Sunday, April 07, 2024

First Play Review: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered [2016]

Note this review is for the 2016 release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered, a remastered version of the original Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare from 2007 and not to be confused with the 'reboot' Call of Duty: Modern Warfare from 2019. 

In 2007 Infinity Ward left the WWII era behind after phenomenal success with Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2 and brought the franchise to the modern day for their third game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It was quite a gamble to break from the comfort zone of Nazi-occupied Europe and leap into present day warfare, but it paid off. CoD4:MW was even more of a success, garnering countless awards from arts organisations and gaming publications. By 2013 it had sold more than 15 million copies.

In 2016 a remastered version of CoD4:MW was released with special edition copies of that years Infinity Ward release Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. The remaster was developed by long time Call of Duty franchise assistant developers Raven Software who have made some of my favourite games. So rather than purchase a digital version of CoD4:MW to replay at some point in the future I decided to obtain Raven's remaster instead. 

The remaster itself is perfect because other than obviously superior visuals, there was no discernable changes. I was once again able to to wield many of the incredible tools of war used today such as manning the weapons of an AC-130 Gunship, which flies above the battlefield and fires 105mm rounds that decimate the enemy; make big explosions with Javelin missiles, which drop straight down to hit the thinner top armour of tanks; and cycle through a small arsenal of both light and heavy personal weapons featuring a variety of scopes and augmentations.
Unlike the previous Call of Duty's, Modern Warfare presents one continuous story. You hop between perspectives of a British S.A.S. soldier and a U.S. Marine 1st Force Recon operator. These leaps continue the progression of the story. Although I recalled many elements of the story since I last played, I had forgotten how a very effective tool the different perspectives were in telling it. The story itself isn't quite Tom Clancy but it still one of the most dramatically cinematic and exciting video-game plots as you can get, revolving around stolen Russian nukes and Middle-Eastern terrorists. The game is enhanced by Harry Gregson-Williams and Steven Barton's score lending a Hollywood class accompaniment to the experience.

The best thing here is the combat and gameplay. It's as much a linear and corridor shooter as its predecessors but the speed at which you need to perform actions is increased significantly. There many more enemies than the WWII CoDs and they're smarter too thanks to some refined AI. The bastards usually know to stay in cover. And they also know that you, being a well-trained soldier, aren't going to fight in the open, so they fling dozens of grenades and fire RPGs at you. They are trying to flush you out. Most cars explode and will kill you if you are standing beside them so one has to MOVE! Stay still and you die; Movement is life.

Fortunately, your squad-mates also benefit from some audacious programming. In this CoD game you're not in command either; you do the following not the leading and you're treated like a grunt from the start by your teammates. Speaking of: watch out for Billy Murray (The Bill) playing a decedent of the WWII CoD's Captain Price and Craig Fairbrass (Cliffhanger) as Gaz. It might be my imagination but in the remaster they don't stand in your way as much as they used to, and while you're aiming and fighting faster than ever now, that's only a good thing as you're less likely to kill your own men.

Final Verdict: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was one of the best first-person-shooters on the market. While it was easily Infinity Ward's greatest work at the time, it was actually not too revolutionary, nor did it have to be. Raven did the did the best thing they could have done here and changed relatively nothing other than give an already perfect game a new coat of paint to be enjoyed by a new generation just as veterans enjoyed the original. Replaying the story here, however short (it is at just 5 hours) brought back how well crafted the whole original experience was and the remaster makes it absolutely sublime.

Technicals: 5 hours playtime using a Nvidia 4070Ti @ 3440x1440 with max settings on Windows 11. Windows HDR enabled.

Bugs: Two crashes. Solved by turning off shader preloading.

Availability: The pricing of the Call of Duty franchise still suffers from a phenomenal level of greed from Activision, even following the Microsoft acquisition. The €40 pricetag that's placed on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered cannot be justified as multiplayer is filled with hackerbots. Review copy purchased from Steam while on sale for €25.99 in Nov 2017.

Call of Duty series (PC Only):

Call of Duty [2003]
- Call of Duty: United Offensive [2004]
Call of Duty 2 [2005]
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare  [2007]
Call of Duty: World at War [2008]
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 [2009]
Call of Duty: Black Ops [2010]
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 [2011]
Call of Duty: Black Ops II [2012]
Call of Duty: Ghosts [2013]
Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare [2014]
Call of Duty: Black Ops III [2015]
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare [2016]

- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered [2016]
Call of Duty: WWII [2017]
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 [2018]
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare [2019]
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War [2020]

- Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Campaign Remastered [2020]
Call of Duty: Vanguard [2021]
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II [2022]
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III [2023]

Saturday, March 23, 2024

Replay Review: Far Cry 2 [2008]

Following on from my 2018 replay of the classic Far Cry, and as this very day is the 20th Anniversary of the franchise I felt it was time to investigate the next title in the franchise and experience the dangerous African plains of Far Cry 2. The original game was German developer Crytek's first game and one of the first FPS to evoke a sense of freedom by breaking out of the linear "corridor" gameplay of its genre predecessors. It used their in-house CryEngine and was published by Ubisoft. After Crytek signed a deal with Electronic Arts to produce a new CryEngine title (the infamous Crysis) Ubisoft struck a deal with Crytek to purchase the Far Cry IP, allowing their Ubisoft Montreal studio to create further Far Cry games using CryEngine technology. Far Cry 2 was the first of these.

