Review: Soma

Reviewed on PC.

The description of Soma suggested a game that I would enjoy a lot: a philosophical sci-fi game set in a frightening environment. Did it live up to my expectations? Well…

In Soma, you play as Simon Jarrett, who wakes up on a strange research facility at the bottom of the ocean, with no idea how he got there. He soon gets in touch with this game’s ‘friend on a radio’s other end’, Catherine, who encourages him to complete the project the scientists were working on before things went sour (as they always do). Over the course of the game, Simon finds out how he ended up on the facility, and ruminates on the ethical issues brought up by the experiments conducted. Unfortunately, I found Simon’s reactions to events extremely unconvincing; he seemed way too calm considering the situations he found himself in. Also, the plot is usually advanced by Catherine spurting a chunk of information, and then telling Simon to find something, and instead of asking relevant questions, Simon instead will try and force a philosophical discussion about consciousness, making him sound like a pretentious douche. It’s almost like the game is screaming ‘THIS STORY IS THOUGHT-PROVOKING ARE YOU IMPRESSED?’. There are plenty of documents and audio logs to fill in backstory, but both of these have problems: the documents are often illegible, which is realistic, but is not very helpful in a narrative-focused game; and the audio logs slow your movement, intentionally blur the screen and require you to stay close to the source, and I prefer to listen to audio logs while exploring. There are also ‘moral choices’, but very few are actual choices, you simply have one option to progress. The times when a decision was available had no impact because I was already detached from the experience thanks to everything been dull, and the lack of repercussions for my actions reinforced the feeling of apathy.

This game is a walking simulator, with occasional puzzles and extremely rare stealth sections. The vast majority of your time will be spent calmly strolling through the game’s industrial facilities and ocean floor environments looking for the next item, area or puzzle needed to progress. Rooms are littered with items you can pick up and throw, and while this makes the world feel a little more interactive, it’s a completely useless feature. In a similar vein, actions like pulling levers and pushing doors open require you to make extravagant gestures with your mouse; turning a valve meant I had to clear some space on my desk in order to complete the large circular motion. The puzzles range in difficulty. Some are unbelievably simple – one has you playing dot to dot, which somehow restores power to a floor. Others are a bit more drawn out, either because they require an item that is easy to miss amongst the shit thrown everywhere, or because they are just plain unintuitive. Of the numerous puzzles in the game, I only found two of them truly interesting.

Onto the stealth sections. There are a few occasions when a spooky monster will turn up and patrol the area, and you have to avoid looking at or getting too close to them, which means you don’t get an opportunity to appreciate the monster designs. These encounters are devoid of tension for a number of reasons. The main stumbling block is the fact that if they detect and catch you, you survive their first few assaults, with slower movement and unpleasant screen effects being the only penalties until you heal up. By the way, you heal by… putting your fist in… it’s gross. In addition, the level designs and game mechanics do not always accommodate these sneaking sections, as the encounters sometimes take place in areas without anywhere to hide, meaning you either have to reveal yourself to the creature and then sprint around it, or let it hit you and hope it has moved out of the way when you get up. Thankfully, you only encounter one monster at a time, so as long as you have the space to get around them, there isn’t any real challenge.

In addition to the issues with story and gameplay, I had to deal with some serious performance problems. Disclaimer: according to systemrequirementslab.com, I pass the recommended settings for this game. When I selected ‘auto-detect settings’, the game put every setting on full. The game started, and I was greeted by a massively inconsistent frame rate. Even with everything turned down, the frame rate still lurched about and the only fix I could find was lowering the resolution. Once I had tackled the frame rate problems, I still had to cope with stuttering, screen tearing, texture pop-ins and some lengthy load times. If the game was graphically stunning or had lots going on at once, I could understand the performance hit, but as it is, I have to presume the game is poorly optimised and the worthless physics objects are giving the hardware a good kicking. I only ran into one bug, which caused Simon to continuously hold his PDA/key device in front of his face after using it, which was remedied when it was used again.

Soma was honestly quite painful to play. While a few times the game succeeded in making me pause and ponder, the huge stretches of walking and the near-absence of gameplay between these moments meant I was way too bored to stay properly invested, and the game feels like missed potential. If its length was cut down to a few hours, or if it was realised as a book, film, or TV series, it would be more palatable, and possibly interesting. As it is, I feel like I could get a similar, if not better, experience by wandering around the house, reading an ‘Existentialism 101’ book while throwing random objects with my free hand.

