The Perfect Slice – Destiny Alpha

Destiny header

During E3 last week Bungie announced that the Destiny Alpha would be coming to PS4 for the coming weekend and that all those who signed up for it where pretty much guaranteed entry. Naturally upon seeing this on the video of the PlayStation Press Conference I leapt at the chance to play some Destiny before the Beta in July.

The rest of the week was long but on Thursday night I received my code and downloaded the client. Sadly I wasn’t able to play it until Saturday morning but the wait was worth it.

My god it was worth it.

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Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, an under appreciated gem of the current gen

Game: Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine

Platform: Multi [PS3 played]

Yesterday was a fun and interesting day. My free download of Space Marine as part of my PlayStation Plus Subscription had finished a couple of days ago and it had finally downloaded and updated to the latest patch during the night. I loaded up the game thinking I would play it for a an hour or so before moving onto something else. Suddenly a few hours had past and I was still playing, I then had to pick up my sister but when I came back I went straight back to playing, then dinner happened but I was straight back to playing once I had eaten. After another break while I caught up with my fiancée I made one last push and finished the game. All in one day.

Starting and finishing a game, particularly one that has seen a retail release, in one day is something I haven’t done in ages. I used to do it all the time when I was younger and had the luxury to dedicate whole days to gaming. Also I just find it hard to sit and spend a whole day doing one thing these days. I always have something else to do, such is the life of a grown up (groan!). I had a list of things to do yesterday but playing Space Marine just superseded all of them because I was having so much fun playing it.

It is a good, fun and refreshing game that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys action games and/or has an interest or past with Warhammer 40,000. I might even go as far as to say that this is a true gem of a game that says a lot about the current generation of games and the trends that drive them.

Allow me to explain….

Everything in Space Marine is there as a complement or counterpoint to current game design trends. It is a hectic, action packed game that grabs you and doesn’t let go and it is a genuine joy to play, for me at least.

In the story department it isn’t anything groundbreaking, especially if you have played any other games set in the Warhammer 40K universe or have knowledge of the setting’s lore and tropes. There are big moments and set pieces and at the end everything is mostly wrapped up in a bow with a few hanging threads left for a potential sequel. All very by the numbers and easy to get your head around.

What makes it standout though is the approach and tone to the story. This is mainly down to the 40K setting and aesthetic but the story does not take itself too seriously. Things are on the line constantly and everyone talks like they have a serious smoking problem but it doesn’t feel forced or melodramatic at all. It just happens. You get the impression that while dealing with these huge problems and missions the game’s protagonist, Titus, and his fellow Ultramarines have seen all of this before. If you compare it to Gears of War which spends so much time and effort trying to make you connect with its characters and in my view failing miserably. Space Marine just embraces its over the top nature and just presents it to you as fact. There is know hammered in love story or tortured past. No long cutscenes full of exposition. Nothing needs a whole wiki dedicated to it just so you can understand it. There is just the game’s main plot and that’s it really. Everything that writers have a tendency to throw into games to make them more interesting has been put to the side and it works. You get a no-nonsense story that takes you from action moment to action moment. It is something a lot of games could learn from.

While being a game set in the “grim darkness of the far future, where there is only war” it is varied and colourful. Once again this is down to the 40K license more than anything. The environments have your usual action game colour palette of greys and browns but they standout because of the Warhammer paint that has been applied to everything. A series of trenches is covered in the patchwork, thrown together Orkish structures, huge messes of angles and crude construction. The cities show the broken majesty of a vast gothic Empire slowly crumbling under the weight of the never ending war. Huge ornate buildings and statues dot the skyline while the playable space feels tight and cramped in places giving the impression that the workers who used to populate the planet where crammed into every single knook and cranny. The huge mega factory levels really show the Warhammer 40K aesthetic of gothic-sci-fi where everyone is just a cog in the giant war machine. The environments are varied and you feel like you have seen a lot of the planet by the time the credits roll. You are taken on a tour of the Warhammer 40K aesthetic rather than shooting down the same corridors level after level.

It also helps that one major gameplay decision meant that the level designers could be a lot free-er with their approach to the game’s battle grounds.

