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Mass Effect: Andromeda

Bioware’s original Mass Effect trilogy were some of my favourite games from the last generation of consoles. While each of the games had their own flaws – the first was somewhat lacking in terms of combat but amazing at world building but I felt the second scaled the RPG aspects back a bit too much and then the third had that ending – each were truly enjoyable games and built a fantastic sci-fi universe.

Expectations were high then, when Mass Effect: Andromeda was announced. Initially I was a little sceptical when the first information was released; that it was set in a different galaxy, centuries after the trilogy. It sounded like it was going to be completely removed from the great universe and lore that Bioware had spent three games building and we’d spent hundreds of hours playing.

Thankfully, I needn’t have been too worried in that regard. Mass Effect: Andromeda follows members of the Andromeda Initiative, a group of explorers who left the Milky Way galaxy at some point around the events of the second Mass Effect. As well as wisely removing the story from having to suffer the effects of the ill-considered ending to Mass Effect 3 (where, no matter what choice you make, it fundamentally breaks the universe) it does mean we still get familiar races and technology so it still feels like Mass Effect.

 

The Andromeda Initiative launched a number of colony ships towards the Andromeda galaxy with the intention of settling there, and the story opens as the human ark, the Hyperion, awakes it’s crew from over six hundred years of cryogenic sleep to an emergency. Unlike the original trilogy, where you always play as Commander Shepard and choose their gender, this time around you select one of the two Ryder twins, Scott or Sara, while the other remains an existing character. I played the trilogy with a male Shepard and, having also heard that femshep was the better choice, decided to go with Sara.

With your choice of sibling appropriately selected and customised, Ryder then awakens to trouble on the Hyperion. The ship has arrived at the intended human colony world, Habitat 7, however the surface of the planet isn’t as it had appeared on scans and the space around it is filled with a mysterious dark substance called the Scourge that causes massive damage to the Hyperion that results in the Ryder that you didn’t select being stuck in their stasis pod for a good chunk of the game. There’s a fairly lengthy prologue with exploration on Habitat 7 including the discovery of some advanced technology that can terraform the planet and the introduction of the primary antagonist of the game, the Archon. The Archon is the leader of the kett, a militaristic and hostile race,

 

After leaving Habitat 7 Ryder and the crew of the Hyperion travel to the Nexus, which is where things really kick off. The Nexus is basically the Andromeda equivalent of the Citadel from the original trilogy, and is crewed by more members of the Andromeda Initiative. The crew are made up of all of the major alien species, with the Nexus team having set off for the Andromeda galaxy a little while before the ark ships. Here Ryder is given the major quests that will drive the rest of the game, to track down and defeat the Archon as well as discovering the fate of the other species arks. On your travels you’ll encounter new alien species as well as another faction of enemies, the robotic Remnant – because every science fiction game franchise needs to have robots!

There’s more of a sense of exploration in Andromeda than in previous Mass Effect games, especially as they’re in a new galaxy where everything is unknown. While there were somewhat unexplored planets in the original trilogy, the exploration aspect was always somewhat lessened by the fact that the galaxy was already colonised by races that we knew by that point – sure, the asari homeworld is a new planet for us as the player to explore, but it’s filled with asari and we know them already. In Andromeda though, particularly early on, there’s a feeling that there could be anything on each of the new planets that you explore. As with past games, there are major planets that act as quest hubs as well as less important locations that you just scan from orbit to see if they contain any useful items. Most of the major questing planets let you use the Nomad, Andromeda’s replacement for the original games’ Mako, to travel between locations in a fairly standard open world game manner. Finally, Ryder also has a scanner that works much like detective mode in the Batman: Arkham games. Depending on how you play, you may only use the scanner every now and then for investigating quest items, but if you’re a completionist then you’ll find yourself scanning every new enemy and item you see and sweeping it around each area you enter to see if anything new comes up.

 

Andromeda was the last major game that I played before my big upgrade in May, and I was playing at significantly below recommendations with a three year old AMD APU and a 2 GB GTX 960. Thanks to the games scaling options however it meant I was able to play with a higher graphical quality than I’d expected, and all of my screenshots here were taken on that hardware. The simplest recommendation for increasing game performance is to lower the resolution, but this is something I’m generally loathe to do as it results in blurry text and interfaces. In Andromeda however, the scaling allows you to choose the main resolution that all of the interface is displayed in, and then a separate resolution for the more demanding 3D engine. With that set to 900p and around medium settings, I was able to sustain 45 fps on average, though that did take a bit of a hit on the rainy planet of Voeld but still generally stayed above 30 fps. After my upgrade, and on other hardware that did meet the requirements properly like my test bench at work, it’s almost entirely stable at 60 fps and subsequent patches by Bioware have also improved that.

I really liked a lot of the music in Andromeda, particularly the main theme which was reminiscent enough of classic Mass Effect while also being its own thing. The voice acting was a bit more hit and miss, however. Sara Ryder was pretty decent I thought (having not played as Scott I don’t know how good he would be over the course of the game) but the default team members Jacob and Cora both grated a little – to be fair though I don’t know how much of that was the voice acting performance or the script as Jacob’s lines in particular were pretty terrible. Their replacements in my squad however both had good performances and actually felt like they had chemistry in dialogue that featured them both, and they were the asari PeeBee and Jaal who is a member of the new friendly species in Andromeda, the aya. Sound effect wise, it’s all fairly standard gunshots and explosions that you expect to hear in a science fiction game – nothing either particularly stand out or noticeably bad really.

 

On the gameplay side, it’s possibly the most fluid of any game in the series. The cover and shooting mechanics are generally similar to how I remember Mass Effect 3 playing and the boost pack built into Ryder’s suit that basically acts as a power jump means that you can traverse the game like never before in a Mass Effect. Over the course of the original trilogy, you could see how it started with the focus on the RPG elements and the gameplay of the third person shooter elements feeling almost like an afterthought and as each subsequent game came out there was less RPG and more shooter. While a lot of work clearly went into the shooter side of things, Andromeda also puts a bit more emphasis on the stats of weapons and equipment through both items that you collect as well as a sizable selection of craftable gear.