Recommended? No-ma

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Review: SWAT 4

Reviewed on PC.

I’ve made a few references to tactical shooters in my reviews despite the fact I haven’t really played one for any notable length of time. SWAT 4 seemed a bit more appealing than the genre’s staples, because it challenges you to non-lethally and legally pacify armed opponents, which is an interesting twist on moving from room to room ventilating enemy skulls.

In SWAT 4, you play as the leader of (surprise!) a SWAT team, and unless you type in a different name, you are called ‘Officer Default’. Over the course of the game, you and your squad are sent in to respond to a variety of crimes, including hostage situations, terror attacks and bomb threats. Some missions are particularly memorable, such as an early one which has you enter a serial killer’s house to save his surviving victims and bring him into custody, or one where a dangerous cult has taken over a block of flats. Like developer Irrational’s other games, the levels feature detailed and believable environments, and take place in a range of locations to keep things fresh. The squad members occasionally quip about what they see, and they are given a bit of personality and humour, which is a nice way of taking them slightly beyond ‘tough guy with gun #3’, but there isn’t enough dialogue to properly flesh them out. The combination of these elements means there is an unusual atmosphere that distinguishes it from the dry, dull fare it could have been.

The game has you giving orders to your squad to methodically search the maps for civilians and hostiles. Upon spotting either, you are required to shout for them to put their hands up. They might do as you say, they might mess around and need to be subdued with pepper spray, or, if they’re armed, they might open fire. In order to minimise the risk to you and your squadmates, you have to make use of flashbang grenades, tear gas, wedges to block doors, explosives to dislodge locked doors and an OptiWand to see under doors. Doors are kind of a big thing in this game. When the gadgets fail, fast reflexes are vital to pacifying enemies, since you can be killed within a second of them seeing you. This high level of challenge means every moment of the game is tense, as impatience is severely punished. Planning is also important to success; before launching each mission, you are briefed on the situation, and it is up to you to pick suitable equipment, for example using armour piercing rounds since the suspects are wearing bullet-proof vests.

Since you’ll probably screw up quite a bit, the game keeps things fresh by randomising the locations of suspects and civvies, which means you can’t just memorise enemy positions and breeze through. There is a flipside to this, which is the fact that the randomisation can completely screw you over. Once, I opened a door and found a room to be empty. After being killed, my squad returned to that room, and upon opening the door, we were greeted by four armed goons, who wiped out three SWAT members before we could throw a flashbang.

There are other annoyances. A big one is the fact that your ‘run’ is pretty damn slow, and if you are shot in the leg, your movement speed will be reduced considerably, which can make the rest of the level a tedious slog. The game is already slow paced, it doesn’t need to be fucking sedated. On a similar note, some suspects will flee, and playing tactical Wile E.  Coyote and the Roadrunner is not fun, especially if your leg has been crippled so you’re hobbling along.

I did find a few technical issues. SWAT members would often prove they are the best of the best by getting stuck on something, meaning I would have to go back and give them encouraging nudges until they got back to doing their job. Occasionally, the squad would simply not respond to orders. While this was immediately apparent when I could see them, there were several points where I told them to follow me, then two minutes later found they had decided to give it a miss. Eventually, I became pretty paranoid about taking point, so I gave the ‘follow’ command several times, and checked they were still there every so often, making me feel a bit more like a babysitter than a SWAT leader. A few times enemies partially clipped through walls, and once a suspect’s shadow projected through a closed door. These instances saved me the effort of popping the OptiWand under the door, but obviously killed some of the tension.

The sound mixing presented some major problems. Listening for enemy voices or footsteps can give you an idea of the occupants of a room, which might be the little edge you need. This strategy is a lot more difficult to carry out when your squadmates bump into you and repeatedly call you a dickhead until you move out of the way. Much worse is how people shout over each other. When breaching a room, your squad will start shouting at occupants, and then the occupants will start shouting back, then you might call in to Tactical Operations Command, and then they will start talking. In the worst cases, this means you can have upwards of six people shouting at the same time, at the same volume, without much panning to clear things up. It does simulate the chaos of a SWAT raid accurately, but with headphones on it can feel more like a bad LSD trip and induce headaches.

