Survival of the Toughest

Hi.  Oh wow, it’s been a long time since I wrote anything here!  In case any of my many, many loyal fans and visitors to this site (hi mum, hi spambots) really miss me and want to know where I’ve been writing about games all this time I have actually been posting some stuff for Beefjack.com (a proper, like, gaming site, I know!  My stuff can be found here) and I’ve started up my EVE Online blog again over here.

In the meantime I wrote a little article about the wonderful and brilliant Day Z that I and half the internet have completely fallen in love with, and survival games in general.  It didn’t really fit on either of my other thought outlets so here it is.  Feedback and comments are, as always, very welcome.

Welcome to the apocalypseSurvival Days

I have had a recurring dream since childhood.  The setting can change, but the overall dream is always the same: I get chased by an angry mob of everybody I have ever met and I have no option but to run.  The dream’s always the same, there will be a point when I keep slipping or feel like I’m running through treacle, and then it ends with me diving into some makeshift hiding place only to be found by the horde and at that instant wake up in a cold sweat.

My reason for sharing this deeply personal anecdote with you, dear readers, is because yesterday I accidentally recreated this dream in the ARMA2 mod Day Z, and in doing so realised why the survival genre is such a brilliantly absorbing one.

Zombies are bad, but other players are worseDazed

We humans are designed for survival.  Living comes easy to many of us in the 21st Century, but survival is still with us, knitted into the fabric of our DNA, our subconscious dreams and our conscious worries.  For all the millennia of changes humans have lived through we haven’t had time to evolve to our new lives, so the same instincts that drove our ancestors to hunt, forage, kill and seek shelter drive us still.  It’s the reason we form strong social bonds with family and friends.  It’s the reason why we love fatty, calorific foods much to the detriment of our waistlines.  It’s the reason we have nightmares as our brains force us to practice fight or flight situations.  It’s why we still get angry and violent when there might be little to get angry or violent about.

It is survival, and it’s why yesterday for a few glorious but terrifying moments in Day Z I forgot I was playing a game at all, pursued by a town’s worth of zombies up a barren hill into an abandoned shack that’s door, I realised too late, could not be shut.  Instinct had kicked in, adrenaline had taken over, I thought I was really there, and was frankly relieved when the zombies burst in to my useless shelter and sent me back to the server lobby.  It was just a game! Thank god.  And then I remembered all the kit I’d lost.  ARRRRGGGGHH!

Day Z, for those that haven’t heard, is a new mod for PC soldier-sim Arma2 that starts you on a beach on an island infested with zombies and 50 other players with no objective other than if you don’t move you will die of thirst and starvation.  So you better get moving!  It’s been so popular it’s been responsible for Arma2‘s rise to the top of the Steam charts for a spell last week, and for Amazon selling out of Arma2 CD keys.  So why has it been so popular, and how can yet another zombie based action game be so ground breaking?

Nightfall provides cover, but you can't see a thing without throwing attention grabbing flaresDon’t Die!

For a start it is so refreshing to be given such a clear and naturally compelling goal: Don’t die!  For years games have spun ever entangling narratives to give us reason to move from A to B and traverse the obstacles and enemies that lie between.  “Your princess is in another castle”.  “Look out! Hitler’s opened the gates of hell!”.  “There’s even more terrorists in that next building!”.  “Oh no! Zombies!/Dragons!/Aliens!/Dr.Robotnik!”.  Etc, etc.

Last night, though, respawning after my terrifying defeat I spent 3 hours looking for a fresh water source in Day Z’s apocalyptic wasteland.  That’s it!  No back story to uncover, no NPCs to save, and no achievements to unlock.  I just needed water or else I would die.  Despite that, it was easily the most engrossing few hours of gaming I’ve enjoyed this year.  I spent 3 hours sprinting from shadow to shadow, looting fallen players, scavenging zombie infested farms, taking a massive detour around another player who didn’t respond to my “friend or foe?” call, and making an audible whelping noise when I crested a grassy hill in the dark to find the silhouettes of 6 shuffling zombies 5 feet in front of me.

Day Z isn’t the first survival game. Even in the last couple of years titles such as Minecraft, Fallout: New Vegas, I Am Alive, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Dead Island and Project Zomboid have all contained some or all of the same survival mechanics: an open world, scarce resources, living off the land, punishing toughness and the tough punishment of permadeath.  Oh, and a constant, crippling atmosphere and tension.  Oh god, the tension!

What makes Day Z stand out from those games is that it strips away any of the peripheral distractions like Fallout‘s storyline, Minecraft‘s collecting and architecting or Project Zomboid‘s skills and perks.  Day Z focuses purely on survival.  It takes ARMA2‘s existing open world, combat mechanics and inventory system and replaces all story and objectives with 4 HUD markers indicating thirst, hunger, temperature and blood.  The objectives don’t need to be spelled out: You need to keep those indicators green.  The storyline doesn’t need an intro cutscene or reams of text: It’s written by your actions as you go.

