Saturday, 4 August 2012


Playing Dishonored instills a strange mix of vulnerability and strength, where I’m given a superhero’s ability set but feel like I’m always one mistake away from death. Errors are severely punished by aggressive enemies, and because powers are tied to a limited mana resource, they can’t be spammed. I can’t simply blanket an area with rats. I can’t use my wind blast ability to repeatedly knock aside any that stand in my way. I need to be careful about timing, precision, and chaining abilities together in an effective manner.
Exploration is also rewarded. Opportunities for discovery are all over Dishonored’s fictional city of Dunwall, where a plague eats away at the poor and hardens the insularity of the ruling class. When I fled to the rooftops, for instance, I found an open window that led to a porch where a nervous looking man gripped the railing. I snuck up and choked him, then pulled a special item from a nearby pile of junk that I could use to augment my abilities.
There aren’t a huge number of abilities in Dishonored, and each can be leveled in ways that not only strengthen but alter functionality. The possession ability initially allows me to inhabit the bodies of rats and fish, sometimes to escape, sometimes to squeeze through small spaces to access alternate paths to guarded structures or enter otherwise locked treasure rooms. With an upgrade to the ability I can possess humans. Though the possession time isn’t long, that means I can more easily disrupt a patrol path or walk a guard to his doom. The wind blast ability initially knocks down enemies and shatters doors, but after an upgrade it can actually kill foes by slamming them into walls. By combining these active abilities with the different weapon types and passive enhancements, it seems like the number of ways to solve problems will only increase further on in the game, ideally leading to some outstanding climactic missions.
My mission in this particular instance was to infiltrate a party at a mansion and take out a target named Lady Boyle. Unfortunately three at the party shared the name, so another part of my mission was to discover the proper target. First I accessed the facility by blinking through an open hole in a sewer grate and breaking into the mansion’s basement. Then I reloaded and blinked over the front gate, where I plucked a fallen party invite from the ground and handed it to the guard, who promptly led me inside.
This mansion’s courtyard and interior were not hostile spaces – in fact most at the party seemed happy to see me and impressed with my menacing outfit. It was a costume party where all wore masks, which ranged from subtly unsettling to outright bizarre. One particularly uptight partygoer wore a full-head whale mask, and the woman he was talking to wore a moth mask complete with pluming antennae. When he left she turned to me and asked for a drink. I went back to the buffet table across which was laid a colossal glistening fish gutted open and steaming and scooped a cup of cider out of a fountain. She thanked me and in return revealed the identities of two of the Boyle ladies wandering around the party in identical outfits. I snuck upstairs past a guard and plucked a note from a desk to uncover the identity of the true target.
I didn’t have to do any of that. I could have walked into the mansion and shot the first innocent I saw. I could have moved between the rest of the terrified revelers and snatched their coin purses while slashing at any guards who got in the way. I could have tried to kill everything in the building instead of investigate. When I eventually did attack, the fights proved to be fast and unforgiving. Enemies shot guns and blocked and dodged and did seemingly everything they could to avoid taking damage while continuing to deal it.
A particularly striking element of the scene was how Arkane was able to hide threats in plain sight. Several characters standing around the party held what looked like sci-fi accordions and I assumed they were there to provide entertainment. But as soon as I plunged my sword into a guard’s neck they started playing and generated an anti-magic field that inhibited my abilities. Suddenly they’re the biggest threat in the room, whereas moments before they seemed a perfectly fitting part of the backdrop. Tricks like that work because Arkane built such a densely detailed dinner scene where everything seemed to be in the right place and appropriately extravagant.
Dishonored is so exciting to me not only because it rewards creative gameplay, but because so much care was clearly taken to build a place with enough layers and moving pieces to give it a curious plausibility, to make it seem like every time you push it pushes right back.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

