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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Bioware's Return to Greatness

Hey everyone! I'm back again, with a review of Dragon Age: Inquisition to hurl in yo' faces!

Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third instalment of the Edmonton-Based game studio, Bioware. In it, you play the Inquisitor/Herald of Andraste, and fight against a world gone mad after a conclave meant to bring the Templar-Mage war to a halt was destroyed in a magical explosion, tearing a hole between the world of mortals and the world of demons. You have a mysterious mark that allows you to close these tears in the veil that have opened in the wake of the Breach, and this lands you as a key member of the reborn Inquisition.

But before we can discuss the story, lets get the technical shizwa outta the way. Inquisition is built on a new engine for Bioware. Before, they typically used the Unreal engine, but for their latest game they've switched over to the much more powerful Frostbite engine, and it shows. Animation is much smoother, and the physics are much more visceral and engaging. So many times, I've had my warrior smash apart a cart just because it happened to be behind an enemy I was slamming through it, and my hits really feel like they connect. The gameplay is somewhere between the Action-based RPG of Dragon Age II, and the more tactical combat of Dragon Age: Origins. However, unlike both games, it's managed to succeed surprisingly well at both. The tactical camera mode has an option to allow you to advance time only a short distance, allowing more tactically focused players greater control. The decent computer AI allows players who prefer more action-based combat to let their party members make generally decent decisions while the PC focuses on hack-and-slash. Combat also makes tactical positioning and combat more varied and emphasizes its importance. While in the previous instalments, things like flanking and positioning were important, the gameplay never really emphasized this except with the melee-built rogue in Origins, who received a backstab bonus and . However, in Inquisition the bonuses for flanking are much more obvious, as some enemies are extremely difficult to fight head-on due to their defenses.

But the game is far from perfect. There are a number of conversational glitches, such as with many of the scenes involving two spoilery-characters. They'll often stop talking in the middle of the cut scene, and not resume talking unless you skip through the scene, causing you to miss a lot of details of what's going on. This only seems to happen with cut-scene conversations, however, and the contextual conversations work very well. There's also some issues in cut scenes and even the main game with clipping, such as a dual-wielding dwarf rogue wearing the Inquisitor's Hat, as your daggers stick up through the brim of the hat. It looks hilarious but it can take you out of the game a bit.

No more murder-knife in Inquisition as well. Your character will use your equipped weapons in cut scenes (with one exception, but it's story based), rather than some mysterious super-knife like in Dragon Age II, or some sword your warden picked up off the ground as in the final scene of Origins.

The characters, however, are where Inquisition really shines. Where in the previous two games, relationships often felt a bit forced or like something you just needed to earn enough points in to win some sort of prize, in Inquisition the relationships feel much more organic. This is helped by the lack of an “approval” bar somewhere. You're still informed whether or not someone approves or disapproves of your actions, but there's no numbers attached. This also helps the romances a great deal. Unlike in previous games where, once approval was high enough or you flirted enough or whatever the characters would throw themselves at you and you'd unlock a sex scene, romances in Inquisition are much more involved, frequently requiring side quests and your character going out of his or her way to win their companion's affections. One of the romances even involves a duel! It makes them feel much more realistic and organic, and above all earned than in previous games. Also, you can't be stealth romanced in this game. You'll know right away if you're getting involved, and you have multiple opportunities to abandon a romance. There's a reason this game's version of the Paramour achievement is for “Committing to a romance.”

Inquisition is a massive, sprawling game with easily 80 or 90 hours of gameplay for the most dedicated of players, and no two playthroughs are ever going to be exactly the same. There are no “right” or “wrong” decisions in this game, and there's no perfect playthrough like in previous Bioware games. Above all, it feels like a return to Bioware's standards of excellence that we saw with Origins and even Baldur's Gate 2. If Bioware keeps this up, there will be only good things ahead for the studio.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The Last of Us Remastered, by Naughty Dog Productions

Hello, readers. Been a long time, hasn't it? Yeah, that's my fault. I got caught up with school, work, and a bunch of other stuff. I simply haven't had the time to watch the movies I wanted or to play the video games I've wanted. But that's done, now! And today, I come at you with a new review!

