Age of Empires The Definitive Edition: Blast from the past

As far as real-time strategy games go, I spent countless hours playing the original Age of Empires when it came out God knows how many years ago (Mr Google tells me it was 20 years ago!). It was one of the first RTS games I played when I first got a PC, along with Westwood’s Red Alert.

Fast forward to 2018, and Microsoft Studios have released an Age of Empires for a new age of gamer (or those older gamers who hark back to their youth) but is it the Definitive Edition? I’m not so sure: Sure, it captures the magic of the original game but it doesn’t do anything revolutionary to the genre.

For those that aren’t familiar with Age of Empires, players start the game with a civilisation and have to grow it, researching new things and conquering other civilisations as you move through the ages. As with most RTS games of this ilk, there’s a lot of micro-management: Making sure you have enough resources to build new structures, enough food to feed the troops and enough soldiers and weapons to defend your clan from invading factions.

Campaigns in Definitive Edition include Egyptian, Roman, Japanese and Babylonian factions but fundamentally, they’re all the same basic idea with the same end goal: Grow your civilisation.

While the graphics and audio are crisper than the original (the game really does look great, boasting  4K visuals and much improved audio), sadly, some of the game’s wonky AI path finding has managed to sneak into the new game: I lost count how many times a villager just stood around waiting for the next command rather than continue the task he had been allocated until I asked him to stop.

One thing that might hamper the game is that it’s only available for Windows 10 on Microsoft’s store (so no Steam), something that might limit its market.

Age of Empires Definitive Edition will appeal to gamers who want to re-play the original on modern hardware but for RTS fans wanting something to really get their teeth into, they might need to look elsewhere.

Astroneer: The game in Alpha that just gets better & better

I haven’t backed many games through things like Kickstarter. Maybe four or five in total.

I backed Tim Schaefer’s Broken Age, which in hindsight I wished I hadn’t as it took far too long to arrive and then I didn’t actually end up playing it (I think it took so long to get finished that I just  gave up on it completely.

I obviously haven’t lost faith in Schaefer completely as I’ve also backed Psychonauts 2. Hey, the original game was underrated and bloody good – and I have to admit, progress on number two is looking really good (I hope it isn’t fool me twice, shame on me with this one).

Late last year, I backed mountain biking game Lonely Mountains. I think it appealed to me because a) It has a really appealing low-poly look to it and b) I like mountain biking so it seems like a win-win for me, really.

Last year, I also backed Astroneer, from System Era Software and I have to say I haven’t regretted it for a second. The game is still in its Alpha stage but, man, the team behind it is knocking it out of the park with new features and support.

Long story short: You’re an astronaut on a proceduraly generated planet that must craft and mine to survive. It sounds simple but, actually, it’s quite complex.I guess it’s kind of like Minecraft but in space and with 3D printers that you can print buggies and a backpack that lets you craft dynamite and power generators.

The most recent update – the biggest update yet – has dramatically changed the opening moments : Instead of a simple capsule habitat, you  know have a wonderful, large base. Oh, just watch this video, you’ll see what I mean.

This is one game that I’m glad I dropped the cash on.

Let me know what you think about Astroneer in the comments.

Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice in pictures

Update: I’ve added two more images that I took tonight. I set up the images using the game’s in-built photo mode but capture the images in Geforce Experience’s Ansel capture mode.

I’m about three hours into Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice & I’m really liking it. A lot. I don’t regret taking the plunge and pre-ordering it.

The combat is visceral and solid,  and the audio is outstanding: Wear headphones if you play it.  Your ears will thank me.

I took some images while I was playing it tonight using Geforce Experience, rather than the game’s in-built photo mode. I didn’t tweak with the settings: Just capture them with the default settings. I’ll take more as I play.


Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice: A trip into the mind

I took the plunge over the weekend and pre-ordered Ninja Theory’s Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice from Steam (it’s also available on PS4). It cost me $35.99, not unreasonable for a game from a studio known for games like Enslaved Odyssey to the West,  Heavenly Sword and the DmC (Devil may Cry).

