Mass Effect Andromeda thoughts so far

I’m not 100 per cent sure what it is but Mass Effect Andromeda just isn’t geling with me like previous Mass Effect games did.

Sure, it’s been a while since I played and finished Mass Effect 3 (and don’t shoot me but I didn’t have a problem with the way it originally ended before fans made a noise about it and Bioware changed things), so things might be a little fuzzy in my old man brain, but I can remember the narrative and dialogue in ME3 being much better than that in Andromeda. Much, much better.

I don’t what it is with the dialogue in Andromeda. It just feels off. It doesn’t feel right. It feels forced and cliched at times. It feels clunky, too, often delivered unemotionally so I didn’t get invested in the characters and what was happening.

I tried to see if I could find my review of ME3 I did when I wrote for Fairfax NZ but I can’t find it anywhere but I know it was a game that I couldn’t put down as I guided my Commander Shepard to the final battle against the Reapers. Andromeda, which is set 600 years after Mass Effect 3, involves new characters, new situations and new enemies as you guide Pathfinder Ryder through the Andromeda system to find new worlds to inhabit.

Mass Effect Andromeda just isn’t capturing my attention like previous Mass Effect games did. I just don’t want to spend hours playing it like I did Mass Effect 3 and Mass Effect 2. Sure there are a shitload of side quests and while some are genuinely fun, most, sadly, are uninspired.

Since I started playing, the game has been patched, so some of the freaky walking stuff and creepy faces has been removed but things still look a little off to me in the character department. Environment wise, especially planet-side, things look really nice. Andromeda is generally a nice looking game – as some of the screen shots show – when it comes to planets and environments but I’m just not finding it as enjoyable as previous Mass Effect games.

I thought some of the voice acting was flat as well, with some of the voices sounded unemotional and uninterested in what was happening around them.

There’s depth to Bioware’s latest game, though, with a deep skill tree for players to customise their Pathfinder to exactly the type of hero they want. Those gamers who love tinkering with stats and the like will find much to keep them busy here as Andromeda has a lot of boosts, buffs and augments to experiment with.

Does her face look a little odd or is it just me? It’s the lips, right?

This guy’s standing just a little too close: Like bisecting my Ryder a little too close!

This NPC is called Angry Woman. Yes, Angry Woman.

The combat was solid enough, with the upgradable biotic powers useful in close quarters combat, depending on the skill tree you were going down. One thing I didn’t like, though, was a Sudoku-like puzzle that has to be solved when you tackle the game’s vaults.

I’ve never been good at Sudoku so these really frustrated the hell out of me (It wasn’t helped by the fact that most of the time you’ were forced to fight remnant forces every time you got the puzzle wrong).

The in-game menu system was confusing to navigate easily and graphical glitches abound: From NPCs doing weird things to stuff just sinking through other objects. I don’t know whether it was just my game but every time Ryder initially excited the Tempest (his spaceship) he wasn’t wearing a helmet but a split second later, he was wearing a helmet (Funnily, enough, Ryder’s squad mates weren’t wearing helmets, though). Personally, I feel as if the game could have done with a few more months in the oven, to polish things up a little.

Look, glitches aside and less-than-inspiring dialogue,  Andromeda isn’t a bad game and I’ll likely stick it out for a few more hours just to see what happens but for me, it’s just not a great, must-buy-right-now game, and that’s kind of sad when you think about it.

 

 

 

Nintendo Switch review: If you build it, they will come

The Switch in docked mode, with the JoyCon controllers attached. It’s not plugged in, obviously.

I’ve had a Nintendo Switch for about three weeks now and I like it. I like it a lot but I do have some reservations about it (but more on those later).

OK, full disclosure first:  Nintendo Australia sent me a Switch for long-term loan (I’ve talked about how this came about here) and will send me first-party games when they become available that I can review. If it wasn’t for Nintendo Australia, I wouldn’t have a Switch so I’m grateful to the company for that.

What I like most about the Switch is its tablet/portable mode. That is what makes it so good as a games player. I also like that its software which comes on flash ROM cartridges or digitally isn’t region locked. That is a good thing.

I like the design of the Switch. Without the Joy Con controllers attached it looks like a regular tablet, except its held in landscape mode all the time. You can play games without the Joy Cons attached – they’re wireless – and the unit itself has a somewhat fragile looking kickstand that props it up. It means you can set the console up on a table or a bench – or an airline tray table? – and play games that way.

