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New releases photo
New releases

New releases: Killers everywhere

Plus, Final Fantasy XIV, Lost Planet 3, and your funny football-like game
Aug 26
// Fraser Brown
I'll be spending this week playing catch up, but there's no dearth of new releases. Killer is Dead is tempting me, because bloody hell it looks flashy, but I'll probably leave until I'm not drowning in games. Final Fant...

Review: Europa Universalis IV

Aug 26 // Fraser Brown
Europa Universalis IV (PC)Developer: Paradox Development StudioPublisher: Paradox InteractiveReleased: August 14, 2013MSRP: $39.99 Maps and menus are damn sexy, right? If your response to that was "God, no" then you're looking at the wrong ones. The map and menus of Europa Universalis are windows into the stories of nations, and ones that you won't have to spend hours wrestling with to comprehend. Fluctuating borders, gigantic mountain ranges, continents changing with the seasons -- the world has never looked so alive in a grand strategy title. It's so good looking, in fact, that I spend most of my time playing in the regular terrain mode, not wanting the various trade, political, and religious overlays to spoil the gorgeous vista. I pause the game and switch when I need more information, but I quickly go back to ogling the Alps or admiring the way the leaves turn orange during Autumn. The menus don't have the same visual appeal, but the way that they break down the complex facets of Europa Universalis into easily discernible information makes them just as impressive. At a glance, a high inflation rate might just look like a random percentage, but in reality it's the result of a decade-long war and loans constantly being taken out to pay for a huge mercenary army. Or perhaps it's the result of greed, with the nation creating too many gold mines and mismanaging the economy. Merely hovering over the inflation number reveals the reason the nation is in dire straits.  This convenience extends to the entire interface. There remains a lot to take in, as the game flings a huge array of information at players the moment they take control of a nation, but between the tips tab, robust tutorial, and the way the information is elegantly broken down for easy consumption, it's not nearly as intimidating as its predecessor.  With the interface helping rather than hindering, newcomers and old hats alike can jump in and lead their chosen nation -- out of almost any era-appropriate nation you can think off, from England to the Aztec Empire -- from 15th century to the 19th century without freaking out when their peasants start rioting for no particular reason, or another power declares war out of the blue, simply because such things don't happen. There's always an underlying reason, and it can always be found. Europa Universalis lavishes players with countless missions, offering some handy direction. At any time, there are several missions available, all logical for the nation they are given to and the situation it's in. England might get a mission to conquer territory in France that it lost during the Hundred Years' War, or after years of economic mismanagement, any nation might be offered a mission to lower inflation.  Not merely a guiding hand, missions result in rewards like increased prestige -- which affects the opinions other countries have of you -- or a higher military tradition, buffing the armed forces.  This new addition doesn't change the fact that Europa Universalis has always been about setting your own goals, encouraging players to live out their "what if?" historical fantasies. And with there being no set victory conditions, it's less about winning or losing and more about the journey. My attempt to turn Scotland into a wealthy colonial power completely failed when England declared war in the 1600s and my French allies refused to help me. My burgeoning colonial holdings were gobbled up, and soon the English marched into Scotland and put my cities to the torch. I didn't feel like I'd "lost" the game, however. That story had merely ended violently instead of ending with an unlikely Scottish empire. That didn't make it any less entertaining or worthwhile.  Beneath the historical narrative lies a slew of fine-tuned, interconnected systems. As Venice, my first goal was to get fat and rich from trade. As a Merchant Republic I didn't have to wait for leaders to die before a new one took over, as I could choose a new Doge during frequent elections, so the first chance I got, I installed the bureaucratic candidate. The new Doge generated a lot of administrative points, which in turn I was able to spend on increasing my administrative technology.  The administrative upgrades increased the efficiency of my realm, but more importantly: it unlocked my first national idea, letting me customize my realm. I could have explored the espionage ideas, the variety of military ones, or invested in colonization, but instead I opted for the trade idea.  Spending more administrative points eventually conferred boons like increased trade power and more merchants, letting me collect money from trade nodes in my own territory, or steer trade from foreign nodes back to Venice. The basic principle of trade is that you use your power to direct or dip into revenue, but it becomes a bit more complex when the New World is discovered, as you unlock more nodes and attempt to juggle an increasingly large trade network.  Nice and wealthy, I looked at my pitiful neighbours and decided to dabble in a spot of conquest, and again the monarch points, national ideas, and technology came into play. I switched between military and diplomatic Doges, spending the points generated on quelling rebellions, fielding more generals, demanding more land and money from peace negotiations, gaining more advanced military technology, and working my way down a military-focused national idea pillar. Viewed separately, these systems might seem a tad mind-boggling, but considered as one system where every action ties into another, it's a lot easier to wrap your noggin around. It remains intricate and complex, but entirely logical -- once you spot the threads that connect everything from trade to conquest together, it becomes more about mastering them and learning how to exploit them than figuring out how they work.  Playing with these systems often results in some tough decisions. "Do I spend my military points to stamp out a potential rebellion, or do I upgrade my soldiers so I can face a threat amassing on my border?" The challenge is in identifying the most immediate concerns and then planning for others. Much of my time with Europa Universalis has been spent with the game paused, pouring over menus, investigating my neighbors, and fretting over what my next step will be. It can be intense and exhausting, but the rewards of outsmarting a devious foe or surviving an invasion from a significantly more powerful country make it worthwhile.  Europa Universalis IV's greatest triumph -- beyond being a deep grand strategy title that doesn't obfuscate everything and leave newcomers weeping in the corner -- is how it makes every new game feel like a new game. Some nations, like England, France, and The Ottomans have clearly had more time spent on making them distinct, but even smaller powers like Native American tribes get their own unique units, even though less attention has been paid to their missions and historical events. They all offer new experiences, however. Whether it's because of the part of the world they are situated in, the player-defined goals, or how the AI nations around them are acting -- there's always a surprise ready to assault you. Old friends can turn into enemies because they fear your conquering ways -- nations now hold grudges that can last for lifetimes -- or your entire population could rise up against you because they are sick of frequent wars, national debt, or feel like they are living under a tyrant. Few plans can go off without a hitch, because Europa Universalis is such a reactive game. You're not playing in a vacuum; you're playing with hundreds of nations with diverse populations, and they've all got their own goals and ambitions. Rivalries develop over time, coalitions pop up, with your neighbors teaming up against you, and religions violently collide. Something is always going on, and it's not always a given that you'll be able to control it. Even taking the reins of the same country multiple times can result in a completely different jaunt through history. I've played as Venice twice now, and the first time -- which you can read about here -- ended with Austria utterly spanking me, but on my second attempt, Austria was completely smashed by France and I, the Holy Roman Empire ended up being controlled by Bohemia, and I united Italy. Adding multiplayer into the equation makes thing even more unpredictable, and if you've read any of my articles recounting my LAN experiences with the game, you'll know that I was looking forward to spending a lot of my time with Europa Universalis IV online. Lamentably, the fates have conspired against me. Using Steam instead of the atrocious metaserver from previous Paradox Development Studio games, the multiplayer promised to be a lot more stable and nowhere near as fiddly as past iterations. There's even a handy hot-join option, letting players jump into a game-in-progress without having to faff about. I've not been able to test it at all, however, as I can't even see the games my chums are hosting, nor can I connect via IP. I know that a lot of folk are enjoying the multiplayer with almost no issues, but I'm not one of them. Despite the multiplayer issues I've encountered, Europa Universalis IV has been the most stable and bug-free Paradox title I've ever played. I spotted some Belgian troops going completely crazy, moving back and forth in the same provinces for an entire year, and when I first started playing clicking on colonial provinces would bring up no information, and I had to click on the region next to them, but since the first week I've not seen anything like that again. Even more surprising is that I haven't crashed once.  I'm quite willing to admit that I've become obsessed with Europa Universalis IV. When I'm not talking about it, I'm desperate to bring it up, and when I chat to someone that I know for a fact plays it, I'll happily natter away for hours, regaling them with the history of my nations, demanding that they entertain me with tales of their own. Paradox Development Studio has shown that it understands grand strategy like no other studio. Europa Universalis IV is the defining game in the genre, laying out the whole world in front of players and just letting them have at it. It's a polished, almost terrifyingly vast title that gets its hooks in you the moment you click on that first country, and simply refuses to let go. Now, if you don't mind, I've got some peasants to oppress. 
Europa Universalis review photo
Crushing peasants and building empires
I've just united Italy after over a century of bloody conflicts. From Doge of The Serene Republic of Venice to the first King of Italy -- it's quite the step up. Along the way, I've upset the gargantuan Holy Roman Empire, gon...

Outlast at PAX photo
Outlast at PAX

Scare yourself stupid with Outlast at PAX

Start practising the fetal position now
Aug 25
// Fraser Brown
There's nothing I like more than to curl up into a little ball and weep like a wee lassie, and Outlast looks like it's going to give me plenty of opportunities to do so. The pants-wetting survival horror title is due out on S...