While I’m not usually a fan of pre-ordering games – I don’t think it’s a practice we should encourage – I was OK with this one. It was from a developer whose games I have enjoyed in the past and with Hellblade, Ninja Theory is trying something different by tackling the difficult subject of mental health.

Plus, it’s only available digitally, meaning no manufacturing costs and it it was only $35. I would have been less sure of taking the risk on it if it had been $60. Or $100 (and to show how tight I am about how much I spend on games: I went with PC because it was cheaper than on PlayStation 4, despite the fact that my PC’s graphics card fell under the recommended specs).

The game unlocked on Steam this morning and I started downloading it before I left for work.

This isn’t a review: I’ve only played it for about 1/2 an hour and haven’t even touched the sides of what the game is but so far it’s a harrowing tale into the mind of Senua, a young warrior battling with her inner demons in a game steeped in Nordic and Celtic mythology. It’s game world is dark and gritty, with a real sense of uncertainty about what is going on, and the game play is a mix of combat (with fast and heavy strikes), with Senua squaring off against the manifestations (and voices) in her head, and simple environmental puzzles that shouldn’t stump you if you know what you’re looking for.

Early on in the game, Senua fights a battle that is unwinnable but is infected by black tendrills on one of her arms from that point players are told that the tendrills will spread with each failure (I take that to mean with each in game death) and once the tendrills reach her head, it’s game over and the game starts you from the beginning, wiping your save game. I take that to mean if you die too many times, the game imposes permadeath on you, forcing you back to the beginning. It’s a bold move by Ninja Theory but one that was perhaps done to make Senua’s fight with her demons that more real and permanent.

Graphically, the game looks really nice with a moody atmosphere and harrowing sound design. I needn’t have worried about my GPU, either: Using the high graphics presets, I’m getting a stable 35 to 40 frames per second. The game actually started the game with the graphics presets at Very High by default, which still game me a pretty solid 30FPS, with the odd dip here and there. I’m happy with that performance given the age of my GPU.

Ninja Theory reckons Hellblade is between six to eight hours in length: Suits me. My time for gaming these days is precious so experiences that are short and sweet are just what I’m after.

I’m intrigued by Hellblade and what Ninja Theory are doing. I’ll let you know how I find it once I’ve gone deeper into the rabbit hole.


Enslaved Odyssey to the West: A great but flawed gem

I never finished my first play through of Ninja Theory’s Enslaved Odyssey to West: It’s niggles & frustrations just got too much for me, despite me really enjoying the journey tale of main characters Monkey and Trip.

Last weekend, I decided to reinstall it on Steam and make my way through it again. I’m really glad I did. Sure, the niggles & frustrations are still annoying me from time to time but I’ve put those aside to focus on the story and the relationship that develops between the two lead characters. That’s the really stellar thing about the game: The relationship.

The game takes place in an apocalyptic world 150 years into the future where robots still present the biggest challenge and danger and very few humans exist anymore. The world is one full of danger at almost every turn.

One of the game’s biggest strengths is its combat, which while relatively simplistic, sees monkey battle a variety of mechanical beasts using a staff that can not only bash the shite out of foes but can fire plasma bolts that can stun and blast enemies. Chain enough hits and Monkey can perform a takedown move which will short circuit larger foes. The story is written by Alex Garland, the same writer behind one of my favourite movies, Dredd, and features Andy Serkis (he who did the motion capture work and voice of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies) and Lindsey Shaw.

I think what really sells me on Enslaved is the developing relationship between Monkey and Trip and the emotions that develop as their bond grows and the pair learn to trust each other and work together. It’s a game that treats its players like mature adults not reliant on clichés and gimmicks to move the narrative along. There was some DLC released featuring a character called Piggy but I haven’t got that yet. Maybe I might pick it up.

Sometimes, taking a break between playing a game can make you enjoy it more the second time around. That’s definitely the case with Enslaved Odyssey to the West. Hopefully, Ninja Theory might decide to make a sequel. I’d pay to play that.