COD BLACK OPS 2: NOV 13,2012

After all the rumors and leaks, it's finally official: Treyarch is at work on a sequel to Black Ops, due for arrival later this year. This sort of news isn't exactly shocking, of course, considering that Call of Duty has long been one of those annualized series where gossiping about the next game is a bit like spreading rumors about tomorrow's sunrise. But just because the existence of Black Ops II is a foregone conclusion doesn't mean that the content of the game is on that same level of predictability. In fact, the team at Treyarch has got quite a number of tricks up its sleeve for this upcoming first-person shooter. The core action is very much Call of Duty, but the overall package might just surprise you.The Call of Duty franchise has always been fond of the idea of dual protagonists, whether it was alternating between two separate theaters of war in the World War II days or two different elite tactical units in the Modern Warfare franchise. Black Ops II is out to do the same thing, but with one very different twist: instead of being separated by geography, the playable characters are separated by decades of time.
One half of the game picks up immediately after Black Ops, with you following the journey of Frank Woods, who, as luck would have it, didn't quite die at the end of the last game. Whether he's riding on horseback alongside mujahideen during the Afghan Civil War or off pursuing Russian secrets in some other corner of the world, Woods' adventures will take him through some of the later stages of the Cold War.
The other half of the campaign, though, kicks off in the year 2025, when advanced weapon technologies rule the day. This half of the campaign is filled with drone warfare (you can hack and deploy drones in the heat of combat), robotic quadrupeds roaming the battlefield, and fancy weapon systems that let you do some pretty crazy stuff with your basic firearms (like hold the trigger longer for a charged fire). Even subtle things like the general aesthetic of the heads-up display or the style of the music have a more futuristic feel to them.
If done right, this type of setup could make for a very interesting experience. There's going to be a lot of contrast between the tone and technologies of these two halves of the campaign, and bouncing between the two could be a lot of fun. Treyarch is keen to stress that it has done this to examine some distinct historical parallels (the old Cold War with Russia and the new one with China), which could be interesting if the thoughtfulness that goes into that premise isn't overshadowed by sheer chaos and spectacle--something that's always a risk when it comes to storytelling in Call of Duty.

It has branching storylines

Call of Duty games have long been this industry's go-to example for linear storytelling. Once you have finished the mile-a-minute campaigns, there has never been a tremendous reason to go back and play through the story again. With Black Ops II, however, Treyarch wants to give you some control over how the story progresses and thus add a reason to go back and experience different events. It's doing this through a combination of old-fashioned decision-making and allowing mission failures to alter the story rather than simply lead to a game-over screen. Did you manage to kill that one antagonist before he got away? Did you successfully protect that VIP? Instances such as these (if not these examples specifically) can occasionally lead to different outcomes depending on how well you do.
Ideally, this method of storytelling will be more nuanced than just "kill all the men, get the good ending" versus "kill most of the men, get the slightly worse ending." We're hoping to see more moral gray area, where you are given the chance to make difficult decisions that alter the game on top of how you perform in battle. This sort of narrative system has the potential to seriously alter how you experience a Call of Duty campaign, and we're hoping that Treyarch can pull it off in a meaningful way.

It's occasionally a real-time strategy game

Treyarch is working on a new game mode for Black Ops II called Strikeforce, which is the studio's attempt to add a more hands-off, sandbox experience for players who want to run-and-gun on their own terms. What Strikeforce does is drop you into a large environment with a number of AI squadmates (sadly, this mode isn't co-op) and then give you a series of objectives spread throughout the map. It's basically the game giving you a bunch of space, a bunch of toys, and a bunch of enemies to take care of how you see fit.
The novel bit is that you don't have to play as the foot soldiers on the ground. You can bounce out to a sort of all-seeing-eye camera that lets you quickly scan across the map and issue orders to the troops on the ground. And since this is the year 2025 (the supplementary game modes like Strikeforce and competitive multiplayer all stick to the future), you can also issue orders to drones, and even play as them from a first-person perspective (including air and ground units). The whole thing is basically Call of Duty's version of a toy chest come to life. You can either pretend to be each little unit on the ground, or simply play out the entire match as the disembodied overlord looming over the battle, telling everyone what to do and where to go.