Not goodNumbers games

I think the appeal of something so simple comes as a subconscious backlash to the RPG-ification of all genres over the last decade or so of gaming.  Sure, in any game we are playing a role but the stats based RPG gameplay that originated in Dungeons and Dragons board games and has worked it’s way from traditional RPGs like Baldur’s Gate into other genres via groundbreaking titles such as System Shock has now proliferated into all games and genres.  I challenge anyone to find a modern game that doesn’t involve some form of levelling up, earning skills and improvements or acquiring unlocks and bonuses through meeting set achievements.

It all comes back to instincts.  The reason we enjoy ‘playing’ as a species is to practice our survival skills: fighting, puzzle solving, reactions.  Equally the compulsion to horde loot in Diablo or to find a bow with a better damage rating in Skyrim comes from the same package of instincts that have helped the human race survive so well over the last million years.  You want more and better stuff than your rivals.  You want to level up to the maximum possible because bigger numbers are better.  It is in our genes.

Yet there is only so many times levelling up yet another character (or vehicle, or football team, or whatever) can provide satisfaction.  You start to forget why you even care that your Old Republic bounty hunter is level 36 rather than level 35.  Survival games remind you by taking away all the distractions and placing you in seriously dangerous surroundings: You care because it’s life or death.

Sanctuary!Playing roles

Day Z also takes role playing back to what it should be about: Playing a role defined by the way you play not the stats you apply to your character.  Its stats and skills are broken down to the simplest calculations: machineguns are better than pistols.  Darkness is stealthier than light.  It’s character progression is equally natural: Do you use that last inventory slot for more bandages or more ammo?

Despite this simplicity clear roles are appearing in the 50-person servers of Day Z games.  The hunter-gatherers live off the land, catching, cooking and eating wild animals, avoiding zombie infested towns and replenishing water bottles at lakes.  The looters forage the towns and cities for new gear, food and water, every incursion a balance between risk and reward.  Meanwhile the bandits form ragtag, distrustful groups of player hunters, earning their survival through the murder and looting of other under-equipped players.

The only goal is survival, the only highscore is the number of days you lasted.  That’s why Day Z is the embodiment of the budding genre of survival games, and why survival games are in many ways the embodiment of gaming in general.

And perhaps a therapeutic cure to life-long recurring dreams?  Here’s hoping.

The PC gaming year that was 2011 – Part 2

Another game about permanent death

.. and I’ve seen it before

.. and I’ll see it again

.. yes I’ve seen it before

.. just little bits of history repeating

Dame Shirley Bassey there, singing about PC games.

Have I ever told you about my first video game?  I’m not so sure that I have.  The first video game I owned was Super Mario Bros 2 that came with the NES I got one Christmas in 1990 or thereabouts.  The one infuriating feature of that game and pretty much every game of that era that remains so strongly ingrained in my memory, buried somewhere between memories of stubbing my big toe on mum’s coffee table and catching myself in the zip of my jeans, is that you could not save your game.  None of the games at the time let you save your game, apart from very rare exceptions (the first Zelda title did in 1987) the consoles and game cartridges just didn’t have the memory to support save games.  It took hours and hours to complete Super Mario Bros 2, even with a healthy knowledge of the hidden warp pipes to skip whole worlds (all of which would have to be found personally or learned from the playground, as the internet wasn’t an option) you could still spend an entire day reaching level 90 only to run out of lives and be booted unceremoniously back to the start.  Or worse a power cut would take it away, or you’d brush the overly sensitive reset button on the front of your NES and all those hours of hard work were worth nothing.

Thankfully technology soon caught up and the ability to save your progress or at the very least get a level code to bring you back to the last level you reached next time you loaded took off in the SNES era, meaning we didn’t need to worry about failing or turning our computers off quite so much ever again.  In fact the safety net provided by the proliferation of ‘quicksave’ buttons, save checkpoints and respawning over the course of the decade mean the modern gamer rarely has to play the same stretch of game twice, and is therefore no longer afraid of death.

Some people think that is not such a good thing.

PermaDeath is Dred-ful

2011 – The year of PERMADEATH!!!

So if there is one gaming trend in 2011 that I’m fascinated by the most it is the sudden resurgence of Perma-death as an acceptable gaming occurrence, and in some cases the entire premise around which to build a game.  Of course the idea of a game that doesn’t let you save is not new, and the genre that holds perma-death as a core belief, roguelikes, has been quietly producing games since the 70s right through to now, but 2011 was the first year I’ve seen so many popular games released where death means death.  Plus I’ve largely enjoyed all of them instead of running out of the room screaming, which is a first (Spelunky aside) since those heady days of the early nineties.

