Saturday, September 24, 2022

First Play Review: DOOM [2016]

Despite the success of DOOM 3 in 2004 it would take Id Software twelve years to release the next installment along with some incredible new technology. DOOM released in 2016 is more a sequel to the games released prior to DOOM 3 as that game's perpetually dark survival horror didn't really gel with the Doom concept. As a consequence DOOM is also a reboot as such and has lost its numbering but retains it's primary identity of balls-to-the-wall demon-killing FPS shenanigans where you put an end to the latest demonic invasion from Hell. Only this time you learn to be quick about it!

Doom has always been light on story. Any plot was even once relegated to a few pages of the manual that came with the original games of the 90's and DOOM 3 had very little by way of narrative in contrast to its peer FPSs of the early 2000s (it was released in the same year as Half-Life 2). DOOM today however has an 11.5 hour (on average) campaign which, while not a narrative cutscene filled epic by any sense, still fleshes out the story of the Doom Slayer (or Doom Marine) as your character still only gets a moniker as opposed to a name but you get the feeling you have more in terms of a story, a past and a goal. You play the Slayer that was essentially there since DOOM (1993) and you piece together a story that you were captured by the demons and imprisoned in hell after the events depicted in DOOM 64, only to be excavated by those working in a new Martian hellgate project facility under the control of scientific-genius(?) Dr. Samuel Hayden. Of course at least until he naturally loses the control and releases you to clean up the mess. So that's your job and just like you did in the 90's, you go through all of Mars and Hell itself to do it (again).

Much like it's predecessors, DOOM follows the principle of basically shooting everything that moves and doing it while not stopping. Stopping, even slowing and any form of careful strategy is death here, one must keep moving and killing rooms of enemies before you are allowed to progress to the next one. One of the ways employed to keep you moving is "glory kills", context-sensitive melee attacks that guarantee to both kill your target and claim rewards like health, armour and ammunition that 'spew' from it as it's beheaded or explodes in gore (no I don't know what the in-game explanation for why that happens). It's a genuinely fun mechanic and encourages you to shoot and finish an enemy off with a melee attack which powers you up for the next target and so on until you clear the room.

The game brings back not only the Doom Slayer but also has the elements that make it Doom, your weapons, enemies and systems. Your weapons are all here, shotgun, plasma rifle, minigun, chainsaw and naturally the BFG. This time you get alternate fire modes and a choice of two modifications that are upgraded as you progress expending the base weapons with zoom functions and specialised explosive ammo etc. The mobs are what make DOOM Doom in my opinion and they all return here, Zombie soldiers, Imps, Barons of Hell, Cacodemons, Mancubui and Revenants to name but a small few. Everything is basically a upgraded design from mobs as seen in DOOM II, sure they have some variants with different attacks and strategies but they were all just too iconic not to use again.

Even with welcome additions like RPG-lite enhancements to customise your weapons and armour, the additions of grenades and jumping jet boots DOOM is still the essence of the experience it was in the 1990's. You sometimes have to grab a blue/red/yellow skull-key to unlock a door or reveal secret areas (some which are pieces of levels from DOOM (1993)) with collectables or ammunition and finishing a level gives you screen to tell you what goodies you found but also what you missed if you want to try it again for full achievements.

As good as the visuals are, the sound design and score are even more outstanding. Mick Gordon's score was a multi award-winning highlight and primarily consisted of digitally synthesized progressive metal processed with analog effects. The post-industrial, dark synth-rock influenced score contains references to earlier Doom entries by Bobby Prince. Audio designer Chad Mossholder's work on the mobs, environments and weapons were punctuated by a disembodied demon narrator voiced by prolific video game and TV voice-actor and impressionist Piotr Michael.

Final Verdict: Despite being a visceral experience with heat-pounding fights where you are always outnumbered, DOOM is still comfort-gaming as it evokes much of the spirit of FPS gaming from the 1990's when times, and games, were simpler. The only real difference is that you're doing it with modern era graphics and effects. Id did the right thing here, they didn't try to do something vastly different with the franchise, just take the originals and update it to reflect the technological evolution of the 20+ years since it first appeared. The overwhelming success of of DOOM and that it spawned a sequel, DOOM Eternal four years later means it's exactly what people wanted.

Technicals: 18.5 hours playtime through Steam using a Nvidia 3070Ti @ 3440x1440 on Windows 11 partly with HDR enabled. No crashes or bugs evident.

DOOM is available from Steam for €19.99 but is occasionally found on sale for around €9.99 or less either on Steam itself or using Fanatical, Humble Bundle or Green Man Gaming. Review copy purchased from Steam for € August 2018.