Impact Winter review: Surviving winter

Inside the church where Jacob, Blane, Wendy, Maggie and Christophe are sheltering after an asteroid struck earth, plunging it into winter.

According to Wikipedia, an impact winter is “a hypothesized period of prolonged cold weather due to the impact of a large asteroid or comet on the Earth’s surface” – and that’s the premise behind Impact Winter (PC: Xbox One and PlayStation 4 later this year), a survival game from developer Mojo Bones and published by Bandai Namco.

Players control Jacob Solomon, one of four survivors eeking out an existence in an abandoned church after an asteroid has hit earth, plunging it into perpetual wintry conditions. The group’s robot companion, Ako-Light intercepts a radio transmission indicating that help will arrive in 30 days. You have to explore the game world, searching for supplies to help you survive until help arrives.

The game really does an excellent job of a bleak existence as the result of a cataclysmic event. Jacob’s fellow survivors – Christophe, Blane, Wendy and Maggie – can be given tasks to complete while Jacob goes out and searches abandoned house for supplies and equipment that will help speed up how long it takes for help to arrive.  Tasks can be things like repairing the church to upgrade its resilience in the harsh weather or making equipment that help in the search for better supplies. In the game’s early stages, Jacob will also has to make sure that the fire in the church, which provides heat and cooking facilities for the group, is constantly fueled.

Part of the charm (is it charm?) about Impact Winter is that there’s a real sense of urgency in trying to find supplies then get back to the church to get stuff done. Every time Jacob or the other survivors achieve a milestone, XP points are earned and  time is taken off how long it will take for help to arrive, allowing more skills/roles to be assigned to the characters. There’s also a real sense of hopelessness at times with Impact Winter as during one expedition I had to hurry back to the church as I was notified that Blane was not feeling well. By the time I got back to the church – the temperature had plummeted to -7 degrees – Blane, Wendy and Christophe who are all bed-ridden, hungry and unwell, and the fire had died. I wasn’t doing too well and had to use all the wood I had gathered to help repair the roof to fuel the fire.

Jacob trudging through the winter.

Impact Winter does a great job in setting a gloomy, post-apocalyptic scene, with Jacob wading through knee-high snow and being buffeted by arctic winds. Houses and business as dark and gloomy and often you’ll have to decide what to take and what to leave behind. Ako-Light, your robot buddy, has a powerful spotlight that is useful for illuminating dark spots and can help dig out objects from the ground.

Sadly, Impact Winter is hampered by technical issues, which is a shame. Sometimes, the game takes a while to load (but that seems to have been sorted) and even though I was using a game pad, button presses don’t always do what they’re supposed to. The key layout just seems to be a mess (apparently, a patch is on the way to sort out the key binding issues).

Technical issues aside, there’s a huge amount of depth to Impact Winter – and a huge amount to like – and it’s a game where you have to carefully pay attention to the other members of your party and not go Rambo and head off on your own for too long. Sure, it takes a bit of getting used to juggling everything you have to do to survive – I’m failing miserably right now – but Impact Winter is an interesting idea that just needed a bit more polish before it was released.

Jacob outside the entrance to the church where the survivors are living.


Thanks to Bandai Namco for providing a review code for Impact Winter.




Lonely Mountains: Mountain biking, low-poly styles

No doubt I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m a keen cyclist, both mountain and road, so when a Twitter friend (thanks @museste) let me know about Lonely Mountains, my interest was piqued.

Lonely Mountains describes itself as a “downhill mountain biking game for PC focusing on responsive and fun controls, an open level design and an untouched nature in a beautiful low poly style”.

I’m digging the art style and simplistic nature of Lonely Mountains, but apart from the trailer I don’t know much more about it, like how big will it be, how does progression through the game work and is there an online aspect .The game is being worked on my Berlin, Germany indie studio Megagon Industries founded in 2013. Two of the three-man team are working on Lonely Mountains, which is tentatively aiming for a 2018 release.