Ubisoft's goal was to expand what had been done with the original game in both scope and scale, but not not to emulate the setting or tone established with the original which had various fantastical or sci-fi elements. Instead they decided to pursue a more grounded, realistic route and set the game in the very real-world premise of a diplomatically nameless African country where the only enemies were human beings from both sides of a brutal civil war. Ubisoft even eschewed their Tom Clancy franchise technical gadgetry here to evoke what little hope of survival someone had in this environment and while that didn't enthuse some people, it did earn the respect of others. Nevertheless the game was a success with over 2.9 million units sold in 3 weeks.

Playing Far Cry 2 again brought back memories of experiencing it for the first time 15 years ago. Playing it on hardware generations ahead of what I had back then reminded me that it and Crysis, it's contemporary, had some pretty hefty recommended requirements for its day like 2GB RAM, a Core 2 processor and a 512MB GPU! With all the graphical options turned up to maximum it's still a pretty good looking game for its age. Of particular note is spreading of fire, the lush jungle foliage, dust trails from your vehicle, mirage shimmer from overheated weapons, effects that were in their early days were beautifully realised in the Dunia engine, a version of the CryEngine that was mostly rebuilt for the game.

My original Far Cry 2 review published here in October 2009 was mostly story about a one-hour session in the game that isn't even part of the 'main story'. The best part of Far Cry 2 was the randomness of unscripted events or encounters and was not as prevalent then as it is today. Revisiting the game and seeing these encounters again doesn't obviously evoke the same awe that it did, but I do remember this game was one of the places where the modern versions of today's open world mechanics were first realised and for that it deserves acknowledgement.


The very light plot involves you as a mercenary sent to kill a notorious arms dealer called "The Jackal" who seems to be arming both sides of the civil war. You do this by gaining the support and trust of the warring factions by doing some of their dirty work. You are assisted by some 'friendly' NPCs with motives of their own who give you objectives that are somewhat aligned with your main objectives. Alternatively at any point you can pursue missions that provide medicine for your crippling malaria affliction or perform raids for the arms dealers to improve your weapons and skills. If the original Far Cry took influence from The Island of Dr. Moreau, then this takes it's cues from Apocalypse Now and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. There are no heroes here, and don't count on a happy or even a good ending for anyone.

The serious and somewhat bleak tone is only the setting in which the tale is told. The gameplay and action itself was remarkable for it's time and is still in essence of what Far Cry is today. The African landscape is as beautifully realised as it could have been in 2008. The open world areas cover a frankly huge 50sq KM necessitating vehicular transport for the most part - and there are a plethora of vehicles from ATVs to armed assault wagons and gunboats to operate. As mentioned, there's not a lot of gadgets but you do get a GPS device and a map to aid in navigation to identify where your objectives are.

In true Ubisoft fashion the entire world is against you, and tries to shoot or kill you on sight. Despite being in Africa, there are no wild animals in this region so you're safe in that regard (the era of the deadly honey-badger was not yet upon us) but everyone is armed and angry and you're perceived as a threat, so expect bullets to be flying at you as soon as the opening cutscenes end. You have a huge array of weapons and equipment to chose from and can carry three weapons in addition to your trusty machete with some grenades and Molotov cocktails. Missions involve storming or infiltrating encampments. You can adopt a frontal assault, or try a stealthy approach, there are even different  options within these approaches to complete a mission in a true deviation from a linear shooter.

Final Verdict: Ubisoft Montreal achieved its goals with its first Far Cry game and it was the true foundation for a franchise that still exists today with lush and interesting open worlds, unscripted encounters, charismatic antagonists and an array of weapons and tools to complete your objectives in more than one linear way. While Far Cry 2 itself may not be popular enough to require a remake, I hope it remains available and working for all users for years to come, with or without some light remastering.

Technicals: Approx 30 hours via Ubisoft Connect on Windows 11 at maximum graphical settings with a 4070Ti at 3440x1440 @ 60FPS

Bugs: Animations are broken on high refresh rate (175Hrz), FPS had to be capped to 60 to fix. One instance of an NPC stuck inside a rock.

Availability: Far Cry 2 is available from Steam, GOG and the Ubisoft Store for €9.99, but is frequently sold for €3 or under. Review copy purchased for €3.33 in Nov 2017

Far Cry series (PC releases only)

  • Far Cry (2004)
  • Far Cry 2 (2008)
  • Far Cry 3 (2012)
  • Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (2013)
  • Far Cry 4 (2014)
  • Far Cry: Primal (2016)
  • Far Cry 5 (2018)
  • Far Cry: New Dawn (2019)
  • Far Cry 6 (2021)

Saturday, March 09, 2024

First Play Review: Yakuza 0 [2015] [PC2018]

At the turn of the century and the failure of it's  Dreamcast console, SEGA pivoted to become a third party game developer. Game producer Toshihiro Nagoshi pitched a Yakuza game for SEGA to develop for the Sony PlayStation 2. His idea was simple: an action-adventure RPG-lite brawler with mini-games in that the player would live the everyday life of a member of the Yakuza and be an open world in the same vein as Shenmue (a Dreamcast game Nagoshi had worked on) but obviously exploring more adult themes. SEGA immediately rejected the idea as it had traditionally made games for younger audiences and violence between humans was something rarely explored in Japanese video games. Despite this resistance (and from Sony for similar reasons) Nagoshi was relentless in his pursuit to the point where he offered to resign if his game failed. Yakuza was eventually green-lit and needless to say achieved remarkable success - in Japan.

