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Memoria: Review

With many point-and-click adventures opting to use humour as a key selling point, I have often found that they undersell one of their genre’s greatest strengths. With the emphasis on jokes their ability to tell a story and weave you into its heart often goes begging. In first-person shooters you may be in the centre of the action but you’re usually a mere passenger being funnelled from checkpoint to checkpoint; with point-and-click you are there unpicking the tale and at the crux of each twist and turn.

Set in the Dark Eye world – a German series of pen-and-paper RPGs – Memoria plays it relatively straight, with characters only pulling out the jokes when in keeping with their role and situation. It’s a world that would seem familiar to anyone who has played a Western RPG before, full of magic, mythical races, and hideous beasts, and the tone is well suited. With such a rich lore to draw on it makes sense that Daedelic have chosen to focus on telling the tale of an adventurer, even if our hero is not your typical sword-wielding dragon-slayer.

We open on Geron, a supposed bird catcher, searching the woods for a merchant who he has heard can cure his ailing friend. Geron is no ordinary bird catcher however, and it transpires that in recent times he saved the kingdom of Anderghast from assured destruction. Not through great physical or magical prowess mind you, but by his wits and a few basic spells.

Upon finding the merchant, the jolly traveller shares with him a vision from the past, promising Geron that if he can solve the mystery within it he will help him. He sees a young Princess, Sadji, setting out to turn back a demon invasion. Geron witnesses her break into an ancient tomb hoping to find an ancient weapon that will turn the war in their favour, only to see her become trapped deep underground. However, this is no cutscene. Although you controlled Geron up to and into the merchant’s tent, as soon as he begins his vision you take control of Sadji, complete with her own unique inventory and talents.

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What proceeds is a tale of a tale, as our bird catcher begins obsessing over this long forgotten princess and the riddles connected to her. Being the only way by which he’ll cure his friend, we find ourselves in one timeline investigating our own actions in another. What this allows is not only a clever way by which to tell a story but provides a good explanation as to why our locations flit about. As we skip ahead in the princess’ story so do our surroundings, offering new places for us to explore and puzzle in.

With each of these new sections your world is conveniently restricted to only a handful of screens. Though it may sound limiting there can be an awful lot to achieve in each area and these well-defined boundaries help cap potential frustration. Knowing that a solution lies within four or five screens travel offers a reassurance that you don’t have to wander halfway across town trying object X on everything that proves interactive. Any such frustration is also eased by an inventory that never grows too large, plus easy access to all of your objects via the mouse wheel: a lovely touch that can save the monotony of continual returning to your inventory when experimenting with solutions.

The puzzles themselves are on the whole good. Many rely on the traditional art of combining objects, though there’s a lot of variety as there are also riddles and logic tests tucked away too. They have a touch of devilishness about them but during my time with Memoria I only found myself truly stuck on a small number of occasions. Most of the trickier ones can be cracked simply by paying attention to the world about you and to what those you speak to say. There are some quite charming double-bluffs at times however for those requiring help there are hints offered in the pause screen should you need nudging in the right direction.

The most interesting feature of the puzzles for me were the magical powers that Geron and Sadji possessed. A mix of breaking charms, petrification spells, and the ability to send visions into other’s heads had to be used throughout the adventure. This extra twist allowed you to break away from merely acting on everything clickable and instead gives you pause to think if you had to alter something or someone before proceeding.

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Thankfully there were only two ludicrously frustrating mysteries in the entire game, and I think the designers eventually realised both. The first is a tedious maze segment that after a period of blindly fumbling in the dark I was given the option to tskip. The other saw the answer given directly when I asked for a hint, almost proving it was a guessing game and not a solvable by any logical means.

Everything is tied together by a lovely art style that mixes hand-painted 2D backgrounds and textures with more dynamic 3D figures. The combination of styles was quite unnerving at first as I initially thought I was looking at just a series of sprites, but the painterly textures on the 3D characters allow them to blend seamlessly with the whole; you can no longer tell what’s interactive simply because it doesn’t fit against the background. The only jarring aspect are the inconsistencies with certain animations; facial close-ups look cheap as the mouth moves in weird ways, and people stand as though they were mannequins. When they move and interact on screen you forget about it all but all too often it looks a little stilted.

Given the budget of a title this size it’s easy to see why such details weren’t possible and they do little to distract from the strength of the story and the puzzles. The latter mostly trod the line between challenging and frustration very well but it was the former that captivated me most. The longer it went on the more I became wrapped in this dual tale and how it unfolded: Geron simultaneously trying to save his friend and learn more about Sadji; and Sadji proving to the world that even a supposedly fragile princess can turn enter the battlefield and leave her mark on history. By the end there was a momentum to it and I chewed through the last two hours of brain teasers just to see the story’s conclusion.

The cast may not go down in videogame folklore but their bittersweet tale is full of surprises. In a genre where those with the laughs have made the biggest impact, it might be worth taking a pause from the puns and explore the wonderfully modest Memoria.

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Slimming Down

Office moves are not uncommon at Rare. As projects, priorities and teams change, engineers move around to be closer to those they work with. It’s not a necessity given the joys of IM and email but there comes a point where you need to be around those sharing your common goals.

And so today I packed my stuff in a box and for the 20th time since I joined the Twycross studio moved desks. Thankfully it’s gotten a well practised routine as a good proportion of those moves being in the last year or so. It got me thinking though about how it used to be.

Casting my mind back I remembered I blogged about the pain of shifting desks at the end of Viva Pinata. Compared to the one trolley load I created this time it took me a mammoth eight journeys then.

Moving to an open plan office helped slim my stuff down (as I had no where to put it), as did realising I didn’t need to keep every document or note that I ever took. It’s strange to consider how or why I had all those possessions at work and decorating my shelves. I miss a handful of the trinkets that used to keep me company on the long crunch nights but at the end of the day, when you have a Megabloks Pelican, a large fluffy Kirby, and a pair of T-rex, you can’t complain.

Then.

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And as someone pointed out at work; if I drank the Coke and scoffed the banana I’d be even more streamlined.

Jagged Alliance ::: Interview

In the second half of our interview with Full Control CEO Thomas Hentschel Lund we put Space Hulk to one side and focus on their new project. Funded through Kickstarter, Jagged Alliance takes an RTS of old and brings it into the modern day.

7outof10: With Space Hulk well planned out, your next project is a reboot of Jagged Alliance. Please can you tell us a little about it?

Thomas: The overall setting for Jagged Alliance is that you’ve two layers: a strategic layer that you can think of as a map with an overlaid chessboard, and every square/coordinate on that is a sector, and every sector is similar to an XCOM level. So you have a sector that could be the SAM site and if you take that you could free to transport your troops with helicopters within that area. There’s a sector that could be a mine and if you capture you’ll get additional income through the game. So every day you’ll get extra income from all you captured mines and what you then use that for is to hire mercenaries. You have multiple squads of mercenaries that you move around on this chess board taking sectors and playing out a story but overall it’s a free roaming world with around 120-130 individual sectors.

The best way of saying it is that every sector is an XCOM level where you have transportation between them and as you play the game you can capture trucks to drive on the roads instead of having to walk. You can capture the airport which means the helicopter becomes available, you can then fly instead of drive troops about. And if you get attacked down in a city which you took some hours before and the AI comes up with a squad of soldiers and tries to retake it you can have a ‘copter fly you into the city and actively defend it rather than the militia you’re training there.

So it’s still a turn-based strategy game on the lower layer with a further the strategic map-based approach on top of it. It was first made some time in the mid-90s and then at the end of the 90s they made a second version of it and after that not much had happened with it. Some years later Bit Composer bought the license and they made an RTS out of it and by itself it was an ok game but seen in the context of a turn-based strategy approach the hard core fan base hated it.

Sort of like how the fans reacted to the shooter reincarnation of Shadowrun a few years back?

