Sunday, June 30, 2013

Game of the Year 2012

Hooray! I managed to get one of these Game of the Year articles out earlier than the previous year :) (hey at least I got it out before the end of the financial year ;)). However I didn't review as many games last year (about 14 compared to 20 in 2011) so technically I should've had more time to commit to the reviewing part rather than the play-testing part :).

For 2012, the best scoring game here at Choicest Games was:

Mass Effect 3

Mass Effect 3 turns out to be a clear winner this year with no other games achieving a score of 9/10. While the game may seem a controversial choice for some considering the poorly implemented ending, the Extended Cut alleviated many of these issues. The whole game itself is one action-packed finale to the Commander Shepard trilogy and it ties all the loose ends created in the previous two games. Incidentally, a Mass Effect game has always either won a Game of the Year award on this blog (i.e. Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3) or Runner-Up award (i.e. Mass Effect 1). So you can tell I'm quite a big fan :).

This year, the runners up prize goes to:

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

5 games received a decent 8/10 for their score, so it was a tough choice to pick the best of the bunch but in the end it had to go to XCOM: Enemy Unknown. Why? It manages to be one of the few games that rebooted an old franchise and did it right. Firaxis managed to make the game faithful to the original series' core gameplay, yet have streamlined some of the UI and concepts to make the game more accessible to the younger generation of gamers.

Honourable Mentions

Honourable Mentions go to the following games that also achieved a score of 8/10 (like XCOM: Enemy Unknown) but didn't quite make the cut:

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Natural Selection 2 Review

"Now there's something you don't see every day... Thank... God...."

  • Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
  • Publisher: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
  • Release Date: 31 October 2012

Over 10 years ago now, a mod was released on the Half-Life engine known as Natural Selection. As Natural Selection was using what was becoming an old engine (Quake III was already released and Doom 3 was to be released two years later), its graphics were starting to become dated like other popular Half-Life mods, Team Fortress Classic, Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat. However, just like the other Half-Life mods of the day, Natural Selection shined in the gameplay department. Not only that but the game was an interesting hybrid of FPS and RTS with the inclusion of a "Commander Mode" (and this is three years before the release of Battlefield 2). So you could say the game was ahead of its time and that is what appealed to me most about this game.

Its sequel, Natural Selection 2 took a bit longer than anticipated to develop (thanks to Unknown Worlds switching from the Source engine to their own engine mid-project) but after alpha and beta testing for over two years, it was finally released last year.

Since the game was inexpensive on release and I was pining for a game with Commander Mode (the last game I played with one was Battlefield 2) I decided to give Natural Selection 2 a whirl.

Plot (4/5)
Natural Selection 2 doesn't have a very well developed background story and it obviously takes many cues from Starcraft (and in turn, the Alien films). However, a background story does exist and I happen to like sci-fi stories with similar backgrounds to the Aliens franchise :).

"Natural Selection 2 doesn't have a very well developed background story and it obviously takes many cues from Starcraft (and in turn, the Alien films)."

In Natural Selection 2, Humanity has expanded to the stars although a new obstacle has come between them and further development in a region of space known as the Ariadne Arm. A mutagenic microorganism known as the Bacterium has assimilated a race of aliens known as the Kharaa and they have aggressively taken root in several ships and facilities in the Ariadne Arm. Humanity's de facto government, the Trans-System Federation (TSF) has responded to this threat by deploying rigorously trained and highly disciplined soldiers known as Frontiersmen (or simply Marines). The fighting between these two sides is what Natural Selection 2 is all about.

Gameplay (4/5)
Natural Selection 2 at first glance looks just like any other team deathmatch game however there are some major differences.

Firstly, the game is a FPS/RTS hybrid. A player on each side can play as the commander of their side which reveals an RTS interface similar to the original Starcraft. From here the Commander can issue orders to their team, provide intelligence on enemy movements and eventually research new weapons, armour and traits for their team. In order to research upgrades, certain structures are usually required and in order to build these structures, the Commander requires resources. Resources are generated at resource nodes that are spread around the map so it obviously becomes important to secure these areas for your team.