The tablet of the Nintendo Switch. The screen is quite glossy: You can see my reflection in it.

Attach the Joy Cons to the tablet, though, and that’s where it really shines. The 720p screen is sharp and clear and it’s a good size – just the thing for portable gaming – , although it’s quite glossy so there is screen glare to content with depending on your positioning near things like windows and lights.

The Switch feels comfortable in your hands when in portable mode and while a little unusual at first, the stick and button layout becomes natural after a while.

The portable mode is the crowning glory of the Switch. It really is and I have to say I’ve played most of Zelda Breath of the Wild using the portable mode.

It means I can take the Switch to work and play some BOTW on my lunch break. It means I can take the Switch to bed and play BOTW while my wife reads her book. It means I can take the Switch to the toilet … OK, you get where I’m going here (Disclaimer: I have never taken the Switch with me to the toilet).

For all the things I like about the Nintendo Switch – and I do like it –  I just can’t recommend you rush out and buy one right now. The software just isn’t there for it.

Later on in the year, I’m sure it’ll be a different story (Mario Kart 7 Deluxe is due out later this month, I think) but right now, the Switch just doesn’t have enough compelling games to make it a must-have purchase. The lack of must-buy games is the biggest weakness of the Switch right now, especially given it’ll set you back around $550 just for the console itself in New Zealand.

I’ve only got two games for it: The aforementioned BOTW, which I really like and it looks fantastic,  and the frankly not very good Switch 1-2, which is a collection of mini-games where you look at another player rather than the TV screen to do things like gun slinging and milking a cow. Yes, milking a cow. It’s as bizarre as it sounds.

Look, Wii Sports is a much, much better game than Switch 1-2 and it launched on a Nintendo console two generations ago. Switch 1-2 should have been included free with the Switch as a tech demo on how the motion controls of the Joy Con controllers work but no, in NZ it’s priced anything from $65 to $80. Personally, I think Nintendo should have just thrown Switch 1-2 in as a freebie..

Here’s some advice: If you go to a game store to buy a Switch and the shop clerk says “How about another game for your Nintendo Switch? What about Switch 1-2 as well?” do this: Laugh in that person’s face, say “No” loudly then walk out of the store with your Switch and copy of BOTW tucked under your arm.

To me, the Switch has really only one game worth playing at the moment, Zelda Breath of the Wild, and it’s a very good game – and that’s from someone who isn’t a longtime Zelda fan – but apart from that, there’s nothing else to play on it. Games are coming, though (Update:  Apparently Lego City  Undercover is out for the Switch now. I haven’t played it yet, though)

More games are coming: Splatoon 2 is coming, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 from Telltale is coming, Pikmin 3 is coming, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is coming, Arms is coming … so my   recommendation right now is although I love the Switch, I’d wait before buying one.

The Switch reminds a little of the Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams (readers born after 1989 ask your parents or Google it) about a farmer who heard a voice whisper to him “If you build it, they will come” in relation to building a baseball diamond in his cornfield. He did, and they came.

To me, the Nintendo Switch is a bit like that: Nintendo has built the console, now we just have to wait for the games to arrive.

 

 

I just finished Thimbleweed Park – and all I want is more

About 20 minutes ago I finished Thimbleweed Park, the crowd-funded point-and-click adventure game from veteran game makers Rob Gilbert & Gary Winnick, and all I can say is: When can I sign up for the next game from these two?

Bravo, bravo, bravo, Messrs Gilbert & Winnick.

It says something about the quality of the game and how much you enjoyed playing it when you really, really, really, really hope the game makers have got another idea in the pipeline. Put it this way: I’d plonk down $US20 in a heartbeat to back another game from Ron Gilbert & Gary Winnick

I mentioned in a previous post that during my play through that the puzzles hadn’t proved too taxing. As the game nears completion things get a little tougher but they’re nothing insurmountable.

I have to admit, though, in a panicked moment when a character suddenly became unplayable and was holding an item another character needed I reached out to Ron Gilbert on Twitter as to what I should do and whether the character would return. “They will be … just wait,” he replied.

He was right. Not long afterwards the character returned and everything fell into place. I felt like a real chump, if I’m being honest, but it speaks volumes to Gilbert that he was willing to answer such an inane question from me. He must have thought I was a right plonker.

