Why I was wrong about Red Dead Redemption 2

Note: I will not be doing a review of Red Dead Redemption 2, and not because I bought my copy and didn’t get a review copy from Rockstar. I want to enjoy the game for what it is and not have to pick it to pieces for a review. I also haven’t read a single review: I don’t want to spoil the story for me. What follows, though, is some thoughts on why my initial opinion about the game was wrong.

“Hindsight is  a wonderful thing,”so the commonly uttered phrase goes, and in my case, it is entirely appropriate for Rockstar’s Red Redemption 2, a game I initially criticised on social media but now, with hindsight, and several hours of game play under my belt, I’ve changed my opinion.

Here’s the offending tweet here:

OK, so it’s clear from that social media tidbit that I didn’t enjoy the game’s opening couple of hours, which, to be far, are rather pedestrian. Well, they are: Most of it is tutorial stuff spent in a snowy landscape (the snow does look fantastic, though) and the controls don’t make sense at times.

If I had a dollar for every time I pressed a button that I thought would do one thing (get on my horse) but  did something completely different thing (punch said horse in the neck), I’d probably have at least $10 by now. The controls seem stuck in the past, initially making no  sense. I’m still trying to get used to the dead eye mechanic that slows down time during duels (I’m not talking about standard dead eye: I’ve got that sorted, by the way):  It took me about 10 attempts to defeat one opponent, as I just couldn’t work out how to manage it. He killed me every time.

RDR 2 is gorgeous, by the way. It is probably the best looking game I’ve played in a long time. I’m playing on a PS4 Pro on a Samsung 1080p TV with super sampling enabled & it’s jaw-dropping at times, especially as dusk falls, casting shadowy light across the landscape or when you’re caught in a rain storm, lightning striking in the distance.

Problematic controls aside, I’ve stuck with RDR2 for two reasons: 1), because I paid $94 of my own money for it and I want to see if through to the end & 2) the more I play it, the more I realised it isn’t the fast-paced game I was trying to make it. The last few games I’ve played have been fast-paced action games – Spider-Man, God of War – so  my muscle memory is used to the in-your-face, fast-paced action. RDR2 isn’t like that: It’s deliberately slower paced, actually forcing the player to methodically work their way through it, step by step, piece by piece..

After a few hours, I  realised  Rockstar has deliberately slowed down the pace of the game at times so that you actually soak in the game world its countless developers have created [Oh, and yes, I’m well aware of the furore surrounding Rockstar’s crunch period around the game and fully support the criticism around overly long work hours. I hope those responsible for RDR2 are fairly compensated for the hours they have put into it. They deserve it .]

I realised that RDR2 isn’t about racing from point A to point B, ignoring what is happening around you: It is about meandering from one town to another, taking in the small details that bring the game and its main character Arthur Morgan to life.

Things like when Arthur gets snow on his jacket, and he goes into a house, it slowly melts.  Like when he wants a cup of coffee at the camp, he rustles into his satchel, pulling out a mug and pouring coffee into it (then discarding the dregs before putting the mug back into his satchel). Like the ruts and corrugations created by horse’s hooves and wagon wheels as they plow through mud. Like how dead bounty hunters leave impressions in the mud where they’ve fallen after a gun fight. Like the lively banter that goes on during a party around a camp fire. RDR2 is a game full of small details that make the world seem alive more than any other Rockstar game before it.

Heck, when you save the game and come back to it, I’ve found Arthur asleep against a rock or leaning on his saddle, atop his horse, contemplating what is going on.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is unapologetically slow-paced and almost RPG-like in its management system where you have to make sure that both Arthur and his horse are well rested and nourished before embarking on major adventures. I loved the random encounters in the original RDR but they’re stepped up a notch in RDR2.

I changed my tune in my social media posts, too, proving to me that perhaps I need to think first, post later:

 

 

 

I think I also posted on social media that I was going to go back to Spider-Man, but I haven’t: I’ve played nothing but RDR2 since I bought it a week ago. I should be playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for a review but I haven’t even installed it on my Xbox One yet. Red Dead Redemption 2 is taking my every waking gaming moment (and sometimes my dream time, too, as I seem to be going through missions in my head, working out how I could have handled something better).

Look, RDR 2 has its faults – it’s not a 10 out of 10 game for me, – and the attention to detail at times can be a little too much:  Arthur is beautifully animated compared to John Marsden in RDR2  but that means that if you want to stop suddenly mid-run, you have to wait for a slow-down animation to play   but the more I play it, the more entwined I become with Arthur Morgan and his world. I guess what I’m saying is while RDR2 isn’t going to suit everyone, stick with it through the first few slow hours: You’ll thank me for it.