Secondly the game has two different sides with differing play styles (although there were even more differences in the original Natural Selection): the Frontiersmen (or Marines) and the Kharaa (or Aliens). Marines rely on their advanced weapons and technology in order to beat their foe, even being able to construct powered exoskeletons and robot artillery if they go far enough up the technology tree. The Aliens on the other hand rely on evolving new traits and lifeforms to win. They also have something called the "infestation" similar to the "creep" in Starcraft where the floor is slowly covered by organic matter as the Hive cluster grows. Being on this infestation confers certain benefits to the Aliens and you're also only able to build structures on it.

"Teamwork is paramount to succeed in this so it's not the sort of game where you'll be too effective as a lone wolf."

These two factors make the game interesting from a strategic perspective and consequently good fun. The only criticism I have is that there's a bit of a learning curve when it comes to playing effectively and as a team (and the Video Tutorials don't really help – I hate video tutorials. Thankfully they introduced a mode where you fight against bots since release). Teamwork is paramount to succeed in this so it's not the sort of game where you'll be too effective as a lone wolf. You need friends or at least cooperative strangers to play with.

Commander Mode will make RTS players feel at home.

Sound (3/5)
The audio samples used in the game sound identical to the sound effects used in the original over a decade ago. As a result the audio sounds low-quality yet it does the job. The only good thing about them using the old samples is that you're able to once again hear the nostalgic taunts made by the Marines such as “Now there's something you don't see every day… Thank… God…" and “Oh man… just lost my appetite."

No music is played during the actual game and since it isn't exactly crucial to this genre it has been excluded for purposes of scoring.

Graphics (3/5)
Graphics in Natural Selection 2 are okay, but not sensational. In fact, the game feels more like a high-resolution texture update to the original game instead of an outright new engine (some steps have been made to improve them further since release though). Animations are also still a bit sloppy when compared to contemporaries (e.g. Battlefield 3) but it's passable (and DICE would've undoubtedly had a much bigger budget to play with).

Replay (2/5)
The game is dependent on finding cooperative players willing to teach newbies and newbies willing to be patient and learn the ropes. While this is applicable to a lot of multi-player games, it's even more crucial in Natural Selection 2. Also there aren't too many maps but the numbers have been increasing as time goes by.

"The game is dependent on finding cooperative players willing to teach newbies and newbies willing to be patient and learn the ropes."

I can see myself coming back to play NS2 but only if I have a bunch of friends to team up with. This becomes even more critical when you realise there's really only a small community of NS2 players in Australia. When I checked today around midday there were about 60 players on about 10 Australian servers. Also, there are no persistent stats or unlocks like the Battlefield/COD games so there's no incentive from that department.

Commander Mode is arguably more difficult to pull off as well so you might feel discouraged to give it a try, especially with whining teammates.

Polish (5/5)
The game seems to be reasonably well polished although it is mostly a rehash of an existing formula after all. Loading times for maps are extremely long though – I'm usually waiting for at least 5 minutes before entering a game.

Score – 7/10

While the production values aren't high a lot of fun can be had with this game if you're able to grab a group of mates to play with you or cooperative strangers; The game's success really hangs on the quality of the community and whether you are willing to get yourself involved too.

If you want to get the game, you can get it on Steam. Also the game is currently on sale at the moment for $8.50!

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Friday, June 28, 2013

XCOM: Enemy Unknown Review

Looks like Slimer has been busy tonight. Whoops, wrong franchise.

  • Developer: Firaxis Games
  • Publisher: 2K Games
  • Release Date:12 October 2012

Originally when news of a new XCOM game was announced, there were actually mixed reactions from the fans. The new game looked to be mainly a FPS, although a tactical one where it incorporated some elements of the original turn-based tactics game such as researching new weapons. Eventually this game was put on hold and then eventually re-branded to The Bureau: XCOM Declassified. The game will be released in August.