In a time when every game that comes out that features a third person camera is tied down with cover shooting mechanics Space Marine laughs at the waist high walls and charges into battle chainsword first. Don’t get me wrong there will be times where you have to take a breather to let your shields recharge but the lack of a cover mechanics is freeing. It, along with need to melee enemies to death to recover health, forces you into the middle of the action and it means that the cover that is there can be varied across the length of the game. From piles of boxes to crumbling walls to these huge statues. It is not hindered by the need to have the player stick to it like glue. There are no strategically placed walls and pop-up cover points in this game. It all adds to the feeling that as a Space Marine you are the frontline of the battle you are the cover for the troops of the Imperium. It shows that many games that employ the popularised cover mechanics of this gen just don’t need it. There are alternatives out there and they are rooted in gaming’s past. Combat feels punchy and in your face like old school shooters like Doom and Quake with a healthy dash of God of War style chopping things into pieces for good measure. The cartoonish levels of gore make you laugh and cringe at times as Titus cuts down swaths of Orks. Stamping on their heads, cutting them in half, gutting them with his chainsword, crushing them with his huge hammer, etc. etc. Red is the primary colour of this game but it never gets to much to handle.

The game is far from perfect though despite my gushing praise. The weapons on offer while varied don’t really give you much in the way of different or divergent gameplay. You will by about the halfway point of the game have found a loadout that you will stick with for the majority of the game. Only changing things up slightly when the situation demands it. The action, due to its hectic nature, can get overwhelming at times especially when you are in the thick of things. The camera is fairly close so when you are in melee it is hard to see where the enemies are coming from. The jump pack sections a really good fun but quickly become repetitive as you easily over power the enemy. Also combat in the game can be a bit of slog at times when you hit some tough difficulty spikes, where the enemies take the term bullet sponge to new levels and drawn out checkpoints mean you have little room for error. Also the game’s backstory is told via that most tried and tested trend this gen: collectable audio logs. Which have only been included to add something to the game to give it replay value. You have the option to either just pick them up or pick them up and listen to them. I recommend you just pick them up because they don’t add much to the game’s story, mainly extra flavour which isn’t really needed.

Overall though the reason I enjoyed the game so much is that it wears its heart on its sleeve. It doesn’t try to be the next big thing or an industry changing game, it is just mindless fun at its best. Its core gameplay of shooting while charging in to get close to finish the enemy off is fun and refreshing. It keeps you in the moment and works to get the adrenaline pumping. That coupled with some really good pacing that knowingly gives you moments to pause and just walk through an environment before ramping things up again. Makes this a really good game. One that I certainly overlooked when it first came out and only really played because I was getting it for free. It surprised me because I was expecting Warhammer 40,000 via Gears of War as many people do just by looking at it. What I got was Warhammer 40,000 via Warhammer 40,000 which is awesome. All credit to Relic who once again show that they know how to work with the Warhammer IP.

Journey – One of my favourite games this gen

This is the first in a series of posts where I talk about the games I have recently finished. I’m not saying if this will be a weekly or monthly type deal because the amount of time between me finishing games can differ wildly. Seriously I have a problem with not finishing games! Doing these posts will hopefully urge me to play more games through to the end of the credits. Also while there will be elements of review and critique to these posts they will be more about what aspects of the overall game design stood out to me. They will also focus on specific moments of good game design. So if you’re looking for my score out of 10 or how many blogons I give a game out of five, jog on mate. This an’t the type of review for you.

Let’s get started with a true gem of a game:

Game: Journey

Platform: PlayStation 3 (PSN Download)

Before I kick off this look at thatgamecompany’s latest triumph on the PlayStation Network let me urge you to play the game before reading this article. An odd thing to say I know but part of what makes Journey special is the way it plays out from the introduction of mechanics to the progression of the various levels of the game. It is all finely tuned and balanced to create a whole package that is required gaming for anyone with a PS3. If you don’t have a PS3 find a friend who has one and steal it from them to take Journey for a spin. It is worth the time, effort and the possible criminal charges to experience the joy it will bring you. So without further ado let’s get started!

From the moment I started Journey I knew it was going to be a special experience. As a game it is the logical progression in what thatgamecompany have been trying to achieve since they gave us Fl0w at the PS3’s launch and then Flower around the mid point of the console’s current 5 year life. The themes of play, exploration, colour and simplicity are all there but have been taken to an almost perfect point.

