Impressions from the Titanfall 2 Tech Test

“Follow mode engaged. I have your six, pilot” – Ion, skirmish at Forward Base Kodai

It’s tough – and potentially just inaccurate – to write a review on a pre-alpha test of a game when so many aspects of the finished product were kept under wraps, but what we were allowed to see does say quite for what we can expect. The bottom line is that almost everything has changed since Titanfall 1, except that pilots are still the real heart of an experience that has grown a bit more personal.

To demonstrate, compare the training and story mode from the first title to what we see in the technical test. The objectives covered in the training modes are quite similar, but despite being spoken to in a direct manner in the first, it is almost deliberately generic – you play an anonymous pilot playing through a training scenario designed for mass consumption, like a pawn in a galactic corporate bargain. Granted, the program and module was stolen – which leads into a genuinely interesting story – but in the second your training is one on one with a very specific character – and you seem to be playing an actual character in the story, one with a voice.

The contrast between wordless anonymity and personal experience seems to carry into the main gameplay. In Titanfall 1’s campaign, you get a mission briefing and a flow of feedback as you work towards (or fail to achieve) various objectives in your nameless pilot’s role in the story, but in the sense of chatter over radio. It has a good style and fits with the theme, but you’re really just on the sidelines of the story most of the time. I liked it in that it made itself pretty distinct from other games at the time. Although we get no glimpse of the story mode of Titanfall 2 in the technical test aside from a teaser video, the way your titan speaks to you already shows a subtle shift towards having an actual personality. The little details add up, and coupled with a fantastic orchestra musical score heard in select moments, we may be in for something really amazing.

Pilots, like in the first, are highly agile with a broad range of customization options. The movement, traversal and parkour feels better than ever, rewarding a skilled hand. Unfortunately the three maps available in the technical test were relatively flat, having just a few opportunities to really show off wall-run chaining or other exceptional feats. The new grappling hook is both really fun and also somewhat of a skill gap closer for players who may have a harder time using wall jumps to reach high places, as it can take a pilot from the ground to a high perch in a flash. Oh, and it is also effective as a ranged weapon – something I learned on the fly when an enemy pilot used me (in mid jump) as a hook anchor to get from one place to another. Ouch. Well played, sir.

As for Titans, we see the biggest changes here. I suspect the two Titan loadouts available in the tech test are just samples of the finished game – but gone were the weapons and most of the abilities from the first. Also gone is a lot of Titan survivability – at least, at first glance. Ironically, also gone is the direct Titan rodeo kill attempt. That’s not to say you cannot kill a Titan by jumping on it, but it does completely re-imagine the concept of the rodeo attack and the circumstances in which you would want to attempt it. The resulting mechanic does surrender a centerpiece of the classic Titanfall “feel”, but in return yields a whole new level of optional objective management. When your pilot successfully jumps on an enemy Titan, you steal a shield battery and do a small amount of damage. This takes place in a much shorter period of time than a legacy rodeo attack – with less in return. If the pilot survives escaping with the battery and delivers it to a friendly Titan or her own, that Titan gets a sorely needed shield and will survive a little longer on the field. With practice, you can time this attack along with a team mate to steal the battery right before the Titan would explode, which results in both a battery and a destroyed Titan. If a pilot dies carrying a battery they drop it, which either team can pick up. These “micro objectives” encourage a new level of teamwork that felt somewhat absent from the first, and give a little more life to your somewhat fragile Titans. Hopefully in the full game the loadout choices will include some to improve overall Titan durability.

Among the changes to Titans includes an increase in the personal performance bonus towards the build of your next titan. Players who are doing well, or at least participating with effective assists, can expect their titan much sooner than someone who is off objective or struggling.

The three maps available in the technical test were each a bit larger than most maps in Titanfall 1, although with smaller five man teams this can easily lead to feeling alone on the map if you aren’t working closely with your squad. Despite the previously mentioned mostly horizontal layout, the attention to detail and map design is actually quite nice and offers a lot of opportunities for flanking, clever ways to hold otherwise open objectives, plenty of sniper roosts (including one that is labelled by graffiti “Pew!”), and a lot of scenery. I can’t wait to learn more about these places and the new factions and references that are hinted at.