What games am I wittering on about you ask?  In no particular order I am thinking of:

Binding of Isaac  I talked about this in part 1.  Whilst it shares more in common with early Nintendo games in its gameplay it does share all the basic premises of a roguelike with: no saving, no ‘lives’ (well, except for one very rare 1up item), and every new level is procedurally generated at random when you start.  The beauty of the Binding of Isaac is each game is thankfully short, so even if you reach the second last level and die, it’ll only take you 20 minutes to catch up.  But maybe next time there won’t be any keys around to let you into the item rooms on each level leading to a certain death half way through this playthrough?  Or perhaps instead the devil will appear after an end of level boss and offer you a super power up in exchange for a heart of health that makes the difference and helps you reach the final boss?  It’s the random nature of each game and the never-ending list of items and power-ups to be found that make it so replayable, which is essential for a game that forces you to start again every time you die.

Dungeons of Dredmor Probably the most roguelike of the games I’m talking about Dredmor has turn-based combat, RPG levelling-up, item looting and crafting, and an increasingly difficult depth of dungeons to fight through.  Slightly disproving my point, though, savegames are an option in Dredmor.  However, Permadeath is still very much, err, alive.  Which just means you can spend all week getting further than you’ve done before, saving your progress as you go, levelling your character into a super Diggle hunter, crafting marvellous weapons of destruction, only to die in a slightly over-ambitious skirmish and lose everything you worked for with your saves being wiped instantly.  That said most of my attempts have ended in the first 2 dungeons, meaning I’ve barely levelled up or collected anything to lose.  While there’s a wealth of items to collect the biggest problem with the pleasantly humourous Dungeons of Dredmor is the decision to make almost all enemies Diggles.  They’re just so daft and repetitive.  They’re the RPG equivalent of Halo’s grunts.

Realm of the Mad God Mad is the operative word in Realm of the Mad God.  Give it a go now if you haven’t before.  It’s totally free and plays in your browser.  Go on, play it now.  Stick with other players and try to be the first to grab any dropped loot.  You’ll die within 10 minutes, but have a good idea what I’m talking about then.

Finished?  Have fun?  It’s insane isn’t it?  I can’t remember a game in which you level up quite so fast.  Once again it’s a game released in 2011 that cares not for how much loot you’ve collected or what level you’ve reached.  When you die, YOU DIE.  Imagine if Skyrim did that to you?  Realm of the Mad God shares that pace and brevity with Binding of Isaac that mean it’s not too frustrating to start again following death, and it brings back that other aspect of early nineties gaming – trying to beat a personal best.  It’s certainly wormed its way onto my favourites tab.  My highest level reached?  A pitiful level 10, so far.

Desktop Dungeons Again there is a free version of this if you want to try it (there’s also a spruced up complete version on the way).  This was the first game I played this year where permadeath was a key feature.  The turned based combat, loot drops, permadeath and dungeon delving are all taken from roguelikes and again they’re packaged up in an accessible, addictive, coffee-break lengthed blast of fun.

Made by the Spelunky guy.  He's got a thing about PermadeathSo…yeah.  that’s just a thing I noticed in 2011.  Will permadeath feature in more games next year?  Or were roguelikes just this year’s 2D platformers?  Will Modern Warfare 4 feature a ‘Realism’ mode where when you die the game shuts down and can’t be played ever again even if you take it back to the shop and get it replaced?  Will I take the hint made by the fun I’ve had with the 4 games mentioned and take a dive into a true roguelike, like Nethack or Brogue perhaps?  Probably none of the above.  But I will be playing Binding of Isaac and Realm of the Mad God again.  And again…  And again….

The PC gaming year that was 2011 – Part 1

Spooky2011 now officially over it seems a good time to review the year that was, and what a year it was for PC games!  The world seemed to fall apart around us month by month, but thankfully those hard working developers large and small kept producing a vast amount of high quality video games to keep us all distracted from impending Armageddon.  There has already been a few opinions on whether 2011 was a vintage year for gaming.  Perhaps the quantity of titles masked the quality of them.  Perhaps the need, in this big-budget money driven industry, to make games that are known to be popular over games that are original and new has been to the detriment to the art form, and the fact that the vast majority of big games this year were sequels and the remainder were new stabs at tired genres would probably back that up.  Whatever the case though, I don’t think anyone can disagree that there were a lot of great games released in 2011.  I can’t remember a year in which I had so much fun.  So to round it up there’s a couple of things that happened this year that I think are worth noting over the course of a few blog posts.  First of all, 2011, the year that was….

2011: The year of Indie abundance

With the big developers sticking to what they know best (more on this later) it was again down to the independent developers to provide something new and exciting for the jaded gamer in 2011.  Although Minecraft only officially came out this year I think it’s fair to call it 2010’s game, and along with Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it stole the show from the AAA developers last year with the 2 being my favourite games of last year.  This year I don’t think any Indie game was quite that good, but so many came close and this can only continue to inspire a future of small, cheap, original and superb games from creative and unrestricted indie developers.