Until the Western release of the prequel Yakuza 0 in 2017, despite the popularity of the multimedia franchise that spawned around it, the Western market needed some additional convincing. The Yakuza series had been a very niche product in the West never translating into blockbuster territory. After SEGA purchased the localisation studio Atlus and put them to work on the Yakuza series, the tide turned. A 2018 shareholder report stated that Atlus understood both Japanese and American games and is "able to localize Japanese games in a way that accurately conveys the unique worldviews of Japanese titles to local gamers." Seven years on I suspect there are few Western gamers who have never heard of the Yakuza franchise. Last year Mark Twomey insisted I play Yakuza 0 as the franchise was being released in bargain bundles in advance of the latest instalment. I knew it was time...

You can often use environmental objects to fight with

Yakuza 0, although the sixth mainline entry in the franchise, is a prequel to the original Yakuza game and so marketed as an ideal starting point ahead of remakes/remasters of the original Yakuza games for the PS4/XboxOne/PC. It's set in the late 1980's when the series' main protagonist Kazuma Kiryu was just 20 years old and is framed for a murder of a loan shark's client in an abandoned property lot at the center of a land grab by powerful interested parties. The game also switches perspective to reveal the origin of Goro Majima, a series regular who, as an expelled Yakuza, is given the opportunity to return to the family once he performs an assassination which he is reluctant to do.

Gameplay involves you as either protagonist navigating two fictitious representations of real life Japanese city districts Kiryu in Kamurochō, Tokyo and Majima in Sotenbori, Osaka. As you progress you are forced to combat literally hundreds of enemies using martial arts of varying styles. As you eliminate enemies you gain their money which is not only currency with which to purchase goods and services but is also the games XP and used for levelling your fighting skills and abilities. As you explore you encounter, various NPCs which can be interacted with. They either advance the plot, sell goods, reveal new mini-games or of course want to kill you forcing you into mini combat situations. Many NPCs however are there for side-quest purposes and revel new stories outside the main narrative and flesh out the world and can be to completed or ignored as you desire.

Shit gets weird sometimes

This game wasn't really like anything I've played before. Combat is brawling but more complex than in  Batman: Arkham. Navigating bustling streets reminds me of early Assassins Creed games but without parkour. It's heavy on the epically long cutscenes like in MGSV: The Phantom Pain and Final Fantasy XIV but this tale is more grounded in reality. The sheer amount of extra content provided by the game's additional systems and mini-games that have little or no bearing on the central plot are staggering and I've never seen the like. As I write trying to compare it to anything I know, I feel it's a misrepresentation, Yakuza 0 really is its own thing in the action-adventure genre and that's a strength when so many games are similar to one another.

The game suggests you use a controller and I'd certainly understand that considering the console origins but I tried with KBM and while a bit finicky at the beginning it became fairly fluid. However while the fighting was OK it's not gameplay that I'm too enamoured with. One major issue is the saving method. The game has no autosave nor the ability to save at any time. To save, one has to direct your character to a pay-phone which allowed saving/loading and some inventory management. This was a terrible design as you couldn't save just before a combat encounter and if defeated you may be forced to play from a point too far earlier to be 'fun' after repetition. I became tired the combat in general before long, especially during boss fights where I'd die or my fingers would get too tired before the boss' health bars (yes multiple) would run out. So rather pausing for a rest which would break immersion, I countered the game's flaws using a memory hack that gave my characters invincibility and permanent heat (stamina). While this trivialised basic encounters, it also shortened the boss fights (which were still awesome) and made it irrelevant to waste time traversing to a save point as I could no longer be defeated. I enjoyed the gameplay much more when I did this. The actual brawling and fighting isn't the main draw for these games however, in fact it's not considered great by most players, instead the real draw of the Yakuza series is the plot and side-content/mini-games.

Mini-games include dancing

While the main path of Yakuza 0 is deadly serious to phenomenally dramatic proportions, the side content splattered throughout the world is genuinely bizarre, cringe and hilarious in equal measure. There are minor side-quests scattered throughout the world that you could easily miss but if you find them you will be rewarded with a fascinating insight into Japanese culture and all that comes with it. Some quests I found were to help a small boy get his video game back from a bully, assisting a new aspiring dominatrix be more dominant, and having a drink with a government advisor giving him ideas on how to increase taxes and what percentages should be charged. Side games like playing mahjong, remote-control car racing or singing karaoke can be played. Other side-games include ways of accumulating greater wealth such as managing a real estate empire by buying up land and putting rivals out of business or managing a cabaret club by hiring girls to provide an evening's companionship. The depths of most of this content were fascinating but ultimately would have taken too long for me to explore, perhaps I will do so in later entries.

