Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (Beta)

So, I managed to get my hands on a beta key… awesome!

The game is still in beta format, but I’ve logged a good amount of hours on it and I’ll give you my initial experience.

The first thing that strikes you is the graphics. They are very polished, even at this stage. Everything looks fantastic and the level of detail that they’ve managed to achieve on such a large and massively multiplayer game is impressive. I cannot understate how devastatingly pretty this game is.

FFXIV Beta Screenshot

The graphics really are something else…

The universe is quite charming and extremely ‘square’. You can instantly tell that you’re playing a game made by square just by the look of the character skins, the towns and the level design, and this is before you spot people whizzing around on chocobos, moogles delivering letters and hear the tell-tale musical ambience that is so engrained in the long and inconsistently brilliant series.

The music is a bit patchy at the minute, but you can tell that the aim is ambient scores that fade seamlessly into battle music and back again when you encounter and vanquish a beast of some kind. There is none of the randome encounters that some people love and others seem to hate, you peruse the area and press tab until you target the thing you want to kill.

The standard ‘victory tune’ (we all know the one I mean) blasts when you level up, a shiver running down my spine the first time it happened. Basically, they’re doing all they can to make this MMO seem like a Final Fantasy game.

When I started the game up for the first time, it detected that I had an Xbox360 controller plugged in and announced that I could use that instead of a keyboard and mouse. In the interests of science, I tried it for a few hours.

I have to say, it doesn’t work too badly once you get the hang of it, but it makes targeting enemies a long and difficult process. I’d use keyboard and mouse if I were you. It’s playable, but awkward.

At the minute, there’s no voice acting in the game, but the script that you read (old school) is written in an oddly anglicised way, with accents from all reaches of the UK written in to it. I hope this means that they’ll be staying away from the cheesy americans that so plague the series and make certain characters impossible to like.

The races are the usual Final Fantasy fare, with some influence being taken from D&D races (there’s your human and elf races and an ork-ish race etc.). They all look great, if a little anime-ish.

Whilst the beta only let you play as three classes, it did show the list of classes that will be in the game. This is where we become a little disappointed because it seems like there’s a continuation of the tendency for MMO’s of late to remove the roles from role-playing games.

I suspected that there would be the black mage (attacking magic) and the white mage (defensive and healing magic), but the mage in the game was clearly a red mage (bit of both, master of nothing). They want the player to be able to complete the game on their own and in my opinion this is why MMO’s of late have had awful communities. Why discourage players from teaming up to complete missions? I really wish an MMO would break this trend.

The storyline, at the start of the game at least, seems to be exactly the same regardless of race or class. I hope this isn’t the case, because this would severely reduce replay value for me. No light is gleamed on the endgame from the beta, but it’s got to exist after Guild Wars 2… That’s another review entirely.

After playing the beta for a significant amount of time however, I realised something. It hit me like a brick in the face…

…Aside from the shine and the polish, I’ve played this game before… lots of times. This game doesn’t do anything interesting or new. It does the same stuff that every MMO does, and with more fiddly controls. Two examples of this are the fact that you can’t move whilst charging a skill/spell and targeting the enemy you want to attack can be clunky (especially when there’s 20 players piling onto an event).

This is the tragic thing about the game; the fact that it hasn’t done anything aside from looking fantastic means that if it charges any kind of subscription for the game, it’s just not worth it. Too many competitors are free to play, and do the genre arguably more justice.

Single player Final Fantasies (well, most of them anyway) are great. They are a set of games that everyone should have a go at, but Square have made the mistake of including its MMO exploits in the series main, breaking up the series with what is effectively a side project (and expensive one at that! Subscription fees have been unbelievable for their MMO games so far.).

Now, I’m all for Square making MMO’s, and I wouldn’t even mind if they stuck the Final Fantasy name on it, but Final Fantasy XI and XIV should have been called Final Fantasy: Online and Online II.

You can make an MMO feel like a Final Fantasy game, but it still isn’t one… It’s a branded MMO-RPG.

Am I excited for the release? Meh, not anymore.

Diablo 3 vs. Path of Exile (Dual Review)

The point, click, kill-style action RPG seems to be in a resurgence lately, with a number of titles popping up or being announced in fairly quick succession over the past year. Out of the lot, by far the biggest are Blizzard’s Diablo 3 and Grinding Gear Games’ Path of Exile.

