Sunday, May 28, 2023

Review: The Master Chief Collection - Part 2 - Halo 2: Anniversary [2020]

My successful play-through of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary last year meant that I would soon return to the Halo universe to continue the space-opera in Halo 2: Anniversary. While gun-play, vehicles and story were good I found a significant part of the original boring and lazy as it basically had you backtracking huge sections of maps. I was assured that there'd be far less of that here and that it was much better. I didn't need this affirmation, as I'd be playing it anyway, but it was good to know.

Like most sequels to new franchises it's something that thematically or narratively follows an original that itself was not necessarily designed to even have a sequel but Halo 2 slots in well after the events of the original. The developers were able build upon the technical success of Halo and enhance the experience with major improvements. The writers were able to pick up threads of story from the original and meld them into a new more expansive narrative so vast they even had to end the game on a cliffhanger like The Empire Strikes Back, and just like Return of the Jedi, there was no question that a Halo 3 wouldn't be too far behind it.

If Halo was "Combat Evolved" then Halo 2 is "Combat Evolved Evolved". Master Chief has his standard load-out of weapons, but dismally retains the two weapon limit popularised by 'realistic' WWII shooters but makes zero sense considering the arsenal you could carry in a powered suit of armour (as in other such fantastical games). That said, unlike a WWII shooter, the abundance of weapons strewn about the landscape after you kill your enemies is always more than you need and makes up for the anaemic load-out. In retrospect I think I ran out of ammo twice in the whole 10 hours. The smoothness of combat actions, and picking up an expanded range of weapons from the ground and dual wielding them was genuinely cathartic and I don't know of many FPS experiences like it. 

Halo 2's action is sublime, your shields regenerate faster, you can swap weapons with your AI team mates if you prefer theirs and take control of (or sit in the gunner's seat) of any vehicle - including your enemy's by yanking him out! Enemy AI improves to where they will duck, take cover, frag you and can be more aggressive, but your own shielding, melee attacks and superior dual-wielding firepower is usually more than enough to combat any banzai charge. Level design was more varied and environments more unique here and indeed there was no backtracking over familiar ground, it was always full steam ahead adding to your sense of progress.

It's not RPG quality obviously but for a shooter Halo 2's narrative quality was boosted beyond the original (which was already not too shabby) and delved just as much into the story of the Covenant and their motivations, trials and tribulations. For a lot of the game you take control of the Covenant Arbiter, voiced by the legendary Keith David (The Thing / Platoon) and experience his battles against renegade Covenant and The Flood. It's safe to say that the simple premise of the original has been blown wide open and you can see how Halo 2 sets up the saga for years to come.

Final Verdict: An overwhelming improvement over the original and well worth playing today even if I'm quite late to the Halo party overall.

Playtime 9.8 hours through Steam on RTX4070Ti, Max graphical settings @ 3440x1440 120FPS on Windows 11. Windows HDR provided solid enhancement.

Availability: Halo 2: Anniversary is available either as a stand-alone title from either Steam or the Windows Store (€9.99) or as part of  Halo: The  Master Chief Collection (€39.99). Review copy of The Master Chief Collection purchased in Apr 2020 for €31.99.

Series Releases:

Halo: Combat Evolved [2001] (Xbox)
- Halo: Combat Evolved [2003]
Halo 2 [2004]
- Halo 2 [2007]
Halo 3 [2007]
- Halo 3: ODST [2009] (Xbox)
- Halo: Reach [2010] (Xbox)
- Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary [2011] (Xbox)
Halo 4 [2012]
- Halo: The Master Chief Collection [2014] (Xbox)
Halo 5: Guardians [2015]
- Halo: The Master Chief Collection [2020] (PC)
-- Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
-- Halo 2: Anniversary
-- Halo 3
-- Halo 3: ODST
-- Halo: Reach
-- Halo 4
Halo Infinite [2021]

Monday, May 22, 2023

First Play Review - The Last of Us Part I [2023]

Much like as I wrote for God of War, similarly The Last of Us also wasn't the first title that peaked my interest when Sony PlayStation announced it's push into the PC game market in 2020. It was something that I saw a lot of media about especially it's high standard of plot, but it was the push of a very well received live action HBO series that prompted me not only to obtain it, but to do something I had never done for a game in the digital-distribution era before: I pre-ordered it!

I've heard of, or seen for myself the recent substandard live-action movie projects that are usually created from video-game lore such as Assassins Creed, Warcraft, Uncharted, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Halo's TV outing is polished but would be better if it wasn't supposed to be a representation of the franchise. When I heard that The Last of Us had broken the trend and was considered great, I was left with a choice of playing the game or watching the show first.