Yeah, or if XCOM had a first-person shooter suddenly. It’s that kind of “what the hell just happened here?”

And that has in some ways alienated the community from the games that were made. As I say, they weren’t necessarily bad games but there was something else that people wanted. The old vocal ones at least. So what we did was say to Bit Composers that we wanted the license, and we wanted to try and take the old mechanism, the mechanics of the strategic layer and the tactical combat, with a new story. We want to then run a Kickstarter on that and try and engage the community to make the game that you failed to do.

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What was so special about Jagged Alliance to you?

It was one of those games that I played when I was young. Or at least younger. From the turn-based strategy point of view there were three games back in those games: you had XCOM, you had Fallout and then you had Jagged Alliance. With the two other ones they were flagships and they’ve gotten another life. Fallout was taken in a completely different direction, XCOM is now a shooter and a really good turn-based remake. Jagged Alliance got stuck somehow.

Meeting the Bit Composer guys and knowing suddenly that they had the license and I had access to, it was an opportunity that I knew I could do something with, something I had liked in my past if I pitched it right. They were very open to giving us access to the license and doing the Kickstarter with it. That turned successful and it was a great opportunity to go with.

Do you think they were influenced by your enthusiasm?

I think so, yeah. I mean for the Kickstarter we had to fight really hard. Very hard; we’re not going to be doing that again within the near future as it kills you.

I take it from that that it was hard work going through the process?

Not only that but it’s hard work before the Kickstarter goes public as you have to create game designs and have to negotiate licenses. Then when you engage with the community they’re asking for all this other stuff that you didn’t think about. We spent a lot of time on our website with forums and such like but nobody was using the forums, so all the effort that went into that was basically lost.

We should have done a small slice of a demo instead and during the Kickstarter we had to actually produce one on top of everything. Boy, that was tough. We made a still diorama scene in Unity so you could move around and see what everything looked like.

To give them a taster?

Yeah, that was what we came up with in such a short time frame. We couldn’t do any game mechanics in that time so what we ended up doing in this little 3D diorama scene shows a firefight in the art style that we thought could be really cool. We’re taking a realistic approach but tweaking the colour scheme to be more vivid to give it a cool visual style instead of going AAA photorealistic… kinda boring.

Did I say that?

We did it in about two-and-a-half weeks; we made all the models, all the textures and got it running. And we should have done this from day one instead of the website but you don’t know that until you’re sitting in the middle of the campaign with people screaming “what’s it going to look like!?”

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I guess you can sit and think of everything but there’s always going to be one more question

Yes, oh yes. I guess we didn’t know that the Jagged Alliance crowd was going to be so serious and if you look at other Kickstarters ours has 13,000 comments and with the same amount of backers they have about 400. Maybe because they have a much clearer product, but hey. If you come with a concept then people are going to be asking a lot of questions, especially with a game that they feel they have been burnt with earlier and where there is a lot of specific detail. Some guys want ammo to count in the weight, someone wanted you to sleep and drink and eat and that that should be a part of the game, other players are not as hardcore. I don’t want to go that hardcore. Though someone did send me a full six pages saying what they wanted me to do with this game.

How did they shaped up? Have you started on the detailed design yet?

We haven’t started up full production just yet as most of the team has been producing Space Hulk. What we’ve done since the Kickstarter up until now, based on the feedback, is concentrate on the the overall story. What is this game played about?, so when you see the intro all the way down to the outro of the main story that’s now in place. We’ve setup and created the map that is the strategic layer, so there is an island group and there’s transportation vehicles between them with boats and so on. Then we’re sitting down and seeing about making up this chessboard, plotting the key locations: you have a city here, a mine here, a capital right here and even saying that you’re going to go in and meet these mercenaries in these locations.

As part of the licensing deal we also got a load of the art assets that were used for the previous games so we’ve been through and catalogued those to see which ones of those are usable in the new game so we can see what we need to create. The lead guys from Space Hulk are now going to go over and flesh out the assets and gets artists up and producing so we can sit down and level design to get a vertical slice of this tactical game. We’re going to give it out to the backers and say “hey, this is how you’d play the game on one sector, what do you think?” And then we’d flesh that out.

So you’re having a dialogue. Asking those who’ve funded it what they think so far?

Yeah, that’s how we want to. That’s the spirit of the Kickstarter. Of course we need to control it somehow as if you asked a thousand people they’d have a thousand different opinions.

So we want to take it up to a level where we show it to people and get their opinion on some of the details, tweak it, twist it, make sure 80 or 90 percent of people think it’s cool and then we go finish the game based on that. So releasing it out to the community in small chunks.

There’s also the balance of not giving them the story, as you don’t want to give them the entire story script up front and tell them what they’re going to do. There still has to be some kind of surprise when you play the game.

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How long do you think this drip feeding will take place over? When’s the final release?

When you look at it from a budget point of view and a production plan we were looking at fall or winter next year for the final release. There are some factors that can tilt that in either way, for instance if a lot of the assets that we have can easily be converted into our art style and there are only so many assets that we have to create to build all the levels then it might go a little faster.

There’s also the option of releasing the game on Steam Early Access, maybe. And that would on one side give the game out to people faster, on the other as well give us more budget to make an even bigger game.

How easily is the Space Hulk engine transferable to Jagged Alliance? I guess if you’re reusing that it’ll save some work.

Yes. We have Unity underneath, a 3D game engine that we coded a turn-based framework on top of it. Space Hulk is the fourth strategy game that we have and we’re using that to add new features on so that we can make bigger and bigger games iteratively.

So in theory we could see a similar setup to Jagged Alliance appearing in a Space Hulk campaign?

Not really. Well, we could take the Jagged Alliance system and transfer it into the game that’s going to be after that. Bigger and better all the time.

Thank you very much to Thomas Hentschel Lund for taking time to speak to us. Space Hulk is out now through Steam and coming soon to iOS. Jagged Alliance is under development and scheduled for next year.

Space Hulk ::: Interview

During our time out in Germany we were lucky enough to meet up with Thomas Hentschel Lund, CEO of Full Control. His indie team have put together the recently released Space Hulk and are behind a forthcoming reboot of Jagged Alliance. In the first half of our interview we speak about battling Genestealers in the depths of space.

7outof10: Congratulations on the launch of Space Hulk, is everyone taking a well-earned rest at the studio? What are the team focusing on now?

Thomas: The push for the next several months is to get more content into the Windows and Mac version in the form of more Space Marine Chapters and new campaigns.

We’re also working on the co-op mode with an additional campaign for that because the original Sin of Damnation campaign from the board game that we based ourselves off of is not setup in a way that is good for co-op. There are one or two missions where you have multiple squads that you think if one controlled one and one controlled the other it could work but there’s nothing designed with co-op in mind. We realised that when we went through development.

So we have created a larger four mission co-op only campaign that can have up to three guys on the Terminator side – everybody gets a Terminator squad – and there’s a common goal but each of the squads have different tasks. So one might have to fight his way through the Genestealers to turn on the emergency power grid to open blast doors for the two other teams to go into the next section on the Space Hulk and then go back again and try to keep the back clear. That interaction is what we wanted to design into the co-op missions, to give another dimension of co-op and not just “oh we’re killing Genestealers together.” Though that’s ok too.

How is that affecting the iPad version’s development?

So that’s in development. On the side [of the co-op campaign] we have the dual development of the level editor and the iPad version. IPad is coming this year. We definitely want to do it but with the opportunity and support we got for the PC and Mac versions we want to get more content to people, especially the co-op.

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So you’re more focused on expanding the current community?

Personally I really love that and that’s one of the reasons we’re giving that away for free, just to say “I as a fan I would love to play co-op”, and instead of having just a few people play it, the ones who want to pay money for it, we’re saying here you go.