It has a villain Treyarch wants you to care about

Think of all the things the Call of Duty franchise has done well over the years: the sensation of being in the middle of a chaotic warzone, the terrific feel of the weapons, the exciting (and occasionally eccentric) set pieces. With this next game, Treyarch is hoping to add "interesting and multifaceted villain" to that list.
While the studio isn't going into too much detail about this antagonist's identity, they did mention that they'll be using the full span of the campaign--both the past and future--to establish the villain as a young man, show his descent into evil, and reveal the full extent of that trajectory come 2025. To help build this villain, Treyarch has been working with screenwriter David Goyer, whose credits include Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Remember Heath Ledger as the Joker? That's the sort of lightning Treyarch is hoping to bottle up with the help of Goyer.
Game director Dave Anthony explains it like this: "If you look at a show likeThe Sopranos, the main character is essentially a villain. Not only a villain, but a cold-blooded murderer. But you're presented with somebody that you actually understand as a human being and empathize with. And then suddenly you'll see them do something that's so horrific that it puts you in a real conflict. That's the approach we're taking with the villain of Black.With last year's Modern Warfare 3, Infinity Ward made the call to forgo LAN support. It was a decision that led competitive gaming leagues like MLG to drop MW3 from the pro circuits. Treyarch's approach to e-sports couldn't be more different. Black Ops II multiplayer design lead David Vonderhaar says that tailoring their game to resonate with the e-sports community is a huge goal for Treyarch. "E-sports has a really big influence. It helps us envision ways we can make the game for a competitive mindset, so there's elements of e-sports directly influencing the game design in multiplayer," says Vonderhaar. "But what's also really fascinating is e-sports as a spectator experience."
"The theater was fantastic, millions of people making millions of videos. But what's also fantastic is all these people who watch games get played. I just read this stat a couple days ago: 3 billion minutes per month of people watching people play video games. Three billion minutes! I'm thinking, man, Call of Duty could be 3 billion minutes if it was fun to watch. So this is impacting the game design. Making the game fun to watch is a big part of our agenda."
You can expect to see Black Ops II hit stores on November 13. Stay tuned for more coverage once next month's E3 rolls around.