We had been waiting for Diablo 3 for about ten years and it was the most hotly anticipated PC game on its release. Many bought it… too many.

The release of Diablo 3 was a mess, a terrible cluster-f**k of always-on-drm (a hateful and vile tendency in the gaming industry of late, and one that should be done away with as soon as possible) and piss-poor server management. Basically, Blizzard sold more discs and licenses than their servers could ever hope to handle, all on the same day.

Because you need to be logged in to their servers to even play a single-player game (NO!), players installed the game only to be told that they would have to wait for many hours before they could log in… and then their game would crash after half an hour of gameplay.

This is just not good enough. It is a black stain on Blizzard’s reputation that we must never forget and which they have not yet adequately apologised for.

Path of Exile had issues too. It is more akin to an MMO and so doesn’t have a single player (effectively this means it IS always on drm). It wasn’t exactly hours of waiting to log in, but they had similar server problems. Their servers were wildly unstable, and could shut down entirely, booting everyone off the game at once. Coding issues and capacity were constant worries in the first few weeks of the games release.

There are two reasons why Path of Exile may be given a little more slack in this regard (although really, developers shouldn’t use always on drm). Firstly, they are the fact that Grinding Gear are tiny when compared to Blizzard and could therefore not be expected to have the recourses or the cash available for top-spec servers. Secondly and most importantly, the game is completely free! It doesn’t make it any less irritating…

So server issues aside (because they have been largely sorted out now), how do the two games stack up against each other? In the end, it is pretty close and each game does some things better than the other.

In terms of graphics, Path of Exile wins hands down. It’s world is darker, more gritty and everything just looks more shiny than Diablo’s slightly more cartoonistic world. Don’t get me wrong, Diablo still looks great, and it’s cut-scenes are second to none, but Path of Exile is jaw-droppingly pretty.

Diablo 3’s classes are very much your generic bunch of adventurers (aside from the re-skinned necromancer and archer) and all of them can complete the game and have a linear set of skills.

Path of Exile’s character classes are generally more interesting, and many have dark pasts. These are not your generic “heroes” (some are absolute villains). The thing with Path of Exile is that you get to choose what kind of character you will develop. Every class can learn any skill.

When you gain a level, you earn “passive skill points” that you can use to add a new node on the board (nodes can be attribute bonus’, skills and traits that add flavour to the character and make it work completely differently to another… for example, there is a skill that completely removes energy shield and adds the number you would get to your evasion bonus).

The board is very similar to Final Fantasy X’s “sphere grid”, and the character you choose, merely dictate’s where you start on it. After this, Diablo 3’s character levelling choices seem positively linear!

What this does however, is make Path of Exile incredibly difficult to complete on your own. As you level, if you’re not careful you can become very good at one thing and not great at other things (e.g. massive magic dps, but bugger all hp). If you’re playing as a group, this works really well though, as you can do all the ranged dps and another can tank properly, but might not be able to solo a boss because of his low damage output.

What this does is encourage you to team up and makes the game really difficult if you don’t feel like it. Diablo 3 is in this regard, far easier.

Equipment in Path of Exile is hard earned very rare. You need to use enhancing trinkets that you pick up to keep ahead of the enemy and survive. If you don’t upgrade your armour and weaponry, you will soon begin to die very often.

Diablo 3 on the other hand has an auction house. You basically find rare items, sell them for gold and buy the best gear from other players on the auction house. Gold is easy to come by and you can gear up with minimal effort required. After Diablo 2’s hardcore grind-fest, I’ll admit that I was disappointed. Games, too often give in to the casual gamer.

So what about storyline? Diablo absolutely, categorically wins this round. The story is good enough to keep you interested, and a fair bit longer than Path of Exile’s. In fact, (without giving any of the story away) Path of Exile ends rather anticlimactically.

There is a reason for this however. Path of Exile isn’t finished yet. Another act has already been announced for release later this year, and I can’t wait.

Both have all the replay value you’ll ever need, with newgame+ modes, where they ramp up the difficulty and you do it again. I predict that you’ll spend a similar amount of time on both, because whilst Diablo 3 is longer, Path of Exile makes creating and playing new characters a more varied and interesting experience.

