Wednesday, March 12

South Park: The Stick of Truth Review (PS3): Extended episode

Answer YES or NO to the following question:
  1. Do you like South Park?
Result: If you answered yes to the question above, you will enjoy South Park: The Stick of Truth.

More questions (YES or NO):
  1. Do you love the Paper Mario games?
  2. Have you been watching South Park since the very first episode?
  3. Do you like the idea of a twelve hour long South Park episode?
Result: If you answered yes to all of the above questions, you will love South Park: The Stick of Truth.

Bonus questions (again YES or NO):
  1. Can you live with minor technical hitches, including an inconsistent frame rate and lip-syncing delays? 
  2. Can you forgive a checkpoint and save system that doesn't work on occasion, costing you hours of progress?
  3. Can you tolerate the South Park writing team's usual approach to the following topics: abortion, rape, gay sex and anal probing?  
Result:  If you answered yes to all seven questions, it is entirely possible that, at year's end, South Park: The Stick of Truth will be your favourite game released in 2014. 

Tuesday, March 11

Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare Review (XB1): All's fair in love and war

I have this terrible feeling that Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare will fade into obscurity following the release of Titanfall this week. For those who don't know:
  • Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare is a team-based third person shooter based on the wildly-successful tower defense franchise.
  • Titanfall is a first person shooter developed by Respawn Entertainment: a studio headed by Vince Zampella and Jason West, the fathers of the dudebro juggernaut Call of Duty series. 
Don't get me wrong, the hype behind Titanfall is, based on my time with the beta trial, entirely justified. Twitch shooting plus parkour plus mechs is a winning formula and, even with a paltry two maps available for the duration, my time with it felt more dynamic and enjoyable than any match of Call of Duty: Ghosts or Battlefield 4 I've played over the last few months. 

The problem here is that Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare is also thoroughly enjoyable, it also features a relatively paltry selection of maps and modes and it also feels like a better game than the latest installments of the entrenched competition. 

The action is spread across three different modes of play:
  • Garden Ops - This is your garden variety (lolololololol) Horde Mode, playable solo or co-operatively with up to four players. This is about as close to the original Plants Vs Zombies  as you're going to get in this package, with players defending a strategically-placed garden from ten waves of zombie attackers. 
  • Team Vanquish - Read: Team Deathmatch. It's worth mentioning though that you can revive your teammates to reduce the opposing teams score. Cool scoring mechanic in my humble opinion. 
  • Gardens and Graveyards - Similar to Rush mode in the Battlefield series: the attacking team (zombies) needs to capture control points with the ultimate objective of destroying gigantic pieces of plant military hardware. Plants have the obvious objective of halting the zombies' progress in preventing them from capturing the next control point.  
There are "Classic" playlists available for both Team Vanquish and Gardens and Graveyards that forbid the use of unlockable class variants (more on that later), but I could never find a match on these with more than a handful of players connected. There's also the "Welcome Mat" variant of Team Vanquish to acquaint new players with the classes and mechanics that afford you a little bit of extra health on each spawn if you find yourself on the end of a drubbing. 

Team Vanquish is a good starting point as you can switch between classes on each spawn and get a feel for the action. Regular spawning also allows for abilities to unlock as you complete sets of class-specific challenges. Challenges range from the relatively easy "Use X ability Y amount of times" to "Kill X class with Y ability Z amount of times". These kind of secondary objectives are nothing new to the competitive multiplayer scene, but it does help develop a sense of identity for each class - particularly as you reach the higher levels and unlock packs of cosmetic items for your (read: my) dearest Sunflower. 

Smile, you're dead!

As fun as it is, Team Vanquish rarely feels as involved or exciting as Gardens and Graveyards. The scale and variety of this mode manages to rival DICE at their structure-destroying best, even without tanks, helicopters and buzzwords like "levelution". The final control point in each map also throws in a unique challenge like setting charges at strategic points or the good, old-fashioned bum-rushing of the stage (or mansion doors in this particular case). The average match is over in roughly five minutes, but with a skilled team, you'll experience some tense firefights in elegantly-designed spaces for as long as thirty. 

Garden Ops for mine was literally and figuratively the most rewarding mode available. Literally rewarding in that surviving until the halfway point gave me a good chance of netting upwards of 5000 coins. Otherwise, judicious placement of potted plants and use of class abilities had me defending my garden from dozens of zombies at any one time. Boss waves are brutally difficult, particularly if you suffer the misfortune of "winning" big at the Zomboss Slots. Victory is always hard fought and often well rewarded. 

Classes are sufficiently varied and, in most cases, fill multiple roles required for a successful team. The Sunflower, for example, is a healer, but can also plant itself and lay suppressing fire to cover teammates. The Cactus is your sniper that can plant potato mines -- an adorable claymore, if you will -- and erect battlements to block incoming fire. On the other side you have the classes like the All-Star that have a minigun-esque football cannon and the ability to charge at and kill or otherwise damage groups of enemies. The zombie Foot Soldier is able to use its rocket pack to reach high places, and the Peashooter's Hyper ability performs a similar function. Each plant class has a zombie counter, but that's not to say that they handle in a similar way. I never felt that any class offered either side an insurmountable advantage, but I have read complaints of balance issues.  

