Category Archives: PC games

Best of 2015 #3: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom PainDespite The Phantom Pain facing ardent attempts to undermine it from both Konami’s avarice and Kojima’s lack of restraint, its qualities manage to shine through. And believe me, if the game is still shining after living through this many attempts to torpedo it since release, the core game must be shining pretty damn brightly.

It would have been higher on the list this year were it not for some poor design decisions and an annoying structure. It’s a superb 15-20 hours stretched quite thinly over 50-60 hours, with the second act being mindbogglingly bad in its design. I was wishing for it to hurry up and finish by the end, which even with the best underlying gameplay in the world, is not a good sign.

But when The Phantom Pain is at its best, it’s so, so good. The open world complements an infiltration game incredibly well, dramatically increasing the strategic options in a series that has always been famous for giving you more than one way to complete an objective. Going back to classics like the first game, suddenly the option to go through the front door or the vent doesn’t seem too freeing. Do you go in from the north, south, east or west? Day or night? With a sniper or the dog? By vehicle or on foot? With explosives or silenced weapons? Non-lethal or live rounds? Extract or eliminate?

It’s just a shame when all this variety is used to infiltrate the same encampment for the 12th time. Hopefully whomever is in charge of Kojima now won’t give him such free rein.

Best of 2015 #4: Rocket League

Rocket LeagueConventional sports games haven’t done much for me in a while, the limitations of real sport striking me as unnecessarily restrictive on gameplay design in an effectively limitless medium. Real sport is for playing or watching in real life. If you’re going to turn it into a video game, let me fire a missile at the other participants or take them on with full, 360-degree movement.

Rocket League is grounded in reality – people play competitive games with real RC cars, after all – but, as I like it, with some of the limitations removed. You can boost yourself up walls with rockets, flip through the air, even fly to an extent if you have the patience to master it. This is a sport that I wish really did exist.

Either way, Rocket League was tremendous fun, certainly the best indie game of the year, and thanks to it being given away to PS Plus subscribers, one of the few multiplayer games that isn’t Call of Duty to have maintained a healthy population of players. It’s a fun, accessible party game with split-screen – remember those? As a free game for PSN subscribers it was, of course, a no-brainer, but even at the current price of £9.49 it would be one of my first recommendations for the post-Christmas glut of new PS4 owners.

Shenmue on a Kickstarter budget

ShenhuaEven if the numbers Shenmue III is pulling in are strong for a Kickstarter project, they’re not anywhere close to a modern, big budget, open-world game. They’re not even close to the $70 million that gets thrown around in discussions about the original’s extravagant cost. But the arguments are frequently misleading, so I want to take the opportunity to discuss some misconceptions and how an authentic Shenmue III experience could be delivered with a much-reduced budget.

For one thing, the $70m figure is an exaggeration. Yu Suzuki himself has put it closer to $47m, which doesn’t even hit $70m when adjusted for 15 years of inflation. Not small change, to be sure, but not even close to what a major open-world game can cost today.

It’s thanks to the current prevalence of open-world games that a Shenmue game could be made on a more modest budget, hence this one running on Unreal Engine 4. Shenmue was pushing boundaries with a bespoke engine, doing things that hadn’t been seen before; much of it is commonplace now, easily achieved using off-the-shelf middleware.

The explosion in gaming budgets since Shenmue came out doesn’t make $47m less gigantic in the context of 1999, of course. But something that’s frequently forgotten is that much of that was an investment in this revolutionary tech, which was supposed to power a multi-episode Shenmue saga. The engine was ultimately only used for Shenmue and a single sequel (four chapters in total), making profitability impossible and giving the game the appearance of an outrageous budget. Numbers aren’t available for Shenmue II on its own, but you can see how much further the money went, once it didn’t have to pay for the tech, in its sheer scale.

With that obstacle removed through the use of a third-party engine, able to render environments on the scale of Shenmue in its sleep, all the money goes on content. A budget that’s likely under $20m all-in is still tight, but it appears doable.