While I didn’t think this at first, I’m now knees deep into RDR2’s narrative and world and I want to know where Arthur’s story goes and what sort of man he becomes.

And you know what? Red Dead Redemption 2 could really be the game that defines this console generation.

 

 

 

 

 

Late to the Party: Spider-Man review

Selfie courtesy of the game’s photo mode.

Late to the Party is a n infrequent feature when I review a game that has been out for a while but I haven’t been able to review it at launch. Today, I’m looking at Spider-Man, on the PlayStation 4, which arrived a day after I had left for vacation in Canada. I was gone for a month.

For me, the Peter Parker in Insomniac’s Spider-Man isn’t the youthful Tom Holland from the most recent Avengers movies (inexperienced and unsure of his abilities), nor Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker (new to the superhero lark), but Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, a superhero that is comfortable with his abilities and wearing the red-and-blue suit, but a little socially awkward at times.

In Insomniac’s Spider-Man, Peter Parker has been spinning the web for a while now, so he’s come to grips with his abilities and what he is capable of and the narrative features an ensemble cast of well-known villains and characters from Spider-Man lore, including Doctor Otto Octavius (Doc Oct), Martin Li (Mister Negative) Scorpion, Tombstone, Electro, (love interest) Mary Jane, Aunt May and Norman Osborn. The story has Peter defeating crime kingpin Wilson Fisk in the opening moments of the game,  putting him behind bars, only for another crime lord to rise in his place in the form of Martin Li, or Mister Negative.

As I write this, I’ve been back from  Canada for almost a week and have completed about 55 per cent of Spider-Man’s main campaign, collected 50 of the 55 backpacks and done about half a dozen research missions.I’ve also taken on thugs patrolling construction sites, tried to (unsuccessfully) capture wayward pigeons and had my arse kicked (a few times) by men armed with electric whips.

One of the first things that I noticed with Spider-Man is that Insomniac have nailed the swinging mechanic perfectly. Before too long, you’ll be performing acrobatics between skyscrapers towering above the traffic and pedestrian-filled streets and zipping through the air. In fact, the swinging mechanic is so good I didn’t feel the want (or need) to use the game’s fast travel system: It was more fun getting to the location using the old-fashioned Spidey way.

Melee combat is integral to Spider-Man and it’s top-notch, reminding me a lot of the combat in  Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series, and once I’d got to grips with the plethora of moves and combos, combat was fast and fluid, with me being able to guide Spidey from foe to foe seamlessly, filling up my suit’s focus meter which then let me unleash brutal finishing moves on hapless foes.

I watched my son, who has completed the main story (yeah, yeah, it’ll ruin the story for me. I know), and there were some hallucination sequences that, again, reminded me a heck of a lot of Rocksteady’s Arkham series (you know the segments where a tiny Batman has to sneak around while a giant Scarecrow taunts him). I’m saying that as praise, not a criticism, by the way.

There’s a lot to do in Spider-Man when you’re not doing the main story mission, from collecting backpacks that Peter has left dotted around the city and doing research for Harry Osborn using laboratories he has left around the city to unlocking corrupted communications towers (which is a game mechanic that I think has been done to death in video games) and taking selfies at famous New York landmarks. While some of the busy work seems formulaic, a lot of it was a good break from the hectic moments of the main story.

There’s a benefit to that busywork, too: The more collectibles and side stuff  you complete, the more weapons, gadgets, skills and suit mods you can unlock so there’s a real incentive to do the busy work: The results are well worth it. I mean, what’s not to love about a bomb that explodes, showering all around it with web or electric web that shocks enemies.

One thing I wasn’t a fan of is the wave-based enemy system used when you want to take down construction sites under Fisk’s control and demon bases ruled by Li but defeating bases is essential to unlock in-game Spidey suits, so I tolled away at them, but it was  my least favourite aspect of the game.

Spider-Man doesn’t  invent the wheel when it comes to third-person action games – plenty of other games have done the same thing and Spider-Man does fall into the formulaic overused video game tropes at times  – but Insomniac’s Marvel superhero game is so much bloody fun, with an engaging narrative, well-fleshed out characters and great game mechanics that it’s another reason why, for me, PlayStation is simply owning this console generation hands down.