Then out of the blue comes news that Firaxis, arguably the kings of turn-based strategy games, are behind a new XCOM game. Not only that but it's a reboot of sorts based off UFO: Enemy Unknown. A lot of fans rejoiced since Firaxis would surely do the game justice. In fact, here's a random bit of trivia: the original UFO games were actually published by Microprose which happened to be Sid Meier's old company before starting up Firaxis : ). So you could say that in some ways the XCOM franchise has returned to its old home.

So how well does the game capture that old UFO: Enemy Unknown vibe?

Plot (5/5)
I love sci-fi and the plot for the original UFO: Enemy Unknown ranked highly amongst the many games I've played. In the original, the year is 1999 and aliens from outer space have become public knowledge, thanks to a sharp increase of UFO sightings, abductions and even terror attacks. The wealthiest nations of the world pool their resources together to form a task force to counter the alien threat known as X-COM. Besides the “near future" not being 1999 anymore, not much else has changed with the plot.

I love stories where humans on the verge of defeat by alien invaders, adapts the alien technology to create a level playing field: If one song could epitomise the XCOM ethos it'd be Brave New World from Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds (although the difference with War of the Worlds, is that Artilleryman is delusional).

Also the fact you are working for real world nations as clients and fighting over real world cities adds an extra level of realism and immersion to the game.

Gameplay (4/5)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based tactics game – a rather rare beast in today's gaming milieu. Basically the game is split into two layers – the management layer and the combat layer. The management layer involves you viewing the Earth for potential missions against alien invaders. This involves either shooting UFOs down or sending a team of XCOM operatives on the ground. While at the base you can also research alien technology at research labs and develop new weapons and armour at the engineering workshops. Besides these two major functions the base is also where you can launch satellites to increase your surveillance coverage for UFOs, assign new interceptors to different parts of the globe and hire and train XCOM operatives. You're also able to build more facilities as the game progresses.

Entering a ground mission triggers the combat layer where fighting aliens is a gentlemanly affair of taking turns to fight, a bit like a chess game. The combat at its core is similar to the original UFO: Enemy Unknown but it's simplified. You can no longer crouch and you don't use action points anymore. Instead each of your operatives has a half-way mark outlined when they move. If you choose to move to any position within this half-way radius you'll have enough time to perform certain actions on that turn after moving (such as firing an assault rifle). However if you go beyond this radius you forfeit any actions for that turn. Some might deride this over-simplification of the game but I think it works surprisingly well.

Overall I think the gameplay is good. One of the best aspects of the game (and this genre in general) is having your team grow and almost become your virtual friends in a way. As sad as it sounds, it's actually heart-breaking when one dies (especially when it's on Iron Man mode) since this game has perma-death – when a team member is dead he/she stays dead (I know that might sound shocking to some players born after the 80s/90s)!

Every time your team goes out on a mission, it could very well be their last.

Occasionally there are some annoying bugs such as invisible pixels (i.e. it looks like you have a clear shot but it isn't, resulting in a squad wipe when using explosive weapons) or when it seems you've got no clear shot at an enemy you actually do (and vice versa). Basically you have to suspend your disbelief at times at how crazy some shots are.

One of the issues that fans of the old series may find unforgiveable is that difficulty ramps up based on triggers. In the original games difficulty seemed to increase on a continuous curve, which meant if you were efficient and quick, you could make things easier for yourself in the long run. You could also build multiple bases in the original whereas in this one you can only build one (although you are still able to assign interceptors to different continents). In this XCOM no matter what you do, the enemy will always have a slight advantage up until the very end – which might be good since it's always challenging but there doesn't seem to be much incentive to rush your research.

Sound (3/5)
Audio in the game is generally pretty good. The only thing I can criticise is that even though there are several voice samples to pick when customising your team members, they're all just generic American accents. So even though you have a squad of Scots, Australians, Chinese and Russians – they still all sound American.

Music (5/5)
Initially I didn't like the fact they went away from the cheesy 80s rock soundtrack of the original – I mean how can you beat the Interceptor theme?

(Okay it didn't quite sound like that in the original but it does prove I wasn't the only one who loved that theme :))

However, I eventually appreciated the fact that Michael McCann's soundtrack stands very well on its own. It sounds very Human Revolution-like, which is no surprise since he did the soundtrack for that game as well.