Lonely Mountains reminds me a lot of the game Trials HD, mainly because it’s a game where you ride a trials motorbike through a variety of courses, aiming to beat times and do tricks to earn points. Megagon says the game will feature custom bike physics, secret locations, tracks that you can ride from top to bottom without encountering a loading screen and open-world game play, meaning you can follow tracks or find your own way to the end point. All the screen shots show the game in a pre-Alpha state so there’s still a fair bit of work to go.

The developers say other potential features will include weather systems (snow, rain, wind), a dynamic day and night system, a replay & share system, and rider and bike customisation. As I said earlier, my interest is piqued and I’m going to follow the progress of Lonely Mountains closely.

Now, if I could only be as skilled on my mountain bike as the low-poly rider featured in the trailer …


Prey impressions: Did that coffee mug just move? DID IT JUST MOVE??

Here are my thoughts so far on Prey, the first-person shooter set in space from Bethesda. I haven’t finished the game yet but thought I’d let you know what I thought from what I’ve played. I’m playing on Xbox One using a code supplied by Bethesda

If Prey has taught me one thing, it’s this: Be wary of coffee mugs.

You heard me right: Be wary of coffee mugs. And office chairs. And globes. And bath towels. You see, in Prey, sometimes items aren’t what they seem. They could be the game’s alien life form, called a mimic, that’s out to eat your face.

Set in the year 2035 on the Talos 1 space station (in an era when John F Kennedy wasn’t assassinated and Russia and the US are working together to build the first space station), Prey is, I guess, a re-imagining (of sorts) of the original Prey, with the player controlling Morgan Yu, a scientist/test subject who has to find out what has caused a breakout of the alien mimic life form. As we’ve seen in many games before Prey, Yu can’t remember what has gone before so as he explores the Talos 1 things and events become a lot clearer.

Prey has a real Bioshock/Half Life/Dishonored feel about – and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Half Life because, well, the first weapon Yu finds is a wrench, Bioshock because Yu can upgrade his abilities (through a skill tree)  using augmentations called neuromods and Dishonored because the studio behind the Dishonored games – Arkane Studios – is also the developer behind Prey.

What follows is exploration and fetch quests as Yu wanders about Talos 1, trying to get to the bottom of what caused the mimic containment break. It’s an amalgam of several games, wrapped up into one. The mimics are the game’s enemies and smaller ones are black, spider-like creatures that can suck the life force from humans, causing them to multiply. They’re also incredibly fast and can often jump at you from nowhere. The wrench comes in handy with the smaller mimics but weapons like shotguns, a gun that fires blogs of glue and a pistol is handy against larger humanoid enemies like phantoms, which often have powers of their own and move incredibly swiftly. A nice touch are the service robots – called operators – that can be fabricated to repair your suit and heal you up. Another nice touch is that you can recycle all the junk you’ll inevitably pick up (lemon peels, scraps of paper, alcohol bottles) using recycling machines and turn them into materials, both organic and synthetic, that can be used to create equipment and weapons.

I have to admit that I jumped a few times while playing Prey. It’s not because it’s overly scary, because it’s not, but it’s because I just seem to wuss out when it comes to horror/survival games. I can watch horror movies no problem but horror video games? Man, I need to keep a spare pair of underwear handy. I guess it’s because with horror movies it’s easy to see what’s going to happen. With horror games, I genuinely find I have no idea what’s going to happen.

With no word of a lie, I stood outside the doorway of a room that was bathed in darkness for 10 minutes, not wanting to go into it, because I was worried some mimic was going to transform from a coffee mug into a spidery alien and try to eat my face. My fears are real, people. My fears are real.

I spent countless times – wrench at the ready – inching forward towards desks with coffee cups resting on them, worried one of them was a mimic. Someone I follow on social media said they found a desk with two coffee cups on it – and one of them rolled to the side, disappearing somewhere in the room. I would have lost it right there.

Eventually, Yu is able to scan the environment for mimics from a distance but, yeah, not knowing whether a coffee cup – or some other object – is actually what it appears to be is quite unnerving.

