Saturday, 26 September 2015

[PC Game Review] Star Wars: Dark Forces

Platform: PC
Released: February 1995
Genre: First Person Shooter
Developer/Publisher: LucasArts

Dark Forces is, in a nutshell, Doom with a Star Wars skin. That's pretty much the simple way of looking at it. However, it does some interesting things that in my opinion sets it apart from other shooters of its time. Is it still worth picking up? Let's find out as I take a look at this classic 90's FPS.

Dark Forces is set during the time of the original Star Wars trilogy (you know... episodes 4-6 cause Lucas felt like starting there for some reason) but is more set as a side story to the movies where you play badass mercenary Kyle Katarn who takes up missions for the rebels and ends up dealing with the Empire's new experimental prototype soldier, the Dark Forces. Oh, just to mention, in this game YOU are the guy who gets the Death Star plans that helps the rebels destroy the Death Star in Episode IV. Probably a key moment in the game because it directly ties you to the events that went on in the movie and makes you feel like "hey, I actually have a purpose in this game". The problem with a lot of games of this time is the lack of any meaning with what you're doing. Even though Doom is pretty much a perfect shooter, it lacks purpose. Since there is no plot or story to the game you're kinda just playing to see what's next and for nothing else. With Dark Forces, you don't play levels, you play missions. Each mission has a set goal that will impact the story and the mission briefings before each mission are essential to understanding the game's story and objectives because some of them can be a bit tricky to grasp without reading the briefing. There's also voice acting in the game and some cutscenes with some decent animation for the time, so all in all I felt the story was damn solid in the game and I felt really connected to the characters.

Now, Kyle is not a jedi (although he becomes one in the sequel, Jedi Knight), so instead of relying on the force and flashy lightsaber combat, he relies on his wits and his guns. It feels a bit refreshing playing a Star Wars game where you're not playing a Jedi or Sith to be honest. To just be the Han Solo type character, a grunt with some guns and a job to do, feels very different and that's one of the main reasons I feel this game has held up as well as it has. There's even a spot in the game where you're captured by Jabba the Hutt and thrown to one of his pets as food. So, instead of using the force to get your weapon back, you have to defeat this beast with your bare hands like a fucking badass. It's one of the most awesome moments I've had in gaming recently.

The game plays a lot like Doom though I would say it actually plays closer to Duke Nukem 3D in the sense you can look up and down as well as jump so you have a lot more freedom of movement than you'd expect from an early 90's shooter. The controls feel solid and, thankfully, are very easily customized so playing the game with modern WASD controls is very easy.

You have all the classic FPS weapons you'd expect. From classic blasters to explosives, so you have something for every situation. I really like the sound design on them and they all sound very authentic to the movies. Visually they look really cool as well with very detailed sprites.

The levels themselves are also really well designed, and everything feels like it's there for a purpose. For the time the level design is very impressive, and it does a lot of nice tricks that would probably be impossible in games like Doom. Since you're playing missions the levels feel more cinematic in design than a lot of shooters of the time and a lot of times I felt like I was in an actual Star Wars movie. Some of the levels could get a bit cryptic and I got stuck several times, though it thankfully never got so bad I had to consult a walkthrough. The only mission I didn't care that much for is the sewer mission early in the game. It's very easy to get stuck in the maze on that mission and it was only to assassinate a minor character so I felt it could easily have been cut out of the game. It feels like a filler mission.

One thing I noticed that kind of bothered me is the lack of a quicksave function. Unlike other shooters of the time you cannot save during a mission, the game autosaves between missions. Granted you have an extra lives system and checkpoints so if you die, you're only set back a short distance, making it not a big deal, but what if I have to go during a mission? Having to replay a mission from the start every time I have to leave made the game a bit more frustrating than it should've been. Thankfully they introduced quicksaving in the sequel so they obviously learned from their mistake.

The missions aren't usually that long though and once the objective is completed you are actually free to continue exploring if you want to and can quit when you feel ready to leave. I really liked this approach to gameplay and it feels very ahead of its time as instead of giving you a simple "end level switch" you can keep exploring for secrets if you want to without feeling like you are bound to the mission goal.

Graphically the game is gorgeous for its time. The atmosphere feels very genuinely Star Wars and I loved the attention to detail, especially when you can accidentally run into friendly droids on a level who are just running around peacefully. There are a lot of hostile enemies, sure, but it's nice to have a game where not all NPC's are hostile. The level designs feel like actual locations from the movies and help give the game a lot of authenticity. The atmosphere is definitely a good reason I kept coming back to the game.

Music-wise you have several options, and the quality of the music will depend on what sound card you have. I used SoundBlaster OP4 FM synthesis, which sounded decent enough and very oldschool so I felt it fit the game's time period. There are some very decent renditions of the movie score that helps add to the game's atmosphere. The sound design in general is very good with very authentic sound effects, decent voice acting and a great sense of ambience.


