Friday, 16 June 2017

SUPERHOT

Boom! I shot a red dude.
SUPERHOT is one of weirder first person experiences I've ever played, for a whole bunch of reasons. It's sort of like The Talos Principle, but bitter and nihilistic. First of all, it begins with a fictional set-up where you're breaking into a company server to play a supposedly boss computer game, which is actually just - in the game's own words - shooting red dudes. Secondly, the game is basically just shooting red dudes, and in a stark, white environment filled with black objects that can be picked up and shot, thrown or swung to kill red dudes.

Oh; and nothing moves unless you move.

That's the twist of the game, you see. Well, one of them. The other is the emergent plot, such as it is, of which more below.
This is looking bad.

But, yeah. You start a level and everything is still. Things move slowly when you turn, and full speed when you move. This includes the red dudes, their bullets, and your bullets. The action of firing or throwing lets time run a little, but then you need to go somewhere for your bullet to actually reach its target. Interestingly, this means that targeting the time-frozen red dudes is actually harder than is usual with an FPS projectile weapon, because the bullets actually take time to travel.

Also, you can throw katanas at people.

Blam! His head exploded and... Wait; is this okay?
Anyway, then there's the plot, which emerges through play, and suggests that you are being sucked into some sort of virtual world to be a disembodied, electronic agent of change and sucker others into doing the same.

On the upside, you get access to the endless mode once you shoot yourself in the head.

I should probably add that it's more designed for VR, but it's still a decent, novel little shooter.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Tails of Equestria

Bit of a change from Hitman, I know.
I decided last week that I could economise elsewhere, and I was going to buy Tails of Equestria, the new My Little Pony tabletop RPG from River Horse games, created by Alessio Cavatore. I wanted to do this primarily as a means to introduce my daughter to roleplaying through a property which she is invested in, and which offers some serious opportunities for teaching her.

As RPGs go, Tails of Equestria is pretty simple, as you'd hope for a game aimed at children and families, but not simplistic. Three stats and an open-ended number of talents are each rated by die type from D4 to D20. Rolls are either to beat an opponent's roll or a static difficulty. Combat is there, but while a 'scuffle' can – indeed will – have consequences, they are never outright lethal. If you have a talent that applies to a roll, you typically get to roll an extra die and pick the better result; points off for removing a maths teaching opportunity, but more than made up for by the gain in pacing. In addition you get a quirk, which is a non-mechanical drawback that the GM can use to create interesting trouble for your character, which is one of the ways of regaining Friendship Tokens.

Friendship Tokens are the game's fate/drama mechanic, and tie into the franchise's 'friendship is magic' theme. You start with more tokens in a larger group, because more friends means more friendship, and players are encouraged to donate their tokens to help a friend out with re-rolls and other bonuses. Easily the best and most innovative mechanic in the game's simple system is that if two players are willing to pool their tokens, they can be counted as more valuable than the sum of their parts to represent the fact that Equestria almost literally runs on friendship. A little less successful is the last-ditch 'exploding hoof' mechanic, allowing for a slim chance at impossible seemingly impossible tasks, which is one of the more complex elements of the rules (which is, I think, its failing.)

Secret Ants Midget Mother Cheese.
Character creation is simple – we generated three characters in half an hour, including my daughter's first PC, Secret Ants Midget Mother Cheese(1) – and plays to the strengths of the series. Mechanical variation and niche protection is slight. Earth Ponies are strong, Pegasi can fly and Unicorns can do magic, but the game encourages open problem solving and represents many approaches with a handful of mechanics to let the story shine and to ensure that the characters will tend to be on an equal footing. After a few level-ups there is likely to be more distinction, but everyone levels up together so the PCs should always be equals, although some may choose specialism and others range, and everyone will benefit from doing things together.

Without testing the system to destruction, the game seems a good fit to the license and target age range. This may well be my favourite licensed RPG now, although it's not a high bar. 

I'll report further on the adventures of Secret Ants Midget Mother Cheese and friends and they happen.