Yakuza 0 is is a character driven game with a movie quality, branching, arching and twisting plot that despite starting out pretty weak, soon blossoms into one of the most well written, surprising and incredible stories I've ever witnessed in interactive media. From other Japanese games I've played I'm used to a concentration on a strong lengthy narrative more than is done in the West. This game is no different and easily has hours of cutscenes including an epilogue that finishes 40+ minutes after the 'final boss' and so you basically sit and watch without any interaction for that length of time. For some this level of non-interaction will be too much but for me the 5 or 10 minutes of well acted, fully motion captured narrative every once in a while allowed me a rest from the button mashing combat. Had this been a visual novel game I'd probably have enjoyed it just as much. The only gripe I have is that there must be over 100 characters, all with Japanese names that can't be easily remembered especially as so many begin with the same letter; e.g. Shimano, Sera, Sagawa and Shibusawa are four very different people!!

The drama is portrayed with cinematic-level techniques and quality

Final Verdict: Yakuza 0 is unlike anything I've ever played. I've never enjoyed a game where I've found the combat so weak but this is a unique situation where experiencing the game is a greater reward than actually playing it. The developers' love of Japan and its eccentricities are obvious and exploited for our entertainment. It is easily one of the best narrative experiences ever to be digitised and was a huge success for SEGA with the original PS4 release selling out in Japan. I'm now looking forward to what the rest of the series has to offer.

Technicals: 33.5 hours through Steam on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 175Hz.

Bugs: One crash recorded.

Purchase Options: Available on Steam or GOG for €19.99 and often found in a discounted bundle with others in the series. Review copy purchased from Steam for €6 in July 2023.

Yakuza/Like A Dragon franchise (only PC releases shown)

  • Yakuza 0 [2018]
  • Yakuza Kiwami [2019] 
  • Yakuza Kiwami 2 [2019]
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon [2020]
  • Yakuza 3 (Remastered) [2021]
  • Yakuza 4 (Remastered) [2021]
  • Yakuza 5 (Remastered) [2021]
  • Yakuza 6: The Song of Life [2021]
  • Judgment [2022]
  • Lost Judgment [2022]
  • Like a Dragon: Ishin! [2023]
  • Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Man Who Erased His Name [2023]
  • Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth [2024]

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

First Play Review: Mirror's Edge [2008]

I saw Josh Strife Hayes play Mirror's Edge recently and thought I might get it and give it a go. Developed by DICE of Battlefield and Battlefront franchise fame in 2008 for Electronic Arts, Mirror's Edge is a first -person free running adventure game where movement and timing are key to success.

The game casts you as Faith Conners a young free runner who lives in an outwardly comfortable and crime-less society society but in secret is rebelling against the totalitarian regime that controls the media and citizens. Once her police-officer sister is framed for murder, Faith is relentlessly pursued by other members of the security forces "Blues" and must investigate the murder and clear her sister while evading Blues by jumping rooftop to rooftop. The story is written by Rhianna Pratchett and told mostly through a series of beautifully and stylistically animated cutscenes when you're not racing through the FPS world.

As the game was inspired by the parkour action scenes of Casino Royale and The Bourne series of movies, the most present aspect of the game while playing is movement. Fast, nimble and agile movements are required from your character as an extension of the player's hands. It's your job to manipulate Faith's abilities as she runs and jumps through an environment where one single fumble or misstep could be her last (until it reloads the checkpoint). The environment itself is unique for such a game. It's comprised of mostly white coloured walls and buildings with some features coloured in more significant colours, blue, orange, red, yellow or green in order for them to stand out and draw your attention. Red objects for example, are important as their placement means faith can use them to grab on to or jump from. Your eyes are drawn to the colours and identifying these objects and using them is crucial to the split-second decisions when you're moving and often evading weapons fire coming from behind you.

Combat is a very secondary mechanic here. Despite her slight frame an unarmed Faith can best a fully armed and armoured Blue with fists and feet, swift movements to evade being shot or clubbed, or grab a weapon from the floor or being held by an enemy. When you grab a weapon you can use it to shoot and kill enemies but it slows you down and you can't grab the surfaces you will likely need to use to evade other enemies so it's best not to hold onto it for long; this isn't a 'real' FPS.

While I enjoyed my time in the game I found that after almost 5 hours of excessive trial & error gameplay that the jumping mechanics required to progress were just a little beyond my skill or patience to learn. I also wasn't engaged enough in the story to investigate if there were cheats to "fly" as that more than a god-mode would be more necessary to progress. A pity to end in the middle, but something I can live with. 

Final Verdict: It's clear from the get go that DICE set out to make something fresh and unique and focus on traversal rather than combat or exploration to establish a new type of game. It was a great idea and implemented well. The sequel Mirror's Edge: Catalyst was not as well received and I doubt the franchise will continue. Mirror's Edge has a cult following and place in the hearts of those who love it, love parkour or enjoy trying new things.

Technicals: 4.5 hours approx on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti @ 2540x1440 / 60FPS

Bugs: Offers 21:9 resolution but displys in 16:9. One freeze and lock-up (reported as a common error in forums).

Availability:  Steam/GOG/EA Store €19.99. Review copy €1.89 from GOG in January 2023.

