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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Hector: Badge of Carnage | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Two weeks ago on The Apprentice, Lord Sugar, lambasted a team for producing a substandard product. The product in question was an App for a smartphone, but it wasn’t its polish or presentation that he took issue with, it was its lack of international appeal. A fair appraisal of what was basically a soundboard crammed with derogatory regional accents from around the UK.

Quite what Alan would make of Hector then is anyone’s guess; though, given its penchant for UK culture and stereotypes, this point-and-click from Telltale would probably be out of the boardroom quicker than Nick Leeson.

Exhibit A is none other than the titular Hector, a loud-mouthed British copper who sleeps in a cell, is never too far away from a ciggy, and who professes to brush his teeth with beer. He’s Gene Hunt without the calming influence of a Sam Tyler, and merrily talks about his acts of valour and violence with equal vim and vigour.

If the tone of your adventure needing setting further, Hector’s very first challenges sees him escaping his bedroom by means of a paperclip salvaged from a U-bend by means of a condom-fishing-net. It’s one of those games. In this first episode alone you’ll mix with pornography merchants, narcotic seeking youths, blind perverts, buskers, war veterans, eastern European sex workers, and a veritable pillar of the community, all appearing in scenes that could believably end up on a late night BBC 3 sketch show.

That’s also where the standard of the comedy sits. A reasonable quota of gags and one-liners are of a respectable standard, with one even causing a mouthful of my beverage of choice to be sprayed all over my monitor. These are tempered, however, by an equal number that you’d sooner click through than wait for the punchline that you can see coming a mile off, or are so lowbrow you’d prefer to just move on and pretend you never chose that topic of conversation.

Yet despite the mix of gutter humour and bizarre-but-grounded settings, the puzzling that sits at the centre of the adventure is reassuringly strong. The puerility of the game belies quite an accomplished set of puzzles, some of which are wriggled out from through classic object manipulation whilst a similar number can be solved by the silver tongue of Hector himself.

All are pitched so as to be achievable. There are no ridiculous expectations here and instead linear thinking will win out in the majority of cases, just so long as you explore the town and keep in mind most of what you pick up whilst chatting to the locals. And when it comes to Hector and the unassuming crowd he meets, that usually means out-foxing them. His finest moments being those puzzles where he leads the conversation in such a manner that somehow his victim will do exactly what he wants them to, in seeming complete contradiction to how they started the chat.

Whilst the solutions to many situations produce amusing moments of their own, it’s the denizens of the town of Clapper’s Wreake and your exchanges with them that will stay with you. Each may be a personification about a Daily Mail pet peeve but each is brought to life with enough individual character complete with unique flaws to allow Hector to unleash the full force of his sparkling wit upon them. Not a single one may be loveable or even eek an ounce of sympathy from you, but boy do they stick in the memory.

The biggest flaw is their voice acting, which sounds as though it took place in a shower cubical and at times is of a terribly low quality. Also, impressive though a single voice actor maybe, his talents are stretched to breaking points at times, and irritatingly so.

This seems an utter departure for Telltale and the first hour will prove the hardest for most. Not because of the challenge but due to the decapitated policemen, incessant sex talk, and general reinforcement that Hector wants you to know it’s for grownups. This is the FHM jokes page come to life.

However, if you’re still clicking away merrily after that, then you’ll be rewarded with the best from Badge of Carnage and at that point it can stand with most of Telltale’s stable; even if the others might look slightly awkward about the situation. It’s about as British as they come, and, almost fittingly, for that very reason I can only describe it as Marmite.

7 /10

Brink | Review

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

Back at the tail end of ’09 Borderlands came from nowhere to be the surprise hit of the season. It bucked the trend of competitive shooters, promoting a co-operative campaign that was more familiar to MMO players than the Call of Duty crowd. Its cell-shaded action drew praise from most quarters, but despite that and a host of appealing premises it left me cold.

I would now like to apologise for my harsh words against Borderlands. It’s taken someone else’s approach to online multiplayer to make me truly appreciate what Gearbox had done.

Brink is that approach. For where Borderlands had structure and control, Brink has chaos.