My final point is that this simply won’t be as big as Shenmue II. That game was ridiculous in its scale, dwarfing the already-impressive original game. The series has gone from a small hometown to playing the stranger in a foreign metropolis, and this one looks like changing it up again, continuing the rural Chinese setting of Guilin. Even with three locations, Suzuki has compared the planned scale to Dobuita in the first Shenmue, and that’s okay. We’re getting Shenmue III, and it’s a series about density and realism in its detail, rather than sprawling scale. After all these years, I’ll take it.

Ultimately, the precise breakdown of Shenmue III’s funding is unclear. We know that Sony is providing some money for publishing and marketing support, but the team has clarified that the bulk of it will come from Kickstarter. Evidently, Suzuki was prepared to make the game on a budget of $2 million, plus a modest amount of outside funding, and since the game has already breezed past the target, anything we can add, even if this doesn’t approach the scale and grandeur of the Dreamcast games, is gravy.

Shenmue III reaction

I’ve never given up hope that Shenmue would get its conclusion, and it seems that my faith has been rewarded.

Shenmue III Kickstarter

It’s funny, though. For years I’d always suggest Shenmue III as a dream E3 announcement as a joke, opening myself to a ribbing, but in the last couple of years it started to feel like a real possibility. Yu Suzuki started to make public appearances more often, dropping hints that were taken as hope by some, trolling by others. He was pictured with Sony’s Mark Cerny at a time when Sony was openly courting developers, and then Suzuki uttered the words “to be continued” after the Cerny-hosted GDC postmortem.

This all left me more disappointed that it didn’t materialise at E3 2014 than I had since 2002. But I still had the feeling that there’s no smoke without fire. Something had changed, even if I wasn’t sure precisely what.

Fast forward to this E3, and this tweet:

Surely he’s not that cruel? Even if Suzuki thought that was just a cool-looking forklift, he knows what people are going to read into that, right? But the seeds were sown, and I started to believe. I put the possibility of Shenmue III somewhere below the similarly MIA The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy VII remake, both of which were all but leaked in the days beforehand, but I went to bed last night with my fingers crossed.

It’s going to seem like I’m making stuff up here, but I genuinely dreamt that Shenmue III was announced last night. It was an MMO in my dream, and I remember seeing all the NPCs in the various neighbourhoods with player handles above their heads.

Sorry, Barney.
I’d like to apologise to my brother for the early awakening.

I then inexplicably woke up at 4:30am – normally it takes a good few runs through the snooze button to get me up when the alarm goes at 7:30 – and checked my phone to see the news on GAF. $300 plus shipping went into the Kickstarter fund immediately. Then came much celebrating and annoyed texts from those I’d bothered with early morning messages. They’ll forgive me eventually.

I’m just absolutely ecstatic. It’s hard to believe that this has finally happened, after all the jokes and teasing aimed at those who’ve been carrying the torch for so long. I’ve spent the morning on Twitter, sharing reactions that mirrored my own, finding out which tiers my Shenmue-loving friends have pledged at. People who remember my old Shenmue website have been emailing me out of the blue to share their happiness too.

What a day.

Returning to the Resident Evil remake

I know I’ve complained about the preponderance of recent remasters, which makes my current enthusiasm for this, the 2015 remaster of the 2002 remake of 1996’s Resident Evil, as well as the long-awaited Majora’s Mask 3D, seem odd. I’ll defend my position, though, since neither of those games has been seen on shelves in more than a decade and at least two console generations – they’re retro, in other words. I’ll be less enthusiastic about a 1080p remaster of Resident Evil 6, should that arrive, believe me.

Resident Evil HD: The mansion lobby

This is a game that I always respected and wanted to like, but timid little 2002-vintage me never made it much beyond the appearance of Crimson Heads. A couple of hours, in other words. A humiliating admission for such an ardent horror fan, but sadly not an isolated one in my gaming back catalogue, which is a who’s who of abandoned horror classics. But while the years might have blunted the absolute dread I felt when playing this to the point where it didn’t really give me The Fear at all, like when I played through the original Silent Hill, though, time has left the solid mechanics alone. It’s a phenomenally well-designed game.