The level editor’s, the same thing. We can see that nobody is likely to make another turn-based Space Hulk for many, many years and at some point it doesn’t make sense for us commercially to add any more content to it. We really wanted to keep the game alive though so we’re giving away the level editor with the mechanism of sharing maps, voting, rating, downloading whatever anybody has created and creating a community around the game that should last many years.

Are you using Steam Workshop for this?

It’s our own system and we want to see how we can try and hook it into the Steam as it has some cool features as well. So it’s going to be some kind of hybrid, using our own editor systems that we had for development but enabling usage of whatever makes sense that Steam has to offer.

That’s the main part of the Space Hulk development moving forward. As many Chapters as we can, customisation of Terminators units, progression of what you can unlock, purity seals, gems or loin cloths or whatever you want to add to your Terminator crew as you advance.

Did you get complaints that certain Chapters weren’t in the game?

Yeah, everybody has their favourite Chapter. And the board game campaign has the Blood Angels so that’s the one we ran with but we know there’s a huge following especially of the big four so we’re looking into adding one or more of the Ultramarines, Space Wolves and Dark Angels. Those are the ones we’re concentrating on first and then we’ll see what’s going on.

Again, for as long as the income is higher than the cost then it makes sense to makes more and give the fans more.

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If you ever want to consider the White Scars, I won’t be offended.

The thing is we’ve been asked “can’t you just make a painter to swap colours and what-have-you but if you’ve seen the Terminators that we’ve made they’re very, very detailed. Just painting a Blood Angel blue doesn’t make him an Ultramarine.

They all have their different traits, right, so the Blood Angels are really the bling vampires, once you go over to the Space Wolves you have the pelts the fangs and so on, and Ultramarines are far more strict military, so every Chapter has their different set to add into it. So what we want to do is give you the ability to customise the Space Wolf or Ultramarine but not by just taking him and painting him in a different colour and saying that’s a Salamander. As fans ourselves we want to make it right.

Going back to the level editor, are they the same tools as you used to make the game?

Mostly, yes. We’ve an internal tool that when we make a level we set it up like the board game. In the board game each room and corridor is a section and so you take these sections and slam them together to make the general layout – bam bam bam – then we export that out of the level editor and then it’s a semi manual process of adding the spawn points. Then objects have to be coded in so that you have the win conditions. That’s all in an xml file so it’s pretty accessible but it’s still nerdy.

We want to take this up to another level where it’s end-user friendly. Where there is the ability to take all these logic pieces and link them together visually instead of you having to code xml. So you can take a board game section and say I would like to use this tile instead of this tile and it swaps it out, use this lighting scheme so you can pop two lights here two lights here or floor lights, that way you can configure the map. You can write the briefing screen you can select the voice over to be used in some of the parts and then you can share it.

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So if the level editor and co-op are free, what’s going to be paid-for content?

It’s a business but we’re also fans. The fan part of me has been wanting to do the co-op so let’s give that to everybody and the level editor is going to keep the game alive for many, many years and gives the fans a voice.

When we do new big campaigns or new Chapters there’s a lot of work involved in making this and those are going to be the paid for expansions. We want to give something out that’s as substantial as possible so when we do a new Chapter we’ll also do a small mission that specific to that Chapter that ties into the lore. So if you buy the Ultramarines you’ll get an Ultramarine themed mini Space Hulk with that. Reasonably priced though so everyone can have some fun but, yes, we still have to be able to pay salaries.

Well everyone appreciates new content.

I would, some of the ideas we have take it from where we are now – the board game campaign, which is pretty cool if you like the board game and people can identify with it pretty fast – but there are so many options that you have in a computer game that you don’t have in a board game. A living environment for example, why not have some rooms that have mechanisms that are deadly. If you’re inside this room on a certain turn, maybe down to moving parts, you can die, all these things are things that we could explore in a computer game. That’s the kind of campaigns we want to make. Also to differentiate ourselves from what the community can make with the level editor.

Since moving onto your own campaigns have you found it more fulfilling when compared to recreating someone else’s game?

In some ways it’s a super cool thing just to take a rule book, take the campaign, and say that’s cool someone else thought this up and I “just” have to recreate it.

Just slap it on the programmers desks and tell them to get on with it.

While it’s not that simple it’s still a great thing because everything is balanced, everything is setup already; you know that this works. There’s are lot of creative parts that can still work inside that frame though. For example, in the board game there are no walls, no ceiling, there are no real adornments. What does it look like? The animations as well, the audio side, those are the areas we were given pretty free reign on by games workshop to say “how do you want a Space Hulk to look like on the inside?”

We had the old EA games on the Amiga but those pixelated graphics don’t really say so much these days. So that’s where we sat down and looked at the interior of gothic churches, a lot of skull graves, imagery from different places and tried to put that into the game to give a visual reference, mixing it up with other Warhammer 40,000 fluff, purity seals, and the whole tech priest look. Telling little stories with level design: blood pools here and skeletons in corners with small candles, a small alter somewhere underneath a cog symbol. Really, really small things like that but it gives you ambience.

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Now that that has been done we are free to explore also beyond the board game limitation and rules and settings. We’re looking into creating new rules new additions, new weaponry. For example, the Genestealers; taking up their codex for Tyranids there are Genestealer variations like feeder tendrils and fleshhooks, why not take some of those parts and put them into Space Hulk. It’s ok to say that one thing is 40k and the other is Space Hulk but just taking some of these things and saying if you have feeder tendrils what would it be cool to do there? If you have scything talons does that mean you’re a little slower but when you hit you get an additional dice? That could be some of those thing that would be really cool to sit and explore. Also give variations to the Genestealer player during the campaign so that kind of creativeness can come into it. We’re very looking forward to doing that.

You touched upon previous Space Hulk video games, have you taken any inspiration from them or did you want own vision?

One of things that we took in, if you’ve seen the game you’ll see this shoulder camera up in the corner which in many ways is inspired by the old EA games where you had the five screens. Where you had to quickly shoot and click. We were thinking you could take the interface as Raphael sitting back in the strike cruiser outside the Space Hulk, directing the troops and what he sees is this video feed from the sensor array on the Terminator suit.

Also in the briefing scene we definitely wanted to pay homage back to how EA did it with the map and having the same kind of voice over going on barking out instructions. That kind of stuff was heavily kind of inspired by the old Chaos Gate and the old EA games because we thought it was cool and it would pay back to the old games. As a small indie studio we cannot make a huge game but we can make these small things that pay tribute.

Has Space Hulk changed your studio at all? How many board gamers did you have before and after?

There are a lot of the crew that are board game players, also 40k players. We have display cabinet where everybody brings their models to show off, some of their own personal armies, in the studio. We do play some games too but lately we haven’t had time to play.

There’s always been in the lunch breaks people playing Dawn of War or similar stuff but it’s been fun to see how through the project that was replaced by Space Hulk. Not only for testing but for enjoyment.

We continue talking to Thomas later this week about Jagged Alliance. Space Hulk is available now for Windows and Mac through Steam.

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Gamescom ::: Roundup (Part 5)

FIFA 14 (Multi)

If you wanted to see the true power of next-gen then I’d have to point you to the differences between the Xbox 360 and Xbox One’s versions of EA’s all-conquering football series. On the aging Microsoft console the game still plays slick and attractive football but on its younger brother it goes a step further.

Although improved in recent years, players are still prone to a slight jerk as they transition into certain movements, snapping into a predetermined routine. It’s not overly jarring but play the game enough and you’ll notice the signs. With the next generation of console literally hundreds of extra animations have been added to each player’s repertoire allowing them to cope with a wider range of situations and create a more fluid experience. They’ll smoothly receive, tussle, and sprint away as never before. Rather than just upping the core visuals EA have paid attention to the smaller details and it’s paid off.

