Tag Archives: Square Enix

PlayStation E3 2015 Recap

PlayStation E3 2015

Sony this year came out with some heat. We all thought most of it would just be rumors because—let’s face it—a lot of it sounded absurd. A comeback? A remake? Oh come on. We should know better by now. Go back to your village and take your pipe dreams with you.

But wham, bam, holy shit. We really shouldn’t be calling out “winners” for this sort of thing, but this press conference did actually bring down the Internet. Feel free to read on or rewatch the entire thing.

The Last Guardian

Ummm, what? I guess sometimes vaporware comes back from the dead. After being in and out of development and existence for the past 2007, it was pretty safe to assume the long awaited project was simply dead and buried. After the trauma of numerous rumors, the latest rumblings that we’d see The Last Guardian at this E3 seemed to only freshen up old wounds.

But it’s all true. Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida confirmed it would release for PlayStation 4 in 2016. Coming from Team Ico and director Fumito Ueda, the same combo that brought you Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, its expectations were high. After all these delays, are they just as lofty?

Horizon: Zero Dawn

Guerrilla Games, developer of the Killzone series, is throwing quite the delicious curveball here. Going from a stock FPS to this is rather incredible. Perhaps filling the PlayStation 4’s required space marine quota earned them some laterality.

But Horizon: Zero Dawn has a fascinating premise. Something along the course of humanity’s development caused them to plunge back into a pre-civilization structure except machines are still rampant and necessary. So instead of hunting for food, they hunt for parts. Sure, the gameplay looks fun enough, but that setup is incredible.

Hitman

Even if you don’t care for the Hitman games, this is a well put together trailer. It finely composes the idea that he’s a killer of tactics, brutality, and skill. Also, the backing track that surreptitiously features ragged breathing slowly sinks in and is reinforced by the kill shot.

The trailer itself, however, doesn’t reveal much except that the series still animates people a bit too cartoonishly. I guess Square Enix assumes we already know what to expect from the game, which is kind of a sad notion anyway. Hitman lands on PlayStation 4 and PC on December 8. (Franchise reboots that simply start off with the same name is an organizational nightmare, by the way.)

Dreams

Media Molecule is still very much about games in which you create, if you were wondering. The latest is Dreams, and while the trailer is very obtuse about what you’ll actually be doing, you’ll definitely be creating…something.

It looks like you’ll be using your controller to sculpt out characters inside of scenes. The “dreams” motif comes in where everything is fast and impressionistic rather than details and builds upon a previously known (read: made) lexicon of items. You can then grab your creations and puppeteer them to life. (The short demo preceding the trailer shows more than anyone could ever say with words.)

Destiny: The Taken King

While I found Destiny to be somewhat lacking in its original release, the more that Bungie puts out for the game, the more I want to go back and play it. It seems like they’re solving the two biggest problems simultaneously with each DLC, being the lack of content for a massive world and a refinement of how to use that world in interesting ways.

Coming September 15, The Taken King will cost $39.99 for the regular edition and $79.99 for the collector’s edition, both of which will also include Destiny itself. The expansion will include new Guardian subclasses and super moves.

Final Fantasy VII

Part of the crazy heat Sony threw around yesterday. Even more dubious than The Last Guardian comeback rumors, we heard voices on the wind talk of a Final Fantasy VII remake, something fans have been clamoring for since dinosaurs walked the Earth.

And now it’s happening. This isn’t a tech demo or a PC version or an upgraded PC version for PlayStation 4, but this is a remake. At this point, it’s unclear as to what that means. This could end up just an HD remaster for all we know, but hopefully they’re not just misleading us with the word “remake.”

The bigger question, however, is if anyone still cares. Tetsuya Nomura is coming on as director after guiding the Kingdom Hearts series (and directing Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children) while Yoshinori Kitase, original director of Final Fantasy VII, will be returning to produce. Is that enough to garner interest beyond the 18-year-old fan base?

No Man’s Sky

This is the first lengthy gameplay demo anyone outside of the press has seen from No Man’s Sky. Hello Games co-founder Sean Murray hopefully imparted upon the audience the sheer size of what they’re attempting with this procedurally generated universe simulator. (If you still don’t get it, read this piece over at The New Yorker.)

Still no release date, but we do learn that every world is fully destructible. Plus there are fish!

Shenmue III

And here’s the real surprise of the event. No one was even expecting this, but Yu Suzuki, creator of an immense number of classics like Space Harrier, Out Run, After Burner, and Virtua Fighter, came out on stage to announce that he’d like to revitalize the Shenmue franchise through Kickstarter.

And then everyone lost their god damn minds. Which is the appropriate response, I might add. It brought down Kickstarter itself for a brief time as it rocketed up hundreds of thousands of dollars in a matter of minutes. It’s already hit its $2 million goal in its first day. If you’re not jacked for this, then you’re a fool. Or you were too young to have played the first two.

