Contrast

Contrast is an example of an excellent concept brought to life with great care and a large quantity of style.

Contrast: a game of light and shadow

Contrast: a game of light and shadow

Everything about the game simply oozes class and finesse. The setting is an impressive romanticisation of the roaring 20’s in a fragmented world that is never really fully explained. At first, I thought that the world was only fragmented in the shadow realm, but since the little girl you are assisting (who belongs to the “solid” realm) cannot traverse the gaping chasms; I reason that the world itself must be fragmented.

The way that the interactions with those of the other realm occurs is truly inspired and clever. You become truly immersed and some of the side puzzles are as challenging as the story challenges.

contrast style

The game mechanics are simple and the puzzles are well designed. Whilst I wouldn’t say that they were perfectly intuitive, there were very few rage inducing fiddly bits that plague this kind of game elsewhere. It has a nice balance between testing  both reflexes and brain-power.

Puzzle games are not one of my favourite genres, but this one gets top marks for its originality and its execution. The whole thing feels crafted by someone who cares; more than can be said for the AAA vomit that gets chucked at us consistently.

contrast gameplay

The only issue that I have with the game is its length. I do not rush games, and I didn’t rush this one (finding most of the hidden collectables), but even so I was done with it in less than four hours… and that really isn’t good enough for a full game.

There really isn’t a whole lot of replay value either, aside from looking for missed collectables. This is one of the key reasons that I’m not a huge fan of puzzle games… once you’ve finished it, that’s it really.

 

My summary, like the game, will be short and sweet:

A fantastic, well-crafted and engrossing game while it lasts… which isn’t nearly long enough. Wait for it to go on sale, but it’s definitely one to play.

7 corsets out of 10

Grand Theft Auto 5

I am obsessed with GTA. I have been since GTA2 and I adore everything about them.

To give you an Idea of how much I bloody love them, I took a week off work from the Tuesday the game was released just to play GTA5, and I played 14 hours of it straight with only minimal toilet/sandwich breaks.

Been looking forward to this one for a while...

Been looking forward to this one for a while…

OK, so I’m not the most balanced critic here, but I know my stuff and I know what needs to work if it’s going to measure up to its predecessors. Despite this, there is criticism… but we’ll get all the positives out of the way first shall we.

My absolute favourite thing about the game is the map. The amount of effort that has gone into this map is as impressive as it is engrossing. I find myself wondering around, spotting the odd in-joke that I don’t quite get, hearing a bit of well-scripted banter and then all of a sudden a mugging!

Random world events have been used to some really good effect in GTA5. They add just a little bit more to the length of the game and constantly keep you busy. Despite pretty much being a variation on the same thing (someone stole something: chase them down, grab the goods and either return it or keep it) I do find myself doing them if I’m not on my way to do something more interesting.

The characters were extremely well done. I liked all of them in their own way and everyone I ask seems to have a favourite. There is a good mix of psychoses going on and the script writers did a pretty good job of bringing them all to life.

Switching between characters is very nice, and switching to Trevor is always a fairly interesting occurrence. You switch to Trevor with a sense of apprehension, the question “what the hell has he been up to this time?” lurking at the back of your mind.

You are rarely disappointed. He’s usually either being chased by the police for some reason or he’s waking up in the middle of nowhere, still drunk and possibly in a dress… no, I am not joking.

I like the resurrection of the Rampage missions and they’ve been worked in fantastically, only being made available to Trevor when someone really pisses him off. I missed rampage missions in GTA4 and I’m glad rockstar are no-longer taking themselves too seriously to let us go on the odd rampage not and then.

I’m also glad that they’ve allowed us to carry more than one of each kind of weapon… that was annoying.

The actual game engine is really well done too. Shooting and driving are great and feel just right (well… unless you’re playing on a PS3 like I was. The controller doesn’t exactly do precision and let me down on numerous occasions).

Hidden packages are done quite well, but the map is far too large to be able to find them all without clues. I remember spending an entire week combing every square inch of GTA3’s map grid by grid, until I had all of the hidden packages. The mere thought of doing that on GTA5 makes me want to vomit.