Now to see if I can complete it before Red Dead Redemption 2 drops this week (I’ve pre-ordered the game: I’m not getting review code). I don’t like my chances.

It’s a Sunday night, I’ve had a busy week (including attending a work conference all day today) , my brain is tired, so here’s a press release prepared earlier by PriceSpy. Normal service will resume this coming week. Perhaps.

According to data insights  from PriceSpy, the fully impartial price and product comparison service, Sony PlayStation is dominating the New Zealand gaming world.

Based on historical clicks, the most popular game right now is God of War, claiming the top spot for four consecutive months.  Following closely behind is Detroit: Become Human.  Since its release in May 2018, it has quickly become the second most-popular game of the moment.

 Top Games for July 2018

  1. God of War (PS4)
  2. Detroit: Become Human (PS4)
  3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)
  4. Octopath Traveler (Switch)
  5. Gran Turismo: Sport (VR) (PS4)

Top Games for June 2018

  1. God of War (PS4)
  2. Detroit: Become Human (PS4)
  3. Horizon: Zero Dawn Complete Edition (PS4)
  4. Far Cry 5 (PS4)
  5. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)

Top Games for May 2018

  1. God of War (PS4)
  2. Detroit: Become Human (PS4)
  3. Far Cry 5 (PS4)
  4. Gran Turismo: Sport (VR) (PS4)
  5. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)

 Top Games for April 2018

  1. God of War (PS4)
  2. Far Cry 5 (PS4)
  3. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch)
  4. Destiny 2 (PS4)
  5. Grand Theft Auto V (PC)

No Man’s Sky Next: Is Hello Games’ space game worth a re-visit?

What a difference two years makes, eh?

In 2016, Hello Games (with, let’s not forget, considerable marketing support from PlayStation) launched procedurally generated space exploration game No Man’s Sky on the PlayStation 4. Hello Game’s  leader Sean Murray touted all the amazing things players would be able to do in the game and the hype just flowed.

Turns out, though, a lot of the stuff that Murray mentioned you would be able to do, you actually couldn’t. No Man’s Sky was a game that gave me conflicting emotions when it was launched. Here’s a quote from my review:“No Man’s Sky is probably one of the few games that I’ve really been conflicted about it. I like that you can explore a huge galaxy – and Hello Games have done a nice job of making you feel you are in a huge universe – but I’m not really big on the fact that after a few hours the game becomes a grind and, frankly, a little tedious.
Hello Games is an indie studio – despite the fact that PlayStation handled all its PS4 marketing – and should be applauded for trying something risky and ambitious, but I can’t help but think that because of the massive hype heaped upon it by both PlayStation, games media and gamers themselves, it was never going to live up to expectations.”

Looking back at my coverage of No Man’s Sky, it seems I, too, was caught up in the hype surrounding the game. I posted quite a few videos before release, and my review wasn’t overly critical, closing with “I’m sure in a few months No Man’s Sky will be a much different game to the one that it is now (a new patch was released for PC and PS4 on Friday) and chances are I’ll revisit it sometime in the future just to see to see what has changed.

Well, two years [and some other updates] later, and No Man’s Sky is the game it should have been at launch thanks to the recent Next update and it’s a great update (all the images here are captured using the game’s photo mode)   but it begs the question: Should Hello Games have just waited two years to release the game in a more complete state rather than release it when they did, half-finished ?

The answer is, of course, yes. The original game was rightly pilloried by gamers and critics alike because it wasn’t what Sean Murray at Hello Games promised it was. It also wasn’t what Sony hyped it up to be in the flashy trailers it sent to games writers like me. Gamers around the world bought it based on all these promises , and were swept up in the hype that only the games industry seems to be able to generate. Gamers thought they could do all these amazing things but were disappointed  when they found much of what they were promised was untrue.

I think it’s admirable that Sean and Hello Games have stuck with No Man’s Sky, despite all the criticisms and negative press, and kept updating it. I take my hat off to him and the studio. They could have easily said “Ok, game is launched, we’ve got our cash. Let’s jet off to a tropical island somewhere and hunker down” but they did. They stuck it out and supported the game.

I’m making my way through the game again thanks to the Next update and it feels like a completely different game from launch –   planets are more detailed and varied, crafting has been tweaked, there’s a third-person view for ships and your avatar, plus dozens of other tweaks – but the grind is still there. If you weren’t a fan first time around, I doubt new graphics and changed game play features will convince you to stick this out.