Call of Duty

Now we know why Call of Duty was mysteriously absent during Microsoft press conference. PlayStation CEO Andrew House announced that Sony will get all of the military shooter’s map packs first. The deal will start up with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, coming to PlayStation 4, PC, and Xbox One November 6.

Map packs have traditionally gone to Xbox platforms first since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare back in 2007. While not necessarily everyone’s thing, this is a huge move for PlayStation.

Firewatch

Firewatch is pretty much exactly the kind of game I love playing. Or at least it’s the kind of game I love thinking that I would love playing based on the trailer because the trailer sells a very particular kind of game.

The adventure game from Campo Santo and director Jake Rodkin (co-host of the Idle Thumbs podcast) tells the story of a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness in 1989. Numerous mysteries begin to unfold as he goes about his patrols.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

While the return of the Uncharted series still doesn’t seem like the best creative decision, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End still looks pretty incredible. Like, visually, I mean. It seems like it’ll play like the other games, so you probably already know if you’ll be into that or not, but there’s certainly something to be said for a masterful refinement of a craft.

After a little technical hiccup where protagonist Nathan Drake froze in front of a still animating crowd, we go on a classic Uncharted whirlwind ride of shooting bad guys, running from overwhelming odds, shooting more guys, and (as a franchise first) driving a vehicle. Oh, and crackin’ some wise. Don’t forget that.

There are some other odds and ends that came out of the conference (like a new Street Fighter V trailer), but that’s the gist of it. There were several genuine surprises, capping off a rather momentous start to this year’s E3. Look for more coverage as the show continues the rest of the week.

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Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris Review: One Fish, Tomb Fish

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

Sometimes all a game has to do is make you forget. For all the lofty goals we’ve attached to the medium as we elevate it to artistic discourse and social commentary and eSports careers, there’s still that very necessary niche that needs filling, the one that we dip into when we just want to have some a good time. That’s where Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris steps up. It is, quite simply, just fun.

Very notably, this once again lacks the epithet Tomb Raider despite the fact you’ll actually be raiding quite a few tombs. It follows in the steps of its Raider-less predecessor Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light. You’ll play as Lara (or one of her three other cohorts including competitor archaeologist Carter Bell and Egyptians gods Horus and Isis), exploring pyramids and tombs while shooting a bunch of bad guys and solving some puzzles.

Temple of Osiris matches the blueprint for Guardian of Light pretty much one-to-one. Fixed perspective, co-operative play, dual joystick shooting, and engaging with ancient spirits on a personal level. Osiris’ brother Set has come back to take the world as his own, but Osiris’ wife and son have roped both Carter and Lara into helping them combat Set’s nefarious schemes.

The story is classically outrageous in true Tomb Raider fashion. It doesn’t really do much, though, other than set up the mismatched quartet to go to a bunch of underground and cavernous catacombs as you attempt to collect the parts of Osiris to resurrect the dispensed god. The plot is told through some nicely voiced and good-looking comic-style freeze-frames but mostly just stays out of the way.

Which is a good thing, considering how fun it is. From the outset, it seems exceptionally simple. You move with the left stick and aim and shoot with the right stick and right trigger. You can jump, drop bombs, light torches, and, most importantly, dodge. It feels a lot like Bastion in that way. Inclusive of the fixed perspective and dual joystick controls, the dodging feels as paramount here as it does in Supergiant Games’ title.

It certainly lends an appropriately and engaging chaos and speed to the combat. The dodge roll allows you to move faster and avoid attacks, and as a consequence, allows you to control the spacing, which is your greatest asset in this game. If you’re not paying attention, you will go down in the blink of an eye, irrespective of the health upgrades you gather.

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

That material consequence makes the action much more engrossing. Especially once you get to enemies like flaming scarab beetles that scorch the ground and crocodiles that fire lightning at the ground and golden balls that spew out more enemies until you zap them with your magic staff, you’ll find it that much more important that you never blink and you keep moving. It’s impressive how well the game deftly spreads out your attention while you try to reconcile it back together.

To wit, it is imperative you find an appropriate distance to place yourself from the screen. The game has a tendency to scope out the camera at a frame where it’s hard to tell a vase from a lamp let alone the exact proximity of those ornery crocs. Similarly, it’s hard to attach any affection or personality to the characters. I didn’t do any co-op play, but I can’t imagine that adding more people would improve the situation.

This especially holds true in scenarios involving spiked floor panels that activate with pressure. Either one person goes and everyone stays behind (boring for everyone else) or everyone tries to coordinate the ambulation (frustrating for everyone). The combat seems like it would be fun in a Gauntlet kind of way with more people, but a lot of the layouts deep in the tombs feel far more geared towards solo play. (I’m told, though, that the puzzles scale up around the number of players.)

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

The puzzles themselves, however, are pretty good. Many of them involve at least some modicum of intermediate problem solving followed by two scoops of dexterity, satisfying both parts of your gameplay needs. This includes the portions where you have to accomplish certain tasks (or “challenges” in the game’s vernacular) like collecting skulls or pushing enemies into a pit or forcing a boss to eat one of his own minions.