The Nomad controls really well too, with some nice features like a toggle between fast and all terrain modes to be able to scale steep surfaces and both a boost and vertical jets. All of this makes the Nomad quite a versatile and fun to drive little vehicle, though I wouldn’t have minded some weaponry on it even if you had to stop to deploy it first.

 

Bioware games are also well known for the conversation options, and the classic dialogue wheel returns once more in Andromeda. The traditional good/evil (or in the case of Mass Effect case, Paragon/Renegade) system is no more however, with Ryder being a much more grey character. I tend to go good guy with most RPGs so I tried to make the decisions that I would consider closest to that but there were a handful of moments in the game where I genuinely had to stop and ponder the possible ramifications of either option. I’m not sure they had any real effect on the end of the game, mind, but I’d not be at all surprised if some of the choices were planned to pay off across the course of any possible future sequels like in the original trilogy.

The internet, as it’s known to do, massively over exaggerated problems with the game in my opinion. Yes, there were some bad animations (the worst of which Bioware have already fixed) and yes, there’s some fairly cringe worthy dialogue. Graphically it doesn’t quite match up to AAA titles of today, and feels more like something that would have been released a couple of years ago – it still in my opinion looks pretty good, but it lacks in some of the bells and whistles you’d expect from a top end title. Despite all this however, I didn’t really find any game breaking bugs or major performance issues. I think I might have had a single crash in my nearly 100 hours with the game, and there was one time that my Nomad fell through the world and I had to reload my last autosave but I then wasn’t able to replicate it again. There is an issue with the quest log where it and the ingame codex of information on new species, ships etc show there as being new items even if everything is read that even the ‘mark all as read’ button that was added a little while ago hasn’t fixed but that hardly impacts on gameplay other than being a slight irritant. I’ve had far worse issues with games that haven’t been as heavily panned for being buggy in the past.

 

Honestly, the biggest complaint I’d have against it is that there’s just a bit too much to it. Even after 100 hours, on a single save file, I’m only at about 97% completion with a bunch of small side missions that are both uninteresting and, in perhaps a greater sin in a game this large, not tracked on the galaxy map that I don’t think I’ll ever bother going back to unless they get proper tracking on the map like all the rest of the quests – I know the majority of these are meant to be exploration based objectives such as ‘find kett subjugation devices’ and so on, but at least a general area to search in would be helpful. There were a few times that I’d finish everything I had to do on a planet, go back to the Nexus and then be sent right back where I’d come from that weren’t exactly great either and shuffling these around somewhat to minimize the travelling back and forth would have been greatly appreciated. At least a skip button was added to the animations on travel within a solar system, as that took far too long when the game first came out.

Finally, one that did annoy me was one particular side quest. Since it’s Mass Effect, you have a number of romance options throughout the game. One of the side quests allows you a potential romance with an asari reporter on the Nexus, and as I hadn’t as yet decided who to go for I started the romance side of the conversation with her. By the time that finally got anywhere though, I’d then ended up in a relationship with a member of the crew. While all of the other romances, as far as I’m aware, give you the option of declining, when you meet the reporter back on the Nexus towards the end of the game there’s no option of turning her down – the quest simply continues to where you meet her in the bar and then back to her apartment. As it’s a roleplaying game, I feel like that’s not how my character would play it and would respectfully say ‘No, sorry, I’m in a relationship now’ and end it there leaving me with a decision to either stick to what I feel is the character and have an unfinished quest or just finish the quest and not be happy about it.

 

While I absolutely feel that more time should have been given to Bioware to continue testing and improving the game, given the stories of the game’s time in development it’s frankly astonishing that it all holds together as well as it does. I’d definitely agree with the general opinion that it’s not up to the overall quality, but to say that it’s an outright bad game is something that I’d argue against. Sadly, the general internet opinion seems to have been reflected in the games sales, and Bioware at present have put the series on hold. We still have a little more Mass Effect to come, with the Dark Horse comics and two more novels in an Andromeda trilogy due later this year (the first, Nexus Uprising, was released around the launch of Andromeda but I haven’t got round to reading it yet) but the future for the series generally is looking fairly bleak.

Me? I’d spend another 80+ hours with Sara Ryder and her crew without hesitation.

Breaking Radio Silence

It’s been a pretty hectic time over the last couple of weeks for me, between starting a new job and covering the night shift, a weekend back home and being away for my stag do in Italy I’ve spent a lot less time sat at my computer than I would have liked recently.

I have a few pieces in the works that I hope to finish off soon – next up will be the long delayed Mass Effect: Andromeda write up that I’ve been picking at for about 3 months. It won’t be current anymore, but I’ve put too much time into it now to scrap it.

In the meantime, here’s my cat Moss being restrained posing for a picture for his mum so she can see his latest battle scars because he can’t stop fighting. Stupid cat.

Transformers: Forged to Fight

After the disappointment that was Transformers: Earth Wars came close to giving a portable version of the characters but failed due to very limited control and utter repetitiveness, I’ve had a hankering for something new to fill that space in my life. I was of course very interested then when the first footage of Forged to Fight surfaced a few months ago.

Transformers: Forged to Fight is a fighting game starring, of course, the Transformers. Developed by Kabam and using similar gameplay to their previous title, Marvel Contest of Champions (which, despite loving Marvel comics I never got around to playing) you pit your ‘bot against another in Mortal Kombat.. Wait, wrong series.

