Gears of War Ultimate Edition review: “Hell yeah, baby, everybody wants to see The Cole Train play”

The Gears of War series is one of improbables: Improbably large men with biceps and calves thicker than one of my thighs, improbably insane weapons (the chainsaw bayonet, anyone?) and improbably overwhelming odds but from the moment I played the original GOW way, way back in the mid-2000s on my Xbox 360, I was hooked.

Yes, it was a game oozing with bromance between muscle-bound soldiers Marcus Fenix, Baird, Dom Santiago and Augustus “Cole Train” Cole as they took on ugly, ground-dwelling foes known as the Locust on the planet Sera, but it was loud and proud and embraced that bromancing and machismo wholeheartedly. Also, you can chainsaw enemies in half.

Gears of War came out at a time when most action games were first-person shooters but Epic Games eschewed that for third-person and it worked incredibly well. You could almost feel the thud as Marcus and his pals slammed into cover. Frankly, GOW wouldn’t have worked as a FPS.

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Same scene, different console: Embery Square as seen on the Xbox One ...

Same scene, different console: Embry Square in Gears of War Ultimate Edition looks much more battle-worn and decayed than the Xbox 360 version [top]

Developer The Coalition (which is made up of many of the staff who worked on the original Gears of War) has given Gears of War more than just a touch up with a palette knife: This is a game that has received a major graphical overhaul, including completely redone cinematics, and while the remake of such an influential last-generation game may have lost some of the impactful lighting that the original had, GOW is a stunning looking game that properly realises the vision that Epic games had back in 2006.

The original game had an almost blurry look to it [compare the screenshots of the Xbox One vs the Xbox 360 images] and never has Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta squad looked so human and so emotional [Baird, especially, looks much, much better].

Delta-Xbox360-jpg

More realistic: Delta Squad looks more human in the Xbox One version than in the Xbox 360 one [top]

More realistic: Delta Squad looks more human in the Xbox One version than in the Xbox 360 one [below]

This new-look Gears of War is the exact same game as it was almost 10 years ago: a cover-based shooter where walls and knee-high barricades are your friend, although there is the addition of some content that only appeared on the PC version.

It’s the same story line, the same characters, the same game code, the same kill the right number of Locust so you can progress, the same thrill you get when you nail an active reload. It just looks much, much nicer thanks to the gruntier (I’m sure I just made that word up) Xbox One – and I don’t have a problem with that. This is a game that isn’t afraid to embrace its strengths.

There are some game play tweaks, which are nice additions: It now has drop-in, drop-out co-op play so a player can join in mid-mission when you need some help taking on the Locust hordes and you can now change weapons while you roadie run, which is helpful.

Look at those eyes: Marcus Fenix looks much more human in Gears of War Ultimate Edition.

Look at those eyes: Marcus Fenix looks much more human in Gears of War Ultimate Edition.

That said, you also get the same quirks that the original had. Gears of War was made at a time in video game development when quick saving wasn’t common so GOW Ultimate Edition has the same uneven checkpoint system the original had meaning if you die before you trigger the next one, you’ll be chewing through those same Locust again.

The “You take one path, we’ll take the other” game mechanic also feels a little old, and yes, squad AI is still whacked at times where squad mates will get in your way as your fire your weapon or take a while to catch up when you race ahead. I had to replay the first encounter with a Beserker several times (almost to the point of giving up) because Dom wouldn’t get out of its way, killing him, or the Beserker itself didn’t respond to the noise I was making. That was frustrating to say the least.

As far as re-masters go, Gears of War Ultimate Edition is a mighty fine one that holds up tremendously well despite being nine years old, and it’s testimony to how good a console shooter the original was. It was also a game that tried to mix up the shooter formula of the time – and it worked. I still remember the first time I encountered the terrifying Beserker or came face-to-face with Theron guards in the original. Playing GOW Ultimate Edition bought back those memories for me.

Look, for fans of the original here’s the chance to play the game again on your fancy new Xbox One console. For gamers new to the series, it’s a chance to finally play a game that would go onto to establish itself as a foundation franchise for Microsoft.