From this and scripted portions of the game, there is some great variety. At one point, you have a boss fight on a giant flaming, rolling stone ball, forcing you to dodge falling meteors and rising lava pits while keeping a grip on your place on the sphere. And in another, you will fight a humongous, underwater crocodile while only managing to jump between floating planks of wood. The game switches gears and changes pace often enough that you never truly get bored with its rudimentary mechanics.

A problem, though, is, on occasion, the controls. While most of it feels fantastic from the moving to the dodging to the shooting, it becomes inconsistent with the platforming. Sometimes you can mantle up after catching a ledge by just pressing on the stick and other times you need to press jump, a confusion that has cost me my success on several challenges. And some ledges have stickiness to them to prevent rampant suicide. Others don’t. You don’t know what you can rely on.

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

And then a lot of the puzzles and some of the combat rely on using Osiris’ staff, which is swapped to and fro like any other weapon while locked to down on the D-pad. You never want to stop moving to switch weapons, but having the staff out is always far handier. Up until, that is, you have to shoot things with bullets and shells. This led me to stumbling out of the starting gates in many battles by using the staff (which has unlimited and very weak ammo) and percolating with frustration rather than relishing in the surprise of battle.

A cool part of the weapons system is that you can spend all the gems you collect on opening chests, which will give you rarity-graded pieces of equipment like rings and amulets, both of which have a serious impact on your strategies. Amulets allow you to do especially power maneuvers once you fill a gauge that goes up when you dish out damage without taking any. This might mean you start spewing powerful scattershot or drop fire bombs or regenerate health and ammo. And the rings give you increased weapon damage or speed or reduce your bomb radius or reduce your resistance to poison.

They’re more or less randomized as you open these chests and get them from finishing challenges, so how you adapt to the gifts you’re given will determine how well you do in combat. With a greater bomb radius, I wanted my bombs to reload faster so I could drop more of them. With an amulet that refills ammo, I was free to use the more ammo-intensive and more powerful weapons. They’re meaningful and interesting wrinkles to an otherwise straightforward fighting system.

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

I do mean it, though, when I say this is a fun game. It only took me about five hours to blow through the entire story, but I also did it in one sitting. It’s a rare game that hooks me that hard. Even though Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris does nothing new in the genre or even in its series with its limited aspirations for greatness or originality, it does what it needs to do. And what it does it something you would probably enjoy.

+ Moving and fighting is snappy
+ Spectacular lighting and overall great graphics
+ Rings and amulets are meaningful pieces of loot for a simplistic system
+ Puzzles are nicely demanding in just the right ways
– Inconsistencies and inconveniences in controls are frustrating

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris
Release: December 9, 2014
Genre: Action adventure
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Available Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC
Players: Single-player, co-op, online co-op
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://www.laracroft.com/

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Trailer Roundup: Final Fantasy XV, Silent Hills, and More

Trailer Roundup: Final Fantasy XV, Silent Hills, and More

How’s your schedule looking? If it’s not somewhere between Wide Open and Totally Available, then you might want to look elsewhere for your ephemeral jollies. Gearbox alone this week can fill a half-hour block of your time. Like, when does “extended” just not cut it anymore?

Also, I just watched I Know That Voice on Netflix, so if even after this series of epics of trailers you still have more time, maybe give that a go. Then we can talk about it. There’s a whole bit on video games and Comic-Con, and you’ll definitely be in awe of how few voice actors stretch across so many iconic voices, TV or otherwise. Anyways, time for those ridiculously long trailers!

Minecraft

Coming out from the biggest news of the previous week, Phil Spencer attempts to spend four minutes assuaging you with the idea that Microsoft is acquiring Mojang, the studio behind Minecraft. It’s a strange move; I’m not even sure how many people associate the game with this particular studio. Surely a sizable amount, but the percentage of total Minecraft players is likely miniscule. Who is Spencer trying to placate here? Is Minecraft simply too large to even steer now?

Fibbage

I think those You Don’t Know Jack games are pretty fun. They’re a great way to get friends that don’t necessarily play games to play some god damn video games. Now the developers Jackbox Games have Fibbage, a game where you attempt to fill in the blank on a tidbit you most likely don’t know the real answer to. It reminds me a bit of Deck Around, except digitized. Either way, it’s already out for Xbox One, PlayStation3, PlayStation 4, and, uh, Amazon FireTV.

Assassin’s Creed Unity

Another week, another triple-A game from Ubisoft putting out a reminder that It’s Happening. Really, this trailer doesn’t show any gameplay—like, at all—but it does have a pretty cool song playing, so that kind of makes it worth it. I think. Either way, Assassin’s Creed Unity comes out on November 11 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.