Another new feature is an awesome boost to in game clan support, “Networks” can be created and managed directly via the game client. Once set up, you can see who from your Network is online, the clan message of the day, and invite those online that arent in a match to join in a match with almost no effort. It’s a jump ahead in terms of match making speed and organization. I give a hearty applause for the team that engineered this.

Although it was just a short test, we can see all the pieces coming together and I have a good feeling about the finished product, due late October. Titanfall 2 dares to be different than its competition, and even different than the first in the series. They’ve set a high bar for themselves. Finally, sequel or not, I still get a small chill every time I hear the impending sonic boom and operator call out “Confirmed.. stand by for Titanfall”.

 

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Half of the VR titles I am most eager to try are not games

While a look at the SteamVR Game titles coming in 2016 seems quite promising, the coolest things I’ve seen demonstrated over the last year weren’t traditional games at all – but rather “experiences”. That’s not to say there aren’t some really great games coming to VR, because there are, but while game developers tackle bringing current gen game themes to VR space, others are turning heads with original content so immersive and mind-blowing it challenges how we define a VR title.

Let’s start at the top – of the world, that is. Take Sólfar and RVX’s “Everest VR” teaser as a perfect example of a non-game VR experience, despite being built with one of the most powerful gaming engines.

Another room-scale VR experience that captured a lot of attention at recent road shows was Wevr’s “theBlu: Encounter” , which simulates a deep ocean shipwreck and a profound meeting with wildlife there. Here is a link to one of their blogs from behind the scenes on that project.

A glance at the Wevr company page shows the wild diversity of VR content in development, everything from the Sundance Film Festival, music concerts, Sports Illustrated to the mind-bending space-themed “Irrational Exuberance Prologue“. Wevr also provides a platform for VR producers, which looks promising.

Another announcement coming out of the Sundance Film Festival was a partnership between traditionally game-focused Ubisoft Montreal and a VR venture co-founded by Elijah Wood called SpectreVision that will focus on interactive VR Horror titles. The short teaser that accompanied this announcement was a chilling 360 stereoscopic ride through a scary scene in Assassin’s Creed “Jack the Ripper” add-on, although their production project is likely not related to that specific Ubisoft franchise at all. In any case, any VR “interactive horror” to get air time at Sundance has my full attention.

Google’s Tilt Brush is a cross-platform VR painting tool that has also been an enormous success at VR road shows. It supports room scale VR, and watching an artist paint a three-dimensional object while walking around it in real life is a poster of a new generation of immersive, non-gaming content. Nvidia sponsored a VR art contest last year, here are some video highlights from that event.

I am excited to see Virtual Reality break through into the mainstream in 2016 – as much for rich sensory experiences as the ridiculously awesome looking games, the latter which I may cover in another blog entry. What I see in terms of new ways to produce and deliver art is as large a leap forward as the television was for the radio – that is, a once in a century leap in communications-enabling technology, although 2016 is probably just a quiet beginning. I believe developers are only at the tip of a world-changing technology, specially for the field of education, perhaps even medicine, one where fantastic games are just a by-product. Just imagine the recent Star Wars movie – but in VR. Or a tour of the Louvre from your living room. Or a show like MythBusters – (I’ll miss this show!) – but one where it feels like you’re actually there, but completely safe. Confront fears and travel to other places you may never have the opportunity or desire to see in person – like inside a volcano, aboard the IIS, or like the teaser above, atop the world’s tallest and most dangerous mountains.

I’m ready. The HTC Vive debuts in April, shortly after the release of the Oculus Rift.

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The Division Beta Impressions and Feedback

image credit: ubisoft

image credit: ubisoft

Agent, you’ve been activated. It is time to take back New York City. After breaking radio silence on their upcoming openworld shooter RPG “The Division”, Ubisoft invited fans who had pre-ordered the game to participate in closed beta this weekend. Beta for Xbox One began one day ahead of PC and Playstation, which will run through Sunday evening. My wife and I sat down to run through it today and had a really good time of it. What follows are some of our observations, feedback and most of all; praise.