But where Silent Hill, being (a) a PS1 game and (b) doing in real-time what Resident Evil resorted to pre-rendered backdrops to accomplish, looks really rough now, the Resident Evil remake (REmake hereafter) still looks incredible. It’s genuinely one of the most beautiful games ever made, even on a GameCube, and quick polish for a new generation of systems has only enhanced it. Some FMV and dark backgrounds that can look somewhat over-compressed aside, the game looks almost flawless. A handful of rooms are apparently now rendered in real-time, and it’s absolutely seamless – meaning we had a game on the GC that could stand up alongside games from two generations on. Amazing.

Resident Evil HD: Jill Valentine

I’m continually blown away by the details in the visual and story design of this game. The Spencer Mansion, ridiculous as its gems, metal objects and death masks may be, is an iconic location, brimming with memorable rooms and scares. Lisa Trevor and her family add a harrowing subplot that’s significantly more disturbing than any number of exploding heads. It has fun in playing with your expectations, so that you can imagine the designers smiling as famous moments like the dogs through the window are subverted, or when the aforementioned Crimson Heads turn cleared rooms into dangerous ammo sinks. The voice acting still has B-movie charm without being impossible to take seriously like the original, while those touching up the script and removing some of the more egregious howlers had the good sense to leave alone some of the best writing.

As much as I love RE2 and 4, REmake is my favourite in the series. It’s pure survival horror, which, brilliant as it is, Resident Evil 4 isn’t. It’s also tight, creepy and self-contained, which the bigger and crazier RE2 isn’t. It’s also a lesson for newer games in how to do a lot without a huge abundance of content, supporting two stories, multiple endings and a series of enjoyable unlocks in a game that can comfortably be finished in five hours.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

I’ve written before about how much I miss the B-tier of gaming, that time when there was something between a $100 million “AAA” release – the shifting definition of that term is another post in itself – and a quirky indie game from two blokes in a garage. Every so often you get something that channels the spirit of that time, showing that polish, cool ideas and a budget aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that this, which had sat on my pile of shame for a couple of months, is put together in that vein.

I mean it as a sincere compliment when I say that The New Order feels straight out of 2003. It belongs to that glut of post-Half-Life 2 narrative-driven shooters that were ten-a-penny on the original Xbox and actually represented, in retrospect, a reliably good subgenre for one that was rinsed so thoroughly. As well as Valve’s classic, the DNA of games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (there’s a Starbreeze connection), Breakdown, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, Doom 3 and so on is on show here. Even if I limit the discussion to games about leading a resistance against a technologically advanced and oppressive regime, I could equally be talking about The New Order, Half-Life 2 or the much-missed Freedom Fighters.

Wolfenstein: The New Order

This retro feel is carried through to the pleasantly old-school design: secrets, collectables, non-regenerating health, an arsenal of weapons to carry around without regard for encumbrance systems, and giant enemies with exploitable weak points abound. Even the prominence given to dual-wielding feels pleasantly of that era, after Halo 2 made it a banner feature but before dour, grounded militarism became the genre’s creed.

The New Order isn’t thrown together without thought, though, which is perhaps surprising for a series with such straightforward roots. Almost as surprising as the lack of multiplayer in a game whose deathmatches once hooked me so strongly. The design of posters, signage, architecture and even the pop music heard in the background has been built to present a believable vision of the 60s in a world where the Nazis won the war and propaganda infuses all aspects of culture. I read several excellent articles about the music around the game’s release, among them VentureBeat’s, and was blown away at how much effort went into an area that is so easily overlooked.

Visiting Nazi London in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Wolfenstein is undoubtedly a game that would have made my abridged best of 2014 list had I plunked down the cash before the Boxing Day sales. I’m tempted to drop a cliché about how it’s not big or clever, but really, it kind of is. The old-fashioned parts are lovingly, knowingly so, and the thought put into its vision of a Nazi-dominated 1960 is up there with the big releases. There’s nothing in The New Order that’s been thrown together arbitrarily.

I’m happy, therefore, to declare that gaming’s B-tier still lives! For one game, at least.