Police Interrogation: Getting the skinny on Precinct

Aug 19 // Fraser Brown
Contrary to the path walked by many developers, Jim Walls did not enter the industry after being surrounded by videogames, playing them to death, and then thinking "I could do this." Between 1971 and 1986, he was a California Highway Patrol Officer -- far more familiar with catching criminals than using a computer. It wasn't until Jim was on leave from the Highway Patrol following a shooting incident that he found himself working for Sierra, at the request of Ken Williams. The studio co-founder wanted to draw from Jim's experiences and knowledge to make Sierra's latest title Police Quest as realistic as possible.  That desire for authenticity continues today, at the heart of Precinct. "The main thing, for me, is to take the player and put him into the shoes of a police officer," Jim tells me. "Let him experience how his hands are tied, and the things he can do and can't do." Precinct will be Police Quest for a modern audience, according to Jim and Robert. One aspect that sets it apart from its forebearer is the change in setting. While the first three installments in the original franchise took place in the small town of Lytton, Precinct follows rookie cop Maxwell Jones as he works his beat in Fraser Canyon, a drastically different locale.  Inspired by the likes of Chicago and Detroit, Fraser Canyon suffers from the crime problems found in larger American cities. Even though Maxwell starts off on a foot beat, he'll face crime and corruption as he attempts to make a difference, rather than beginning with the more sedate pace that Police Quest protagonist Sonny Bonds experienced, initially.  And where Sonny was a veteran police officer, Maxwell begins on the lowest rung, learning the ropes. "You start as a rookie officer, fresh out of the academy," Jim clarifies. "You're going to start off on a foot beat, rather than directly into a car, and then you'll work your way up into traffic, and you'll expand your world as you become a car cop a little later into the game." Police Quest was infamous for demanding that players follow proper police procedure. Sonny could go deaf because he didn't wear the proper safety gear at the gun range, had to properly maintain his firearm, and the only leeway that was given was in one instance where he could overlook a speeding motorist. Jim explains that Precinct will be a tad more relaxed in terms of punishing players for mistakes, but there will still be consequences for not playing by the rulebook.  "If you arrest someone, and don't pat them down first, we might set some flag that says the very first time... maybe nothing happens," Jim offers as an example. "You cuff him and he goes to jail. But if you develop that habit, two or three arrests down the road, he's going to have a weapon of some kind, and that's going to teach you your lesson." The end result could be that Maxwell gets fired, or worse: shot and killed.  Unlike Jim, Robert Lindsley has been part of the industry for most of his life. From 15, he worked at Sierra, boxing games and doing other small jobs, until Roberta and Ken allowed him to show off his programming talents, leading to roles in Kings Quest V and Phantasmagoria 2, to name but a few. After Sierra, Robert joined Microsoft and the original Xbox launch team, and has since worked at both Atari and Harmonix.  Robert stresses that many parts of Precinct are still at the conceptual stage, with the team exploring potential mechanics, some of which sound very ambitious, and may have to wait for future games -- Precinct will be a series of five titles. Perhaps most intriguing is the "bad cop" route, with Maxwell not just fighting corruption, but becoming part of it. "I think it's an interesting concept to explore," Robert says. "It's just how deep can you go down that fox hole? How corrupt do we want the player to become?" He'd like to see surface-level corruption, but not necessarily allow players to experience the bowels.  Jim's explored the idea of allowing players to become corrupt, to the point where he's considered some rather deep ramifications. "You're going to be tried in a court of law, and then Internal Affairs comes in, and they try to work a deal with you, where if you agree to do an undercover operation, you could have the charges dropped... and be redeemed." At this point, such mechanics exist only in Jim's notes, but they are certainly fascinating. Good cop or bad cop, there will be moments where Maxwell is called upon to use his firearm or get physical, but this is another aspect of the game that's being debated. I brought up Telltale's The Walking Dead as an example of an adventure game that I thought pulled off physicality rather well, but Robert made it clear that QTEs would not be a good fit for their vision. "They're just too restrictive," he tells me. "We want the player to have the opportunity to make the wrong decision." Precinct is being designed with the classic Sierra adventure game player in mind, and Robert doesn't see the linear action offered by QTEs appealing to that type of player -- one that prizes choice.  In regards to specifics, the action is still being hashed out by the team. The consequences of said confrontations is something that Jim's been contemplating, however. "You have a shooting board... see that's the experience I want to try to put in there. What you do in a split second of time is going to be picked apart by a panel of people, and they'll tell you what you did right and what you did wrong, and we want to put that in there."  Chatting about police procedure and shooting boards got me thinking about how policing has changed in the last 20 years. "Steadily it's become more dangerous," Jim laments. "The nutcases out there has grown, exponentially. And the predators..." We discuss the differences between the American and British police, notably the fewer firearms in the UK. As a child, this altered my experience of the original Police Quests. While serious in tone, the gun violence, dangerous gangs, and armed police seemed like a world away to a young lad from rural Scotland -- it was almost fantastical.  Of course, things have changed here, too. We have a lot more armed police, and gun violence is very much a reality we live with. Just last month I unfortunately witnessed a gang scrap outside my bedroom window, one which led to the murder of a young man with an illegal firearm. Such gangs will feature in Precinct too, according to Jim. "Every bad guy out there has a gun. The gangs are so prominent, and that's going to be part of our story, but I don't want to give too much away." Gangs are far from the only lawbreakers that Maxwell will have to tackle, though. Jim describes a database of crimes that would spawn illegal activities throughout the city of Fraser Canyon. He wants to make the world feel like it's full of life, with dynamic crimes that might lead to life or death confrontations. Some of them will even take place on the roads of the city.  While the moment-to-moment details of the driving is still being hammered out, Robert admits that driving is something they really want to do right, since it was frustrating as hell in the original series. Using Unity and working in 3D has allowed the team to work on crafting a more realistic approximation of driving in a squad car. Jim's description of what he wants to do with the driving aspect sounds significantly more exciting than what one would expect from an adventure game. "It's going to be an experience. Getting in a high-speed pursuit, having to terminate the pursuit with a PIT maneuver or something, or maybe a slower speed before you ram the person to get them to stop, and that's the main reason I want to use a first-person perspective, because I think that can bring it home more effectively." When Precinct was first announced, it was revealed to be employing the crowd-funding model, with it going up on Kickstarter soon after. Not long after this, the kickstarter was canceled, and the studio has since been getting funding through its own site. One reason for dumping Kickstarter was the lack of traction Precinct gained on the platform, and Robert didn't see it achieving its goal, which would lead to it getting none of the funds.  "We rolled up our sleeves, and said we're going to build a platform on our own, and we're really going to think about what worked with the Kickstarter campaign and what didn't work." One of the key problems that Robert cites was the lack of information about how the game actually functioned. Instead of trying to convey it in text, Jim and Robert want to actually show off a functioning proof of concept, and that's where the four-stage funding campaign they put together comes into play. The first stage is the $25,000 mark. This will allow the team to develop a proof of concept, a "short but playable sample of Precinct." The goal of this phase is to showcase the interface and navigation. At $90,000 a "vertical slice" will be delivered to backers, revealing a partial or completed mission. The $250,000 mark will be the game demo, and $400,000 will be the amount needed for a finished game.     There does seem to be a bit more risk for backers with this method. However, each backer, no matter how much they donated, is being promised a digital copy of the game. Employing this model, Jim and Robert hope to be able to engage backers more, not asking them to wait for a long period with nothing to play.  Throughout development, backer feedback will be integral, Robert tells me. Yet -- and this is something that always concerns me about crowd-funded games -- I wonder how they'd strike a balance between maintaining their creative vision while working in backer feedback. "Design by committee is a tough way to go, and doesn't make for a great product," he acknowledges. Community involvement is built into the design process for Precinct, it's an extra layer feedback that creates a series of checks and balances.  It's clear that while Precinct is being developed with modern sensibilities for distribution on consoles as well as PC (should the stretch goals be reached), the Sierra community is always being considered. Jim and Robert want to make the type of game they would have made at Sierra On-Line in the '90s, had they the technology that they have now. It's a new game, with mainstream appeal being considered, but it's very much for the people who loved the Sierra classics and, despite the many years since the name Sierra On-Line was relevant, still consider themselves active fans.  If ever there was a time where a spiritual successor to Police Quest could succeed, now would be it. With Heavy Rain, L.A. Noire, and The Walking Dead gaining mainstream success while ostensibly being adventure games that eschew the tropes of scene-stopping puzzles and illogical inventory shenanigans, focusing instead on investigation and action, then the pioneer of that style is well positioned for a comeback.   
Precinct Interview photo
Investigating the Police Quest spiritual successor
It's 1987. Politicians are terrifying people with Cold War rhetoric, The Simpsons is born on The Tracy Ullman Show, U2 releases The Joshua Tree, and Bono has yet to become completely intolerable. I'm two years old, ...

New releases photo
New releases

New releases: Purple is back in style

Plus, The Bureau, Splinter Cell, Disney Infinity, and more
Aug 19
// Fraser Brown
Bloody hell, this week, calm down. A slew of games are clamouring for your attention over the next seven days, some of them really rather good. At the top of the pile, however, is Saints Row IV. I didn't think the series wou...
Spelunky PC Port photo
Spelunky PC Port

PC Port Report: Spelunky

Pugs for everyone!
Aug 18
// Fraser Brown
[Want to know how a developer handled the PC version of a multiplatform game? Check out the PC Port Report for the full scoop.] The original Spelunky, now known as Spelunky Classic, was a freeware PC title, but it was XBLA pl...
Dragon Age Inquisition photo
Dragon Age Inquisition

Dragon Age: Inquisition caters to all races

Fantasy ones, anyway
Aug 16
// Fraser Brown
Am I still going to be derided for admitting that I rather liked Dragon Age II's Hawke? The focus on a human character was more in line with the second outing in Thedas' narrower vision, and I found that I wasn't all that fus...