I found SWAT 4 a pretty immersive experience. It’s highlights were the levels the reproduce the weirder side of policing, and I wish there were a few more of these. You will probably bang your head on a wall when stuck on the more challenging missions, but the game is concise enough that completing it won’t require you to take a six month course in military tactics. While it’s not exactly my kind of game, the meticulous, almost strategy-like aspects of SWAT 4 were appealing, so if you are a fan of perfectionist games, I would moderately recommend it.

Recommended? Yes

Review: Mark Of The Ninja

Reviewed on PC.

Take stealth gameplay mechanics spanning from 1997 to 2012, mash them with a hammer until they lose a dimension and you get the game being reviewed today, Mark Of The Ninja.

Mark Of The Ninja is a 2D stealth platformer game. In it you play as a nameless ninja, who takes revenge on the private military corporation that attacked his dojo. The story also throws in some mild psychological elements, as the ‘mark’ the ninja has received causes delusions and eventually complete madness. The characters are few, but well acted. Ultimately, the story is just a vehicle for the art style and gameplay.

Presentation is MOTN’s biggest strength. The game is stylised as a cartoon, with the cutscenes looking as if they have been taken straight from a TV series. The gameplay continues the art style, and features smooth animations which give the impression that everything is choreographed, even though you are in control. The game also uses its visuals to communicate vital information to the player. Footsteps, lines of sight, player visibility and more is indicated with clever on-screen cues. As a result, what you see on-screen is both a beautiful artistic image, and a diegetic UI that facilitates the stealth.

The gameplay takes a side-scrolling platformer format, and modifies it into a stealth game. The stealth is reminiscent of the sneaky action style of the Batman: Arkham games, with grappling to vantage points, climbing through floor vents and takedowns from behind being immediate comparisons. You also are extremely agile and able to climb most walls, even sometimes upside down, opening up extra options for evading guards. The game includes multiple routes to an objective, which often allows you to find a safer path around tricky areas, and the 2D format makes it easy to see how the branch relates to the level as a whole. When it works, the acrobatics and intuitive stealth systems come together to let you weave through the levels with finesse.

Unfortunately, there are a number of thing that add annoyances on top of the standard frustrations stealth games have. The one that caused the most hair-pulling was the decision to use a checkpoint save system. Checkpoints are not suited to stealth games, which always have an element of trial and error. There are sections where checkpoints are at the bookends of long puzzles that incorporate instant kill traps, some of which require near-perfect timing to overcome. As you might imagine, the difficult moments chewed up a lot more time than they should have. Following on from this point, while MOTN supports keyboard and mouse, the precise movements you sometimes have to make are not well suited to ‘WASD’. The PC version employs a system where you can use both the ‘E’ key and right mouse to interact with an object, but if the mouse is over a different interactive object, the ‘E’ key will not respond, which can lead to screw-ups in sticky situations. I also had difficulties with the QTE takedowns, as they incorporate mouse movements, which I struggled to wrap my head around. Playing with a controller eased some of these complaints, but it is not essential to use one.

Overall, I’m on the fence about Mark Of The Ninja. I love its art style and clever approach to the UI, and the fast paced 2D take on stealth game tropes was good, but a lot of my experience was frustrating due to finicky controls and a save system that wasted a lot of time.

Recommended? No

Review: F.E.A.R.

Reviewed on PC.

Do you wish your tactical room clearing shooter was a little more spooky? I have the game for you.

In F.E.A.R., you play as an operative, who is part of an organisation that deals with the supernatural called First Encounter Assault Recon (or F.E.A.R.), who obviously wanted a cool acronym. At the beginning of the game, you are sent to eliminate a telepathic cannibal named Paxton Fettel, whose name sounds too much like a sort of posh meal to be threatening. Fettel has assumed control of an army of clones and assaulted a technology company. Over the course of the game you uncover the company’s dark secrets, and are increasingly pursued by a spooky J-horror girl. The premise has a lot of potential, suggesting a sort of gritty Ghostbusters, but the horror sections are brief and divided up by long stretches of military shootouts. The tone is muddied further by the inclusion of Hong Kong action elements, like bullet time and martial arts moves. If the game indulged a bit in the silliness of this mix it would have been more enjoyable, but it is played completely straight. As a result, it feels like it could have been split into two or three games with more congruent tones: a psychological horror game, a tactical shooter with impressive enemy AI, and a goofy action game with slow motion flying kicks. Some of the story is filled in by listening to people’s answering machines, but unlike the System Shock/Bioshock method of having an audio log play while you explore, you have to stay near the phone, hurting the game’s already poor pacing. The characters are all dull, which is saying something when the villains are a telepathic cannibal and a psychic demon child, and the story as a whole is just not that interesting.