Missions are what you’d expect – go here and get a keycard that will open a door to another area, go to this room to recover something for someone who will give you a code for something – but there are  some interesting side quests that add to the back story to what happened on the Talos 1 before the mimic containment break. Talos 1 is also an interesting setting, too: It’s a living  space station with crew quarters, kitchens, reactors, medical rooms, cargo bays and nooks and crannies to explore. Prey’s story is an interesting one as well, set in a place where nothing is as it seems.

While nothing like the sequel to the original game (which came out last generation in 2006) that Human Head was working on before Bethesda canned it, so far Prey is a lot of fun that really has a Bioshock/Half Life vibe to it.

One thing is for certain: It’s made me look at coffee mugs in a whole different light.


Grinding Gear Games studio visit: Path of Exile going console

NB: I originally wrote this story for Fairfax NZ’s website but I’m re-publishing it here.

In an unassuming cream-coloured building in Auckland’s western suburb of Henderson (a relatively pleasant, if mostly silent, 37 minute Uber ride in lunchtime traffic from the city’s domestic airport environs),  nestled at the fringes of a car park that’s actually part of a Pak ‘n Save supermarket, something magical is happening.

And on the first floor of that cream-coloured, average looking building is Grinding Gear Games, a video game maker co-founded in 2006 by like-minded guys Chris Wilson and Jonathan Rogers in Wilson’s garage in the Auckland suburb of Newlands New Lynn that’s doing that magic.

One of the co-founders of Grinding Gear Games, Jonathan Rogers, at the company’s Henderson studio.

Wilson and Rogers met while studying computer science at the University of Auckland.  “He was significantly more talented, and I realised if I tethered my horse to this guy, anything he’s doing will be good from a programming point of view,” says Wilson, who also studied finance while at university.

The pair also had something else in common: A love of PC action RPG games like Diablo 2, but Wilson thought they could do better, especially if they focused on the online multiplayer RPG space, an area they felt was lacking. “We were missing a game that captured the feeling of something like Diablo 2 online,” he says.   “We wanted to build an online community.”

Wilson says looking back, it was never his intention to co-found a video game studio – his programming background was focused on the security side of things – but when they saw a gap in the market they felt they could do something about.

So they set to work on making the game they wanted to play themselves. That game was Path of Exile.

“We started out as hobbyists,” says Wilson as we sit on a comfortable couch that leads off the company’s lunch room/kitchen area.

Part of the open-plan office of Grinding Gear Games.

Staff wander about the open-plan office, posters of characters from the company’s game adorning a wall as you enter the studio.  A mountain bike rests against a couch  in a room off the kitchen. There’s a BBQ on a small balcony outside. You can see Pak ‘n Save from the room we’re in.

“We didn’t think it was that hard to make a game. We initially had dreams of finishing it in a year or two,” says Wilson as we chat about the company’s history.  “It was really hard to make a game, we found out,” he says.

Fast forward 10 years, though, and Grinding Gear Games employs a tad over 100 people, the garage in Newlands New Lynn is a distant memory (Wilson tells me that his wife put up with the arrangement until the company expanded to eight employees),  and its only released one game in that time: Path of Exile.

Launched in 2013, Path of Exile is free to play but makes its money through micro transactions for cosmetic stuff like character outfits that don’t affect the game play balance.  The game is incredibly popular in North America and Europe – and it’s coming to Xbox One later this year.

Action from the Xbox One version of Path of Exile.

The console version will feature all the content that features in the PC version of Path of Exile as well as all the released expansion packs.

I have a confession: Path of Exile is not normally the type of video game I’d play if I was at home and had some time to game. It’s online only, for starters, which is not normally something I’d play (I have old fingers so tend to suck at online games and stick with single player campaigns). I have played action RPGs like Dungeon Siege and Diablo but I’m not what you’d call a master.

Playing a build of the Xbox One version, I’m an archer, firing arrows at weird beasts and teleporting around the game map. At first glance, the game seems impossibly complex: There’s something like 1500 passive skills, which themselves can be upgraded using gems. That’s mind-boggling.

