Styx: Shards of Darkness review: A little goblin goes stealthy, stealthy

Styx, the goblin and star of Styx: Shards of Darkness, is proof that not all heroes video game lead characters need to be overpowered space marines or covert operatives with high-tech gadgets up the wazoo.

He’s no oil painting but Styx is a likeable enough character, despite the rough edges.

 

 

Some heroes, in fact, can be green, pointy eared, foul-mouthed goblins who work for whoever is offering the most gold, like to vomit poison into someone’s food and that can conjure up a clone of themselves pretty smartly.

In some weird, twisted way, I enjoyed being a goblin for a change, rather than the usual character we get to play in stealth games, like Sam Fisher or, I guess, Ezio from the Assassin’s Creed series. Styx is a goblin with attitude and the game isn’t afraid to take a jab at other stealth games or have a bit of fun.

A sequel to Cyanide Studio’s 2014 game featuring the same character, which I didn’t play, Styx is a master thief: Able to get anything, from anywhere, but this time, he must infiltrate a dark elven city to find out why dark elves have formed an alliance with dwarves.

At one point, when Styx is on a roof top, he quips where is the bale of straw for him to jump into, which is clearly a dig at the Assassin’s Creed series. One post-death animation shows Styx’s arm descending into water, a la Terminator, but instead of giving a thumbs up flips the bird as it disappears. That made me smile a little.

At its heart, Shards of Darkness is a stealth game with RPG elements (there’s a skill tree that lets you use skill points to ramp up Styx’s skills) and that’s where it shines: Skulking through the shadows while observing the patrol patterns of guards, finding alternative routes to objectives, silently taking out guards then hiding their bodies in wardrobes and chests.

To be honest, Styx isn’t much when it comes to open combat and will die fairly quickly so stealth is always the best option here. If you are spotted and have to do a little melee hand-to-hand, the game has a rudimentary parry QTE which, if successful, which knock a guard off guard, allowing Styx to stab him but most of the time, hand-to-hand combat is a death sentence so this is not a game to go all out Rambo and go in through the front gate.

Thankfully, locations have plenty of places that you can use to stealth your way through to objectives, with torches that can be extinguished, barrels to hide in and ropes to climb. Enemy AI is pretty good, most of time, with guards patrolling set patterns and some re-lighting torches once they’ve noticed they were out. It made things a little more tense and I had to think about the best route to reach the end goal.

Styx: Shards of Darkness isn’t the perfect game, (but no game is) but I think it’s frustrations can be overlooked, given its price and that it’s a lot of fun.

The biggest niggle for me was the controls, which frustrated me a little, especially when I tried to escape from guards and had to take evasive manoeuvres. Sometimes what should have been a leap onto a railing then hang off that railing often turned into a leap and accidentally stand up, enabling the guards to see me, or a straight fail and Styx plummeted to his death.

I played Styx on PC and while it’s not going to win any prizes for Best Looking PC game of the Year  neither will it melt your PC with its recommended specs. Minimum recommended hardware is 8Gb of RAM, and a Radeon R7 260X or nVidia GTX560, so hardly cutting-edge hardware. I ran everything on Epic settings and my PC’s packing an nVidia Geforce GTX660Ti, a 3Gb card that some (including me) would say is past its use by date.

Look, if you’re a fan of stealth games and want something that has a good sense of humour and doesn’t take itself too seriously and brings the stealth back to stealth games, Styx: Shards of Darkness is well worth a look.

 

Thanks to Five Eight Distribution in Auckland for the review copy of Styx: Shards of Darkness

How a pear-shaped organ in my body ruined my entire week

My gall bladder – a pear-shaped organ underneath your liver, apparently – isn’t an organ in my body that I’ve thought much about over my 45+ years on planet Earth.

At least not until two weeks ago when I got a searing pain just underneath the right side of my ribs. I thought I was dying (looking back it seems melodramatic but at the time I really did think I was dying).

The pain started as a dull ache at first but soon radiated across my entire rib cage. If you can imagine someone wrapping a belt around your chest – then putting a foot on your rib cage and cinching it tight. That’s what it felt like. A constant pain that makes you think, initially, you’re having a heart attack. I actually thought I was having a heart attack at first but an ECG showed otherwise: My heart rate was sitting at 54bpm at rest, so it wasn’t my ticker.

