Archives for category: Screenshots

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It’s fair to say that in the run-up to release, many have approached Dragon Age: Inquisition with, at best, cautious optimism. Others of course, have been downright pessimistic, lingering memories of Dragon Age 2‘s more reductive ideas and restrictive world still playing on their minds.

Some of us have been less restrained than the rest however, so when the game popped up on Xbox One’s EA Access service I couldn’t help myself. Six hours of pre-release Dragon Age fun? Oh go on then. The only problem I had to contend with was what class/race combo I was going to roll. My Warden in Origins was a Dalish rogue, but my Hawke in Dragon Age 2 was a mage, and I had loved both. So I decided to try both, playing the first hour as an elven archer before restarting and eventually settling on a towering qunari mage (don’t call me saarebas!); I have to admit, witnessing every other character in the game craning their neck to look my Inquisitor in the eye was amusing. With that, it was into the game proper.

The first hour takes the form of a prologue dealing with the immediate aftermath of a magical catastrophe at the Temple of the Sacred Ashes in Haven. What was supposed to be a peace summit to end the conflict between mages and templars that began in Dragon Age 2 ends in the deaths of hundreds, with your player character the only survivor. You awake in chains, confused, and you’re soon heading out with Cassandra to attempt to close the Breach that hangs ominously in the sky, and hopefully save your own life into the bargain. Everyone assumes you’re the cause of the cataclysm, so it might be prudent to do something about that.

The prologue is fairly linear, and sees you travelling up frozen mountain paths, battling demons and closing smaller rifts as you head towards the now-ruined temple and the enormous hole torn in the heavens above it. You’re introduced to dwarven rogue Varric (who has thoughtfully brought Bianca along) and elven apostate Solas, and as we battled our way up the mountain, I was immediately reminded of the Sacred Ashes trailer for the original game. This short prologue feels like it gets closer to achieving what that trailer promised than the relevant quest in Origins ever did (sans dragon, obviously), and you’re travelling through the same part of the world, too. I can’t help but wonder if the call-back is intentional.

After fighting your way up the mountain, you reach a forward operating base where you’re afforded your first choice. You need to push onward to the Breach, but do you take a dangerous mountain pass where some of Cassandra’s soldiers have disappeared, hoping to discover their fate along the way, or do you charge through the valley with the bulk of the forces? Ultimately, both sections play out much the same; a small rift battle, and a run-in with an NPC – Cullen, if you storm the valley. Upon reaching your destination, Varric worriedly points out that the Temple is infested with primeval red lyrium, and as you attempt to prise open the rift in order to properly seal it, an enormous pride demon bursts from the Fade to stop you.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

Entering tac cam pauses the action at any point. Great for the screenshot junkies.

It’s a great first boss battle, an arena-based affair with a huge boss to wear down, a few waves of adds to deal with, and that Fade rift that needs closing. It’s also a good time to get fully to grips with Inquisition’s combat, which neatly blends elements from both of its predecessors. Should you choose to play entirely in real-time, the game plays much like Dragon Age 2, though with auto-attack mapped to a hold of the right trigger rather than requiring constant bashing of the A button. You also have eight quickslots for your talents now instead of six, with the right bumper button added to the previous games’ X, Y and B slots. The left trigger now switches between sets of four talents.

Playing entirely in real-time however means ignoring Inquisition‘s tactical camera, resurrected from Origins‘ PC release and now available on all platforms. Fans of the console titles’ radial menu-based pause-and-play system may mourn its loss (with the radial menu, on left bumper, now offering simple commands like potions and party-hold), but really you’re trading up here. You can enter tac cam at any point during gameplay, which allows you to scan the battlefield before even getting into combat, scoping out enemy positions, strengths, weaknesses and immunities at a glance, and the overhead view makes it possible to inspect the terrain, making it easier to move ranged characters onto higher ground, perhaps, or position a tank in a chokepoint to draw enemies in. And if you’re playing as a mage, the tac cam is invaluable in making the most of your AoE spells.

Much has been made of the fact that mages in Dragon Age: Inquisition have no healing spells, but it’s really not an issue. You have a finite pool of healing potions, but they can be re-stocked at a camp, which you can fast-travel to from anywhere. Moreover, the focus here is on damage mitigation rather than heal-spamming; warriors can generate Guard, a second health bar that protects main health by soaking up some damage, while mages have an area-of-effect spell called Barrier that does much the same, albeit for a period of time. It means that it’s no longer absolutely necessary to have a mage in the party, and should help to encourage more flexible party composition.

After defeating the pride demon and halting the expansion of the breach, you’re hailed as the Herald of Andraste. After a brief 80s TV-style “gettin’-things-done” montage, the Inquisition is reborn and you’re off to the game’s first truly open area, The Hinterlands. A verdant, fertile stretch of land in the heart of Ferelden, the region and its people are under threat thanks to the conflict between mages and templars. The first time you open your map to see a vast expanse of icons littering the Hinterlands, it’s more than a little overwhelming; it can be difficult to figure out where your focus should be, and so you strike out with your party to explore the surroundings. Don’t go too far in one direction though, as you’ll likely get wrecked by a roving group of bandits or maybe even an ill-tempered bear or two.

The best idea seems to be to spiral outward from your starting area, filling in your map as you go and and establishing further camps in the wilderness that you can use to rest, refill your potion stocks and even fast travel between. Doing so also extends the Inquisition’s reach through an in-game currency called ‘Power’ that you will need to accrue in order to further the story and unlock more regions. There are landmarks to claim for your faction and quests to undertake are everywhere. A good few of these seem to take the form of the “kill x of y” template so beloved of MMOs, but if you get bored of monster-culling, there’s always something else to do, like hunting down mysterious magical shards, picking herbs for crafting, or even just exploring to find yet another pretty vista. There’s so much to do – after five hours, I had uncovered what appeared to be less than half of the map of the Hinterlands, and this is just one region out of about ten. This game will eat your life.

Dragon Age Inquisition Hinterlands Map

This was my map of The Hinterlands after five hours.