(1) Her second choice for a kind Pegasus with 'The Stare' as her cutie mark talent, after I suggested that 'Fluttershy' was taken.

Monday, 27 March 2017

A World of Assassination

It makes me very sad that I haven't yet sniped anyone from this church tower.
Okay, so I am now three levels into Hitman: No Subtitle, and it's going pretty well. There are bits of it that are tougher than others, but it's never yet frustrating and insoluble. The nearest I got was trying to sneak into the Swedish embassy in Marakesh. It took me three tries to get an unconscious guard into a box unnoticed, and even then apparently Swedish diplomatic protection is unusually hot on its security guards knowing each other's names and faces. Less so on local masseurs, as they all took me for the man with the golden touch despite the eight inch height disparity, lack of hair and bar code. So it goes; in Paris I successfully masqueraded as the world's most famous male model.

For a game that is basically about killing people in inventive ways (on one notable occasion in Sapienza I just left an exploding golf ball in a box and walked away. Ten minutes later I got the kill confirmed(1)) Hitman: No Subtitle really appeals to the explorer type. The levels are huge and open, and full of people discussing things directly or tangentially related to the main plot of the game. There's this whole counter-blackmail thing going on in the Paris mission with a magazine editor trying to get dirt on the IAGO blackmail ring to keep from going under in the face of the advancing world of fashion blogging, which frankly seems reckless, but you can also stumble on her agents and overhear them bricking it, and on IAGO's models/spies discussing their assignments, some of which involve people we'll meet later in the plot and a so-far mysterious cult that seems to tie things together. None of this is essential, but it's also never discussed in the cut scenes or main briefings; it's purely there as background information that you can pick up if you want.

Well, I know what I'm doing this evening...
The other thing I've really noticed is that, for a game about an assassin, it really never wants you to feel good about killing people. Sure, most of your targets are bad people on one level or another, but even the nasty ones are pretty nuanced. The least diabolical of the six targets I've gone after so far, the least offensive are the scientists devising a genetically targeted virus designed to infect and move from person to person until it hits the one person it will kill, and one of them hired the ICA to off a local right-wing politician in one of the seasonal special missions. I guess the Wet Bandits from Home Alone maybe didn't deserve to be killed in the Christmas special(2), but you know how it is; play the gig, stay away from politics. Actually, the 'just play the gig' attitude is challenged by this game as the arc plot shows that the ICA is being manipulated into a series of seemingly unconnected hits aimed at bringing down a group called Providence. Maybe it would pay to look at the politics a little closer.

None of the targets are diabolically evil; that's the point. The serial blackmailers are on some level trying to go straight, the scientists are mostly in it for the science (evil science, admittedly.) The general angling for a coup de tat and the banker who ruined thousands of people and destabilised the Moroccan government I am less concerned about, if I'm honest. There's also just enough detail to the supporting NPCs(3) that murder seldom seems an easy option. Despite their apparent policy of sheltering wanted financial fraudsters who happen to be Swedish, there's a definite lack of relish on those occasions when I screw the pooch and just start capping off at consulate guards before reloading (although I confess, when I finally got fed up of the one guard who flatly refused to move, just stood there playing with his phone and waiting to witness you if you attacked the masseur, and just beaned him in the bread basket with a thrown hammer(4), that was satisfying.

Stop!
Traversal in Hitman is definitely less satisfying than Assassin's Creed's signature free running, but the complete focus on the business of patient, meticulous assassination more than makes up for it. Played wrong it would feel like a particularly unsatisfying version of Ubisoft's occult murder simulator, but if you embrace the nature of the game it comes out more like a particularly strangley and non-judgemental game of Portal.