Sadly, though,  part of me feels that no matter how impressive the Next update is – and it is impressive, especially compared to the original game  – the damage has already been done for No Man’s Sky and a lot of gamers have already been burned by the launch state of the game.

It’s a sad indictment on the gaming industry that two years later, No Man’s Sky is now the game it should have been. As gamers, we shouldn’t  be content with paying for games then hoping they’ll get fixed into something better sometime down the line but it seems to be a worrying trend that is becoming more and more common these days.

If you haven’t played No Man’s Sky before – and Xbox One players can now see what all the fuss is about – then now is probably the perfect time to do it: It’s the game that it should have been at launch, and newcomers haven’t been burned by what happened before. That said, I’m sure owners of the original game (if they still have it) in their droves are revisiting the game thanks to the Next update, as I have done, but I think No Man’s Sky is a lesson for the entire games industry to take note of:  Don’t ship a game that promises things it will never deliver on.

Here’s some simple advice for game developers and (perhaps, especially, publishers/marketers): Delay the game until it does what you say it does. Don’t bow to publisher pressure to release a game way too early just because it wants the sales revenue.

As a gamer, I’d rather wait a few more months for a better game, and be satisfied, than buy a game that is half-finished and doesn’t let me do what you’ve hyped it up to do, and will never deliver on those lofty expectations.

Gamers will forgive you for a game that’s late but does what it says on the box.They’re  not so forgiving when you promise them the moon and all you hand them is a pebble.

OK, so to answer the question I put in this blog post’s title: Is Hello Games’ space game worth a revisit? Thanks to the Next update, yes, it is. I’ve still had the game crash on me since after a post-update patch (funnily enough, changing my PS4’s internal clock to Pacific Standard Time seemed to fix it), but the game is much improved on the original. It’s just a pity it took two years for that to happen.

 

Something On My Mind: Has Xbox lost its way?

Something On My Mind is an occasional thought piece about,  well, something that has been on my mind for a while. 

Last console generation, I could confidently say that the most played console in my household was the Xbox 360.

Microsoft couldn’t do anything wrong with that console and just seemed to have nailed it with the Xbox 360. I played games on it much more than my PlayStation 3.

This generation, however, it’s a complete reversal: My Xbox One console sits gathering dust underneath my TV, with my Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 getting all my gaming attention. I know it’s been a while since I used my Xbox One when every time I turn it on there’s a hefty update for it.

The reason? I think it’s because, for me, the Xbox One doesn’t have any compelling single-player experiences like the PlayStation does, and I’m a strong single-player campaign gamer. Give me single-player any day of the week.

The last time I turned on the Xbox One was to download Mad Max using the Xbox Game Pass (which I think is a good scheme) and Sea of Thieves (which I quickly stopped playing through lack of content) and State of Decay 2, two games that are strongly multi-player or co-operatively focused titles.

Sure, Backward Compatibility on the Xbox One is a nice feature,  but to be honest, I don’t have a current generation console so that I can re-play games that I’ve already played on my Xbox 360, even if they’re in a higher resolution and run at faster frame rates (look, my eyes are getting so bad these days I’m not sure I can pick up frame rate drops anymore). I have my Xbox 360 if I want to play games from the last generation.

For me, I want engaging, compelling narrative-driven games and I get that with the PlayStation: God of War, Detroit Become Human, Horizon Zero Dawn, the Yakuza series. While Sony was investing in development studios and putting faith in single player games, Xbox was focusing on Kinect and its  vision of the Xbox One being an all-singing, all-dancing entertainment centre – and I think that’s hurt Xbox.

I may be wrong here, but these days, Xbox’s target market seems to be more and more the multiplayer crowd, given its investment in games like Sea of Thieves, Player Unknown’s Underground (PUBG) and State of Decay 2.

Microsoft’s Xbox One X might be the world’s most powerful console – and I’ve no doubt it is – but for me, what’s the point of having an amazingly powerful piece of hardware without must-have, compelling single-player games for it?

I’m not a fan boy of any gaming platform: Sure, I play most of my games on a console, but I still buy and play games on my PC (I have a huge backlog of Steam games I’ve bought but haven’t played yet). As far as I’m concerned, if you play games, no matter what platform, you’re a gamer.

I’m hoping that at E3 in a couple of weeks, Xbox announces a line-up of games that will restore my faith in the hardware maker and make the most of its console’s power. All I want is some really strong single-player games that make me want to play my Xbox One just as much as my PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Is that too much to ask?