Dragon Age: Inquisition absolutely nails the sense of exploration that I have always felt the series was lacking; with the exception of the relatively-sprawling Korcari Wilds, Dragon Age: Origins was fairly narrow in its environmental design, and the smaller scale of Dragon Age 2‘s world is now legendary. Inquisition updates Dragon Age for a post-Skyrim world, though you’d be hard-pressed to call it a copy; while you can and will (and, more importantly, should) head off into the great unknown to discover what lurks in that dense forest or over that nearby hill, Inquisition‘s Thedas isn’t one large, contiguous landmass like Skyrim, but rather a number of large zones – again, that impression of an MMO comes to the fore – and though The Hinterlands is the only one I’ve seen so far it is absolutely rammed with all kinds of stuff to find and do, and positively dripping with detail. Just like in Skyrim, you’ll find yourself frequently side-tracked in the middle of a quest by some strange landmark that catches your magpie eye.

And this is to say nothing of the game’s visuals, which are splendid. Inquisition is absolutely drenched in colour, The Hinterlands coming across almost as a bright fairytale countryside, though torn with strife and infighting. Yet the fields and forests still teem with wildlife, some of which you’re going to have to hunt down to fulfil some of those aforementioned quests. In the snow-covered paths of the Frostback Mountains that make up the prologue, the sun glints off of the cracks in frozen-over streams and characters leave footprints in the snow as the powder kicked up by your party’s feet is carried away on the wind. The environment is so dense that after a couple of hours you’re given a search function (mapped to a click of the left stick) that subtly picks out nearby loot that might otherwise blend into the detail-rich scene. Codex entries and misplaced letters can be found all over the place, filling out the history of the region, and even landmarks inform you of their history when you claim them. You’ll stumble across mages and templars engaged in pitched battles, crafting materials will slowly grow back after you’ve passed through to harvest them, and heaven help you if, under-levelled, you wander into a surly bear’s territory. You get a sense of an environment that exists alongside you as much as it does for you, a world that could move on with or without your input.

After five hours, I can already see I’m going to lose weeks to Inquisition. BioWare has always made games that are reactive, but I’ve long wanted their settings to feel more like a real, sprawling world, rather than an interconnected set of places, and here the fantasy series feels like it’s really reaching to grasp its potential.

This is the most expansive Dragon Age has ever been, the most alive Thedas has ever felt.

Dragon Age Keep has finally emerged from closed beta, and is now open for all to get to grips with.

The Keep is a web-based tool that allows you to tailor your experience for next month’s Dragon Age: Inquisition. As save files from previous games can not be imported into Inquisition (mainly due to an engine shift from Eclipse to Frostbite 3), the Keep gives players the opportunity to go through the main story beats of Dragon Age: Origins, 2, and associated DLC and set the decisions they made throughout the course of those games. The resultant ‘world state’ can then be imported into the upcoming sequel when it launches next month.

Best of all, because it’s web-based, it’s cross-platform; maybe you’ve played the series on PS3 until now, but fancy playing Inquisition on PC? You can do that with Dragon Age Keep. You will, of course, need an Origin account and that account will have to be attached to your Xbox Live or PSN ID if you want to import your world state to either console version.

After logging into the Keep, you can first sync your progress from previous games. This won’t carry over your saves, but will bring in your heroes and collect various accomplishments from across the games and their DLC. It’s worth remembering that the Keep is still in beta, and the first sync did not find my custom Warden from Origins. My version of Dragon Age 2‘s Hawke popped up right away, and a second sync a few hours later managed to fetch my Dalish Elf from the ether.

Dragon Age Keep Varric Narration

After syncing, you can watch an animated retelling of the saga leading up to Inquisition narrated by Dragon Age 2/Inquisition party member Varric, and at any point you can stop it to edit your choices, changing the course of the story as you go. A better idea, however, is to exit out of the narration and go directly to the Tapestry, a colourful timeline that allows you to detail your story more directly. After doing this, you can come back and watch as Varric conveys your personalised tale.

The choices you can make are pleasingly granular, offering the full range of states for the major decisions, such as what happens to Loghain near the climax of the first game, but oddly, some choices that seemed almost meaningless at the time have made their way into the Keep; did you save Elora’s halla in the Dalish camp? What happened to Bella, the tavern girl from Redcliffe? The Keep wants to know, and I’m not entirely sure why. BioWare has said that not every choice you make here will carry across to Inquisition and that they plan for the Keep to be used for future Dragon Age titles as well. Beyond that, perhaps it’s just nice to have a more complete record of the mark your characters left upon the land of Thedas.

Dragon Age Keep Tapestry

The Keep is an excellent way of ensuring your Dragon Age history can follow you across generations, and of course you don’t even have to stick to the choices you made when in the previous games. But if I have one complaint, it’s that there is little context for the decisions you’re asked to make; if it’s been a while since your last playthrough, good luck remembering some of the more minor choices from the scant text provided, and heaven help any newcomers looking to tailor their world for Inquisition. Even having recently replayed Origins, I had to flick over to the wiki a few times to jog my memory. Newbies would be better served heading straight to the Varric narration and editing from there.

But as a means to bring your game history with you without the benefit of save game importing, the Keep is excellent, and with Varric narrating your past, more than just a compromise.

Hyrule Warriors treasure chest
Tomorrow, Nintendo’s first big title since Mario Kart 8 hits the Wii U, and this one’s a little different. For the first time in four years, Nintendo has given an outside studio the keys to one of its biggest franchises, and the result is a curious mash-up of two separate worlds.

When Hyrule Warriors was first revealed, I thought it looked pretty bad. I had no interest in it at all, despite (or perhaps because of) my deep love for the Zelda series. However, as more of the game has been shown in the months since its unveiling, the more interested I’ve become. I’ve noted this before, but Hyrule Warriors strikes me as a massive Zelda fanservice project in the guise of a Musou game, and it’s certainly a great way to draw those unfamiliar with the Dynasty Warriors series, like me, into the franchise.

Taking characters and settings from the much-revered The Legend of Zelda series and matching it to the tactical action of the Dynasty Warriors franchise might seem like an odd fit, but it works quite well in practice. As a total Musou noob, I’m enjoying Hyrule Warriors a great deal – it’s huge fun to storm through the massed ranks of bokoblins and stalchilds (stalchildren?), sending dozens of them flying into the air with a single sweep of Link’s spin attack or Impa’s enormous Giant’s Knife.