After pacing the house from 3am to 7am, I convinced my wife to take me to an after hours doctor and he diagnosed gall stones fairly early on. An ultrasound that day confirmed what he had suspected: Gall stones.

The gall bladder. An organ in my body that I had taken for granted – until last week.

The gall bladder filters fat using bile produced from your liver and many people have gall stones and they don’t cause them any issues, but for me, it appears those ducts in my gall bladder were blocked, causing searing pain. Apparently, the butter chicken curry I’d had the night before had aggravated things. No more butter chicken from now on.

I went home, prescribed pain killers, and rested up for the weekend. I saw my GP on Monday who said he’d start discussions with surgeons to get the gall bladder removed. I also had to have a CT scan as ultrasound had indicated an “indeterminate mass”on a juncture with my right kidney, which, thankfully, turned out to be nothing but had me panicking for a few days (the woman doing the ultrasound had also told me that she’d had no end of trouble getting good pictures of my kidney, though).

The pain seemed to have settled down so I didn’t think about things much. Until Thursday, that was, when I went home early from work – something that is highly unusual for me – with the same pain again.

Later that evening, I got my wife to take me to Christchurch hospital’s emergency department – part of me kept telling myself to harden up and just live with it – but after blood tests, I was admitted. It was definitely gall stones and the gall bladder which was going to come out at some point was likely to come out in the next few days.

Admitted to a surgery assessment ward, I was in so much pain I had to “try”and sleep on my back, not something that is easy to do. I say try to sleep: Anyone who has been to hospital will know that getting  a good night’s sleep in a hospital is near impossible as nurses have to take two-hourly observations. It was a rough night.

Friday rolled around, my eyes bleary though lack of sleep, a collection of doctors visited to assess my condition and said, yes, I would be having surgery to remove my gall bladder but, as was to be expected, as it wasn’t life threatening there was potential to be bumped from the list if a more serious case presented itself. At 5pm, when the surgeon came to see me again,  I knew it wasn’t happening today. I remember turning to my wife and saying, “I feel like I’m going to die.” Perhaps in the scheme of things a tad melodramatic but that was how I felt.

On Saturday morning things looked more promising and while the surgeon told me there were no guarantees that surgery would happen on the weekend, he was hopeful. He was right.

At midday, I was wheeled off to surgery. The last thing I remember is the anaethetist telling me he was going to give me something that would make me feel like I’d have “a couple of beers”. My next recollection is waking up in recovery, groggy and bleary eyed with an oxygen hose in my nose, being asked if I’d like a lemonade iceblock. Yes, please, I said.

The surgery was done via keyhole surgery, which means four small cuts are made in your abdomen – one of them in your bellybutton – then a camera is inserted and the gall bladder removed. It’s all very clever. My daughter wanted me to request the gall bladder for us to keep. I don’t know why but she did. I was pretty rotten, according to the surgeon, but I guess we’ll see when we get it back. She suggested I could put it on my desk as a reminder. I won’t be.

I’ve spent the last week at home, recovering with a sore belly that throbs one minute and is OK the next. I’m still on painkillers but have discovered great shows on Netflix like The Expanse and watched Batman vs Superman again. It was better second time around, although still an hour too long.

I’m back at work tomorrow – a desk job so I should be OK – and easing back into things. If I have one piece of advice, it’s this: If you get pains under your ribs, get them checked out. It might be your gall bladder. A pear-shaped organ that can cause you no end of bother.

Believe me, I know.

*The blog will now return to its normal programming. Thanks for reading.

 

Horizon Zero Dawn: A review in pictures

I’m enjoying Horizon Zero Dawn a lot. A great big lot, actually. The world is beautifully realised, leading lady Aloy is a great character and the narrative is intriguing. I hope this is the start of a great series.

Horizon Zero Dawn is developer Guerrilla Game’s first open-world action role-playing game after a history dominated by tightly controlled first person shooter Killzone and it’s far from the perfect game, but it’s clear with HZD that Guerrilla has taken inspiration from other games  – Far Cry, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed – but added its own small touches. .

There’s no doubt Aloy is the focus here, and rightly so, but the game’s beasts, mechanical machines based on real life animals, are stars in this game, too, each with weaknesses, smarts and vulernabilities.

