Thursday, 12 October 2017

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War (Video Game Review)


Middle-Earth: Shadow of War symbolises everything wrong with this industry. Oh, it’s far from bad, in many respects it’s even spectacular. It offers an engaging story, great new mechanics for your armies, and even a refined system of battle mechanics and orders. By all rights this is a spectacular release, and yet all of that is buried beneath a constant push to grab more money from the player. 

Following directly on from where Shadows of Mordor left off, the game follows Talion’s efforts to raise and brainwash an orc army into rebelling against Sauron. While driven by revenge, his cause sees him travelling down an ever-darker road in the name of attaining power. The Nemesis system is what truly made Shadows of War famous, as it offered a level of enemy manipulation and espionage the likes of Assassin’s Creed never offered. 

Bumping off enemy commanders, replacing them with your toadies and earning an increasingly powerful rival worked towards making the world feel alive and reacting to your presence. Shadow of War takes this a step further, by shifting the focus into near open war. Rather than simply murdering leaders and slaughtering their troops, you have the option to lead armies into open sieges and liberate massed fortifications for yourself. This is accomplished as much by sheer numbers as the likes of siege graugs, and sappers add some much-needed variety and a few ways to vary your tactics. Furthermore, as you advance deeper into enemy territory, a few familiar and very threatening faces start to appear, such as the Ringwraiths and certain very big monsters. All of who provide infinitely more entertaining fights than the prior game’s bosses. Yet, every single point, every single advantage you can find here, is hamstrung by microtransactions, lootboxes and a cash market. 

Take the story for starters. While certain decisions surrounding the lore are bad enough to make Tolkien spin in his grave, it is internally consistent and well developed. So, naturally, multiple storylines are chopped off to be sold as a $100 pre-purchase addition, and the true ending is hidden away behind a carefully crafted series of gates. The sort which, one way or another, you can only unlock with your credit card. Limiting your quest would be bad enough on its own merits, and yet this blight afflicts the essential gameplay as well. 

Despite starting off well enough for the first few hours, thanks to several excellent cutscenes and exciting sieges, you quickly start to see the gaps in the gameplay. As each of your orcs are customisable, you need scrolls to upgrade their abilities and boost their stats. While at first most of these seem to be accessible in the open world, many are limited to lootboxes, with the likes of Archer Recruitment (which gives you extra units of archers) or even Mount Training Legendary (giving you an extra Graug) locked away behind virtual gambling. Worse still, the game has elements woven into its very core encouraging you to fork over cash. 

Not only does it have a Dragon Age: Origins style “Buy this to see the rest of the story!” moment, but the very first thing you see upon logging in is an advertisement for lootboxes. Now, that alone would be bad enough, but it keeps stacking elements atop of this. The sheer grind of relentless sieges towards the last third of the game becomes tedious to the point of boredom, and has seemingly been designed to push you into paying a bit more to make it easier. A problem to be sure, but atop of this you can end up with other players relentlessly attacking your bases and murdering your troops while you are offline. So, you could have a legion ready for the final boss ready one day, and come back to find everything in ruins on the very next. 

Shadow of War had the potential to be one of the greats of 2017. If the price gouging mechanics, the sheer Everest-esque grind in the final part, and the constant push to grab more of your money had been removed, this would have been a near-perfect sequel. It would have been game of the year material, and with twice this ending score. Instead, we’re just left with monument to how a publisher’s greed can wreck a masterpiece. Save buying this one until the asking price is at least slashed in half, folks, as you’re going to need the rest just to get the orcs you need. 

Verdict: 4 out of 10

Monday, 9 October 2017

Blackshields: The False War by Josh Reynolds (Horus Heresy Audio Drama)


Upon reflection, the Blackshields were porbably one of the most obvious things to add to 30K. Given the popularity of loyalists among the traitor legions, the scattered numbered of units, and the subject of possible defectors from each side, it opened many doors. It's the sort of thing the books have gone back to time and time again after all, with Scars introducing a massed attempt by the White Scars to join Horus. So, having a general group of renegades, pirates, fanatics and vengeful warriors opened the door for players and authors alike without the need for more convoluted elements at this late stage in the story.