Of course, these are just the foot soldiers of the enemy forces, and there are hardier foes to tackle on the battlefield. The tactical side of the game comes in the form of a number of keeps on the map, which can be both captured for and lost by you and your allies. To take a fort, you’ll have to lay the smackdown on a large number of foot soldiers before the keep boss, a larger, sturdier variant, comes out to see what’s going on. Defeating these foes wins the keep. And then there are special enemies out there to grapple with, foes like the nimble, fire-breathing Lizalfos or the shrieking Gibdo.

Hyrule Warriors Dodongo

But it wouldn’t be a Zelda title without some memorable bosses, and so there are of course some huge screen-filling monsters to contend with. When King Dodongo gets dropped into the middle of Hyrule Field surrounded by hundreds of Bokoblins, it seems like utter chaos. By this point though, you’ve unlocked bombs, and we all know what happens when you combine bombs with King Dodongo’s gaping maw. Later on, you’ll fend off Gohma as it launches a massive assault on the Great Deku Tree, and by then you’ve found a bow and arrows (in a chest, of course). And again, you know how you need to take the boss down.

This might sound like a negative, but it’s really not. Here you are battling through familiar places, against familiar foes in familiar ways, and it’s this huge dose of nostalgia that makes the game feel that it’s as much a Zelda game as it is a Warriors one. These battles are freshened up by a heightened sense of urgency that’s never really seen in the Zelda series; during that battle with Gohma, the armoured arachnid was occupying my home base, and if I hadn’t taken him down in time, it would have been an instant game over. It was a close run thing, and defeating it in time to save the Great Deku Tree was an early highpoint.

If it’s not clear yet, the game is utterly drenched in a deep love for the Zelda series. It’s not just seen in the locations, characters, bosses and iconic items like Link’s bombs and bow. It’s seen in the mix of musical themes from across the series that plays over the title screen. It’s seen in the mix of art-styles throughout, with storyboard sequences taking on a Wind Waker aesthetic, while the in-game graphics are reminiscent of both Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. It’s even seen in the loading screens, with an 8-bit Link running around avoiding NES octoroks. The development team’s love for the source material is visible everywhere throughout the production, and it makes it a real treat for fans of the venerable series.

Hyrule Warrios Impa special attack

There’s plenty of stuff I haven’t had a chance to look too deeply into just yet, like the crafting mechanics that allow you to create buff-conferring badges, or the Smithy, who can transfer skills from one weapon to another. Then there are multiple characters and weapons to unlock, and other modes to play through, like the bite-sized missions of Adventure Mode – this genuinely feels like a game that could last me for a good few months. I have, however, had a chance to play as Impa, and I think she’s set to become a fan favourite here. Her play style is massively satisfying, with every swing of her massive Giant’s Knife conveying the weapon’s full heft. She starts off with a great, heavy-hitting combo that ends with her summoning a massive ball of water to take out foes at a distance, and not only is it useful against enemies in the lava-drenched Eldin Caves, but it looks absolutely spectacular.

And the game does occasionally look a bit special. It’s not a graphical showcase by any means, but when there’s a sea of enemies on-screen and various graphical effects going off as your character spins, pirouettes and poses, it often manages to look rather beautiful. If I have one complaint though, it’s the map. It can often be rather difficult to read in the heat of the moment, making it quite easy to lose your way as you rush off on another time-sensitive errand, but I’m hopeful that it’s something I’ll adjust to after a while of play. Surprisingly, you can’t use the GamePad screen to display a larger, more detailed map – as it stands, it just lists your objectives and there seems to be no way to change that. Given that the map is an essential part of your strategy, this is quite the oversight. At least in the opening stages, you’ll likely find yourself pausing the game to properly scrutinise the map and see where you need to go.

It remains to be seen whether the constant combat of Hyrule Warriors will prove wearying in the long run, though it’s certainly far less one-note than I had expected. There also seems to be plenty to unlock, including a large number of Zelda universe characters to get to grips with, each of which seems to handle very differently. At the very least, I’ll be playing through the entirety of the story before jumping into Adventure Mode to see how that helps to extend the experience.

Master Chief Remastered Cutscene Halo 2
Before it was formally announced at this year’s E3, I didn’t really believe that Halo: The Master Chief Collection was actually a thing. Being a massive fan(boy) of the franchise, I wanted to believe, but it just seemed like too big of an ask – four games remade for Xbox One over the course of two years? Madness.

Of course, we know now that only one of those games is getting such lavish treatment, but fans will still be getting plenty of content for their money. And while the Master Chief Collection will be very handy for anyone looking to jump into the series for the first time before Halo 5: Guardians drops next year, what this really represents is a glorious celebration of the Master Chief saga. It’s pure fanservice.

The package collects all of the main games in the series (meaning that ODST, Wars and Reach are all left out in the cold) and unites them under what 343 is calling the ‘Master Menu’. From here, you can launch any of the four games, or just jump straight into a specific mission; because 343 understand that fans will have played, and thus know, these games inside and out, everything is unlocked from the get go. Fancy a trip through Halo 3‘s ‘Covenant’ level? Go for it – you can jump straight in. But even better than that, the developer will be curating campaign playlists, selections that will group together similar levels from across all four campaigns, such as levels featuring warthogs or scorpion tanks. There will also be one mega-playlist for the committed Halo fan which will take in all four games, from the start of Combat Evolved to the end of Halo 4.

Halo Master Chief Collection Master Menu

Of course, while this is a collection, there are two big draws for fans to look forward to this November, the first of which is a remastered Halo 2. 2014 is the ten-year anniversary of the original Xbox game, and so, like Combat Evolved three years back, it’s getting the full-on remake treatment. Just like Combat Evolved Anniversary, Halo 2 Anniversary will be running two game engines; the original 2004 iteration underneath, and a new rendering layer on top to offer more modern character modelling, environmental lighting and more. This means that players will again be able to switch between both the old and the new looks at the press of a button, and while this incurred a short fade-out before, it’s now instantaneous.