So which one should you buy?

 

Diablo 3 is for the more casual gamer. If you want to shell out £40 for it, you won’t regret it because it is worth it. It is better played with friends but if you don’t have any, it’s not the end of the world.

Rating: 7 ridiculously large swords out of 10

 

Path of Exile is a hardcore game. If you don’t want to play in a party, you’ll have to be careful about how you build your characters. This game is fantastic and it is free!

Rating: 8 exploding zombies out of 10

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Ba-na-na-na-na-na-na-na. Ba-na-na-na-na-na-na-na. Ba-na-na-na-na-na-na-na. Batman!…

…This is all I could think watching the dark night running around the various bits of the asylum. This game screams classic Batman with every fibre of its being. The voice acting, the character models, the easter eggs and a few of the less mainstream faces making appearances. Put simply, they got the feel for this game spot on.

Whilst I enjoyed the latest batman trilogy, I couldn’t help but feel that they were missing something… They had no soul! There was no black comedy, no fun and no truly outlandish moments that made me think, “yes… this is a batman film”. We were left with a dramatic, gritty and realistic re-hash of the making of a batman that I couldn’t root for… and that voice!!!

…this is not a film review… calm…

So, how does it play? Pretty well actually. It may suffer a little from “tekken syndrome” whereby you can complete any combat by only remembering one or two combo attacks but the combat is entertaining. I’d place the majority of the game somewhere between tenchu and assassins creed in style, running along rooftops and surprise attacking a group of gun wielding maniacs dressed like clowns.

The enemies start to genuinely panic when they find their mates KO’d on the floor or catch a glimpse of you, only to lose you as you swing up into the rafters. This is really well done and is hilarious to watch. Picking them off one by one is such fun.

The storyline keeps you entertained, and the depth of the batman universe is used to maximum effect, creating a truly immersive experience that can you can lose entire days to.

Collectables play a large part in this, forcing you (if you’re anything like myself) to spend half of the time searching every nook and cranny of a building in order to find them all. Sometimes this can make the mission you’re actually on feel like the side-event and I’ve found myself accidentally wandering into a cut scene once or twice.

The bosses are varied enough to consistently challenge you and the gadgets that you get drip fed, force you to return to places that you’ve been before in order to use said gadgets to get hold of the collectables that were just out of reach the first time you saw them.

I won’t spoil anything for anyone, but the scarecrow encounters are ridiculously well worked into the game and awesome.

So in summary, if you enjoy beating the mentally ill senseless, stalking people and exploring dark corners to find audio recordings of weirdoes, this is almost certainly a game for you. An absolute must-play if you’re a batman fan… it’s better than watching the latest trilogy of films at any rate.

Rating: 9 batmerangs to the face out of 10

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (PS3)

Ace Combat is a series that I follow wherever it may go as I attempt to recreate the moment that I first sat in a cockpit and flew into glorious battle. The series so far was yet to really disappoint me in quality terms but with announcements of additional helicopter missions and a simplified dogfighting system, I was 90% sure that this was going to be the one to do it.

I played the demo (as you do) and was instantly turned off. The graphics were immense and the storyline seemed to be as cheesy as ever, but the controls… oh no, what had they done??!

In an effort to compete with the H.A.W.X title’s from Ubisoft, they had made the control scheme ‘simple’. Simple is another word for clunky. It limits what you can do and sucks the fun out of the entire game. Don’t like it. Stop it genre, just stop it!

Luckily, I soon found the option to turn the controls back to normal. Now, I know why they put the control scheme in. It’s for clumsy eff-nuts who couldn’t guide urine into a toilet who claim that the game is ‘too difficult to control’ as they slam into a mountain at 200mph (which in this game looks AMAZING, btw).

The fact that it’s on as default really annoys me. Every game seems to be aiming at the casual audience now, alienating those who have actual talent by bringing everyone to the “same level” by rewarding idiocy and taking away any skill needed to play a game. Have the option there, by all means… just disable it in multiplayer (they do have the option for this whilst setting up a server, but there’s so few people online, you can’t really afford to do that) and have an OPT-IN in the options and call it ‘retard mode’ so you are encouraged to try and play the game properly (you may see a pattern emerging with similar rants popping up here and there).