What I also like are the little callbacks to the original UFO: Enemy Unknown such as the two notes that play when entering the Gollop Chamber (they're heard in the original Geoscape music) – not to mention the Gollop Chamber itself is a reference to original designer, Julian Gollop.

Graphics (3/5)
The game's aesthetic style has hints of anime to it which is great since by doing so it pays tribute to the original. The original game's intro shouted out anime-style, I mean check this out:

There are some graphical issues when a Berserker alien is on the screen however. Every time he starts stomping around it slows the entire game down which is weird, since it doesn't appear to happen with any other alien unit. The temporary framerate drops are tolerable though – just gives you extra incentive to kill the Berserkers as quickly as possible!

Replay (3/5)
Would I play it again? Probably; there are some nifty achievements plus the whole atmosphere to the game is awesome. There are also different difficulty modes although I found that Normal was just right for me.

For those who like to play against humans (or aliens?) there's even a multiplayer mode to increase the game's replay value.

Polish (4/5)
There are occasional crashes-to-desktop but overall, the game is pretty well polished.

All quiet on the Eastern front

Score – 8/10

While there have been quite a few changes made to the original game UFO: Enemy Unknown (besides the obvious such as graphics and audio) they aren't so severe as to distance the game from its core mechanics which involves building a base, intercepting UFOs, training up your team and turning alien technology against them. Veterans of the series should still find this game fun and the streamlined gameplay will attract younger strategy gamers to the turn-based tactics genre.

If you want to get the game, you can get it on Steam.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Choicest VGM - VGM #77 - Quest for Glory 2 - Battle Theme 1

Original Composer: Chris Brayman
Initially released: 1989

This track is one of the battle themes in Quest for Glory 2 and it sounds suspiciously similar to Battle Theme 2 from the first Quest for Glory (which is only played during battles with tough opponents).

Thanks to Sierra On-Line and Quest Studios for providing these memorable tracks.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Choicest VGM - VGM #76 - Quest for Glory 2 - Julanar (Desert Nights)

Original Composer: Chris Brayman
Initially released: 1989

The first 42 seconds or so of this track actually plays while travelling through the Shapeiran desert at night, hence the "Desert Nights" in brackets. Julanar, which is the name of a woman trapped in the form of a tree, has her theme start straight after the Desert Nights part. The music has some embellishments that reflect compassionate actions by the player to Julanar (e.g. giving her water). He completes his tasks around the 1:13 mark where you start hearing the final few bars.

Thanks to Sierra On-Line and Quest Studios for providing these memorable tracks.

Monday, June 10, 2013

FTL Soundtrack Review

  • Name: FTL Original Soundtrack
  • Label: None
  • Composer(s): Ben Prunty
  • Number of Tracks: 29

As you know from my FTL review, I found this little indie starship management game a charming one - giving it a well deserved 8/10. As I mentioned, one of the best aspects of the game was the awesome soundtrack by Ben Prunty that takes you back in time with a retro soundtrack consisting of what sounds like chiptune music. The music works surprisingly well though evoking feelings of nostalgia for sci-fi media of the 80s and 90s.

Stand-out favourites of mine are pretty much any of the tracks that use the leitmotifs from the Milky Way/Federation theme and the title theme (Space Cruise), which is almost every track.

While some of the more ambient tracks don't take my fancy (especially in their "Explore" form) they definitely become quite groovy in their "Battle" form (there's basically two versions of every track in the game - one is used in peaceful situations while the other is used during combat). I especially like the combat versions of Milky Way and Colonial.

Overall, there are quite a few gems in this soundtrack which shine enough to warrant it a look.

Score - 7/10

If you're a fan of chiptune music or dreamy sci-fi music, Ben Prunty's FTL soundtrack could be right up your alley. At only $5 too, it's not going to burn a hole in your wallet.