Audio has also been completely re-recorded at Skywalker Sound, and switching between modes will also switch between the original and remastered soundtrack. Lastly, Blur (the studio responsible for Halo Wars‘ fantastic cutscenes) have remade all of the game’s cinematics, replacing the original in-engine cutscenes for incredible new pre-rendered versions, even reframing them where necessary. They’re mind-blowingly good, verging on photorealism here and there – just look at character faces.

But enough of what’s new. That other big draw I mentioned? That’ll be the multiplayer suite, which preserves the PvP modes from across all four games and brings them together just like the campaigns. The collection contains every map ever released for Halo (including some which were previously PC-exclusive), meaning there are over a hundred to battle through, all accessible through one interface. Select a playlist, and the game will throw up relevant maps from across the entire saga for players to vote on. Once a map is selected, it’ll be loaded up – in that game’s original multiplayer engine, meaning that every game played, every shot fired, every grenade thrown will play out just as we remember it, just as we expect it to.

Back in May, when the collection was still just a rumour, I started thinking about what shape the multiplayer component might take. What we’re actually getting is pretty close to my dream mode:

If I could have my dream Halo multiplayer mode included in this collection, it would be one experience rather than four disparate, game-specific modes. This single Halo multiplayer universe would be a relatively ‘pure’ Halo experience, perhaps modelled after Halo 3‘s multiplayer, and would include all the maps from all four games. If people wanted to play a more Halo 4-style game, have that as its own playlist – its own mode, like Griffball or Infection, but again, playable across all the series maps

In fact, what we’re getting is even better – the actual multiplayer from all four games, as it was, but all accessible in one mode. It’s like a museum for Halo multiplayer, encompassing everything it has ever been (minus Reach, of course), but all in one place. Microsoft closed down the original Xbox Live a few years back, rendering Halo 2‘s genre-defining online modes unplayable, but now we’re getting it back, as it existed back then. And Combat Evolved? That never even had online multiplayer over Xbox Live, but we’re getting it here. And best of all, it means no splitting of the playerbase; at least until Halo 5: Guardians is out, the entire Halo community on Xbox One will be concentrated around one title – one title with the potential, not to mention the variety, to keep people hooked in for literally the rest of the generation.

As an extra sweetener to the deal, 343 are also remastering six of Halo 2‘s most iconic arenas for a new multiplayer experience built on an upgraded Halo 4 engine, so fans get the best of both worlds – an unadulterated Halo 2 multiplayer experience, and the chance to see those maps that are burned into their retinas in glorious 2014-o-vision.

Zanzibar Halo 2 Anniversary

What makes this more than just a simple remake project is 343’s dedication to making sure everything is as we remember it, from how the game plays to the glitches (such as Halo 2‘s notorious BXR button combo) that fans exploited in multiplayer. To this end, they even went as far as keeping two separate bug lists during development – one for already-existing bugs that they wanted to leave in, and one for anything they might introduce during the porting process that they do want to squash.

It’s this attention to detail that really elevates the collection into fanservice territory – newcomers wouldn’t know about the skill jumps, the glitches, the button combo exploits. But fans do, and they want them to be there, they want the games to feel right. Of course, this runs the risk of alienating newcomers – no one is going to have fun if they’re being constantly steamrollered by veteran, ninja players – and so Frank O’Connor, Franchise Development Director at 343, has a plan. “[B]ack in the Halo 2 days, for example, we tried to not expose… things like BXR and stuff because they gave people an unfair advantage,” he told the audience at SDCC. “I think our approach this time will be a little bit different and pretty opposite, and where there are things like fun glitches we’re gonna try and explain how those work to people so that they’re not in the dark, and, you know, there’s like five jerks on the other team not telling them why they have infinite ammo.”

As well as acting as a compilation of the series’ history, the Master Chief Collection also looks to the future of the franchise: included in the package is the digital series Halo: Nightfall, which introduces us to Agent Locke – a character that will be starring alongside the Master Chief in Halo 5: Guardians – as well as including access to a multiplayer beta for the upcoming game. It adds to that feel of the collection as a museum for the Halo franchise; by looking to the series’ past and gaining understand from it, perhaps we can chart the course for its future. 343 is further reinforcing this by adding new ‘bookend’ cutscenes in-between the existing games that somehow tie into Halo 5: Guardians – perhaps framed as Locke poring over the details of the Master Chief’s exploits as he sets out to find the legendary Spartan?

Halo Anniversary 2 Master Chief Grunt

Of course, more cynical gamers will always look upon remakes and remasters as nothing but a cash-grab designed to fill the gaps in a release schedule, but in this instance that kind of attitude just isn’t warranted; 343 seem intent on respecting both the source material and their audience. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into the Master Chief Collection, and at the price of a single game, it represents fantastic value for money. And, for me at least, it’s great to see publishers willing to celebrate the great series that give us so much joy. Games are often deeply personal things to the people that play them, so it’s always nice to see their creators respecting that connection.

And this approach seems to be gaining some traction in the market right now. Square-Enix’s Theatrhythm titles are basically playable compendia of Final Fantasy music, with tracks set to famous landmarks and cutscenes from across the series, starring dozens of characters from throughout the franchise’s history. Likewise, Nintendo’s upcoming Hyrule Warriors packs in so many references to multiple games from across the Zelda series that it can only be seen as a great big slice of fanservice, even if it is approaching it from the angle of a Dynasty Warriors mash-up. But with the amount of content, thought and effort 343 is packing into their very own fanservice project, it manages to effortlessly outdo either.

Before Halo 4 launched, fans rightly had doubts as to whether the series could thrive with Bungie out of the picture. That game proved that 343 has what it takes to make a Halo game, and the Master Chief Collection proves that they really understand where the series came from. With Bungie now hard at work on the excellent Destiny and 343 continuing to expand the Halo franchise, it’s a good time to be a fan of this particular breed of sci-fi shooter.