Final Fantasy XV

Now that’s a way to open up a trailer. It’s an excellent reminder of what made that first Final Fantasy Versus XIII trailer from back in 2006, namely the stupidly enticing blend of modern aesthetics with knights and monsters and magic.

It’s also, unfortunately, an excellent reminder that Final Fantasy XV has been basically in development for over eight years with no end in sight. Kotaku has a cool feature with the new solo director (formerly co-director with Tetsuya Nomura) Hajime Tabata that you should read. It’s fairly enlightening. Also, this trailer is pretty cool.

Silent Hills

So that was weird and totally fucked up, which is what I hope the entirety of Silent Hills is going to be like (and, more or less, was what P.T. was as well). Honestly, if I had to choose between a giant baby monster woman and going down into an ominous basement, I’d probably choose the basement, too.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!

Like, why. It’s not even a question. It’s a statement. Why is this video so long? How does this help anyone? Maybe once Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! comes out, this would make more sense as a series of in-game tutorials spread out across a sequence of tutorial missions, which sounds pretty bad outright but is relatively tolerable compared to this nine and a half minutes of swing-and-a-miss humor. Comes out October 14 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC, OSX, and Linux.

I can’t believe I watched all of that.

Battleborn

I wonder how much of this was Andrew Goldfarb, content editor at Gearbox Software, fighting his journalistic roots to ask probing and dangerously inquisitive questions. Either way, Battleborn looks decent. I love the look of it. Super colorful and fluid like whoa. I do feel like the jokes and gags are once again swing-and-a-miss

The actual gameplay looks competent with the cooperative slant definitely making it more interesting. Thorn seems like she’d be super boring to play but Rath might be fun. I don’t know. I’ve basically eradicated all expectations of this game from my brain.

Roundabout

And now, I leave you with this delicious bit of nonsense. This trailer sums up the whole of what Roundabout from No Goblin has to offer, and that is I Have No Fucking Idea. Check out this badass description from its press page: “Roundabout is a ’70s B-Movie game where you drive a constantly revolving limousine!” Awesome. Just Awesome. Roundabout is out now for PC, OSX, and Linux and will be out for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in early 2015.

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Hitman Go Review: Sliding Scale

Hitman Go

Hitman Go appears to be the answer to the question of what happens when you through Agent 47 into a pot and let him boil. All of the marketable stuff like explosions and gunfights start to evaporate and simmer off into the air. It reduces down further and further until you’re left with this strange little experiment. But in the weirdness, it manages to capture the essence of what makes the Hitman series so good and, unfortunately, what makes it wearisome.

The trailer does an adequate job of conveying the tone of the game in its sleek and stylish shell, but here’s the gist of its mechanics. The game presents to you a series of boards in which you have to complete a main objective alongside some optional ones. You are still our ever present and bald Agent 47 intent on killing and collecting. But instead of a third-person view with guns and the occasional running, you’ll be moving along set paths.

Dotted along the boards (which are really diorama-esque facades of offices, backyard decks, and rooftops) are spots for you and your enemies to stand and move between. Each piece only moves when you move, effectively making you the gear that turns this clock. If you catch an enemy from behind or the side, you’ll eliminate him. If he moves onto your spot after your turn, you’ll be eliminated instead.

It’s an incredibly interesting distillation of the core concept of the Hitman games, which is poking and prodding until you find the most desirable/most attainable solution to a problem. Every enemy has his own behavior. Some only move in the direction they’re facing until they can’t go anymore and then they turn around. Others stand vigilant watch and smash you like a freight train if you cross their paths.

The entire ordeal of watching how patrols and movements line up as you shift around the board is very much identical to playing the full console versions, hiding in dumpsters and observing from a building over how guards and cops live in their environments. It’s a much more fascinating—and successful—translation of a Square Enix property than they’ve cooked up before. (I’m looking at you, Deus Ex: The Fall.)

The problem is that it also has the same issues that are inherent with the wait-and-observe strategy, which is when you miss your opportunity, you have to sit around twice as long as the stars align once more. Especially once you start trying to accomplish the secondary objectives like no kills and whatnot, missing your chance is one of the most frustrating things you can do given that there is no undo button. In the main series, you can just say fuck it and start shooting stuff, but with Hitman Go, you’re locked into the noble stoicism of hiding in a bush.

Hitman Go

Luckily, you don’t run into that problem very often. It’s really only a thing once you get into the later (but not super late) levels and try to do more than what is needed. The game has a great ability of layering things on rather quickly without overwhelming you. You’ll deal with guards with knives and you’ll get disguises and use trapdoors and throw rocks but it all works within unflinchingly consistent rules and a static framework, so the game manages to get you into more interesting predicaments with less handholding quickly.

Once you get to the later levels, you often find that every move counts, forcing you to think four or five moves ahead. Personally, it’s something that I don’t find as endearing so much as a chore, but that’s just a personal thing. I really like the trial and error process that allows me to continue after an error, not one that dumps me at a brick wall.