Review: Dishonored: The Brigmore Witches

Aug 16 // Fraser Brown
Dishonored: The Brigmore Witches (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)Developer: Arkane StudiosPublisher: Bethesda Release: August 13, 2013MSRP: $9.99 The Knife of Dunwall's slightly contrived tale of a broken assassin attempting to atone for his heinous acts was surprisingly impersonal. Daud's not very charismatic, helped little by Michael Madsen's half-hearted vocal talents, and while his investigation into the mysterious painter known as Delilah was a good excuse for lots of wonderful stealth and murder, it wasn't in the least bit gripping. The Brigmore Witches immediately fixes this with its sharp focus: Daud's out for revenge. There's still a lot of nonsense about atoning for past sins, but playing in high chaos like I was, there's little forgiveness to be found or earned. Instead it's a hunt for Delilah. She who caused Daud's protégé to betray her master. We're still dallying in the realm of clichés, but it's one that doesn't come with the baggage of dissonance.    The first of the three missions sees Daud sneak into Coldridge Prison, not long after Corvo's escape. What could have so easily been a regurgitated level manages to be entirely fresh, and Arkane use it to expertly showcase the features that make The Brigmore Witches stand out from both the core game and its sister DLC.  Favors remain, introduced in The Knife of Dunwall, and continue to completely change the dynamic of a mission. For a fairly small amount of gold, Daud's able to get his hands on an Overseer disguise, and makes it into Coldridge right through the front door, unimpeded. None of the intensity provided by slowly sneaking into the imposing prison is lost, as Daud's instructed to stick to only a small part of the facility, and there's always that sense that he's going to be discovered.  Goodies locked away behind bars, like gold or elixirs, are a splendid excuse to use Daud's new power. A simple ability gifted to him by the Outsider, allowing the master murderer to pull items towards him. Upgraded, it can even snare people, leaving them vulnerable to a killing blow from Daud's bloodied knife.  Coldridge is on edge after Corvo's escape. The guards are meaner, more paranoid; the river has been drained, stopping anyone from leaping off the bridge; and those considered responsible for letting the Lord Protector slip through the grasp of the Lord Regent are about to be executed. It's the smallest of the three missions, but it does the best job of connecting the old with the new. It is in Drapers Ward, the textile and seamstress district making up the second act, where most of Brigmore takes place. Canals, sewers, once glamorous streets now filled with detritus and crumbling buildings, factories, and a dock collide, making it by far the most diverse location. A savage gang war is tearing the place apart, with the dapper, top hat-wearing Hatters on one side, and the Dead Eel smugglers on the other. While criminals paint the streets red with blood, Daud prowls above them. They fight amongst themselves, against the hungry rats, and like all the enemies in both expansions, they patrol erratically, making them tricky bastards to predict. Initially, both gangs will attack Daud on sight, but a side is taken, and deals are struck. Where The Knife of Dunwall fleshed out the grisly whaling industry, Brigmore gives depth to Dunwall's criminal element and its textile industry. There's plenty of history to be devoured, all of it interesting, despite textiles not normally conjuring up exciting images. It's a history of oppression, and a fall from grace that revealed the true face of one of the city's most popular districts. The criminals are just more open about being criminals now. Dark, claustrophobic tunnels sit beneath towering apartments and wide open spaces, demanding players switch strategies to tackle the varied geography of this slice of Dunwall. Options are plentiful, with additional objectives, side-missions, secrets, and puzzles making the ward a content-rich space. A quest from Granny Rags involving a corpse wedding, locked safes and homes, the opportunity to eradicate a whole section of the city in one fell swoop -- there's plenty to keep Daud busy. Even while exploring a prison filled with mechanical security systems and the one-time heart of the textile industry, magic flows throughout The Brigmore Witches. Runes and bone charms return, of course, giving Daud new abilities or upgraded old ones, but with them comes corrupted charms. Made from broken bits and pieces of other charms or put together by amateurs, they do not work as intended. A charm designed to make its owner's attacks stronger also makes said attacks slower, while another gives the wearer preternatural speed at the cost of hardiness.  Frankly, they are a bit crap. Daud's a pretty deadly fellow as it is, so they payoff isn't really worth the negative side effects. There are so many regular bone charms (especially if you're using a save from Knife of Dunwall, letting you keep all the ones you found in the earlier DLC) that there's simply no reason to cripple yourself unless you want a bit of extra challenge.  It's a missed opportunity. There are a few books and accounts of these corrupted charms scattered throughout the maps, and there's a huge difference between those being described and those Daud finds. One charm apparently made its bearer able to deflect attack as if he wore armor, but every time he was struck, one of his teeth would turn black and fall out. Another account describes a man purchasing a charm that would allow him to dream of a night spent with the object of his affections, but instead fed him nightmares where he saw her sleep with every single one of his enemies. I would have loved to see a more creative application of these dark objects, but instead they provide some minor buffs and debuffs. Elsewhere, magic is more deftly handled. The eponymous witches are bloody horrifying. Decaying women consumed by magic and nature, they fight with powers similar to Daud's, but with greater intensity. Blinking in and out of existence, they viscously stab and slice, before vanishing only to appear far away, where they start to shriek like banshees, assaulting Daud with their screams.  Deadly and unpredictable on their own, these harridans are unfortunately rarely alone. In the once beautiful and now dilapidated Brigmore Manor, the setting of The Brigmore Witches' final act, they not only tend to patrol in groups, but are flanked by hellish mutts that will hunt their quarry to the ends of the earth. What both Dishonored and The Knife of Dunwall sorely lacked were truly threatening antagonists. The Brigmore Witches is not so hampered.  Daud's final mission is undoubtedly his most challenging. I confess that I'm glad I was going for a high-chaos run, as staying hidden from this army of eldrich women and avoiding all conflict would be a tall order -- though it's one I will endeavour to attempt somewhere down the line. It is only in the final moments where I felt let down by The Brigmore Witches. A shaky, humdrum "boss" confrontation that throws stealth and planning out the window, and then an epilogue that flies in the face of my own experiences in Dishonored felt tacked on, but they fail to mar an otherwise superb expansion. All I really wanted was more Dishonored, but what I got was something that surpasses it. Intricate level design, nuanced worldbuilding, and gameplay that demands a thoughtful approach even when resulting in flashy, bloody violence -- The Brigmore Witches is setting the bar very high for future stealth romps. 
Brigmore Witches review photo
Never anger a witch
I'm meant to be playing a cold, calculating murderer -- a man who assassinated an empress and gave her innocent daughter to traitors. So why am I hiding atop a broken chandelier, a mess of tightly wound nerves and sweat? Beca...

New releases: Get your dragon on, and then do it again

Aug 05 // Fraser Brown
[Image Source] PS3: Dragon's Crown, Tales of Xillia Wii U: Disney's Planes PC: Divinity: Dragon Commander, Guacamelee! 3DS: Disney's Planes, SteamWorld Dig Vita: Dragon's Crown, Superfrog HD PSN: Superfrog HD, Ibb and Obb  XBLA: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Divinity: Dragon Commander (PC) [embed]259445:49871:0[/embed] Tales of Xillia (PS3) [embed]259445:49872:0[/embed] Disney's Planes (3DS, Wii U) [embed]259445:49873:0[/embed] Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons [embed]259445:49874:0[/embed] SteamWorld Dig (3DS) [embed]259445:49875:0[/embed] Ibb and Obb (PSN) [embed]259445:49876:0[/embed] Guacamelee! (PC) [embed]259445:49878:0[/embed]
New releases photo
Plus other non-dragon related games
Apparently it's shark week in the US, but more importantly, it's also dragon week. Dragon's Crown and Dragon Commander -- two extremely different scaley games -- are dropping, and fans of winged reptiles are likely rejoicing...

Wargame DLC photo
Wargame DLC

Wargame: AirLand Battle gets some hefty, free DLC

More war!
Aug 03
// Fraser Brown
I was thoroughly impressed with Eugen Systems' Wargame: AirLand Battle; an extremely complex, realistic take on modern warfare. It's one of the most impressive RTS titles to come out in the last couple of years, and one that ...
Saints Row IV Australia photo
Saints Row IV Australia

Australians rejoice: You're allowed to play Saints Row IV

And you won't become drug addicts
Aug 02
// Fraser Brown
After a ridiculous amount of faffing about, Saints Row IV has finally been deemed appropriate for adults to buy. Until now, Australian men and women were considered responsible enough to get jobs, buy homes, and get married, ...
Whore of the Orient photo
Smacking folk around in Shanghai
Leaked footage of Team Bondi's Whore of the Orient recently surfaced on, courtesy of a "trusted source." The gameplay video reveals some awkward fighting, some brisk running, and a lot of hiding behind bo...

Square Enix news photo
Square Enix news

Square Enix not giving up on AAA PC and console games

But will be expanding more into mobile, tablet and online titles
Aug 02
// Fraser Brown
Square Enix has been a bit of a Negative Nancy this year, specifically when it's come to sales. Although it shifted quite a few copies of Sleeping Dogs, Hitman Absolution, and Tomb Raider, as well as garnering quite a bit of ...
Europa Universalis IV photo
Europa Universalis IV

Crusader Kings collides with Europa Universalis

Lead your people from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance
Jul 30
// Fraser Brown
Europa Universalis IV, one of my most anticipated releases of the year, is only a fortnight away. As we enter August, the final pre-order bonus has been revealed by Paradox Interactive, and it's a doozy: a free copy of Crusad...

Review: Shadowrun Returns

Jul 29 // Fraser Brown
Shadowrun Returns (PC)Developer: Harebrained Schemes Publisher: Harebrained SchemesReleased: July 25, 2013MSRP: $19.99Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit The beginning of the 21st century brought more than technological innovation to the world of Shadowrun. Magic was reintroduced to the world, ancient dragons reappeared, and infants were born with bizarre mutations, giving rise to a new species of meta-humans. The Sixth World, as it became known, is a place where science and magic co-exist, and huge corporations exploit and manipulate humans and meta-humans alike.  Clinical, perfunctory tech dots the streets next to dirty market stalls, holograms, and spirit totems, with skyscrapers towering above it all. Garish neon signs light up homeless drug addicts huddled in alleys and businessmen gathering beneath large umbrellas, attempting to escape the constant rain. Shadowrun Returns is not a pretty game, but it's one lavished in detail with an abundance of personality and atmosphere.   [embed]258733:49767:0[/embed] In this world where the familiar is juxtaposed to the alien and the exotic, shadowrunners ply their trade. Infiltrators, assassins, thieves -- they come from all walks of life, all races, but the thing that binds them is the risk inherent in their meal ticket. It's not a glamorous job, this fact emphasized by the situation the protagonist finds his or herself in at the beginning of Shadowrun Returns.  Broke, no jobs, a list of dead or missing contacts -- things are looking grim. A message from beyond the grave promises to change all of that though: find a retired colleague's murderer and get a nice, big payday. Seems simple enough. It isn't, of course. At its heart, Dead Man's Switch, the main campaign in Shadowrun Returns, is a classic noir mystery; a murder investigation that opens up a whole can of worms, with conspiracies, police corruption, eerie cults, and a whole slew of untrustworthy ne'er-do-wells spilling out. But it's not really the mystery that makes the campaign so damn compelling -- especially near the end where it starts to peter out and become a bit silly -- rather, it's the exceptionally slick writing and the strong sense of place that is developed over the 12-or-so-hour jaunt. Characters are driven by relatable motivations: greed, revenge, honor. But it's through snappy, nuanced dialogue that you learn more beyond these simple driving forces. There's no plodding, over-exposition; you won't strike up a conversation and suddenly discover everything about a character, and by the end of my journey through the dilapidated future version of Seattle, I can't rightly say that I truly know its residents. But the glimpse of their lives that I did get made them all the more fascinating. Seattle itself and, indeed, the Sixth World in general is similarly revealed in snippets. Mentions of the SINless non-citizens, meta-humans who would need government intervention to gain the right to vote, the conflict between the elves and California flesh out the setting, but Harebrained Schemes never hits players over the head with information. Dead Man's Switch inspires more reading, and demands that players find out more about the role-playing game that started it all.  Where the earlier Shadowrun games gave players defined characters, such as the SNES version's Jake Armitage, Shadowrun Returns features a robust character creator. Archetypes exist for the uninitiated, or those just desiring a convenient starting point: the Street Samurai is an all-round warrior, proficient in guns and melee; the Rigger commands little bots that can heal, shoot, and support teams of runners; and Shamans can summon spirits to aid them, or employ magical buffs. Six archetypes are available, all of them distinct. They are just starting points, however, and it's entirely possible to create a Street Samurai who controls bots, or a Shaman commando. Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch, in theory, is the Decker: an expert hacker that can infiltrate the Matrix, a blue neon world of digital information, and attack programs. The Decker can enter the Matrix mid-battle, jacking into a nearby port, and then play through its own separate digitized dungeon, helping the rest of the team by unlocking doors, taking over sentry turrets, and discovering information that can later be sold. Unfortunately, the Matrix dungeons and the enemies found therein are a bit bland, offering little diversity, yet it remains an interesting addition to combat scenarios. A player's time is split between point-and-click exploration and dialogue and tactical turn-based combat. The former sees surprising use of skills, with strength being used to intimidate folk, decking being employed to hack terminals, and the various unlockable etiquette abilities allowing players to ingratiate themselves with a variety of groups, from corporate wage-slaves to street gangs. The use of what would otherwise just be combat skills in conversation and exploration is reminiscent of Planescape: Torment, and feels true to Shadowrun Returns' tabletop forebearer. Combat is rough, sometimes messy, but comes laden with options. It's similar to XCOM, with cover-based shooting and spell-slinging dominating battles. Cover is even represented by little shields. The long list of spells, weapon abilities, bots, and the Matrix ensures that scraps never become dull, but what works early on continues to work throughout the game. There's rarely a need to change tactics, and enemies don't tend to pose significant threats.  Not being able to turn the fixed camera is a minor problem, but one that rears its head quite a few times. Enemies and allies can still be seen behind cover and walls, represented by a silhouette, but targeting them can be a right pain in the arse. There's also the occasional scripted sequence that stops a character right in its tracks, leaving them vulnerable and in the open, even if they were on their way to cover.  Although there's a fair amount of it, combat never feels particularly important outside of its role in the narrative. Intensity is diminished due to the lack of truly dangerous foes, and they never drop items or cash, nor does killing folk dole out experience.  Characters progress in two ways. The first is Karma, Shadowrun's experience system. Karma is awarded quite frequently, but not for combat. The positive connotations of "gaining karma" might seem strange in a murky, hardboiled, cynical world such as the the Sixth World, and it does limit interactions to a degree. Players may still opt to roleplay a complete bastard or a selfish goon, but there's constant pressure to be the "good guy," as that's the best way to get more upgrades.  The second way one progresses is through gear upgrades. My use of the word "upgrade" is very deliberate, as there's very little variety present in the equipment that may be purchased. At set times, the few shops one can access get new stock, with weapons, items, and outfits that simply have slightly better stats than the previous ones that were purchased. While I'm all for limiting gear to make each piece more meaningful, that's not really the result here. The lack of questing for loot is welcome, but without anything in its place, I felt like my character build was being restricted.  The linear gear progression is at least in keeping with the mainly linear overall experience. Aside from one or two side missions, Dead Man's Switch is very much an A-to-B affair -- though that's far from a complaint. The main quest, if you will, is important enough so that it makes little sense to go off gallivanting on some other adventure in the middle of it. The runner's core mission is given greater weight and urgency with this focus.   As a standalone experience, Dead Man's Switch is a delight: a clever but short whirlwind tour of the oft depressing world of the shadowrunner. It is not, however, the entirety of Shadowrun Returns. Instead, it merely serves as an example of what can be crafted with the complex editor tool that all players have access to.  The huge, flexible editor holds within it the promise of limitless adventures, both set in the Shadowrun universe and outside it. I am reminded of the many amazing community creations worked on using Neverwinter Nights' Aurora Toolset, and how years after the main campaign was forgotten, dedicated modders diligently gave life to countless worlds and stories that completely overshadowed BioWare's creation. So what we have here isn't just a great game, but the potential for even greater ones. 
Shadowrun review photo
An elven hacker, a troll mage, and a robot walk into a bar...
High fantasy, cyberpunk, and film noir collide in a way that makes you think they were meant for each other all along in Harebrained Schemes' appropriately, if not imaginatively, titled Shadowrun Returns. Based on the popular...