As the first tale to truly focus upon this group, Blackshields: The False War follows the example set by the Forgeworld rulebooks, but shows things from a more personal level. How well it works out might be up to the listener more than you would think though.

Synopsis

The story here follows the attempt by the forge of  Xana-Tisiphone to defect to Horus' side. Having failed to convince them to remain loyal, Rogal Dorn's response has been to crush all resistance there and bring them to heel. Yet, as the war between two battlefleets rages over the world, another force is at work. A group of black clad renegades seek to claim something from the planet for themselves, and turn the ongoing conflict to their advantage...

The Good

Given how recent a concept the Blackshields are, the characters here seem to have been structured to explore the basics of what can be done with such a unit. Their tactics, how they approach a seemingly impossible target such as Xana for a raid, and what drives them are all core to the story's main themes. Furthermore, the audio drama tries to prevent them simply being outright "good guys" like Garro, Varren or others. They might not have opted to side with Horus, but that hardly means that they will side with the Emperor either. This point is clear with their leader, the former World Eater, Endryd Haar who seems to be on the verge of utterly losing it at every turn. He is presented as insane, driven by little more than a cold rage and hunger for revenge, but that is simply directed against Horus. As he says himself in the story, he prefers to fight traitors, but will turn on loyalists if they get in his way.

Even the seemingly more upstanding examples of Haar's unit are not necessarily better, even if they might be more sane. Most simply want to follow their own path without siding with either side, and the most morally upstanding among them simply wants to try and weather the storm until one side eventually wins. It's an interesting contrast to the tales we have seen up to this point, and it helps to give a broad identity to this group. Both in terms of better humanizing them (especially as most astartes seemed to be that much more human in their behaviour prior to the Codex's implementation - just read Horus Rising again) but also giving fans more of a basis to create their own Blackshield groups. 

The story is self-contained and extremely well presented, but there's enough additional elements to help inspire the fandom to be that much more creative with what they make. Whether this was Reynolds intent or not, that's something I personally feel is always praiseworthy in such tales. Hell, the simple fact that we finally have solid confirmation of a World Eater marine who refused the Nails and lived (something it needed after the Garro book muddled the subject surrounding Varren) or an unusual take on former Death Guard adds more for people to think about.

Sticking to more of the story's main concepts however, what's impressive is how it forgoes a few expected tropes. You will not even realise just what direction the tale is taking first or how it has been structured. Given all we know is that Blackshields were involved in fighting the the forge's forces, the story takes a few liberties to present them at another angle. So, rather than an assault mission, spec-ops infiltration effort or assassination attempt on the forge's leader, it's presented as more of a heist at first. One where you do not know the full details of the plan at first, but it unfolds as things move along. It's certainly an interesting angle to take, and the greater freedom this allows permits the story to take much more time in fleshing out the Blackshields themselves or their motivations over out and out combat. 

Over the entire story, and ignoring the space battle taking place elsewhere, there are perhaps only five or six shots loosed in total. The building tension and risk factor involved as things start to go wrong is less Ocean's Eleven and more Inglourious Basterds in terms of its presentation. The sheer unpredictability of the tale, and several curve-balls which emerge during the final act, assists the story in keeping the reader guessing until the end. You might predict the eventual choice Haar will make, but not what motivates him or the actions he will take to secure it.

The use of older legion traits to define certain characters or the behaviour of the Blackshields themselves also significantly assists making them stand out from their contemporaries. While it's hardly a one-to-one translation, many ideologies and attitudes which governed the Dusk Riders and War Hounds show up here, especially the latter group in terms of how Haar leads his warband. Given how much exposure both legions have seen of late, it's another element which allows the story to remain fresh to casual readers, but adds points of interest to avid lore fanatics. It's especially jarring when you see the lengths Horus himself will go to in order to secure Xana's loyalty, and the weapons it offers.