The aesthetic, though, is a great joy. The entire game is made to look and feel like a board game with a hyper-minimalist look and a slight tilt-shift effect on the entire viewport. Whenever you’re taken out, you just topple over and gently roll to a stop. When you eliminate an enemy, you’ll often find them placed to the side of the board, waiting with other discarded pieces. Even your movement input of swiping up and down, left and right mimics the feel of moving pieces along a board. It’s just great.

Hitman Go

As a mobile game, though, the payment scheme doesn’t seem too great. None of it is at all necessary (especially since we have the Internet and this is a puzzle game), but the things to be bought feed directly into progression. You can buy hints to replenish the five you originally start with and instead of earning goal cards to unlock new box sets, you can just buy your way in. It feels like buying a car and then the dealer still asking for money as you drive off the lot.

But that and the terrible test of patience infused in the practice of systemic observation aside, Hitman Go is a good game. It does so well what many other mobile counterparts of traditionally console and PC-based franchises fail to do, which is capture the essence of its lineage. Instead of knowingly failing to recreate a controller or mouse and keyboard experience, Hitman Go tried to find the foundation of the series, and it does so with aplomb. It’s just that it already—and always did—has a few cracks in it.

+ Looks fantastic and really pulls of the board game aesthetic
+ Truly captures the base experience of playing a Hitman game
+ Lays out its rules very clearly and expertly, allowing quick learning
– Inherently causes a lot of waiting and toe tapping
– Payment structure is really annoying and doesn’t feel great

Hitman Go

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Game Review: Hitman Go
Release: April 17, 2014
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Square Enix
Available Platforms: iOS, Android (soon)
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $4.99
Website: http://hitman.com/

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Thief Review: Lost in the Dark

Thief

You exist only in the light or in the dark. There is no gradient and there is no nuance. It is a binary state: can you be seen or can you not? It is a problem with the new Thief game, and it is also every problem with the new Thief game. It is a product wholly comprised of blunt interactions and, occasionally, broken ones as well. But it is perhaps not as lackluster as it is disappointing.

Long ago in an age of video games where standard mechanics and player-interaction vocabulary had yet to be established, Looking Glass Studios set out to create as many molds as it would eventually break. Among the wreckage of abject creativity was Thief: The Dark Project, blazing the path for much of what we consider to be part of stealth games.

16 years later (and 10 after the last release of Thief: Deadly Shadows), we have Thief, a revival of the series more than a reboot or any such thing. You continue to play as master pilferer Garrett, returning to his hometown of The City after, uh, some long time away. Unfortunately, he finds that The Baron has taken over, ignoring the plight of the amassing poor in the streets and the plague ravaging his subjects. Garrett plans to do something about it.

Or something. It’s a strange, unfocused tale including an inordinate amount of mysticism. It’s not that any of it doesn’t make sense. Quite the contrary, for it makes far too much sense because we’ve seen most of it all before, and now in Thief it has achieved some blob-shaped conglomerate form. The plot meanders and plods along until it ultimately reaches some hazy end.

Which is somewhat funny considering that one of Garrett’s primary abilities is called Focus, though it only seems to serve to highlight the unrefined nature of the game’s grand design. You see, there is a great deal of objects in the gothic world you can interact with including objects to climb, traps to avoid, and people to mug. Other than his enhanced ambulatory skills, Garrett’s ability hone in on these things is his greatest asset.

Focus, however, drains an expendable resource. By consuming poppies, you can restore this meter and continue to go through the game with your enhanced perception. Or you can forget the poppies completely and keep using Focus with little to no consequence. So then why in the world would you bother collecting poppies? Thief immediately undermines itself with this decision, but it is a necessary one to avoid you stumbling aimlessly through its levels.

Thief

You find this problem strewn throughout Thief, defeating itself before you have a chance to defeat its purposeful obstacles. Enemies are so incredibly mindless that it renders much of the stealth you attempt inconsequential. Either you are too brazen and get spotted or too slow and get bored. Get in a fight with all but one guard and the last one will peek into the room and shrug his shoulders. But then knock over a vase and he will vow to spend his one life finding you in the darkness.

Indoor areas are so mind-numbing in their linearity that the thought of getting lost is a welcome one. One-way exits and inscrutable leads flatten the spatial representation in the mind rather than expand it. And then you will often find yourself on the tail end of a massively scripted sequence meant to get the blood pumping but will do little more than scramble the brain as you wonder, “Aren’t I supposed to be sneaky?”

Just as importantly, The City’s design is undermined by its own denizens. In what is presented as a Victorian-era environment of caste systems built atop a foundation of astounding poverty, we get guards with an indeterminate range of modern accents and dialects (one bark includes the word “stuff,” a monosyllabic utterance that completely shattered any interest I had in the world) and an obviously blind populace judging by how much god damn jewelry and gold they leave in the streets.