Cross-posted on 16bitkings

destmoonpic_edited
As a long-time Halo fanboy, Destiny has been on my radar ever since the first details leaked out. Bungie’s previous universe has kept me enthralled for over a decade now, and I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve ploughed through those campaigns, fighting mysterious alien forces across ancient-yet-advanced landscapes in an effort to uncover the history of these awe-inspiring constructs and the stories hidden within. Now, with Destiny, I’m ready to do it all over again.

The recent beta wasn’t my first tilt at Destiny’s world however, as I managed to get a download code for the PS4-exclusive alpha back in June, so the bulk of my initial impressions will be from that. The beta itself was essentially an expanded version of that first playable slice, so those impressions still stand having played through all the extra content, which I will touch on a little further down the page.

Before jumping into the game proper, you’ll be prompted to create a character from three base classes: Warlock, Titan and Hunter. The latter of these is a nimble scout, able to double-jump in and out of danger quickly, and possessed of a super attack called ‘Golden Gun’ that grants you three incredibly powerful shots from a glowing hand cannon. The Titan is more tank-y, and gets a powerful ground-pound super that will likely have you shouting “HULK SMASH!” every time you use it, and finally the Warlock is basically a space mage, blessed with an awesome area-of-effect, damage-over-time Nova Bomb that can clear an entire room if used effectively. In both the alpha and the beta, I went with the Warlock class, because if you offer me the use of magic, I’m going to use magic.

warlock

Diving into the game itself, the first thing that struck me was how much the game felt, sounded and even looked like Halo: Reach (certainly in that game’s more muted, earthy colour palette) – unsurprising, given that that was Bungie’s last release before work began on Destiny. It was gratifying to find that, while Destiny is a new start for the Washington-based developer, they haven’t discarded what makes them who they are – that tight handling, the holy trinity of guns, grenades and melee, those glorious skyboxes, and of course, that leisurely, floaty jump.

There’s more Halo DNA present than just looks, movement and control, too. Enemy weapons can be traced back to guns in Halo’s arsenal; certain Fallen wield weapons that shoot glowing rounds that track you like Needler bolts, while others are armed with mid-range rifles that act almost exactly like a Covenant Carbine. Hive Knights, meanwhile, fire large, arcing bolts of energy at you that can knock you back just like Halo; Reach‘s concussion rifle. The difference here is that you can’t liberate these firearms from your vanquished enemies – at least, not in the beta anyway.

But this isn’t Halo, this is Bungie’s bet for the next ten years of their existence and they’re looking to mix things up a bit. So what’s different? Well, the most immediately obvious change is in the RPG mechanics that govern how your character evolves. Bungie want you to play Destiny for a long time, and besides breadth of content, the method to keep you tied in is character personalisation. Your avatar is the in-game representation of your self, more so here than in the average shooter, and as such you can customise your appearance (picking either gender across three ‘races’), and every class has its own skill tree to work through as you complete quests and earn XP towards that next upgrade. As you work your way along the tree, you’ll boost your base stats, add modifiers to your super to keep it evolving, unlock new grenade types and more.

And then there’s equipment, many pieces of which also come with their own upgrade trees. Guns can be levelled up to do more damage, apply different types of elemental effects or add new scopes, while armour can add passive boosts to your strength or discipline stats, which lower your cooldown on your class-specific melee ability and supers respectively. Speaking of the classes, as of the beta, which had a level 8 cap in place to stop us from progressing too far, the three don’t feel too dissimilar – the Titan needs to get in closer than the other two to use their super, but other than that they’re all very capable of taking down enemies. There’s no hard separation between the likes of DPS, mage or tank to really pick out, and while I don’t think Bungie will be going too far down that route, I would expect to see the classes diverge a bit more noticeably towards the endgame.

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The next thing you’ll probably notice is the game’s sense of scale. The area we’re given to roam around in, while not on the scale of your average open-world game, is vast for an FPS. Granted, Halo has always had large levels, but Destiny‘s play spaces push the boundaries out even further, giving you plenty of real estate to explore and populating it with hordes of enemies to shoot. It’s not just the sheer size that marks a change though; these aren’t wide-but-linear levels to work through from one end to the other, Old Russia – the chunk of world entrusted to us in both the alpha and beta – is a wide-open space that allows you the freedom to reach almost any point you can see, whenever you feel like it, and fills it with mission objectives that take you all over the map.

Halo has always had co-op, and it’s always been a blast to burn through the massed ranks of the Covenant with a friend or three, but Destiny‘s doing something a bit different with co-operative multiplayer too, something that also plays into that sense of scale. Since the early reveals, Bungie have been very cagey about the term MMO, though it’s a little hard to understand their reticence. While Destiny isn’t a full-blown PC-style MMORPG, it sits somewhere between those experiences and the smaller-scale co-operative play of something like Borderlands. On your travels, you’ll often come across other players that you are free to completely ignore if you wish, but, besides paying a visit to the player hub Tower (to buy new gear or maybe just dance on top of huge industrial fans) there are a number of co-operative things you can do.

Firstly, you can join with other players manually to create a three-person fireteam to take on missions and strikes (the latter of which is basically your MMO dungeon run analogue, with mobs to defeat on your way to sub- and end-bosses), while public events are random occurrences in the game’s ‘explore’ spaces that task whoever is around with defending an area or defeating increasingly-difficult waves of enemies. If you’ve ever played Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, these are very much like that game’s FATEs, though their spawn rate feels much, much lower, making them a fairly rare occurrence in the beta.

Lastly, Bungie has promised end-game raids for teams of six, though it has recently been confirmed that these will be friends-only – perhaps a necessity, given how much preparation and focussed teamwork will be needed for these lengthy, high-level affairs, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see matchmaking added for raid content post-launch.

While there was a decent amount of content to enjoy in the alpha, the scope that Bungie are aiming for really became apparent in the beta, which added a handful of extra story missions that pad out our understanding of what’s happening in the early hours of the game, as well as hint at where the narrative might lead in the full release. Story is one of my favourite elements of the Halo series (yes, I’ve read all the books and everything), so it was great to get some indication of the threads that will be pulling us through Bungie’s new ‘mythic science-fiction’ universe.