After some deliberations I had to regard the "primary media" in this case as the video game. This is partly because it came first and also more importantly because a game experience, even a linear game is still partly a product of your input. You are not responsible for creating the game, just as you are not for a movie or a TV show, but you and your choices, your actions or inactions are part of your journey and interaction with the story. No TV or movie can replace that feelings and emotion of these interactions so for this reason, to prevent a "lesser" game experience by watching the show first, it was necessary to experience the game before the show.

I recently posted a thorough account of my pre-ordering experience and included data about the substandard state the game was released in. So other than that I will say that the first month of the game's release extensive patching was necessary to get the game to run and I even used it as an excuse to upgrade hardware. However, the game works flawlessly at time of writing so the current impression is the basis for this review.

The Last of Us is set some 20 years after a mutated Cordyceps fungus jumps to and infects humanity. The infection takes control of the brain them turning the infected into crazed, warped and relatively mindless individuals whose only purpose is to spread the infection by biting healthy uninfected humans. You are Joel, a man who has survived through this apocalypse by doing some questionable things and now reluctantly accepts the job of escorting Ellie, a young girl who may hold the key to a cure, across the mutant infested and raider occupied wasteland to her destiny. Much like God of War, you have a young companion who follows you around. At first Ellie aids you by tagging enemies you may have missed, but later she becomes armed and thus useful, not to Atraeus levels or anything but more than just a second health bar you have to keep an eye on when stealth fails.

The game is a third-person action/adventure, wandering through the post-apocalyptic terrain of both rural and urban United States. You employ upgradable ranged and melee weapons to engage gangs of lawless humans and hordes of Cordyceps infected mutants. Now while you can shoot and kill most enemies from a safe range, you have to be thorough enough at exploration to find enough ammo to do so. I'd not call this typical survival horror as you do collect (and can carry at once) about a dozen weapons and ammo, but if you try to Rambo it too often you'll likely fail and die. I found it much more satisfactory to take the Splinter Cell approach and use Joel's almost inhuman sonar-like hearing ability to pinpoint enemies, sneak up on them and take them out silently with either a shiv to the neck or a choke-hold. There was something truly wonderful about choking out a man armed with a shotgun who would kill you without hesitation with your bare hands and listen to him pathetically beg for his life before his life ends with a final breath.

The AI is different depending on the enemy type. Human raiders will take cover and take potshots at you, waiting until you're in the middle of reloading to assault while mutants will either instantly rush you in a frenzy or wait until you make a sound - then you better be prepared for them! You can also employ cover to hide by losing line of sight, throw objects to distract enemies or can set traps. I applaud that there are many solutions to a situation and it's entirely up to you to proceed as you wish.

As great as the story and as intense as the gameplay is here I think what cannot be overstated is how beautiful and extraordinary this world looks in its total decrepitude. The design work into realising a world that has lost the ability to properly care for it and has left it to rack and run for years comes through in every unique new area. Abandoned buildings, vehicles and artefacts of a world familiar to us now lie forgotten and unused. Joel 'collects' some books and notes from people who most likely met a horrible end and pieces together stories of their final days wheather it's diaries from when the infection was spreading to the fall of the quarantine zones where most of the uninfected human population of the world now reside. The detail of the world is staggering and tells its own story parallell to to the the one we take part in but it's no less an extraordinary part of the game.

DLC: The DLC "Left Behind" here is included with the game. It's a short story framed in the middle of the main game's journey but a lot of the narrative takes place just prior to the main game. In the DLC you take control of Ellie who wanders through an abandoned mall to locate medicine for Joel and flashes back to a previously visited abandoned mall with her BFF Riley. While not integral to the main game, it does fill in a notable gap in the narrative and is well worth playing to experience the whole story.

Final Verdict: This is truly a work of art which I believe will resonate as more frightening now in a post Covid19 pandemic world than it could ever have before. The story is compelling, emotional and at times tragic. It's gun-play and gameplay is well designed allowing multiple approaches to situations and some of the best stealth mechanics I've ever played. While it had a rocky technical start, provided you have good enough hardware you will enjoy this most welcome addition to Sony's PC gaming catalogue. I hope there will be more.

Technicals:  RTX3070Ti managed <60FPS @ 3440x1440 with High preset with medium textures with DLSS quality setting.  RTX4070Ti delivered 75+FPS @ 3440x1440 with Ultra Preset and with high textures. No resolution scaling. In game HDR on producing exceptional range.

Bugs: Daily crashes before patching to v1.0.4. Afterwards, no bugs to report.

Availability: The Last of Us Part I is available from Steam for €59.99. Review copy pre-purchased from Green Man Gaming for €49.19 on 25th Jan 2023.

