The Walking Dead review

Well, the end is upon us. Through good and bad, through horrible and slightly less horrible, through hacked off limbs, food shortages and crying children, “The Walking Dead” has brought to the table some of the best characterisation I’ve seen in video games, with a deeply emotional, harrowing narrative that ups the ante with each episode. Now it’s come to an end. Well, this initial series at least. Episode five recently hit the PSN store, which I saw as an opportunity to finally review the game as a whole.

Unlike the upcoming first person shooter “The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct”, this “Walking Dead” is an adventure game, with quick time events and an emphasis on player choice weaved through the game, which largely manifests as a speech system. Apart from cameos from Glenn and Hershel, the game doesn’t involve the cast of the TV series, instead focusing on a whole new group, pieced together largely in the first episode, with a few other members joining later. You control Lee Everett- a man who is inducted into this new, apocalyptic reality while being driven to prison for a crime he may or may not have committed. After escaping to a nearby house he meets Clementine- an eight year old girl who soon becomes very close to him, with her consistently being his guide when it comes to moral issues and the like. First off, Clementine is a rare thing in fiction for me; a genuinely likable child character. All through the game I was doing my utmost to keep her safe, happy and generally trying to make decisions that kept her in a positive place. Her relationship with Lee is touching and believable; it’s probably the best example of the excellent writing and character development in the game.

As previously mentioned, “The Walking Dead” is an adventure game. You control Lee with the left stick, and use the right stick to move a cursor round to look at, pick up or use items. During the frequent attacks from zombies, a quick time button press may appear, or you’ll have to hover the crosshair over whatever is attacking you and use a context sensitive action. This largely works well, with the speed required to successfully implement the context sensitive attacks not being unfair, but feeling rewarding when you pull it off. However, they can be messed up if you aren’t paying attention, which sometimes results in Lee’s death, or, more often you’ll get another chance. The exploring/finding items/using said items part of the game relies much more on logic than most adventure games – particularly some of the older ones – and feels involving while advancing the plot. Two stand-0ut moments include being tasked distribute four food items amongst ten people, and in the same episode coming across a man caught in a bear trap; Lee’s options being leave the man, or hack his leg off with an axe- an action that takes several attempts and is far more harrowing than any violent action game I’ve played. It’s mainly down to the context and atmosphere- it’s so heavy and dreadful and every action in the game has weight to it because you don’t know if it will come back into play later. The game points out every episode that the “Game is tailored to the way you play”, and it genuinely feels that way.

However, there are some problems. Episodes 1, 2 and 3 have technical issues- mainly in the form of freezing and the odd vanishing texture. They don’t cause too much of a problem, but they’re definitely noticeable and can be irritating at times. Fortunately, they’re ironed out by episode four. The bigger problem, however is that despite the choices you make, certain things are unavoidable. Only a certain amount and combination of characters can be present at the start of episode five, and the ones that do die can’t be saved, at least not for long. Taken as a whole, the game’s story can seem quite linear, but with a story this strong it doesn’t hurt for it to be guided sometimes. It’s certainly a lot better than the same problem in “Heavy Rain”, for example. There are plenty of choices that do make a real difference, though- the decisions you make in these moments are displayed at the end of the mission, along with the percentage of players that voted the same way as you. The majority of the choices are genuinely hard to make. This is compounded by the fact that the choices often appear suddenly and give you a very tight time limit to decide what you want to do, which works brilliantly.

The story across the five episodes is the best part of the game, when combined with the decisions. Seeing the characters grow and reveal different sides of themselves as the situation grows more and more dire is a joy to behold. A harrowing, depressing, horrible joy that wears you down and leaves you feeling drained at the end of the episode, but a joy all the same. The story and characterisation is joint-best this year with bleak, harrowing, disturbing military shooter “Spec Ops: The Line” (One of my very favorite games of the year, and indeed ever). Bascically, it demonstrates that video game stories can stand up to fiction in other media.

Despite some problems, “The Walking Dead” is a masterpiece of characterisation and storytelling. The central realtionship between Lee and Clementine is worth preserving through the game, and the two characters themselves are wonderfully endearing. It’s violent, horrible, bleak, depressing and utterly, utterly brilliant. It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, and brought out an emotional reaction in me that other games have consistently failed to achieve. It deserves to be played. It needs to be played- to show that this sort of thing is still relevant these days.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

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DMC : Devil May Cry Demo Impressions