I have to say at this point, with retard mode (as it shall henceforth be known) turned off and the game set to hard-core, my worries were totally unfounded. It is a really good game.

The dogfight assist may look easy, like you’re stuck to the back of the enemy plane with superglue, leading to an inevitable kill but it’s not easy at all to stay on them and the chase can be a real rush. Your opponents are coded to take you through the narrowest gaps and the most explosive terrain in order to shake you and you can spend more time dodging falling towers than shooting the enemy.

The only problem that I do have with the dogfight assist is that it ruins the multiplayer, turning the dogfights into a linear bore-fest. I’d disable it on the multiplayer (If you play anything less than normal difficulty on the campaign then it is a little easy and it does ruin a good dogfight too).

Helicopters… I often don’t like their intrusion into the fast-paced world of super-sonic jets, but they are done remarkably well. Helicopter missions play a bit like the strike series (great games… never completed a single one… regret it hugely) and rather than being glad that they didn’t overuse the helicopter missions, I found myself wishing for more at the end. I think that the developers might consider a separate title based in the same universe… I’d buy it.

Another key area that was missing were the awkward ‘flying-down-a-tunnel-really-quickly’ levels that have so defined previous games for me, trying to go through them as quickly as possible without hitting closing doors or crossing pipes… a separate, arcade-style game mode with online leader boards?? I’m so full of ideas, I should be designing games!! (In my dreams)

To summarise, I would say the following; this is a fantastic campaign-driven game with a ton of replay value. It has more than enough planes to keep you busy and more than enough difficulty to make you rage-quit and come back more determined than ever.

It is, however ruined by a multiplayer that plays by the same rules as the campaign when it shouldn’t and that is underused as a result. I’d axe the multiplayer in the next one. There are never more than 5 people on it, and it’s a bit of a waste of time. The only good flying-based multiplayer was Crimson Skies (SO GOOD!). Forget that and spend the effort making the campaign shinier, longer and more diverse.

I give Ace Combat: Assault Horizon 7.5 flaming wreckages out of 10.

Sleeping Dogs

It has been said, that there are too many sandbox crime-spree games around. Grand Theft Auto; the ever-present behemoth, Saints Row; the lovable simpleton and Driver; The wannabe Hollywood director who should really stop making bad films and concentrate on getting his life back on track.

I must stress, that I have never uttered a discontent in being buried alive in sandbox crime-spree goodness, nor shall I. It is a genre rich with potential, ideas (some of which work, some that don’t) and… well, laughs (and isn’t that what computer games are all about?).

So yes, I love the genre. Even so, when I heard that Square were rebooting the True Crime series (not in name, but in actuality) I must admit I was slightly hesitant.

I remember Streets of LA. I remember the rather clunky controls and the less-than-impressive graphics and not having a lot to do for the majority of the time (I must stress that I haven’t played it since, but the lingering memory is stained with those three key points).

Then I remember the trailer for Sleeping Dogs. All of my fears drifted off into the distance as I started repeatedly throwing a wad of cash at my monitor. Eventually I just used steam instead

I usually buy this sort of game for a console because I prefer using a control pad, but since the xbox 360 pad has been adopted as the default PC pad by most developers I decided to get it for the PC and make use of the HD texture pack that can be downloaded for free and which really boost the graphics.

So, seven paragraphs in, we arrive at the game. The idea is that you are playing as an underground cop, infiltrating a triad that your character seems to have a little bad blood with from his childhood. It is based in Hong Kong, a truly westernised city-state, only recently adopted back into China after Great Britain kindly gave it back in return for a pile of money. It is a truly interesting place, and a great setting for a game.

The game mechanics actually takes some time to get used to. There is a single button that makes you run, jump, leap across gaps, climb stuff, stand up on your bike, lean out of your car and jump from one vehicle to another. It’s all about holding and tapping it at the right times.

The thing that really sets this game apart from it’s rivals is the combat. Guns are rare in this game, and you generally get given one when you need one, so when you get given a grenade launcher, you know shit’s about to go down in a big way.

Obviously, due to the setting martial arts take the fore in this one and it’s done brilliantly. Most of the time you’ll spend your time standing in the middle of a group of three or more angry looking triad types, waiting for one of them to try attacking you and pulling off a sick counter attack that makes the rest of them wince. There are plenty of counters to learn, and to do so, you’ve got to find collectables dotted around the world and level up.