Thief

And for no particular reason, we have a nimble and crafty thief capable of clambering up to rooftops in a matter of seconds and yet he can’t get over a barrel. Instead of a discrete jump or climb button, you have an Assassin’s Creed-equivalent “high profile” button that enables facilitated locomotion. But for all the windows you can open and the vases you can break, so much of the world falls under the banner of Can’t Touch This, leaving you with a bumbling Garrett and an invisible wall.

There are, however, bits and pieces that standout. Sneaking around can be exciting in its raw state. Stepping out quickly from the shadows to snag a pouch of gold before retreating unseen is smile-inducing. There are optional areas you can break into that reveal execution matching the exemplary concept art shown in the loading screens, production value and diligence abound.

But that does little to mask Thief‘s greater failings. Overly linear in places while availing you with a somewhat open world and a thief of limited yet great capacity. A world of amazing genesis but stumbling, muddled execution. Plot points that seem like a regurgitation thrown over one of the great antiheroes of gaming lore. It tries—sometimes too much and sometimes too little—but rarely succeeds. Thief doesn’t steal my heart so much as it has stolen my time.

Thief

+ Occasionally come across areas of inspired design and implementation
+ Darting from shadow to shadow as you pilfer riches can be fun
– Eventually stealing just becomes tiring, as does sneaking, fighting, and playing
– Story is rote despite it overly mystical nature

Final Score: 5 out of 10

Game Review: Thief
Release: February 25, 2014
Genre: First-person stealth
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Players: Singleplayer
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.thiefgame.com/‎

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Tomb Raider’s Killing Curve

Tomb Raider's Killing Curve

Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider, the reboot to the storied classic franchise of yore, is less than a week out, but reviews are already running and they’re looking pretty good. I personally haven’t finished it yet but so far, the reviews match up: this is a fantastic game. The opening is a bit too Uncharted-y for its own good, but a stride is found, hit, and stridened soon after. There’s even a bit of Sleeping Dogs in there where it has a very realistic veneer but most of the internal workings are a bit goofier and more cartoonish than you’d expect (which I feel works is this case).

However, there’s one part that kind of sticks out at me and based on conversations I’ve had with other people that have played Tomb Raider, mine isn’t the only craw it’s found its way into. For all the drama that surrounded the marketing of this game from the seemingly unintentional but still sexist comments from executive producer Ron Rosenberg to the sexual assault scene, the fact that they decided to bring Lara Croft back to human roots of being vulnerable and new to the world of being a tomb raider/killer was a good decision in my eyes. The part that isn’t so good is how they did it.

Which is to say that they kind of didn’t do it. Lara does indeed start out inexperienced in the matters of taking lives and general survival, but she quickly steps up her game to Master Chief-level stuff. Her first kill definitely does what the designers and developers intended, which is to shock and disturb you as a player. It’s supposed to be a striking contrast, crossing that line from thinking to doing without any of the former, and you’re supposed to be shaken up—I know I was. It is almost the complete opposite of Hotline Miami where you start out numb to the macabre acts played out at your hands (only to get number).

But not five minutes later, Lara has killed many more times. The act of killing a man with her bare hands apparently no longer fazes her. I understand (the implicit notion) that Lara is one of those sorts of people emerge as an unwittingly cool customer under pressure where if it’s him or her, it will always be her that comes out on top, but there is no transition. There is no curve. According to Tomb Raider, the learning curve for killing is less of a continual slope and more of a sharp drop into easy sailing. Granted, that initial plunge is a huge hurdle, but after that, taking lives is as easy as breathing.

This rang a familiar bell to me and probably did for a lot of other people, too: Far Cry 3. The protagonist Jason Brody is stuck on a pirate-infest island where mercenaries and tigers basically set the rules and he must rescue his friends from some largely unseen evil clutches. He goes almost immediately from dudebro that has never killed or even thought about killing a man since that would take away precious mental processes from thinking about skydiving and saying things like “let’s crush it” and “get your pump on” to a well-oiled death machine.

There’s similar drama, too, surrounding Jason’s first kill (as well as the rest of the game). It’s definitely not has heavy-handed nor as impactful as with Lara, but the intent is the same; we’re supposed to see that murder changes a person and it isn’t to be taken lightly regardless of reason. The messages are ultimately different (or from what I’ve heard as I have yet to finish Tomb Raider), but the point is made.

The point, however, is kind of dulled due to the bludgeoning rock that is the broken killing curve. Yes, this is a video game, and yes, these games are better served to play the way they do earlier rather than later, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some game out there that could cultivate this notion into its own experience rather than having it play into some overarching design that can barely accommodate it.

It seems that the designers were aware of this, too. Concessions are made throughout both games that seem to acknowledge how they skimp on this established but underutilized inner conflict. For example, both games feature hunting. In Red Dead Redemption fashion, there are animals wandering around the game world that you can kill and skin for either materials (Far Cry 3) or sustenance (Tomb Raider). Without any preface, both Jason and Lara can clean and cut a felled beast with ease, and only later is it revealed through optional or easily missed dialogue that both used to hunt with their families in their younger years. They are both so throwaway that it seems like afterthoughts shoehorned into the game because that was all they could do to justify some of the hyper accelerated capabilities of both protagonists.