The Last of Us releases:

The Last of Us [PS3] (2013)
- The Last of Us: Left Behind [PS3] (2014)
The Last of Us Remastered [PS4] (2014)
The Last of Us Part II [PS4] (2020)
The Last of Us Part I [PS5] (2022)
The Last of Us Part I [PC] (2023)

Sunday, May 14, 2023

My first digital game pre-ordering experience

I don't pre-order games. Actually I don't pre-order them now would be more correct. The last game I pre-ordered was Mass Effect 3's Collector's Edition from GameStop in 2012. This was only done because I wanted the physical edition which of course had a finite number of copies. It was the last physical game disk I ever purchased, as digital distribution was ubiquitous by then as well as easier and cheaper to manage overall. Digital editions however by their very nature do not ordinarily sell out in the same way. So unless there is some pressing need to play a game ASAP or you want some lame digital pre-order "boost" then you can certainly wait beyond release day.

Waiting is generally a good move, especially now. Some games thrive and maintain their original RRP for weeks if not months before a sale but others are released with these high hopes but alas do not perform to these hopes and we get what happened with Forspoken, a 33% discount for two weeks just seven weeks after release. Additionally an unfortunate common trend now is simply to wait before purchasing a game because it inevitably needs serious post-launch bug fixing and optimisation. So if this isn't done in a timely fashion, it may be best to actually wait for the game to be discounted before being able to enjoy an adequate experience. At time of writing I'm waiting for EA's Star Wars: Jedi Survivor's post launch bug-fixing.

So my first digital pre-order ever is now The Last of Us Part I, a PC port of a PlayStation 5 remake of an older PlayStation 3 game from 2012. I pre-ordered it because I genuinely wanted to play the game on release day, so that I'd be finished as soon as I was able, in order to watch the acclaimed HBO series which had just finished airing. After recently playing two of Sony's PC ports, God of War and Marvel's Spider-Man Remastered and reading that the developer Naughty Dog had released a successful port for an Uncharted game just a few months previous, I felt confident that there wouldn't be much of issue even though it might not be 100% there on launch day, I would still be able to start it and have it corrected in a few days or a week.

Originally the game was set to be released on March 3rd 2023 so I paid Green Man Gaming €49.19 on January 25th for my The Last of Us Part I pre-order. About 10 days later we got word that the PC release was being put back a few weeks to March 28th. There was little by way of negative reaction to this as there have been some high profile PC release failures recently and it was suspected that Sony/Naughty Dog had some polishing to do as they didn't want the negative publicity if things didn't go according to plan, such as releasing the game to a new market: PC gamers. Green Man Gaming sent me my pre-order key on Sunday, March 26th. This allowed me and others who pre-ordered the game the ability to pre-load - download the game data before the game unlocked on March 28th. Everything was going according to plan.

At about 17:00 on March 28th I loaded the game for the first time and was met with a great menu for me to examine as well as a shader compilation timer that seemed quite slow. The menu kept me distracted for a while as it was one of most feature rich menus I'd ever seen with a staggering amount of options, especially for graphics which for a new game are of high importance. Despite making selections based on it's own recommendations and doing some all important key rebinding which took probably over 15 minutes I noticed that the game was still building shaders! It hadn't frozen or anything it was just moving very slowly. I said I'd not interrupt the process by launching the game as I'd expect massive stuttering if I tried playing before shader compilation was complete, so I left it alone.

It was 45 minutes approximately before shader compilation was complete; It took less time for the entire game to download and install. But no matter it was ready to play now. It loaded up fine, but just a few minutes in, it crashed to desktop (CTD). Now obviously this is "almost" expected behaviour at this point and it didn't deter me. What did annoy me however was that it crashed twice in less than half an hour. When compared to God of War or Spider-Man that crashed only the same amount in 42+ hours I knew there was something wrong.

I examined the Steam page for the game and was met with hundreds of reports of system instability and crashing. The Steam score itself was negative. The launch was a disaster!!! I did try a few more times over the following couple of days, tweaking settings and graphical options but sadly the crashes persisted. I sent all crash and performance reports to Naughty Dog, and why not? I was basically a beta tester at this point. On April 1st I installed Patch v1.0.1.6, dropped all settings to medium preset, Turned DLSS off and capped FPS to 60 to bring VRAM usage to 7.3GB - as my limit was 8GB - and I wanted to be sure not to tax it. Sadly is crashed after 20 minutes.