Mirror's Edge games:

  • Mirror's Edge [2008]
  • Mirror's Edge: Catalyst [2016]

Sunday, February 04, 2024

First Play Review - Starfield [2023]

While I have dabbled in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind and did spend an hour in the original Elder Scrolls: Arena I've largely somehow managed to not play a Bethesda Game Studios game to any significant degree. I'm acutely aware that both the Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises are recommended, I have in fact every single, and I mean every single game in those franchises (including the non-BGS games) in my backlog library still unplayed. I'm well informed that for the most part they're considered great. especially Skyrim but I never just got around to installing or playing them yet.

In 2018, Bethesda announced Starfield, their first new IP in over 25 years and one set in the vastness of space. The subsequent 5 years of hype led to the belief that we were going to get a true next-generation Mass Effect-rivalling space RPG adventure with exciting FPS shooting, in-depth spacecraft and outpost building and enough open world exploration on 1000 planets to last 10 real years. I knew before too long that this was going to be my first ever properly played BGS game. When the game was finally released on September 6th 2023 however, the expectations from the hype began to be shattered. What we did get was a mediocre RPG with a lagging main plot, last gen graphics (with no DLSS, HDR settings or an FOV slider*) pushed by an ageing creation engine, and while 1000 planets were delivered, they all had the same identical structures which most players were bored of within 10 days let alone 10 years. Most egregiously - all of the game systems and areas were separated from one another by literally dozens of loading screens as if from the age of gaming gone by.

Initially, Starfield is an exciting new prospect, you create your character and embody a miner who uncovers a buried artefact of unknown origin and experience a mesmerising vision. You join up with a group of privately funded space explorers to find answers and unlock the mystery you have discovered. I was warned not to expect too much from the 'main plot' of a Bethesda game and being well versed in completing side quests before advancing any main plot I basically collected every faction quest, side quest, odd job, bounty and delivery mission I could and did a whole lot of that before continuing the plot. Once I came to terms with the idea that faction quests and some side missions were far more interesting than unlocking the secrets of the universe, I enjoyed myself a lot more.

Traversal varies from OK to abysmal. In city areas (with no map) for the most part, you're always on foot but can use a boost pack to increase speed or altitude depending on where you're going. It makes sense while exploring the unknown to use it especially as for some stupid reason Bethesda didn't give you any vehicles to use in their open world areas that cry out for some way of quickly traversing their mostly featureless landscapes. FPS combat is actually pretty good for an RPG; Id Software (whose publishers are Bethesda) were brought in to help with that for obvious reasons, and their expertise is clear from the quality of the combat and weapons. Space combat isn't too involved and gets trivial when you get the hang of upgrading your ship beyond all competition. 

While there are no 'survival mechanics' in the game (probably for the best), there is a punishing inventory system which is possibly the worst I've ever encountered  in almost 30 years of inventory management since Diablo. In a world where you have technology like artificial gravity, you have a pitiful carrying capacity compared with the amount of equipment you feel you should be carrying around with you. It's worse in the early game because you don't have weight-limit reducing equipment or perks and you actually want to pick up stuff to sell for credits. But if your ship is 3-5 minutes away on foot and your carrying loot, it becomes a 10 minute journey because when you're encumbered, you're slower and you develop breathing trouble if you try to run - and unlike every situation in the rest of the game where you can just fast-travel - when you're encumbered, you can't fast travel! This is the only time when you literally would always chose to use fast travel and BGS says no! It's infuriating and the only thing I eventually modded out of the game was the numerical "weight" of all items. If I couldn't do that, I'd have quit.

I sunk considerable time in the researching and modifying of weapons, ship construction and base building. I genuinely enjoyed playing with these systems especially creating your own star ship where I was able to eventually craft a near-invincible vessel which shredded enemy spacecraft in seconds. Personal weapons were also interesting to upgrade and I reached a point where I was carrying the best weapons to eliminate any mob, human pirate or alien beast and carry thousands of rounds of ammo for each. These situations posed their own issue, when the slightest hit from your least powerful weapon one-shots your enemy it does seem a bit cheesy, so I turned up the difficulty for the first time in a game in a very long time to compensate for being so overpowered due to crafting min-maxing.

Starfield has a very broad gameplay loop, it's probably fairer to say it has several gameplay loops. No game session need be exactly the same - you can proceed with the main plot, do one of the vastly superior faction quests, spend time researching and applying upgrades for your weapons and equipment, design and build a base which can mine resources and establish transport hubs around the galaxy. You can design and build your own spacecrafts, fly around space in said spacecraft as a space-trucker, be a pirate, explore new star systems, be a bounty hunter and destroy pirate vessels. You can travel to and land on planets and explore, kill wildlife, extract resources, raid outposts and collect bounties by eliminating nefarious individuals. There is a lot to do that's up to you how much you want to do of it. 

