Assassin’s Creed Origins: The video review

OK, I’m trying something new here: A video review rather than a long-form written one.

It’s not perfect – word from pre-screening audiences say that the game volume is quite loud in the beginning (so you’ve been warned) – and I likely bumble a few words here and there (thanks nerves). Also, at times it sounds like I’m reading from a script, which, funnily enough, I was.

I’ve taken a while to take the plunge to do video interviews: As a former newspaper and online journalist, I hate the sound of my own recorded voice, after years of hearing it while transcribing audio interviews, so have tended to stick to what I felt safest doing: Written word reviews where I can express my opinions without anyone hearing what I sound like.

So, have a listen, prepare yourself for slightly loud game audio, and leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your feedback, and who knows? If it’s positive enough, I might do more of them.

As always, thanks for visiting.

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

Senior producer on Horizon Zero Dawn Joel Eschler.

Senior producer on Horizon Zero Dawn Joel Eschler.

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

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

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

Aloy confronts a watcher.

Aloy confronts a watcher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

target_practice_1434425351

Aloy and Rost from Horizon Zero Dawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watchdogs 2: Hacking in San Francisco

Let’s get this out of the way first, shall we?

Marcus Holloway can take selfies around the virtual city of San Francisco.

Marcus Holloway can take selfies around the virtual city of San Francisco.

I get the feeling that Watchdogs 2 is the game that Ubisoft wishes the first Watchdogs was.

The first Watchdogs was massively overhyped by Ubisoft and I think that was its downfall, to be honest. It was never going to live up to the massive expectation Ubisoft heaped upon it.

I bought Watchdogs on PC but stopped playing it after a handful of hours (I was part way through a mission where main character Aidan Pearce had to infiltrate an inner city prison) because, frankly, I lost interest.

WATCH_DOGS® 2_20161130182756Watchdogs 2, by comparison, is a complete contrast to the original. Instead of being dark and gloomy, Watchdogs 2 is popping with bright colours and sprinkled with popular culture. Its lead character Marcus Holloway is a much more personable and likeable character than Pearce ever was, too.  Holloway is a genuinely interesting character,  even if the underground hacker group that he joins is a little too clichéd and seems like the game’s writers watched too many ’80s movies to get inspiration. Marcus is quite with a witty response and has a swagger about him that just fits with the more jaunty vibe of Watchdogs 2.

With a narrative tightly focused on Marcus’ hacker group using the power of social media and popular media to bring down the conglomerate behind the increasingly pervasive ctOS, Holloway can hack just about everything in the city, from scissor lifts and control panels to garage doors and other people’s phones. It’s intuitive and works nicely and there’s something satisfying about being able to blow up an underground pipe after you’ve driven over it, causing issues to anyone pursuing you. Doing that never got tired.

WATCH_DOGS® 2_20161130180820Marcus has a few gadgets at his disposal, too, to help hack the world, with an airborne drone and small motorised drone, a RC jumper that he can deploy  to infiltrate tricky environments, places, highlight enemies and even remotely hack computers to make things easier as he skulks through enemy territory.

Like all open world games these days, Watchdog 2 is overflowing with an abundance of activities to do but I almost wondered at times if there were too many things to do. Marcus’ phone seemed to be constantly buzzing with a new quest or side mission. The story takes pot shots at popular culture (Scientology for example) but as nice looking and vibrant as Watchdogs 2 is something kept nagging at me while I was playing it, gnawing at my brain.

Then I realised what it was: I kept on comparing Watchdogs 2’s game world to that of GTAV – and Rockstar’s open-world masterpiece just kept on trumping Ubisoft’s San Francisco. GTAV just seems to do open-world so much better than the others. It’s cities looked lived in and populated. Look, Watchdogs is a great game but I guess if you put any open-world game up against GTAV, its shortcomings are always going to come to the fore.

You can pat dogs in Watchdogs 2. Nice.

You can pat dogs in Watchdogs 2. Nice.

The main story missions are the standard “Go here, do this/collect this/talk to this person then move to the next one” variety but I found Watchdogs was a lot more enjoyable and at its best when you go off the beaten track and forget about the main story missions. Doing things like using your phone’s Scout app to track down landmarks dotted about San Francisco and take a selfie in front of it to gain more followers, petting dogs, eavesdropping on conversations. Watchdogs 2 doesn’t take itself too seriously and I like that.

It has some things that niggled me. The police force in particular is really, really aggressive (in fact, I found the security forces in the game in general really aggressive). Once, I slightly grazed a police car as I negotiated a two-lane road. Instead of the minor reaction from the police I was suspecting, suddenly I was being chased by five police cars, complete with a police woman yelling at the top of her lungs for me to pull over. When I eventually stopped, I was expecting a telling off and to get arrested. Nope: Two cops pulled out guns and started shooting. Talk about over reaction, fellas.

I haven’t touched on any of the multiplayer because, frankly, I don’t really play multiplayer but there is something called seamless multiplayer which I’m guessing is when another play can enter your game and attempts to hack your phone. This happened to me twice and  you have to find the person before they download your data and escape.

The first time I didn’t find the guy (he was on an overpass above where I was) but the second time I found the guy hiding behind a bush nearby. He took off and I gave chase, trying to hit him comically with taser bolts: It didn’t work. He hijacked a motorbike and drove off. It was interesting, to say the least.