Series Timeline:
DOOM [1993]
DOOM II: Hell on Earth [1994]
- Final DOOM [1996]
- DOOM 64 [1997]
DOOM 3 [2004]
- DOOM 3: Resurrection of Evil [2005]
DOOM [2016]
DOOM Eternal [2020]
- DOOM Eternal: The Ancient Gods I [2020]
- DOOM Eternal: The Ancient Gods II [2021]

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Review: Dark Souls - Remastered [2018]

Note: The original game was Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition and released in 2012 by From Software. In 2018 they released a remaster with 4K support and a 60 FPS framerate. The latter version is reviewed here.

"I'm too old for this shit", were words I repeated about 3 dozen times when I started playing this, the 2018 remastered version of the 2012 classic Dark Souls from From Software. Dark Souls like it's spiritual progenitor on PlayStation, Demon's Souls heralded a new RPG sub-genre the "soulslike" which is basically a way of telling people "this is fucking hard".

After trying it out in late 2020, I gave up after a day as it was (a) nigh-on impossible to control with a mouse+keyboard and (b) when I did make some progress, I was killed in seconds. I returned earlier this year in honour of the 10th anniversary of it's original (PC) release and reinstalled it after purchasing a third party Xbox One controller. Armed with the controller I made much more significant headway and was at least able to move and fight far better than using a mouse+keyboard making this the first PC/console game I've ever played that IMHO is only playable with a controller pad. 

Playing a little at a time in order to get used to the controller was a good move, but when I felt like I was actually able to properly hold my own against enemies I would progress a little further only to either miss one parry, or swing and miss at the wrong time and suddenly I was dead again. Bear in mind there is no difficulty modes that you can just turn down to 'normal' or 'easy'. This is permanently 'nightmare' or difficulty that one unlocks only after beating other games on 'hard'. There is no quick save or even a forgiving checkpoint system. When you die, you respawn at the last bonfire/sanctuary you rested at. The bonfire could be as little as 60 seconds or possibly 20 minutes behind you - and to make it worse - anytime you rested to heal, or died and resurrected - every non-boss enemy would also resurrect and you must fight your way through 20 minutes of mobs again! Naturally the more this happened again and again, replaying the same path with the same enemies who were always as deadly as before, wore you down, you start making mistakes and dying even earlier than you progressed before. This was certainly neither fun, nor enjoyable and left me with little sense of accomplishment.

From Software don't do "cheat modes" so there's no console commands to make you a god or even give you any advantage. But the beauty of the PC being the ultimate gaming platform is that no PC game is impervious to glitching, hacking, modding, cheating and or some class of reverse-engineering. Being more than sure that I was certainly not the only player to have issues with the difficulty, I set about researching not a "god mode" as such but more a way of giving me enough of advantage to make more significant progress. I discovered a method of "duping" inventory items which I applied to consumable souls items you pick up from fallen heroes who came before you. Once I applied the dupe I increased my Strength, Dexterity, Vitality etc. to 99 and while I was far from a god, I was able to take more than a few strikes before dying (which I reduced by about 90%) and was able to one-shot most enemies save for bosses or mini-bosses which required a little more attention. At least I was finally able to play the way I wanted.

The plot of Dark Souls is fairly simplistic. You just go in a mostly linear fashion and to do the next thing you've been told to do, be it ring the bells, descend into the abyss or kill some powerful entity. All this is done with the overarching goal of breaking a curse that has befallen the land and allowing the undead to rise again and again and finally give them (and you) peace. It's easy to forget however because you could be playing for days before you meet someone that tells you something, even then NPCs speak cryptically and it's not like you have a quest log or a map.

The lack of map or log makes navigation a pain especially as some areas with very high level enemies are accessible if you take a wrong turn. Of course the UI is also bare bones and there's no indication of a enemies level until you're dead in seconds (even with exploited stats). I had to resort to external guides about which area I should avoid or explore next and needed to watch other players on YouTube to actually see how you get there.

Combat in the game is actually great. So many games have some default attack animation supplemented by a plethora of button-click powers/abilities but Dark Souls combat is very involved with blocking attacks, parrying an attack, rolling out of the way, jumping attacking, heavy attacking and so fourth. It felt great killing a lot of the enemies. Some enemies later employed your tactics to block, parry, riposte etc. and this should lead to very challenging fight - but in this game all the fights are challenging and exhausted my fingers and thumbs up to the point where it was more efficient to boost my health and defence up and use duped health regenerators every 60 seconds or so just to advance in the later game.