It’s also enabled is a more balanced defensive battle, where the jockeying between opponents is a fairer contest. In FIFA 13 speed, as is often the way with football games, was king, though usually because of the occasionally awkward movement of the defender. The extra animations in the can seemed to have put pay to that, meaning that being turned is not the end of the world. Your player can give chase and harry them with far greater chance of reacting quicker and nudging them off the ball.

Elsewhere the biggest smile came to my face during the incidental action that takes place when the ball goes dead. Action continues as players rush to retrieve the ball as others jog back into position. More than that however I managed to catch sight of two balls on the pitch; my winger had grabbed a ball to take a quick throw but the original one had started to roll back on the pitch before another player strolled over and booted it back out. It’s a little thing but one that makes you believe you’re taking part in a full game and not just the edited highlights.

Rating: Awesome

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Call of Duty: Ghosts (Multi)

The calmest place in the entirety of Gamescom was strangely the presentation room for Ghosts. As the Community Manager from Infinity Ward spoke to us about the new additions to multiplayer, the air conditioned and gently lit press room was a welcome respite from the heaving mass of humanity in the next hall.

She told us about the new customisation options, a surprising first for the series; the new weapons and kill streaks, each building on their understanding of current player tactics; and the new perks, which are no longer a tech-tree but unlocked through a far more open format. If you can afford it then you can have it, but with only a certain number of points to spend on your three do you then go balanced or spend big on one with two makeweights? An interesting balance that hands further options to the community.

Most of those were just interesting bullet points however compared to the two big additions. The first is the inclusion of a squad game mode. This isn’t co-op though, this is choosing five AI team-mates and heading online to take on (or down) a similarly specced squad. Over the course of time your team will level up, have skills assigned to them, and even prestige. You’ll be able to level up your multiplayer rank too throughout and so a perfect place to play for those not keen on directly entering the full multiplayer arena. With the options and upgrades available however this struck me as Ultimate Team for the FPS.

The other biggie was of course Riley. Jumping into an online game our new favourite hound could be found bound to a killstreak. As soon I had proved myself there he was tagging along by my side, growling every time an enemy came near. It’s a little detail but a hugely influential one because as soon as he’d alert me to the danger my pace would drop and I’d be on heightened alert. This kept me alive on more then one occasion, and his aggressive attitude equally saved my skin as attackers became torn between shooting me and removing the German Sheppard from their nethers. We all may have mocked it but man’s best friend has piqued my interest in a series that I’ve ignored since the original Modern Warfare.

Rating: Good

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The Red Solstice

Tucked away on the Indie stand, The Red Solstice brought a touch of the grim dark future to a section that otherwise was using the brighter end of the spectrum. It’s strange that it stood out by hiding in the shadows but its depiction of a futuristic city, with small areas of strong lighting accentuating the darkness, was enticing. With oddly shaped lampposts and street corners prevalent it was a setting that wouldn’t have been out of place in a space-age film noire… if it weren’t for the heavily armoured marines.

Playing quite like a dungeon-crawler, this shooter is incredibly easy to get into. The mouse buttons control movement and basic firing, with your collection of medkits and grenades assigned to hotkeys. The high camera angle allows you to drink in the atmosphere of the moodily lit levels but at the same time gives the designer scope to throw wave after wave of beasts at you from all angles.

The demo level placed you with three AI controlled squad mates who pulled you through the overrun city at quite a pace. At times there was blind panic; trying to strike a balance between thinning out alien numbers and running to keep up with my chums who seemed quite happy to leave me behind. Most of my firing was done on the hoof and the constant progression provided a dynamic to the level that I haven’t often experienced in these types of games.

I found a soft spot for The Red Solstice as it put me in mind of the Syndicate games of old – or at least how in my mind I thought they looked despite the Amiga graphics – with a dash of Warhammer 40,000 thrown in for grit. For a small studio it has tremendous production values and between its approachable gameplay and an co-op mode for up to eight players I may try and introduce this at my next LAN party.

Rating: Good

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The Cave (iPad)

One of my pet peeves when it comes to touch screen gaming is the poorly designed control systems that would otherwise work oh-so easily with a gamepad. Virtual sticks, transparent buttons floating across the screen, all scream of a game shoehorned onto a device when it should have had some special attention paid to it.

With my first interaction with The Cave, a puzzle platformer from Double Fine and Sega, my preconceptions were dismissed. There were no invisible joysticks by which I’d guide the characters about, instead it felt far more natural as I’d point where I wanted them to go and they’d wander off in that direction. It was a mix between the classical point-and-click mouse controls that forced them to an exact pixel and a d-pad’s request for continued movement. A strange hybrid but one that combined with a quick flick for a jump allowed you the best of both worlds.

The game is wonderfully charming with a host of characters, from Scientists and Adventurers to Knights and Hillbillies. Each comes with their own talent, be it phasing through locked doors or using a rope to swing across a spiked pit. Every time you venture into The Cave you’ll select three of them to work them together to extract its secrets as each can only hold one item. It’s an interesting alteration on the traditional inventory formula as not all locations are immediately accessible by all characters.

Importantly it retains the level of humour that you’d expect from a Ron Gilbert game. Whether through animations or the written word, it captures much of what made the genre so captivating in its heyday.

Rating: Good

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Dust 514

Though already out for some time, CCP have been responding to the harsh feedback it received when its shooter launched. The inspired move to tie it into its deep space MMO may have gone down well but the poor aiming and lack lustre shooting mechanics not so much.

Having returned to the drawing board and brought in a completely new set of tighten controls the future for 514 now looks positive. Forgetting all the paraphernalia of the EVE tie-in, it now feels like a strong squad shooter with a good selection of classes and interesting batch of futuristic weapons. Though my time with it was limited I found a pleasing weight to the movement and the mix of weapons satisfying. Switching between loadouts the mix of devastating grenade launchers and pinpoints snipers showed me a side of their universe that I could see myself investing in.

The potential is always the best aspect of EVE however and for all the good work the developers had done on the game, hearing about how their community had used 514 to profit in the main MMO was superb. When corporations hire whole forums worth of mercenaries to help them take over a sector you have to tip your hat to the universe they have built.

Rating: Good

Gamescom ::: Roundup (Part 4)

Planetside 2 (PC and PlayStation 4)

The biggest challenge for any MMO is sustaining its playerbase. Planetside 2, the expansive online shooter, is keeping its fighters keen with a huge new battlefield, Hossin. Made up of 64km2 it’s a very different prospect from anything in-game currently as combat moves away from the deserts and verdant planes and instead rages across a lush swampland. Even just from a glimpse of the new area, with tall trees creating a canopy that mutes colour and blocks aerial attacks, you can see it’s going to change how battles are fought.

Speaking to Matthew Higby, Planetside 2’s Creative Director, he admitted that creating levels for Planetside is a daunting task. Balancing how small fire fights play out in a theatre where simultaneously hundreds of opposing players battle for control is a tricky task. Throw in the need to support tanks and aircraft and you have to tip your hat to their design team for the results. Being the first new map since launch they have taken the experience of the last few years, learned from any flaws in their launch maps, and produced fresh challenges for the warring factions.

All of it wouldn’t be possible without Sony Online’s dedication to its community. They’ve actively listened to their fans’ views right from the reveal trailer and have even opened up their development roadmap to them. Each item on there is linked to the forums allowing the players to feedback directly into what is important for them, saving the devs the need to stare into a crystal ball and predict what they think they want. The community is the heart of any MMO and they know that.

Top of the priority list at the moment is performance. Stepping out of your spawn point and into a battlefield where hundreds of players and vehicles are can see the framerate plummet even on moderately specced rigs. From personal experience, the stuttering can be a large barrier to entry as it throws off any sense of fluidity or even confidence in your aim. It’s a high priority fix and one that will pay great dividends.

It’s also key for the forthcoming PS4 release, which is being pitched as the PC version but on maximum settings. There will be no cross-play between the platforms however due to a handful of issues, not least the platform’s stance on patching. Though disappointing that the console community cannot take advantage of the already burgeoning PC playerbase, this at least won’t bring up the perennial debate of controller versus keyboard.

