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 (???)