Nvidia released driver hotfix 531.58 and the game had Patch v1.0.1.7 to install for April 4th. The shader building process that ran on day one had to be reinitiated due to the driver change. Thankfully the patch addressed this and they only took 24m 54s, an improvement but still far to long. I returned all graphics preset to high, with exception of textures to medium which wasn't the way I wanted to play but said I'd try it together with DLSS Performance. For the first time there were no crashes during a 1h 40m game session, so things are improved. I made no changes and there was no patches two days later on April 6th but it CTD again after 30 mins.

At this point I gave in, ordered and installed an RTX4070Ti in order to (a) have enough VRAM to use the high or ultra textures which have the most impact to how a game looks and (b) in the hope that it would be powerful enough to defeat the game's instability. Initially with patch v1.0.2.1 on April 12th and v1.0.3 on April 15th there was CTD but not before 90 minutes had passed this time, a serious improvement. On April 27th a Patch to  v1.0.4 started the shaders at 30% and took less than 10 minutes to compile. Subsequently there were no crashes at all following this and the game worked perfectly on multiple days through to the end credits.


While the pre-ordering process itself worked fine and did what it was supposed to and in the end I was able to complete The Last of Us Part I within 6 weeks of release, the purposed of pre-ordering: playing immediately was not fulfilled. It wasn't fault of the pre-ordering process itself but clearly the fault of the developer/publisher which dropped the ball. 

Had I not pre-ordered,  I'd not have purchased the game on release in the state it was in - and I have followed through on this notion with Jedi Survivor which is not apparently in an acceptable state. It's unlikely I'd be pre-ordering another title any time soon especially in the current environment of PC game releasing in a clearly unfinished/unoptimised state. It was however a good learning experience.

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

First Play Review - The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings [2011]

In 2011, Polish prime minister Donald Tusk gifted US president Barack Obama a copy of The Witcher 2. It’s that big of a deal there. I don't know if Obama played The Witcher 2 but if he did, he'd have undoubtedly been impressed with the quality game that CD Projekt Red delivered to further the adventures of Geralt of Rivia based on the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski.

I really want to play The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt now it has a 'next gen' upgrade worthy of my rig. However as I mentioned back in 2018 when I reviewed The Witcher,  you play the one character throughout all three games and some of your choices are recorded and used from the final save of the previous games. So before I can ever play The Witcher 3, I need to establish my own canon by playing the previous entries. It would have been better to play The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings on the event of it's 10th Anniversary in 2021 in order to be prepared for The Witcher 3's upgrade before Christmas last year, but that did not happen. Nevertheless the situation is rectified and I'm able to now deliver my thoughts on this, the second chapter of the franchise.

While The Witcher 2 did not release in as sorry a state as did it's predecessor, the sequel did get a free post launch upgrade a year later to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - Enhanced Edition which from what I read, enhanced both the narrative with some additions and corrections, fixes to the gameplay and interface, new tutorials and cinematic as well as a high quality graphics enhancement. 

Gameplay wise, I quickly saw that there were vast changes to combat and abilities over it's predecessor. While my thoughts on The Witcher's combat was that it was interesting because of it's uniqueness, for the sequel it was decidedly more complex and it's difficulty, even in the early game, felt like Dark Souls all over again (even on easy mode). I would later read that the developers were influenced by Dark Souls' progenitor Demon Souls. It would seem CD Projekt employ a reverse difficulty curve where combat at the beginning of the game is more difficult than the endgame when you've upgraded your abilities, magic and equipment. They also added ranged weapons and trap laying and a skill tree of complexity not found in most MMOs. Thankfully many on the Interwebs noticed as I did and have been crafting some "fixes" for the past 10 years that make the whole combat situation better and would allow me to progress faster by removing the need for about 75% of the bloated RPG mechanics that take hours to master and even detract from the main event, the story.

After Geralt's original adventure, he still has amnesia but has thwarted an attempt on King Faltest's life by another Witcher. Alas he was unsuccessful in preventing a second attack, is framed and is forced to flee to both apprehend the assassin and clear his name. Now the whole power fantasy of saving the world and all is fine, it's why we play, but it does get somewhat repetitive. What I really like about this tale that much like Dragon Age II, the middle chapter of that saga (for now) is that you (as Geralt) are not saving the world per se but just nudging it in a path. It's a relatively short contained story of social intrigue (with magic creatures) where your actions and choices change the flow of the story and the political landscape dramatically (from what I've read about choices I didn't take) and eventually put you on course for what is assumed to be the final and far more epic third game.

