. Saving outside of a space station requires the player to buy insurance - no freebies for you.

X3:AP is not without its faults. The story is quite short and doesn't fully explain the events concerning the Albion sector. Capturing capital ships via "spacewalking marines" is just terrible. The stock market prints money, if you know what to do. The war between the Terrans and Argon never ends, even with your stout intervention. It sometimes feels like stations are always out of stock, so restocking your ships can be a hassle. Repairing is too expensive and training marines sucks - the two worst things about the game. Thankfully, common issues and nuisances can be fixed by community made mods; the X3 modding community is one of the largest and extensive modding communities on the Internet.

If you like the X series of games and/or space sims you will love AP. AP is beautiful, expansive, cerebral and addictive; you will start playing and quickly lose track of time. Building space stations, accruing wealth and blasting your enemies into space dust is quite enjoyable. AP's sandbox gameplay offers great replay value and tons of awesome space action and adventure.

X3:Albion Prelude requires X3:Terran Conflict to be installed and both are available on Steam.


Note: I did play with a joystick during my playthrough, but a joystick isn't required. You will be using mouse, keyboard and/or joystick extensively while playing.

X3:Albion Prelude now has a new 2.5 patch, adding new plots and bug fixes.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Topic: Steam Sales

If you are a heavy gamer, making your gaming money go further is a requisite. We all need to eat, but your addiction needs to be fed too. How can you save money, but still pay for food?

Fortunately for gamers everywhere, Steam has started its July sales, offering massive discounts on a wide range of games. New sales, on a featured set of games, are made available daily; random mini-sales and community picks(voted games) are also mixed in for good measure. A Steam sale is one of the best ways to buy an expensive game and sweep up its trifling DLC, without going broke.

Multiplayer games offer the best value for money, as multiplayer games are further enhance by community, matchmaking and server discovery of Steam. If you are really strapped for cash, older and indie games are much cheaper and give good value for money. Collections of games, by series or publisher, are also great value.

Steam sales are a great time to buy someone a gift. The steam service allows you to buy and send games to friends and family overseas. Games make great presents for nephews, nieces and video game addled teens.

Happy shopping everyone.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Hot Topic: Anita Sarkessian and Video Games

There has recently been a loud discussion, in my opinion, concerning feminist values and video games. I decided to write this opinion piece regarding video games and feminism because, as everyone knows, games are serious business. So that we are on the same page, this post will outline my views on feminist analysis of video games and the portrayal of women in video games.

Anita vs Ralph
The Issue

Anita Sarkessian has become sensational gaming news concerning her "tropes vs women in video games" Kickstarter. Her Kickstarter involved financing a video analysis of the most apparent stereotypes of women featured in a selection of video games. During her Kickstarter campaign, a backlash occurred from gamers concerned by Anita's motives and outcome bias. Supporters of her campaign flocked to her side, while the backlash grew, and Internet trolls found a new source of entertainment. 

Internet hate is not a new phenomenon, freedom of speech and reasonable anonymity allow people to speak their minds, be it love or hate. Internet trolling, people getting laughs by harassing other Internet users, is at an all time high, an art form unto itself. The better the troll, the bigger the laugh, and the more people who know, the better. There are even troll communities on the Internet, meeting on IRC networks or popular image forums. As long as there is an Internet there will be Internet trolls. Internet trolls targeted Anita and her Kickstarter seeking a comical or flawed response.

Pac-Man, Pong and Space Invaders
The Past

In the past, women were treated like chattel(personal property) of their father, husband or man of the house. The women's suffrage movement demonstrated and fought for women's rights, and succeeded in changing how women are treated in the western world. Modern feminism was born out of the women's suffrage movement. Feminism, to put it as plain as possible, is the struggle for equal opportunity, treatment and income for women. Feminist theory and criticism is often applied to books, speech, movies, music and even video games.

Video games are a relative new form of entertainment. Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Pong are some of the earliest video games made available to the mass public. These classic video games have pervaded into pop culture and feature across multiple media platforms. Many early video games don't discriminate between men or women, even Pac-Man is shown as a genderless pizza with a mouth. Classic video games could be deemed gender neutral and pose no threat to feminist values of equality.

Over the last few decades, boys and men have become the main target of video games and computers/consoles. Any economist knows that people only value what they personally believe holds worth. Men and boys value women and girls, video games that contain beautiful women generally sell more copies. Throughout the 90s, the guns and girls attitude flooded mainstream pop culture, including video games; Arnold, Stallone, Doom and Duke were all successful money makers of the 90s.

