Apr 182016
 

Status: complete / platinum

Most Intriguing Idea: Taking the open-world shooter away from actual shooting

Best Design Decision: Well-chosen achievements

Worst Design Decision: Bullet… er, arrow-sponging bosses

Summary:

After the combat bow was one of the better parts of Far Cry 3, 4 and Blood Dragon, we finally get a game where it’s the star. Far Cry Primal rolls the series setting back to Europe 10,000 years ago so there are no guns, only arrows, spears, clubs, and flint knives. There’s no camera either, so the main character Takkar quickly gains the ability to summon an owl that can “tag” enemies so their movements can be tracked in the world or on the minimap (turning off the minimap improves the game significantly). As an added bonus, he can “tame” predators to do some murdering for him.

Primal is mostly notable for the fact that although it’s fun, almost nothing in it really works. There’s an effort to model an ecosystem, but predators just constantly attack prey animals without ever settling down to eat any of their kills. The game tries to use a day/night cycle to create a sense of danger but doesn’t create a good risk/reward balance for night-time because it just streams an absurd number of predators into most areas.  Animals (and people) are supposed to have a fear of fire, but following the pattern of FC3 and FC4, fire doesn’t spread aggressively enough or look threatening enough to be actually frightening. Additionally, animals of all kinds will just happily run into any camp no matter how many fires (controlled or not) are burning. The stone-age setting makes melee fighting a necessity, but the game’s first-person melee is basically junk. Primal tries to tell a story through assembling a village, but the individual stories of the characters Takkar finds never really connect. Worse, his building of the village never really contributes to the conflict against his antagonists.

This was most noticeable in the game’s absurdly terrible boss battles, where Takkar has to fight gimmicky chieftain enemies that have giant life bars and continually summon dozens and dozens of adds. If I wanted to deal with this kind of bullshit I would still be playing Destiny, but at least that game can explain, via sci-fantasy voodoo, why a fairly ordinary-looking foe can shrug off ten full mags of machine-gun ammo. It’s much more difficult to understand why a near-naked neanderthal can ignore a spear hurled into its eye-socket. If Takkar could have summoned any of his hundreds of tribesmen for these climactic battles they could have been cool and interesting but instead they devolved into running around, looking for new spears while slinging meat at my bear to keep it alive. The boss fights in Primal represent everything I hate about the current direction of shooter design and cast a negative pall over the whole game for me.

That said, how did it happen that I ended up with a platinum for this game, something I almost never do? Well, it has to do with some really good trophy/achievement design. It turns out you don’t have to “complete” the game or its various collect-a-thons to get all the achievements. Most of the achievements were built around making the player really explore all of the game’s systems. So, there are trophies for using each of the weapons a certain (non-excessive) number of times, for trying out stuff like riding on an animal to fight, for attempting to kill enemies at long distance, and so on. I didn’t like all of this stuff, but grabbing the achievements was a low enough bar that it encouraged me to get away from my default pattern of only switching between the bow and spear and occasionally flinging a beehive “grenade” at powerful enemies. Encouraging the player to try new ways of playing the game is the best use of achievements, in my opinion, so I appreciated that.

Primal isn’t a great game, and in a lot of senses isn’t even a good one. Enemies come to be too strong towards the end of the game, and the progression system can’t compensate. The experience system still tilts way too strongly towards stealth (although the limitations of the weapons here make long-range sniping somewhat less viable). The crafting and upgrade system is a silly, ill-designed timesink that nonetheless gets exhausted long before the game ends. Also, Ubisoft still can’t make the Dunia engine pause the damn game when the controller battery dies. This is a decent time-filler, but despite the adversity Takkar faces, that true Far Cry feeling of disaster and improvisation is still missing.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended

Mar 072016
 

Status: Story complete, all Endless modes unlocked

Most Intriguing Idea: Time stops moving when you do

Best Design Decision: The throwing / grabbing interactions

Worst Design Decision: Lack of embodiment

Summary:

The elevator pitch is this: SuperHot is a first-person Hotline Miami spliced with Matrix-like slow-mo. Time moves quickly only when the player does, allowing for incredible precision of action. The game balances against this incredible power by making the player’s other resources very finite. Any gun the player picks up can only be fired a few times, most melee weapons break apart in a swing or two, enemies enter the map unexpectedly and with random loadouts. Consequently the player must constantly be checking every angle, dodging bullets, and throwing punches and breakable objects to disarm enemies. While some levels are as puzzle-like and almost calm as the setup suggests, most are a whirlwind of improvisational violence.

When this works well this is amazing, which is the only word that can describe a sequence where I smacked a dude in a face with a painting, snatched his katana out of the air, cut him in half with it, hurled it through a guy that was shooting at me, took over the body of the guy next to him, caught that same katana in midair and hurled it through another guy. When my attempts at those sequences don’t work out, well, at least the levels are very short and you can restart them almost instantly by tapping ‘R’ (another Hotline Miami-style touch).