Snapjaw (crocodiles), Longleg (ostriches), broadhead (cattle), sawtooth (tiger): Mechanical beasts made from metal, cable and glass  –  you can shoot off individual components, provided you have the right weapon, which will slow them down, revealing weak points. They’re roaming the wilderness in HZD and nine times out of 10 they want to eat you. That’s when you hot foot it out of where they are, or take them down – or die trying.

Horizon Zero Dawn treds familiar paths that gamers accustomed to open-world games have walked before, but I don’t have a problem with that: It does it so well, so stylishly and with stunning visuals, that Id rather play Horizon Zero Dawn than Assassin’s Creed 95 or Far Cry 12. Sure, the game has flaws: fighting the human enemies isn’t as nearly fulfilling as the beasts, the voice acting is hit and miss at times,  and some of the NPC AI is questionable, but the side quests are entertaining and Aloy is a genuinely interesting character.

So to that end, Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that deserves a special kind of review, so that’s what I’m going to give it. I’m not rabbit on for paragraph after paragraph telling you what I did, how I did it and what happened. I’m not going to write clever prose. I’m going to show you the world in pictures, taken using the game’s photo mode.

Enjoy.

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Aloy caught mid-rappell down a ravine.

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A fire bellow back so, so close to Aloy (you can just make out her head in the foliage). This is one of those time the AI is a little wonky: I’m actually surprised the creature didn’t spot me – He was pretty much on top of me.

The same image as above but using the photo mode's sepia filter.

The same image as above but using the photo mode’s sepia filter.

 

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Aloy atop a longneck, Horizon Zero Dawn’s version of Far Cry’s towers. Once overridden, the map opens up a little bit more, revealing a little bit more.

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The photo mode lets you adjust things like camera position, colour balance, time of day and even remove the HUD.

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One of my favourites. The game world is littered with remnants of  the “metal age” when man was dominant. Times have changed.

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Horizon Zero Dawn: The world of Aloy in pictures

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Horizon Zero Dawn is out tomorrow on PS4 – and it’s good. Very good.

I’ve played for a few hours in the Nora shoes of main character Aloy, an outcast who must save the people who abandoned her from a robotic evil, and the game looks stunning. It’s probably one of the most visually arresting games I’ve played on a console.

So, to make the most of those sumptuous visuals, developer Guerrilla have included a rather neat photo mode that lets you tweak a whole lot of settings so you can get that perfect screenshot (including determining the time of day, moving the camera up or down as if on a crane and, nicely, an option to remove the HUD and characters from the scene).

I’ve played around with the photo mode so thought I’d post a few of the images I’ve captured so far. Horizon Zero Dawn is a game that makes you want to stop and take screenshots.

Enjoy.

Thanks to PlayStation for the review copy of Horizon Zero Dawn.

 

Halo Wars 2: RTS returns to Xbox

Note, this is a review of Halo Wars 2’s campaign. I haven’t had a chance to look at the multiplayer or the new Blitz mode, which melds RTS elements with a collectible card game, yet. I’ll give my thoughts on those when I get the chance. Enjoy.

halo-wars-2-campaign-crossings   Halo Wars 2 is proving that real-time strategy games aren’t just the domain of the PC.

And it does a pretty damn good job, actually, showing that an RTS game can be played with a controller pretty well, despite the controls not being as tight as if you were using a mouse and keyboard.

This isn’t the first time a Halo RTS games has appeared on a console, though: The original Halo Wars launched on the Xbox360. The game feels unmistakably Halo, with all the sounds, effects and characters you’d expect. It feels like a part of the Halo universe.

The story opens  with Captain Cutter and the crew of the UNSC Spirit of Fire being woken from cryosleep after the ship starts orbiting the Ark, the place where the rings from Halo are made. Unfortunately, it seems the Ark has been invaded by a disgruntled band of the Covenant called The Banished, led by a brute called Atriox.