F.E.A.R. regains some goodwill with its gameplay. It is a first person shooter where you take on squads of soldiers that work together rather than single enemies placed around the map. These enemies are notable for their smart AI, which allows them to perform actions like flanking, sneaking, blindfiring, and crawling across the room. The enemies also shout orders and call out what you are doing, which respectively give you an opportunity to respond to their tactics and make encounters more believable. The squads feel like a genuinely challenging and intelligent enemy, particularly on higher difficulties, and so outsmarting them feels very satisfying. The problem is a lot of the game has you fighting the same squads repeatedly, and this can stretch out for long periods of time without any sense of progression. There are several enemies that aren’t copy-pasted supersoldiers – heavies, drones and robots – but these are rarely seen, and soak up way too much damage to be fun. At a few points you fight off supernatural enemies, and I think there should have been more of these skirmishes so the game would inch a little closer to the genre implied by the title. Another element that ratchets up the tedium is the environments. Almost all of the game takes place in either an empty warehouse, or an empty office, and it’s made even worse when you are forced to backtrack through these places. The levels can get so repetitive that I lost a save and was sent several chapters back, but did not realise for a while. If F.E.A.R. was a fully-fledged horror game, setting it in a single office building would create a complimentary feeling of claustrophobia, but shooters often need some sort of variety to keep things fresh, whether it’s new enemies, environments or mechanics.

The weapons are generally enjoyable to use. As well as the standard fare of pistol, SMG, battle and assault rifles, you get a shotgun that feels extremely powerful and occasionally turns foes into sickly red mist. Later on you get access to some more exotic weapons: a nailgun that pins people to walls, a beam cannon that simultaneously incinerates and electrocutes victims, and a sort of revolving cannon. These make gunfights a lot of fun, but having a cannon that causes people to evaporate removes any tension from the horror moments when spooky girl is walking towards you in slow motion. In addition, all the automatic weapons have awful accuracy and recoil, so during many combat encounters I wished I could just have a normal gun that wouldn’t praise the sun the moment I pulled the trigger. On a similar note, the melee attacks are amusing, but are rarely useful, since flinging yourself towards enemies is a good way to efficiently get killed, and so you only do them if you’re getting bored and have a health kit to spare. One other annoyance is the fact that the lean function doesn’t extend far enough, which means you have to expose about half your body when trying to shoot from cover.

F.E.A.R. puts emphasis on visual spectacle to support its Hong Kong action stylings. Opening fire will cause dead enemies to ragdoll, sparks to fly, dust clouds to form and broken glass shatter everywhere. The effect is amplified by activating bullet time, which makes the chaos seem almost choreographed and sort of beautiful (maybe not the evaporating people). The blood-soaked psychological sequences are also pretty interesting to see, even though they don’t ever feel threatening.

I did have some fun playing F.E.A.R.; overcoming the early gunfights made me feel like a tactical genius with lightning reflexes, but the experience lost a lot of impact after it started to seem like I was hitting quickload every time I cleared a room. On a technological level, F.E.A.R. is pretty impressive, and the AI outshines most games released since. Ultimately though, I can’t recommend a game that has a relatively short run time, yet feels like it is dragging.

Recommended? No

Review: XCOM 2

Reviewed on PC.

XCOM 2 is rather unique. There aren’t many games where you can assemble an elite squad consisting of Emperor Palpatine, Arnold Schwarznegger, Bob Ross and Ainsley Harriet, and then send them on missions to destabilise an authoritarian alien regime.