Of course, as with the killing and whatnot, this all better serves the game, but is there not a way for this to be incorporated from the get-go? Or maybe somehow used as a narrative mechanic? Here’s a thought: the first skinning of an animal takes time. Like, way more time than a player would be comfortable sitting through. A full minute of watching the character struggle with how to rip the hide off a buffalo, saying something like “I wish I’d gone hunting more with my dad” or “that documentary made this seem so easy.” You know what? Make it a mini game. Make it arduous or difficult but make it mirror the difficulties of the character.

But the next time they skin something, it takes less time. The button inputs or the dexterity requirements of the mini game are lessened. Over time, the mechanic of skinning an animal becomes easier and quicker for you because it would obviously become easier and quicker for the character. They learn, and it comes through in this narrative mechanic. Muscle memory and simplified or streamlined motions kick in and eventually you only have to initiate the process and you’re done. It communicates to you that the character has grown without a single line of dialogue or text and it rewards the player for playing. It’s a win-win.

That is, of course, something that has to be deliberately designed and integrated into a game. Plugging that into Far Cry 3 or Tomb Raider will probably serve only to worsen the experience for players, but what I’m saying is that it’s not impossible to have a game with this gradation of murder instead of a jump and a swim in Death Lake. It’s not impossible to ride the killing curve. It’s just that Tomb Raider doesn’t have one.

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The Year In Review: Stealth

The Year In Review: Stealth

Most games with even the slightest hint of action also include bits of stealth. Sometimes it’s 100% perfunctory and just a side effect of being a video game, such as when you try to get up real close and steal away at least one easy kill in Gears of War before things start going totally sideways. You’ll try to keep cover between you and the enemy, utilizing the third-person camera to your advantage so you can see who (or what) is just around the corner. This is just an ancillary notion to when games necessarily give you a shooting reprieve. Take a breather and then take advantage of having the drop on the baddies.

Other games more overtly include sneaking and hiding. We call them “stealth games.” Don’t worry, I’ll give you a second to collect your brain off the wall after I just blow’d it with that little bit of knowledge. Surprisingly, though, the biggest pure stealth game this year didn’t come from a huge publisher or developer (Both Tom Clancy releases this year were from the Ghost Recon series, a traditionally more action-oriented tale of international intrigue). No, instead it came from Klei Entertainment, developers of the bloody, frenetic, and overall terrific Shank and Shank 2.

Mark of the Ninja manages to accomplish what most other stealth games (or even games that simply incorporate stealth elements) wish they could do: not make it frustrating. Sure, there are times where you feel like things got out of hand a bit too quickly, but you always have a way out. With a little dash of Shank-style hack ‘n slash, you are more than capable of dispensing of alerted foes with your blade. Or you can simply escape up into the rafters à la Batman: Arkham City. Or you can pause time, knock out the lights, and hide in a darkened recess of a wall. Any given sticky situation has a multitude of ways to get unsticky.

All of which is elevated by the way Mark of the Ninja surfaces its stealth information, which is to say it visualizes it all for you. You can see the sound waves you create as you sprint versus the nigh imperceptible ripples you make when you walk. Enemy sight is shown via light cones and their alert states are discretely shown by Metal Gear Solid-esque icons overhead. And while there is a gradient to your active state, its categorical nature is also discrete and revealed to you, so you never have to worry “can he see me? I think he can see me. OH SHIT HE SEES ME.”

Better yet, certain maneuvers like taking out lights and the like will show you the consequences of that action before you do it, so you know prior to even throwing your shuriken that it will alert the guard below. It’s genius and totally makes the inherent trial-and-error nature of stealth games way less frustrating.

Surfacing stealth information seems to be becoming commonplace, though, even among non-stealth games. Far Cry 3, for instance, is primarily an open-world action game where you can go anywhere (so long you’re not in a mission) and shoot anything, and it’s fantastic. It shoots great, it drives crazy, and has one hell of an opening. In a startling move of competence for a first-person shooter, though, Far Cry 3 actually has some good stealth.

It works because it surfaces your current status very well. Crouch and you’re instantly quieter and less visible, but you’ll also know when enemies see you due to an onscreen indicator. It’s an arrow that points much like a grenade indicator would in Call of Duty games, except this one points to people that see you instead of things that explode you. It’ll grow in size as these people see you more clearly—or at least begin to suspect they see you. If you can dash away in time, you will avoid being spotted.

But Far Cry 3 is also a very systems-driven game, so if you manage to dispatch this sneak-ruining scourge in a silent manner with no one else seeing your dirty deed, you fall back into a non-alert stage. It works because it discretely informs you of your current state and, like Mark of the Ninja, gives you a brief chance to fix small errors without going full-on Rambo to fix it.