(1) I got two non-target kills for the level, but I don't know if that was that the golf ball got the golf coach and one of the guards, or because the box I later hid two unconscious scientists in was – as I only realised as the second one vanished in a flurry of bubbles – full of evil, biohazardous goop well above the tolerance levels of their hazmat suits.
(2) Quite by chance I ended up putting them in the same cupboard, which was satisfying.
(3) They really only ring false when they react to seven foot of cueball muscle putting someone in a mistimed chokehold by pointing and saying sternly 'you let him go now' rather than screaming for the police or even throwing things at you.
(4) Throwable blunt objects are a godsend in this game and I routinely load my pockets with hammers, wrenches, bricks and coconuts far more than guns or knives.

Friday, 24 March 2017

First Thoughts on Hitman: No Subtitle

"There's a voice, keeps on calling me..."
Thanks to a Steam sale, I recently picked up the first season pass of Hitman, a game most notable for having seasons. This is because it has been released episodically over the course of the last year, one level at a time, with extra challenges and 'elusive targets' - special assassination targets within the existing levels who must be eliminated in one attempt, and within a 48 hour realtime window - increasing the replay value and encouraging players to attempt the same missions over and over again to learn the level layouts and opportunities. Speaking of opportunities, for rookie slackers like me there are hints to lead you to particular assassination set pieces, but there are always plenty of options, including the high-risk, low-hassle option of a bullet in the head.

I stuffed up incapacitating the male model 47 bears an uncanny resemblance
to, so he was found and revived and actually walking about somewhere else
while I snatched his catwalk spot and his meeting with Blackmail Inc.
I've completed the prologue 'training' missions and the first real level so far, and it's a good balance between frustratingly difficult and insultingly easy. Enemy patrols are regular enough to predict, frequent enough to require swift action, and cones of vision finely balanced so that the guards neither seem insultingly oblivious nor utterly inescapable. Some of the opportunities seem unduly demanding, but increasing mastery allows you to unlock new staring locations and disguises which would make for radically different approaches. To increase one's mastery of each level, there are plenty of challenges to attempt, mostly relating to assassination methods, locations and disguises (including a whole set for doing the Paris mission disguised as a vampire magician,) although I suspect that some of them may be out of my reach if they require me to clock up collateral damage. I can live with a few incidental kills if they are corrupt FSB agents or PMC heavies, but draw the line at civilians.

Hitman is a game that rewards patience and observation, but does not demand long periods of inactivity and gives you plenty to look at and discover as you go through. It also, as I feel is necessary for assassination games, paints an ugly enough picture of your targets that you don't have to feel too bad lobbing them over a rail into the Seine (especially not when there's a punning achievement on offer.)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Game of Thrones Cluedo

Bom-bom baba-bom-bom baba...
Over the weekend, we broke out one of Hanna's birthday presents: Game of Thrones Cluedo.

This game follows the essential rules of Cluedo (Clue if you're American,) but with a twist. Each player takes one of six characters, moves around a map with a number of rooms and has to work out which of the six characters, including themselves, done a murder(1), in which room and with which of six weapons. All of the variables are on cards, and one of each is placed in an envelope to define the terms of the crime. Each turn you aim to get your character to a new room, where you can 'start a rumour', calling a character and a weapon to the same room and putting it about that this is the killer combo. In turn, each of your opponents gets a chance to prove you wrong by showing you one card from their hand that matches your rumour. Eventually, when you think you know the solution, you can make an accusation, check the envelope, and either win or be excluded from the game. Because the game was made in older and simpler times, the win condition is the same for everyone, even if you realise that it was you what done it.

Is anyone significantly murdered with a battle axe in the series?
Game of Thrones Cluedo has the twist of featuring two scenarios on its reversible board: Mereen, in which you are solving a murder in one of nine major buildings; and The Red Keep, in which you are figuring out who was behind a murder plot which reached its grim conclusion in one of eleven rooms, making for a slightly more complex case. In addition, because we no longer live in those simple times, each character has a special ability and an additional mechanic allows you to collect Intrigue cards by various means, which allow you to take extra turns, see additional cards and other such things. Just for funsies, eight of the Intrigue cards are White Walkers, which must be played immediately into a separate discard pile. Drawing the eighth White Walker takes you out of the game, and the card is shuffled back into the deck to potentially kill someone else later.