I didn’t care for SuperHot‘s narrative, which leaned on flavors of cyber-paranoia and fourth-wall breaking I’ve started to find more tiresome than intriguing. I can’t deny, though, that the game goes the extra mile to build a coherent presentation around that idea, which ultimately ties everything from the menus to the techno-brutalist aesthetic into the story. The effort and execution are there, even if the core concept is lackluster.

The campaign is very short but for me the meat of SuperHot is in the Endless modes (and somewhat less so in the Challenges). It’s unfortunate that the first level in the list for Endless mode is the laboratory, which is either the worst or the second-worst one. The Endless levels are at their best when they are either small or large and have broken sight lines with one good post or wall to strafe around. The lab is precisely the wrong size to pace encounters nicely and it has too much unbroken space at gun level. The Challenges, equally, suffer from the fact that the levels aren’t really tuned for them. I can’t help but feel that the story-centric overall design of the game makes it harder to understand that these are the main body of the game and primes players to complain about the apparent brevity.

In gameplay terms, the one thing that really felt like it held SuperHot back was that I never had a sense of the body I was in. I never had a good grip on what nearby bullet would hit me, and of course the game has nothing like the balletic dodging of The Matrix. Also, I never really gained a solid feel for what jumps I could make or when I should leap. It’s a small thing, but it detracted from the physicality of the game.

Nonetheless, I think SuperHot is excellent and you should play it.

Verdict: Highly recommended

F.E.A.R.

 Immersive Shooters, Short Take  Comments Off on F.E.A.R.
Mar 022016
 

Status: Campaign completed

Most Intriguing Idea: that enemy AI can be good

Best Design Decision: that AI, man

Worst Design Decision: the evil spirits

Summary:

F.E.A.R. is a dumb name for a game, and the story that goes with that name is dumb. I want to get that out of the way at the start. The scenario is absurd, the plot is ludicrous, the characters only rarely manage to gain even two dimensions, and the whole thing is written as sloppily as can be. HOWEVER I did not come here for a great story. I came here to slo-mo shotgun clone soldiers in the face, and F.E.A.R. delivered.

The AI made that activity especially rewarding because encounters could be troublesome even on normal difficulty. F.E.A.R. has a punishing damage model and the cleverness of the AI often meant I got into trouble if I moved too far forward. Unfortunately in most cases the level design allowed me too much control over encounters nullifying some of the AI’s power. The slo-mo also served as a bit of a “get out of jail free” card, although it felt consistently cool (as always). Regardless, the combat in F.E.A.R. was great and most of the weapons were satisfying to use.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, of course. The invisible enemies were more of a nuisance than a danger; again, the level design tended to nullify their threat. The enemy bots of all types were also more annoying than interesting to deal with. The largest weakness, though, was the evil spirits that attack in some horror sequences and at the end of the game. A bunch of un-animated naked dudes boiling out of thin air and flying directly at me, dealing huge damage if they got too close, felt like an even worse version of fighting the Flood. I liked that the game eschewed a traditional “boss battle” but this was not a good replacement.

The result is that the last half-level or so is a disappointment, but F.E.A.R. plays so well beforehand that I can forgive it. It’s more than a decade old now but F.E.A.R. is definitely worth revisiting.

Verdict: Highly Recommended

Feb 222016
 

Status: Completed, all secrets found

Most Intriguing Idea: Yarny’s principal handicap is also a key to its mobility

Best Design Decision: The versatile knotting mechanic.

Worst Design Decision: That field with the birds oh my god

Summary:

Ever since one of its designers showed up to E3 with a little yarn doll much of the gaming world has been awaiting Yarny, although some writers fervently wished for the little character Yarny to burn in hell. I occasionally shared the sentiment as I was playing. One problem I often had was being unable to tell that an object on the screen was something Yarny could push and not part of the gorgeous, lush backgrounds. I also sometimes had trouble telling whether I was on the right track to solving a puzzle and just missing a jump or whether I was trying something entirely wrongheaded and thus dying. A more obvious mistake occurs in the field with the birds, which felt like an exercise in praying to the RNG to pause spawning swooping birds long enough to let me cross. None of this was all that terrible or even unusual for the sort of pedestrian puzzle-platformer Unravel is, but the difficulty, inscrutability, and Limbo-style surprise deaths seemed at odds with the cute, inviting aesthetic.

That aesthetic, though, is sort of all over the place. The little yarn creature runs through the levels, but the end goal here is to restore photographs for some reason. The extended tour of a toxic waste site and a car dump also seem a little off relative to the game’s better, more naturalistic areas.

None of this makes Unravel a bad game, and I really enjoyed the permutations of what could be done with Yarny’s tether by knotting things cleverly. I also really liked the final level, although it came just up to the line of copying Journey too precisely. Still, I think on balance the game is probably a bit too frustrating for the audience its aesthetics will attract.

Verdict: Cautiously recommended.