Update: Although video capture sharing is disabled for the Xbox One version of the beta, I had an opportunity to try it on PC. Here is a link to some footage: The Division PC Beta – 1080p Ultra

A well built beta experience

The new player briefing and developer commentary was specially prepared for this beta audience. It explained, accurately, that there would be bugs and more specifically what kind of bugs to expect. It also provided guidelines as to what content was not included in beta, and finally a quick guide to surviving. The result was something that seemed fully built – most of the missing features were visible but labelled as not included.

“Always On” multiplayer

Although most of the city is “squad only” multiplayer in terms of encountering other players, your friends who are playing are also shown on the map with an option to join them even if they are not currently in your squad. Furthermore, the quest hub areas and competitive PVP/PVE “Dark Zone” are dynamically filled with other players without any interaction from the player, and except for the pause when you join a squad, there are no loading screens going between these two types of game areas at all. Included is a matchmaking service, conveniently also located at the quest hubs.

Distinct factions

The two enemy factions we encountered in the beta included looters and the flame-thrower wielding “cleaners”. Promotional footage suggests at least two more major factions that are not featured in the beta. Each of the factions bring their own twist to an encounter depending on which “class” or type of that enemy are present, and if any of them are elite or named opponents with special abilities or weapons. For example, most groups of looters will have at least one melee equipped “charger”, and frequently another that is equipped with tear gas or another type of grenade. Most of the enemies that have a weapon that should be fired from cover will use cover and line of sight to their advantage (but not always). Contrast this with a chance encounter with the cleaners, where threat of sudden fiery death from their flame thrower equipped heavies requires different tactics than a shootout with lightly armored looters. From go, I found this creates a believable and engaging atmosphere.

Huge, haunting play area.

Despite beta being fenced into just one portion of the total play area, I was immediately struck by the sheer size of the environment. This is one thing really not evident in the pre-beta footage until you see it for yourself – moving around down town New York conveys an intense sense of scale and catastrophe, better than probably any other shooter I have ever played. Exploration opportunities abound, whether you choose to jog directly to your active mission marker or sweep carefully street by street, there are countless details, alleys, underground entrances and rooftop access that make the map seem even larger.

Solid RPG Shooter foundation

The Division is first and foremost an RPG in a cover-based 3rd person shooter’s clothing. All of the players skills are designed to compliment small team tactics against a variety of challenging situations. Advancement, talents, gear customization and specialization further allow the player to tailor their agent to their preferred role in a team, or survival as a lone gun. There are no classes, so one agent can technically fill any role on the fly just by changing their active skill selections and gear.

All those bullets

One caveat and constructive feedback I find in The Divisions’ RPG roots is the dramatic health scaling of difficult AI opponents, although this is a common trait to most RPG Shooters like Borderlands or Fallout. Many elite or boss opponents are tough because of the sheer amount of armor and hit points assigned to them – you’ll empty magazine after magazine into headshots against them unless you are quite over-geared for the encounter. If this has ever bugged you in another game, it’s going to bug you here. I didn’t find it to take anything away from the game or sense of difficulty, and may even make the game more accessible to fans who enjoy that pace over headshot-galleries like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Your milage may vary.

Dark Zone

Saving the best for last – we loved the Dark Zone. Ubisoft has a smoking hot recipe for a rich multiplayer challenge on their hands with how well cooperative PvE challenge and PvP mayhem blend in the Dark Zone. Every aspect of the game leads to it, and the best loot and toughest AI (and living) opponents are found there. You’re welcome to journey in alone but most of the encounters encourage or require cooperation, and the inevitable shootout between player squads ups the fun factor substantially. I found most players were helpful, specially given how frequently they may need to be revived while exploring PvE challenges or just trying to escape. Some seemed to be trying their boundaries with attacking vulnerable players, but the “rogue agent” flagging system tends to get the inexperienced griefer quickly executed. On the other hand, organized teams of rogue agents are a force to be reckoned with. Once they reach “rogue status five” for repeat aggression all nearby players get a bounty mission to kill them; they get a corresponding mission to survive for a set amount of time. The death penalty corresponds to how much “dark zone loot” and currency you’d managed to collect in that trip – you lose a portion of it when you die – and I felt it was “just right” to not feel overly punished for getting killed while still feeling the sting when you get iced right before an extract with a full pack. It’s bold and highly satisfying.