June 2014 marked the release of a game by Naughty Dog Productions, the makers of Uncharted. The Last of Us was a tonal departure from the more light-hearted, adventure oriented series the studio had made it's name on, but still focused on adventure and story telling with a smattering of action. Violent, gory, and dark, The Last of Us earned it's name not for it's unique take on zombies or the few survival-horror elements it put in (which are indeed few and far between, surprising for a zombie apocalypse game) but for it's two lead characters: Joel and Ellie, played by voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson. Both delivered powerful performances, bringing the two leads to life.

But before we talk more about Joel and Ellie and what I think about the story, let's talk a little bit about gameplay. The gameplay in The Last of Us is very similar to Uncharted 3 (I have not played the other two instalments, but I imagine it's fairly similar) combining quick time events with a party-assisted puzzle solving and exploration, something I very much enjoyed in Uncharted 3 and found equally immersive and entertaining in The Last of Us. Combat is a combination of stealth and cover-based, with different zombie enemies having unique mechanics surrounding how to take them down. While many scenarios allow you to sneak by without engaging opponents, I found many of them also forced you into conflict. However, the stealth sections of the game are particularly exciting and surprisingly well executed, with Joel's ability (and in the few sections where you control Ellie, her ability) to focus his hearing to detect the position of enemies so he can either evade them or take them down from stealth.

The gameplay is fast moving and entertaining, and whenever I did mess up, I always felt like it was my fault and not the fault of the controls, but there are some issues with the Party AI. Rather famously, Ellie and other party members that might be following you don't seem to be bound by the same rules of stealth that you are, which can be immersion breaking if you're trying to sneak through a room full of Clickers—zombies who use echolocation to spot you—and Ellie is busily running back-and-forth right in front of one. However, I was playing the remastered version and only saw this happen on my second playthrough, as for the most part despite being followed by Ellie and others they generally hang back off screen during stealth scenarios. During Combat, Ellie and others will help you take down enemies, and sometimes require your aid when locked in melee grapples, though it's during puzzles that your party members become most involved. Sometimes, you give them boosts to reach higher locations so they can help you up, or they might hold a heavy sliding door open for you while you crawl underneath. You may need to help Ellie across bodies of water because she doesn't know how to swim, or she might help you find a board or ladder as a form of in-narrative hint if you're taking too long to solve a puzzle.

The puzzles are usually simple and the game is good about moving you along if you're taking to long to solve them, so even at their most frustrating they never serve as the roadblocks that they did in older generation video games.

Graphically, The Last of Us Remastered is complete eye-candy. The skin in particular looks fantastic, moving far away from that past-over-wireframe look of games on the PS3, and definitely using the PS4's improved hardware to the fullest. And that brings up one of the major technical problems I do have with this game. As this was the first game I owned on my PS4, I honestly thought something might have been defective with my console, as the fan would run extremely loudly while playing The Last of Us. However, upon doing some research I was surprised to discover that this is actually a common problem with copies of this game. The game is so intensive, it really pushes the graphics and processing cards, causing them to heat up more than usual and as a result the fan runs faster and louder than it would on, say, Zen Pinball. That said, it's a minor annoyance at worst, and the console itself doesn't seem to be getting dangerously hot. In fact, I've had laptops that run hotter than my PS4 does, meaning that the fans are loud simply because they're doing their work well—cooling the console.

Finally, that brings me to the part of the game that I am honestly most torn about. The story.

As I mentioned, The Last of Us follows Joel and Ellie. Or, rather more appropriately, it starts out by following Joel and make no mistake that this game is Joel's story. Ellie is an important character in Joel's story, but it is his story.

Joel is a grizzled, angry white man with brown hair. He's a character we've seen time and time again. He has a personal tragedy when the world ends, and he can't quite get over it making him into an angry, bitter old man. There's a brief prologue where we follow him through his tragic backstory from the point of view of his daughter, at least until his daughter breaks her leg, then we're controlling Joel as he carries her to safety. The game starts in earnest 20 years later, as we're introduced into the militaristic society of the Quarantine Zones, and after some shenanigans, Joel is tasked with escorting Ellie, a fourteen year old girl who happens to be immune to the mutant fungus that turns people into zombies.