Virtually every mission involves two sides of eight combatants dashing manically across an attractive warren of a map, clashing head first, before succumbing to the opposition, respawning, and beginning the procedure over and over again ad infinitum. Although this level of carnage may be quite exhilarating to begin with, the majority of victories are earned through attrition and so individual skill can count for little.

This isn’t a Halo or a Call of Duty where a single skilled player can enter a room and take down all who stands before him, as though recreating an action scene from Hollywood. Gunplay is far more generous, meaning that everyone should feel competent at holding their own but conversely no one will ever standout.

Nowhere is this more notable than during a particular early “Protect the VIP” mission where said VIP did not move for over ten minutes thanks to the bottleneck he’d become incapacitated in. For each remaining second of that increasingly frustrating stand-off, members of each side would fall, only to be swiftly replaced by the next hapless volunteer. It was a blessing when the match finally ended.

Though this particular example was played out with bots making up the majority of the sides, the principle still seems to hold true for my experiences with online matchups. There are simply too many people fighting in too small a space for the most part and what results are frantic and indecipherable fracas.

Underneath it all, however, you can see hints of what could have been. To give developer give Splash Damage credit, everything is in place for a structured and highly individual objective-based FPS. Of the four classes that are on display, each can play a vital role on the battlefield, with all having their own set of designated dynamic objectives. Medics can patch-up the fallen; Engineers build turrets and are tasked with disarming gadgetry; whilst Soldiers have the skills to place critical explosives and Operatives are the sneaky gits who can disguise themselves and sneak behind enemy lines.

A simple tap on the dpad will bring up a host of different objectives aside your primary goal that will aid your side’s progress on the battlefield. At any one time part of your team may be off capturing control posts, an Operative might be flagging an enemy mine field, a pair of Engineers might be constructing sentry turrets, whilst the Medics are hanging back supporting the tip of your spear. Altogether the diversity could create a battlefield full of individual tales of heroism, but the disappointment comes when the AI shows off very little of the extra depth and instead defaults to blindly bungling forward.

Away from the intelligence of your team mates, artificial or otherwise, the most comendable addition is that of slick movement about your environment. Holding down the “SMART” button allows you character to smoothly vault, run and slide through an obstacle that faces him. There’s no separate jump or duck controls, it’s a single solution that removes the annoyance of platforming about a level and imbues you with a sense that you really belong in and know your surroundings.

Brink also offers up a tonne of unlockables that it hopes will keep you enthralled. Clothing, tattoos, weapon upgrades, audio logs and class-specific talents can all be bought to forge your avatar into your perfect soldier. All are earned through feats in battle, furthermore encouraging you to concentrate on primary- and class-objectives, and it’s these abilities that will add most to your experience.

Points can be spent across classes, giving you the chance to generalise in every area or hone your talents in one particular role. Buffing teammates comes as standard to all, but turret hacking, self-resurrection, increased speed, and the ability to detonate a powerful explosion upon your death are among the more interesting perks.

Almost implicitly these talents keep groups of fighters together in close proximity, cyclically buffing each other to improve health, ammo and damage, and working as efficiently as possible as a combat squad. Given a more considered pace to the game as a whole then I could well be talking more highly of such an approach given the ease and incentives for doing so.

These are the moments where you feel everything click. Where you, downed by a shadowy opponent, will be hauled to your feet by a passing Medic, only to repay the favour by topping up his depleted ammo. Meanwhile, your fellow friend is constructing a heavy turret next to you to form a point of resistance. In that snap second you have had a flash of brilliance from nowhere; where everything played out no doubt as they would have done a thousand times or more in the minds of the designers.

Thus it is a game that will live and die by the experience you have with your friends online. The campaign is simply a bot-ridden duplication of that and so little will be gleaned from it other than frustration at your inability to herd the cats around you. Grab your chums and posse up.

Throughout it all, every visual aspect is on the cusp of stunning. Set in a near-future setting where the oceans have risen and the world lives on a floating city, the developer allows a wide use of settings and palettes. The storyline also tries its best with tales of moral ambiguity, but neither are enough to save it as a whole.

For all the good intentions, Brink doesn’t deliver. It’s far from unplayable but the word that keeps resurfacing in my head is “frantic”. That and its caricatured cast may set it apart from other shooters, but ultimately all they do is just shift it closer towards Shadowrun.