I am very encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and look forward to the full release in March. See you in New York!

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OXENFREE – Delightfully Scary, Clever and Unforgettable

image credit gameinformer

image credit gameinformer

Five teenagers set out to explore a spooky island’s mystery, what could possibly go wrong? Night School Studio’s charming high school horror adventure “OXENFREE” turns out to be more than just a little scary and a whole lot of fun. It’s also one you won’t soon get out of your head. You’ve been warned.

With a running length of “just right” for a not-too-short side-scrolling puzzle adventure, you’ll be tempted to stay up late to finish it in a single sitting… in the dark. In addition to the rich watercolor environments and adorably tiny protagonists, brilliant writing and exceptional voice acting bring this breakout title to life. The believable and complex inter-character dialog is faster paced than some other story-driven tales. It’s no-pausing pace demands quick thinking and reaction from the player to choose how the heroine Alex might respond, or not respond, to a situation. Her choices drive much of how the story unfolds – one that you’ll be left thinking about long after the credits roll.

Blink at your own risk, this clever puzzle has numerous possible endings and a trove of well-guarded secrets. Nearly all of the game’s achievements are at least moderately hard to obtain, to the delight and horror of the completionists among us. The level of detail and thought put into OXENFREE is amazing, cementing its place as one of the best this year.

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The Division – Speculation and Hope for Ubisoft’s Openworld Shooter RPG

TCTD_E314_screenshot_division-agents_1024x768

image credit: ubisoft

In the aftermath of a present day bioweapon catastrophe, survivors must band together to take back New York and restore hope. On the surface, Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy inspired “The Division” has Game of the Year written all over it. However what we actually know about the game is limited to only a few short gameplay demonstrations from E3 two years running, and the coolest parts of the demos are the parts of the game that are only hinted at but not fully shown. Elsewhere a leaked trailer explores some of these aspects in better detail, adding credibility to this possibly being a huge success. What worries me more is trying to ascertain why Ubisoft would play their cards so close to their chests when they are usually quite liberal with game hype ahead of a release. With just two weeks or so before the closed beta, let’s take a closer look at why this game is exciting and what they might not be telling us.

Update: A flood of amazing footage hit YouTube this morning from a few lucky individuals who were invited to Sweden to try it hands on, and it looks absolutely incredible. Here is a link to one of the best yet at Arekkz Gaming.

A Good Start

The foundation of the gameplay we have seen is a tactical multiplayer rpg focused on exploration, survival and challenging combat encounters. Every detail in the trailer and demo begins and ends with cooperation – hope against the insurmountable began with an outstretched hand. This poetry in motion is the backdrop for the excellent gameplay demonstrations from E3 – probably the best material they have released to date. Three players teamed up to move through the ruins of downtown New York to an objective, using a variety of skills to balance three team roles familiar to other successful RPGs – healing, direct damage, damage and threat mitigation. In dangerous areas tackling a group a foes near or above your character levels required communication and teamwork, and the pace of battle was intense.

One of the most interesting aspects of the demo is the late game PvP twist. The team ventures into the Dark Zone, a PvP enabled challenge area where the loot and stakes are raised substantially. What begins as a multi-team cooperative challenge against a much more powerful AI opponent suddenly turns into a brutal team vs team PvP struggle for the sum of the loot. The hostile agent self policing PvP flagging system hinted at in the footage might be comparable to one of my all time favorite openworld rpgs ever: Ultima Online, or at least as it was originally launched.

Pie in the Sky

If you consider for a moment what other more recent games this resembles so far, it is difficult not to get ones hopes up. Consider first its pedigree (a Tom Clancy shooter), the difficulty tuning for three person teams (Destiny) and the broad shooter rpg setting itself (Borderlands 2, Fallout) it seems like a recipe for megahit. Consider further the aspects of the game they haven’t quite shown us outside of hints and details in the leaked trailer regarding how New York is rebuilt one stronghold and critical resource at a time, and I see a truly groundbreaking next generation gaming experience that could eclipse the competition.