 

Detroit Become Human review: Android unrest

Ever wondered what happens when robots become tired of their human masters and decide to push back?

French game maker David Cage has, and that’s the core idea behind his latest PlayStation 4 game Detroit Become Human, and for me, it’s his best one yet. It’s a game clearly steeped in themes of slavery, segregation (androids have to ride buses in an android-only compartment) and civil rights.

Detroit was first revealed to the gaming public through the Kara tech demo back in 2012 (which, as a nice nod to the foundations for the game, is an unlockable in the game’s Extra’s section) and I enjoyed Heavy Rain, a noir-style detective story despite the clumsy way it handled some things. However, I wasn’t a fan of Cage’s  Beyond Two Souls.

Fast forward to 2018, and Detroit Become Human shows that Cage has learned from the criticisms pointed at his previous games. Cage seems to have a love-hate relationship with gamers and critics alike: You either like what he does, or you don’t – there is no in-between.

With Detroit, Cage wisely decided to step down from the sole writing role and was part of a team that developed and narrative, and it shows, with a more grounded, more believable narrative than in his previous games, with characters I actually became invested in as the story developed. I’ve never felt like that with any of Cage’s previous games as I found his writing in games like Fahrenheit and Beyond Two Souls was clumsy, meaning I didn’t give a monkey’s about most of the characters.

Of the three androids that take the lead rolls in Detroit’s narrative – Kara (a domestic android who looks after a young girl Alice and her abusive father, Todd), Markus (works for a kind, well-known painter) and Connor (the world’s first android detective hunting for androids that have gone rogue against their human masters) – which ponders what would happen if Artificial Intelligence actually pushed back against its human masters, Connor was the most intriguing for me. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that Connor’s story seems to have more complex layers but also because he’s partnered with a human detective (voiced wonderfully by Highlander/Starship Troopers/The Shawshank Redemption actor Clancy Brown), and the two just have this wonderful developing relationship as both try to work together, learning the intricacies of the other and trying out how the other ticks.

Connor able to gather clues at a crime scene then reconstruct the events. Once an event has been reconstructed, you can use L2 and R2 to forward and rewind through the recreation to time stamps, which can be scanned to open up new information. While t his mechanic isn’t new to games (a similar one was used in DontNod’s rather good Remember Me), it adds a nice layer to Connor’s detective abilities.

After each character’s chapter has finished (the game follows the Kara, Markus and Connor throughout the course of the game), there’s a flowchart that shows how the decisions you made at one juncture lead to the final outcome. In many of the flow charts, there were many more paths I could have taken so there’s definitely replay value here for the completionist gamer who wants to see how different behaviours or actions can change the outcome of a particular story thread.

Cage is clearly using the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” train of thought when it comes to the control scheme as he’s used the familiar scheme from his previous games where you use the right thumb stick to trace patterns that will get the character to interact with his or her surroundings or perform actions (thankfully, there is no ridiculous scenarios like “Press X to Jason” like there was in Heavy Rain)

The dialogue in Detroit is just so much better than in both Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls that conversations between characters feels more natural and believable, and giving the right answer or asking the right question will often unlock another dialogue branch, allowing the narrative to go deeper.

The game is still quick time event heavy, though (hey, it’s a David Cage game), and I still managed to bumble some of the fast-paced QTE sequences in the latter parts of the game, especially during fight or chase sequences, but I blame my ageing old-man fingers. I did wonder sometimes, though, how my failure at some of the QTEs had impacted on the storyline.

Technically, Detroit Become Human really does sing on the PlayStation 4, too, with highly detailed environments and character models, and at times, the in-game graphics actually look better than the pre-rendered in-game cinematics, which is generally the opposite in most current generation games.

Detroit Become Human might miss the mark a little in its comparing the plight of long-suffering android to be akin to the civil rights movement in the United States, but  I enjoyed it and while still stumbling from time to time, it’s a nicely paced narrative-driven drama that I can see myself wanting to play through again to experience the multi-branching story threads.

 

 

A video of me playing God of War on PlayStation 4 Pro for several minutes

The new God of War is out now on PS4 and if you’re sitting on the fence on whether you should buy it for your PlayStation 4, let this 13-minute or so video of me playing the game help you out.

You can also read my review here (but I was assuming you’d read it already, anyway) if you want more convincing God of War is a great game.

The video doesn’t spoil anything as it’s from the opening hour of the game so enjoy.