I’ve always loved “Devil May Cry”. Admittedly I only ever played one mission of the second game due to seemingly everyone saying it was terrible and I didn’t really care for the fourth game, but the original game and the third are excellent at least. Much like a reverse “Star Trek”. For the uninitiated it’s a hack and slash series with “Attitude” (some moments are cornier than others), a focus on long, flowing combos and a frustrating tendency to have white haired, red trench coat wearing main character Dante do all sorts of ridiculously awesome things in cutscenes that are hard to do in gameplay. The games mix good atmosphere and lovingly crafted surroundings with intense, fun combat and Dante is a genuinely likable character. The series had hiccups, sure but for the most part it was a series worth checking out. Then this new game was announced. This was to be set in an alternate reality of the Devil May Cry universe featuring a younger, black haired Dante apparently trapped in an asylum or something, and he smokes now, presumably because he’s misunderstood. My first impressions weren’t positive. Fortunately however a demo was released on PSN recently, so I got to actually try it for myself.

The demo is split into two sections: a mission involving combat and platforming and a boss fight. Selecting the former, the first thing that struck me is the usual terrible Capcom story writing and delivery, which is interesting seeing as they aren’t the developers this time. Through the rushed, stilted cutscene full of constant edits (I assume, and hope, that this is due to it being a demo.) I ascertained that basically a masked man with a cliched voice modulator explains to any demons listening that despite the fact that they control many facets of human life, he and his organisation won’t stand for it. Dante wakes up naked and is taken to meet said masked man who turns out to be Dante’s twin brother Virgil; a recurring boss fight in the first game and the main antagonist of the third. Developers Ninja theory apparently felt it right to at least change one major thing, story wise: rather than Dante and Virgil’s mother being a human, she’s now an angel, which apparently makes the two brothers “Nephilim”.

On the plus side, said change does affect gameplay. Dante’s sword can now be switched to a demonic whip for pulling enemies towards him and destroying things far away, or an angelic whip for pulling Dante towards enemies and high places. Similarly the sword can be changed into an angelic scythe or a demonic axe. These changes are handled by holding down a shoulder button, and fit in well with the combat. Said combat is as tight and smooth as ever, with it now being easier to achieve combos, and the new weapons fitting in beautifully. What isn’t so beautiful however, is the level design. The mission is set in limbo, which in this case is manifested as a series of blurry, hazy streets. The aforementioned bad story delivery rears its ugly head again whenever Dante’s female sidekick-type person (I assume she has a name, but if it was mentioned I didn’t care enough to memorise it) opens her mouth; the dialogue as a whole is pretty poor. At certain points you have to run through streets avoiding walls of buildings that are closing in on you, as orchestrated by some malevolent, unseen force that communicates by making words appear on walls and then reading them out. This would be much more effective if they’d picked a better voice.

The worst thing the game does is its depiction of Dante. He’s boring- his dialogue lacks any punch and his actions, although impressive lack the sheer showmanship of his other self. “Devil May Cry 3” was a depiction of young Dante that did it right- the Dante in that game was brash, cocky and volatile, but throughout the game was clearly maturing into the more solemn Dante seen in the first game. I can’t see this version of him growing into anything, especially not the good Dante. Oh, and the game’s staple “Devil Trigger” function now makes Dante briefly look like he did in the other games- white hair, red coat. Why? Devil Trigger shows Dante’s demonic form- he looked like an actual demon. Is the white hair, red coat look some immense power hidden inside him? It never used to seem that way.

The boss fight mission fares better. The boss stays in front of Dante, and there are two hook points to the side for the angelic whip that allow you to avoid certain attacks. Although lacking the scale of other boss fights in the series, it implements the new weapons well, and keeps up the visceral combat. However, once you notice the hook points (which I didn’t to start with) it lacks any real challenge. The demo ends with a brief trailer of the full game, which looks to be interesting in terms of gameplay, but lacking in the story department.

Overall, the new depiction of Dante is boring, the story is bad and poorly told, but the gameplay is fun and visceral. The job of demos is to get you to buy the full game. All this demo did was make me want to buy “Devil May Cry: HD Collection”.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Assassin’s Creed III Review

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The “Assassin’s Creed” series was desperately in need of some fresh ideas. After the amazing second game, the two direct sequels “Brotherhood” and “Revelations” took the same gameplay and included a few new changes that added very little, making them a holding pattern; filler in between the stellar “Assassin’s Creed II” and the supposedly truly next-gen “Assassin’s Creed III”. This latest installment has a whole new protagonist, a new setting, a new engine built from the ground up, some genuinely fun and useful new features, and a new take on some of the older ones. Put simply, despite still having problems “Assassin’s Creed III” is a tremendous leap forward for the series, and one of the most consistently fun games this year.