GOG: Indies, nostalgia, and the evils of DRM

Jul 29 // Fraser Brown
"[W]e knew that at some point we will run out of classics to release." This was the first reason that Good Old Games became GOG, according to Rambourg, and shifted towards selling games of all ages, not just drawing from gaming's past. "So the question of 'Where do we go from here?' after we've picked all of the low-hanging fruit for classic games is something that has always been a part of our long-term strategy." By 2012, the platform had secured the likes of Black Isle classics Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment, beloved adventures like Syberia and Gabriel Knight, and famed strategy titles such as Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri and Master of Orion. If an old game wasn't there, it was likely because it was tied up in "legal limbo," Rambourg explains.  The industry had also changed since the platform's inception. An "indie renaissance" had begun, and GOG wanted to be part of it. "We decided that releasing modern games, specifically those which fit in with our audience, was a great idea. If these encapsulate the best qualities of the timeless classics -- the willingness to experiment, the need to craft experience that engage with more than just eye candy, and the capacity to iterate quickly, we know our fans will be more than happy to buy them." Within this "indie renaissance," adventure games have made a surprising comeback, and many have found themselves on GOG. Wadjet Eye Games has four titles up on the platform (one being a bundle), and I asked company founder and adventure game creator Dave Gilbert what impact being featured on the platform had for the developer.  "I think Resonance was our first game on GOG," he recollects. "But I don't remember exactly. In any case, it was awesome to be a part of the service. Sales definitely went up, and suddenly we were on a lot more radars than we were before. GOG is very selective about what they take. They take that first 'G' very seriously and as a result, Wadjet Eye was taken more seriously." And Wadjet Eye's titles have done well on GOG, all being rated between four and five stars by users. It's the community that rates these games, not arbitrary scores from Metacritic. More than just a place to buy digital titles, GOG was created with an eye towards fostering this community; one that was built around the values that Rambourg and his team share with PC gamers. The prominent user ratings, user reviews, and abundance of user-created lists and bundles of recommended games puts that community at the heart of the platform. "We wouldn't be where we are without our community," Rambourg admits. "We're extensively engaged with them, having adopted a pretty transparent dialog with them about what their opinions are and why we want to make the changes we do." GOG has a clear vision of what it wants to achieve, but it wants the community to be involved in the process of achieving it.  "We've run a number of surveys, for example, about site changes," Rambourg continues. "You know, we know what we want, but it never hurts to ask our users. GOG is also very responsive in social media and on forums. We really do understand that this community is a driving force behind our growth, so we would be fools not to listen to it. A lot of our expansion projects, like Mac support, have been born out of listening to our users." The feedback from the community is also important to the developers with products available on the site. Larian Studios has three games on GOG, including Divine Divinity -- four if you include preorders for Dragon Commander -- and CEO Sven Vincke has made good use out of the forums. "On GOG you have a great group of people who play a lot of RPGs, so for us it's a gold mine in terms of info on what we should do to make people have fun with the type of games we are making because ultimately that's what it's all about, ensuring that the people who buy our games have fun with it." Wadjet Eye's Dave Gilbert calls feedback a double-edged sword. "I saw many complaints about the notebook interface in the first two Blackwell games, so I removed it for the third. That resulted in even more complaints from those who really liked it. So for the fourth game I went back to the drawing board, asking people what they liked and didn't like about the notebook so I could make it work for everybody. So feedback is important, but sometimes difficult to parse!" Engaging with the community and asking them direct questions is key, not simply taking comments at face value. And it's not just engaging with the community that's important. Having direct feedback from the platform itself is a boon for indie developers. In contrast to Valve and Steam, who have, in the past, promoted completely unfinished, barely playable alphas as finished products, possibly overlooking QA, GOG is surprisingly hands-on. Neil Barnden of Stainless Games, the Carmageddon developer, filled me in on the assistance GOG provided his studio when it came to adding the classic title to the platform's library.  "When it came to preparing the original Carmageddon for release as an installable package, we were able to largely hand over the task entirely to the 'GOGologists' to do the work. As we were really busy already, working on Carmageddon: Reincarnation and the mobile versions of the original game, this was a great boon for us," Barnden informs me. "We really didn’t have to worry about the work; the guys at GOG just got on with it and came back to us with some outstanding technical questions towards the end of the project." Rambourg talks me through GOG's process for selecting and working with indies. "[F]irst our QA team evaluates them and often provides us feedback that we can pass off to the devs, then we make sure the developers are not doing anything problematic with their business models, then we make the devs an offer and see if we can come to terms." GOG also offers advances against royalties, which Rambourg claims is almost unheard of. "[A]nywhere from $5k to $50k USD isn't uncommon, depending on our estimates of how the game will do, and estimates on if the up-front advance will help make a substantially better game at launch." Even with the shift in focus to new titles, nostalgia continues to be important at GOG. It could be argued that the indie developers of today are continuing a tradition going back to the '80s and '90s, where small groups of people with even smaller budgets attempt to create something that stands out, something "a cut above the rest," in Rambourg's words. "A major part of that nostalgia is quite rational and well earned," Rambourg clarifies. "It is not remotely true that the '90s only saw phenomenal games. The games that we remember are the best ones. Back then, for each Baldur's Gate there was a Big Rigs Racing or Extreme Paintbrawl. Those games exemplify the worst in gaming: buggy code, terrible performance, and eye-hurting graphics. Today, it's just as true: much of what gets made in any industry is rubbish. But we try and find the gems, the games that have sparkle." When asking Dave Gilbert about the nostalgia aspect of GOG, I described Wadjet Eye's adventure games as old-school, but that's not really how he sees them. "It's funny. I don't think of our games as old, or even old-school. Sure, they might look old because of the pixels, but that's purely for budget/practical reasons instead of any desire to achieve an old-school aesthetic. We make the types of games we want to actually play, and the results seem to resonate with people. "So many adventure games try to reinvent the genre when they don't need to. The same could be said of many old-school genres like platformers, shmups, or turn-based RPGs. The GOG audience understands this. They aren't fans of these 'old' games just because they are old. They like them because they are, you know, good." With the advent of Kickstarter and crowd-funding, even more independent developers are coming out of the woodwork, which means GOG has a potentially even greater pool to draw from now. "Kickstarter is awesome. Across the company we have probably backed at least a hundred projects. There are, however, risks and challenges. The first big flop will burst the crowd-funding bubble," Rambourg warns. "So each Kickstarter developer should definitely underpromise and strive to overdeliver. As to successful Kickstarter projects being released on, we have already launched FTL: Faster Than Light and Expeditions: Conquistador. We have also committed to releasing Project: Eternity, Torment: Tides of Numenara, and Wasteland 2, among others." Larian Studios recently had a great deal of success with its Kickstarter campaign for Divinity: Original Sin, and due to the studio's relationship with GOG and demand from backers, decided to select GOG as one of the platforms for Original Sin's distribution. Vincke believes that there's a significant overlap between the GOG community and the type of people who back Kickstarters, particularly old-school RPGs and strategy titles. "I believe -- and you see it from projects currently successful on Kickstarter -- that there's a large gap in the offers that exist in terms of games and demand from a specific part of the gamer audience, specifically strategy games and RPGs we grew up with weren't being made anymore... so for a long time there was no publisher interest... that created a gap between what certain players wanted to play and what was on the market." Kickstarter-funded titles and GOG make good bedfellows, according to Vincke. The latter proved that there was still a strong desire for old-school RPGs, and the former provided a means for developers to start making them again after so many years.  Neil Barnden shares this sentiment. "I think it's more likely that backers will embrace the idea of 'bringing something back,' plus their money is safer with something they remember fondly as being great fun to play the first time round. It's always going to be tougher to launch a new, unknown game concept on Kickstarter -- especially if your team is also new. "And GOG has been a huge force for the good of the older IP -- it's exactly what's needed; a well-established and trusted site that brings together classic titles where those who fondly remember them can go and find them, or the new generation of gamers can rely on to give them a painless introduction to the previous golden age of games without the need to find patches, workarounds, and hacks to get the old stuff working on today's hardware." And we're likely to see a lot more Kickstarter-funded projects appearing on GOG, according to Rambourg. "I don't see any reason not to add more Kickstarter-funded titles to our catalog in the future. A lot of those games come out DRM-free from the get-go which makes us happy, and also makes signing them a much easier job for us." GOG has always been a vocal opponent of DRM, featuring no games with DRM on the store whatsoever. I asked Rambourg if he saw DRM as a growing problem, with the likes of Ubisoft's Uplay and EA's Origin adding to the problem. "DRM is not a growing problem, it just continues to be one. We're about the only store that's remained committed to our DRM-free policy -- no game has DRM, no compromises; that does mean that some offers pass us by, but the longer we do this, the better our case is that DRM doesn't have any effect on piracy rates. I'd love for the day when you see launch title from EA or Ubisoft on because they've signed on to the DRM-free philosophy." While this does limit GOG's catalog of games, it's not so much of a problem when it comes to indies, Rambourg informs me. "For now, most of the indie gaming scene does not use DRM, but for many of them that's more because DRM is a pain to implement than because they're directly opposed to it. Honestly, the majority of gamers are probably not that concerned about DRM. DRM is not a problem for anybody right up until the first time it stops them from doing what they wanted. "Steam's DRM is practically invisible to 80% of their users," he continues. "And the remaining 20% that is sometimes bothered by its implementation? A lot them probably already know about us. The majority will realize they don't have freedom only when, for example, a blackout happens, and they cannot access Steam to play their game." Rambourg remains optimistic, believing that the industry will eventually move away from consumer-punishing practices such as DRM. "Abiding to the DRM-free rule of course makes it a little more difficult for us to sign games from certain publishers, but we do believe the gaming industry will finally catch up with other branches of entertainment and will understand that penalizing paying customers -- because that is basically the practical effect of DRM -- gets them nowhere." Like most digital distribution platforms, GOG has frequent sales, where prices are slashed to what would once have been a ludicrous degree. It's never more obvious than it is now, during the summer. There are those who claim that this has a negative impact on the industry, devaluing games and giving rise to the consumer mentality of waiting until a title is at least 75% off before they'll buy it. Rambourg considers this a valid concern, and acknowledges the detrimental effect that it has on the industry. Yet it's a practice that has become increasingly necessary, as gamers become more and more used to these frequent sales. "I've talked about this a few times before: these sales are like a sugar rush. Big spike of energy, lots of fun. But a crash comes after. So you have another sale, and another one. And before you know it, your diet is mostly junk food, not the real stuff. "When I see gamers commenting -- and this is more and more common -- '$15 for a new game? Meh. I'll wait until it's on 50% off sale at least,' I know that we're seeing the fruits of this cheap binge. When you can get five games for a buck or two, it's hard to rationalize paying $30 or $35 for an indie game that's new now, but you know will be in a bundle in nine months or a year." And he admits that GOG is just as guilty of this as anyone else. "I believe that frequent sales hurt the value of games in the long term. Unfortunately they bring revenue and they are a big part of the digital market, and is stuck on this binge as much as the next guy." Yet an attempt is made to retain the value of games that are better known and will, in Rambourg's words "sell regardless if they are on sale or not." It is, perhaps, not the response critics of the trend want to hear, but Rambourg and GOG are at least transparent.  Despite the significant changes that the platform has undergone since its relaunch in 2010 and rebranding last year, in many ways GOG remains the same. The aforementioned transparency hasn't disappeared just because it's become successful; it continues to actively promote and assist developers rather than just sell their games -- going so far as to feature interviews and insights into the development process, and, most importantly to some, it continues to stick to its guns and not capitulate to the proliferators of DRM.   For now, Rambourg and his cohorts are focused on signing more day-one games, finding more unreleased titles within the libraries of their partners, and working on a secret project which will launch next year. Rambourg promises me that it will "knock my socks off."
GOG interview photo
One year after being rebranded
It took a long time for me to be comfortable with digital distribution. I held onto my dusty boxes and physical media with grim determination, seeing no reason for me to move with the times. It was Space Quest that changed al...