Ellie, as a character, is fantastically written, fresh, and a unique take on the character in her role. Normally, younger female characters like her when cast alongside our obligatory grizzled angry white guy are passive, ideal daughters who will break through that crusty exterior and give him something to live for again. Ellie subverts this by being a crass, violent teenager who can handle her own. In many ways, it's hard to focus on Joel's story because quite frankly Ellie's story is just so much more interesting, but this is NOT Ellie's story. This is Joel's story, and thus Ellie exists narratively to highlight something about Joel. Namely, despite being crass and violent, she exists to break through Joel's crusty exterior and give him something to live for. Now, I personally feel this is actually quite subverted and turned into a dark twisted reflection of itself at the end, but you'll have to play through the game to find out why.

That said, the game sometimes falls to hard on the Big Tough White Guy saves the Princess archetype too quickly. For instance, after we see Ellie slash a guy's brains out with a machete, Joel rushes in and pulls her off his dead corpse and she breaks down sobbing in his big tough-guy arms. Now, given other facets of the game and it's DLC in particular, I don't think it was their intention to further the stereotype of the “sobbing survivor” of female characters (an archetype brought to the fore in the latest instalment of Tomb Raider), rather I think their intention was to highlight the loss of innocence being suffered by a child in a world where she has to, yanno, slash a guy's skull open with a machete. The only problem is them introducing this scenario so late, as before she was managing just fine stabbing guys in the jugular vein with her pocket knife. It worked better when Joel and Tess killed the guards that Ellie thought they were simply going to disable when she stabbed one of them in the calf, or when Ellie saves Joel by shooting a man in the head. It simply comes too late in the story, and if it had come earlier the theme of Loss of Innocence, rather than simply sobbing survivor who just needs a big strong man to make her feel better would have been delivered more strongly.

In the end, I think the story would have been better if it had been Ellie's story, rather than Joel's. There is a silver lining here, and something that makes me thing Naughty Dog was just afraid to take too much of a risk too quickly. This is first seen in the character of Bill.

Bill is a xenophobic scavenger who lives by himself in a little town outside of the Boston Quarantine Zone. He likes to set traps, is good with a shotgun and a bow and arrow, and is extremely resourceful. He lost his partner, someone he cared a lot for, after an argument about whether or not they should leave the town. Bill didn't want to. His partner did.

His partner was his partner. As in, the man he lived with. What I'm saying is that Bill is gay. It's surprisingly well handled, as it's never really made a big issue of. Bill is gay, it's just a part of who he is. His sexuality has no bearing on the story—aside from the back story, but even that's delivered mostly through implications by Bill and small notes written to Bill by his partner. It's a small part of the game, but it's something that Naughty Dog did a fantastic job handling. But handled even better was Ellie's sexuality. See, Bill isn't the only not-strictly-heterosexual character in the game. Ellie is, too.

This is revealed in the DLC Left Behind, where we see what Ellie was up to while Joel was unconscious after having a piece of rebar shoved through his guts, as well as being delivered through flash backs the events surrounding Ellie being bitten. According to Naughty Dog, the DLC was meant to be a romance story, and quite frankly they delivered it fantastically. The flash-back story surrounds Ellie with her friend Riley, as Riley is fraught with indecision over whether or not she should leave to join a resistance group in another city. The story displays an intimacy between the two characters without coming straight out and describing what their relationship is (or was). During this, we also see Ellie as she goes through a different mall, trying to find first aid supplies to help Joel. The story is told exceptionally well, and is proof positive to me that the main game should have been about Ellie the entire time. Her story is simply more interesting than Joel's.

Joel's story was better handled in Tell Tale Game's The Walking Dead Season 1, which follows a lone survivor trying to hang onto the last rays of hope in a world gone mad. He, like Joel, finds himself taking care of a young girl who gives him the hope he needs to hang on and survive. But the story is handled in a much more intimate and unique way than The Last of Us handles Joel, who suffers the fate of being a type we've seen done time and time again, in everything from Metal Gear Solid to Dead Space, or even Resident Evil if you make him slightly more effeminate looking. Joel doesn't really bring us anything new to the gamepad, but Ellie brings more than her fair share.

Over all, The Last of Us is a landmark game if only because of it's DLC, which is the first Triple A release in which you the player control an openly non-heterosexual character (I'm not entirely convinced Ellie is fully gay). The gameplay, graphics, and for the most part story telling come together to create an entertaining expierence, and it's certainly worth checking out.