Finally however, and most pressingly, is how the take manages to handle the long range battle. As most of the action here is a backdrop to the story and little more than a pressing timer for the Blackshields, it could have had little effect upon the tale. Instead, the ruler of the Forge is constantly witnessing events through data, updates and ongoing information, inserted between the negotiations and displays of the war engines being handed over to Horus' side. This is conveyed as much through MIU data as it is the sound effects of surface to orbit batteries activating, the quiet reactions of the characters and general data. While it might not be wholly obvious at first, the surprisingly subtlety and effectiveness of both the sound effects and vocal direction offers another layer of atmosphere and realism to the story which prior outings have usually lacked. This isn't to say that the previous ones were bad, simply that this new depiction definitely has an edge.

So, what are the problems then?

The Bad

While this might sound as if it is immediately going back on what was previously said, the Blackshields themselves unfortunately lack some depth as characters. Now, this isn't to say that they're badly written or even that they lack personality, but all too often it seems that they are an amalgamation of background ideas or in a few cases exist primarily to create conflict. Haar himself is the exception to this, but once you get beyond him there is little to truly work with. Many of the background Death Guard unfortunately end up being relatively interchangeable, and most of their lines serve to reflect upon Haar's character.

The same is true even of the main "villain" of the piece, as Gilim Raijan seems too much of a toady to be a real threat. He's excellently voice acted, and well written in his own right, but his role seems to be that of a secondary antagonist or a minion over a true villain. This unfortunately leaves parts of the story without some innate direction, and it does blunt some of the threat of the Blackshields being found out when the closest thing they have to a true foe is almost being played for a joke.

Another definite problem is how the story also seems to have trouble doing more than telling the audience of certain events. Many points here and there are conveyed only through dialogue between the characters or reflections, which is definitely a strength of audio dramas on the whole, but it rarely seems to pause to offer much in the way of direct descriptions. We get a few remarks upon certain war engines, a nice opening discussing the industrial nature or the world and Raijan's grossly mechanical features, but this falls away as it moves on. So, things like the bloody price the Blackshields will be paying or some of the threats they face lack impact because you simply have a character thinking back to them or saying "Oh, that's there as well."

However, the most pressing problem surrounds the battle itself. As mentioned previously, the actual space battle is little more than a backdrop to events and it works for the heist itself. However, the constant updates, details and twists always gives the impression it is building towards something. We eventually get that exact payoff, and see the surprise turn come into play as the tables are turned on the traitors. Then, quite abruptly, the story ends. This makes the tale seem like the first act of a bigger event, and it's stopping right before it gets to the meat of the action. As a result, the depiction can seem underwhelming in how it leads up to a conflict but fails to resolve it or even offer true closure for the Blackshields themselves in this endeavor. As a result, it seems as if it seriously needed another ten minutes to properly wrap things up.

The Verdict

Blackshields: The False War is decent overall, but definitely flawed in a few places. While it is strongly recommended to fans of this group or people looking for a few more side stories to the war, it needed a little more to work with in my opinion. As a result, we get parts of a great tale, but just not something which feels like a whole one.

With that being said, if the intent was for this to lead into an ongoing series of audio dramas, it would be a solid start for such an effort. Flawed to be sure, but the same could be said of the Garro tales before it delivered two excellent works after Oath of Moment. Perhaps we'll get lucky and see more of them as time goes by.


Verdict: 6.5 out of 10

Friday, 6 October 2017

Metroid: Samus Returns (Video Game Review)


Samus doesn't speak, there are no minutes long cutscenes, Adam isn't ordering your into lava zones unarmoured, and there's no mention of "the baby" every five seconds. For anyone who suffered through Other M, consider that the short review saying that, yes, this is back to the Metroid we know and love. For everyone else, this is a remake in the best way possible.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Ark: Survival Evolved (Video Game Review)



ARK: Survival Evolved is a rare beast indeed. As one of many games jumping on the open world survival bandwagon, it would not have been a surprise to see it joining the likes of Rust in Early Access purgatory. Yet, here we are, three years down the line and we have a finished product. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to see that it needed a few months more work before its final release.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Kingsblade by Andy Clark (Warhammer 40,000 Book Review)


So, we have a rather large backlog of Warhammer novels to get through from the past couple of months. Perhaps it's time to start resolving that at long last.