The game starts with the slow introduction of the mechanics teased out over the first couple of areas. All told to you through gently fading in controller images that just tell you to press or hold a specific button. This does away with the more contemporary tutorial exposition of X does this, Circle does that, etc. It leaves the explanation of what the mechanics do up to the player through testing them out initially then further trial and error as the game goes on. This works perfectly for the game because the number of mechanics are kept to a minimum and most serve multiple purposes. For instance the calling mechanic serving as your main form of communication with other players and main way of interacting with scenery and specific objects in the game world. This is mainly done by pressing and holding the Circle button to charge up your call then releasing it bring life to pieces of fabric, charge up another player’s glide ability, reveal a mural on a wall, call flying pieces of fabric to you, open the gates to the next level, etc. etc. It is a simple mechanic that is applied to multiple situations and uses without breaking the flow of the game or seeming like a unnatural fit. This teasing of mechanics also leads to you experimenting with what you can do with them. At first you find yourself testing the boundaries of your abilities but by the end of the game you will be hopping, gliding, calling to other players all in a smooth flow. Chained together as you and whoever you are travelling with aid each other in an almost symbiotic way. 

The multiplayer component to the game is the thing that a lot of people are talking about because it is handled in a different somewhat mind-blowingly good way. The now standard forms of communication between players online are taken away from you. There is no voice chat or chat box in the bottom left corner of the screen. All you have is the Circle button to make a chirping noise and creating an area of energy around you to alert the other player to your location or intensions. The limiting of communication and the lack of visible identity between players forces you to work together. If you don’t work with the other players you encounter you will quickly find yourself abandoned and on your own. It is an interesting concept that works well for Journey there are times however that it doesn’t quite work like when your play style does not mesh well with the other player. I have encountered many players who seem to be hell bent on racing through the game’s various areas with little thought to the other players they encounter. They can try and keep up if they wish but it is counterproductive to players who prefer exploration. Particularly when in some areas of the game the speedy players can force the explorers to move forwards by advancing the state of the particular area. The tower one in the later half of the game springs to mind. As players can quickly make the water level rise with little regard for those wanting to do things in your own time. Still that isn’t a failing of the game it the luck of the draw when it comes to playing with others. You just have to hope that if you like searching every nook and cranny that you get put with a player who does the same. 

The structure of the game is something worth pointing out too. It is heavily tied into the level design and use of colour in the game. The game is divided into four key level themes:

  • Desert
  • Underwater
  • Snowcapped Mountain
  • Transcendence 

Each flows organically into the next and each area reflects the story of the Journey that you and anyone you encounter are on. All the levels are made and filled with the same assets it is just their use and colour that changes. It sets the mood and changes how you react to environments you are presented with.

The desert levels see you in large open spaces that give you the freedom to move and try out the game’s mechanics at your own pace. The colours used are lots of orange and light reds. As you near the end of the desert section the sun begins to set as you slide down the massive sand mountain. The orange gives way to a deep red as the light fades in the distance and you eventually decent into the depths of a temple.

This leads onto the underwater section that sees you in dark dank spaces with the colour palette changing to dark blue and yellow with smatterings of light. It plays just like the desert sections, your character moves the same and the physics remain constant but the added particle effects, change of colour and change of the fabric creatures from magic carpets into things like reeds and jellyfish, make you feel like you are exploring the deepest depths of the ocean. There is another drastic changes as you leave the underwater section and enter the mountain area. The orange and blue of the desert and ocean are replaced by a stark white and overbearing grey. It is the same as the desert sections but the game’s trademark sand has been turned into snow and the orange/red rocks to grey mountain sides. As you slowly make you way up the mountain you battle the elements and are slowed by the cold forcing you to dart between cover to avoid the creatures patrolling the path to the top.

Eventually you reach an open side with the end goal of the game in reach. Just one last climb and you are there. The wind picks up as you are blasted around the level as your pace gets slower and slower until you eventually drop on the floor. After a brief cutscene you are filled with energy and begin hurtling towards the last area of the game, which I have called transcendence. All the colours used in the game up this point are put together to give you a fully realised area that sees the player at the hight of their abilities effortlessly making their way through to the end of the game. Again nothing has really changed apart from the use of colour. It is brilliantly done and shows up the copy and paste design mentality of a lot of AAA titles. Just a simple change of colour can go a long way in changing how the player perceives and reacts to your game.

The end result of all this is that you actually do feel like you have been on a grand Journey. You start the game with little to no knowledge as to what it is about or what is actually going on. Yet by the end you have gained more knowledge about the game and the purpose of the Journey is revealed. As the credits roll you are taken along the reverse path of the journey you have taken and it starts to hit home how far you have travelled in such a relatively short space of time. You have learned more about the game and hopefully something about yourself in the process. 

Go play it now!