So in a very particular order of ‘quite pleased by’ through to ‘most pleased by’ 2011 produced (deep breath):

Spacechem You only had to wait until 1st January to get your first gaming fix of 2011 with this delightfully brain-twisting puzzler.  It’s hard, confusing and feels a little bit like doing science homework but if you want originality in a neatly presented package with just the right amount of narrative to give you reason to carry on then that box was ticked on day one.

Limbo Visually stunning, great use of sound, shame about the puzzles and the fact the first 10 minutes are the best part of the ……OH CHRIST!  A SPIDER LEG!

Victory Pose!Chtulu Saves the WorldFrom my limited knowledge of what ‘the kids’ are listening to nowadays I understand 2011 was all about the early nineties sound, and so it seems that gaming in 2011 had a big early nineties thing going on too.  Acronym of the year must go to SNES, and Chtulu Saves the World probably played the greatest homage to the best console ever (you can quote me on that, future historians).  Chtulu plays like a SNES RPG, like Final Fantasy IV era FF games, but gives away its year of birth through the reams of hilariously knowing writing that takes the piss out of its own genre’s foibles as well as every other genre and media form.  From the story, to the characters, enemies, weapons (there are SO MANY characters, enemies and weapons) and even the options menu this game is silly, you’ll know in the first 2 minutes whether you’re going to enjoy its brand of humour.  If you do, play it on easy, blast through the annoying combat and you can enjoy one of the funniest games of the year.  Plus at £1.99 full price on Steam and clocking in at 10s of hours of play it’s also the year’s best bargain (ignoring ‘free-to-play’ things).

SmashingAtom Zombie Smasher Insanely fun, apocalyptic, explode everything-em-up that once again proves there is no end to the different genres zombies work in.  AZS is basically a Real-Time Strategy game with a turn based ‘preparation’ layer between levels, making it sound a tiny bit like a Total War game, but believe me it is something completely different that I’m not even going to try and explain.  Look, just try the demo, it’s great.  It’s one of the few games I actually enjoy losing, there’s just something right about the game ending with your valiant efforts being all for nothing as the zombie infection spreads across your entire city.  Which is just as well because I have only ever beaten it on the patronising ‘Casual’ mode.  AZS also wins the award for soundtrack of the year, in my humble opinion.

Terraria It’s not a 2D Minecraft, but it does involve mining and crafting.  Where it differs is the complexity of things you can find and create and the structure that increasingly difficult monsters and bosses bring to the procedural proceedings.

Like a cute AlienCapsized Indie developers love a side-scrolling platform/shoot em-up and 2011 was no different, but Capsized really is as good as the genre gets.  It is beautifully drawn, has a wealth of slowly discovered weaponry, the best use of a gravity gun outside of Half-life 2 and every level is different and interesting.  You really need to play this one to the end so you don’t miss out on the low-gravity floating-island hopping of the last couple of levels.  Then play the gravity-gun only ‘armless levels’.  Just perfect.

Frozen Synapse I’ve talked about this before.  I’m still enjoying it when I occasionally hop on for a game.

Gemini Rue I’ve done this before too.  It’s ace.

Wait til his mum finds outBinding of Isaac Another game that drips with early nineties inspiration, the Binding of Isaac plays like a bastard child of the Legend of Zelda and Smash TV that was locked in the basement for the length of its childhood with nothing to do but relive its rogue-like nightmares over and over again day after day.  Providing you’re ok with the setting this is an incredibly addictive time-sink that I’m still enjoying even after finishing it once (and trying and failing to complete it about 50 times) there’s just so many items to unlock and achievements to achieve.  That setting, though?  Well, the Binding of Isaac is a cartoon game with biblical overtones whose main protagonist, Isaac, is a naked child who shoots tears and pee at his horrifying enemies who are all flys, worms or contorted caricatures of himself.  His goal is to find and kill his own mother (in self-defence), and the power ups include a dead cat, his mum’s high heels and sanitary towels, and bomb diarrhoea.  It’s, err, not for everyone, but that just makes me like it even more.

The kid done goodBastion – Last and (just) best in my little Indie round-up of 2011 is this beautiful action-RPG that’s light on the RPG, heavy on the action and absolutely dripping with artwork, atmosphere and superb narrative (and I mean literally, the narration is superb).  Considering the story sees you trying to salvage a home and search for survivors in a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by genocide, war and weapons of mass destruction the game built around this dark heart just looks so nice and sweet!  The graphics and artwork are lovely.  The combat is fluid and fun, with unlocked weapons providing different tactics rather than just more firepower (except for the last couple).  And the way the story unfolds through the narrator’s Big Lebowski style southern-US drawl is charming, original and, come the final moments, genuinely neck-tingling.