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New releases

New releases: Force adorable Pikmin to kill, you monster

Plus, Rise of the Triad
Jul 29
// Fraser Brown
We're bidding farewell to an extremely hot July with a bang: Pikmin 3 is here, or it will be come Sunday. Of course, if you have the good fortune to be living in the UK or other, less important parts of Europe, then this is ...
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WoW subscriptions

Cue mass hysteria: WoW loses 600,000 subscribers

Everyone jump ship!
Jul 27
// Fraser Brown
I can't help but chuckle when Activision Blizzard releases subscription figures for World of Warcraft, because even when there are significant losses, the number of continuing subscribers remains astronomical. By the end of J...

Review: Face Noir

Jul 25 // Fraser Brown
Face Noir (PC)Developer: Mad Orange Publisher: Phoenix Online StudiosReleased: July 18, 2013MSRP: $19.99Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit Jack Del Nero hasn't met a hardboiled trope that he doesn't love. An ex-cop, a cynic, a functioning alcoholic -- he gets things done by being a dogged investigator who isn't a stranger to the occasional scrap. And like most hardboiled detectives, he's down on his luck, living in the shitty part of town, and stuck doing menial work catching spouses fooling around and taking pictures of people from outside hotel room windows.  His dreary life of being an errand boy for suspicious husbands and angry fathers ends up in the rear view mirror, however, and he rapidly becomes embroiled in a tale of international conspiracies, a murdered ex-partner, and, of course, a dame that needs his help. Real surprises are few and far between, and the biggest one will likely leave players baffled, but Mad Orange clearly knows its stuff, and the narrative rarely strays from authenticity. Del Nero's escapades could comfortably sit on the well-worn pages of countless pulpy novels. Frankly, there were moments when I wished that Face Noir was a novel, because the high notes are almost completely consigned to the narrative, even though that would leave me without the, frankly, wonderful soundtrack, filled with jazzy trumpets and old crackling radios. If only the voice acting was of the same high standard. Instead it's, to put it lightly, rather bad. Del Nero is one of the few exceptions, with his dry, sardonic delivery perfectly encapsulating the men he emulates. Though his almost inexplicable, yet frequent, utterances of "Dannazione!" grate on the nerves quickly. His name is the only Italian thing about him, so it's very out of place. The rest of the cast? I wish they'd just shut up.  The characters themselves are not exactly wonderfully written, nor are their motivations particularly complex or interesting, but they are elevated by the solid story, and then brought back down again by voice actors who just sound bored. It's not that I don't sympathize with small studios -- small budgets means you probably won't be getting the best voice actors, but a modicum of enthusiasm goes a long way. Unfortunately, the most enthusiastic voice actor plays a dated, racial stereotype: a stupid Chinese cabbie whose poor grasp of English exists to be mocked. The voice actor gives it his all, and too his credit even managed to elicit a few chuckles from yours truly. But most of those chuckles really stemmed from the disbelief that in 2013, there are still those who believe that the low-brow borderline racist humor from the '30s is relevant or worth mimicking. The humor is not the only thing that's dated -- Face Noir is a game that could have easily come out a decade ago, in terms of its visual presentation. Most of the issues are related to the character models, since the environments are, while not of a high visual fidelity, lavishly detailed and surprisingly active, with torrential rain pouring down on Del Nero, and cars and trains roaring past him. Though they are more difficult to appreciate thanks to the game not using modern resolutions. The aforementioned models, though? They are a hideous mess. Poorly animated, lips clearly not synced to the English dialogue, and seemingly slapped onto the environments like magnets stuck onto a picture on a fridge. And they apparently can't be pushed very far, because whenever a Del Nero needs to do something that's more complex that walking and talking, we're treated to a shoddy cutscene that amounts to an ugly static image. There's relief to be found in the puzzles, but only some. They run the gamut from logical conundrums to baffling busywork hampered by strange design decisions. The former are what you'd expect: combination locks, figuring out the right items to use in the right situations, manipulation of the environment -- they are rarely imaginative, but they are functional. But then there are all of those times where the puzzles amount to trying to figure out what the hell the developers were thinking. Early on, Del Nero wants a whisky, and he has a fat wad of cash that's already come into play when he bribed a hotel clerk at the start of the game. So surely I should be able to select the money, and buy a drink. Nope. Of course not. Instead, I have to get rid of an annoying bar patron, put on some music (but inexplicably, only one song, even though there are others and the game never tells you that a specific one is required), and then chat up the barmaid. Just as infuriating, items in Del Nero's inventory cannot be interacted with. One must use them on something else. So, for example, if you need to go to a certain area to interact with an item in your inventory, you have to select the item, and the use it on the area, not in the area. The challenge is not finding a solution, but finding the very arbitrary way the developers want you to employ said solution. It's when Del Nero starts acting like a detective that things get interesting. When questioning folk, he's able to draw from clues he's discovered, represented by floating bits of text, and link them together to drag out a confession or particular piece of information. While it just amounts to clicking on the right things in an area, it's far more thematically appropriate, and there's a nuance there that doesn't exist in the rest of the interactions found within the game. There's a welcome bit of physicality present, too. It's a simple, but tactile element that has players actually turning dials, opening panels, and it feels like you're controlling Del Nero directly rather than via a cursor. Going through this review, I find myself asking my original question more and more: Why am I a wee bit enamored with this game? It's the homages, if I'm honest. It's the recreation of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, being reminded of the first time I read Chandler's Big Sleep, or imagining Sam Spade and Jack Del Nero sitting in a shitty bar, drinking shitty whisky, recounting old cases.   For some, the promise of a genuine noir adventure will be enough to capture their interest. But absent a love for the genre, its strange mix of cynicism and romanticism, even staunch adventure game fans might find that Face Noir has a few too many problems. 
Face Noir review photo
Trenchcoat and alcohol addiction not required
I was on my second whisky when she walked into my office. With legs that went up to her neck, and ruby-red lips that were completely out of sync with her voice, I knew she'd be trouble. She wanted me to review her, and I was ...

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New releases

New releases: You had me at isometric cyberpunk fantasy

Plus, Teleglitch, Runescape 3, and silly blue people
Jul 23
// Fraser Brown
New releases is a day late this week, as my ISP got so excited by all of these games coming out that they decided to screw with my connection. Well, that's what I pay them for. This week's actually a bit quiet, with only a c...