*Thanks to Xbox NZ for a downloadable copy of Gears of War Ultimate Edition. Multiplayer servers aren’t online for the public yet so I didn’t test the multiplayer which, to be fair, is probably just as well: I sucked at MP when the original Gears of War came out, I doubt I’ve got much better since then.

Tomb Raider stealth-style

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who was a little dismayed at the killing machine that Tomb Raider Lara Croft had become in a game play trailer from Crystal Dynamics’ Rise of The Tomb Raider released earlier this year.

I can’t remember what the body count was but there was a lot of claret spilled on the ground. Well, perhaps in response to the dismay that I showed [unlikely but I’ll stick with it], Crystal Dynamics has released a new game play trailer showing the exact same sequence – Advancing Storm –  but done without any kills. Not one person was killed in the making of this game play trailer.

OK, you have to suspend disbelief sometimes with guards that don’t have peripheral vision nor wonder where an arrow suddenly appeared from [actually, it’s a video game so we should suspend belief completely], but it’s good to see that sometimes Rise of The Tomb Raider can be played without splattering blood all over the plants.

The game is out on Xbox One on November 10.

 

NZGDA to establish startup programme to foster game development growth

OK, I’m not usually one for just doing press releases verbatim but I thought I’d do it for one from the NZGDA (New Zealand Game Developers Association) as it looks like industry is doing extremely well in this little country of ours.

The  bottom line is 134 new high-tech creative jobs were created in the last financial year and the NZGDA is going to set up its own startup programme, the KiwiGameStarter, and is calling on the government’s screen visual effects schemes to be changed so internal game development production will come here.

You know what would be nice? If the Government recognised the strength of the game development industry here and pumped funding into it to make it even stronger?

Here’s the release accompanied by a nice graphic.

Jobs in NZ Games Industry Grow 30%

New Zealand’s video game studios created 134 new high-tech creative jobs in the last financial year, according to an independent survey by the New Zealand Game Developers Association.  The sector now employs 568 fulltime employees and earned $78.7m in FY2015, up 3% on the previous year.  82% of revenue came from digital exports.

The survey shows that established game studios continue to do well but the overall sector’s growth has slowed due to a lack of new businesses being established by either local startups or international investors.

In response, the NZ Game Developers Association is running its own startup programme, the KiwiGameStarter, and calling for government screen visual effects schemes to be modernised to attract international video game productions.

“We expect a good year ahead for the established games studios, but we’re concerned that our pipeline of up and coming studios has dried up,” says Game Developers Association Chairperson Stephen Knightly.

Employment of game programmers and artists grew significantly to 568 fulltime jobs as studios invested in new product development.  Recent New Zealand-made game launches include Outsmart’s Bloodgate, Ice Age Avalanche by Gameloft Auckland, Monsters Ate My Metropolis by Pikpok and Path of Exile’s The Awakening expansion.

“Tellingly, every local games business with more than 10 employees is at least six years old.  We haven’t seen another local success scale up in recent years,” says Knightly.

“Although we have a proven track record, skills and the ability to reach global markets digitally, the survey highlights a scarcity of startups on track to become the next generation of sustainable studios.  Since games are global and digital in nature, with a good prototype it is possible to attract crowdfunding, publishing deals or private investment. But a gap in investment at the early stage is preventing small independent developers from even getting that far.”

To address this, the Association and sponsors have created the KiwiGameStarter where one promising games business will receive funding, software, and business mentoring support worth over $25,000.  A second studio will also win $5,000 plus software.

The KiwiGameStarter competition aims to help early-stage games businesses develop prototypes ready for investment or crowdfunding. It is supported by Callaghan Innovation, ISP BigPipe, Microsoft, game development tool makers Autodesk and Unity 3D, Pursuit Public Relations and Hudson Gavin Martin lawyers.

Playable prototypes and business plans for the competition are due on 28 August.  Details are available on NZGDA.com.

Despite international interest, New Zealand is also missing out on international game visual effects productions because they are excluded from the relevant visual effects incentive.

The Postproduction, Digital and Visual Effects scheme offers a 20% rebate on visual effects productions completed in New Zealand.  The government recently announced a reduction in the qualifying expenditure threshold from $1 million to $500,000 to stimulate demand for post-production and smaller visual effects companies.