While I haven’t played Contest of Champions, gameplay is broadly similar to NetherRealms’ portable Mortal Kombat and Injustice titles. You play with two hands, with your left thumb controlling movement while the right is combat. Swiping towards or away from the enemy moves you closer to or further from them, while swiping up and down sidesteps so that you can avoid ranged attacks. Holding down on the left blocks, to reduce bur not completely stop incoming damage. On the right, you can tap or swipe for light or heavy attacks respectively and tapping while at a distance uses your character’s range attack.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Transformers without alt modes and holding down on the right makes your robot transform into whatever it turns into and attacks in that form. Most of these are vehicle attacks ramming into the enemy but there are a few with ranged attacks as well. The combat is very responsive and, unless you get caught in an enemy combo you’ll always end up doing what you were wanting to so which is always a concern with fast paced mobile games.

As you fight, a special meter builds up at the bottom of the screen. Depending on the level and quality of the bot, it can have up to three levels of special attack, and you can use level 1 as soon as it charges or hold on for level 2 and so on. These attacks, particularly with high level bots, can be devastating and will often drastically turn the tide in a battle.

The most substantial mode of Forged to Fight is the story mode, following Optimus Prime and a group of Autobots who find themselves trapped on a strange planet. Quickly they find that universes are converging, and come up against different versions of themselves and other Transformers from the live action movie universe. Currently there are three acts to the story, the third having been recently added, with each act made up of a number of chapters themselves containing multiple stages. Every few stages you’ll get a short conversation between a few of the characters that (slowly) moves the plot along – I’ve not yet finished the story as the difficulty level ramps up a bit and I’ve not got my characters that high yet.

Aside from the story, you have arenas where you compete against other players teams to rise up the leaderboards to win select characters or other prizes; raids that pit you against player’s bases; tough alliance missions where you work together with other members of your alliance; the daily challenges for sparks to increase your characters in rank and then any special missions or events that might be running.

The characters in the game come in a number of rarity levels, 1-star to 4-star. Somewhat disappointingly, there’s no visual difference between the different star versions of the characters and aside from keeping some around for the lower PVP tiers there’s little incentive to want, keep or level them up. I’d expected a system more like Galaxy of Heroes where each character is unique and you improve them to increase their rarity so you don’t end up with multiples of the exact same character or at least cosmetic differences to justify keeping three Optimus Primes for example. The higher rarity versions of the characters allow you to take them to higher levels and have extra special attacks that do make them significantly more powerful, however.

As you build up your team you’ll inevitably end up with a handful of characters that you use all the time. I got fairly lucky to start off with and got 3-star versions of both the classic and movie Optimus Prime, so they’re regular members of my main team. With the left over characters, you can assign them to guard your base – it’s these assigned ‘bots that players will face when assaulting your base in raids.

The graphics while fighting are pretty great, possibly the best I’ve seen on a mobile game. While you don’t get a setting as such in mobile games, it appears to run at my phone’s native 2560×1440 resolution and there are no slowdown problems or lack of anti aliasing. The bot models are detailed and well animated, and they’re wonderfully blocky and colourful in all the right ways. The classic Generation 1 characters are all designed on their most recent toy (which for many is also the IDW comics version of the character) while the movie characters are faithful to those designs while also simplifying and streamlining them somewhat so that they go together aesthetically a little better.

There is, perhaps, a little too much going on. During a recent event, I must have played over two hours in a single day just to try and get somewhere in the rankings and that doesn’t include time spent using the energy for raids and story missions that recharge over time. While this is more down to personal preference, for a mobile game to me that seems a little excessive. Most mobile games I play (or have played) can typically have their daily missions or whatever done within half an hour or so each day, and such a huge time sink isn’t something that I think can really be sustained long term.

This ties into another issue – while you spend a long time playing the game, there’s not a massive variety of characters as yet and getting them is a chore. While I’m sure that the roster will fill out over time (and indeed, with The Last Knight out next week I’m sure there will be some to tie in) at the moment there are only around 20 playable characters and four of those are only available so far through arenas and events. Given the level of details on each ‘bot I do understand that these will take more work to create than the lower quality characters in Galaxy of Heroes, to come back to that for an example, so I know that they won’t be able to release as many characters as quickly as that game does now.

I’m also possibly still a little bitter about Ultra Magnus, my favourite Transformer, being an Apple exclusive for the first month or so and then being released into an event so that I still don’t have him. I even spent possibly too much money on crystals when Magnus was available there, and only got duplicates of characters I already have – I literally got nothing for my money which left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth and will definitely stop me from buying any crystals in future.

There’s a daily free crystal, but this gives a random selection of either a mod to power up the spaces on your base or a character but again in my experience it’s been heavily weighted towards mods and I don’t think I’ve had a character from it in over a week. Honestly, I was on the verge of dropping the game altogether, until today’s update. Coming in line with most other free to play games, a daily/monthly login calendar has been added, with rewards for each. Looking at the rewards for the next days and weeks, there will be a fairly steady supply of shards for character crystals so fingers crossed I might actually get some new ‘bots soon.

Forged to Fight, sadly, is a game that I feel goes too heavily into pay to win territory. It’s mostly my love of the Transformers that kept me playing as long as I have, and they’re not a franchise with as large a built in fanbase as Marvel – given that free to play games live and die by how many people are actively playing (and by extension, some section of that will be paying) I am somewhat worried for it’s long term future. The gameplay itself is fun, but it’s the business side of things that surround it really that is the problem. Today’s update is a step in the right direction, and as long as they keep making some degree of content (and in particular, characters) available to players without having to pay a fortune, I think I’ll keep playing.

Dark Souls: The Board Game

I was very excitedly contacted by my friend Carl the other day to let me know that his copy of the Dark Souls board game had shipped. I’d rather forgotten it even existed, with it having been backed on Kickstarter about 2 years ago, but it handily arrived just in time for our monthly games night so our usual evening of party games became an evening of getting rekt.

I’ve not really spent much time with the Dark Souls series, I have a couple of them from Humble Bundles and the like but I haven’t made it down to D yet. What little experience I do have has taught me that they’re punishingly difficult and that you die. A lot. We were rather curious how this would translate to a board game with multiple players. On first opening the box we got our first hint to what we would experience.

