Sunday, 29 November 2015
Monday, 14 April 2014
Sunday, 9 February 2014
Tuesday, 28 January 2014
Saturday, 25 January 2014
XCOM: Enemy Unknown - Review
110 hours and counting. That is where XCOM: Enemy Unknown has taken me. Previously, that kind of time commitment was reserved for massive RPGs like Skyrim, or MMOs like Everquest back in the day (110 hours in Everquest would have probably been about 10% of the hours played...but that's another story). XCOM: EU is a game that keeps you coming back for more.
Interestingly, my first hour of game play did not impress. The opening cinematic sequence doesn't provide much in the way of context. You are thrown into the first mission without a lot of knowledge of the situation. The first mission (not the tutorial) feels like your hand is being held, and you don't feel in control of the situation. The tactical experience is satisfying right off the hop, despite limited options. Post battle, the HQ choices are very limited and the game is linear. I was nervous that this was going to be another paint by numbers game that didn't encourage planning, strategy, and design.
I was wrong. XCOM: EU is playing the long game. It makes its mark in the long term development of your soldiers and your HQ. In fact, the planning necessary (in particular on Classic and Impossible difficulty settings) is substantial to survive. It is easy make choices that result in long term problems. A careful balance of research, engineering, and satellite deployment are essential.
The tactical battles become a much more engrossing experienceonce your soldiers have acquired a few abilities. There's ample opportunity to use your various skills. It never feels like a skill is awarded just for the sake of an award. Almost all have varying degrees of usefulness in the combat field. The use of cover, teamwork, and knowing alien tendencies are constantly a consideration to successfully complete a mission. I did feel the payoff at the end of missions was lacking at times. After aparticularly intense mission, it felt at times like the game could have instilled a better sense of accomplishment.
Like other reviews have consistently noted, if there is one thing that keeps you connected to XCOM: EU, it is your characters. Being able to name your soldiers is such a simple thing, yet the effect is remarkable. Name them after friends, family, co-workers, sports figures, or anything you can dream up. Ironically, the character customization options beyond naming your characters are very limited (even with the Soldier Elite DLC which gives you armour colour and type options). You cannot determine you soldiers country of origin, gender, or class. In terms of appearance, you can modify faces, skin tone, and hair but for some reason they still end up looking pretty much the same except for small cosmetic differences. Despite this, you develop a strong connection to your soldiers. You watch them advance in their class and abilities with pride. When one is inevitably killed, you feel a sense of loss. XCOM: EU wisely plays to this with a memorial wall.
The production values in XCOM: EU are very high. The narrative and exposition are delivered in a very well designed way. The story brings you along at a good pace, and felt like a logical timeline. I loved the philosophical and ethical questions that the narrative engendered. The winning ending was highly satisfying (although the losing cinematic is also a must see).
XCOM: EU is a game that begs to be played a few times through. The enhanced "Second Wave" options on second play though are an excellent incentive. The daunting challenge of Ironman mode is equally tempting, however ultimately a difficult sell when the games primary strength is your bond with your characters. More than once I got into the second month on Ironman mode only to have a total wipe on a mission and be too distraught to continue. Did I quit and walk away? Nope, I decided I just needed to name my characters differently (because that will make a difference, right?), build my HQ in a new way, and make better tactical choices next time. And that, is how you get to 110 hours played.
Friday, 24 January 2014
Immersion; a word that gets used a lot in the realm of gaming these days. It would seem that game designers have been voraciously seeking the key to ultimate game-play immersion for a long time. After all, isn't that what games are about? A way to feel removed from your current surroundings, and injected into a new reality? Gone Home takes aim at immersion through a lesser used pathway. It seeks to weave you into the fabric of a story through the use of character development, nuanced nostalgia, and environmental design.
The "gameplay" is non-traditional insofar as your are not tasked with a fight for survival, completing quests, or solving puzzles (except a few lock combinations which are readily apparent ). Instead, Gone Home is a game that asks you, the player, to take the time to notice the details around you and rewards that strategy with a persistent desire to know more about a character, event, or circumstance. The subtlety with which this is done is especially well conceived. For example, there are allusions one of the characters interest in her friend's grunge band early on in the story. As the game progresses, cassette tapes are found which can be played to hear the band play. It is learned later that the character eventually joins the band, and she can be heard singing on some tapes.
Yes, this game takes place in the mid-nineties. Gone Home was clearly made by people who appreciated the cultural and social icons of that decade. The landscape is littered with loving references to grunge music, fashion, and other pop culturestaples. This is an interesting strategy, and calculated no doubt, by the developer. By doing this, the current thirty-something crowd becomes transported back to a familiar and (hopefully) memorable time of their life. The game's reality instantly gains credibility in the mind of the player. The caveat, of course, of taking this approach is that there is a younger demographic of gamers that this immersion device will not affect to the same extent.
The term "interactive fiction" has been used to describe Gone Home, but that moniker is limiting by not recognizing the visual, auditory, and perceptual triggers the game uses to bring you into the tale. The graphics serve a very specific purpose in this game. One of the primary methods of this is through the use of lighting. Most rooms are oppressively dark upon entering, which in a game about details, is a fairly significant barrier. While finding the light source(s) for the room is usually easy, the impact of lighting up a corner of the room and seeing something laying on the floor that was previously not visible, is considerable.
The attention to detail, visually, is exceptional. In a day and age when ultra-high resolutions have become the defining factor in a game's graphical fidelity, Gone Home uses style over substance to deliver its graphical message. The plethora of notes found throughout the game used to deliver the storyline are often scrawled in various handwriting styles with the penmanship of the author often revealing more about their personality than the words. The documents, pictures, and books the player comes across have a realistic quality that speaks to the creativity of the developers.
Auditory cues are just as well placed as the other elements in the game. While the raucous thunder of the "dark and stormy night "outside is cliché without a doubt, it does add the perception of depth to the environment of a game that takes place entirely inside one house. The tones of the game are established through the expected noises one would find in an older mansion style home. However, most importantly, the voice acting of the characters is superb. When the player interacts with a critical object, it triggers a journal entry read by one of the characters. In her reading, the player can hear the emotional state of the character and gets a sense of her identity right from the start. By the end of the story (which is somewhat predictable, but no less satisfying), the player is left with an empathy not often evoked in games.
What Gone Home does, it does very well. Yet, there is also a sense of limited scope within the narrative. The argument could be made that constraining the story to a single character's exploits keeps the experience focused and linear. There do exist side plots involving other characters although none of those get the exposition through journal entries that the "main" character's do. This feels like a missed opportunity, and keeps those characters fairly one dimensional. The strategy of information seeking though detail as it related to these characters becomes inherently less rewarding and detracts from the game's depth.
This is a game that deserves to have the lights turned low, a warm drink in hand, and perhaps even a gaming/life partner sitting beside you while played. Gone Home is an experience that drops the player into a story, and every click of the mouse is akin to turning the page of a book. It achieves a level of immersion that many games strive for, but few accomplish.