Coming from the new wardens of the Halo franchise, 343 Industries the company handed the game making duties over to acclaimed RTS specialists, Creative Assembly, and fans of the genre will find much to like with Halo Wars. Missions are a good length and generally involve things like hold this position until help arrives or take out these objectives but it does little to move the genre forward. The story feels a little well trod, too, seeing as it’s essentially a disgruntled alien that wants to destroy humanity.

halo-wars-2-multiplayer-battle-fogThe game is beautifully presented graphically, with the level of detail on units and structures just wonderful. I never got tired of seeing a base being constructed, UNSC Pelican’s dropping in with resources before swooping off for the next section of the base. Like all RTS game, resource collection and management is key here:  Collect enough resources and you’ll continue building units. It’s that simple.

halo-wars-2-multiplayer-defend-the-baseControlling and selecting units is made simple using the Xbox One’s controller: Use the left stick on the controller to sweep the units you want to select then press the A button, while a double tap on the right bumper highlights every unit on the battlefield. Your troops are competent as well, attacking enemies without prompting.

If I’m being completely honest, I spent most of my time playing Halo Wars on my PC just because, for me, the mouse and keyboard will always be king when it comes to role-playing games and the control is just more precise than an Xbox One controller, especially if things turn pear-shaped and you have to quickly get your view back to a base that is under attack.

Sure, Halo Wars 2 suffers a little from the limitations of being on a console and it doesn’t reinvent the RTS rules, but overall, it’s a solid addition to the Halo franchise.

Thanks to Xbox NZ for providing a downloadable copy of Halo Wars 2 for review.

Horizon Zero Dawn developer interview: Making a world full of robotic dinosaurs

Senior producer on Horizon Zero Dawn Joel Eschler.

Senior producer on Horizon Zero Dawn Joel Eschler.

Joel Eschler, a senior producer on Horizon Zero Dawn, the PlayStation 4-exclusive third-person action RPG from Dutch video game developer Guerrilla, readily admits he’s a control freak but it’s a trait that he believes helps make better games.

On Horizon Zero Dawn, Joel oversaw the game’s environment art which included managing the teams responsible for the game world, lighting and the creation of assets for the game. “My general day-to-day is managing the team at large and managing our goals and making sure we’re shipping the game on time and having it looking awesome. He joined Guerrilla at the beginning of 2016, having worked for 2K in Australia.

Joel says he’s a naturally organised person and a “control freak so a lot of what I do in my day-to-day sort of comes from that OCD side of you that something’s not being done in the best way and you need to correct that. I mean, that’s the most basic level of my job.”

Aloy confronts a watcher.

Aloy confronts a watcher.

Before starting work as a tester with 2K 10 years ago, Joel was studying astrophysics in Sydney. He agrees that it was quite the career shift. “Yeah, I guess it goes to show that when you’re growing up as a kid and you think you know what you want to be that you have no idea. I always grew up playing and loving games but never really thought about having a career in them. I always thought I wanted to study the universe but I had a gap year in university and started work as a tester at 2K and I kind of got sucked in and it’s 10 years later, still going and enjoying it more and more.”

Joel thanks his astrophysics background for helping in his game industry career.

“I think that logical way of thinking and being organised and driven towards certain goals and looking at things as a puzzle to solve maybe, and also being able to recognise patterns, if you drill mathematics down to its basic looking for patterns , I think it has helped. Making games you need to be creative and passionate but you also need someone to be organised. When you kind of put all those things together, a game comes out.

herd_1434425337Asked if making a game like Horizon Zero Dawn was a big risk for Guerrilla, a developer more known for its first-person shooter Killzone series, Joel agrees, adding it was a huge risk for the Dutch development company.

“Not only for the scope of the project, but there was also an existing risk of playing it safe as well. I don’t know what the size of the studio was when HZD started but I think if you make the same kind of game, even if you layer on new features and make it look better and everything, sometimes, I think, people start to look elsewhere for bigger changes and differences so  I think there was difficult for the studio staying on the same track but at the same time the pitch for HZD was so huge and open world.”

Joel says while Killzone Shadowfall added a lot of colour to that universe that the previous ones didn’t have, Horizon Zero Dawn was on a “whole different level, going from that muted pallette to the huge amounts of colour”.

“I think it sparked that interest and that passion within the team really early on and when the pitch was made, I think people really wanted to make it happen. It had all the risks [technically] but it was managed really well with the planning and hiring externally with people who had experience with chained quests and open-world story  building.”

Making the game wasn’t without its challenges, says Joel.

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Aloy and Rost from Horizon Zero Dawn.

” I think Guerrilla had skills in building tactical games but it was all very linear and you knew what to expect:  If you had the player come around this corner, you could have this event happen but going from that to building a world where the player can almost do anything and everything, and to make it fun, I think that was definitely a challenge for the designers. ”

As the game progressed, Joel says the development team had to build a system that took into account the way the ecology was in the world, how the machines moved around, the skills that Aloy had in it.