With that reassuring message, we began dismantling the many, many components of the game. Dark Souls can be played with up to 4 players, with each player choosing one of the starter characters. There are four at present, with more to be added Through ‘DLC’ later. Each character has a main board with many holes that need to be pushed out as well as a detailed miniature and a number of equipment cards. There are counters for health and stamina, a massive number of tokens and cards. The enemies in the game also have their own miniatures and cards, with the bosses also having loot cards and health dials.

After a good while spent assembling the various card decks, we were ready to start properly setting up. A lengthy manual accompanies the board game that details everything required for setup, and we were about 25 pages and an hour in before we began the game proper.

You first assemble the boards that make up the dungeon layout. There are tiles for the bonfire area, which is the starting point of the game, as well as two for the boss encounter which will all be used in each game. The rest of the dungeon is then assembled from any four of the remaining six tiles, with the other two put aside. This creates a different dungeon layout for each game. The bonfire tile contains the spark counter, which effectively counts the number of lives the party has. If a single party member dies during a fight, you all die and return to the bonfire and deduct one spark from the counter. When you run out of sparks, it’s game over.

Next, you prepare the loot deck ready for any enemy encounters and choose which bosses you want to fight. The enemies available are all from different Dark Souls game, I believe a mix of Dark Souls 1 and 3 with presumably Dark Souls 2 ones coming in an expansion down the line. We picked the Frost Knight for the miniboss, and the Dancer of the Boreal Valley for the final boss. The boss cards each list encounter difficulties at the bottom. These tell you how many cards to pick from each encounter deck which are used to populate each room with enemies. The encounters come in three tiers of difficulty, with the Frost Knight having two each from the tier 1 and tier 2 decks.

With the tiles laid out and a randomly selected card from our selection placed on each, we were ready to begin. Each tile contains a number of coloured nodes that represent movement within the tile. Yellow nodes are clear movement spaces, while purple ones indicate locations for obstructions and red ones enemy spawn points. The encounter cards tell you which enemies and items to place on the tile, and the enemies themselves then have cards that list their strength, attacks etc. You also choose at this point which player has instigated the attack as they will become the focal point of most enemy attacks.

Enemies set up, you then begin combat. The enemies go first – all of them. With their goes out of the way, assuming no-one died during the attack, the first player gets to take their turn. Much like the enemies, each player character has stats indicated on their card. You can move towards enemies up to your character’s maximum range but can push further at the expense of stamina should you need to reach a far off enemy. At the bottom of each player’s character board are a row of slots that you can fit small cubes into. The cubes come in two colours, red and black. Black represents stamina, and you count them in from the left each time you expend stamina. Red is health, and this counts back from the right depending on how much damage you’ve taken, and you can see I’ve taken quite a battering here. If the two meet and there are no empty slots left, you die. Each player begins the game with a flask that can be used to replenish your health – it can only be used on your turn however so if you’re taking a beating from enemies and have a couple of enemy rounds before your turn you can very easily die without getting a chance to use it if the other players can’t thin out the enemy on their turns. Characters each have standard attacks as well as a special move that is more effective the more sparks you have, meaning dying can actually weaken you.

Once the first player has had their turn then the enemy go again. All of them. The next player then goes and so on around the table until you either kill everything or die and go back to the bonfire. Should you survive the fight, all health and stamina is reset and you’re automatically fully healed for the next fight. Each room has a treasure chest, so on completion you get to share the loot between you to increase your power. Any items you can’t yet equip go to the bonfire tile and can be used later if you then meet the requirements. There’s no penalty for going to the bonfire, and it doesn’t cost you anything unless you choose to rest there and reset the dungeon.

Defeating enemies also gives the party souls, which again can be spent at the bonfire. Souls are used to increase player levels, which is primarily used to equip higher level gear.

Despite the gameplay area not looking all that physically large compared to some games, it takes quite a while to work through the various rooms of the dungeon (especially if you die and reset, or choose to rest and tackle the rooms again for the chance at some better loot) and as such it was nearing one in the morning by the time we reached the miniboss room – with no sparks remaining.

The boss characters have the largest models in the game and also some new gameplay mechanics. The base indicates directions, and unlike the smaller enemies in the game players attack from specific angles of the boss, and can even move around the base as if it was movement spaces on the tiles. The boss is controlled by the boss deck of cards that effectively acts as the enemy AI. When you start the encounter you shuffle the boss deck, and then turn over the top card for the boss’ move. This will say what kind of attack it does, how much it moves or turns etc. It will also indicate a weak side which is where the next player should attack it from. On the next boss turn you play the next card and so on, flipping the deck back over when you reach the last card so you can begin to predict the pattern the boss will attack in (as long as you haven’t drank too many beers by this point and can’t keep track!)

This all changes once you get the boss down to half health and it enrages. A new attack card is added into the deck and it gets shuffled, breaking the previous pattern and making the boss more unpredictable. The extra attack is also incredibly dangerous, of course.

Had we managed to beat the Frost Knight we would than have set the game up again from the bonfire, this time drawing enemy cards based on the Dancer of the Boreal Valley’s card and fight through the dungeon again, beat the Frost Knight again and then finally fight the Dancer. However..

Yes, Mike, yes we did.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Whew, two massive new RPGs coming out close together really become time consuming huh? As you can probably guess, a substantial portion of my time over the past months has been spent with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I actually finished Zelda a couple of weeks ago, but almost the next day went straight into Mass Effect: Andromeda (and a week in Birmingham) and I’ve struggled to find time that doesn’t immediately get swallowed by one of them to put some words together.

Originally slated for a release back in 2015, development stretched on longer than expected with the eventual release in March this year coinciding with the release of the Nintendo Switch. Thankfully, it was also released on the WiiU (in a move rather reminiscent of Twilight Princess’ dual launch on the Gamecube and Wii) meaning I didn’t have to spend hundreds on new hardware just to play Zelda.