The year is 2035, and Earth is under the control of aliens. In this timeline, XCOM, an organisation of elite soldiers brought together to combat extraterrestrial threats, were quickly overwhelmed by the invasion that took place in 2015. At the beginning of the game, remnants of XCOM recover their commander from captivity and then get to work winding the aliens up via guerilla strikes. On the whole it’s a bit more gritty than its predecessor; the voice acting and writing is more straight-faced, but I quite liked the slight cheesiness of the original Bradford, Vahlen and Shen.

Gameplay-wise, XCOM 2 is pretty much the same gripping mix of high-risk turn-based combat and base management, with a few additions to justify a new instalment. The combat has more of a focus on playing offensively and taking risks, as a large number of missions have a pretty strict turn limit. In the mid-to-late game, this has the intended effect of putting a reasonable amount of extra pressure on you, but early on, the turn counts can make some missions seem overly punishing and sometimes almost impossible. The early game encounters are particularly cruel in the fact that enemies can have access to mind control and can make soldiers panic, and your rookies have little chance to resist. The first months are the most difficult, so be prepared for several restarts while you learn the ropes.

The faster pacing is matched with a stronger emphasis on close range combat. Among others, rangers are equipped with a powerful sword, heavies now wield grenade launchers and snipers are arguably more effective using pistols. These weapons are crucial in dealing with numerous new and redesigned enemies that will charge at your troops in the hopes of smacking them with a stun lance (stun lancers have been added to the list of enemies that can fuck themselves). Base management is a bit different from before, in that you move about the world map and scan for supplies in the time between combat engagements. While everything in this part has a parallel in Enemy Unknown, it took me a bit more time to understand how everything worked. Weighing up the pros and cons of launching a mission is something I had to do more, and I let many alien attacks go ahead because Arnie was in the hospital or I would rather fly in the opposite direction to pick up supplies. One area that has been massively expanded is the character customisation. Now you can have your soldiers look more varied than broad male #1-#5 and sensibly dressed female, and it even goes as far as to let you pick a personality type and write a biography about their love of hallucinogenic drugs.

One of the big selling points of the game is the fact it has full modding support, which allowed my soldiers to spurt random quotes about the dark side of the Force in response to my order to move. Many mods expand the character customisation further, with plenty of character voicepacks, weapons and armour. There are minor tweaks, and ones to replace your soldiers with giant pigeons. Of course, a bunch of mods just aim to deal with the flaws in the game. Speaking of which…

XCOM 2 hasn’t fixed problems present in its predecessor, and has thrown in a few fresh ones for good measure. The game is rife with technical issues. The one you will be dealing with most is how much of a strain the game is on your hardware. My frame rate was hugely inconsistent with and without V-sync, and lowered settings didn’t really improve things. In a turn based game, frame rate issues aren’t too much of a problem, but are still unpleasant. Another huge issue is the amount of time wasted. The load times are excruciating, and you’ll see a plethora of them, especially if you quickload regularly to erase your stupid moves. Many times in combat there will be an awkward pause between actions, and I have to wonder how many hours of my current fifty are just the points where the computer took five seconds before going ‘Oh shit it’s my turn, sorry.’ The camera is still a little clumsy to use at times, especially when trying to look inside buildings and aiming grenades. There are also points when the camera will be wrenched away from you to focus on something that can cause you to misclick if it happens at the wrong time. Similarly, your control is restricted while the scientist or engineer looks at something and says ‘That’s interesting,’ but in the form of a much longer speech. The worst example is when Central Officer Bradford grabs the camera and reminds you that letting civilians die is bad with the same line you’ve heard six times before. There are also clipping issues, times when someone will shoot through walls without a line of sight and a few occurrences when a model would flash out of existence.

A more minor complaint is that I don’t feel the soundtrack is as strong as the one from Enemy Unknown. It uses a similar blend of ambient, electronic and orchestral elements, but aside from a few moments, it didn’t seem as memorable.

Ultimately, XCOM 2 felt like an expansion to Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within, and I enjoyed most of my time with it. The games in this series just have a really satisfying loop of tense combat and thoughtful management that make them hard to put down. The modding support and more in-depth character customisation add a lot of value to the engaging core gameplay, but the numerous technical issues and some points where things can feel a little unbalanced brings its recommendation down from highly to an ‘If you liked Enemy Unknown, get it, if you haven’t played Enemy Unknown, play it, it’s great.’

 

Recommended? Yes