Firefall beta: Post-apocalyptic pina coladas

Jul 18 // Fraser Brown
Firefall (PC)Developer: Red5 StudiosPublisher: Red5 StudiosRelease: TBA It wasn't long after basic training -- which consisted of selecting the best moustache, shooting things, and listening to a disembodied female voice drone on and on -- that I found myself on a shuttle on my way to the sanctuary paradise of Copacabana, being serenaded by Rupert Holmes. "If you like piña coladas," he began "and getting caught in the rain..." I do, Rupert, I really do. "If you're not into yoga, and you have half a brain..." It was like he was peering into my soul. "If you like making love at midnight in the dunes on the cape..." I'm not fussy about where I make love, but that does sound splendid. "Then I'm the love that you've looked for, write to me and escape." Frankly, I was ready to ditch this whole jetpack, mining nonsense and elope, but no sooner than the thought had entered my mind, the shuttle docked, and the promise of adventure took hold of me. There's something remarkably intoxicating about being given a world to play in and very few restrictions. With open-world sandbox-like experiences becoming more common, it threatens to become mundane, but -- for me, at least -- those first few hours filled with exploring the limitations of a new open-world are incredibly exciting. Firefall teaches players the absolute basics, and then simply lets them off the leash, to do whatever they want to do. But first, I wanted to get to grips with the role system. [embed]258256:49647:0[/embed] I'm an engineer. This is a choice I made back at basic training, but I want to emphasize that it's a choice that I'm capable of overturning at any time -- I'm not shackled to my profession. Profession is probably the wrong word actually, just as class or job are too. As a new recruit of the Accord, I'm a capable fella that can turn his hand to any number of roles, all encapsulated by the exoskeleton battleframes.  Battleframes can be switched out with a quick visit to the garage, and the basic choices cover a good range of playstyles, from the heavily-armored dreadnaught that can pummel enemies with mortar fire, to the biotech suit, a medical battleframe that can poison foes while healing allies. I bloody love turrets, however, so I stuck with the engineer most of the time. Though I carry two weapons -- a handy grenade launcher and a submachine gun, which can be fired from both a first and third-person perspective -- it's my deployable doohickeys that bring all the boys to the yard. Grotesque insects trying to jump at your face? No problem, buddy. I'll just drop this giant blue shield in front of you and save the day, because I'm just that kind of guy. A squad of Chosen trying to break up your party? Don't worry about it. I'll just construct a huge, manned turret and blow them all to kingdom come.  Grotesque insects? Chosen? What am I talking about, I hear you ask. Well, it's the old story of asteroid meets planet, asteroid falls in love with planet, the two hook up, and humanity is nearly wiped out. Civilization as we knew it is gone, and the landscape has been completely altered. To make everything worse, a spaceship crashed to Earth, devastating yet more of the world, and somehow allowing an alien race known as the Chosen to invade.  But enough of all that doom and gloom, I've got a jetpack and it's rad. It's even radder when one has a buddy to fly around with, and so I quickly get into the spirit of the second "M" in MMO, and meet up with a chum so we can brave the world as a duo. I don't like being told what to do, which works out rather well in Firefall, as it eschews the typical "go here and do this for XP" drag that has defined so many games in the genre. Instead, it was up to me how I wanted to progress. The first thing I wanted to do, like any hot-blooded chap, was get in on some of that sexy mining action. Chum in tow, we hovered around the place, looking for a quiet spot to start wrecking the planet. Absent x-ray vision, we found ourselves incapable of figuring out what part of the stunning -- yet, at this time, rather small -- world would yield the best minerals, but luckily we had a hammer that could do that for us. Striking the ground with a hammer revealed its hidden mineral wealth, causing a holographic signpost to pop up, showing the different resources that could be gathered, their rarity, and the percentage of each resource in that area. After only a few minutes, we struck gold. Well, carbon and silicate, and lots of it.  The second phase of pillaging the world's treasure trove of resources began by calling down a thumper: a large, towering device that falls from the sky, and slowly begins to pound the ground, scoffing up all of its goodies. Thump, thump, thump -- it's all very rhythmic and soothing, until the monsters arrive. They're drawn to the thumper, you see, and fling themselves at it with wild abandon. Protecting our greedy machine became our highest priority -- with me laying down turrets and shields, and my ally showering the beasties with bullets.  There are two things you should know about thumpers -- and I discovered both the hard way. The first is that the "WARNING" hologram that surrounds the mining area is not just for show. I thought it would be most amusing to stand right in the center, and just watch the thumper plummet to Earth. And, you know, it was fun. Until it landed and turned my body into a mess of broken bones and gore.  The second thing that you should know is that there are two types of thumpers, one for a single adventurer or a duo, and one for a group. The latter harvests more resources, but it also brings forth an unrelenting horde of monstrosities. Being brave and, I confess, very stupid, my comrade and I made the mistake of using the group thumper on one occasion, and spent the next few minutes desperately fighting for our lives as the whole area was swallowed up by a never-ending stream of mutated creatures. We did not survive. Cooperation is the name of the game in Firefall, and conveniently, the structure of the dynamic missions and harvesting makes it far easier to work together, instead of PvE devolving into competition. After our thumping misadventure, my chum and I discovered several other thumper sites on the map. These had all been called down by other players, and we were able to assist them without joining a group, and still got a share of the resources.  It's not all mining and slaughtering the local wildlife, though. No siree. There's a war going on between the Chosen and the Accord, and it is one seemingly without end. We were on our way to a large port in the south. Both of us had heard tales of a shop where one could purchase a tiny tiki-man with a flaming head who would follow you around for eternity. It sounded like a hoot, so we strapped on gliders -- one of the three means of transportation, which includes jetpacking and taking the shuttle -- and sped down the coast.  We landed in a warzone. Explosions rang in our ears, bullets flew past our vulnerable heads, and all around us were squads of Chosen, pouring out of drop-pods, being summoned by alien machines, and hiding behind translucent energy fields. Outside the walls and within the city, people were fighting and dying by the truck-load.  Such events are commonplace, though this was one of the larger, rarer ones. Dotted all over the land are smaller outposts that need to be defended or recaptured, but these large city assaults are the ultimate expression of this tug of war between the Chosen and the Accord. As such, they require a substantial number of players to win, and if the defenders fall, then the players become the besiegers.  We had little time for R&R after saving the port, and by the time we had saved the day, night had fallen, and a report came in on the radio: a strange weather anomaly was moving in on our position, and sure enough, a giant purple tornado was causing quite the stir. It wasn't a normal tornado, of course, and not just because tornadoes aren't normally this pretty. It was artificial in nature, with a mechanical core and floating escorts.  Destroying the twister necessitated destroying its mechanical source, which is easier said that done. Wildlife poured out of the rainforest, teaming up with the anomaly, and getting close to the tornado flung me up into the air, depositing me far from the battle and off a cliff. When I finally returned, my new friends had almost defeated the core, but this would only be the beginning of the evening's action. Next to where the tornado had been defeated, a portal appeared. Because nothing bad ever comes from stepping through an unexplored tear into a new reality, we all leaped in, eager to investigate a new realm. What a terrible mistake. A Lovecraftian nightmare greeted us, an arena at the heart of some fever dream, with chunks of alien crystal erupting out of the ground, and a veritable army of eldrich horrors sprinting towards us.  A fight is not how I would describe it. Struggling to survive in a reality that shouldn't exist is more apropos. The last thing I saw was a blinding light, and then nothing. I was dead, eventually resurrected far away in the safe confines of the Accord base at Sanctuary.  From the stunning coastal vistas and verdant jungles of Brazil, to an alien hellscape -- I had traveled far, and collected a fair amount of resources and experience. Upgrading my battleframe is anything but simple, but the payoff is that it's considerably more engaging than selecting a new ability upon leveling up. I wandered over to the crafting station, and before I could build anything, I had to refine all of my resources. Any work done here takes time, so it's often worth doing this when you're about to log off or go on yet another misadventure. Resources refined, I finally set about putting together new weapons, improved jetpacks, and some upgraded turrets. Where crafting can often be ignored -- though it's rarely advised -- in most MMOs, it's pretty much essential in Firefall. The list of possible components and upgrades is absurdly large -- and at this point it's a bit hard to navigate -- and begs to be experimented with. Building a weapon isn't as simple as merely selecting the gun and clicking "manufacture." I collected and refined the basic resources, built separate, essential components, and then added extra non-essential parts which would further increase the item's capabilities.  Before attaching these new weapons and components to my suit, I had to upgrade the internal workings of the battleframe itself. New weapons and augmentations require more energy, more cores, and increase the mass of the frame, and this is where XP comes into play. Experience points can be spent on adding more cores and making the suit more energy efficient.  Firefall is one of the few MMOs where developing a "build" actually involves construction, and the work that I put in to upgrading my suit added greater meaning to the incremental increase in my damage output and survivability. These aren't just numbers and stats, they are the culmination of actual mechanical tinkering and time spent gathering and manufacturing resources and components. In this sense, every player is an engineer, regardless of what battleframe they favor. With new weapons, an improved suit, and my little tiki-man friend, it was time to test my metal in a battle arena. No more fighting Chosen, insects, and bad weather -- other players would be my prey. You can check out my PVP impressions soon. I have to get back to combing my magnificent moustache. 
Firefall preview photo
And lots of mining
Red5's sci-fi MMO Firefall has been in beta for a very long time, recently hitting that open-beta milestone. So long, in fact, that when I started playing the closed beta in earnest last month, it had transformed into an enti...

Precinct Kickstarter photo
Precinct Kickstarter

Police Quest makes a comeback in the form of Precinct

And Kickstarter gets a police presence
Jul 17
// Fraser Brown
When I was scouring adventure game titan Sierra On-line's back catalog in the '90s, one title stood out from its generally light-hearted peers and demanded that I play it immediately: a game where instead of playing a space j...