Starfield's 1000 planets is supposed to be a selling point BGS is proud of. In reality it's too big a player arena. Only some 10 or so planets have meaningful content established in cities or settlements but the other 990 are variants of what you'd expect from what passes for procedural generation among game developers. The overwhelming majority are dull anaemic experiences where you as a player with a mind-numbingly slow jetpack spends far too many long laborious minutes hitting space-bar from your ship to a point of interest. Imagine the jaded reaction you'd have when you reach the point of interest to find out that it's the same procedurally generated structure as the last one you found on a different planet, the only difference is the gravity here is lighter or the surrounding rocks are a different colour. Bethesda seem to think that because Neil Armstrong wasn't bored by exploring our barren moon we should be filled with the same sense of awe. They seem to misunderstand that Armstrong while certainly was in awe and doing something no one had done before, (which was his purpose), but was also doing his fucking job and was being paid to do it! As players were expect exciting entertainment from minute to minute and are paying for that - that's the purpose of entertainment.

Starfield's technology is frankly abysmal. For starters, the Creation 2 engine looks like it's state-of-the-art for 2013. In 2023 it pales in comparison to something like Unreal Engine 5 and it further compounds players bafflement when you're met with loading screens every time you want to go somewhere to enter small areas like one room shops in cities or even when leaving your own ship on a planet which you can clearly see has already rendered outside! The segmented nature of the game suggests the engine cannot handle areas even a fraction of the size that most other game have been doing for the past 10 years or more. There's no atmospheric travel or control over your landing site; something No Man's Sky handles without issue so something with the scale and scope of Starfield feels like a regression of technology by comparison. Loading screens aren't annoying in games from 2003 because people understand they were a necessary solution for the game developers to stitch content together and back then did not know any better. Game designers have since been leveraging technology in the meantime to no longer require loading screens to to modern engines, and when they are required, blank loading screens are masked them with clever cutscenes or using narrow passages between areas where you can only go forward until the content on the other side is loaded. Starfield just gives you blank screen with a timer depending on where you're going and it's jarring to the immersion and totally absurd in 2023.

Final Verdict: Starfield is not a broken game but it's a deeply flawed design at a fundamental technical design level. However, it was still somehow compelling to play and engage with all its systems to see what you can do.  There is a vast quantity of experiences but precious little depth in most of them to back them up and this won't suit everyone. It's honestly not bad enough to hate, or anyway good enough to love and I'm unsure what can be done to fix it as the is the core of the game, decisions made at the outset of its design were fundamentally flawed and I doubt DLC or mods can fix it.

Technicals: 350 hours via Steam on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti at 3440x1440 at 60FPS approx (120 FPS approx with DLSS after many weeks). HDR (available weeks after launch) enabled in game.

Bugs: Starfield is heralded as BGS' least buggy game. I encountered some floating rocks, unclothed NPCs, NPCs that would float into the air, missing spacesuit and helmet visuals while on a planet without an atmosphere but none of these actually prevented me from progressing with anything I intended to. One bug however prevented enemies from appearing on enemy ships, so if you boarded them in space they'd have no crew or if they landed, no crew would disembark. Entering a code in the command line corrected this bug however so it was an easy fix.

Purchase Options: Available on Steam for €69.99. Review copy purchased from Steam for €56.93 in Sep 2023.

 *These features were added in December 2023

Saturday, January 20, 2024

First Play Review - RoboCop: Rogue City [2023]


I've made no secret of the fact that Paul Verhoven's RoboCop is my all time favourite movie. A violent sci-fi drama from 1987 fuelled with hilarious satire in a dark yet deeply prophetic vision of future Detroit. It's the story of Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) who is brutally killed in the line of duty and a nefarious corporation who turns him into a cyborg to prevent crime, and protect their investments. Throuhout the years I felt it would have made an interesting videogame but the franchise was only ever realised by the original Ocean side-scrollers of the 90's and something that only earned 22% in reviews from PC Gamer like Titus Interactive's RoboCop in 2003.

I was delighted in 2021 when I heard RoboCop was getting a real modern video game treatment from developers Tayon, who from all accounts nailed a Terminator game a few years back. Considering the state of a lot of AAA titles are released now, I was glad that a smaller AA studio would handle this as it can often be a labour of love and not something which demanded millions in sales for greedy shareholders. I followed the announcements and developments over the months and as soon as was announced, I signed up to be a beta tester for Robocop: Rogue City in the Summer of 2023.

We were given a three hour demo to evaluate, which was basically the first levels of the game. Using the power of Unreal Engine 5, it became quickly apparent that the interactive RoboCop simulator I wished for had become a reality!  The look and feel of Verhoven's vision had been captured beautifully, so 80's with the sights and sounds, satire and violence from not only the original RoboCop but also its 'adequate' but not as beloved sequel RoboCop 2; the game does thankfully not reference the abysmal RoboCop 3 except for foreshadowing at endgame, but only lore from RoboCop and 2 is included here and it plays like what a real RoboCop 3 should have been. I yelled audibly when an enemies head exploded in a shower of gore and cackled when I punched a perp through a glass window thirty storeys up! It was so impressive that I practically forgot I was meant to be evaluating it and recording bugs.

Crime is everywhere, including smokey backrooms of sleazy game arcades

The main bugs I did find in the beta related to some broken dialogue choices and an issue with some cutscenes and camera work on 21:9 Ultrawide resolutions but these were all fixed by the time a demo was released for the game in early October. This demo served two purposes: so people to evaluate if it would work on their PCs and I think it was also a calculated marketing move. It's relatively unheard of today to have a game demo and the way companies like EA release unfinished games like Star Wars Jedi: Survivor prove it's because they don't have confidence in their product. RoboCop: Rogue City publishers Nacon certainly had confidence and despite some early frame-rate issues (as with most UE5 games to be fair) these were fixed and the games eventual release in November 2023 was a massive success.