When you get bored of pummelling the living daylights out of your enemies (and the odd pedestrian who catches you in a bad mood… but we don’t talk about that because you’re a cop remember) you can grab hold of them and drag them towards walls and other bits and pieces on the map that you can use to ensure that the police will need dental records to identify the guy. I won’t spoil all of them for you, but there’s nothing like beating a guy to death with a phone handset in a phone-box to send the message to the other triad that you mean business.

I have a single issue with the game, and it is only a personal gripe I have that spoils it for me. I HATE quick-time events. I hate them with an undying fury that will only be tamed as I beat on the creator of the concept. There are some enemies that cannot be countered in the usual way and that trigger off a quick time event to avoid damage. They do it often and when there is a group of the same type of enemies, it can get really tiresome.

All-in-all however, Sleeping Dogs is one of the nicest looking open world games I’ve seen. It plays well, the driving mechanics are well balanced and the storyline is compelling enough. The melee combat really shines through as an example to the rest of the genre of what can be achieved and for that alone it deserves to be commended.

In summary, a solid title. Well done Square. If you haven’t played it, give it a go. It manages to be both gritty and ridiculous at the same time. I love it.

I give it 9 damage boosting energy drinks out of 10.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

You know what’s nice? Being able to play Counter-Strike without people looking over your shoulder and saying, “that game looks crap… those graphics are awful”. Finally, I no longer need to suppress the rage that inevitably follows this misguided outburst because the series has been given a long overdue update. The graphics aren’t the best on the market, but they don’t look out of place next to the other shooters on sale.

The second thing that’s nice about this version of one of my favorite series’ is that it isn’t CS:S. This isn’t to say I didn’t like Source (indeed I’ve racked up many hours on it over the years) I just feel that some of the shooting mechanics (hit-boxes in particular) were clunky and couldn’t really be relied upon. On CS:S, it sometimes seems that your gun is loaded with frozen peas rather than live ammunition.

Global Offensive just works much better and the gameplay seems to flow. Guns are more reliable and you now need to aim at the head to shoot someone in it (rather than the wall three feet away from their head). The gun variety is far greater than previous titles and the addition of the Molotov in particular adds a fantastic game mechanic. Unfortunately, the AWP (the fag rifle) still plays a far too large part in the game, with the first team who can afford to buy them going on to win quite a lot of the time.

The distinct lack of 24/7 servers (those that play the same map in an endless loop) is a breath of fresh air and the map changes are common. It’s just fun and brings memories of Counter Strike 1.6 flooding back… when it works.

The game is by no means perfect. The matchmaking system is… well… why is it necessary? I can understand that for the console versions it makes it easier, but making it the only way to get to the official servers seems to me a step in the wrong direction. It wouldn’t even be an issue the game did it well, but time-after-time it puts me on the same map over and over and if not that then in a server full of bots.

Then there is the glitch that will disable your mouse when you enter a game, meaning that you need to use the command console to disconnect and re-join. This issue is occurring less often since the update, but it seems that the update has introduced a fairly serious lag issue for some. Problems like this are being fixed and I have no doubt that they will be eventually ironed out, but needing to patch a patch is a sure sign of not enough testing and clumsy updating.

My final issue is a relatively minor one: there aren’t enough maps. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Counter Strikes of old having a seemingly endless stream of really good maps, but it’s a limitation that becomes all the more apparent because there is no matchmaking option that allows you to join a server where all the maps are playable. The game splits servers into hostage rescue maps or bomb maps, a really bad decision since there are only two hostage rescue maps at the moment!!

With the release of Vertigo, it seems that Valve are willing to release more maps for free, but I do wish they would combine the matchmaking lists already. After all, variety is the spice of life.

The game costs £12 (less if you get it in one of steam’s many sales) so I can’t be too critical. It’s fantastic value for money, great fun, easy to jump into and is very well populated (as is common with any counter strike game).

The only thing that might drive you away is the steep learning curve that all Counter Strikes have. You’ve really got to stick with this one and learn to die, and die often. Counter Strike will not give you any help when you’re doing badly. It won’t hold your hand. This game is not noob-friendly. It is Counter Strike and that is why I love it.

I give it 4.5 AWP’s (out of 5)