One of the most exciting things about Bastion?  It built so much hype pre-launch that the game was snapped up by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for publication (who’ve published Batman: Arkham Asylum, Lord of the Rings Online and FEAR 3 among others), proving that Indie games are getting a lot of attention from big investors nowadays, and whilst Minecraft and others have proven you don’t necessarily need the backing of big publishers to make big games, it has got to be a positive sign that the most creative source for games are getting proper backing and attention.  Are publishers tiring of backing massive-budget games in the same old genres where one failure can bankrupt a publisher and endanger an entire network of developers?  I don’t know about that, but the gap between ‘AAA’ games and ‘indie’ games is definitely getting narrower which can only be a good thing for the future of games.

Next up in the 2011 round-up – Perma-death and Detective work

Frozen Synapse Review

En-titledGreen ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again before rising to sprint to the next door ahead.  BANG!  A sniper shot through a window to his right felled him.  Try Again.

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and edged to the doorway ahead in a crouched position.  He leaned round the doorway to…KER-BLAM!  A shotgun blast threw him back into the room.  Try again.

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and waited, crouched with his sights trained on the door.  Brrapt!  He shot the shotgun wielding enemy as they passed the doorway.  Green edged to the doorway, leaned round the corner and dashed for his goal.  No deaths.  No nasty gunshots.  Perfect. 

Tactical shooteryFrozen Synapse is a tactical, turn based combat game in a style that will be fairly familiar to anyone who’s played X-COM or Laser Squad Nemesis.  The game plays out in singleplayer and multiplayer missions in which you direct a small squad by giving out intricate instructions to each member in a planning phase, that then plays out in a 5 second burst of action, before returning to the planning phase to plot out the next 5 seconds, and repeat until the match is complete.  Matches can take 15-20 minutes of plotting and planning, but when replayed in realtime last for all of 30 seconds.

What stands Frozen Synapse apart from it’s 1990s forebears is the ease with which instructions are issued (with a right click menu, or knowledge of a few hotkeys, offering everything you need) and a ‘play’ button that gives you the ability to view how events in the next 5 second chunk should pan out based on your current plan.

So, for instance, I can give my machinegunner instructions as per the beginning of this article and click play to see what will happen.  Ah, he gets sniped!  Let’s try something different then, what if he ducks?  That works, but then he meets that shotgunner.  What if he waits for him to round the corner first?…etc

The ability to plot actions for your enemies is what’s essential to the planning phases.  You can assume a sniper will stay still aiming in the window, but in actuality he may turn and move to a better position instead.  That shotgunner may run round the corner, but he may stay where he was and wait for you instead.  Which eventuality do you plan for?  There’s enough possibilities in the seemingly simple instructions available to mean you never actually know what will happen when you finally click ‘commit’.  Every planning phase centres around the ever present commit button, beckoning you to find out what is actually going to happen to your men.  Clicking it is one of the tensest moments in recent gaming as a short loading bar fills to reveal the outcome….

Green ran through the doorway, ducked on to one knee, swung his machinegun sights right, then left, aimed forward again and waited.  No one rounds the corner.  No shots from the window, and then out of the corner of his eye Green spots a rocket propelled grenade fizzing across the courtyard straight for his position.  Shit!  The rocket flies towards him and….it freezes in mid air, 2 feet from his face.  PLANNING PHASE

Presentation is key for an indie game such as this, requiring style over polygons to win you over, and mode7 have obviously taken great inspiration from some of the master indie developers.  Frozen Synapse is so reminiscent of Uplink that you’d be forgiven for assuming it was a new Introversion title.  In fact their upcoming game Subversion bears even more resemblance.  This is no bad thing though, and the crisp, functional style adds to the ease with which you command your troops.

The music, too, is excellent, and could be swapped for Deus Ex’s without anyone noticing.  In case you aren’t sure what that means, it means its very good!

The story's told through this mission hubThe singleplayer shares a similar cyber-punk edge, too, telling the story of sci-fi mega-corporations using the matrix-esque ‘shape’ to do virtual battles for territory across a future metropolis.  The 55 mission story is told through conversations and news stories told every few missions, which is often enough to break up the combat nicely without getting too in the way of the addictive need for more strategising.  The story doesn’t take itself too seriously and contains a few memorable characters, especially an AI with an amusing lack of concern for the wellbeing of your squad members, and some absolutely ridiculous names for people and places.  Case in point: your character is called Tactics, because “that’s what you’re good at”.

For a game that seems built for one-on-one tactical battles best played against other humans, the singleplayer makes a really good effort at striking off on its own, forcing you to take different tactical approaches to the usually careful, defence-led multiplayer skirmishes.  The missions comprise a healthy mix of objectives, from wiping out much larger teams than your own, frantic escort missions and mad dashes for strategic bonuses (like reinforcements, or just a big explosion).  My favourites being when you have to take out a huge team of snipers, say, using only 2 shotgun wielding grunts.