The game opens with Link waking up in a mysterious chamber and finding a small tablet device which is quickly announced to be a Shiekah Slate – long time Zelda fans will likely recognise the name and the symbol on the Slate and elsewhere from the Shiekah clan who’ve appeared in a number of past games. This Link, it turns out, fought against Calamity Ganon (a silly name, and I’ll just be referring to him as Ganon from now on) a hundred years ago alongside Princess Zelda and lost. The Hylians had discovered an ancient mechanical army called the Guardians, which had fought against Ganon 10,000 years in the past alongside the mighty Divine Beasts Link was placed in the Shrine of Restoration to recover, while Zelda disappeared into Hyrule Castle to try and hold Ganon at bay and then their battle faded mostly into memory only to be known as the Calamity.

Link awakens to a changed Hyrule. Ganon still controls Hyrule Castle, which lurks on the horizon visible from most of the map and encased in a sickly slowing cloud of evil, and the ruins of the Guardians still litter the landscape in many places and there are even a number of them that are still functional. Classic Zelda monsters, such as Moblins and Lizalfos, are common with monsters having over-run much of Hyrule after the Calamity.

Without spoiling the plot, there are four major dungeons (though even these are quite slight compared to the epic dungeons of old) that all end with a boss battle. The remainder of the puzzles can be found in the Shiekah Shrines dotted around Hyrule, of which there are 120 in total. While some have a quest or some difficulty in getting into them the majority can simply be found by approaching them, with the Shiekah Slate notifying you when one is close. The shrines cover a number of different themes, from simply making your way through them to the exit, combat trials, and more complicated puzzles that test your skills, timing and use of the Shiekah Runes.

Breath of the Wild is quite an oddity when compared to other Zelda games, as so many of the series typical trappings have been stripped away. There’s little in the way of new gear to collect and use, aside from weapons but more on those in a moment, so there’s no more finding hookshots and hammers and the like to open new pathways. There are no heart pieces to collect, though you do add extra hearts to give Link more health as you progress. There’s little in the way of traditional dungeons, you can jump freely and climb up sheer cliffs and so on. You don’t even get a traditional Zelda title screen and choice of three save slots, and Link is explicitly named in text and dialogue, meaning you don’t get the choice to rename him when you create your save. And yet somehow it still feels enough like Zelda by keeping the most important parts and themes.

Most of the powers Link gets this time around are given basically right at the start. Before leaving the starting area, the Great Plateau (which may possibly be Hyrule Castle Town from Ocarina of Time) you go through a short quest chain the results in gaining most of the powers of the Shiekah Slate, called Runes. The Slate is able to create bombs, both round and square to stop them rolling away, freeze water to make platforms, magnetically move metal objects or to freeze movable objects in time – these frozen objects can then be hit and will react by moving relative to the force they’ve received while frozen once they’re released. The Slate can also take photos and, if activated, recognise compatible Amiibo figures.

The other main item Link gets given early on is the glider, which coupled with his climbing ability means you’re able to scale and move around tall structures fairly easily. Initially your range on doing this is limited as both actions use up stamina, but as you upgrade Link the distance you can travel this way increases substantially and there’s very little that can stop you exploring wherever you like. The amount of freedom this grants, compared to the rather restrained movement of past Zelda games, really changes the way it feels and plays more than anything else.

Weapons also play a huge role in exploring Hyrule. As with so many other elements of the game, the traditional progression from standard sword to Master Sword (with sometimes another one in the middle) is gone and instead Link must use whatever weapons he finds on his travels. These weapons have very limited durability, so you’ll often find yourself needing to replace anything you’re using after a couple of fights. This does get a little better later on in the game as the higher end weaponry you find will tend to have higher durability and, no real spoiler here since it’s on the cover of the game, you do eventually find the Master Sword which is indestructible – it does however hold limited energy and needs to recharge between fights.

Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is absolutely enormous. I’ve managed to put over 90 hours and still have plenty of things left to find and explore, with huge chunks of the world barely even touched. Most towns will feature a number of side quests, as well as potentially some shrine quests and in yet another element new to the series these are all tracked in a quest log like you’d expect to find in any other large RPG. Larger towns will also typically contain several shops and an inn, allowing you to rest until specific times of day and heal as well as purchasing items and clothing.

There are also a ridiculous number of collectables, in the form of Korok seeds. Returning from Wind Waker, there are over 900 Koroks hidden around Hyrule to find. While that’s far far too many for me to spend the time finding them all, collecting a number of them is definitely worth while as you can redeem the seeds to expand your inventory space.

As you’ve likely noticed from any screenshots and promotional images, this Link doesn’t dress like his predecessors with his signature outfit being a blue shirt. There are many other outfits available, with some hidden away as loot in Shrines and others simply available for purchase. Some are just cosmetic items, but there are others that take the place of the traditional swimming and fire resistance gear. Through the Amiibo support you can also get outfits from the various Links that there are figures for, and I’m rather partial to running around in the Twilight Princess outfit – if nothing else, because he’s the only Link Amiibo I have and the prices of them have skyrocketed.

Unlike Twilight Princess (which was famously flipped horizontally to make Link right handed and included motion controls for the Wii release) the two versions of the game are basically identical. In fact, a number of features such as using the WiiU gamepads’ screen for more direct control over the map and inventory have been removed altogether to ensure parity with the Switch release, with the gamepad screen now functioning simply as a button to toggle between displaying on it or the TV which is a little disappointing but I understand that Nintendo wouldn’t want the previous generation version of the game to have more features than the one that’s supposed to be selling Switch units.

The art style is, as you can see, absolutely gorgeous. Nintendo are known for experimenting with the look of Zelda games, from the very cartoony cel shaded style of Wind Waker to the lovely painted art in Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild somewhat combines these to create something special. The characters, weapons, monsters – everything just looks great and one of the best examples of the final work staying true to the concept art to the point that playing the game feels like those images have come to life. And it’s not just the characters, so much attention has been spent on the world itself that I’ve often found myself just wandering around looking at it. Individual blades of grass and leaves on trees all blow and sway in the wind, water ripples and flows..