Battlefield 3, Bayonetta and Call of Duty
The Now

Today, exploiting the guns and girls market is still big money; the Call of Duty, Battlefield and Bayonetta games are evidence of this continued success. Money is what drives publishers, and, when the Call of Duty franchise has made 3 billion dollars of revenue, exploiting what men and boys want has never been better. Women have only recently become a valued revenue stream for game publishers. With the rise of social media and casual gaming, more women than ever have become a new untapped market waiting to be exploited.

When feminist criticism extends into fictional media and art there will always be a backlash. Feminist analysis of video games raises many questions: Are women poorly stereotyped or are men being exploited by good looking pixels and marketing? Is it possible to objectively analyse a fictional character based on a feminist agenda? Is Anita picking a soft target, concerning female portrayal in video games, when games are often marketed towards men? Is the backlash against Anita warranted, or being exploited to promote her personal goals? Can gamers already guess Anita's conclusions, based on her overt feminist viewpoint?

Brain interface for gaming
The Future

Until Anita's video series is completed, there is no way to accurately answer the myriad of potential questions that feminist critiquing of video game characters creates. I do know there are many strong and complex female characters featured in modern video games, but the majority of support characters(including men and women) are shallow decorations; most female characters fall into support character status. Considering the majority of games are made by men for the male audience, when a good female character does come along, they are often cherished far more than their male counterparts.

In the future, there will be more women and girls playing games than ever before, forcing publishers to develop games to suit them. I believe economics will be the driving force behind better portrayal of women in video games, not feminist criticism of existing female characters tailored for a male audience.

As a gamer, I hope Anita takes the time to fully discover each of her subjects true worth and underlying character. It would be a pity if she held each character up to a feminist ideal, an ordeal none of them were created for.


Sunday, 8 July 2012

PS3 Review: Red Dead Redemption GOTY

Red Dead Redemption(RDR) is an open world western adventure game created by Rockstar and released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles. Rockstar, famous for its synonymous Grand Theft Auto(GTA) series of videogames, brings GTA style gameplay to the western genre. This review will focus on core gameplay and story of the RDR GOTY edition; it will not focus on multiplayer or the Undead Nightmare downloadable content(DLC).

You play as John Marston, a reformed outlaw, who has been blackmailed by an unscrupulous government agency to facilitate retiring his former posse. With his new life and family at stake, John needs to apprehend his former partners in crime - dead or alive. The unforgiving western frontier is full of hardship and sorrow and you'll decide if John continues on his path of reform or devolve into his former criminality.

RDR's storyline follows Rockstar's familiar, capital letter on the map, mission based formula; by completing "named" missions the story slowly unfolds. Gamers who have played previous Rockstar titles will feel right at home, but some might be dismayed at the lack of innovative storytelling techniques. RDR is an open free-roam world, so players may at any time: ride around and experience random encounters; shoot random Mexicans or banditos; participate in mini-games, gunfights, gambling and bounty hunting; lasso horses and people; or just go hunt wild animals.

There is so much to do in RDR I don't think any review could do the content justice. It would take weeks of strenuous playing to fully cover the expansive RDR world and the content it contains. Unfortunately, some of the random encounters do get tiresome; if I see another random "damsel in distress" I'm just going to shoot her and ride away with a smile. Mini-games are also hit and miss, some are good, like poker, and others are frustratingly bad, like five finger fillet. Missions also follow the basic formula of - ride here, shoot people and ride back.


I'm forever going to have a problem with console controls and shooters. RDR really overtaxes the controller and it does take some time to acclimatise. Playing the GOTY edition's hardcore difficulty mode is no easy task; hardcore mode turns off auto aim, reduces player health and slows health regeneration; hardcore mode forces you to rely on medicines and snake oils to survive against the uncannily accurate and numerous AI. Normal difficulty features a snap-to auto aim system that would probably make RDR much easier and balance the AI's accuracy nicely. RDR also features a "Dead-Eye" slow time mode, allowing players to call shots on one or more targets.

Overall, RDR is a decent adventure with a tonne of mini challenges and lengthy story that takes hours to complete. The artwork and world design is detailed and engrossing, but the storyline and mission rewards left me flat. I would've liked Rockstar to have spent more time developing the players relationship with John Marston, RDR's impact would've been much better; and personally, I felt more for Bonnie McFarlane than John because her character is fully developed.

RDR GOTY edition also features a zombie Undead Nightmare DLC and weighty multiplayer scenarios. This review doesn't cover RDR GOTY's extended features, but with all these additions RDR is probably one of the best time sinks for the PS3 or Xbox 360.