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After being revived in the wastes of Old Russia by Ghost, our Peter Dinklage-voiced AI companion (who cryptically informs us that we’ve been dead for a very long time), we fight through the Fallen infested perimeter wall in an effort to find a jumpship to escape back to the safety of the Last City, the only place on Earth still protected by the enormous Traveller that hovers overhead. After spending some time kitting out our Guardian and acquiring a personal transport, Ghost informs us that the Fallen seem to be searching for something in the ruins of the area’s decrepit machines.

Battling through Fallen and Hive forces, we discover what they were searching for: the Warmind Rasputin, a vast machine intelligence that once marshalled humankind’s Golden Age military against the forces of Darkness. Our final story mission in Old Russia – an attempt to activate an ancient array station that could connect us to humanity’s long lost colonies – leaves us on something of a cliffhanger: we find that Rasputin not only survived the collapse, but is still active. Though we can’t reach him, he teases us with images of places that will be important in the battles to come, one of which is Earth’s moon.

And if you were lucky enough to log in during a two-hour period last Saturday, you’d have had the opportunity to explore our dusty satellite, as well as taking in a short mission. Views on the moon are utterly gorgeous, with a twinkling starfield stretching into infinity and the blue marble of the Earth hanging high in your view. Abandoned human bases dot the landscape, while chunks of rock and enormous pits hide sinister Hive installations that hint at some of the more exotic architecture we’ll see in the full release, like the Temple of Crota at the mission’s end – who knew that there was a gothic biomechanical church built by HR Giger on our moon?

So far, so positive – though I do have some concerns. So far, enemy AI doesn’t seem as challenging as a Halo encounter: I’ve lost count of the amount of times that, for instance, an Elite has managed to flank me while I’m reloading or waiting for my shield to recharge in Halo: Reach, somehow managing to get into my blind spot and creep around behind me to spin-kick me to death. As adept as Destiny‘s opponents are at ducking in and out of cover and retreating when I advance, nothing like the above situation happened during the beta. Of course, enemy difficulty will likely be toned down when you’re out in the open, given their propensity to respawn endlessly (a necessity for a game like this to work); in more closely-packed encounters in bases and other interiors the AI does pose more of a threat, though this is mostly because you have less room to manoeuvre. These more claustrophobic encounters do however force you to pick your targets and identify the major threats more effectively, something that was always a major part of the Halo experience on higher difficulties.

Additionally, one of the worries I had during the alpha persists into the beta, and that’s the depth of the side quests. Dotted around the play space are glowing green beacons that confer short missions upon you – missions that invariably take the form of that old mmo staple ‘kill/collect x of y’. These missions aren’t particularly well-communicated in terms of what you’re supposed to be doing and why, and they often lead to spells of running around waiting for mobs to respawn and then killing them for their precious docking caps or whatever. Of course, the core combat and environmental traversal, not to mention the carrot of an ever-increasing XP bar, mean that the missions remain fairly engaging so long as you don’t spend too long focussing exclusively on them. I hope to see more depth to these mini quests in the full game, however.

Lastly, there’s the Crucible, Destiny‘s competitive multiplayer suite. I must admit that I hardly touched this aspect of the game; during alpha, I watched a few streams and didn’t really like what I was seeing, but towards the end of the beta period I decided to jump in and see what it was all about. I played a match of 6v6 Control – essentially a King of the Hill game-type – using my maxed out Warlock equipped with all my best gear, and I found it to be quite unbalanced. I was plugging half a magazine into opponents before they dropped, but frequently got taken down in two or three shots, which was frustrating to say the least.

I’m not much of a competitive multiplayer gamer but I do enjoy Halo MP, and the main reason for that is how well-balanced it tends to be – you can guarantee that everyone has the same base stats and access to the same weapons on the map. Granted, Destiny is charting a different path with its emphasis on RPG-style progression and gear, so it’d be a bit strange if its PvP didn’t leverage that in some way, but I think it’s just not for me.

That’s fine though. PvP isn’t what’s drawing me to the game (and I’ll soon have the Halo: Master Chief Collection to take care of my competitive FPS needs). No, what’s drawing me to Destiny is the promise of a hybrid of two of my favourite things – Bungie’s unique brand of science fiction shooting and RPGs – mixed in with the ability to co-operatively quest through the game’s vast worlds with friends. The developer recently announced that almost five million players logged into the beta, so hopefully many more people will be drawn into the full game. After all, if we are to gather forth our Guardians to face down the Darkness on September 9th, we’re going to need all the friends we can get.

Cross-posted on 16bitkings

hwfi_editedA few days ago, a whole host of Hyrule Warriors screens emerged showing off plenty of Skyward Sword content for the upcoming Zelda/Warriors hybrid. In the screens, which you can see here, we were treated to views of stages based on Link and Zelda’s peaceful home of Skyloft, the verdant Faron Woods, and what appears to be a flattened-out recreation of the Sealed Grounds. As far as characters go, we got glimpses of antagonists Ghirahim and The Imprisoned, as well as Link’s helper throughout Skyward Sword, Fi, who appeared to be a playable character.

Now, via a new trailer, we have confirmation that Fi is indeed playable, joining the cast alongside Zelda, Link, Impa, Midna, Twilight Princess‘ bug princess Agitha and new character Lana. In the trailer, we can see Fi’s balletic fighting style as she skips and skates her way through massed ranks of bokoblins, reminiscent of the way she dances in Skyward Sword. As the spirit of the Goddess Sword, Fi can also transform into the sacred blade to attack her enemies.

Hyrule Warriors seems to be shaping up to be the ultimate Zelda fanservice project (you can even hookshot Termina’s moon out of the sky, for goodness’ sake!), and going by the almost entirely female cast of playable characters revealed thus far, one certainly couldn’t accuse Nintendo and Tecmo Koei of not being inclusive.

I’ve never really had an interest in the Warriors games – they’ve just never particularly appealed to me. But taking the Warriors template and turning it into a celebration of one of my favourite franchises is a great way to draw me into the series.

Hyrule Warriors launches for Wii U on September 19th.