Saturday, 21 July 2012


Microsoft is a tease. The slowly unraveling thread of information about Halo 4 has so far yielded near naught on one of the game's major selling points: the return of the one and only M. Chief. (That's short for Master Chief, mind you, not Mr. Chief. Although that's also acceptable.)
Microsoft's E3 2012 press conference kicked into action with a frenetic, kickass trailer detailing Halo 4's single-player campaign, but since then we've heard nothing on the game's narrative elements. (It has all been about competitive multiplayer.) That is about to change--the publisher finally allowed us a sneak peek into its efforts with story. No, not with the single-player campaign. That's obviously something they're saving for later. But we did get a chance to see how storytelling will work in the second part of Halo 4's multiplayer component: Spartan Ops.
For clarification, Halo 4 will ship with two multiplayer elements: War Games, the competitive multiplayer, and Spartan Ops, a weekly episodic narrative-driven cooperative multiplayer. Spartan Ops will take on the role of a second campaign, with a separate storyline and separate protagonists. The campaign will follow the story of Majestic Squad, a Spartan squad from the UNSC Infinity on the planet Requiem (those of you who finished Halo 3 on Legendary will know what this is about).
Through a weekly series of cinematic episodes, each episode containing five linear story missions, this second campaign will be playable both as single-player or cooperatively with up to four players. (Spartan Ops also supports matchmaking, just in case you misplace all your friends.) The best part? You don't have to pay extra: access to Spartan Ops is included with Halo 4.
OK, now to the fun stuff. We were shown the fifth mission in the first episode of Spartan Ops (for clarity, Microsoft is currently working on just one season of Spartan Ops). By the way, this was all hands-off, so we won't be able to talk much about how the game feels to play, but hey, it's Halo, so you should already have a pretty good idea. In the mission, our team was charged with gathering information on a Covenant archaeological structure on Requiem. 343 Industries made it clear that none of what you'll see in the single-player Master Chief campaign will repeat itself, either in Spartan Ops or in the competitive multiplayer.
After encountering a pesky squad of Covenant (standard Grunts and Elites), our team cleared the top level and encountered a couple of Forerunner shields. Once fired upon, these triggered a call to arms for the Forerunner troops, who apparently don't like anyone touching their stuff. What you can expect from these bad guys is faster, angrier versions of the Covenant enemies, with a slight orange tinge. First there are the Crawlers--small, pack-hunting creatures that can scale walls and ceilings and look like overgrown sewer rats. These guys are easy to kill on their own (one or two shots does just fine), but watch out if they come at you in a pack. (Oh, and they attack by shooting weird orange lasers.)
The team suddenly realizes that the Crawlers are materializing too quickly--they're being spawned by something. Enter another Forerunner enemy: the Watchers. Watchers are tactical enemies that act like AI support for the Forerunner troops. They take the shape of what looks roughly like a giant flying motorcycle and hover above the fight, ready to spawn more enemies. Taking Watchers down is a priority; otherwise you're going to be facing a never-ending battle. However, they're smart: they learn your shooting tactics and react in different ways once you try to take them down a second time.
Finally, one of our team picks up a new Forerunner weapon. Called a scatter shot, this is kind of like a shotgun (powerful at close range) but with more firepower and a cooler-looking body. These are handy against the Knights--another type of Forerunner enemy that physically look like Elites but way more badass.
After a drawn-out fight dealing with these three kinds of Forerunner enemies, our team finally manages to dispense of the last one and achieve its objective: the obtainment of a Forerunner artifact that will be taken back onboard the UNSC Infinity for closer observation.
A note on the difficulty levels in Spartan Ops: 343 Industries stressed that all players in the game must play on the same difficulty level. Which, when you think about it, is only fair.

The First Five Things You Notice About Halo 4 Multiplayer

While Microsoft kicked off its E3 2012 press conference with a look at Halo 4's single-player campaign, Master Chief's latest saga isn't the only part of Halo 4 on display at the show this year. Tonight, we got a chance to take a quick spin through a bit of Halo 4's competitive multiplayer mode. We'll save the real nuts-and-bolts discussion for a later date, but in the meantime, let's talk about the five things we noticed right away about 343's handiwork:

Break Out Your Sunglasses

Depending on which map you play, the first thing you'll probably notice about Halo 4 is a much more dramatic use of lighting. The series has always been fond of painting dramatic skies above players' heads, but in Halo 4 it feels like those skies are reaching down and grabbing you. This effect was especially dramatic on the Forerunner-themed map we played that mixed austere architecture with extensive gold rays bathing the play field in a golden light. It almost had a heavenly look to it--if heaven were populated by Spartans trying to kill one another.

Finding Your Own Style

One of the ways Halo 4 deviates most from previous games is through the use of customized loadouts. What this does to the overall balance and its effect on the gap between new players and veterans is the subject for a later discussion, but one thing we can definitely say right now is that they really do let you carve out your own unique playing style on the battlefield.
Say you're a defensive player who prefers to avoid risk. You can equip the "Mobility" support upgrade that grants you infinite sprinting, allowing you to hightail it to safety whenever things get too hot for your liking. Or if you like to get inside the enemy's head, you can turn on the Promethean Vision armor ability that lets you temporarily see players through walls, then watch as they react in horror when you keep banking grenades around blind corners and into their laps.

The Warthog Has Been (Somewhat) Tamed

Hop into the driving seat of the Warthog and you might notice that Halo's signature method of wild joyriding has become a little more, dare we say it,reliable. It's a subtle difference compared to previous games, but it did seem like the Warthog in Halo 4 feels less floaty and squirrely. It's not the sort of change that everyone is going to pick up on, but it did feel like the Warthog has had some modest tuning upgrades applied to it in the ol' UNSC auto garage.