If you wish to purchase this album visit Ben Prunty's Bandcamp website here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

War of the Roses Review

One of the newer maps that is similar to TF2's Payload Maps

  • Developer: Fatshark
  • Publisher: Paradox Interactive
  • Release Date: 3 October 2012

Plot (5/5)
War of the Roses is obviously set during the war of the same in English history. This war was set during the 15th century between the House of Lancaster and the House of York – both houses having roses as their emblems (hence the name). The maps, weapons, battles are all based on medieval history, which I like as it adds a degree of authenticity to the game – however in reality it's just a background for the multiplayer mayhem.

Gameplay (3/5)
Gameplay is okay. Basically the game is Team Capture the Flag but the maps are set in English towns and villages. You can customise your player to have a variety of weapons which are unlocked with enough experience and in-game gold. Your player can use swords, axes, lances, spears, daggers, crossbows and bows. You can also further customise the weapons even specifying what kind of fighting style you wish to employ. Different armour and perks are also available for selection.

With XP and in-game gold earned, you can unlock new weapons, armour and perks

The fun part of the game is the awesome novelty of playing a Third Person slasher instead of First Person Shooter. It's also quite specific when it comes to "locational" damage and where you aim. Even when you swing your sword you have to be aware of terrain (slashing from the right when there is a wall on your right for example will cause your sword to clash with the masonry). Teammates can even kill each other if they're not careful where they swing!

Also it's nice to play a game with a somewhat realistic depiction of medieval warfare. Crossbows take ages to reload, you really need to aim high with the bow and striking an enemy while on horseback isn't quite as easy as you might think.

Be warned that the AI in singleplayer is a bit dumb. For example you can cap flags by just running around them Benny Hill style and win the scenario. But it's meant to be a tutorial. Multiplayer is where it's at.

Sound (4/5)
Blood splatter effects and the clanging of steel is great. And they've got Poms doing the voiceover work, so all is good.

Music (4/5)
Music isn't memorable but since it's medieval it suits the game.

Graphics (3/5)
Not bad and you can really beef them up, but the animations aren't very realistic and on my system it struggled even on lowest settings, which is pretty bad considering the computer is only a year old and not a slouch.

Replay (2/5)
Replay is via multiplayer and there are a variety of unlocks and weapon combos you can get which is great – however when I first played the game when it came out, this never worked for me since it never saved my progress! Later on I found out this was because coincidentally, there were stats server issues at the same time I was playing the game. It seems stats now save as intended.

Also when I first started playing War of the Roses there were only a few maps available. I was worried that the game would quickly go stale if they didn't introduce anymore. Fortunately a few more maps have been added since release.

"...there are usually maybe 20 Australian players online. As you can see, the Australian War of the Roses community is very small."

Finally there seems to be very little players in Australia. At one time when I played there was none – during weeknight evenings though there are usually maybe 20 Australian players online. As you can see, the Australian War of the Roses community is very small.

Polish (2/5)
The game is unfortunately not very well polished. Sometimes the game crashes to desktop other times it freezes for a few seconds on the server browser window. There were also issues with the stats server on release (as mentioned earlier).

There's also no digital manual bundled with the game on Steam and the tutorial doesn't cover everything. I was wondering for example why you're given the option to execute a fallen foe or not. If the time runs out, the fallen foe can beg for mercy and then he respawns. When I asked my fellow players I got a reply of "something to do with honour. But that's the thing, there's no real explanation for it.

Score – 6/10

War of the Roses is a good concept. The novelty of wielding a sword instead of a shotgun is a refreshing change. Unfortunately, the game was incredibly buggy on release and while some steps have been made in fixing it, it might be too little, too late.

If you want to get the game, you can get it off Steam.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Torchlight 2 Review


  • Developer: Runic Games
  • Publisher: Runic Games
  • Release Date: 20 September 2012

Torchlight 2 – another gift from my friends (I have very generous friends)! I've heard a lot about the original Torchlight in how it was a breath of fresh air in the hack 'n' slash RPG genre – a truly worthy Diablo-clone. I also read that the original was developed in a jaw-dropping 11 months, which is a very impressive feat! Unlike Diablo though, Torchlight lacked any multiplayer and was a single-player only affair.