Monday, 2 July 2012

PS3 Review: Dark Souls

Dark Souls is a dark fantasy hack n' slash game created by Japanese developer From Software for both PS3 and Xbox 360 systems. A sequel to the sleeper hit Demon's Souls, Dark Souls doesn't stray too far from the original's winning formula. The most notable changes to Dark Souls are the new faction system and the departure from the world/character tendency system of Demon's Souls. Dark Souls is an unrelenting game for the niche hardcore gamer market.

Something is rotten in the state of Lordran - you. After a series of exciting events, prosperity and eventual corruption of society, you find yourself both undead(hollow) and banished; doomed to rot interminably in an undead asylum until the world finally ceases to exist. Luckily for you, fate decides to intervene and sets you back into the broken world as "chosen undead".

Character creation involves choosing a face, body type and starting class. You have a choice of ten classes and each class determines starting statistics and equipment. Like Demon's Souls, Dark Souls' classes are more of a starting guide and do not lock you into an atypical build. The initial game is easier with a knight class' armor, shield and sword compared to a deprived class' club, plank-shield and lack of armor. Magic using classes are also available, but tend to be a tougher start for an inexperienced player.

Dark Souls' gameplay is uncompromising - you will die. The undead asylum features a short tutorial, but after this the hand-holding is over. You will learn to fight and use bonfires to recuperate and save your hard-won progress. Bonfires act as the player's base of operations and, after dying, you will respawn at your last visited bonfire to continue your journey; unfortunately, bonfires also respawn previously defeated non-boss monsters. Arriving at the next bonfire means progression, or you are entering a new area.

Dark Souls rewards careful and thoughtful advancement. Players should take their time and learn how enemies move, defend and attack. Knowledge and exploiting your opponents movements is the best strategy to efficiently defeating them. Defeating enemies will gain you souls, the game's currency, which can then be spent on equipment or character upgrades. Upgrading your character makes them tougher, effects PvP range and unlocks equipment. A final tip - don't rush - rushing through the game will get you killed, even pros who rush will generally end up dying.

The Souls series of games is famous for its inspiring level design and awesome area bosses. Dark Souls' environment design is generally characterized around the area's boss; if an area is full of lava - expect a lava demon, etc. Level design is both intricate and confusing, unfortunately new players can often find themselves without a clear path forward; reading an online guide, Google search or wiki can put the player back on track. The environment itself is a hazard in Dark Souls, it will, often literally, cause your downfall.

If you play Dark Souls online, and you should, there are a number of online only features: PvP and co-op gameplay; spectres of other players; player messages comprising of hints, warning and traps; and blood stains of other players. Touching blood stains will replay someone else's final moments, often warning of a monster, ambush or fall. If you are online, you may trigger co-op or PvP invasion, these add much more tension, flavor and community into the game.

Covenants are a new addition to the Souls series and enable both active co-op and PvP multiplayer. Split between generally evil and generally bad, covenants offer special rewards and abilities to members. Personally, dark wraiths are my favorite covenant; dark wraiths forcefully invade players around the same level and hunt them for souls and humanity. Some covenants remove the level cap for invasions, so a level 30 player could potentially fight a high level 120+ player or group of high level players. Some players have mixed feelings over no-cap fighting, but it does add an amount of variability into the game. PvP is also the fastest and most efficient way to harvest souls, so mastering it does pay off.

Dark Souls is a great game, but it does have its fair share of problems. There are frame rate issues in some sections of the game and lag, but they are generally not a major issue. The game has been out for sometime now and it has become arguably less newbie friendly in relation to covenants and PvP. Dark Souls is not a game for everyone, it doesn't hold your hand or baby you, and this could be a casual gamer's worst nightmare.

In a AAA market dominated by mindless shooters and risk-averse publishers, Dark Souls is another breath of fresh air that takes the average gamer out of their comfort zone. Dark Souls' art, music and design are excellent and its imagery and music resonates. The game rewards tenacity, mastering your character and being as unrelenting as the game itself. Casual players will probably find Dark Souls an untenable and miserable experience, which they cannot drag themselves through - too bad for them.


Note: The best time to PvP is between 5-9pm Japanese time. Why do Japanese players always have two phantoms while pvping? Dishonorable!

This is a review of the PS3 version of Dark Souls, the Xbox 360 version may differ, or not have frame rate issues, etc

Also, a PC version of Dark Souls with added features will hit stores later in the year.