It's huge...

It’s huge…

Enough with the pleasantries

I left this review until after the online was fixed, to give it a fair crack of the whip and so far, the online is the first disappointment for me.

It’s not the lag, because there isn’t all that much of that anymore and it’s not the way it works really. I can see where they’re going with it and it’s quite exciting, but they have to get the basics right and sadly, they haven’t yet.

Firstly, there is an issue with lobbies. When you want to kick up an event, you have to wait for about half an hour to get enough players to play because it only invites people in the same “world” as you. Is it not too much to ask to set up a bit of matchmaking across all servers like on any other game?

There’s a connection issue too, once you get into a game. I have friends (I know, you’d never believe it!) and you can be in the same mission or fire-fight, having a great time and suddenly BAM! One of you disappears and takes half of the team with him!

WHY?

It’s especially irritation when the disconnected player is the driver and you are left in a car that is slowly grinding to a halt as your quarry buggers off.

The worst part about the online is that while you’re not in a game, (and let’s face it… you won’t be for the majority of the time because it’s too much effort and as soon as you do get into a game you find yourself disconnected) there’s sod-all to do but drive around and wait for someone to try to kill you. It’s just a bit boring, sadly.

If a few things get ironed out, the online could be brilliant...

If a few things get ironed out, the online could be brilliant…

Now we come to my main point. This is the thing that has disappointed me above all else. This is something that all the sexy graphics and glorious gameplay in the world can’t hide…

The main campaign.

It’s not a bad campaign and I’ve certainly played worse, but Grand Theft Auto games promice so much more and Grand Theft Auto players demand so much more.

It has the whiff of an unfinished masterpiece: so much potential unfulfilled.

The heist system is particularly inspired and the way that you can level up crew members is a great idea, but what’s the point if there’s only ever going to be four heists in the game? Seems to me like they’re building up for some DLC, but unless it’s free it doesn’t belong in this review and it would be just another game released unfinished.

Also, whilst it’s not the shortest game in the world, in places it feels awfully rushed. There’s a whole section when you’re on the run in the wilderness that lasts what seems like all of two hours. So much more could have been done with that! Hillbillies vs Micheal or Franklin… who doesn’t want to see that?

The map was my favourite part of the game, but with the campaign it is also my biggest disappointment by far.

There is so much on the map and so many interesting settings that are completely unutilised by the main story, or at all!

After finishing the game, I found that there were huge swathes of land that I’d never been to before. I got in a helicopter to go and explore them and I found a dam, a couple of factories/refineries, a religious retreat, a windfarm, a vineyard… I could go on for quite some time, naming all of the places that would have made the campaign longer, more varied, more action packed and that might as well not be there at all!

It is difficult to put into words how utterly enraged I was that such a fantastic resource was wasted so shamelessly. The map design team must be absolutely livid, and rightly so!

So many stunning locations left unused... It's a dam shame!

So many stunning locations left unused… It’s a dam shame!

…Anyway, Here is my summary:

GTA5 is a really good game. It is a joy to play and is fantastically fun. GTA has its sense of humour back and returns to us in style.

My only fear is that it will not age as well as its predecessors. It will be remembered as the game that wasn’t quite as memorable as the games that came before it or the characters in it.

In ten years’ time, people will struggle to recall what the campaign was all about and what parts were most funny. All people will remember is how the game played and how it made them feel…

…And you know what? That’s no bad thing.

One hell of a game. One hell of a missed opportunity

8 submerged UFO’s out of 10.

Gears of War: Judgement

Looks can be deceiving...

Promising so much, yet delivering so little…

The Gears of War series is one of those series’ that have so defined this generation of games consoles. It’s had its ups and downs in multiplayer terms, but its single-player has always impressed, becoming more epic and ambitious upon each outing. As a result, I’ve always been confident about buying a gears game because of its consistent quality.