A day in the life of a jetpack-wearing dragon monarch

Jul 15 // Fraser Brown
Divinity: Dragon Commander (PC)Developer: Larian StudiosPublisher: Larian StudiosRelease: August 6, 2013 War is happening! It's all terrible and such, because wars usually are. The old emperor is dead, his unlikeable spawn are in charge, and it's up to his illegitimate half-dragon offspring to unite the disparate fantasy races and save the Empire. Units must be constructed, buildings must be selected to augment the many regions under the half-dragon Prince's control, gay marriage bills must be pondered.  Wait. What? As I said, Dragon Commander is full of surprises. While the great war is ostensibly the focus of the fantasy romp, the needs and desires of Rivellon's population cannot go ignored. Onboard the Raven -- the prince's ostentatious flying ship and mobile headquarters -- representatives from the colorful races that inhabit the realm have gathered, and they all come with their own political points of view and agendas.  [embed]257145:49581:0[/embed] There's the frightfully anaemic undead ambassador, a religious zealot; a dwarf in a bowler hat and fox fur scarf, representing capitalist ideals; the lizard spokeswoman, haughty and arcane; the devilish imp representative, who just wants to blow things up; and finally, the elven ambassador, who is liberal and green. Unsurprisingly, it's the latter who proposed the gay marriage bill. These politicians might be caricatures, but their motivations, prejudices, and desires run parallel to those of their real-world counterparts. It was ultimately up to me to decide whether or not to pass these bills and make them laws, and I found myself juggling the pragmatism one might expect from a war-time leader and my own political leanings.  All the stuff that happens between the battles should be fluff, right? This is a real-time strategy game, don't you know? Surely I shouldn't be having this much fun chatting with a one-eyed, one-armed grouchy general in a bar, or listening to the political rhetoric of a god-fearing skeleton -- but there I sat, giggling as I hung around the Raven, not killing anyone or blowing anything up. I did inspire my lizard general to beat up an elderly imp, however; I suppose that counts as violence. As important as all of this is, from the politics, to the hint of role-playing dialogue, and two separate research paths -- the imp's technology and the magic of my Gandalf-like mentor -- it's the strategy and tactics that undeniably make up the meat of this unexpectedly delicious digital sandwich.   Surprise is really becoming a theme here, because the battles were not at all what I was anticipating. I start off by selecting the battle map, which is a real map, situated on the bridge of the Raven, and I can move little pawns around this map, or place cute wee buildings on my provinces. I'm playing a board game, and it's delightful. I can even select cards from my deck, more of which are generated depending on what buildings I've erected, and these can give boons to my provinces or even give me an edge in battle.  Right-o, my half brother has invaded my territory -- as nasty siblings are wont to do -- so it's time to leave the board games behind and dive into some real conflict. Have Larian bugged my home? I fear that they might have. How else would they know that what I always really want from my RTS games is something akin to Total Annihilation or its younger cousin, Supreme Commander. There's that constant stream of mechanized units, pouring out of bases and onto the battlefield. A never-ending torrent of explosive, aggressive vehicles that can be blown to smithereens in the blink of an eye, but recruited very quickly.  There's no time for me to sit back and soak it all in, because by the time I've finished sipping my margarita, comfortably put my feet up on my desk, and cracked my knuckles, I will have lost the bloody battle. What I'm trying to say, poorly, is that Dragon Commander is a very fast game. And yet there's quite a bit of management going on. Not to fret, though. As all of this management is tailor made for the balls-to-the-wall pace of the explosive extravaganza. Turret and building nodes, for example, are captured by proximity. My mechanized assault force of giant zepplins, magical airships, and speedy little land vehicles that sort of loosely resemble tanks arrive at their destination, fight their little steel hearts out, and while they are doing that I'm immediately putting down anti-air guns right next to them to give them some support.  And then I turn into a giant bloody dragon. Maybe I was too hasty when I previously suggested that being a dragon wasn't the most entertaining aspect of Dragon Commander, because it really is ridiculously fun. At the touch of a button, I go from commanding my legion to flying around the battlefield, casting spells, raining down fire and projectiles, rapidly dodging enemy rockets -- it's exhilarating, especially given the pretty, brightly-colored battlefields that make up the dragon's playground. The dragon isn't simply a powerful unit, as the game's mechanics immediately shift from typical strategy fare to an airborne shooter. The joy is short lived, however, as the limited control I have over my units in dragon form necessitates switching back lest I forget that I actually have an army to command. And despite the raw power of the oversized flying lizard, a few AA units can rapidly shoot it out of the sky. The dragon can be respawned, but at a cost -- specifically the sacrifice of units -- shrinking the all important reinforcement pool. It's risky, but dragons.  In the single-player campaign there is the sense that you might have a rather unfair advantage over the AI, considering the fact that they don't have a dragon. An overwhelmingly powerful force can be decimated in seconds with dragon fire, and from what I've experienced, the AI simply doesn't have anything that can compare. Multiplayer, however, is a very different story. Dragon-on-dragon warfare? It's what videogames were designed for.  I'm not sure what anyone else expected from Dragon Commander. It's a spin-off being developed by a studio known for its RPGs, so I'm guessing not a lot. And yet it's shaping out to be really rather splendid. I still have questions, though. I've yet to really pay much mind to the multiplayer, what with the lack of other players -- my peers are apparently too busy writing words to get beat up by me in a dragon scrap. There are also a few niggling issues. If I have to hear the units spew their annoying, extremely loud stock phrases one more time I will kill someone. And research is, to put it bluntly, a wee bit boring. But I'm eager for more. The gags elicit guffaws, the strategy is compelling, and dragons are awesome. I wait with baited breath to see if I continue to enjoy myself when it comes out next month. 
Dragon Commander preview photo
Scaliness is godliness
Does slapping a jetpack onto a dragon sound ridiculous to you? Are you incredulous at such a prospect? You shouldn't be. How the hell does such a beast fly without mechanical assistance? Dragons are big, buff enough to make o...

New releases photo
New releases

New releases: Demon slavery is back in style

Plus, Time and Eternity and Dynasty Warriors 8
Jul 15
// Fraser Brown
It's Monday and I almost forgot. Here was me assuming it was still the weekend, but no, the new week has began and we've got a bunch of new releases to look forward to, or not. Shin Megami Tensei IV is the stand out new rele...
New releases photo
New releases

New releases: Civilization V gets a massive expansion

Plus, The Walking Dead: 400 Days, Guncraft, and some football
Jul 08
// Fraser Brown
Civilization V is pretty good, but Brave New World makes it wonderful. Launching in a couple of days, the latest expansion is filled with a bevy of new features, most of which improve the tiresome late game with new paths to...

Review: The Walking Dead: 400 Days

Jul 05 // Fraser Brown
The Walking Dead: 400 Days (iOS, PC [reviewed], PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade)Developer: Telltale GamesPublisher: Telltale GamesReleased: July 2, 2013 (PlayStation Network) July 3, 2013 (PC), July 5 (Xbox Live Arcade), July 11 (iOS App Store)MSRP: $4.99Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit Outside the dilapidated, abandoned truck stop Red's Diner is a board covered in letters and photographs. Survivors have pinned messages to loved ones, pleas, and pictures of the deceased and living onto its cluttered surface. It's a scene not uncommon in zombie flicks and literature, and in 400 Days it serves as a window into the lives of five particular survivors. This quintet of tales can be played in any order, as they are only really connected by location -- the whole game takes place in the area around the diner and the road it sits on -- though some of the same objects, characters, and even zombies appear in multiple stories. After selecting a picture from the board, all taken during happier times, players experience a slice of the trauma, horror, and even a snippet of levity that these "lucky" survivor's have lived through. [embed]257492:49450:0[/embed] While season one's episodes had the luxury of slowly building characters, throwing up the occasional puzzle, and breaking up the dialogue and zombie attacks with some exploration, 400 Days is too short for such an approach. Each arc is centered around one event: a dispute between members of a small colony, a car accident, a theft -- they are diverse scenarios, but all tightly focused. The differences between each segment make for a satisfying whole. You might start off following Shel around her compound, chatting to her fellow survivors, looking after her sister, but the next tale you select might be Wyatt's, which has zombie shooting and body dragging on a lonely road shrouded in mist. But separately, they are less satisfying, and some sections don't work quite as well mechanically, particularly when it comes to action.  For the most part, the cast of each individual story are all very familiar with one another, so there's no over-exposition and no introductions. We witness them at a stage where they are already quite used to the end of civilization, other than Vincent, whose tale of being trapped in a prison bus takes place a mere two days into the zombie outbreak.  With no time to slowly reveal the backgrounds of these protagonists, 400 Days relies on extremely natural dialogue and the difficult decisions that the series has become known for. Conversations that seem almost throwaway -- debates about whether one would rather have a snake for a tongue or lobster claws and an impromptu game of rock, paper, scissors -- humanize the cast quickly, and the horrible choices that must be made on their behalf forces players to think about the motivations of the characters, making them seem all the more fleshed out. Like season one before it, 400 Days poses no small amount of morally ambiguous quandaries the players way. Do you potentially risk the safety of a loved one to avoid killing a friend? Do you own up to terrible mistake and chance the loss of your only companion? Do you choose rock instead of paper? I'm only partly being facetious in regards to the last one -- it still has an impact. There were many agonizing moments spent trying to decide what I should do or say, and even now I'm second guessing myself. When I fucked up, and trust me, I really fucked up, I felt genuine guilt. I wasn't as invested in the characters to the same degree I was with Lee and Clem, but I still found myself caring. Just as players could with Lee, tonally different responses can be used in dialogue. These go a long way to fostering a connection between player and protagonist, letting one build the character in a meaningful way. Vincent can be an arsehole or repentant, while Shel can be peaceful and indecisive or direct and pragmatic, and there are plenty of shades in between. Unfortunately, playing five individuals, all with their own personalities and pasts, leads to a sense of inconsistency. In previous episodes, one has a much better sense of who the protagonist is. Players became familiar with their version of Lee, so the choices they made seemed natural. Twenty minutes is not even close to enough time to develop such an understanding with the protagonists of 400 Days, and one moment you might be called on to consider the safety of a child, while the next you're all on you're own, dealing with a hillbilly psychopath. It can be quite jarring to jump around, dealing with such vastly different, barely connected scenarios. Instead of the arcs ending with some real closure, they all lead up to one shared closing scene -- presumably meant to tie into season two. It's a tacked-on epilogue that doesn't make much sense and forces a connection between the survivors that isn't really explained. Watching it was akin to viewing the last five minutes of a season finale on the TV after only seeing one episode.  Despite this, The Walking Dead: 400 Days is a worthwhile, bold narrative experiment. It throws away most of the trappings of the adventure game genre that the first season still hung onto; it's more directed, which perhaps makes it less compelling to play, but just as wonderful to experience. If The Walking Dead is more about dialogue and choices than the occasional puzzle and cupboard searching, then 400 Days is an excellent addition to the series.  
400 Days review photo
Still great without Lee and Clem
The Walking Dead: 400 Days is the work of a studio clearly not resting on its laurels. Acting as a bridge between season one and the upcoming sequel, 400 Days retains all of the harrowing, human and undead drama that made Lee...