I can't speak to the original 2012 version but the remaster looks stunning at 4K High Quality. During my playthrough I switched systems to an Ultrawide 3440x1440 monitor and while the game itself is not HDR enabled - using the Windows 11 HDR renderer to enhance the visuals was a treat. From Software created some of the most unique and grotesque monsters I've ever fought in a video game. Some of them were standard like zombies, ghosts, skeletons and minotaurs but others were not. Treefolk that skewered you with their branches and a Dragon whose entire centre section was a gaping maw with teeth were just two extraordinary designs of note. A lot of game was dark, underground, in crypts or dark forests but occasionally you'd climb to the surface and be met with a beautiful but sadly fleeting vista worth screenshotting.

While the game exhibits little by way of any form of help, assistance or generosity to the player, the inventory system is actually pretty solid. There is no limit to your carrying capacity as I was able to lug around 20+ unique suits of armour of various quality in my bag. As you don't have a central base as such, this makes sense for you to to have access to everything. You can store things in a box that you can access from any bonfire, but I've just realised after finishing the game that I did put things in for safe keeping.... I never took anything out of it, so ultimately I didn't need it.

There was quite a few times when plodding through Dark Souls bleak and depressing but beautifully and expertly crafted world that I questioned continuing because I just wasn't enjoying it. And that is a feeling that I get very rarely in a video game. It wasn't a feeling I had all the time, but it certainly surfaced when I died and had to repeat a tedious section of wandering before getting to the good bit again. However once I researched how many areas I had done , what was left to do, estimating the time it would take to finish and wanting a solid return on investment on my €30 controller I stuck the course and completed the game after 68 hours (according to Steam). Dark Souls: Remastered also contains the substantial Artorias of the Abyss DLC, but at which point of being able to access it, I felt thoroughly done with the game.

Final Verdict: I'm glad I played it, and got through it even if it was somewhat unconventional (hey if the developers didn't want you to dupe they would have patched the exploit in the last 6 years). But despite the awesome creatures and involved combat here it's just too depressing, too difficult, too repetitive if you fail something and too light on plot or characterisation to make me feel like a hero or even connected to the world in any meaningful sense. I don't often know I'll never play something again - but I do this time. It's sequels are another matter... we'll see.

Technicals: Played through Steam on Nvidia 980Ti @ 4k in Windows 10 and on Nvidia 3070Ti @  3440x1440 on Windows 11 with HDR. No crashes or bugs evident.

Dark Souls: Remastered is available from Steam for €39.99 but is occasionally found on sale for €19.99 either on Steam itself or using Fanatical, Humble Bundle or Green Man Gaming. Review copy purchased from Fanatical for €18.39 in March 2020.

Series Timeline:
Dark Souls [2011]
Dark Souls II [2014]

- Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin [2015]
Dark Souls III [2016]
- Dark Souls III: Deluxe Edition [2017]
- Dark Souls: Remastered [2018]

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Operation London Bridge Executed - Queen Elizabeth II 1926 - 2022

Queen Elizabeth II was constitutional monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and was arguably the most famous 'next door neighbour' to everyone else on this island. While she was 96 upon her death on Thursday, it came as a surprise to many due to the fact that she had only appointed a new Prime Minister a mere two days previous. While it may have been accepted due to biology that she had not a great deal of time left, it is nonetheless strange for anyone born in the 1950's or later as they have never been aware of any other monarch of the UK.

PrincessElizabeth had honorary military titles but in 1945, she was appointed an honorary officer in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (left) and trained as a driver and mechanic. She became Queen in February 1952 following the death of King George VI and reigned for more than 70 years, the longest of any British monarch and the longest recorded of any female head of state in history. Elizabeth II reigned through significant political changes marked by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, devolution in the United Kingdom, the decolonisation of Africa, and the United Kingdom's accession to the European Communities and more recent withdrawal from the European Union. 

As former British territories such as India gained independence and some realms became republics over her many years, Elizabeth II's territories ultimately shrunk in size. She travelled to China, Russia, Australia and New Zealand, and the Republic of Ireland in some of her historic visits. She was politically neutral and performed acts which were designed to widen the gap between the monarchy and the government so that the monarchy would have no political, only ceremonial role. Once such act was appointing an elected conservative party leader and not one based on advice given to her.

As well as being Queen, she was also a daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother and even great-grandmother. Such was the devotion to her family was that she sought to replace the term 'monarchy' with 'the Royal Family' which gained traction in the press and is one of the most successful rebranding examples in history. 

Operation London Bridge is the codename of the British government's plan for protocols to be followed in the event of the Queen's death. It went through many iterations over the decades and was the subject of extensive leaks in the U.K. media in that time. Sadly it began to be executed on Thursday September 8th 2022 before 18:30 BST when the world was informed she had passed.

A few short years before becoming Queen, Elizabeth II promised the British public “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” Her life was long and she did indeed keep her word. May she rest in peace.