If you’re a fan of classic point-and-click adventure games like Monkey Island, Full Throttle and Maniac Mansion, then Thimbleweed Park is a real trip down memory lane and a no brainer at $NZ23.99. It was 12 of the most enjoyable hours I’ve spent playing a video game.

Oh, and if you do buy it  and play it and enjoy it, for the love of Pete, sit through until the game’s end credits have finished: There’s a sequence that will bring a smile to the faces of gamers who cut their teeth on computers like the Commodore 64 and old school games (I had to make do with a Sinclair Spectrum and an Atari ST but I still categorise myself as one of those old-school gamers).

So, Ron Gilbert & Gary Winnick, when do we hear more about your next game?

 

Thimbleweed Park is the game I’ve been waiting years for

Two years ago, I backed Ron Gilbert & Gary Winick’s Kickstarter fund the princely sum of $US20 for the point-and-click adventure game they wanted to make.

It was a no brainer for me, to be honest. I loved played the classic Lucasarts point-and-click games like Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle. Games that both Gilbert and Winnick were involved it. Those readers that have been reading my blog for a while will know that I’ve already waxed lyrically about Grim Fandango and Full Throttle, games that I still own today on disc.

I paid the money, the game got funded and I sort of forgot about it and let Winick and Gilbert get on with it. There were updates during the two years from the duo about how things were going and late last week, an email arrived that lifted my heart: Thimbleweed Park was finished and ready to play. My heart jumped for joy.

“Thimbleweed Park has been set free. Thimbleweed Park has been released into the wild. Thimbleweed Park has been kicked out of the house, told to get a job,” the email opened. It was the news I’d been waiting for. It was time to be transported back to my gaming heydays …

My teenage son, who is 17, can’t understand why I like games like Thimbleweed Park and the whole point-and-click adventure series. I told him it’s because I just love games that make me think rather than just move from point A to B shooting everything that moves. He doesn’t get it but it’s not his fault: He’s a gamer of the 2000s, a decade when point-and-click adventure games are all but forgotten by most gamers apart from those my age probably.

Thimbleweed Park follows the conventions of the classic games that went before it: Solve  mysteries using the items you find in the game world, combining objects to complete tasks. In the game you eventually get to control five actors (FBI agents Reyes and Ray, wannabe video game programmer Delores, Ransome the Insult Clown, and Franklin Edmund, Delores’ father), swapping between them at the click of a button. It looks like a game from 1987, which it’s pixellated graphics and cheesy music, but I love it.

I’m about six and a half hours in so far and playing it on PC with mouse and keyboard (point-and-click adventure games don’t feel right to me using a controller) and none of the puzzles have stumped me greatly, although some will really make you think about what you have to combine to create the end product. I haven’t come across as anything as mind-bendingly hard as some of those in Monkey Island but there’s still time and some items that you’ll need are hard to find (particularly a chainsaw that I needed later in the game …)

With games like this, if you pay attention to what characters say and think logically, you’ll solve most puzzles easily enough. The story is engaging and the dialogue is snappy, and I haven’t come across any game-breaking bugs yet. If I had any criticism, it’s that I think at times the game mentions past adventure games a little too much. It kind of breaks the fourth wall a little too much for my liking at times.

I’ve got other games to play at the moment – Zelda Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch) and Mass Effect Andromeda (PlayStation 4) – but I’m gravitating to Thimbleweed Park right now. It’s the game I want to play until the end (unlike the other point-and-click adventure game I Kickstarted, Tim Schafer’s Broken Age: I gave up on that one after playing just the first part. I just didn’t like it that much, plus the development process was disjointed).

I’m enjoying the hell out of Thimbleweed Park and I’m glad I backed it. It’s taken me back to an age when games were clever and made you think and gameplay was more important that realistic graphics.

Thank you Ron Gilbert and Gary Winick. Thank you for making Thimbleweed Park. It’s been the best $US20 I’ve even spent.

 

 

Samsung Galaxy A5 review: Tweaks for a new year

The revamped Samsung Galaxy A5 smartphone.

While it’s probably been lost in the recent announcement of Samsung’s soon-to-be released Galaxy S8, Samsung has quietly launched a revamped Galaxy A series.