The Animated Art of Dying

Halo 4's lighting isn't the only visual change you'll notice when you first pick up a controller and jump into a fight between red and blue. The character animations are now much more elaborate and nuanced. When the camera pulls back to show you dying, you no longer just sort of fall to the ground as a lifeless husk of your former self; instead, you'll often see yourself stumble, reach out in desperation, and shuffle this mortal coil in dramatic fashion. Those death animations aren't terribly longer than the old ones, and you can still skip them to respawn right away, but they definitely add a bit more grim weight to the act of seeing your character die.

Your Guns Are More Reliable

Folks who complained about weapon bloom in Halo: Reach are probably going to be happy with what 343 has done to the armory in Halo 4. In the time we spent playing multiplayer, gunfire seemed much more accurate in extended bursts. This was especially the case with the single-shot DMR. When engaging an enemy from mid to long range, we were able to fire off a quick succession of four or five rounds without feeling like our fifth bullet had taken a detour to Antarctica and back. The result is a game that moves a little more quickly, with kills coming faster and more often. Not a dramatic difference, but one that veteran Reach players will probably pick up on.

Friday, 20 July 2012


Each of the four new characters in Borderlands 2 leans on the archetypes set up by their previous counterparts. For those who played the first game, Salvador felt most like brutish big guy Brick. He's heavyset and never afraid to drop fist bombs when push comes to shove, but he also packs a new card up his sleeves: the ability to temporarily wield a pair of guns when combat gets a little too hot. The extra firepower comes with a cooldown, so you won't be constantly riddling prey with akimbo machine guns, but when you do, you forgo weapon sights to fire from the hip. With two effective elemental weapons equipped, targets tended to die pretty quickly at our hands. Just the way we like it.
Both of our characters came pre-played to level 20 and packing one of three different weapon loadouts. We were presented with a handful of skill points waiting to be spent, and doing so gave us the chance to customise our own areas of priorities for expertise. Like in the first game, three skill trees are available, but rather than spend an initial point for your class-specific special ability (Lilith's phasewalk, Brick's berserk, and so on) before drilling down further, this time your first point is spent directly in your tree of choice. The Brawn tree is all about optimising your special attack, with the "come at me bro" skill allowing you to taunt in gunzerker mode to return you to full health. Taunting attracts the current target's hate, making it useful for taking on a group tanking role, or wrestling danger away from another member of your crew. Using it doesn't spell imminent death, however, as activating it also rewards you with a buff that helps mitigate damage--presumably long enough for someone else to throw you a heal, pass on the aggro, or put down the target. Brawn isn't solely about punching things either, and the early tiers also pump up your chance at landing critical strikes, as well as increasing your effectiveness with certain weapon types, such as pistols.
The Rampage tree offers the "keep firing" (Spaceballs reference?) talent that speeds up your rate of fire in line with the speed at which you tap the triggers on the controller. Faster presses result in faster shooting, and when it's used with gunzerking double weapons, you'll chew through bullets at a rate of knots and provide enemies a free session of lead acupuncture in the process. "Inconceivable" and "5 shots of 6" were our standout abilities in the Rampage tree. The former granted a coin toss for each shot fired not to consume a round, while the latter was a maximum 25 percent chance to add an extra round of ammunition to the chamber when blasting away. Used together, they give you a chance to stand your ground and shoot with only minimal concern for running out of bullets. Gearbox devs on hand at the event even told of experiences during testing where players had fired 40-second bursts of chain gun weapons without needing to reload, simply by getting lucky with the perks.
Gun Lust is the third and final tree and offers extra health early, but upgrades your things that go bang a few tiers down. "No kill like overkill" adds a damage multiplier to your next shot fired after killing an enemy, giving you an instant leg up on your next victim, and will be invaluable for speeding things up when mowing down groups of poorly armoured, low-hit-point enemies.