“Existing programmes could simply be modernised to include comparable games visual effects and generate a greater economic benefit for New Zealand.  Instead of chasing more but smaller visual effects projects, we could attract higher margin, multi-million dollar game projects.  Video game and film visual effects work are comparable and only one criteria needs to be revised to make games eligible,” said Knightly.

27 New Zealand video game developers responded to the survey which was independently conducted by Tim Thorpe Consulting. Figures are for the financial year ending 31 March 2015.

NZGDA

Submerged review

SubmergedcitySubmerged, a game that has no guns, no enemies and no puzzles, is a change of pace in an industry where wanton violence is commonplace but it’s also a game that gets repetitive quickly.

Submerged tells the tale of a young woman, Miku, who has to search the ruins of a once great city, now flooded, to find a cure for her sick brother. It’s a game that focuses on the human spirit.

Central to Submerged’s game play is the young woman’s telescope, which can be used to scout out the locations of 10 emergency packages that contain life-saving items for the boy. You guide the young woman to the boat they arrived on, scope the city with your telescope until it highlights an item then steer to it. Once at the location, the young woman will have to ascend the building/monument to reach the package (it’s signified by parachute remains drooped over the side of the building).

And that’s it. It’s essentially the same formula until you’re found all the resources. There are no puzzles, no codes to decipher, no foes to defeat to reach the packages (although, every time you find a package you get a glimpse of some strange mutated humanoids). I’m OK with that but it does get a little boring after a while.

Submerged looks nice, with the world having a lived in but abandoned look about it, and it’s at its most impressive, visually, when you’re guiding Miku through the city, the sun setting in the horizon and the sun glittering off the water.

The planet has aquatic wildlife, like whales and dolphins, that will suddenly break the surface of the water just metres from your boat and every time you discover one of the eight species, it is added to your database. It’s quite a thrill to see a huge whale so close.

Submerged is a nice game for just chilling and soaking in the atmosphere but, and sadly, it was released only days before The Chinese Room’s Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture,and that’s going to hurt it.

Both games can be classed as walking simulators, but for me, EGTTR has a far superior narrative, looks much, much better and, importantly, I felt empathy towards the characters of Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture. That said, Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture is an acquired taste that won’t suit everyone. It just happens that I liked it.

submerged-1417385217663Submerged is a nice change of pace to the abundance of shooters and action games but in a game where human emotion is at the forefront, I felt absolutely nothing for the two main characters, despite the story dealing with the lengths that one human will go to save another.

We also don’t learn much about the city and how it came to be flooded, although if you have the patience, you can scour the city for artifacts that will tell more about what happened – but you have to do a lot of climbing to unlock them all.

Submerged is game that shows great promise, and hints at what developer Uppercut is capable of for its next game, but sadly, it just doesn’t offer enough to keep gamers busy or entertained for too long.

It’s a Mad World: Gears of War Ultimate Edition trailer

Gears of War Ultimate Edition is out on Xbox One later this month, but Xbox want to create lots of feels and emotion right now with its new trailer which uses Gary Jule’s fantastic Mad World song as the accompanying soundtrack.

Now, the new trailer isn’t a direct recreation of the trailer Microsoft produced for the original, Xbox 360 version of the game but its opening footage is from the original game – it them kicks into the new, shiny updated version.

While I still think the original Xbox 360 trailer is the better of the two at creating an emotional bond with the gamer, you can’t deny that GOW Ultimate Edition is looking pretty sharp.

It’s hard to believe, too, that the original Gears of War came out 10 years ago, in 2005. That’s like a lifetime in video games, isn’t it?

 

Let’s play Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture

OK, so I thought I’d test the waters by doing a series of Let’s Plays of Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, the game that I reviewed here last week.

I haven’t done a tonne of Let’s Plays before because, well, frankly, YouTube is swamped with them and it’s likely that my feeble effort will get overlooked in the masses of more professional looking efforts. It’s a harsh reality but a fact.

My son also thinks that Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture isn’t an ideal game for a Let’s Play video series because it doesn’t have enough action in it to keep the viewer engaged. I guess we’ll see, won’t we?