Aimed at the mid-priced point is the Galaxy A5 , which has an RRP in New Zealand of $749, and it’s clear it’s taken a lot of design cues from Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S7 smart phone. The two phones look remarkably similar in design, albeit with a few subtle differences.

Sure, the S7 feels a lot more premium and high-end than the A5 but, you know what? Samsung’s new 2017 phone is now slouch in the design department and put them side by side and at a glance, you’d have a hard time working out which was the cheaper model. The A5 actually has a slightly larger display than the S7, too.

Running Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow), the A5 has been tweaked over the old model: It has a 5.2-inch Super AMOLED screen (1280×720 resolution), powered by a 1.9GHz Octa core processor and 3Gb of RAM (up from 2Gb in the previous generation A5). Internal storage is locked at 32Gb but it’s upgradable via microUSB (upto 256Gb). The Galaxy A5 is part of a three-phone line up, sitting between the 5.7-inch Galaxy A7 and the 5.3-inch Galaxy A3.

Samsung has moved the speaker grille to the top right hand side of the chassis (it’s now next to the headphone jack on the S7), just above the power button, and uses a USB-type C connection for charging.

As is common these days, the A5 has a non-removable battery, rated at 3000mAh. The new season A5 now has 16MP cameras, front and rear (an upgrade from the 13MP and 5MP of the previous A5). Like previous late-model Samsung phones, the A5 seems to have less bloatware pre-installed, which is always a good thing in my book.

I have to say that despite being a “budget” handset, the Galaxy A5 felt really solid in my hands. It had a high-end finish, which is nice in a smart phone that sits mid-range in Samsung’s new line-up, and it just felt comfortable holding it, although the back is quite slippery.

The Galaxy A5 handled snapshots with ease.

The Galaxy A5 took good photos thanks to its 16 MP camera. For no reasons, here’s a photo of my dog resting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to the Octa core CPU, the user interface (UI) was snappy enough swiping through screens and the camera produced some pleasing results and I got probably a day out of it before needing a recharge. It’s clear, though, that the screen just isn’t as sharp as the Galaxy S7’s sharper display, which offers higher resolutions.

The question, though, is: At $749 is the 2017 Galaxy A5 worth the budget-friendly moniker?

A quick glance over Pricespy shows that a Galaxy S7 can be had for as little as $693 or as much as $1203 (chain electronic retailers were priced around $999 for the S7 handset) and another online aggregation site had the A5 ranging from $$498 right up to $749 so it can be found cheaper than Samsung’s RRP. If you can find it cheaper, then I’d go for it if you’re keen: Why pay full retain, right?

The bottom line is if you don’t need all the bells and whistles that you’ll find in Samsung’s top  models, such as the Galaxy S7 and upcoming Galaxy S8, then the Samsung A5 will fit the bill nicely(as will the entire A line-up). It’s a great looking phone that’ll do everything you need it to, and that’s sometimes all you need in a smart phone.

Oh, look, it’s a Nintendo Switch!

A few weeks ago I was invited by Nintendo to attend a hands-on session with its then-yet-to-be released Switch. Sadly, I had to decline the invitation (it was in Auckland and I live in Christchurch, which is in New Zealand’s South Island) but Nintendo’s PR company in Australia kept in touch over the following weeks.

Last week, I got the good news that Nintendo was going to send me a Switch to look at for review. The console arrived today (after being held up by Customs for a couple of days). It came with a copy of Zelda: Breath of the Wild & 1-2 Switch as well as spare JoyCon controllers (red & blue).

The last Nintendo home console I played was the Nintendo GameCube (which I still own) so I’m looking forward to having a good look at the Switch over the coming days, especially trying out the portable mode. I’ll document my thoughts in the next week or so.

Set up was easy enough and I managed to connect the JoyCon controllers the right way to the tablet body (I read on social media that some people  slid them on wrong, causing them to get stuck). As I write this, the Switch is charging the tablet.

Zelda: BOTW will also be the first home console Zelda game I’ve played (I’m not counting the Nintendo 3DS version) so I’m looking forward to it.

In the meantime, here are some images of the un-boxing process.

The tablet of the Nintendo Switch. It’s has a nice reflective screen, as you can see by my reflection.

The rear view of the Switch’s tablet. Note the bananas in the background. Our dog likes bananas, too.

The Switch in docked mode. It’s not plugged in yet, obviously.

The Switch in docked mode, with the JoyCon controllers attached.

 

 

 

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