Rating: Awesome

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Aion (PC)

One of a stable of free-to-play games from Gameforge, AION is the most traditional of its kind: a classical fantasy MMO. Having been around since 2008 it has received numerous updates and at Gamescom we saw the latest which raises the level cap to 65, adds a series of new instances, expands the PvP with extra fortresses, and offers a further two classes.

The engineer class, which evolves into a gunner class, looks styled upon the offspring of Van Helsing and Kate Beckinsale’s character in Underworld. Dressed in dark leather and sporting a wide brimmed hat they cut an ominous sight. A fun class, aimed possibly at those also wanting a more action approach to the game, they pepper their prey from afar with a selection of firepower. Baring dual pistols or touting a huge cannon, they nimbly spring about the screen keeping away from danger.

The other new addition is the artist who levels to become a bard. An elegant, Oriental figure wearing a split dress, this musician plays a support role on the battlefield. With a whistle on their pipe or strum on their harp they’ll heal, buff and debuff with a delightful elegance. Though delicate in appearance they are the trouble makers at the back, capable of tying larger enemies down in a tangle of vines or even transforming them into a troupe of dancing penguins. If there was an award for Best Attack of the Show, that would have taken it by a country mile.

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S.K.I.L.L. – Special Force 2 (PC)

Aimed specifically at the eSports arena, Special Force 2 comes equipped with everything required to manage a clan. There are calendars, rosters, chat rooms, and a myriad of stats aimed at dissecting performance. It’s an interesting way to spend your development time given the number of free services out there doing similar things, but having them all in one place is definitely beneficial.

Bonus features would be worthless though without a solid game and with this first-person shooter Gameforge have focused on the core experience. The handling feels slick and responsive and mainstream concepts such as a stamina are done away with; here you sprint by default to keep the action always at a high pace. There are also no vehicles or perks, instead there is a direct aim of pitting two sets of skilled and fairly matched players against each other. You have your two guns and a grenade and everything else is down to your reactions; no dogs will save you here. Even the premium additions to this FTP shooter don’t affect you in-game abilities but merely XP boosts or extra tagging options.

Game modes take advantage of the Special Forces theme and the majority of them are based on covert operations. Not all are taken too seriously however as it seems your squad is also in cahoots with Area 51 as there are several wave-based games against alien invaders, and even a bizarre version that sees you don the skin of the invaders and wield otherworldly weapons.

Rating: Good

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Everquest Next (PC)

Everquest is returning, yet rather than fall back on being a prettier version of what it used to be it is choosing to breaking new ground. Literally. With a world built entirely out of voxels the team has invested a great deal of time in real-time battlefield deformation. Not only is this an impressive sight as your area attacks gouge out the ground around you, leaving it potted and scarred, but it plays into combat. Bridges can be destroyed and floors blown out from underneath feet, leading to tactical choices of not only how you should fight but where. You don’t want to be stuck in an impromptu pit with a horde of angry orcs.

As it is a shared world, the land will heal over time but even then it opens up possibilities. The new land is many tiers deep, each with its own style and lore thanks to the rich history of the Everquest universe. How you reach these lower levels is not always clear and so it can be quite a surprise when the ogre you’re fighting pounds a hole in the ground, dropping you into a further battle against an angry lava deity below. Though probably not a common occurrence, the fact that it is possible is highly exciting. Exploration in MMOs are usually very linear, walking down paths and seeing what monsters lie in wait but here there’s a verticality that’s unique.

Furthermore even the enemies themselves don’t know where they’ll be. Using a special tagging system the developers release them into the wild and let them find their own way. Taking orcs as an example, if they’re tagged as hating built up areas and guards but liking open stretches and ambush, they may wander away from the city and choose to camp on the approaching road, lying in wait for players who amble by. Off course if the guards start patrolling that route the orcs may start to wander off, likewise if players choose to avoid the area completely. The result is that although you may know what to expect you can never be sure as to what, if anything, lies in wait around the next corner.

The aim is to end the strength of the wiki. The developers don’t want players heading to a text dump of where questlines are or what to find where, they are developing a world that is as much a dynamic part of the experience as the host of players roaming it. With even quests themselves adapting to your behaviour and what’s in the local environment it’s a fascinating experiment.

Rating: Awesome

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Everquest Next Landmark (PC)

If what they’re attempting with a dynamic world isn’t a big enough change, Everquest are also launching a second MMO called Landmark. If all the talk of voxels and subterranean questing hadn’t put you in mind of Minecraft already then the thought of a sister experience created solely for the joy of building should. Landmark is a tool handed to the community to shape Everquest Next.

Using many of the same systems as Next, its primary characters are the Adventurers. A class that ventures out into the world, places their stake on a piece of land, and then starts turning it into whatever they want. In the demonstration we saw a pair reshape a hillside completely in about thirty minutes, moving a harsh slope from the left to the right and creating a cutting straight through. In a longer clip we saw a time lapse capturing three hours’ work that saw a multi-storey and decorated temple rise up from a desolate mountain top.

Interestingly all the resources must still be mined and so there is still a lot of work entailed. Players can trade, form building unions, and level, just as in a typical MMO. The end result however is that anything the players make could achieve the ultimate quest reward: being imported into the final Everquest Next

It’s a staggering undertaking but also a canny one. For one it acts a beta for Next, allowing them to test the load on a playerbase that will no doubt be smaller than the final game’s. Also, the dedication of the community should never be underestimated and I’ve no doubt that given the talent of people out there much of the Everquest content will come from outside the studio. Expect to see a lot of warriors standing outside ruined castles repeatedly shouting “I MADE THIS!”

Rating: Awesome

Gamescom ::: Roundup (Part 3)

Beatbuddy

There is relatively little solace from the onslaught of sound on the show floor. The large publishers’ stands pummel your ears into submission and the general white noise of thousands of people chattering can send weaker men insane. Thank goodness for Beatbuddy, a game where music is featured so strongly that they came armed with a glorious set of headphones that drowned out everything else.

Beatbuddy himself is a blue aquatic creature who merrily swims through underground caverns, exploring the secrets they have tucked away. From a side on perspective you send gliding through the water and before long you come across the mysterious inhabitants of the deep. It’s a very musical part of the ocean as bass drum mushrooms dwell next to hi-hat crabs, whilst snare streams pulse away endlessly. Together they layer together and build to become tracks, with non-percussion joining in too. Not since Sound Shapes (which I found at last year’s Gamescom) have I enjoyed an abstract musical games, the songs developing and evolving as you discover more and more components.

Rather than just being an experience, Beatbuddy is also a puzzler as each musical creature also has a direct effect on his journey through each level. Hi-hat grabs activate spiked anemones which are instant death and bass drum mushrooms will catapult you away without hesitation. A quick smack to the hi-hat crab and he’ll fall silent, causing his deadly friends to disappear for a few seconds, allowing you to slip past, whereas the bass drum is far more beneficial. Caught at the right angle it can send you spinning through barricades, your momentum opening up new passageways to explore.

There is a grander story but from the demo on display it is clear that the musical majesty is the core focus. The rest of the show floor drained away from my senses as I happily lost myself in this melodic and captivating world.

Rating: Awesome

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Shadow Warrior

This is not a HD remake of the original Oriental shooter but a complete reboot. What remains however is the over the top violence and its sense of humour, which comes across as Big Trouble in Little China (despite being set in Japan) crossed with an action-comedy as your protagonist quips his way from daemonic bust-up to daemonic bust-up.

Vulture-like enemies come at you in waves as you travel through dark Japanese forests and villages lit by firelight. Each encounter takes the form of an arena battle, you being penned in until you dispatch everything standing against you. The environments help keep the battle fresh and their scale varies but in addition you’re talents are graded. Variety counts for a lot and so the swords, guns and supernatural powers you possess are all required if you are to please the gods and their scorecards. Awards cover the side of the screen as you decapitate, incinerate, and perforate.