Its sequel Torchlight 2 rectified that, giving you the ability to play co-op with your friends. So instead of playing Torchlight 1 first, I jumped straight into Torchlight 2 to see if it was any good!

Plot (3/5)
As an exercise, let us compare the plots of Diablo II with Torchlight 2!

Diablo 2:
A player character from the original game tried to contain the essence of Diablo within him. The character is known as the Wanderer and he ends up going on a long journey to the east, wreaking havoc in his wake, thanks to Diablo's corruption and his inability to contain the evil. Along the way he travels through a temperate zone, a desert zone and then a jungle/swamp zone before reaching the end where you finally fight him. The game is broken up into three acts and an epilogue.

Torchlight 2:
A player character from the original game is corrupted by the Ember Blight. The character is known as the Alchemist and he ends up going on a long journey wreaking havoc in his wake, thanks to being corrupted by the Heart of Ordrak. Along the way he travels through a temperate zone, a desert zone and then a jungle/swamp zone before reaching the end where you finally fight him. The game is broken up into three acts and an epilogue.

Very similar plots right? It's pretty much a direct copy of Diablo II if you ask me.

Consequently, I don't think much of Torchlight 2's plot as I've largely forgotten most of the details, characters and locations. While Diablo 3's plot wasn't fantastic at least they tried to make it a bit different to its predecessor!

"Consequently, I don't think much of Torchlight 2's plot as I've largely forgotten most of the details, characters and locations. While Diablo 3's plot wasn't fantastic at least they tried to make it a bit different to its predecessor! "

Gameplay (3/5)
Gameplay is similar to any hack 'n' slash RPG – i.e. it's relatively easy and just relies on reflexes more than anything else. Just hover over your target, left click to do a standard attack and right click for a special one. The number keys correspond to a belt which you can place inventory items like potions or spells in. Simple.

Thankfully, this means the gameplay is better than Diablo 3 in some regards, because it's more similar to Diablo 2 than Diablo 3. You can quaff potions like there's no tomorrow in Torchlight 2 (well at least the cooldown is very quick) and there are alternative ways to heal, instead of the health glob system that is used in Diablo 3. This means you don't need to waste skill points on healing skills and just focus on offensive/defensive abilities.

Another nice feature is the ability to send your pet to town to sell and buy items. This means you don't need to waste time travelling back and forth to town and can just continue with your quest (your pet will automatically find you once he/she is done).

The ability to have pets transport items back and forth from town is one of the game's welcome features

However (like a lot of hack 'n' slash RPGs) the game can often become a mindless click-fest – which is fine if you don't want to think but for those wanting more mental simulation, it's sadly lacking.

Sound (4/5)
Audio is generally well done in this game although sometimes your minion/pet sounds are quite annoying – especially when they make the same growling noises every 5 seconds!

Music (5/5)
Two words:

Matt Damon!

Sorry, I mean, Matt Uelman!

Thanks to Matt Uelman, who was responsible for the excellent Diablo and Diablo II soundtracks, Torchlight 2 retains the same dark and eerie ambience.

Graphics (4/5)
Torchlight 2 adopts a bright, colourful almost cartoony approach to its graphics. While it might not be as fancy as Diablo 3, the game runs a whole lot smoother on a modest system.

Replay (3/5)
Replay value for Torchlight 2 is slightly better than Diablo 3 since loot drops are more frequent. However, similar to all Diablo games, replay involves playing a linear story all over again and do you really want to do that? Worse, unlike Diablo, your Player Character doesn't really talk and there are no different conversations with NPCs depending on your character class.

Polish (5/5)
Didn't notice any bugs and the UI is quite easy to use.

Score – 8/10

For the Diablo fans disappointed by the changes made to the most recent game in the series, Torchlight 2 will make them feel right at home. Runic Games has basically taken the gameplay and story from Diablo II and set it in the world of Torchlight. However, this is also the game's Achilles Heel as it might feel a bit too similar to some.

If you want to get the game, you can get it on Steam.

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