Category Archives: Xbox One

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 stuff.co.nz 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?

 

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.

 

 

 

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?

 

Astroneer: The mining/resource collecting/building game that is my go-to game right now

My base in Astroneer is coming along nicely. To the left is the rover I created with extra storage attached to carry more resources. The blue lines radiating off structures are oxygen lines. If the Astroneer runs out of oxygen he, well, dies. The space ship is directly behind the Astroneer.

 

Astroneer is a space exploration/crafting/resource gathering game that’s in pre-Alpha. That means it a long way off being finished but it’s been my go-to game lately.

I don’t want to compare it to last year’s disappointing No Man’s Sky, because the two only share a few similarities, but Astroneer’s developers, System Era s Softworks, made the right decision by putting the game into Steam’s Early Access program. It cost me $24 and I have to say it’s perhaps the best $24 I’ve spent on a game in a long, long time. It’s also available on Xbox One and from the Windows store.

In Astroneer, you blast off from an orbiting space station and land on an uninhabited planet. There you use a space vacuum to suck up resources like resin, compound, copper, aluminum etc to build a base. As you explore, you’ll come across wrecks of space craft that you can scavenge for parts and resources as well as deep caves that while containing vital resources, often contain deadly plants that spew poisonous gas.

As your base gets bigger you can make things like a 3D printer that lets you print a rover so you can drive farther, weather vanes and solar panels to power all your equipment and, eventually, a space ship that lets you blast off and explore other planets in the solar system.

As you explore the planet, you'll come across crashed space ships. They'll often contain much-needed resources and parts that can be used on other vehicles.

As you explore the planet, you’ll come across crashed space ships. They’ll often contain much-needed resources and parts that can be used on other vehicles.

It’s a hell of a lotta fun. I’ve got some videos here of my base in progress, driving the rover around and one of the randomly generated sand storms that will kill you pretty much instantly unless you’re hiding somewhere safe. Oh, it also has online co-op so you’ll be able to explore and create with a friend.

Astroneer isn’t perfect: It glitches out every now and then and my Astroneer has got stuck in structures forcing a restart, but dammit, if it isn’t fun. Even the way your Astroneer dies is comical: He can suffocate when he runs out of air and he sort of grabs his throat then spirals around, falling to the ground. It’s hilarious.

The developers have said the game could be in pre-Alpha for a least a year but they’re firing out patches pretty frequently to fix some of the problems people have encountered. I’ve noticed frame rate drops when I’ve got too many of the game’s tethers laid out and while my Astroneer is carrying a research item.

I’ve attached three game play videos I took while playing: The first one shows the progress of my base as I build; the second is footage of me driving a rover across a planet’s surface; and the third shows a violent storm as it ravages my base. I’ve seen video and photos of some people sculpting as variety of things using the game’s vacuum gun.

Look, I’m loving Astroneer and I’m excited to see where it goes in the coming months and see whether I can boldly go where no man has gone before …

 

Dead Rising 4 review: Jingle bells, jingle bells

Many of you may know that I have a teenage son, Mitchell, who is a pretty dab hand at stringing a few words together as well as a fine gamer (he can kick my arse when we play co-op). He’s a long time fan of the Dead Rising series so I thought who better to give Dead Rising 4 to than him. So I did. Enjoy.

 

In Dead Rising 4, you return to Willamette, the setting for the first game.

In Dead Rising 4, you return to Willamette, the setting for the first game.

Video games have come a long way from when they were first developed over 40 years ago. What was once a simple principle involving sending a little white ball from one side of the screen to the other between two white slabs, has now become a multi-billion dollar industry. The term “video game” is incredibly broad and continues to expand every day as new games that break the barrier of what is considered to be a conventional video game are developed.

However broad this term may be, zombies and video games go hand in hand. Raise your hand if when you think of video games, you think of zombies?( If you did in fact raise your hand, you probably shouldn’t blindly follow the instructions of an article.) All jokes aside, you wouldn’t be alone if you did put zombies and video games in the same basket. In fact, I probably would, too.

The Dead Rising series is potentially the most successful zombies franchise to date, ruling out Call of Duty zombies because technically it’s a game mode, not a primary franchise.