I captured the footage using the PlayStation 4’s built-in game play capture feature (which is surprisingly easy) then edited it using Windows Movie Maker, which may not be the best choice but it seemed to work OK for a first effort, although the intro is lame and not very exciting. I’ll work on that if people want to see more of the videos.

So, without further ado, here is part one of my [second] playthrough of Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. Comments would be appreciated on a) Whether you’d like to see more of the series, b) Whether you’re interested in Let’s Play videos on the site or not, and c) If you are interested, what other games would you like to see (provided I have them, of course).

As always, I appreciate your viewership/readership. Really, I do.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture review: A different kind of apocalypse

unnamed (1) unnamedIt’s clear that something has gone terribly wrong in the quaint British village of Yaughton, the setting for The Chinese Room’s PlayStation 4-exclusive Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

Dead birds lie on the ground where they fell from the sky. A shopping cart lies on its side, cans of food strewn on the road, a suitcase nearby. An abandoned car’s indicator is still flashing. A bicycle lies discarded on a side road. Lit cigarettes smoulder in ash trays. Bloody pieces of cloth lie in a rail yard. You just know something terrible has happened here. Something tragic.

It’s an apocalypse story but there are no zombies, no weapons, and no combat. Just an empty village with a very real, very human drama unfolding before your eyes. Players fill the shoes of a scientist who has come to Yaughton to find out what happened.

Central to the game are the conversations between key characters in the story, stumbled upon and replayed through wispy, glowing light: An emergency meeting in a sports hall, a chat between two old friends beside a cornfield. They are key moments that reveal, piece by piece, what happened in Yaughton and how these people spent their final hours.

They’re deep conversations, too, not frivolous chats about the weather, and it’s thanks to the writing and outstanding voice acting that I found myself invested in the characters, listening to their final words. They’re touching, heart-warming and, at times, totally heart-wrenching. One woman tells another to have a drink with an old flame. Another talks of what happened to her and her family as they tried to leave the village. A man tells the priest he has lost faith.

VillageEverybody’s Gone To The Rapture is a slow-paced game where you’ll soak in the atmosphere by listening and exploring, rather than participating in the action. Yaughton is intricately detailed, too: Half drunk pints sit in the local pub, graffiti is scrawled on a bus stop, washing flaps in the breeze. It’s as if time suddenly stopped.

There’s very little interaction from the player, apart from pressing X to open gates and play audio files via payphones, tape recorders and transistor radios from key characters that, fragment by fragment, help paint a picture of what went wrong.

There’s no jump button, either, and up until recently, apparently no fast-walk button but it seems there is, according to The Chinese Room which has blogged since the game was released that an oversight meant it forgot to mention that holding down R2 for several seconds will actually activate the fast-walk (it’s not a sprint, though).

I realised this while I was playing as, for some reason, I was drawn to holding down the R2 button at times and thought I was walking faster but dismissed it as seeing things. It seems I was right but frankly, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture isn’t a game you want to rush.

The more I was drawn into the story, the sorrier I felt for the characters and what had unfolded.  I got invested in the story. It had drawn me in. I cared about what was happening.

There’s an undeniable religious theme running throughout the game, and maybe I’m reading too much into that, and ambient sound and Jessica Curry’s hauntingly beautiful soundtrack plays a huge part in creating the game’s atmosphere. Much of the time, Yaughton is eerily quiet apart from the wind, but when you near an anomaly, another event, you’ll hear faint noise which gets louder the closer you get to it.

SpiritplaygroundIf I had any complaints it would be that at times, I had no idea where to go next. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to play Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture but at one point I had no idea where I was supposed to go after exploring everything around me. Seriously, I had no idea where I was supposed to go at one point except just walk. And walk. And walk.  I’m not saying the game needs a mini-map because it doesn’t – that would ruin the immersion – and doing more exploring revealed more conversations and recordings, but perhaps a few more obvious audio cues so you know if you’re on the right track would help (it would help avoid frustration, too).  I’m currently on my second playthrough of Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture (I’m recording the gameplay footage for a Let’s Play series) and suddenly realised that somewhere near the beginning of the game I missed a vital “clue” meaning the ghostly spirits didn’t always appear for me, meaning later in the game, I had trouble knowing where to go. Blame that one on my own stupidy, not the game’s makers.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture will be dismissed by many gamers as simply a “walking simulator” and fundamentally, that’s what it is, but thanks to its touching narrative, it’s one of the most emotionally charged games I’ve played in recent memory.