Set in Colonial America and featuring such events as the original Boston Tea Party, The Declaration Of Independence and the rise to prominence of one George Washington, the story focuses on two characters: a starting character whose identity and motivation should be left a secret – despite the fact that given when the game was released many people will already know about him – and Ratonhnhaké:ton (Rah-doon-ha-kay-dun), otherwise known as Connor- a Native American-English Assassin. What he lacks in the charm and suaveness of Ezio Auditore, Connor makes up for in his actions, his undeniably noble cause and his sheer bad-assery; no other Assassin has felt this powerful, nimble or fun to play. The story mainly focuses on Connor attempting to keep his village safe from people trying to buy his land and/or murder his people, and him constantly getting angry at distractions from “Patriots” who while helping him are attempting to ascertain freedom, and can’t seem to do it without his help. The “Rise against oppression” story feels a lot more relevant with this character than Ezio starting a revolution in Rome, which again adds to Connor’s character. Another nice touch is Connor learning how to climb trees and freerun as a teenager, then transferring his skills to rooftops when he finally reaches a frontier town. The story doesn’t have as strong characters as the second game, but the way it’s told and the fact that it takes its time to develop Connor and his world gives it a definite richness. The game now features dynamic weather and seasons changing, which add to the atmosphere, along with the returning day/night cycle. This is also the conclusion to Desmond Miles’ story, which in my eyes is undoubtedly a good thing. His story was always dull, slow and interrupted the flow of the historical sections.  Many people have made a fuss about the game’s ending, but given what was leading up to it the conclusion makes sense, and didn’t bother me at all.

In terms of gameplay additions, the two biggest ones are being able to freerun in trees, and the new naval missions in which Connor captains a ship for various tasks, and often involve attacking other ships, and sometimes boarding them, killing everyone on board and leaping off again before it explodes. The tree climbing fits in like a dream- it’s as easy and smooth as climbing buildings and feels like an essential part of gameplay- it’s a genuinely useful extension rather than something to mess around with once or twice. The navel missions, while not essential, are very fun to play, easy to get to grips with and instill hope in me that Ubisoft could make a good pirate game if they tried. A “Red Dead Redemption”-esque hunting system has been added, which doesn’t really add much but is a good way to make money, the missions in the game offer new elements and refine the mission types of previous games and the destructible towers and districts to take over have respectively been given objectives to complete and groups of rioting civilians to aid you. Aside from the new tree-climbing elements the freerunning as a whole has been refined and updated, making it flow more smoothly than ever, and Connor has all-new animations, which often feel more dynamic and realistic. The combat system has been tweaked; working on the counter attack-based foundation the timing has been changed, and besides certain enemy types, any weapon can counter any attack, and two enemies can now be countered at once, should they attack you in unison. New weapons including a bow, a flintlock pistol and Kunai-style rope darts all have their own uses and overall the combat feels a lot more fun and visceral. The Desmond sections of the game are all rather brief, but are infinitely superior to all his previous gameplay sections because they finally let Desmond sneak around and fight guards among people in modern times. The game now has regenerating health (with a delay in open combat) and the armour system from the last three games has been completely removed. The regenerating health aspect was apparently implemented to remove the instant healing factor that carrying medicine brought in the last games, but really doesn’t make too much of a difference. Neither does the new lack of armour.

As previously mentioned, there are problems. Despite its belief to the contrary “Assassin’s Creed”‘s stealth elements have always been fundamently flawed: often when tasked with not raising any alarms the mission can fail if one guard, separated from the others, spots you but is killed immediately before he can alert anyone to your presence. Fewer missions in this game have the “no alarms” tenant than previous installments, but when they do appear, they are as much of a problem as before. This series works best when it’s implementing the free running and/or open combat sections, and Ubisoft need to either phase out the stealth elements or vastly improve them for next time. The controversy surrounding the seemingly one-sided narrative (there were worries Connor would be exclusively attacking the British redcoats, which wasn’t helped by the live-action trailer) is mostly alleviated- Connor IS killing templars, but the people helping him in his quest happen to be on the Colonial rebel side, and he’s generally fighting for freedom, so it’s not explicitly favoritist but it’s sometimes iffy. Another small problem is the loading screen when Desmond is travelling to different locations in his story- a shot of him and his supporting characters in a van with a blurry, horribly rendered background. When this first happened there wasn’t a loading icon, and I actually thought the game was just broken. This is more of a niggle than a serious problem, but it seemed lazy and out of place in the rest of the game.