No more, however. This jaunt into the gears universe is a massive disappointment I’m afraid to report. It is a prequel, and the storyline for the single-player is solid. However, the developers have managed to do so little with it. I mean, they entirely skip the war with the faux-russians and go straight for the locusts. I would have liked to see that, and we’ve basically done locusts now.

You get the feeling that the game could have been really quite good, but that the ambitious young up and comer we knew and loved has grown into a fat, greedy CEO (more on this later). It just doesn’t feel right.

It’s competently put together, but instead of a long suave of storytelling, it seems to have deliberately cut itself into 5 minute chunks to fit with the new challenge system. I like the challenge system, but it’s not very well integrated and it ruins the feel of the thing. The game feels permanently staccato. They tried something new and it didn’t work.

It seems like the epic story has been replaced by an arcade-style shoot-em-up that wouldn’t seem out of place sat next to house of the dead 3. Essentially, they have turned a thrilling page-turner into a toilet read.

I could forgive the tedious single-player experience if the multiplayer was any good, but I have to say that I am past disappointed with it. Credit where credit is due; overrun mode is great and is good fun for a couple of hours. I think that it is an inspired addition that has been very well done. It’s a mix of horde and beast mode where players take on both the role of defending COG and attacking locust.

Overrun mode is fantastic!

Overrun mode is fantastic!

Here is where the praise ends, as deathmatch mode, the gears staple, has been frankly ruined. COG vs Locusts is great, as you can very easily tell who’s who. They look different, sound different, make different footstep noises and the old human vs monster thing really hits the spot.

So why did they make it COG vs COG?! Red vs blue works on games like Halo, because the character is entirely the one colour. In gears, you have red or blue pants and sleeves, but the player can choose the colour of the armour plating… and there is a colour that is quite red. I would hate to be colour-blind playing it.

No locust, no fun...

No locust, no fun…

They cut the locusts because it’s apparently happening before they arrive on the scene? Well, someone tell the single player writers, because I don’t think they got that memo. Locusts belong in the deathmatch and their absence ruins the feel of it completely; it just isn’t gears anymore.

Limiting the player to one weapon is another terrible idea. When you ask the player to give up either his rifle or shotgun, the rifle often goes out of the window and the whole game becomes a mess, with players sprinting at each other in order to blow each other to pieces. This totally ruins the tactical aspect of the game and makes it pretty much unplayable… it isn’t fun anymore… it isn’t gears anymore (I’m sure you get my point by now).

My final big complaint about the multiplayer is the map selection; there aren’t enough of them and the ones they did bother to make are awful. Were the designers on something when they drew the designs, or are they just sadists? None of the maps work properly, and the game suffers from retarded-respawn syndrome (you can spawn with your face on the end of someone’s shotgun, or in a rifle’s scope).

There is a map that is basically a series of rooftops and alleyways in a big line and there’s another that is set out in a big circle… it’s really lazy design. Try to spice it up with a few suspended cars all you like, but players know that getting into one of those is suicide and you’re really fooling no-one.

Four maps (yes… you read correctly) are far too few. I would say that six good maps is the minimum amount that a shooter can get away with. With such a small number of poor quality maps, the game gets really stale in less than an hour (well, that’s how long it took me to grow bored of it and put GoW3 in at any rate).

Even after all that, the worst is still yet to come! There are actually eight maps on the disk that you buy in the shops, and you will have to pay them for the right to unlock the maps you’ve already purchased! Absolutely, unforgivably disgusting!! They released one map for free because of the fully justified backlash, but this only means that you’ll get one less map in the pack when you buy it anyway.

It seems like Epic really have lost interest in making quality games, and have joined the ranks of developers who are ripping off the consumer with mediocre product.

If the original Gears of War team (as they were when they made the first game) saw this game, I’m absolutely positive that they would disown it and try to sue someone. This game takes a giant steamer over a series that should have gone out with a bang, but is now shuddering along on the corpses of the consumer, without dignity, without credibility and without respect.

It deserves none and gets none from me. Poor form epic. This is a tediously mediocre addition to an otherwise excellent series.