All the guns offer something unique, from huge rapid firing gattling guns to crossbows that pins enemies to walls. For the true savant however the katana will call; no less powerful than your projectile weaponry it can slice and dice your daemon foes into tiny pieces, each slice slowing down time momentarily for you to gauge the full effect of your stroke. On top of that there are magical powers that allow you to stop a heart at twenty paces or even use severed daemon heads as in impromptu laser. You will not be short of ways to maim earth’s attackers.

With its hyperviolence set against a grim palette it would be all too easy to glance casually in its direction and paint Shadow Warrior as a dark and brooding shooter that takes itself too seriously, but first impressions can be misleading. This rails against the Titanfalls and CoDs, removing cover and their overinflated sense of drama and simply calls you out to shoot as much stuff as you can in as many ways as you can handle.

Rating: Good

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Stronghold Crusader 2

Updating a game which your fans have loved for over 10 years can be a daunting process, but that’s what Firefly Studios are braving with Stronghold Crusader 2. After the success of the original castle-focused skirmish game their aim is not so much reinvent the series but build upon it, adding a host of extras that they hope will enjoy the same longevity.

A great deal of attention is being spent on the subtler details of the battlefield. Small inclusions such as visualising cool downs and area of effects. On a basic level walls now destruct with feel physics, giving a real time indication of their condition, whilst in the rank and file a slave master’s whip circles his men with those in his range showing signs of his “encouragement” through new animations. They’re tiny things but anything in an RTS that keeps your eyes on the action and away from the menu bar is a good thing.

Elsewhere the number of unit type are being expanded, influenced by the tactics seen and favoured by the community. Whirling dervishes that sprint under the volley of fire from an archery unit before tearing them apart, fire slaves who run into houses setting them ablaze, and assassins which slink into keeps and murder your rivals. It has advanced past rock, paper, scissors; Spock and lizard have come to play, too.

Interestingly one of the core focuses is also the setup of the game. The AI is being tailored to be more human by assigning it a personality that supposedly plays in the more sporadic ways that we flawed individuals do. There are also a number of co-op modes, including one where a team share a castle and all the maintenance and resources that that entails. As a man who has played many a skirmish game where you lend alleged allies troops and alike, though ultimately work out of two different bases, this is very appealing and offers a new way to play an age old format.

Rating: Good

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Foul Play

Though I dislike using comparisons to pigeon hole games – I consider it lazy – I found it hard to resist asking “Sort of like Castle Crashers crossed with Guitar Hero?” as Mediatronic described Foul Play to me. You see, unlike conventional side-scrolling brawlers there are no health bars to worry about, instead you must worry about the crowd and their incessant need to be entertained.

Inspired by a drink filled evening and Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight Tonight, Foul Play sees Victorian deamon-hunter Baron Dashforth put on a play to take the public through his life’s adventures. Setting out through Egypt with his trusty sidekick Scampwick they explore the 19th Century world through their fists, their size nines, and the traditional English attitude of believing that the Queen should probably own everything. The beauty comes from the fact that this is not actually a real life adventure, merely a recreation, and so all those you meet trying to stop you are stagehands and extras. Dressed as mummies, towering ogres, or scythe wielding foreigners, these lackeys have to suffer time and time again, but get to wear a collection of fantastic hats in the process.

The combat is simple enough with a single button used to punch those around you, though they won’t take it lying down; ou may have hired them but they will fight back. There’s the option of dodging but a well-timed counter can turn into a devastating series of moves. Suplexes stuns all in the vicinity, hiptosses hurl your victim into their friends and send them scattering, whilst a series of rapid fire blows pushes your combo meter up and sends the crowd wild. It’s all instinctive and simple, perfect for a game where the focus is on keeping the action flowing.

Artistically some may find it lacking, but the style more than make up for it as it pays homage to the finest themes in Victorian culture. It never takes itself too seriously and in doing so opens itself up for enjoyment by all. Hardcore players will savour the huge combos and hording points to unlock even more powerful attacks, whilst less committed brawlers will still be able to pick up a pad and relish the ludicrousness unfolding on screen.

Rating: Awesome

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Hotline Miami 2

From the mouths of the developers themselves, Hotline Miami 2 is more of Hotline Miami. And it’s clear they have a true passion for their game. One that saw them shelve an alternate project so they could pick up where they had left off and correct a few elements of the original that they weren’t quite happy with.

Initially I was unclear where they could be as on first impressions it was just as exceedingly brutal – both in terms of mechanics and visuals – as before. A top down action game, it’s one hit kills and the odds are always seemingly stacked against you. I started with just my bare fists, strolling into a gangland den trying to take out a host of baseball bat and gun toting thugs. Death followed death followed death but with a little patience and a lot of guile I felt I was in Hollywood. Though in reality I was pixelated and could only see the top of my head, in my mind I was Jason Borne; taking guys out with a single punch before rounding corners and dispatching their friends by hurling a baseball bat at them from 20 yards, finishing them off with the pistol I picked up from their crumpled bodies. I almost felt psychotic with how pleasing that felt.

So what had improved? For one the tutorial. In the first instalment it was too unclear, hidden in the background, but here it is called out preparing the player for what lies ahead. For another, more time has been taken to dress the levels and flesh out the world. Buildings now have more set dressing, tying them into their fiction and making each a unique world to wreak havoc in.

Rating: Awesome

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The Last Tinker

Usually if a game is described as “moody” it’ll put me in mind of the angst-ridden Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, full of cussing, metal underwear, and parent defying guitar riffs. With The Last Tinker however, “moody” simply means “full of moods”.

A great sadness has taken over the land, sweeping in like fog and sapping the colour from the world and the will from everyone. Those caught up in it stand devoid of the urge to do anything. Thankfully Kuru is on hand with his enchanted paints, each one relating to a new mood. When he tosses red at others they turn angry, whilst blue makes them sad and green fearful, each pulling them out of their malaise. It’s an intriguing concept, exploring the world and calling upon different emotions to see you through a variety of pickles.

The most obvious of these are the goblin-type creatures that have come from the fog sent to stop your rescue effort. There’s a very fluid melee system sending you dashing from foe to foe, bashing them in the face until they explode in a puff of smoke, although rather than just working them with your fists colour will also affect them. Blues will make them stand sobbing, leaving them open to attack, whilst a dose of green may will leave them so scared of you that they run for the hills. With eight colours and a host of attacks waiting to be levelled up there appears plenty of possibilities.

The developers have said that they were inspired by the platformers of the N64 but I can also see hints of Zelda in there too, not least because of the automated jumping. In keeping the game flits back and forth between combat and adventuring, travelling through some very vivid environments as it goes. Basic puzzles will block your path and you’ll meet a host of other characters – including a very strange exploding mushroom that follows you like a dog – but still for me the primary draw is the unique exploration of emotions as weapons and as solutions to puzzles.

Rating: Good

Gamescom ::: Roundup (Part 2)

Dualshock 4 (PlayStation 4)

For nearly 20 years I have disliked the Dual Shock controller, as the low-set, central thumbsticks made me wince every time I had to use it. As a man brought up with the gentle ergonomic placement of the N64 analogue I disliked having to cock my thumbs at an unnatural angle to move my characters around. Controllers should shape to you, not the other way around.

And so thank you, Sony, for finally doing something about it. The mass acceptance of the Xbox pad as an industry standard (just look at the Wii U Pro Controller as proof) has made them reassess and with the grips slightly elongated and the sticks raised subtly more into the main body they have produced a glorious refinement.