Considering the size of the game world and the internal spec of the WiiU it’s very impressive that Breath of the Wild runs as well as it does. I was very worried, especially in light of the complete lack of reporting on it pre-release, that the WiiU version of the game would be drastically cut down or suffer terrible performance but neither of these came to pass. Running at 720p and around 30fps compared to the Switch running at 900p when docked, there’s otherwise very little difference. Both versions of the game are known to have moments of slowdown. The worst I saw was in a forest at night during a thunderstorm, and there was an awful lot going on and moving then, but it never became unplayable and didn’t happen all the time.

Zelda games almost always have great music, and Breath of the Wild is no exception. The soundtrack is of course all available (with dubious legality) on YouTube and it’s been in my rotation over the last week or so. There are some spoilers for the story in the track titles so I’d probably avoid if you’re currently playing or planning to play any time soon so as not to ruin anything but in my opinion it’s possibly the best score that a Zelda game has had. Many classic pieces from past games are revisited in new versions, while the heavy use of piano makes it all sound rather different to any Zelda before it.

One thing that really surprised me was the use of voice acting. Several of the cutscenes throughout the game are fully voiced, something that we’ve only seen in the non-canon Hyrule Warriors. The English voice acting is.. not the best with Zelda in particular sounding a bit stiff (and older than her intended 17 years, too) but some of the other characters are fine. Link, thankfully does not speak and remains mute as always throughout.

The controls are generally tight and well thought out, with one exception being that the jump and drop buttons felt like they were the wrong way round – clearly someone at Nintendo thought this too, as there’s an option to swap them over. Playing on the WiiU gamepad or Pro pad gives the exact same experience as the layouts are the same, and this is also true for the Switch version which uses the same control scheme. One problem though is found in a few Shrines when playing on the Pro pad, as you have to switch to the gamepad to use the motion controls which can be a bit of a pain if you’re sat on the sofa say and the pad is over by the TV. The Switch version for the record doesn’t have this problem, as it’s Pro controller has motion controls built in.

Breath of the Wild is no doubt going to be remembered fondly as a game changer in the Zelda series – while I definitely would like some more traditional Zelda games in future, this is definitely a shot of new that the series really needed. It’s an incredibly well thought out and passionately designed game and, while there are a couple of slight niggles mostly due to the hardware it runs on, these don’t really hold it back (plus, if Nintendo hold to their current pattern, no doubt a ‘HD’ remaster will come out a console or two from now) and it was an absolute joy from beginning to end.

The Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses 2017 Tour, Birmingham N.E.C.

I’ve been hard at work recently putting the finishing touches on my write up of the latest Legend of Zelda game, Breath of the Wild but it’s been a rather hectic couple of weeks (and it’s become quite a long piece) so I’ve not managed to finish it yet. It’s also not helped that I’ve spent most of the last week working at Multiplay’s 60th Insomnia Gaming Festival over the weekend at the NEC in Birmingham. I knew in advance that the first show of this year’s season of the Legend of Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses would be there, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to go and see it. The weekend got rather busy and I never ended up properly looking at tickets, plus neither of my colleagues were interested in going so I’d resigned myself to missing it. And then, unexpectedly, I was offered a free ticket and I’d have been daft to say no.

Originally launched in 2012 for the 25th anniversary of the series and the release of Skyward Sword, Symphony of the Goddesses has been touring almost annually since. The original tour was preceded by a soundtrack CD that was included with the special edition of Skyward Sword and consists of mostly the same arrangements still used in the tour today.

The show opens with an overture with a melody of various games’ themes, including Breath of the Wild. I didn’t realise how long the overture would last unfortunately meaning I cut my video off just as the Skyward Sword segment started fearing it would go on for some time and wanting to focus on the show, but if I’d waited it finished only a few seconds later. I’ll likely replace my video here with a more professionally shot one if such a thing ever appears online.

Apologies at this point for the poor angle in my media, my seat was somewhat off to the side (not that I’m in any way complaining about that, since it was free!) so I couldn’t get anything properly centered.

The concert was split into two halves, with an intermission in the middle. After the overture was Dragon Roost Island from Wind Waker, followed by a medley from Majora’s Mask. Next up was Breath of the Wild and then some music from A Link Between Worlds.

The main symphony begins next, with the prelude ‘The Creation of Hyrule’ using music mostly from Ocarina of time. The movements of the symphony that then follow focus on individual games; Skyward Sword, Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess and A Link to the Past.

After the main symphony ended, there were three encore songs. First was the Ballad of the Wind Fish, from Link’s Awakening, followed by more music from Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.

At a few points in the show there were short clips from the people behind the Zelda series, including creator Shigheru Miyamoto and current producer Eiji Aonuma giving a little background on both the game series as a whole and also the music featured in it specifically.

If I had one problem, it would be the lack of music from Breath of the Wild. Of course, I understand that there’s a LOT of music in Zelda and with a two hour schedule there’s only so much you can actually do but I’d hoped that Breath of the Wild would have had a medley of it’s most noticeable themes like the rest of the major games since Link to the Past do. It did at least contain my favourite track from the Breath of the Wild soundtrack in an extended form, so it’s not a total loss on that front. I expect the score for Breath of the Wild was still being worked on when rehearsals for this show started, which would explain why so little from it is used.

A special shout out to conductor Kevin Zakresky who spent the majority of the show with a massive smile on his face and certainly looked like a man who really loves his job. As is apparently somewhat of a tradition among conductors of Symphony of the Goddesses, he conducted a song with a Zelda themed baton – I was a little too far away to make it our clearly but it looked a bit like the Master Sword to me though I know a Wind Waker baton has been used in the past so it’s possible it was that.