6 /10

Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale | Preview

Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk

I must confess, I do own a great many dice. Most consist of your common-or-garden six-sided breed but I have been known to dabble with the odd d20 in the past. What I have never used them for however is Dungeons & Dragons. Although I have partaken in a couple of pen and paper RPGs in my time, the lure of smiting various Greenskins with a “Bow of Forboding +1” has never grabbed me. And yet somehow I gained many hours of enjoyment running around in Oblivion seeing off the evils that lurked in its woods. Discuss.

With Daggerdale, Dungeon & Dragons attempts to return to its previous prominence, but this time on a digital platform. And before the sneers begin, it’s worth pointing out that this particular RPG adventure is only being up front with you about its roots whilst others have hidden the dice rolling from view.

Just as with Fallout and Elder Scrolls, your hero’s stat sheet is nothing more than a giant bag of numbers used to determine the ultimate success of your actions. It’s just that here the success is based upon the D&D’s 4th edition rulebook. Hit points, agility, defensive and offensive skill, all are taken into account when you start doing battle in the depths of the Dwarven mines.

Unlike Fallout, however, it seems that for the most part your actual attacks are exempt from the sway of Lady Luck. In the middle of the Capital Wastelands there was nothing more annoying than the unreliability of your primary defence. So launch a melee strike or fire an arrow at close enough range and your target will feel the force of your blow, with the damage itself being the only factor rolled for.

Although it’s best not to get bogged down too heavily with comparisons, as everything happens in real-time; first and foremost this is a third-person RPG, with heavy emphasis on combat. Taking my Elfen rogue through the underground caverns saw frantic battles against goblins and the undead hordes as I fought to keep my distance so as to maximise my prowess with a bow before leaping in to scythe the stragglers down.

If pointy ears aren’t your thing, a Halfling wizards, Human warriors and Dwarven clerics are also available. Each, as you’d expect, differs in their approach to combat, with the warrior keen to get in and start hacking, whilst the wizard has the ability to control the flow of battle with his mastery of the arcane.

That’s not to say that each only have skills in one area. My rogue has magic of a sort herself. Drawing from the pages of D&D, levelling up gave me access to talents that gifted me the ability to fire a veritable hail of arrows in one go, or inflict fear and blindness on my target. The loot recovered further adds to your options as poisoned attacks and bolts of electricity can be yours if only you find the right hat.

All this initially takes place in the Dwarven mine of Tethyamar, a once prosperous place that has since been overrun by goblins, skeletons and the forces of the dark god Bane. Arriving at the mine’s heart, the remaining Dwarves persuade you to rid its depths of the evil that lurk there.

Early quests have you escorting battered miners away from trouble, rescuing tools and family heirlooms, cleansing the mine’s water supply and generally sticking it to the dark forces. The whole underground network where you quest is not gated either, and not a single loading screen will be found. Doors do block your way, but the slight inconvenience of pulling a trigger is nothing compared to the sense of flow that you gain from being able to investigate the tunnels without interruption.

The confined space does have a tendency to negatively affect the camera when winding through the tight passageways, but this is barely more than a niggle. For me it is the UI that is more of a concern with simple things such as the inability to manually move the map when waypoints are offscreen, or being unable to equip/unequip items whilst shopping are aspects that are more likely to grate long-term, although but both are easily fixed.

Where Daggerdale may unfortunately stumble is in a similar manner to the forthcoming Space Marine. This is the original source for RPGs, and yet somehow, no matter the skills, weaponry and enemies, many will believe that when it comes to handling a joypad the material’s been covered enough already.

The counter to this is multiplayer co-op, where up to four players can experience the campaign. Everything is always better with multiplayer, but the thought of a mixed group wandering through the mines, slaying anything that moves, is an intriguing one. Individually each character has distinct benefits but these come to the fore when used as part of a team. And given the frantic and relentless flow of enemies when questing alone, the promise of yet more being thrown at your group in co-op is almost a frightening prospect.

From our early experiences, Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale is a promising and compelling dungeon crawler. Though initially restricted to the mines, we have seen hints of an outside world and larger variety of monsters, and combined with the powers that your character will earn the trek to free the kingdom from Bane looks a journey worth taking. Be it alone or with friends.