Rating: a mere four lancers out of ten

Portal 2

Every now and then a game will come from out of nowhere, based entirely on a novel idea that had never been previously imagined, let alone put into practice. The first portal was just such a game.

I remember the first time I ever saw portal, round at a friend’s house with a few beers and the orange box. Eventually, we got bored of team fortress 2 and – deciding that Half Life 2 wasn’t exactly a party starter – we booted up some random puzzler tacked onto the compilation to fill up empty disk space…

…HOW WRONG WE WERE!!!

Thinking back now, Portal is honestly my favourite game in that pack. Though it probably didn’t last any more than about 4-6 hours, the game simply oozed charm and was so simple and original that I almost didn’t believe that someone got a developer to even make it!

Simplicity and dark humour were the game’s backbone and heart respectively. Despite this, by the end of it I wasn’t expecting a sequel because they had surely done all they could with it, right?…

…WRONG AGAIN!!!

Valve managed to pull off one of the most impressive things that a developer can do to a game’s sequel; it managed to add an enormous amount of complexity and depth whilst maintaining the core mechanics and not overcomplicating the thing.

So there are new and interesting ways to interact with the environment, allowing you to do things that were impossible in the previous game. Speed gel allows you to zoom around and make impossible gaps; bounce gel allows you to get up to places previously unreachable and portal-surface gel allows you to make almost anything a portal-friendly surface. Anti-gravity beams move you or a companion in whatever direction you might point it.

Blue stuff

Blue gel turns a testing chamber into a bouncy castle!!!

In addition, the environment is vibrant, interesting and mobile. The world moves around you and you get to see more than just testing chambers.

All of this serves to make puzzles harder and the game last longer but still the basic left-right click portals remain the sole mechanic. Slick, simple and brilliant.

The story is not only a match for the original’s, but it surpasses it significantly in my opinion. It maintains the charm and the dark humour of the first Portal, whilst adding real flavour and epic plot.

Without spoiling anything for you, you play the last test subject left, who has been woken after a VERY long sleep by a rogue and fairly cheerful robot called Wheatley. It seems to want to keep you alive. This robot is voiced by Stephen Merchant and while this annoyed me at first (I tend not to like recognising voices… kind of ruins the premise of a character to me), but once I blocked the existence of Mr Merchant out of my head and brainwashed myself into believing that the voice truly was Wheatley’s the voice acting was very ably performed by… err… who was it again?

So it’s the usual drill, solve puzzles to survive some potentially lethal tests and you get… cake? Maybe. The further you move through, the more insane the challenges and the darker the humour.

The Co-Op game (yes, I’m only just up to that) is fantastic. If you have a friend, badger him/her until they submit and get the game. They managed to pack plenty of humour into this too and it’s not only an enormous amount of fun, it’s also really tricky in parts.

coop

The co-op game is just fun

One bit of advice I can give you for the co-op is that headsets are essential. Though there is an in-game communication system using the keyboard, it can be clunky at times and there are times when timing has to be so precise that it just doesn’t cut it.

Finally, a fairly recent addition is the steam workshop. You can make your own test chambers (both solo ones and co-op ones) and share it with your friends, enemies and everyone else for that matter! You can complete test chambers made by anyone on steam, and there are entire custom campaigns on there made by people with far too much time on their hands (…I’m making one too).

The test-chamber creator is really easy to use and very flexible indeed. In fact, some of the chambers I’ve played have been really deviously tricky… there are some real sadists out there.

map maker

Here’s one I made earlier

This means that the game has the potential for unlimited gameplay; a truly limitless variety of test chambers that you can continue to solve forever.

The first Portal game’s weakness was that once you’d completed it, you knew the solution to every level. Portal 2’s campaign is so vast, it has an entire coop campaign to add to that and it has the community adding to it every day. It is a truly impressive improvement and a game that every PC gamer should own (especially when it can be gotten for a fiver on sale!).

 

Rating: 10 companion cubes out of 10

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