Ultimately, though, the singleplayer is going to be a warm-up to the main event: the skirmish and multiplayer battles.  Frozen Synapse is so crisp in its presentation, simple in its execution and satisfying in it’s 5 second outcomes that it is incredibly absorbing and difficult to drag yourself away from.  The seeming ease and simplicity of delivering your instructions, testing out a few scenarios and then clicking commit means games share that ‘just one more click’ addictiveness of the Civilizations and Football Managers of this world.  The tense pace of each game and satisfying impact of the firefights that break out share more in common with the Counterstrikes and Call of Dutys, than any fellow strategy games.

After clicking commit you notice yourself pull closer to the screen.  Each loss unleashes a muttered curse.  Each kill, a fist punch into the air.  And then 10 minutes later, win or lose, you’ll find yourself breathing a sigh of released tension, before clicking ‘find a game’ again.  Just one more before bedtime, you’ll say.  Just 1…maybe 2, more.

For a game so tense, and so fraught with hidden danger, you never find yourself frustrated when inevitable loss and failure arrive.  5 seconds is a long time when you’ve made the wrong move.  It’s plenty of time for a sniper to get off a shot.  Time for a rocket to launch and impact by your feet.  Plenty of time for a nimble shotgunner to run through two rooms, pop up by that window and blow the head off your prized machinegunner.  But every time that happens and you lose a squad member you never have anyone to blame or curse but yourself.  The tools are there in the planning phase to see what would happen if that sniper aimed that way, or that shotgunner ran through those rooms ignoring all hostiles, so you never feel cheated or fooled when it unfolds against your expectations.

It can’t all be perfect though, can it?  Well, no game is without its faults.  The main issue that will only start to show as you play a number of games, is the game is intrinsically designed to benefit a defensive strategy.  A still machinegunner will always shoot a moving machinegunner before the moving one returns fire.  A machinegunner behind cover will always beat a machinegunner out of cover.  And so the best players, and you may find yourself doing this, will always plump to have as many of their squad as possible standing or crouching motionless behind cover.  This can lead to some incredibly boring games, this following one being a classic example:

There’s more satisfaction to be had from playing more offensively, but there’s no satisfaction to be found losing game after game because you keep wandering into a corridor of fire.  The singleplayer, too, is initially a great antidote to this by forcing you to play more offensively to achieve objectives within a given number of turns, but as the game progresses more and more defensive tactics are required to win.  Equally a number of multiplayer modes are on offer to promote different styles of play, but if anything these mostly promote even more defensive play from the likes of ‘secure’ and ‘hostage rescue’.  Some may enjoy this but I just think it’s a shame the game rewards boring tactics the most when I find the greatest moments are when you’re hunting down a target, gambling on when to lower your gun and run across a room, or when to carefully aim and tip-toe.

This is just a small creeping concern though, one that hasn’t stopped me remaining thoroughly addicted to a game I’ve clocked up more hours on in the few weeks I’ve had it than any other game this year (aside from EVE online, but that’s more a lifestyle choice than a game).  Spending an evening in tactical duels, using the turn-based nature of the game to chain a few games at a time, is likely to be a regular feature throughout the rest of this year.  Even if they do become less frequent as the novelty wears thinner this is going to be one of those games, like Desktop Dungeons, that’s there waiting for me when I have a quiet half hour.  A 20 minute gap before bed that needs filling.  Just one quick game, I’ll think.  Just one quick game, and then another.  And then…just one more.  That’s all…

9/10

P.S.  I just had to post this, my greatest Frozen Synapse victory.  Note at the end of turn 1 I have 1 squadmember left, compared to the computer’s 4:

Witcher 2 review

The Witcher games, based on Andrzej Sapkowski‘s Polish novels, tell the story of Geralt of Rivia, an amnesiac, white-haired monster-slayer who channels a combination of Aragorn, James Bond and Obi-Wan Kenobi into a modern day, uber-cool, action hero dressed in medieval fantasy clothing.  The world he inhabits is typical fantasy fair, but there’s a pleasing depth to the fiction’s politics, people and prejudices.  The first game was applauded for it’s slightly different take on the age-old RPG formula, eschewing standard turn-based boardgame combat for a more hands-on, almost rhythm game, action style.  The plot and choices the player could make were also praised for never towing an obvious good or evil line, but instead forcing difficult moral decisions without easy or comfortable outcomes.  All that said, though, I personally found the first game too much of a chore.  The good points were soon lost within endless grinding objectives and a less than satisfying combat system that soon grew tiresome.  Will the second game be any better?  Will CD Projekt improve on the first game’s faults without losing it’s unique positives?  Well, read on and we’ll see.
Geralt's girlfriend is kidnapped when he's distracted by the game's particle lighting effectsFirst things first we’ll get the obvious box ticked: the graphics.  The graphics are stunning.  The Witcher 2 is a PC only game and it shows.  With the console system requirements out of the picture CD Projekt have been able to take advantage of every advance in computing power PCs have seen in the last few years.  Equally as important the developer’s artists have taken the chance to make full use of all these techniques.  The forests look lush, forget being able to see every blade of grass you can see every stitch on the tent cloth and clothing.  It’ll all seem old and unspectacular in a few years time as graphics always do but the memorable monsters, and large, open, living areas (with few loading pauses) will remain impressive for a lot longer.