At times the battles are so chaotic and frantic, with explosions, spells and electricity punctuating the game world, that I’m not sure what’s going on.  One of the dev team (I think it was Jonathan Rogers, actually) comes over and using magical commands  he plops me into one of the game’s boss battles. He warns me I’m terribly underpowered and I’ll die. He was right: I did die. A lot. It gave me a taste of what to expect, though.

The PC version of Path of Exile has seen 40 per cent growth in the past few months and boasts a base of 16 million players. Grinding Gear has big plans for the game this year, planning to release the full version of the game in China later this year, something Rogers says will be big but also a little daunting.

“Early indications are it’s going to be a big success there. We were looking at some Chinese fan sites and they have rankings of upcoming games and gauge how keen people are on the game, based on posting in forums and that sort of thing. In one of them, we were No. 2 as one of the most anticipated games so that kind of thing is looking very positive.”

As Grinding Gears’ technical director, it was Rogers’  job to get Path of Exile working on Xbox. It wasn’t an easy task. Rogers says one of the biggest challenges was getting the game’s complex user interface working on a gamepad controller, rather than the traditional mouse and keyboard used for the PC version.

“I remember when I first hooked up a controller it played like absolute garbage so it took a long time of fiddling around, of play testing, of looking at other games to see what they did. I do think the game plays really well on a controller.”

“We didn’t want to compromise the console experience. We didn’t want to dumb it down, ” Rogers says, adding the performance improvements made to the Xbox One version have been carried over to the PC version.

More from Path of Exile.

Rogers believes that releasing Path of Exile on Xbox One will open up a new audience for Grinding Gear Games, something that is exciting.

“I definitely think there is going to be a good number of players on console. We want to get at least a million players on console. We want to try and get multiple millions if we can,” he says.

Thanks to Xbox New Zealand which provided flights for me to visit Grinding Gear Studios.

My week in gaming: Auckland, Zelda and visiting strange planets

This week I got to do something that as a gaming writer I haven’t done in a long, long, long time: I visited a game development studio to talk about an upcoming Xbox release of a game that’s already out on PC.

A screenshot of the upcoming Xbox version of Path of Exile.

The game is Path of Exile, an action RPG made by an Auckland studio called Grinding Gear Games. If you’re a PC player, you’ve likely heard of it: Path of Exile is a free-to-play online multiplayer game that is hugely popular in Europe and America – and it’s coming to Xbox soon. No release date has been announced yet .

While I have to say multiplayer action RPGs aren’t really my first choice for video games, the Xbox version of Path of Exile is looking pretty good.

Look out for a story from my visit in the coming weeks.

Flying from Christchurch, where I live, to Auckland, where Grinding Gear Games is, gave me a good chance to play a heap load of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the plane – and I’m really liking the game. The portable mode of the Switch is amazing and while the degrading weapons in the game is a bit of a pain in the arse (especially when a weapon breaks mid fight), I’m slowly making my way through the lands of Hyrule. I tamed a horse last night so am now wandering the lands on horseshoe-clad hooves rather than shoe leather.

The new research pods in Astroneer are quite weird, too. This one looks like a tomato, right?

Lastly, I’ve gone back to Astroneer this week after the latest update and I’m not sure what I think about it at the moment, to be honest. I still love the game (which is in early access) and its one of my best game purchases of the last year (along with Thimbleweed Park) but the new update has tinkered with the research tree – (when you land on a planet you find strange objects that can be scanned at your base that will reveal blueprints for technology like solar panels, space ship parts, batteries, etc) – and now research like the 3D printer, which is used to, obviously, print out objects, is much, much harder to find.

Developer System Era has now created a tiered research system but that means it’ll take much, much longer to find blueprints for things like the aforementioned 3D printer and the vehicles – and on some planets the research “nodes” aren’t that easy to find. I hear that the developer is looking at patching the game again to make those items much easier to find sooner rather than later.

OK, so that was my week in gaming. How was yours?