STORY: 10/10
The story is very well written for its time and draws you into the game unlike a lot of its contemporary games. It offers for a ton of memorable moments from the game.

The lack of a quicksave function really is the main downgrade for me in this game. Otherwise the game is pretty solid.

GRAPHICS: 8/10No support for high res modes means you are pretty much forced to play in a low-res 320x240 mode. Otherwise the atmosphere is spot on and the levels are very well designed.
The spritework feels very authentic and detailed.

SOUND: 10/10
Excellent music and authentic sound design. No real complaints here.


All in all, Star Wars: Dark Forces is a true classic FPS that you should definitely play if you're a fan of Star Wars or just oldschool shooters in general. Some of its features are well ahead of its time, while in some other ways it does feel a bit obsolete. But as a whole I had a blast playing this game. The force is strong with this one...
Now... on to tackle the sequel, Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II!

Friday, 25 September 2015

[PC] Call of Duty: Black Ops III Beta - Impressions

This won't be a review as much as just some general impressions and overview of the Call of Duty: Black Ops III Multiplayer Beta that released earlier in August, what I played of it and what I thought about it. A lot of it will be compared to Advanced Warfare which I have played a lot and so far consider the best game in the series.

One thing that struck me as very different off the bat is the focus on "Specialists". These are basically characters you play as during multiplayer, each with their own special skills and special weapons. I played as the Scout class (although I'm sure she had a different name...) and didn't get a chance to try the other ones. Her skills were a vision pulse that showed enemies around you for a while and a special recurve bow with explosive arrows.
It seems like a very cool concept to have the focus shifted from one customizable character to a whole bunch of more well defined classes to play and seems to take some ideas from games like Borderlands. I didn't get a feeling that these classes were meant to work together or synergize in any way though, which made it feel more like you chose more for your own reasons than to support your team, just choosing a class suiting your playstyle and preference.

The weapons... felt kinda boring. There was no option for akimbo weapons that I saw, which after AW's focus on different akimbo guns made the game feel almost lacking in a sense. The weapons that were shown in the beta felt very underpowered and I never felt like I dealt enough damage, even though I tried out different SMGs and assault rifles (my preferred weapon classes) extensively. I died a lot more than I do in AW as a result.

One thing i kinda like though is that the way of achieving gun attachments is enormously simplified. You now simply level up guns by killing enemies. The higher the level of the gun, the more attachments you get. Although a part of me prefers the weapon challenges in AW, I can see this system being more fun and fair for everyone.

The game also felt really unoptimized, but being a beta that's almost a given. Most of the time it felt perfectly playable but it had its slowdowns. I'm pretty sure this will be fixed in the final weeks leading up to release.

All in all, so far Black Ops 3 seems a lot less fun than AW. It has some interesting features such as the Specialist classes and I'm looking forward to trying more of them and seeing what other guns the game has to offer me. There was no customization in the game in the beta, but they promise gun customization and also custom player cards and emblems, and I truly hope there will be some cosmetic customization of the specialist character you play.
But I died a lot, none of the guns I used felt powerful even at close range and the movement felt clunky compared to AW and I couldn't really get into it. I'm probably still going to love the game, but so far I doubt Advanced Warfare is going to be uninstalled any time soon...

Monday, 14 September 2015

[PlayStation Vita Game Review] Xeodrifter

Platform: PlayStation Vita
Released: September 2015
Genre: Action/Adventure/Sidescroller
Developer/Publisher: Renegade Kid

Since Nintendo seems to have no interest in making good Metroid games anymore, it seems indie game devs have taken the torch and a lot of Metroid-influenced games have entered the market. Xeodrifter is one of them and since it was free on PS Plus for my Vita, I gave it a download. I'm not sure how different this version is from the PC, PS4 or 3DS versions, but you might as well treat this as a general review of the game as nothing about the PS Vita versions felt like it took particular advantage of the Vita's gimmicks. Is it worth picking up, or is this a game that should just be left drifting? Let's find out.

Xeodrifter is about a spaceman who ends up stranded in a small system when he accidentally bumps into a rogue asteroid. Scanning the nearby planets for resources, he finds some good energy signatures. However it turns out the simple plan to get a new warp core turns into a huge ordeal where he has to explore all four planets around him in order to find what he's looking for.