I’ve never really managed to get my head around Limsa Lominsa. I know my way around my forest hometown of Gridania and I’m sure of my surroundings in the desert city of Ul’Dah. But every time I find myself in the whitewashed, watery environs of Limsa, I’m constantly checking my map. Sure, it’s a bit of a tangle of elevated walkways strung between towers that jut proudly from the sea, but I shouldn’t find it as confusing as I do. I don’t know why I can’t seem to learn it’s layout, but I never feel at home.

It sure is pretty, though.

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I’ve always loved the way Limsa looks. In fact, I think it’s the most beautiful of the three city-states in the game, which makes it all the more bizarre that I just can’t seem to get used to it. However, much of my time since getting back into the game has been spent travelling around the more familiar locations, seeing how shiny they now look on PS4, so perhaps I’ll get used to it sooner rather than later.

After all, I can’t continue the game until a certain friend gets back in game and we can run Haukke Manor together. Miqo’tes eh? They come and go as they please.

Feel free to share your own postcards from Eorzea, and let me know in the comments what you think of Naoki Yoshida and his team’s world. I’ll share another of my shots next week. To browse through this and previous editions of Postcards from Eorzea, click here.

Wow, it’s been some time since my last Eorzean postcard! My last entry in the series was back in November! Unfortunately I drifted away from the game for some time a few months back, just after finally advancing to the bard job class – I’d just bought both an Xbox One and Wii U, and so they were claiming all of my gaming time.

Funnily enough, it’s another console purchase that brought me back to the game today, as my PS4 arrived this afternoon – just in time for the start of the platform’s early access period for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. After transferring my PS3 license (for free, I might add!) to the PS4, all I had to do was install the client… which took almost three hours. But anyway, once that was all done, I spent a few hours getting reacquainted with the world; at first, I thought I’d completely forgotten how to play the game, but it all came back to me as I spent a couple of hours touring Eorzea, revisiting my favourite haunts and seeing how they looked on PS4.

With that in mind, here’s a call-back to one of my previous postcards – a nice view of the Shroud’s Little Solace, temporary home of the Sylphs, only this time in shiny PS4-o-vision.

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(you’ll have to excuse the renegade mouse cursor – I need to get used to that Dualshock 4 touchpad and stop accidentally brushing it with my finger).

BONUS ROUND!!

Seeing as it’s been months since my last series entry, let’s celebrate the impending launch of the PlayStation 4 version with a couple more screenshots. First up, here’s a nice colourful pic of Nophica’s Altar in Gridania. Notice the easter eggs scattered around on the ground – it’s Easter in Eorzea, and that means it’s time for the Hatching-tide festival!

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As part of the Hatching-tide quests, adventurers are given fetching egg-themed headwear. Here’s my Elezen bard modelling one of these handsome adornments.

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And last, but certainly by no means least, here’s a pic of the game on my Vita, running via remote play.

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I was in a room directly below the room where the PS4 was, and while the remote play connection wasn’t as stable as my Wii U, it was generally very responsive and playable. Controls are somewhat compromised, given the lack of buttons relative to a controller, and while I certainly won’t be running dungeons on my Vita it was a perfectly good way to spend a couple of hours in front of the TV doing some crafting. I’ll certainly get some use out of it for the slower-paced, more considered side of the game.

That’s it for this edition of Postcards from Eorzea. I promise not to leave it so long next time.

Feel free to share your own postcards from Eorzea, and let me know in the comments what you think of Naoki Yoshida and his team’s world. I’ll share another of my shots next week. To browse through this and previous editions of Postcards from Eorzea, click here.

2014-03-23-015933Final Fantasy X|X-2 HD Remaster is finally (finally) with us. After a wait of almost two-and-a-half years, I finally have one of the games that convinced me to pre-order a Vita in my hands. Actually, I have two copies (erm…), as I also grabbed a copy of the PS3 limited edition, which comes with a gorgeous little hardback artbook, complete with notations for much of the included full-colour art.

But it’s the Vita version which has most impressed me, despite the reduction in resolution from its big screen brother. It looks every bit as sharp and clean as the PS3 version (bar some artifacting in some FMV scenes – disappointingly, one of my favourite scenes in the entire game is quite macroblocked), and those lovely bright colours that drench the beaches and jungles of Besaid really pop out of the handheld’s OLED screen.

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I’m constantly stopping in-game to pick out detail that you could barely identify in the original PS2 release, like the Besaid ruins in the shot above, or the ornate flooring of the island’s Temple of the Fayth. It’s far from the best-looking title on the system (you can probably look to Killzone: Mercenary for that), but it’s been impressing me at every turn; I know the game very well, so it’s almost like seeing a long-held favourite in a new light.

What I’m less sure of so far is the remastered music. Some of it is unquestionably better in my opinion (like Besaid’s theme), while others I’m less sure about, such as ‘Calm Before the Storm’. It’s only subtly different, but for the worse in my opinion. The original always had a somewhat otherworldly feel that the new arrangement doesn’t quite manage to elicit.

The gameplay though? It’s as good as it ever was, and it’s actually surprised me just how good. Final Fantasy X is a game I’ve played twice. Well, almost twice; I never quite finished it the first time (at launch – I had a lot going on, okay?), so I went back about three-or-so years ago (yep, just before they announced this remaster…) and played it from start to end. By the time I reached the climactic hours of Tidus and Yuna’s adventure, I was massively overpowered. Not because I’d purposely set out to be so, but I just had so much fun battling with the game’s enemies and exploiting its systems.

Replaying the Vita version these last few days, I’ve been reminded of just how inviting and engaging the game is. In conversation with a friend, a fellow Final Fantasy X fan, the word that kept coming up was ‘frictionless’. The game doesn’t put many obstacles between the player and their enjoyment, and when it does, it’s actually fun to overcome them. Take grinding for instance, that constant jRPG companion that so many have come to loathe (and I say this as someone who’s been stuck on a single boss in Tales of Eternia for weeks). For me, battling in Final Fantasy X is not only enjoyable, but compelling. I want to do it, and I want to do it because the battle system puts everything in your hands and just says ‘have fun!’