The Dead Rising series was the first zombie, beat ’em up game that I truly delved into and continue to thoroughly enjoy to this day. The fourth installment of the main series brings us back to its origins somewhat, as the original protagonist, Frank West, a photojournalist looking for his big scoop, is brought back with more badassery than ever before.

Dead Rising 4 is set in Willamette, just like the first game, but the world is immensely bigger. Unlike the first Dead Rising, you are not just limited to the confines of the mall the entire time, which is a welcome change, as you can explore the chaos that has unfolded in Willamette since the first outbreak. That’s right! I said the FIRST outbreak. Willamette has had a pretty unlucky run. DR4 is set sixteen years after the events of the first game, during the Christmas period, and one year after the events of Dead Rising 3, though feeling as if it acts as a soft reboot of the series. The Christmas theme does get a little irritating after a while though, I’m not going to lie.

I can’t help but feel as if Capcom have gone for style over substance in DR4, which is a real shame. For longtime fans of the series like myself who have been playing since the first game will feel a slight hint of nostalgia when entering Willamette’s Parkview mall, which was the primary setting for the first Dead Rising.

Willamette Mall in its Christmas livery.

Willamette Mall in its Christmas livery.

However similar the new Parkview mall appears visually, the flow just isn’t the same – something just doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it’s the fact that not as much focus was put into the mall itself in DR4 because it only acts as a transition point from getting one from one side of Willamette to the other, rather than the setting for the whole game like in the original.

It appears as if the mall’s main focus is pointless areas like a lacklustre go-kart track and a shipwrecked pirate ship. I feel like this primary focus on these nonsensical areas took away the nostalgic feeling from the first game and didn’t add any memorable personality. Capcom really missed out on massive opportunity to capitalize on the nostalgia and bring back an iconic classic to excite the fans. Instead the new Parkview mall just doesn’t feel the same.

What I love about Dead Rising 4, though,  is that, yes there is a clear story to follow, (a fairly decent one too, I might add) but if you just wanted to mess around and free roam, there is nothing to stop you from doing so.

If you’re feeling so inclined as to “chop till you drop” without thinking too much, you can, which is a really awesome thing. I won’t say too much about the ending because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone if they decided to purchase DR4, but I will say that it pissed me right off (but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)

If you’re a longtime fan of the series, this is a definite pick up, as it brings back that classic Dead Rising feel into a whole new story. I wouldn’t say that the story is amazing in comparison to some other big titles of 2016, but as far as a beat’em up story goes, it is pretty great. I do not believe that anyone would be disappointed or regret their decision in purchasing Dead Rising 4, as long as they go into it treating it like a whole new game and not some direct comparison to the original.

Nostalgia is a funny effect that often leads us to believe that what we have experienced in the past is far superior to what we have now, even if it wasn’t. So my advice is, do not play Dead Rising 4 and find every single flaw or gripe with the game and constantly think that it is sub par because they changed a few minor details. Entering with an open mind guarantees that you will enjoy the game. I think that’s where most reviewers have gone wrong. They treated it as a direct sequel to the original, rather than a series reboot.

What Capcom have managed to do is recreate the same sense of absurdity through the game’s crafting system. The crafting is still hilariously fun. There are so many different combos that make absolutely no sense whatsoever but still make for a truly enjoyable experience, there is no denying that Dead Rising 4 is fun. I can’t remember the last game that I played where it was possible to have so much fun by doing absolutely nothing. There is nothing better than coming home after a long, hard day at work, putting your feet up and slaying hordes of zombies with big hulk fists.

A Christmas wreath + a car battery = a whole lot of carnage!

A Christmas wreath + a car battery = a whole lot of carnage!

To this day, the Dead Rising franchise is the only series in which I can think of, where a player would trade an assault rifle for a knife and a pair of boxing gloves. That’s what makes the game so enjoyable. The fact that you can have so much fun with something so stupid as a Christmas wreath and a car battery is an incredible thing and really speaks wonders about what Capcom has been able to achieve with the series.

Dead Rising 4 was played through to completion on Xbox One using a code provided by Xbox NZ.

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