Not sure if it's meant to be lava, or boiling hot KoolAid...
Xeodrifter immediately should feel familiar to anyone who's played Metroid. The formula is pretty much intact, and the game obviously takes most of its inspiration from Nintendo's classic franchise. You know the drill by now. Find upgrades so you can uncover more of the map. You get upgrades by killing bosses. And you kill bosses by upgrading. However the system in Xeodrifter is a little unique. In addition to health upgrades that increase the number of hits you can take, you also have gun upgrades. Now, these upgrades DON'T act like you would expect in a Metroid game. Instead of each gun upgrade being something specific, it instead adds a gun point in your menu that you can spend in several categories, each category impacting how your gun behaves. You can have up to 3 different customizations and this gives you a lot of freedom to create different gun customizations for different situations. For instance, you can have one customization with maximum power for bigger more armoured foes, and one customization focused on fire rate for large hordes of smaller weaker enemies. It's a nice system that gives the game a very nice feel to it where you are in complete control of your power. The upgrades you get from killing the bosses mostly affect your exploration abilitiy. Areas that are previously locked off become available as they rely on you using your new abilites to reach them. For instance, while the areas in the background might seem off limits at first and nothing but cool little backgrounds to add more detail to the game's visuals, once you gain an ability you can literally phase into the background and use it as a secondary playing field. It's a cool mechanic that seems obviously inspired by oldschool platformers that tried playing the 3D gimmick, but adds some extra depth to the gameplay in a literal sense.

All modern space ships are of course outfitted with a save station, teleporter and map screen. No bed though.

Now, that's kind of where the positives about the game end for me. Aside from the graphics which are really good for an 8bit retro game and the music which is perfectly decent, the game falls short in a lot of areas. Despite having 4 planets to explore, they all feel... small. Tiny even. The maps don't feel that big and instead of feeling like you are exploring different planets they might as well be parts of one planet like in Metroid. Each planet has its own unique theme to it, but due to the small size of each planet's map, it ends up feeling a bit unnecessary to have them being 4 planets. I simply wish there was more to explore and not to mention a bit more variety as a lot of the same enemies appear on all of the planets without any indication why they would if they belonged to one planet's ecosystem. For instance, a giant eye-block (for the lack of a better term) on one planet looked like it belonged on that planet because its design seemed to fit the planet's design theme. However I ran into the same enemy on an entirely different planet where it felt entirely out of place. Not to mention, the game is VERY short and you can easily finish it in a couple days if you are good enough. There's a bit of a difficulty to the game but it feels cheap because it relies entirely on how much health and gun powerups you have. If you get killed it's easily because you aren't strong enough and by the end of the game you can pretty much rape everything and take all the hits in the world if you have found enough powerups.

"Imma firin' mah eyelazor!"
Another part where the game feels very lazy and cheap are the bosses themselves. Now, instead of having different bosses that fit the different planets and their themes, they have instead opted to reuse the same boss. Over and over. The only difference is that each iteration is a little bit tricker and involves a new pattern, as well as a simple color swap, but the bosses are essentially the same each time. It ends up feeling extremely monotonous and once you learn the boss' pattern, ALL of them become ridicilously easy. There's simply no challenge in them and they feel repetitive. The final boss does have one cool trick up his sleeve that I won't spoil, but otherwise, I really wish the game had more boss variety. Fighting the same boss over and over with some new patterns is just boring and tedious and doesn't feel interesting. It also feels a bit like untapped potential as the planets felt very thought out in their different designs, however putting the same boss on all planets made NO sense to me.

Controlling the spaceman also feels like it could've been improved. Not only is he WAY too tiny compared to his environment (he basically looks like Samus if she was the size she is when morph balling), which makes calculating his position hard on smaller screens (this game was obviously developed originally with PC in mind...), but his controls feel very slippery and takes a while to get used to. Even hours after playing this game it's still very easy for me to screw up simply because the controls don't feel as tight as they should be.

That'll teach you to spit fireballs on unsuspecting spacemen!


STORY: 5/10
Not really important to the gameplay and nothing memorable. It's just there pretty much.

Offering some cool gimmicks like the gun customization and phasing between background and foreground, but does little to expand on its formula or take full advantage of its level design and concepts. Repetitious boss battles and very cheap difficulty as well as slippery controls makes it hard to recommend repeated playthroughs of the game for anything but speedruns and to get a 100% rating.

The different planets have very cool designs to them and the graphics are generally very well done. The size of the hero is a bit too small for my taste though and I would've preferred a larger sprite for him.

SOUND: 8/10
While the music isn't outstanding and a lot of the sound effects are re-used over and over, it's servicable. A minor complaint is that the sound feels a little inconsistent. The sound effects sound like 16bit quality but the music is pure NES chiptunes which creates a bit of dissonance in my head. And the end theme is definitely not 8bit by any stretch. A bit more theming and consistency to the sound would've added a lot I feel. The music is alright, but nothing too memorable in my opinion.

All in all, Xeodrifter isn't a bad game. But it feels like it could've used more testing, more variation, and simply more of everything. Conceptually I like the idea of exploring different planets, but it doesn't feel like they explored the concept enough and instead stuck to some lazy shortcuts. It doesn't feel fleshed out enough. Compared to something like Metroid which the game obviously takes inspiration from, this doesn't feel like a worthy tribute. It has good ideas, but ultimately falls a bit short on all of them. It's probably worth the cheap price or getting it for free right now on PS Plus, but don't expect much for the money.

- Alyxx