The only downside is that this is a game designed for high-end PCs.  It’s the first game my newest (2 year old) PC has had to run on the ‘low’ graphics setting to run smoothly.  ‘Medium’ worked but too many busy fights and important cutscenes reduced to jumpy slideshows.  The settings can all be individually tweaked and tuned to squeeze the most out of it if you’re that way inclined, but compared to Crysis 2, which I played on maximum settings on the same PC, you can’t help think the game isn’t very well optimised.  Future patches are already being advertised as improving this, so the less hardware fortunate may see improvements soon.

How about that combat then?  You’ll spend a lot of your time fighting so it’s an important point.  Thankfully the QTE timing aspect of the last game is gone, for a more open, responsive combat style.  There are 4 essential buttons: left-click for a sharp sword swipe, right-click for a heavier more damaging blow, press space to dodge, and press q to cast a spell.  That’s it!  Pleasingly simple and responsive to a player after my own, FPS weaned, heart but this might horrify the more traditionalist RPG crowd, but I’d urge them to give it a try:

Simple as it sounds combat is incredibly difficult to start with (unless you play on easy).  This is a bit of a gripe, to be honest.  Nothing is explained to you so you’re left to work out a lot for yourself which would be fine if the learning curve eased you in with simple fights against one or two enemies at a time, but that doesn’t happen.  Expect to face 6 or more sword wielding soldiers at a time within the first 15 minutes of the game.   Even the six spells you have access to from the start have no explanation attached on the selection screen, just their weird names, so you have to use trial and error to work out which are any use (beginners: Use Quen.  Quen is your friend.  It keeps you safe-ish when attacked from all sides.  Don’t worry about the other’s until you meet your first boss fights.)

What this does force you to do, though, is explore all the tactical possibilities your magic and gear provide.  Even with defensive spells activated a few good sword blows is enough to kill Geralt, and your enemies are almost equally as strong and vastly outnumber you.  So hacking and slashing will quickly see you surrounded and killed, meaning combat becomes a ballet of circling and dodging, only attacking when an unshielded back reveals itself and then diving away before they retaliate.  Utilising your limited magic (Only 2 spells can be cast at a time, with a long cooldown timer leaving you waiting before you can cast more) is a case of picking the right magic for the right opponent.  Stun bolts and traps for lumbering monsters, shielding and health buffs against hordes of nimbler soldiers.

Potions also allow you to tweak and improve your stats for lengths of time aswell (often improving one skill to the detriment of another), but again this is all about planning, as they can only be consumed when Geralt is in a meditative state, something that cannot be achieved during combat.  Again, you’ll want to take the right potion before the right fight.  This might sound like another unfair disadvantage to first time players but the game does generally sign post when anything out of the ordinary might be coming up, with some pre-boss fight quests completely revolving around the collection of necessary ingredients for a particularly useful potion for the fight.

This guy swears a lotThe best part of the Witcher 2 though is far and away the grown-up storytelling and choice making.  I think it’s best explained with a slightly spoilery anecdote.  Consider yourself warned.

I’ve just ridden out of a town I was staying in for a few days.  It was a nice enough stay, the residents were largely friendly and hospitable, from the fancy noblemen running the town from garrisoned mansions, to the humble peasants living in huts outside the town walls, they were happy to help me, serve me and build me shiny swords.  But now that’s not going to happen anymore.  That’s not going to happen because the town is burning to the ground.  Leaderless the peasants riot in the streets, minorities are being abused and murdered in their homes and the only reason I went there in the first place has legged it hundreds of miles away.  IT WASN’T MEANT TO BE THIS WAY!  I THOUGHT I DID EVERYTHING RIGHT!

But there in lies the fallacy: There is no right or wrong way to tackle the situations Witcher 2’s story turns up, you will forever be choosing between one grey and another until a segment of story concludes and all those little choices tumble together to form some hideous reality you spent the whole time trying to avoid.  This violent end to the first chapter is avoidable, I can see that now it’s concluded, I can see what I could have done to change this outcome.  The thing is I don’t want to change it.  I don’t want to reload from an earlier save, I don’t want to check an online walkthrough for the perfect path, I want to see where these mistakes will lead me, I want to try to put them right further down the line.

The story, and it’s malleability, is what elevates the Witcher 2 above its RPG peers.  Choice is meaningless without consequence and it’s in the sweeping consequences of your, sometimes seemingly small, choices that drives you on through the game’s world.