The full game is a work of incredible commitment on behalf of Teyon who clearly scoured over the movies, recording features and details at an extraordinary level in order to recreate the movie's style in the game. This is most evident in Metro West, Robo's police station. Many details are lifted from the movies and much is fabricated in the same style so that it feels just like the location on screen. Other locations seen are the disused steel mill where Murphy was killed and the industrial waste area where Bodikker and Robo had their showdown. While the game's story events are different, it's still in Old-Detroit and criminals invariably seem to gather in the same places, so seeing these familiar areas again was nostalgic.

RoboCop is not a chatterbox, but every line is delivered by Peter Weller himself

The game's audio isn't the highest quality. It was pointed out during the beta a few times that RoboCop's weapon the Auto 9 did not have the 'oomph' to the sound it had in the movies. The fact 100 testers agreed and it wasn't addressed has led to a belief that it was a permissions issue from MGM and Teyon/Nacon did not have free reign to use every exact sound lifted from the movies. One of the game's selling points had to be that Peter Weller was on board to voice RoboCop's synthesized dialogue. Despite his voice obviously being 35 years older, it didn't distract from his excellent performance. The talent for the other voice actors were somewhat mixed, VAs for Reed and Lewis were well imitated but others like Casey Wong and 'The Old Man' while well acted, sadly did not fit the characters well and it was a little jarring to the immersion. The game also benefits from many of RoboCop's original themes reused from the late Basil Poledouris' score but it was perhaps a little too subdued in places for where new music was created.

The game's gameplay will not be for everyone - but it should really be expected for anyone vaguely familiar with the character of RoboCop. This is an FPS and you are in the RoboCop suit so you're a slow moving tank making your way though pretty linear levels shooting everything that moves. No innovative gameplay here - but it's not needed as it would then not be true to the movies. The targetting and readouts of Robo's HUD are reminiscent of the movies but artistic licence was taken here as more game information needed to be displayed permanently than would have been necessary in the movies such as health, direction and combat info etc. It's not all mindless shooting however, there are some small open-world sequences allowing Robo to wander from one objective to another continuing the main investigation or side quests to follow his prime directives of serving the public trust, upholding the law and protecting the innocent by performing tasks like rescuing kittens from burning buildings or slapping parking tickets on illegally parked cars. There are many sequences which evoke the satire of the movies to varying degree, some of them are true gems.

While firmly an FPS there are some RPG-lite mechanics in so far as you have a 'quest list' of various objectives that help the main investigation and other associated police work. Level exploration reveals secret OCP ammo dumps to retrieve health batteries and upgrades for Robo's Auto 9 pistol (you do get the ability to pick up enemy weapons and used them like AK47s, Uzi sub-machine pistols or the Cobra Assault Cannon but 99% of the time you're shooting your upgraded Auto 9 because you rarely feel you need another weapon unless the game prompts you to use one at a specific time. You can also avail of a skill tree that allows RoboCop to become more defensive, offensive, better at deduction or technical tasks or reveal new dialogue options to gain more XP which in turn get you more points to spend.

Yes you are of course immune to fire

The story fits in nicely after RoboCop 2. The 'Nuke' drug is still the bane of the city, Mayor Kuzak is up for election and the arrival of a new criminal mastermind investing in the city's gangs have emboldened them to become more brazen and aggressive. Robo himself is still haunted by memories of his wife and son which caused him to glitch at a key moment so OCP put a chip in him to evaluate his performance as well as get him a psychiatrist to sort out his humanity and it becomes a theme throughout the game where you can make choices for Robo to either embrace his humanity as Alex Murphy or reject it to become a perfect product.

Final Verdict: RoboCop may not have the polish associated with AAA releases but it benefits from not having the bloat required by such higher profile games need to be successful. It also has what seems to be lacking ion AAA development of late: a team of developers at Teyon who unequivocally prove they adore the RoboCop franchise and concentrated on delivering an movie-quality experience without the injection of modern social politics. This is better than my expectations and if there's more to come, I'm there.

Technicals: 30 hours approx through Steam on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 175Hz. Average  FPS: 160 with DLSS3

Bugs: Some crashes, about 5 usually after 3-4 hours of continuous play.

Purchase Options: Available on Steam for €49.99. Review copy purchased from GamersGate for €37.49 in Nov 2023.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

20th Anniversary Review - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic [2003]

Following their considerable success with the Dungeons & Dragons license in the form of the Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights games, Bioware approached LucasArts in 2000 with a view to creating a Star Wars RPG in the same vein. LucasArts offered Bioware a license for game set around Episode II, The Clone Wars era or a time 4000 years in Star Wars' lore past popularised by the Tales of the Jedi comic book series. The latter was chosen as it Bioware felt it would allow more creative freedom in comparison to the rigidity required of the movie era.