The best possible way to sum up Kingsblade would be to call it the Star Trek: Voyager of Warhammer 40,000 novels. The mid-to-late Voyager specifically, where you have a few solid concepts being played around with, one or two highlights and likable characters. The problem is that, while what you get is reasonably entertaining, it never pushes into taking full advantage of the concepts it has on hand. As such, you enjoy what you're given, but it's hard not to wonder why it couldn't take full advantage of the creative elements or freedom it had on hand.

Synopsis:

The story here is set on one of the myriad of war-torn worlds which makes up the Imperium of Man. Chaos has reared its head, striking down all in its path and despoiling anything too valuable to simply kill. However, the Imperium responds in force, with Cadian Shock Troopers, Mechanicus forces and several Houses of Imperial Knights leading the charge. The bloody street-by-street fighting proves to be vicious but the Imperium soon gains the upper hand, or so it seems. The Word Bearers have yet to play their trump card, one which will push a pair of untested knights into a trial by fire few expect them to survive...

The Good:

For a writer with only a few short stories to his name within Black Library, it can't be said that Clark doesn't put some thought into how his forces work. Often these books should serve as an expression of what certain forces are like, how they can be explored or even depicting the finer details which are all too often left out of codices. While Codex: Imperial Knights itself was highly detailed, Kingsblade capitalizes on it with some interesting new additions. How the Knights themselves are repaired, re-armed and reinforced while constantly on the move is a major part of the story, as is their creeds and traditions. 

Taking Warhammer's more knightly aspects to an extreme, as chivalry, personal heraldry and succession each becomes a core part of the ongoing tale. There's a distinct spin on each theme here to where, despite often being repeated elsewhere or by other armies, such as their glory seeking ways. Most knights there, especially their elder members, live for the moments which adds another chapter to their saga. From winning close honour duels to overcoming insurmountable odds, it could have easily pushed them down the old Klingon route of honour ruling everything. However, it's always held back in some manner or another, and they are bound to ultimately respect the decisions of their king above all else. It's enough that it's a characterful problem and a key issue of their culture, but you can still see the strength behind that and just how it is kept in check. It's these minor moments here and there which helps to make this feel like a crusade without devolving into the usual mix of out-and-out cliches.

Another definite point in the book's favour is how it often tries to work in more elements than merely the Knights themselves. While this might sound more than a little odd, we have all seen how Games Workshop backed releases will often skew events in favour of their big cash cows, and the mini-titans were a big hit. Yet, while they were ultimately crucial to the overall victory, other elements were always in play. The Cadians were repeatedly cited to be a very effective fighting force, and we see this time and time again throughout the book, while other successes only come about thanks to the intervention of other forces. One late event is only made possible thanks to a massed assault by Imperial allied aircraft, for one thing.

While it doesn't cut away to massed details or information as often or effectively as Abnett would, the story here nevertheless manages to use it well. It retains a tight focus upon a few key characters and only one or two locations at the most, and then uses these to bolster the events of the war. It doesn't dramatically increase its scope, but they are used in order to help it overcome stumbling blocks or fluff which might slow down the story. There are more obvious and less subtle moments littered throughout the book, as the scene in the command center during the initial invasion quickly establishes who is who along with foreshadowing the book's big twist. This allows it to remain easy to breeze through, get to grips with and move on without ever feeling as if things are dragging on.

The few moments when the book does truly stop exists only to emphasise the action of mecha combat. What we have here is less the tank-on-legs approach often favoured with Titans and more of a direct basic merger between pilot and machine spirit. There is a constant emphasis placed upon the difficulty in managing information, news and the memories of old pilots, and calling forth their ghosts as advisers to guide the pilot's actions. It's less Evengelion (thank the Emperor) than it is Big O, with half-remembered thoughts and blended concepts driving the character onward. It's not obvious at first how connected and detailed some actions by the protagonists are to their past legacy, but it becomes infinitely more obvious as they adapt to their weapons of war. This adds a degree of benefit to re-reading the book, as you do pick up on a few smaller things in the early chapters which become more obvious later on.