Review: Fist Puncher

Jul 01 // Fraser Brown
Fist Puncher (PC)Developer: Team2BitPublisher: Adult SwimReleased: June 21, 2013MSRP: $9.99Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit You're just hanging in your dojo, minding your own business, when a group of Miss Universe contestants are kidnapped by the local crimeboss -- the Milkman. What does this have to do with you? Well, your sensei was one of the contest judges, so he wants you to rescue the lovely lassies.  Lampooning the damsel-in-distress scenario from River City Ransom and Double Dragon, just to name a few, Fist Puncher gets off to a very traditional start, yet it deftly avoids being trite thanks to the irreverent lady-loving sensei and the colorful gallery of heroes. Four characters are available for this rescue attempt, initially, including a sexy beekeeper and a karate-loving doctor named Dr. Karate, with the roster eventually growing to 15. This is not your average dojo. Character selected, and it's off to save the ladies by traversing a city map, covered in nodes representing a large array of missions. Most missions involve sauntering across the screen, punching, kicking, grabbing, and throwing very rude people until they are dead. It doesn't get more simple than that. Thanks to an RPG-lite leveling system, the combat does become considerably more involved, however. Characters come with their own signature moves, like Dr. Karate's flying kick, and develop even more special abilities, perks, and increases in their strength, speed, special meter, and all sorts of other RPG-esque junk. Experience comes hard and fast, thanks to the vast army of enemies that charge at you with little regard for their safety. They hate you a lot, and they also desperately want to die.  The plethora of thugs that attempt to halt the heroes' progress are as varied as they are bizarre. Evil nudists, strippers of the male and female variety, racists, werewolves, zombies, genetically enhanced shark-alligator-human hybrids -- they are a strange bunch. Most groups have unique attacks, as well. There are convicts who can shank you, grabbing you by the throat and stabbing you repeatedly; thugs who throw molotov cocktails at you, covering the ground in flames; ninjas that toss slow-moving shurikens; and soldiers that employ assault rifles, spraying bullets all over the screen. Even with the special abilities and the range of enemies, Fist Puncher does devolve into stringing together simple punches and kicks over and over again. It's arguably also an issue with the games it's trying to ape, and at least Team2Bit has attempted to spice things up with perks and strange powers -- like a kiss attack that turns an enemy into an ally, or an attack that launches bees at an unsuspecting foe. In an attempt to break up the repetitiveness, special missions crop up from time to time, demanding that the heroes do more than simply kill bad guys along a corridor. Unfortunately, these missions are rather poor, their weaknesses merely disguised by the zaniness of the scenario. In one mission, I found myself on a train that had been hijacked by convicts, and for some inexplicable reason, the train was full of lawyers. I had to defeat all of the enemies, but the moment I struck a lawyer, the mission would be failed because the dojo couldn't afford the lawsuit. My initial laughter turned to shouts of frustration, as the lawyers would basically walk right into my attacks. At times they'd literally swarm me, ensuring that any punch I launched would result in me restarting the section. Likewise, absurd boss battles are also very poorly thought out, hiding irritating mechanics behind a veneer of silliness. Most bosses are larger-than-life villains, literally towering above the heroes, and they are admittedly rather funny. Defeating them is less amusing however. They spam extra powerful attacks, take many hits, and dish out a lot of punishment -- yet beating them amounts to the same strategy every single bloody time: run in and punch them a couple of times, and then roll away (dodging makes you essentially invisible). Rinse and repeat. From running through a minefield on the back of an ostrich, to protecting a "spunk soda" delivery truck from ninjas, Fist Puncher has been designed to make you laugh hard enough so that you'll ignore the shortcomings. It works, too. The setting and the gags provide plenty of entertainment, and whenever I became frustrated, it would only take minutes for me to start laughing again.  Less forgiveable is the ridiculous lack of online co-op. Local co-op is available, but on a PC-only title, this seems a bit pointless. Fist Puncher is a co-op game, the start menu for each mission shows four character slots, the enemies make references to there being more than one hero, and it's inspired by classic co-op romps, so it beggars belief that I was unable to play with anyone online.   When I play titles with older aesthetic sensibilities like Fist Puncher, I always have to ask myself, what does it add? In the case of Fist Puncher, I've lamentably come to the conclusion that it adds nothing whatsoever, beyond making it clear that the game is inspired by NES-era brawlers. There's no artistry behind the pixels, and while the backgrounds can occasionally inspire a chuckle, they are really rather ugly. The game definitely isn't nostalgia just for the sake of nostalgia -- there're too many additional features to claim that -- but the art certainly is. Despite the art, Fist Puncher manages to be an homage that isn't simply cashing in on nostalgia, capturing a lot of the simple joy of beating up hordes of merciless villains that kept people pouring into arcades or hooked to their NES in the '80s and '90s even though the experience has lost some of its luster over the decades. It's hard to overlook the shoddy boss battles and the lack of online co-op, but if you've got a PC set up that allows for couch co-op, you could do a lot worse than taking Fist Puncher for a spin.
Fist Puncher review photo
And fireball flinger, leg kicker, and bee hurler
There are few things quite as cathartic as punching a nigh-endless horde of villains in their ugly mugs. I'm all for highfalutin, emotionally charged, wordy games where you are meant to care about people, but sometimes I just...

Europa Universalis IV photo
Europa Universalis IV

Europa Universalis IV: Give Me That Old-Time Religion

Get the gods on your side
Jul 01
// Fraser Brown
Europa Universalis IV is but a mere month away from release, but Paradox isn't finished with filling you in on the game's many nuances. In the latest dev diary, Project Lead Thomas Johansson describes the complex religious m...
New releases photo
New releases

New releases: It's Oh So Quiet

Plus, The Sound of Silence, Is There Anybody Out There and All By Myself
Jul 01
// Fraser Brown
Eagle-eyed readers might notice that none of the titles in the headline or subheader are the names of videogames, and are actually songs. This is because there's bugger all coming out this week. Okay, that's unfair, but it's...

Review: 7 Grand Steps, Step 1: What Ancients Begat

Jun 25 // Fraser Brown
7 Grand Steps, Step 1 - What Ancients Begat (PC)Developer: MousechiefPublisher: MousechiefReleased: June 7, 2013MSRP: $14.99Rig: Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670, and Windows 7 64-bit I am not a gambling man. I don't play the stock-market, I haven't played the lottery since my 16th birthday, and the last time I bet on a horse, I was nine years old and my father placed a £1 bet for me -- I made £2 and called it quits. Luck is such a whimsical force, unreliable at the best of times, and I don't like putting my faith in things that I can't control. 7 Grand Steps forced me out of my comfort zone, for it relies on a lot of luck, it can be random and arbitrary, and that might be one of its biggest weaknesses. But often it's grounded in simple rules and clear objectives. Herein lies the problem with this Wheel of Fortune- and Game of Life-inspired digital board game: I'm not sure what it is. It's a dichotomy, you see. Half of it relies on a straightforward set of mechanics rules: players take control of a single pawn, a person who will become the progenitor of a huge bloodline, and this pawn sits on an ornate wheel representing the period of history and their social class. The innermost ring of the wheel is the lowest caste, and the outer section is the nobility and ruling class. On the left of the wheel is a coin slot, and beneath it are a variety of coins that represent certain fields of knowledge dependant on the era and the knowledge of the family. Initially, the coins represent simple things like foraging or masonry. Placing these coins in the slot will move the pawn to the nearest section of the wheel that also has that symbol -- these coins will always move them to the right, further away from deadly crocodiles that sit at the left edge of the wheel, where it rolls off the screen. Scattered among the various sections of the wheel are colored beads, these are legend markers, and to make breakthroughs like technological improvements (which add new symbols to the wheel and unlock new coins) or improve the pawns social status, moving them to the next ring with its different symbols and new challenges, these beads must be collected.  The pawn does not exist in isolation, however. Other families exist, and they too are attempting to collect beads. They are not simple adversaries, though. To gain more coins, special ingots can be fed into the slot, and these move the pawn backwards, towards another pawn nearby. When it lands on a section with another pawn, they interact, generating more coins for both parties. In this way, opponents are also allies, and integral to success. At the start of each generation, the individual pawn can choose a spouse (who comes with a dowry) giving players two pawns to control, offering more chances to get new coins and collect beads. If the spouse had another suitor, that opponent pawn will become an enemy, attempting to halt player progress by being a complete douche. I'm guessing they show up at your house an inappropriate hours with inappropriate gifts for your spouse and always forget your name. "It's Fraser, not Frank." "Calm down, Francis." Couples can also have children, and while they are not present on the wheel itself, they should not be ignored. At the end of a generation, one of the children can be selected to be the new pawn, and their success will depend on how they were raised. Coins are not just used to move pawns around the wheel -- they can be given to children to further their education. All children start off with an F grade in every field of knowledge, but the more coins they are given, the further they advance, all the way up to AA. The better their grade, the more likely they will be able to generate the corresponding coin when they become an adult. It's a tricky juggling act, ensuring that you have enough coins to both move your pawns, avoid death, collect beads, and educate your children. This becomes especially difficult when you have a lot of children. Logic dictates that if you can only choose one child to carry on the bloodline, you should focus on educating them. Unfortunately, treating one child differently from the others will lead to jealousy and rivalry, and when they come of age, they will take their hatred out on the new pawn. I often found myself having coins stolen by my pawn's brothers and sisters, impoverishing me just because they were angry over some perceived slight from years before. There's a lot to take in, though the mechanics are all very simple, amounting to spending coins and always moving forward. It's all very objective-based, with preparing for the Great Challenge of the Age being the primary goal of each era. 7 Grand Steps implies that successfully overcoming this great challenge is easier if you invest in legends: unlocking new technology, performing heroic acts, and moving up the social ladder.  The latter seems especially important, as when you reach the ruling ring, a whole new gameplay style unlocks, allowing players to interact with neighboring civilizations, control the military, manage resources, and generally play through a text-based strategy game hidden within the board game.  Yet, when you finally reach the Great Challenge of the Age, it's not at all clear what impact your earlier choices had. It is one of the many aforementioned choose-your-own-adventure-style scenarios, and these are the most baffling and poorly explained aspects of 7 Grand Steps, and they are also where we see the game's schism, as it ceases to seem objective-based. These text adventures crop up quite often, starting with each new generation. When a new pawn is selected, for example, a male pawn will participate in a coming of age ceremony, but the outcome of the ceremony is completely out of the player's control, and it's not obvious how much of it is random and how much of it has something to do with the way the child was raised. If he sneaks out of the ceremony, what does this mean? What impact does it have on the pawn? None of this is explained. Then players can choose how the pawn is known by selecting certain epithets, but they rarely have any bearing on the text that came before. Likewise, similar issues appear during heroic events, where more choices can be made, but the outcomes again seem random or arbitrary and lack a defined impact. Going back to the Great Challenge of the Age, this is where these spotty text adventures lose all weight. The challenge dictates the future of your family and society, and plenty of choices can be made, but it's incredibly easy to "fail" the challenge and end up continuing the story with another branch of the family. Why you failed the challenge and what you could have done earlier to avoid this is never explained or remotely obvious, and it all seems to be down to luck.   At least the challenges have a massive impact on the rest of the game, unlike the other choose-your-own-adventure segments. One failed challenge saw my family enslaved, entirely altering the flavor of the experience, making my story, at least for that era, all about attempting to free my family from the shackles of slavery.  Ultimately, both disparate elements of 7 Grand Steps fail to create a cohesive, enjoyable experience. The objective-based facet is intriguing and multi-layered, but without other players the competitive, social aspect feels hollow and is a missed opportunity. The expansive, over-arching narrative is fascinating, but the random nature of the text adventures makes the experience less than engaging, and at no point do the pawns ever become real characters, as their actions can be chosen on a whim, and they never go towards fleshing the members of the family out.  It is strange, then, that for all of its flaws, I found myself continually pouring those little coins into the hungry slot, obsessively watching history play out. I might not be able to name any individual pawns, but I can certainly recall the most important events that led to great changes in my dynasty. I remember how a simple family of masons attempted to flee their city, knowing that a vast army was approaching, only for the powerful priesthood to trap them, forcing them to work on a great project until the enemy army took over their city. I can also vividly recollect the hard work and dedication of another branch of the family, hundreds of years later, trying to change their fate as slaves, only to become masters of slaves themselves. And I now regret the glee I felt when those once descended from slaves became wealthy, powerful rulers of a city, and did nothing but improve their own station and fill their coffers.  In retrospect, I like having this unique story to tell. However, I found little joy in actually playing it. Frustration, irritation, and boredom, sure. But little joy. I might have been better off playing the slots in my local, dilapidated amusement arcade. At least then there would have been a chance I could have won a few quid, and with my winnings, I could just have bought a book. 
7 Grand Steps review photo
The Generation Game
Board game, wheel of fortune, a vast narrative spanning thousands of years -- 7 Grand Steps is a strange beast. Through simple slot machine mechanics, choose-your-own-adventure scenarios, and eventually actual strategy, one b...

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