WATCH_DOGS® 2_20161130180552Watchdogs 2 is a fun game that has a lot of charm and it’s much better than the dark original and it shows that Ubisoft has learned some things as it refines its open-world games. Sure, the narrative is  a little too bogged down in clichés for my liking but I grew to (kind of) like Marcus’ fellow hackers the more the game progressed.

Watchdogs 2 isn’t my favourite game of the year and it doesn’t do anything innovative to move the open-world genre along – and if you’re bored with open-world games that tick all the required boxes, then this isn’t the game for you – but its fun for a bit, and worth a look if you want a game that has an upbeat vibe and plenty of content to keep you occupied for a while.

  • Thanks to Ubisoft for the PS4 review copy of Watchdogs 2.

Watch some havoc from the first hour of Just Cause 3

I have to admit that although I’m probably not going to buy Just Cause 3, it looks like you could have an insane amount of fun just, well, creating a mess and trying to destroy everything in the game world, set in an island paradise called Medici.

If you are going to buy Just Cause 3, you might not want to watch this video which shows the first hour of game play from the game, thanks to SquareEnix and Avalanche Studios. That said, just because the video shows a certain way of playing Just Cause 3, it doesn’t mean you’ll play it that way.

Let me know what you think. Are you going to buy it? It’s out on December 1, I believe.

GTAV: it’s not always about the story missions

It was the perfect afternoon for a drive.

I turned the convertible from the wide-laned freeway onto a mountain road, headed back towards the suburbs of Los Santos, the Pacific Ocean glistening to my right. Not a cloud in the clear, blue sky. Phil Collins, I think, was playing on the radio. It was the perfect day. Serene and calm.

I spotted what looked like a cyclist up a head, dancing on the pedals of his road bike, his body gently rocking from side to side as he made his way up the incline. A lot of small touches had impressed me before in GTAV but this one felt personal, this one resonated with me:  A tanned and fit cyclist, kitted out in sponsor-emblazoned  lycra, riding a sleek racing bike was out for an afternoon bike ride.

GTAVMichaelFranklinTrevorI slowed down and just followed him: transfixed at this virtual cyclist ascending a mountain road. I sped ahead and got out, activating the camera on my smart phone, hoping to get a good photo of what I’d seen. I snapped as he rode past. I’m sure he looked at me, strangely, but he kept on climbing.

Unfortunately, as I walked back to the car, a few hundred metres up the road, another vehicle drove past, wiping out my open door. My convertible now not only had the top down, but it only had one door. Still, this was a day where nothing could bother me.

I passed the cyclist again, stopped and took some more photos. He gave me another funny look as he rode past.

On the descent I followed quietly behind, the cyclist freewheeling and gliding down the hill, pedaling every now and then to keep his momentum up.

Nearing the bottom of the hill, as the road joined a larger road, there was a service station (gas station) and the cyclist rode into the car parking area, dismounted and pulled out his smart phone.  Mysteriously, his bike just stood upright by itself but that’s OK. This is a game: Sometimes I can suspend belief.

He was a well-tanned individual, slightly European looking, but he was acting weird. I took some snaps of him and his bike, but as I focussed in on the bike frame (I am somewhat obsessed by bicycle frames) I heard him talking to someone on his phone: It was the police. He was saying some like I was being an arsehole and could they get here.

I stood amazed. Here was a non-integral person in the game having an impact on how things were shaping. My mini map suddenly turned a shade of light blue and a blue and red dot appeared on the screen: I knew what had happened here. The police were on their way to have a chat to me about harassing the cyclist.

For the record, I didn’t harass him: I was just taking photos. It’s a pity I can post the screen shots here.

A brief chase ensued but I managed to escape the police by running through a few luxury homes down the road, avoiding their cones of vision and confusing the heck of them.

Some other things I’ve observed; if you almost run over a person in a car and you’re stopped at a set of lights, bystanders will sometimes run over, pull you out of your car and start beating the crap out of you. One of my friends on XB Live told me to stand next a police man and see what happens.  I haven’t done it yet but it’s on my list of things to do.

I also want to buy a dock so I can do scuba diving.  I hijacked a speed boat one morning and just travelled around the island, seeing how far I could go, what I could see. During one mission involving a submersible in the Pacific Ocean and playing as Trevor, while I waited for Franklin and Michael to arrive, a large shark circled, giving me a bit of a shiver. It was a biggun,

GTAbikeI drove past a house to see a man imploring his wife to stop throwing his golf belongings from the balcony to the roadside. “Who plays golf at midnight?” the wife argues as she throws another bag onto the drive. I gave him and his favourite iron a ride to the golf club and he said he wouldn’t go home until he’d had a “few drinks in me and her meds had kicked in”.

GTAV isn’t just always about the missions and the story but I have to say the game has an appalling attitude towards the depiction of women: They’re either prostitutes, stripper or disgruntled wives/girlfriends/aunts – and that’s really not good in this day and age.

To be honest, I didn’t really start seriously tackling the story missions until I’d explored for a few hours, and that’s where GTAV’s strengths are: Just exploring and trying things. The stats at the Rockstar Social Club says I’ve sunk 21 hours into GTAV and completed about 40 per cent of everything there is to do.

So, I say go forth and explore. You might be surprised what you find.