Varys: Master of Modifiers
Most of the Game of Thrones trappings are just window dressing on your basic Cluedo, and even the special abilities are interesting one-shots at most, but the Intrigue cards are a radical change to the pacing of the game. Given the near-certainty of someone stealing the prize if you stumble on solution – say by guessing the weapon and room out of nowhere, damnit – an extra turn can reverse one's fortunes. With only three players the White Walkers aren't that much of a thing, but I can see that with eight the Intrigue deck would be much more akin to a revolver(2) in a game of Russian roulette. All in all, it's the Intrigue deck that makes this more than just a reskin, with Miss Scarlett wearing some sort of creepy, serial killer Cersei Lannister mask.

Also, the world is clearly ready for a Game of Thrones edition of Kill Doctor Lucky, with Joffrey as the obvious victim.

(1) Murder has its own grammar.

(2) A revolver that fires zombies.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

First Thoughts on Ori and the Blind Forest

Try not to get attached. Fail. Mourn.
Do you get tired of games that don't rip your still beating heart out of your chest within the first ten minutes of the game and stab it repeated with a blunt pencil while shouting 'this is what you get for caring?' If so, or if you like atmospheric platform puzzlers, you might like Ori and the Blind Forest.

Ori is a spirit of light separated from the great Spirit Tree of the forest and raised by a gorilla in a noh mask, until her foster parent dies of starvation because the forest is dying. Then Ori dies. Straight up, the opening sections of the game are: Ori drifts like a leaf and is adopted by Naru; Naru and Ori live happily; the forest dies and Naru starves to death while Ori is fetching food; Ori starves to death. The bit where Naru dies is bad enough, but then you have to slog slowly along while Ori expires. It's like watching the opening montage of Up.

Fortunately things pick up, as the Tree gives the last of its light to save Ori, who finds a spark of light called Sein that guides her to recover the light of other lost spirits in order to restore the balance of elements and save the forest from the rage of the owl spirit Kuro. She does this through a mixture of light combat and agile platform puzzling, retrieving various forms of key to open up new areas and explore the world of the forest. Defeating enemies and collecting light spirits allows you to level up different areas, loosely equating to combat, collecting and save management, which last is not something you often see on a skill tree.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a beautiful game, although it remains to be seen if the challenges will be varied enough to see me through the inevitable frustrating bits that come in any platformer.

First Thoughts on Octodad: Dadliest Catch

Adventures of an average, American family.
Do you get tired of games where the code takes over most of the functions of your character for you? Auto aim, context-sensitive cover and traversal, unified control of your character's limbs and body. If this is something that really grinds your gears, or if you're in the mood for some cartoon-style flailing around and burbling, then Octodad: Dadliest Catch might be for you.

In Dadliest Catch (sequel to the original, freeware Octodad) you take on the role of an unnamed octopus, who for reasons unknown (at least as far as I have got in the game,) has crammed his tentacles into clothing in order to masquerade as a human, marry a woman named Scarlet and raise her two children as his own. To do this, you switch between two modes: Legs, in which you use the mouse buttons and mouse movements to individually work the flailing, boneless tentacle pairs shoved down each trouser; and arms, in which you raise and lower, extend and retract your arm tentacle, suckering onto objects to manipulate them.

"The aisle is full of banana peels, but I'm the suspicious one?"
The game is divided into levels, each set in a different area (so far: church, home, store; and I'm at the start of the dreaded aquarium,) in which you have to complete a set of tasks and then, in most cases, escape from a chef who knows that you are an octopus and wants to turn you into a delicacy. As you go about your tasks, it is vitally important not to give yourself away by knocking things over, trampling flowers, or slipping on too many of the inordinate number of banana peels scattered about the world.

If it's not already clear, Octodad: Dadliest Catch is one weird mamajama, although for all its bizarre trappings, it's basically one long ragdoll physics puzzle. As a result, I do struggle to play extended sessions, but it's fun to dip in and out of.