It’s comfortable to hold, sitting snuggly in your hands. There’s a slight texturing to the back for grip which feels far nicer that the flat plastic of the previous generation. Triggers are soft and responsive, though still slightly too shallow for my liking. The surprise was quite how large the touch screen is and what a satisfying click it has when depressed. I still haven’t seen a use for it yet but the little I played with its mechanism and just how tactile it was due to a slight raised pattern I’m looking forward to finding one.

The triumph however were the sticks. Not just in placement, which felt natural, but in all aspects. Compared to the floating mushrooms of old they offer far more resistance; there’s a new rubber top for improved grip; and even a raised edge to reduce finger slippage when jamming hard in any direction. At a brief glance it looks very similar to the Dual Shock 3 but with a myriad of changes this is a Dual Shock for a new generation.

Rating: Awesome

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Knack (PlayStation 4)

Although I raised an eyebrow high when it was the first PS4 game to be trooped out in public, Knack is slowly winning me over. It may not be the graphically stunning poster child you expect to lead the next-generation charge but Knack himself is pretty impressive. As an elemental troll he is made up of hundreds of pieces of rock or wood. And every time you find a source of the right element, each piece flies individually into him bloating his size. It’s an impressive sight, but one not lingered on so it doesn’t interrupt the flow of play.

The bigger he is, the harder he hits. Starting out the size of a toddler the basic brawling will need a few smacks to take down the goblins that play the game’s bad guys. Later, you resemble the hulk and are smacking them around like toys and even lifting tanks over your head such is your power.

There doesn’t seem to be too much to do aside from the combat. Though there were snapshots of four or five levels on the show floor there were no puzzles or tricky platforming sections. There were hints at combo and special attacks however so hopefully that shows more depth in the final release.

Targeted at the younger Day One adopters it’s surprisingly tough in stages. The platforming is simple enough but our lead seems surprisingly fragile given what he can do. As such there is an appeal for older gamers too but it’s unlike to sway too many away from Black Flag and Killzone.

Rating: Good

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Hohokum (PlayStation 4)

Sony like the obscure. As witnessed by Flower and Noby Noby Boy, the abstract has found a home on the PlayStation and that trend continues with Hohoku, a 2D game that wouldn’t look out of place as a short animated features on Sesame Street explaining concepts of colours and sound to children. It’s full of simple shapes and unfussy design.

You guide a brightly coloured snake weaving through the sky. Continually moving forward you can only vary its speed or jink it from side to side, persuading it through the open expanse to explore. Hohokum seems primarily about creating a sense of style and wonder and with each change in motion forms you add a coloured stripe to the snake, creating a veritable moving rainbow.

As you fly through the various adornments on the background the world bloom into life. Brushing past plants could light them up or set a track playing, whilst moving close to a small woman may see her jump on your back and surf along. It was hard to tell what the game itself was other than triggering and layering all these incidentals but with each being so unique it was always compelling to find more. Another level saw us slink through a darkly lit world, igniting lamp plants before revealing a giant and his son playing a saxophone.

I can’t quite tell you the point to Hohokum but I can tell you I’m glad that it exists.

Rating: Awesome

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Resogun (PlayStation 4)

Although 2D shooters like Super Stardust HD and Geometry Wars feature very classical mechanics, their restrictive nature actually allows developers to show off a huge amount. When limited to just a pair of dimensions and a tight environment the effects that can be triggered can be huge and elaborate. Resogun takes that idea into the next generation.

Although there you can only move horizontally and vertically the play space is wrapped around into a tube, encompassing a human city set some time in the future. You fly above, protecting the humans below from being kidnapped by incoming alien ships. As you can’t see everywhere at once arrows flash red alerting you to their presence. Buzz over and shoot them down and life can continue. Except that the invaders have brought their own fighter ships and the screen is soon filled with invading aliens of all shapes and sizes. It’s frantic and, in the spirit of the 80s arcade that heavily influenced it, heavily addictive as you start to learn patterns and look to eke your points total ever higher.

Visually it looks a treat. Huge explosions fill vast areas of the screen and beneath you the city itself slowly deforms and crumbles as the blasts wash over it. Seemingly made up of tiny voxels it produces a lovely sight that helps to reinforce the thought that you are defending earth from a true onslaught rather than a boring static background.

With simple controls but an obvious level of depth as you begin to get your eye in, Resogun seems perfect for a console launch; something show off just how shiny your new box is to your friends but also to set a bit of friendly competition going between you all.

Rating: Good

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Octodad (PlayStation 4)

It’s ridiculous. For the first few minutes I was wondering what on earth I was doing. Or to be more exact, what on earth Sony were doing in allowing this freak of a game in their booth. A game where you had to control the tentacles of an octopus, how could this farce be a title to trumpet the arrival of their new hardware?

With the analogues jointly controlling a swinging tentacle I had to clear a table, sweeping across its top to send a stack of bottles and pots dashing to the floor, before inexpertly reaching down and finding a key amongst the mess and unlocking a cabinet. It’s a very strange controls scheme as the right stick controls the vertical plane whilst the left handles in and out, and one that never felt naturally. It always felt like a bike with the axle just off centre so that whilst the motions were similar the outcome was off and I never felt quite in control due to a lack of perceivable depth. Doing anything was achieved through stumbling stabs at the stick.

Where my stance began to soften was when Octodad had to walk across the room. Suddenly you’re not just controlling his arm but his legs, though “control” is wholly inaccurate. With a strange combination of triggers and stick he’ll lurch around the room as if auditioning for the Ministry of Silly Walks. His large, lunging steps will send him bashing into the furniture in the room, knocking vases from their stands and scattering chairs and tables as you haplessly blunder about in hilarious fashion. The simple fetch quests you’re ask to perform turn into a comedic episode as disaster follows you everywhere.

Quite how this Mr Bean of the cephalopod world will pan out as a complete game I am unsure. Whether its slapstick nature will endure through multiple hours or whether the skill comes from completing tasks as precisely as possible, this is so different from anything else on display it’s a fine complement to the launch catalogue.

Rating: Good

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Driveclub (PlayStation 4)

After partaking in a quick demo on the rather underwhelming Forza 5 for the Xbox One, Sony’s stand was the perfect to reaffirm faith in the next generation of console racing with #Driveclub – Evolution Studios’ new IP for the Playstation 4. This is one of several games you’ll be getting a version of with Playstation Plus on launch day, and – on the basis of this build at least – it’ll be an entertaining if slightly underwhelming ride.

Taking a heavy Mercedes out onto the lush mountainous road in the Gamescom build, the overwhelming sensation from #Driveclub is that of a studio pushing for visual fidelity but not quite reaching a standard that’s immediately impressive. Foliage is abundant but heavily aliased, particle effects are sparse but well-implemented, vehicles are detailed without being spectacular, the lighting is a little flat and the framerate seemed to hover around 30 without much in the way of post-processing to smooth out the sensation of speed.

It’s likely this is an old build however, and with any luck #Driveclub will have that final layer of polish and optimisation closer to launch. It’s set to be a fun experience regardless of aesthetics, with vehicle handling coming across as a hybrid of Forza’s simulation-driven physics and the drift-heavy action of something like Need For Speed. The two cars chosen for the demo were both curiously heavy and ponderous into corners but there was plenty of wiggle room to slide out the rear end with a little practice, and so with a few tweaks, #Driveclub could prove an entertaining diversion.

Rating: Good

Gamescom ::: Roundup (Part 1)

War Thunder (PlayStation 4 and PC)

War Thunder brings World War II’s theatres of war to PlayStation 4 and PC. Boasting over 300 warplanes it is dogfight on a massive scale as two large teams compete in objective-based missions to rule the sky. Bombers slowly buzz by as quicker fighters protect and harry, jets scream past presenting an elusive threat, whilst all the time from the ground below the AA guns boom continual defiance.