It proved to be the correct decision and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) was released in the summer of 2003 to overwhelming critical acclaim from not only Star Wars fans but general RPG gamers; both veterans and those new to the genre. The game blended the D&D core principal of the d20 System and fused it to the actions of the characters be they Jedi with lightsabers or Sith troopers with blaster rifles and replaced D&D spells with Force powers that could be resisted depending on the many stats, skills and feats your characters were proficient with. All of the calculations were accessible if desired but were hidden by default to make the game more accessible to more casual gamers.

You create your own character from a set of basic archetypes, Soldier, Scout, Smuggler and later train to become a Jedi - or not! This is one of many major choices that you have over the expansive game which takes your character from the urban sprawl of Taris to more familiar Star Wars locales such as Kashyyyk or Tatooine in a search for maps to the mysterious Star Forge, a weapon that the Sith intend to use to dominate the galaxy. Choices also influence morality and party interactions which is more pronounced to previous Bioware D&D RPGs as Star Wars lore defines good and evil by the light and dark side of the force and your actions move the needle in certain directions towards being a paragon of the light or falling to the dark side - the latter which makes your skin turn ashen and your eyes yellow. 

While subjective, the game is cited often as the greatest Star Wars game ever, although others have more regard for it's sequel. It is also listed as one of the best all round RPGs of all time for story and character development. It was unsurprising that in 2021 it was revealed that a remake of Knights of the Old Republic was in development at Aspyr for Sony Interactive for a PS5 release. Sadly the project appears to be troubled at time of writing following development being transferred to Saber Interactive. This delay as well as the event of the 20th anniversary of the original release on November 11th prompted me to install and play the game again.

Not having played KOTOR in a while I was quickly amazed by how well it looks at high resolution (and a few community mod tweaks over the years which were simple to install). The game used the Odyssey Engine, a successor to the Aurora engine from Neverwinter Nights but a precursor to the Eclipse Engine used in Dragon Age: Origins. KOTOR boasted graphical features such as waving grass and blowing dust which were significant graphical features at that time.

The game-play is a version of real-time with pause and while it has dated significantly from more modern action-oriented experiences, it's not too jarring provided you remember how it's played from before. Being a 20 year old title from a time when developers often experimented with their own engines tuned to specific generations of hardware means that KOTOR won't run 100% out of the box on modern windows for everyone. While for me the Steam version did run for me, a fix to force the 21:9 Ultra-wide resolution would not display dialogue choices and a resolution shift to play the BINK cutscene videos meant I would lose visuals on those for 5 seconds each time. I reverted to 16:9 on a Windows 10 machine to achieve a more fluid experience.

Other game mechanics include some light crafting where you can customise your Lightsaber with different crystals that alter the colour and power of your blade as well as reinforce armour and enhance blasters if you so choose. One clever aspect is that one can avail of  persuasiveness using the skill or a high CHA stat or also employ "force persuade" during dialog options which is useful for convincing guards you actually do have permission to be here and they don't need to see your identification. Using it to reduce prices from vendors or NPCs providing services sets you on the dark path however. 

The interface is naturally very dated, modern resolutions change the experience and sadly mods can only do so much in that regard, but text is still readable and everything works as it's supposed to even though it may not look as it should. While Bioware coded the game and it's visuals, the audio aspect was directly handled by LucasArts themselves. Jeremy Soule's magnificent score was recorded on an state-of-the-art 8-bit midi system, not as rich musically but a far better solution then using CD audio tracks of rehashed John Williams movie scores as of oft done in the day. The voice cast was led by Ethan Phillips, Raphael Sbarge, Phil LaMarr, Ed Asner and Jennifer Hale who along with some 100 other voice actors recorded 15,000 lines of dialogue.

Final Verdict: Despite it's age, KOTOR is still a worthwhile Star Wars experience in gaming. The development of your character as they blast, cut, and talk their way though the some 60-hour story and the eventual reveal of one of gaming's most legendary plot twists has the same impact of Vader's "I am your father!" from The Empire Strikes Back. I would still recommend it today for anyone who loves either Star Wars, RPGs and especially those playing the MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic to witness the lore origins for the Infinite Empire, places like Taris and Manaan, and enemies like the Rakghouls and Rakata.

Technicals: Played via Steam for 55 hours on Win 10 @ 2560x1440 resolution using Nvidia GTX980Ti

Mods & Addons: May be required depending on system. UNIWIZ required for desired resolution. Installed: Community Bugfix v1.9.2, Selphadur's Kotor Texture Redux v1.1 Standalone-1302-v1-1-1577535482, Kotor High Resolution Menus (HRM)

Bugs: Three unexplained CTD over the course of 55 hours. Character freezes after combat bug, mitigated by locking framerate to 60FPS (common with older games when encountering higher refresh rates of the 2020's)

Purchase Options: Available on Steam or GOG for €9.75. Is often found for sub €3 alone or bundled with it's sequel. Review copy purchased from Steam for 2.25 in Dec 2010.

Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic series:

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)
  • Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (2004) 
  • Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011)
    • - Rise of the Hutt Cartel (2013)
    • - Shadow of Revan (2014)
    • - Knights of the Fallen Empire (2015)
    • - Knights of the Eternal Throne (2016)
    • - Onslaught (2019)
    • - Legacy of the Sith (2022)
  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic — Remake (???)