Some traditional trappings of the genre have been reconfigured to ease the learning curve for, what the mic chatter reveals to be, younger players and those that are new to the competitive multiplayer arena. The most obvious example is that headshots don't make for one shot kills -- even with a sniper class -- but there are other skillful tweaks that slow down the action to a pace more conducive to learning, including the lack of a persistent sprint ability and melee attacks for most classes.

Class variants (which come equipped with different primary weapons), cosmetic upgrades and consumable items are unlocked by purchasing packs of cards. Packs are priced, and priced highly, depending on the likelihood of them containing rare items. At yet there's no option to use real money to buy packs and in-game currency is earned at a painstakingly slow rate, so the economy does impact on the game. Across twenty hours of play, I only unlocked one class variant and that was care of a pre-order bonus pack. Unlocking class variants isn't essential to success or even enjoyment of the game, and I'm not saying that I'd want to spend any more money on it, but it does feel like an awful lot is withheld from those unwilling to invest an inordinate amount of time in play. 

Consumable items such as potted plants (sentries) and zombie spawns are used in Garden Ops and Gardens and Graveyards to add an extra layer of strategy to proceedings. This AI support is never going to sway a battle if left unaccompanied, but they can prove a vital distraction on both attack and defense. As this support comes with a not insubstantial cost, I've not seen them exploited in a way that felt cheap or grating and it's also a cute nod to the series' tower defence origins.  

With a charming aesthetic and a budget price tag, Plants Vs Zombies: Garden Warfare would normally be an easy game to recommend. The only issue is that in just under a week's time, I predict an incoming drought in player numbers thanks to the release of what is arguably the most anticipated shooter since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Even considering the relative dearth of maps and modes in addition to the odd connection failure, Garden Warfare may not enjoy the success it deserves on account of poor timing. 

Tuesday, March 4

Ryse: Son of Rome Review (XB1): Pawn in the Game of Man

Have you ever played Streets of Rage 2? I have. Hundreds of times. For those of you who haven't, it's a side-scrolling beat em' up that first appeared on the Sega Mega-Drive (Genesis). It's a genuine classic, but even on its release -- when I was what? 8 years old -- I thought it repetitive. I beat the same poor fuckers to a pulp hundreds of times over. Poor Mama Galsia, she raised nothing shy of a horde of ginger-haired failures. 

In my youth and on recent playthroughs, I felt remorse for killing off an entire line with my fists. Now in Ryse: Son of Rome, I'm guilt ridden from butchering an entire empire. An empire comprised of approximately six different families: six different, hundreds-strong families of Anglo-Saxon origin.  

For all of Crytek's technical wizardy, the fact that you spend five hours dismembering and disemboweling the same six character models is sure to compromise any sense of immersion the photo-realistic visuals would otherwise achieve. Well, that, and character animation outside of scripted sequences and executions looks relatively awkward. 

Most of the campaign is spent alternating between sword attacks, shield pushes and counters to either wear down your enemies or otherwise open them up for an execution attack. Executions are short quick time event sequences where you're tasked with pressing the buttons that correspond with the coloured sheen your enemies are covered in for one to five brutal strikes. These animations are explicitly, as in to the bone, violent, and it's entirely possible that this brand of hyper violence would turn quite a few people off from the first chapter. If you're okay with megalitres of blood and exposed bone, then there's just as great a chance that the extremely repetitive nature of the game's combat will turn you off just as quickly. A few handfuls of contrived and occasionally frustrating set pieces that involve throwing javelins, operating turrets, troop placement (as in, do you want there here or there?), and the timed shielding of attacks do very little to mix-up the core four button formula. 

Back on the topic of executions, you cannot in any way fail these sequences. Even if you miss the prompt altogether, the animation will continue and you'll net experience and, potentially, other benefits such as health from the transaction. This means that if you're looking for anything resembling a challenge, I'd recommend starting on the highest available difficulty setting. Even then, provided you can time your counters well (again, not hard), you're looking at a short, uneventful ride. 

Like the mispelled title, the story told in Ryse is ill-conceived. It's a straight up revenge plot littered with the Ancient Roman equivalents of "oscar mike" and "hoorah". There's roughly a handful of women with speaking parts, and those that do open their mouths are usually wearing close to nothing -- at the very least, you're eyes will be drawn to plunging necklines -- and subject to the most questionable breast physics engine since the original Dead or Alive. This is a story written by dudes for dudes, and the final twists are so ridiculous and powerfully-stupid that you'll need tongs to pull the eyes from the back of your skull.  

If you're the patient type and you enjoy the Ryse brand of repetitive, shallow combat, you'll be glad to know that there is a co-op multiplayer component to feast on following the campaign's hilarious close. I was only able to find two matches over an hour period and I was disconnected from each after a few minutes. You can fight through arenas on your own if companionship is slow in coming, but even then, you're dealing with the same combat system in some overly familiar scenarios. 

For all of Crytek and Microsoft's boasting of immersion and photo-realism, Ryse is all bark and no bite. It's not broken by any means, but it's not anything approaching fun or satisfying. Only approach if found in the cheapest, deepest depths of the bargain bin.