As a long time Zelda fan, Symphony of the Goddesses was a fantastic experience and I clearly wasn’t the only one to think so as the orchestra received a standing ovation at the end.

The show is next back in the UK in London, so I’m very glad to have seen it when I did as I’d likely not make it down to a show there with that currently being the only other UK show scheduled.

Logan

With the success of last year’s Deadpool Fox felt confident enough that higher rated, violent and sweary superhero films were a viable option. And so, we have Logan. Leading this year’s selection of superhero films (well, as long as you don’t count Lego Batman) it has a 15 rating in the UK and is intended to be the last appearance of both Hugh Jackman’s Logan as well as Patrick Stewart Charles Xavier.

Loosely inspired by the comic series Old Man Logan, Logan is set in 2029 which puts it about 15 years after we last saw any of the characters. While the world isn’t post apocalyptic like the story that inspired it, Logan does take place in a world without the X-Men or indeed any other superhero team.

After hanging up his tights, Logan now works as a for hire limo driver in New Mexico to make enough money to care for an old and ill Charles Xavier. Circumstances bring the mysterious Laura into their care and together they set off on a road trip to help her escape pursuit from the villainous Reavers led by Donald Pierce.

As a higher rated film than the usual superhero fare, Logan is incredibly violent with huge numbers of people being brutally stabbed and sliced apart. This really is how you’d expect Logan to fight all the time, but he’s usually substantially toned down due to the rating of the media he’s appearing in.

Director James Mangold, who also helmed the previous solo Wolverine movie, delivers a massive improvement over his last. I didn’t really care for The Wolverine at all, particularly the giant mech version of the Silver Samurai as the final fight. This time Mangold writes as well as directs, and it’s clear that this was a wise move.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are both, unsurprisingly, excellent. Their depictions of older, broken versions of their respective characters both ring true and you can really feel the bond between the two. The characters and their actors have both been linked for nearly two decades and, aside from maybe Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, arguably no actors have been so definitively and excellently cast. Newcomer Dafne Keen is also pretty good as Laura, and has great chemistry with both of the leads.

A lot of people seem to be treating Logan as the end of an era, and with Hugh Jackman being the most prolific actor in a single role in superhero cinema it’s not hard to see why. After all, during Jackman’s tenure as Wolverine we’ve had three Spider-Men, two Batmen, two Supermen and so on. Jackman’s presence in the X-Men films has been a constant throughout and while some of the films have been of.. questionable quality it’s been rather reassuring to see him appear every couple of years.

My biggest regret is that Fox never followed up on the ending of Days of Future past. The revised timeline that has Cyclops and Jean Grey survive made me really hope we’d get to see all of the original X-Men cast back in action as the characters and as a team working together for the first time since X-Men 2 and with Jackman retiring (at least for now, maybe someone will drive a dump truck full of money to his house to get him back one day) it seems that that’s something we’ll never see which is a shame.

But, none of that is Logan’s fault and certainly don’t detract from it in the slightest. A most enjoyable film and a great sendoff to the iconic comic movie character of the early 21st century.

Games Backlog – Abyss Odyssey

When I’m not at home playing Zelda (maybe a Switch would have been a good idea after all, so I could play at work!) I’ve been continuing my Steam backlog. The next game to catch my attention was ACE Team’s Abyss Odyssey. Another of the many hundreds of Humble Bundle games added to my library and promptly forgotten about, I first mistook Abyss Odyssey for a Metroidvania as it rather looks like one from a brief glimpse of gameplay but it’s actually a roguelike righting game.

After a short prologue that sets up the story of a corrupted Warlock becoming controlled by his powers and falling to madness, you can begin exploring the titular Abyss. You make your way down through a number of floors through monsters of increasing difficulty with the goal of making your way to the Warlock and beating him.

At first you’re only able to play as Katrien, a fast character with a rapier but as you progress you unlock the second character in the Ghost Monk who has stronger attacks in a samurai style. You also open up some additional entrances into the Abyss that start you further down meaning you have less floors to conquer, but they’re typically harder. A final character, La Pincoya, can be earned by donating money to her fountain which can be found on each trip into the Abyss by entering the yellow room that can be seen on the maps you find dotted around.

As well as standard enemies, there are several bosses that appear with major ones that have unique appearances marked on the map while other bosses are shadows of the playable characters. The bosses tend to be quite a bit more difficult than standards enemies as you’d expect, and will likely put an end to your run the first couple of times you encounter them.

You can collect improved weapons and equipment, either by simply finding it as you progress through the Abyss or by buying them from one of the many shopkeepers that you find, and defeating enemies also increases your character level though as far as I can tell this only increases your health and not attack strength – and its not refilled when you level up either which feels somewhat unusual. The characters also each have a number of special attacks that unlock as you level. If your character is killed you then take control over a soldier, who is tasked with finding an altar to bring the hero back. The soldiers are much less powerful so the priority really does become getting to an altar as quickly as possible as your run will be over if the soldier dies.

Fighting in Abyss Odyssey is surprisingly complex. In addition to standard attacks from simply pressing the button, there are also directional attacks from pushing in a direction while attacking as well as jump attacks. You can also dodge left or right, with a well timed dodge giving you a powered attack on an enemy us you can counter and throw enemies.

Abyss Odyssey also has a really nice art style and the character animations are very fluid, particularly the playable characters. There are a few different floor designs, and the lighting effects from the background on some of them are pretty great. The music is also quite good, while not being anything too over the top.

I’m a little worried that I’ve managed three fun games in a row from my backlog, I’m sure there must be some rubbish ones in there and my good luck so far means that the next one’s likely to be a total stinker..

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – First Impressions

With my early hardware adopter days far behind me, I’ve picked up the WiiU version of Breath of the Wild. Thankfully, initial reports that the game’s performance is drastically lacking were somewhat exaggerated. Yes, it runs in 720p and 30 FPS and yes, it does occasionally dip below that when things get a bit hectic onscreen but not enough to cause any major problems. Considering how low powered the WiiU is by modern standards, it’s very impressive that it plays as well as it does.