Then why not shout it from the rooftops?

Compared to the deluge of footage we’d expect from any other Ubisoft flagship title like Assassin’s Creed, they have been pretty tight lipped about The Division. The site for the game is cool enough but the amount of actual game information and working footage is quite small. With just weeks ahead of the beta and a tentative March release not far behind it, there is valid concern in what we haven’t seen for the game yet. This would not be the first game shown at E3 that looked fantastic but did not resemble the final product – see the infamous case of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which was so bad it ended up in court. I doubt that is the case here, but it is worth citing.

Complete duds aside, we haven’t seen much at all about how progression works, side activities, any additional details about how habitually aggressive PvP is handled (this could still be cool), or any hint at what end game content will look like. The latter most could be a landmine issue for the success of the game and might be the most valid concern the game faces.

Another roadblock that is closer to home is the known stability problems that face the other recent Ubisoft online shooter – Rainbow Six: Siege. Granted, we’d hope they would have dedicated servers for an openworld rpg like The Division, but hopes and this actually being the case are two different things.

I don’t expect that the coming beta will be restricted by NDA, and hope to post a follow up once I have hands on experience to confirm or dispel these questions.

Update: The “leaked” trailer was released in the US a little while after I posted this. Keep it coming guys, it looks amazing.

 

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Let’s start a riot – my Assassin’s Creed Syndicate review

image credit: ubisoft

image credit: ubisoft

Rain falls on the soot black heart of the industrial revolution; in the distance a clock tower bell chimes. London, 1868. With the ambition and vigor of a much younger game, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate aims to be the best in the series since Brotherhood. Taking seriously the bruising reviews for the previous title “Unity”, the teams at Ubisoft would not be satisfied to just put a fresh coat of paint on the sixth release. Every aspect of the controls were reinvented from basic movement, traversal, and stealth along with a massive overhaul to melee combat. The result looks and feels enough like our free-running, building scaling heroes of the past to pass as Assassin’s Creed but is far more fluid and ready to tackle the toughest urban playground ever featured in the series.

One could list out every new feature of combat and traversal in Syndicate, but it is easier to describe them in how a scene might play out. Your twin assassin of choice, be it stealth and dagger Evie Frye or her brawler brother Jacob, is aiding the Scotland Yard in the live capture of a criminal out of laws reach whose thugs are terrorizing the slums. Moving quickly on the rooftops from street to street with the help of a quick-firing rope launcher, you carefully take down a lookout and survey the alley where the gang is roughing up the locals. Spotting just two guarded ground escapes from the alley, you plan to quickly and quietly clear a path to one exit and escort the uncooperative high value target out to the street where a horse and carriage is waiting. Everything goes well, until just within feet of the carriage a second set of thugs happens to wander by and disrupts capture attempt. Breaking free the target runs to the streets and leaps into another carriage, raising a ruckus and attracting all manner of trouble as he speeds away. Having only seconds to close the gap to the escapee, the assassin takes the reigns of the first carriage and a high speed chase begins. Crashing through the cobbled streets of London, you manage to catch up, avoiding other carts and obstacles while trying match speed to line up your next move. Trusting the horse and cart’s current trajectory, you abandon the reigns and climb to the carriage roof, creating a split second opportunity to leap to the other carriage roof just before the carts separate or the road turns. Kicking the getaway driver out of his seat, you steer it back to the drop off point with the police – assuming thugs weren’t waiting for you there as well. None of this is scripted or plays out in “quick time”, it’s raw combat engine combined with the innovative carriage system that is integral to nearly every part of the game. A similar scene might have played out in and on top of a train, or across dozens of boats on the busy River Thames. It’s as if Ubisoft looked at groundbreaking naval combat in AC Black Flag and said “Let’s make the whole city feel like that”. It’s that good, but it gets even better.