Of course, you're probably here for the fights. Do they deliver? Yes, but perhaps not in the same way you might expect. While the size and nature of battles from a knight is always made evident, it's depicted less through a Battletech viewpoint and more via that of an Arthurian saga. Moments like one major character's last stand on a bridge against insurmountable odds or the massed assault into a city, or the duels between pilots are all highlights within the book. Yet, in these moments Clark seems to dial back on some of the more hefty machine-like details to focus more upon the pilot and machine as one being. It allows the book to more aptly focus upon the knightly themes in its descriptions and presentation without going nuts and as a result it helps the book stand out more in terms of these factors. When it discards these for bigger scale battles or even the aftermath of a fight, there's a very smooth transition back and forth between these depictions.

So, that's what the book gets right. What about its mistakes though?

The Bad

The characters are unremarkable. It's as simple as that really, as the central cast of five figures fall into the roles of unwilling and untested but brilliant young leader, superior sibling overshadowing them, best friend anti-traitor and mentor very easily. They're all tropes you know in one form or another and, to be blunt, Kingsblade seems to heavily rely upon the archetypes over the characters themselves. While the book did a decent job at giving each one a basic character arc, you could tell from the very start where it was going and how it would end. Right from the opening battle to the ending chapter, there's no moment where you're genuinely wondering where the story is going or you cannot think of just what might happen next. It is admittedly well written and, in some ways, this could have assisted with its knightly themes, but it never quite hit the sort of exaggerated niche of storytelling needed for that.

The overall predictability of the tale is also a major issue throughout the story when it keeps trying to raise the stakes. Even without focusing upon it, you can quickly pick out or think up exactly where things are going, and what developments will befall the heroes next. This sadly even extends to the villains, and seriously hurts them as it tries to depict them as scheming geniuses. Unfortunately, rather than offering a 40,000-ified Victor von Doom, they come across as your common or garden dark lords. The Word Bearers in particular seem to only exist as a means to an end, while the true villains of the piece do very little to help them stand out. In fact, when they do truly act and try to enforce their power, all they accomplish is giving the heroes the opening they need to win.

This is another issue within the story: Things simply fall into place. It's another factor which ties into this predictability aspect, but all too often the moment there is some serious tension, it opts for a rapid resolution. An entire character arc is abruptly ended in one chapter and resolved for the rest of the book, while several obstacles are pushed out the way by secondary figures within the story. As a result, the heroes do not feel as if they have accomplished a true victory so much as capitalising upon circumstances or outright stupidity at points.

Another definite issue which keeps coming up is identity. You see, the book does a decent job of depicting the knights as a whole, when it comes to their roles, attitudes, traditions and even a few unique titles. That's all well and good, but there are multiple houses operating alongside one another in this book, yet you are rarely given a chance to see any distinction between them. This might sound cruel but, when you have two space marine chapters working alongside one another, the author will usually quickly an effectively set up a few distinct cultural clashes. Here though, we get very little. It means that the book seems as if it is lacking the sort of realism and dimensions which could have helped the story to seriously stand out. It's just left to some characters and titles to fill out, and that's unfortunately not enough.

Finally though, and perhaps the worst crime, we never learn much about the world itself. We see little of its people, of its monuments or even its general importance. As a result, there's a disconnect in terms of what is actually being fought over here, and it can make the war itself seem superfluous. Even more of a general history of the place, or a more emotive description of how the war came to be could have helped, but it just lacks that. It can make the early chapters remarkably insubstantial as a result, and causes no end of issues for the later ones.

The Verdict

This one is middling. Kingsblade certainly has some fun moments, ideas and concepts, but it only manages to be decent rather than noteworthy. For all the problems here, it's a tale I would recommend to a beginner within the hobby or someone who wished to know more of the Imperial Knights from a novel format. It's easy to get to grips with, breeze through and comprehend the actions at play, but there should have been something more. Give it a look if you're at all interested, but don't expect something which can stand up to the likes of Mechanicum.


Verdict: 5 out of 10

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Total War: Warhammer II (Video Game Review)


This really was a rare perfect match. On the one side you have the minds behind Total War, and on the other a fantasy world of ratmen, elves and humanoid dinosaurs.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Divinity: Original Sin II (Video Game Review)


Divinity: Original Sin II can be best summerized as "Old thoughts, new ideas". You have the freedom, harshness and difficult decision making worthy of an Ultima game, bereft of the grinding and mechanical frustrations of old. Plus you have a fantastic story to back that all up.