I’ll try to be as spoiler free as possible with these early impressions, I’ve played about 4 hours so haven’t really gotten that far into the story yet for that to be a problem. I am however going to mention some gameplay mechanics that were a surprise to me – they may well have been mentioned in pre-release reporting, but I largely avoided that.

Right from the start it’s very far from a typical Zelda game. The traditional three save slots are gone, replaced with a single save and, in a first for the series, there are also auto saves. You don’t get to name your character or save file either, not that that’s a concern for me as my Zelda saves have forever just been Link.

Link wakes up in a mysterious chamber with no memory, and is told through an unknown voice that he’s been asleep for 100 years. On leaving the chamber and emerging onto the windswept Great Plain, he spots an old man who sets him off on his quest in a manner very (intentionally) reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda.

This Link is much more versatile than the Links of old. He can sprint, climb and jump(!) all of which deplete a stamina bar that quickly refills when you stand still. You can collect and equip weapons and clothing, with weapons having limited durability so that they break quite quickly though that’s not a real problem as there are always plenty more to pick up and Link can carry several spares.

There’s also a cooking and crafting system that I’ve seen faint glimpses on in the text of items, but haven’t yet learnt how to make anything. I have a suspicion that I may have missed something for cooking in the first area, but I’m holding fast in not looking it up to not risk spoiling anything for myself.

It’s also absolutely gorgeous. I’m only in the second area at the moment, so apart from a snowy area near the start most of the landscape that I’ve seen is green grass and trees but it all looks fantastic. Wind blows the grass and leaves on trees, and I’ve seen a couple of rainstorms too. The lighting effects, and particularly fire and the blue glowing Shiekah energy in particular stand out.

Music is used much more subtly than is typical in Zelda games too. Instead of the usual bold themes, it’s largely quiet most of the time, but when you approach some areas such as the Temple of Time near the start you get slight stirrings of familiar Zelda themes in a way that really works for me.

I’m absolutely loving it so far, and can’t wait until I get a good solid 6 hours or so on Sunday to really sink my teeth into it and I’ll most likely talk about it more once I’ve gotten a good way in and/or finished it.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – A Criminal Past

To little fanfare, Eidos Montreal last week released the second and last DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided with A Criminal Past. A Criminal Past once again features Adam Jensen, this time recounting a past mission where he went undercover in a maximum security prison.

Given the recent news that Square Enix are, at least temporarily, shelving the Deus Ex series for perceived low sales figures it’s a bit of a shame that this content doesn’t focus on furthering the main series story, or any other pivotal events (the System Rift DLC by comparison involved opening the Palisade network security Breach that’s featured in the arcade mode of the same name) but it’s always good to get more Deus Ex in whatever form it takes.

In order to contact an Interpol agent who himself is deep undercover, Jensen is sent to the groan-inducingly named Penley T. Housefather Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison for augmented criminals. And yes, the ridiculous name is so that it can be nicknamed the Pent House. Sigh. Anyway, on arrival Jensen is implanted with a chip that blocks augmentations (including his sunglasses, the bastards!) giving one of the more reasonable excuses to have to build up your augmentations all over again. I actually didn’t mind it too much here, much less so than the other story DLC that have been released as at least there was an in-game reason for it this time around. After a run in with the prison’s antagonistic head guard Stenger, Jensen is then shipped off to Cell Block A and you take control.

Odds are that if you’re even considering playing a DLC for the game you’ve likely played some Deus Ex before, and there aren’t any real surprises or revelations in how the game plays. Once Jensen is able to roam freely you can embark on exploring the prison, finding air vents and unlockable doors, cameras to disable and guards to knock out/kill depending on your preference. Jensen eventually works his way around all of the areas of the prison to find his contact and then escape.

There are a few optional objectives and points of interest to explore and, as it’s a prison, a lot of the areas are ones where you can’t be spotted or the guards will quickly begin attacking you which raises the stakes of exploration a little.

The prison itself is a somewhat interesting environment, and marks a visual change from the rest of Mankind Divided while still looking consistent with the designs and technology already established. The outdoor areas in particular stand out due to the nice dusty orange that dominates the colour palette which isn’t a colour I think I’ve seen in a Deus Ex before. The indoor areas, while less distinct from the main game, still have their moments with the main cell blocks in particular being rather unique.

Since Jensen is in prison none of the rest of the cast of the game appear (with the exception of Task Force 21’s psychiatrist, who Jensen is narrating the mission to) so there are a handful of new characters who are all fairly unique in their designs. One touch that I did like is that while all the rest of the prisoners wear their prison jumpsuit collars down, Jensen has his up to emulate the look of his iconic trenchcoat.

There are a few new pieces of music present instead of just reusing existing tracks from Mankind Divided. Michael McCann hasn’t contributed anything however, with Sascha Dikiciyan now the only credited composer. His work is fine and fits the tone established by the last two games, but it’s lacking in any of the big themes that McCann is known for.

I think my playthrough clocked it at somewhere around 5 hours and it felt a bit longer than System Rift, though of course with any Deus Ex a lot of playtime is gotten out of exploring everywhere and hacking all the computers and doors – skipping all of this and just going through the main quest will likely get you to the end within an hour or two but you’ll miss much of the experience doing so.

I found A Criminal Past to be an enjoyable addition to Mankind Divided, a game that I already enjoyed a whole lot though sadly more than most, given the sales figures. The Steam global achievement figures paint a pretty bleak picture for the number of players still around and interested to pick up the new content though with less than 1% of players finishing the story.

Hopefully this won’t be the last we see of Jensen or Deus Ex as a whole, as given Eidos Montreal’s plans for the series there’s still a lot left of Jensen’s story to be told. While it’s a bit of a shame that this DLC doesn’t do that, there’s always a place for side stories and I think this one hit the spot fairly well.

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