“That was a challenge and I think that’s been solved by a number of different systems interacting together. On the technical side, there were a lot of challenges, especially the building of a world of this size and populating it with foliage and interesting landmarks. We didn’t have time to hand place every tree and every bush so they had to build a procedural system that would interact with the location in the world, that would determine what the weather would be, that would tell them what type of trees and bushes would be there. The programmers had a real field day testing themselves and coming up with systems that could build a world that didn’t need any hands to touch it. I thought that was really cool.”

scouts_1434425345So, why robot dinosaurs in Guerrilla’s new game?

“I think in its simplest form the original pitch for HZD given within the studio was the post-apocalyptic world which had been overgrown by nature. Aloy and the machines, and the concept art, that was enough for people to start think ‘Why wasn’t society around anymore?’,  ‘Who is this character?’, ‘What happened – and what the hell are these machines?’  It all sparked from there, with people speculating about the world narrative. It was a snowball that kept on growing.”

Guerrilla games hasn’t been know in the past for its ground-breaking narratives so with Horizon Zero Dawn the development team pulled out all the stops, recruiting John Gonzales, the writer who penned the story for Fallout New Vegas, to head the narrative team.

” Aloy’s story was one that was worked on really hard and Guerrilla did a big recruitment drive to expand out the narrative team. We have John Gonzales, who is our narrative director, and we recruited other people as well who had experience doing immersive narratives within open-worlds. The approach to the narrative was kind of two-fold: There was the world building, which was the tribes that are around Horizon’s worlds, their history, their beliefs, their political structure, that sort of thing, and then there is Aloy’s story, and then on top of that the more personal stories of the inhabitants of the world. So there was definitely a huge focus on building the narrative.”

aloy_village_logo_1465873567Joel says the game’s lead female character, Aloy, was part of the game since inception and the narrative was written as a coming of age story with her having to discover the world and her purpose in it. “I really hope when people get the game that they really latch on to her. We’re really happy with the by-product of having Aloy as a character and showing that anyone can be a hero, that anyone can be interesting and you don’t have to limit yourself to bold, space marines.

“We tried to create this living, breathing world and  think about how they would see their place within it and Aloy is our hero in the traditional video game sense but really as you start out the game she’s actually an outcast from society as a child and you find out pretty early on in the game how that happened so it’s more her trying to prove to herself and prove to the world that she’s living in that she is worthwhile she works on making herself invaluable in the world.”

Now that the game is almost in shops, Joel says the team has lived up to their expectations. ” People were leaving other studios to come and work at Guerrilla. A lot of team are really happy and having a chance to play the game at length for the first time. They’re talking about machines that they ran into on the world that they didn’t know we created, and quests that they didn’t know were there.”

Horizon Zero Dawn is out on the PlayStation 4 on March 1. I’ll get a review up as soon as humanly possible.

Impact Winter: Survival in a winter wonderland

I can’t say Impact Winter was really on my games radar until an email dropped in my inbox today with a new trailer and a date for the PC version.

The survival game lands on PC in digital format on April 12 and its isometric view has really piqued my interest. It’s art style is pretty neat, too. The game is coming to coming to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 later this year.

Here, watch this latest trailer to see for yourself.

Here’s the skinny from publisher Bandai Namco on what the game is about: “An asteroid has collided with Earth, and the world we once knew is now nothing more than a snow-covered wasteland. Almost everyone and everything perished in the harsh, sub-zero temperatures. But you didn’t. And you received a radio transmission that has filled you with hope and the will to survive the next 30 days.

“Take on The Void as Jacob Solomon, a lone survivor wandering around the frozen wilderness when he stumbles upon a snow-buried church sheltering four other survivors and their robot, Ako-light. Each with their own unique field of expertise, they’ll form a makeshift team, hunting and scavenging to stay alive despite the weather conditions and slumping morale, while furiously focusing on lowering the Rescue Timer.”

Apart from the blurb above, I know very little else about Impact Winter: Whether there are enemies that try to get you while you wait for a rescue; Whether you can die if you don’t scavenge enough food or resources; How exactly can you lower the Rescue Timer?;

So many questions, so little answers. Here are some images to look at.

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