So, once you modify out the combat awkwardness and get to grips with the story, there's a lot to like about The Witcher 2, Sapkowski's world is as gritty here as in the first instalment and populated with some colourful characters who display various levels of bigotry against you - you're no "chosen one" revered hero here! Geralt is a monster hunter, a good one who kills monsters because that's his job - and he does it well. Rather than just getting a command to kill 10 rats or what have you, you have to research your quarry to find weaknesses and exploit them to vanquish your foes efficiently. Yes there's a lot of story and dialogue, but it does pale in comparison to the amount of combat you have to undertake in this game. Thankfully you have your trusty swords, which can be enhanced and upgraded as you find exotic materials once you take the time to explore and Geralt has access to a plethora of  skill and combat enhancements to make certain tasks easier.

CDProjekt ditched Bioware's Aurora engine used in The Witcher and created their own REDengine, the second iteration of which powered this game. I cant speak for the original version of the game but the Enhanced Edition available now is a genuinely beautiful game with regards to it's characters and environments which, while not as varied as most RPGs, are impressive considering the game's age. It certainly doesn't look as dated now as do the original release of say Skyrim (before the 2016 remaster) or Dragon Age II does today. 

Final Verdict: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was a genuinely wonderful experience on PC today for a decade old game. While the combat is still a bit dated and janky, this was easily "fixed" on PC and one can experience the true value of the game: it's incredibly complex but compelling and rewarding story that seems to branch wildly at several points. This is one game I know will be quite different when replayed, maybe after it's own inevitable remake in 2030 or so.

Technicals: 30 hours playtime through GOG. No UW implementation so Forced 1440p @ 175Hz. Highest graphical settings used with RTX3070Ti. Win 11 HDR provided brightness enhancement.

Availability: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is available from both Steam and GOG for €19.99. Review copy purchased for  €2.89 in May 2015 from GOG.

The Witcher Franchise:

  • The Witcher [2007]
  • The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings [2011]
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt [2015]
  • - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Hearts of Stone [2015]
  • - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine [2016]
  • The Witcher Remake [?]
  • The Witcher IV [?]

Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Review: SUPERHOT [2016]

I normally don't do indie games. I have nothing against them, they play a very important part of the gaming ecosystem but sadly the efforts of individuals or small teams on a shoe-string budget are unlikely to grab my attention away from my Overproduced Famous Franchise Offering VI because basically I'm a snob and I have a goal of trying to find the end to my AAA infested backlog before 2035.

I can't imagine a scenario where I'd actually buy any indie game, but thankfully Tim Sweeney is under the delusion that offering free games every week will make everyone want to buy from his Epic Games Store. Newsflash: The vast majority aren't. Also naturally while some of the free games are AAA titles that people want - the overwhelming majority are indies that most wouldn't bother with... even for free. There are a few exceptions however and one was SUPERHOT.

SUPERHOT is an FPS what was created as part of a 7-day game jam, funded by Kickstarter and finally officially released a couple of years later by the independent development team. It has two draws over most traditional FPS, it's art style is exceedingly minimal, all environments are white with grey shadowing for depth, all enemies are a red/orange palette and all weapons are black. The second draw is that your enemies move in very slow motion, even less than Max Payne bullet time but when you move - they move in real time. Needless to say it take a bit of getting used to but is a pretty unique way of playing a genre that hasn't changed much in 30 years.

The concept is that you're some sort of office worker or something and a colleague communicating using a quaint DOS like interface gives you access to a game on the corporate servers. You play its levels and report back on how great the game is. I dislike this concept because it encourages time wasting when someone should be diligently working and being paid for work, not misusing company resources. But in the end it's part of the game so I just continued, I didn't progress any story beyond that point.

In the FPS game environment you navigate, though well I say navigate but I only saw maybe three rooms per level and they're occupied by your red enemies which you need to kill. In some situations you start with a pistol that unrealistically has about 4 shots but you can acquire weapons from fallen foes. Guns, base ball bats, bottles and even pool table balls. You don't have any sort of HUD, you don't need a health bar - if you're shot you die in one hit, but so do your enemies who splinter into shards of red glass when killed.

The gameplay loop is that you kill everyone in the room(s) which automatically completes the level and displays a trippy replay of your actions in the level and allows you to upload your sequence to a server for sharing with everyone. Difficulty increased slightly with each iteration and by the time I was about 6 levels deep I had enough; partly due to the fact there was really no reason to continue but mostly I was already reaching the point of my skill level and would likely only have been annoyed with it from that point on.

Final Verdict: An interesting and unique take on the tired FPS genre and I'm reminded that while indies don't offer photorealism or cinema quality cinematics, they are capable of delivering a game to have a little bit of fun which sadly needs to be short lived as my AAA titles forever call to me.

SUPERHOT is available from Steam or GOG for €22.99. Review copy provided FREE from EGS in Sep 2019.