The deeper I got, I could feel the emotion welling up inside as I was moved by what I was experiencing in this quaint English village where things had gone terribly wrong and while the ending left me with a few questions, the game has got me thinking about things.

Games that do that deserve to do well.

Watch 13-minutes of Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider, the next instalment featuring adventurer Lara Croft, was on show at last week’s Gamescom in Germany. It’s an Xbox One exclusive at this point.

Watch these 13-minutes of gameplay (a gift from me to you, if you will) and let me know what you think. Are you keen on it?

The gameplay shows Lara traversing seemingly impossible climbs but actually shows her investigating an impressive-looking tomb, which is often a reason why we play Tomb Raider games! I was impressed with the little touches in the gameplay video like how Lara leaves a spot of blood on a rock that she’s leant against (2:11) and the lighting. That said, the tomb has a lot of big spider webs: Doesn’t that mean big spiders!!!

The game is out in November but I’m starting to like the look of it more and more.

 

Gamescom gets a blast from Deus Ex Mankind Divided

For no other particular reason than to celebrate Gamescom 2015, BandaiNamco has released some rather spiffy hi-res images from its next game in the Deus Ex series, Mankind Divided – and they look bloody marvellous!

Click on each image to see if full size.

I’m not sure what the symbolism is with the upside down tree and the cube but there’s some grafitti on it that reads: “A wrench is a tool, not a human being”. I’m really not sure what that means but it’s clearly a reference to some sort of oppression, maybe?   Adam Jensen look more gaunt than usual. Perhaps the stress of what he’s been doing is finally getting to him and he’s not eating properly. Or getting enough sleep. Or drinking enough water. Or maybe he’s just thinner.

Anyway, the game is out on Xbox One, PC and PlayStation early next year sometime. In the meantime, drool oveDXMD_2015_08_05_GC_concept_028_1438762713r these. Don’t forget to wipe your chin when you’re done. DXMD_2015_08_05_GC_concept_029_1438762706 DXMD_2015_08_05_GC_screen_ONLINE_020_1438762644DXMD_2015_08_05_GC_screen_ONLINE_023_1438762648DXMD_2015_08_05_GC_screen_ONLINE_021_1438762645DXMD_2015_08_05_GC_screen_ONLINE_022_1438762647

Xbox at Gamescom 2015

Gamescom started this week in Germany, and early this morning (2am NZ time) Xbox had its press event, touting the “greatest games line-up” in the history of the brand. And it was pretty impressive, actually.

[As an aside, up until this year I always thought Gamescom was called Gamescon – short for Games Conference. Turns out I’ve been wrong all these years]

Here’s the full briefing if you missed ( it but probably the highlight for me was the gameplay footage of Remedy’s Quantum Break (although, do we really need well-known actors in our video games: can’t they just stick to movies?), a game that ups the ante on Remedy’s time-bending/freezing mechanic from previous games like Alan Wake and Max Payne.

I didn’t watch all of the press event – I was, ridiculously working until 3am this morning (yes, 3am) – but Xbox revealed some Crackdown 3 footage: 

Some Scalebound: 

Some Elite Dangerous (which looks very nic): 

Some Dark Souls III: 

Some Forza Motorsports 6 (driving in the rain, no less): 

Some Halo Wars 2: 

Some Worms: 

And … some of Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick’s Thimbleweed Park (a game I’m more than a little interested in because I backed it on Kickstarter so want to see where my money’s going): 

All in all, it looks like Xbox are putting games to the forefront of its focus (and not a Kinect game to be seen: I think Kinect is pretty much dead in the water). There were plenty of other games shown, like the new Lara Croft game from Crystal Dynamics (I’m not sure how I feel about that one)  but I’ve picked those that stood out for me.

PlayStation won’t be having a press event at Gamescom: I suspect it’s saving its ammunition for the Tokyo Games Show which is in October. It makes sense, too, Sony is a Japanese company, after all.

So what are your thoughts? Any gems in there that have you excited?