While well-executed stealth puzzles are still the cornerstone of Assassin’s Creed, sooner or later an honest-to-goodness fight is going to break out. Thankfully, this no longer feels like just a punishment for failing a stealth objective. Totally re-imagined, the smoother feeling melee combo system is pure bliss to play and will leave you looking forward to your next knock-down brawl. Nine tough guys patrolling the illegal child-labor employing factory? Take out the foreman and free the children without anyone ringing the alarm bell? Maybe, or I could just pop my knuckles and ring the damn bell myself.

This duality is mirrored precisely in the twin heroes Evie and Jacob Frye: stealth and brawn. Or more accurately, refined discipline and brash style – as you’d be sorely mistaken to believe Evie was in any way less tough than her brother. It’s not just in the mechanics, but also through brilliant character writing. Their personalities and both complimentary and in contrast. This dynamic plays out beautifully between them as the story unfolds, adding another rich layer to an expertly crafted tale.

On story, allow me first me step back. I really enjoyed AC Unity, perhaps not as much as pirate-themed Black Flag but I argue most of the criticism Unity received was undeserved. Unity had very strong main characters, a wonderful story and a drop-dead gorgeous backdrop in revolution-era France. It’s lack of a key villain and inconsistent pacing is shared by almost every Assassin’s Creed before it, almost by design. Breaking with tradition, Syndicate establishes a strong villain right away to drive a solid narrative of corruption and intrigue without needlessly knocking off token bad guys just to turn a page. What follows is not one but several believable – and likable  – bad guys that prop up one of the best plots I’ve played in a very long time.

I was a little sad when I heard there would be no co-op play in Syndicate as the main characters would be perfect for it, but I respect Ubisoft’s decision to focus on making the single player experience the best it could be. The same can be said for a companion app, which was amazing in Unity. In all, Syndicate stands on its own without them as one of the best in the franchise, raising my hopes that Assassin’s Creed will continue to defy odds, raising the bar even higher for a genre it invented.

In a final passing note – one other thing Syndicate players may not notice is missing: senseless misogynist tropes. No comically low unlaced v-neck tops as armor, no prostitutes in distress, no crimes against women as contextual backdrop. Don’t miss them, don’t need them back. Thank you Ubisoft.

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Ori and the Blind Forest: A Love Letter in a Time Capsule

image credit : moon studios / vg247

image credit : moon studios / vg247

Remember back when a good puzzle could transcend fiction? Think way back. Moon Studios’ Ori and the Blind Forest is a trip to an era that birthed gaming masterpieces that would forever set a high bar for an exploration rich, difficult, secret-filled puzzle jumpers. Ori begins at a gentle pace to establish the tone, setting and controls, but once the plot is set in motion it is clear the tasks at hand are far from easy. Beneath the disguise of the adorable heroine and stunning locations is the heart of a true challenge.

Along with clever implementation of classic abilities like double jump, wall jump and air stomp are some innovative new tricks that will put your skills to the test. At times daunting or even heart pounding, the difficulty ramps up quickly and makes no apologies for demanding exact timing and deep respect for character controls. It balances well a sense of wonder and exploration with a vast, detailed map stuffed with secrets and shiny things you cannot-yet-get-to, and is well populated with a colorful cast of menacing critters. To top it off, the musical score is outstanding – ranging from deeply emotional to energetic and dramatic orchestra.

Ori includes more than a few hat tips to venerated predecessors in the “metroidvania” genre, and plays as well as we remembered these games to be. Yet at the same time it is something quite new, fresh and thought provoking. It is also very, very hard. A glance at some of the toughest achievements in the game are some of the most insane I’ve seen. The top include a speed run achievement, an achievement for completing it without leveling up any of your abilities, and the highly improbable completion in a single life. Good luck with the last one – that’s some serious bragging rights, given how frequently you are likely to die (hint: repeatedly) before figuring out some of the more cruel traps and puzzles.

Ori is a love letter to the games we grew up with. I played through the first quarter of the game in one sitting over the course of hours – not only had I lost track of the time, I had been transported back to a part of my gaming youth. I’m thankful Moon Studios took the extra time they needed to put the finishing touches on this game – the delay from last year was well worth the wait.

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