Overall, “Assassin’s Creed III” is a great new game in the series. It’s familiar enough to appeal to fans of the existing games, but different enough to be worth a purchase. The new setting is well realised and the game’s new engine works wonders on the graphics, animations and new weather and season cycles. The newly tweaked free running and combat systems are incredibly fun, the new elements to the game are generally useful and fun, and the refined old ones fit in with the new ones well. Largely living up to the hype, this latest installment to the “Assassin’s Creed” series is well worth a purchase to existing fans or newcomers, and a genuinely revolutionary sequel.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Dishonored Review

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(This review was originally written for and posted at http://www.whatson.uk.com/blog by myself)

“Dishonored” seemed all set to be the game of the year. A steampunk stealth ’em up that appeared to contain the best elements of games like “Deus Ex”, “Hitman Blood Money” and “Bioshock” all combined in a sprawling, horrific world created by the man who designed Half-Life 2’s “City 17”. After gathering an incredible amount of critical acclaim and a having a whole lot of pleasant adjectives attributed to it the popular opinion seems to be that this is truly something special; a game to remember for a long time to come. However, after playing through it I can say that although a fun, reasonably satisfying stealth game, “Dishonored” does not deliver on its promises, and many of the much touted choices in the game are needless window dressing.

The story is a very simple one, and never really deviates from convention: you are Corvo- the bodyguard of the empress of Dunwall and her daughter. After she is assassinated by teleporting ninjas, you are accused of her murder and thrown in prison. After escaping with the help of a group of loyalists, you set out on a series of missions to assassinate or otherwise neutralise various key targets in an effort to remove the man who took the empress’ place and clear your name. Aiding you is a magical being known only as “The Outsider”, who burns a mark into Corvo’s hand that allows him access to magical abilities. There’s a very weak twist near the end of the game, and the plot never really goes beyond “Hey Corvo, good job killing (Target). Go have a lie down, then go kill (Another Target).” Basically it’s hard to care about events when the only exposition is that it’s a good job I killed that last target. The city of Dunwall is a mixture of steampunk and futuristic technology, and for the most part is reasonably well fleshed out. Everything is powered by whale oil, the obtaining of which is rapidly wiping out the great mammal- as documented in the game’s genuinely interesting readable books. Look deeper though, and there isn’t a great deal to find. The missions feel decidedly linear, despite its assurances that you have a multitude of choices available during a a hit.

Speaking of choices, they’re one of the game’s biggest problems. During certain missions (During your approach to where the target is) the game will pause and you will be told that you have a large number of options on how to proceed. That’s fine in theory, but the first problem is that the options only really extend to getting in and out of a building. As for the process of neutralising guards and finding your target, anything other than a stealthy playthrough will sap you of health, magic and ammo and then most likely get you killed. The game seems to be biased towards stealth, with the controls, powers and aforementioned difficulty when attacking enemies head on seeming tailor made to a stealth game. The second problem is that most of the game’s inventive elements are completely needless. During the run up to the game’s release date a “Creative kills” trailer was released- showing such things as waiting for an enemy to fire his gun, then stopping time, possessing him and positioning him in front of the bullet. This and most of the other “Inventive” kills require the guards to be alerted to Corvo’s presence, which they won’t be because it’s best to play it stealthily. Finally, despite there being multiple ways to traverse the environments and dispose of enemies, a combination of the “Blink” (Teleport) power and cutting throats from behind is so effective that everything else just seems like a waste of time that you’ll use once to see what it does and then go back to just sneaking up on people. They all have uses, but it never once felt like I NEEDED to use them. Yes, that’s most likely predominantly due to my play style, but if you make it through a game without feeling the need to use the majority of powers at your disposal it says something about the powers themselves and the way the game incorporates them.

On the positive side, the stealth gameplay is fun, and does feel rewarding when you do it right. Blinking around an area stabbing guards in the neck without anyone knowing you’re there is great, particularly as I’m a big stealth fan. The game makes good use of height, both for recon purposes and as a place to attack from, and Corvo for the most part feels nicely nimble. Sometimes aiming the blink power can be a tad fiddly, especially if you’re moving, but it doesn’t happen too often. The non-lethal methods of removing targets are quite inventive, too; a stand-out example being doing a job for a local gangster in exchange for him taking two rich, cretinous brothers and shaving their heads, cutting their tongues out and putting them to work in their own horrific mines. It does remove killing the targets yourself, but the non-lethal options do add something to proceedings, for the most part.

How much you enjoy Dishonored will partly depend on how you look at it. If viewed as an open, non-linear, choice-filled stealth-action game, it’s a disappointment. If viewed as a linear stealth game with large environments with room for exploration and primary choice of lethal or non-lethal, then it’s an enjoyable game with good stealth elements. However, even in that regard it falls short of something like “Hitman Blood Money”.

“Dishonored” is by no means a bad game, but given what was promised it’s disappointing.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18