It also helps that there are simply chunks of the world that are specifically for pure stealth, namely areas with tall grass. If you crouch in any sort of foliage, you will break line-of-sight with tracking enemies (or potentially tracking). It’s something that’s explored more fully in Assassin’s Creed III. While you would think a game about an assassin would naturally be more about stealth, ACIII actually allows for a great deal of action, and it’s action that—for the most part—works. Connor moves capably and eliminates enemies quickly. It feels appropriately brutal and efficient.

But hiding is also cordoned off into discrete elements. Hay bales and wells and hanging off of ledges all keep you out of the sight of enemies, keeping you incognito. Not only that, but much like in Far Cry 3, you can keep low profile in tall grass to instigate instant stealth, hiding you in pretty much plain sight much as you would be blending in with a crowd or sitting on a bench. The massive opportunities and natural feel to those chances to hide are what make the stealth in ACIII work. Well, that and the fact that you can easily see what enemy in which location currently suspects you, ignores you, or is about to become a major problem for you. It makes sneaking around much more manageable.

It’s just that there are two problems with that: 1) purposefully, it’s all contextual, as stated by the developers, since they aim for “social stealth,” so you won’t find a crouch button, and 2) it punishes you for failing to sneak around undetected. I don’t mean that it punishes you with a quick fight or the need to run and hide, but that it raises your Notoriety, a mechanic that I’ve hated since 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II. With anything above incognito, enemies will spot you regardless of what you’re doing. So no longer can you case a building or stalk your prey in a new way according to your warped scientific method. No, instead you must first run around whilst avoiding any enemy patrols so you can bribe town criers or check every tree and wall for wanted posters. It’s not a lot of fun and totally kills the momentum of the game.

It’s a similar problem that Dishonored has. I mean, if you’re spotted and have a pretty quick reaction, you can take care of the issue before it becomes a full blown problem. However, the moment one guy in the area screams “GUARDS!” or something, you’ve got a whole bunch of killing ahead of you. Or running and taking a shit load of damage. Or reloading a checkpoint. The killing wouldn’t be such a problem since Corvo is quite handy with a blade (and grenades and pistols and spring traps and crossbows and supernatural powers) so fighting a roomful of dudes is actually kind of fun, but if you are going for stealth or a good ending, fighting immediately means you’ve failed your goal. Whether meta and a point of pride that you never got spotted or tangible in that you can’t kill people for fear of rising Chaos, you are punished for being spotted and forced to fly or fight.

The actual sneaking, however, is very well done. There is no “social stealth” as there is in ACIII, but instead you are given a set of statuses and you can do certain things in those statuses. Either you’re spotted or you’re not; either an enemy is oblivious or suspicious or alerted; either you’re in hostile or you’re in neutral territory. Your actions will move you and enemies along these rails, so it’s all a test of poking and prodding at moving parts as you sneak around in attics and sewers.

Poking and prodding, however, is probably more in the Hitman: Absolution wheelhouse since the Hitman series has become famous for being testbeds of Mousetrap-like gears and cogs turning. Hitman, perhaps more than ACIII, is all about social stealth. In fact, let’s go ahead and assume Ubisoft lead game designer Steven Masters meant “contextual stealth” rather than “social stealth.” Hitman is all about hiding in plain sight with costumes and figuring out what piece goes where so when you push over the right domino, everything tumbles just the way you want.

And just like Far Cry 3, you get the grenade indicator-style arrow that grows and grows until you elevate your status. It’s helpful because you don’t have totally binary states of seen/unseen like some past Hitman games. Now you can go into a room, realize you shouldn’t be there, and walk out before you get into serious shit. Better yet, you have this Instinct meter that you can burn to casually go “oops! My bad!” to smooth over an otherwise “oh fuck” situation.

It all falls apart, though, when you encounter areas that are chock-full of the same enemy type. You see, enemies of the same type can all see through your costume if you’re trying to front as one of them. In fact, they can see through you from like 50 yards away, so when you have no other choice but to try to be a cop amidst a sea of cops, the game kind of breaks the one way it works and it soon becomes a half-assed Splinter Cell game.

But the important thing, I guess, is that it’s there. This has been a big year for stealth. Last year there was Batman: Arkham City and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations for the big titles and Sniper: Ghost Warrior for the smaller guys. But more than anything (even quantity), this year was probably the most about surfacing stealth to the player, bringing all the pertinent information that would otherwise be going on in the background to the forefront and putting it right in front of your eyes. Developers may have realized this year (or rather, several years ago due to development time and such) that stealth should not be frustrating; it should be exciting and nerve-racking, not arbitrary and fruitless.

Sure, there were games like I Am Alive and Deadlight that incorporated stealth in a more opaque way, but those were aesthetic, tonal choices that fit those titles. And Stealth Bastard Deluxe is more like a puzzle game than a stealth game. So for this year of 2012, stealth was all about informing the player, and for that I’m grateful.

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