The big things that War Thunder has going for it, especially when compared to its rivals, is that it has cross-platform play. The PC and PS4 don’t sit on separate servers but share a single user base meaning that even on day one PlayStation owners should have access to thousands of established players to enrich their aerial battles. In fact developers Gaijin are so adamant that the number of players is key that they cite that as the number one reason why War Thunder is also free to play. Players can buy boosts that will give them a percentage increase in XP and in-game currency, but there’s no pay to win we’re assured as planes are unlocked with ranks rather than directly through coin.

Those worried that a Dualshock, no matter the advancements, will be little match to a PC player should be swayed by the control scheme. Rather than the traditional control over pitch, yaw and roll, you simply push the on-screen reticule where in the sky you want it to go and the game will figure out how to get it there. It works the same whether you have a single analogue stick or a mouse, though full flight sticks will be supported for the purists. It takes a little getting used to, fighting the urge to control the machine and not the direction, but it does definitely take some of the frustration of manoeuvrability away.

Furthermore tanks are a forthcoming expansion, with battleships marked on game’s lengthy road map too. The aim is that all three will be able to partake in a single mission, though each having different objectives. How they’ll interact is curious as it seems for the most part they’ll be fighting their own kind but the spectacle alone should be worth experiencing.

Rating: Good

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Skylanders Swap Force (Multi)

I’m ashamed to say that the first PS4 game I played was Swap Force. At first I tried to pass it off as it being the first pad available, but secretly I continue to have a soft spot for its child-friendly approach to dungeon crawling. Away from all the toys and gimmicks, that’s what it is: you go through the level beating things up for loot, levelling your skills and character up on the way.

All previous Skylanders are present and compatible and will find an increased skill cap, new abilities and a host of fresh animations awaiting them when they sit on the Portal of Power. Their new Swap Force brethren however add a different twist to proceedings by being able to be split in two. They’re split by a lower half that determines how they move around and a top half that specialises in combat. So if you like Hoot Loops’ teleportation but the gun-slinging skills of Rattle Shake you can form Rattle Loops, who’ll appear behind foes and shoot them in the back. There’s a relatively wide mix and it seems the designers have added a selection of new ways to tackle combat with their choices.

On the whole it’s an evolution rather than a revolution as you wade through the level mostly punching enemies in the face, occasionally being pulled away for a quick mini-game to break up the flow. There’s more variety this time too with time trials, rail slides and lots of level-specific distractions. It’s all wrapped up in a completely new engine which adds a touch of next-gen sheen to everything; characters in particular have far better material mapping, no longer looking so flat.

It may not have the gameplay to persuade many people over the age of 12 to try it, but it’s understandable why they’re playing it safe. They are a big hit and changing that too drastically might upset the fanbase it has created. The new Skylander designs I believe are better than last year’s but I don’t think I can quite justify another hefty outlay for the same core game.

Rating: Good

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Diggs Nightcrawler (PlayStation 3)

As another Wonderbook game this stood out to me not because it was an IP I was invested in but because of how it used the physical book. With Walking with Dinosaurs and Book of Spells they used the Wonderbook as a platform from which the story would emanate but the actual control was done using the Move. The only interaction you had with the book itself was to move to the next scene by turning the page. Diggs treats the book very differently.

The scene I found as I sat down was one where Diggs the bookworm was taking cover from a spider taking pot shots at him down a darkened alleyway full of crates and trash cans. Not immediately sure what to do I nudged the book and found Diggs moved. Rotating the book left and right meant our literary hero ducked from left to right, with an extreme twist sending him out of cover and returning fire. The book in Diggs is the controller.

After I’d disarmed the “dame” – it is after all a take on film noire afterall – we then entered a twisting tower, a spiral staircase heading deep into the book and stretching far above us. Rotating the book would make Diggs move to the centre of the screen, causing him to walk through the level, whilst a sudden jerk upwards would see him leap over gaps and a slow turn cause him to edge more cautiously. This was platforming controls using a piece of cardboard. The Move may be fine for the more abstract approaches of the other games but Diggs’ character driven adventure is perfectly suited to this tactile take on control.

The game itself is a child’s detective tale set in a land of fairy tales but yet again the novel use of the technology impresses me. Questions could be raised about the replayability but as a fancy story time between a parent and their child it should do well. I know I would have been captivated by it when I was younger.

Rating: Good

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Max: The Curse of Brotherhood (Xbox One and Xbox 360)

Max, he of the Magic Marker fame, returns to the land of platforming except this time with his younger sibling in tow. Or at least for a while he does before accidentally banishing him to another plane of existence. We older brothers are careless like that.

He sets off to find him still with his enchanted pen but this time it affects the elements. It can raise pillars of earth from the ground, grow vines on command, and manipulate water to flow in whatever direction you require. All this builds together to create a box of puzzle pieces that Press Play set to good use. Early puzzles maybe focus on using earth columns to turn a bridge into a ramp to reach higher ground, or using vines that also happen to float to navigate a river. Later however they can be used in seriously mischievous ways.

With each elemental power only being able to be triggered in certain areas the results may sound predetermined. On the contrary, there’s a full physics simulation behind them and so there’s the fun of sometimes being able to edge your way past puzzles in ways the designers may not have thought possible. Bridges and movable blocks are incorporated too, and combined with enemies – which you cannot destroy and so must evade – they all add further dynamics to the brainteasers. Some are pure logic, other require timing and dexterity to dodge past pursuers as you dart to next screen.

It’s a great advancement for the series, not resting on its laurels and simply pumping out a quick sequel. There’s a lot of effort has gone into making this notably distinct not just in terms of gameplay but in visuals. Max has gone from hand drawn to full 3D and from the level of detail and character put into the world it’s got a Pixar vibe to it.

Rating: Good

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Eve Valkyrie

Spawned from a tech demo that went down exceedingly well at the last Eve Fanfest, Eve Valkyrie is multiplayer space dogfight that is now a full game in its own right. Pitting faction against faction it embraces the deep fiction using space technology found in the Eve universe as two sets of nimble fighters pirouette through the void in a deadly dance. What is truly remarkable about it however is that it is designed principally for Oculus Rift.

And it’s the perfect vehicle for the new virtual reality headset to; in shooters or adventure games you still feel disconnected because although you feel physically in the world thanks to the headset you’re still using a stick to approximate your legs’ movement. It’s more as though you’re controlling a Segway. With Valkyrie you are sat in a ship and controlling the ship’s movements. Ignore the quibbles about the far flung future and suspend your disbelief as the situation feels far more believable.

There is a level of immersion that is far more than just the setting however. Subtle details such as scratches on the glass give an extra layer of depth and when you look down you see yourself in your flight suit strapped into the cockpit. The game mechanics play their parts too; missile don’t automatically lock on, they are initialised with a button press but then they are only locked on when you have tracked your target with your head for a number of seconds. It’s a delicate twist but one measured to remove people’s reliance with tweaking camera motions on an analogue stick and forcing them to use their neck instead.

All in all the effect is remarkable. Initially enemy fighters are but just dots in the distance but as you close and engage all hell breaks loose. As you bank attempting to avoid being shot down your head is peering this way and that, desperate to keep your eyes on your own target. In the heat of battle it’s so unique as you feel that there is no way other than with CCP and Oculus Rift that you feel this exhilarating feeling could exist. All it will take anyone to be sold will be when an enemy fighter streaks closely by overhead as I defy anyone not to find their neck snapping back in a natural reaction to track the threat.

Rating: Awesome

Gamescom ::: Day 3 in 8bit

As we frantically type the rest of our notes up at the airport and wing our way back to London, enjoy our final batch of pixelated impressions of the show.

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Outside the convention centre the steps were lined with flags.

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Gadget of the moment: the Oculus Rift gamescom day 306

As ever, Farming Simulator 20XX was there with some very heavy machinery.

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The Koopa Kids were posing outside the press lounge.

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Lunch.

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Our intrepid reporters riding the escalator.

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Manny spins the Skylander’s Wheel of Fortune.

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Andrew gets a hug from the Lego lion.