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The game is probably one of the easier instalments in the series, but it’s kept engaging by making everyone useful in some way: Tidus is fast, so his turns come around often enough to use him as a backup healer; Yuna has her white magic and summons; Rikku can steal and combine items, and one-shot mechanical enemies; Kimahri can learn abilities from his enemies; and so on. So you’ve got a relatively straight-forward take on the traditional Final Fantasy job system, but what keeps X engaging is the ability to switch any party member in or out of battle at will to meet your needs. Up against an enemy with high physical resistance but weak to magic? Switch in Lulu and deal some massive damage. His buddy’s armoured, you say? Auron, you’re up!

This immediacy is further reinforced by such design decisions as giving your white mage Esuna right off the bat. Generally, you’d have to work for such a useful spell, spending your initial hours throwing away precious items to cure your party of status effects. Here, you just sub someone else out for Yuna, cure the afflicted, and then get back to your gameplan. Save points in the world will replenish your health and magic, making level grinding more appealing as you no longer need to travel to an inn each time you reach your lowest ebb, and levelling and skill acquisition also benefit, offering to make the process as simple or involved as you like; I’m using the expert sphere grid for the first time, and enjoying the initially-overwhelming scope to develop my party as I see fit, but players that just want to follow a straight path can do just that with the normal grid, letting the game shape their characters’ growth for them.

If this all sounds like it makes the game easy, well… it can do. But in adding an extra layer of both strategy and, crucially, possibility, what it ends up doing is replacing a system that often boils down to using the same three characters and mashing ‘X’ to spam physical attacks in an effort to speed through encounters, with one that not only encourages you to experience more of what the game offers, but makes it enjoyable to do so. In Final Fantasy X you’ll use everybody. Not just once in a while, but often in every fight. It gives you the tools to do what you need and want to do, and it’s eminently satisfying when you do it.

Final Fantasy X is looked at as the point where the series began to streamline somewhat, the logical conclusion thereof being 2010’s Final Fantasy XIII (indeed, there are many parallels you could draw between the two games, not least their linearity). But when I talk of the frictionless nature of Final Fantasy X, I don’t mean streamlining. I mean the ways in which the developers have taken fairly complex systems and made them easy to understand and manipulate; the way they’ve taken often-frustrating game mechanics like grinding and made them enjoyable and compelling. I mean the ways in which they’ve sanded down the barriers between what the player wants to do and what the game allows you to do, making it possible to have fun no matter what you’re doing in the world of Spira.

Except Blitzball. No one likes Blitzball.

Yesterday saw the PAL release of the final chapter in the Final Fantasy XIII subseries, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, so I spent a few hours getting to grips with the game. I’ve currently got about three hours on the game clock, so I’m not very far in, but here’s some thoughts from the opening few hours.

In those first few hours, I managed to finish the first day and it doesn’t feel like I got a lot done to be honest; I completed three or four quick fetch quests and a small part of the main quest, ‘explored’ a bit and picked up some new abilities, bought a new schema and replenished my HP at a food vendor.

So far, I’m really quite liking it (though with one rather large caveat, which I’ll touch on later). I’m a big fan of the way progression works. It’s no secret that traditional levels are out for Lightning Returns, replaced with a system of rewards for certain actions; finished a low-level side quest? Have +30 max HP. Found a treasure sphere? Here’s an equippable Thundara Lv2 spell. Ended the first day? Here’s an improved sword and shield. It might sound a bit piecemeal – and it is – but it means your character is frequently growing stronger and you’re rewarded immediately for every little thing you do.

And it’s this immediacy of character growth that I really like. Generally, to gain better stats in an RPG, you have to grind out XP until you hit a threshold and level up. Until you hit that threshold, all your XP accumulated since the last level is nothing but potential – it’s worthless until you complete that one battle that will push you over the top. In Lightning Returns, you’re constantly improving. New attacks and abilities can be found in treasure spheres throughout the world (and can be immediately equipped to your current schema), even the quickest and lowliest of fetch quests will furnish you with a stat boost, and you even get a stronger sword and shield just for finishing the first day. It feels like you’re always pushing forward, always improving your character, always getting stronger. I like that.

So far, the side quests that I’ve encountered have all been very basic fetch quests – an NPC will ask you to look for something or someone, and return to them with your objective in tow. Quest difficulty is marked with a star difficulty meter above the NPC’s head, and so far all the quests I’ve completed have been one star, so I’m guessing later, more difficult assignments will be more involved (and thus take up more of your precious time). Handing in a quest will save the giver’s soul and earn Lightning ‘Eradia’, which she can offer up to Yggdrasil (yes, the world tree of Norse mythology) at the end of the day to extend the world’s lifespan.

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But that caveat I mentioned? The time limit of course. The minutes and hours tick by very fast and it makes more considered exploration difficult. I feel like I have to be constantly sprinting everywhere, and I’m using the map that came with my limited edition guide to hunt out treasure spheres so I don’t waste any unnecessary minutes searching them out. I always like to find my own way through a game, so had been planning to use the guide for an NG+, but I find myself feeling worried that I’ll miss something big – some powerful skill or schema, perhaps – so using the map is my trade-off against that.

I also tend to take ages playing a game, as I like to slowly wander around and enjoy the scenery, panning the camera around to take in the sights. I can’t do this in Lightning Returns because it’s just wasted time. One of the reasons I play videogames (especially those with a fantasy or sci-fi aesthetic) is that I love the opportunity to explore new worlds that the medium offers. A large team of people spent hundreds of hours creating this expansive, detailed world but I feel like I can’t stop to admire the sights and sounds, or take the time to wander over to Luxerion’s enormous cathedral just to see it. It seems a shame, and I find myself wishing there was no hard time limit so I could enjoy the team’s creation at my own pace. They could even have given players an option to remove the time limit in an NG+ and I’d be happy, but as far as I’m aware that’s not the case.

It’s quite an annoying niggle at this point, but then I’ve only played a few hours – perhaps I’ll slip into a decent groove with a few more hours under my belt. But even so, I’ll never be able to slowly wander through the world, drinking it all in.

So, the tl;dr version? I really like the game, but I really don’t like the time limit. Hopefully I’ll get used to it, because I’m really enjoying the progression and battle systems and I love that Square-Enix is really experimenting with this final title in the trilogy. Personally, I think it bodes well for the future of the series as a whole.