Ian Hislop cameos as a guardAt it’s core the Witcher 2 is a traditional RPG in mechanics and setting.  Your character, the incredi-cool Geralt, levels up in the traditional fashion of completing quests and killing monsters, and levelling up unlocks new abilities and improvements.  His kit is modifiable with the traditional litany of stupidly named swords, armours and potions that all provide ‘plus 10’ strength and ‘times 10% dodge chance’ etc.  The fantasy setting is as clichéd as it gets, from elven forests, medieval castles, fairytale monsters that almost always live in caves, quests for kings, everyone being called Somebody the Something of Somewhere, and even the slightly unusual protagonist, Geralt the Witcher, is essentially a Jedi in medieval clothing.

It would all add up to the worst kind of deja-vu induced vomiting if it weren’t for the fact that when you finally meet, say, Dungle the Woodmole from Mirwood he calls you a cunt and challenges you to a winner takes all arm-wrestle so he can spend the winnings in the local brothel (fully functioning, err, so I’m told.  Ahem).  I’m not saying it’s nice because it’s violent, or that it’s funny because he said a rude word, it’s great because Dungle speaks exactly how a medieval peasant should speak and that draws you right in.  The incidental details throughout the game, in the visual finishes, sound effects and bantering dialogue really make the world feel real.  It almost feels like showing off that CD Projekt achieved this in such a clichéd fantasy setting.  The town of Flotsam alone could comfortably sit alongside the Liberty Citys and Hong Kongs (a la Deus Ex) of this world as living, breathing gaming locations.  It feels so grubby in a way shiny modern graphics rarely let a location feel.

This is one of the first games in a long time that I actually enjoyed having incidental conversations with NPCs.  Usually anything outside of necessary plot exposition is to be avoided for fear of boredom and bad acting, but here the dialogue gives real depth to the characters you meet.  Every line is spoken as well, no text here, with some superb voice acting, especially from the peripheral characters like the peasants of Flotsam, let down by a very few stilted deliveries.  Ironically Dandelion the Bard springs to mind as one of the worst offenders.  Even passing strangers in the street have a couple of lines of, occasionally amusing, dialogue for you and it’s clear a lot of love and attention has gone into the translation from Polish.

Elven terrorists add some light hearted comedy to proceedings, oh no, wait, they don'tIt can’t all be perfect though, can it?  There are certainly some places where the style and finish falls down.  In keeping with the adult language the game takes a pretty liberal view to nudity, well, female nudity at least.  That’s not a complaint in itself, but in its delivery you can’t help feeling a 13 year-old boy directed the sex scenes, the number of boob and bum shots that fill your screen.  And despite every single sex scene involving Geralt I dont think I’ve ever seen him from the waist down.  It’s not a complaint (might be for some I guess?) but it just stands out as odd compared to the number of lady bits the game quite frequently displays.  It all feels a bit ‘late-night preview’ rather than the cinematic feel that is otherwise achieved.

The game direction shows some over eagerness on the cutscene front too.  The game is littered with them, taking Geralt out of your control just at the crucial moments.  Equally frustrating is the number of quick-time events they chose to stick in them too, meaning some of what should be your most memorable encounters are reduced to mindless button tapping, with the inevitable failure and reload happening an annoying number of times.  It’s a shame because the game proves there are better ways of doing things: some parts of the story that you would expect to be shown through cutscene are brilliantly handled by letting you play as alternate characters to see something happening that Geralt would have missed.  Playing a king strolling to a meeting with advisors babbling away at either side with gossip and news being a particularly excellent piece of plot exposition.  When the king arrives and I got to choose his responses to huge, country affecting questions I almost dropped my pipe.

Another note of caution: The saving system is infuriating.  It is neither checkpoint based or quick-save based, but a mixture of the two, in that it teases you with the ability to quicksave to your heart’s content in non-combat situations but as soon as any of the, sometimes lengthy, combat sequences (or, god forbid, boss battles) kicks in you cannot quicksave, just when you might want to save!  It’s a debate for another time, quicksaving, but for anyone like myself who trusts themselves to save only when they need and want to (lets say during a lull in the fighting 5 minutes into a 10 minute boss fight) then this aspect is going to frustrate you.

All told the challenging combat, complex choices, believable characters and absorbing world the Witcher 2 provide make this a must play game.  At 20-odd hours of gameplay it’s a lot shorter than the original or many of its RPG peers, but for every hour CD Projekt shaved off it’s length they added in content.  CD Projekt’s the Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings is a punk song of an RPG compared to something like Bioware’s more traditional, meandering prog-rock Dragon Age series.  With it’s 4-letter dialogue, 3-chord combat, nudity, drugs and debauchery it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste, but to dismiss it on that basis would be to miss out on some of the finest fantasy role-playing the genre has ever offered.

In stripping away much of what grates with more traditional RPGs the Witcher 2 has been able to bring the storytelling and choice making to the fore in a succinct, brilliantly presented, grown up style.  Like the best punk songs it’s short, explosive and sweet, and when it’s finished you’ll want to play it again.

9/10

Review's over, which way to the tavern?