Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | May 26, 2015

What next for Medal of Honor?

Once a titan of videogaming, Medal of Honor has fallen on hard times. The rise of Call of Duty as an annual gore-fest has left the one-time trendsetting series as something of a laughable footnote, with its two most recent titles, Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor: Warfighter, being commercial flops.

Looking back on the venerable series today, with its blocky graphics and orchestral score, one wonders if there is any place for Medal of Honor in today’s fast-paced, twitch-shooter market, but I would argue that the measured, slowly-paced gameplay of the early titles in the series is exactly what’s required in today’s day and age – as is a return to the series’ home territory.

Shoulders of giants

With modern shooters mostly revolving around the present day or near-future settings, I think there’s space for one more high-quality World War Two shooter. Such a stance is admittedly a divisive one, as WW2 shooters have arguable been ‘done to death’, and largely abandoned in recent years – excluding the fantasy-WW2 setting of the thoroughly average Wolfenstein: The New Order.

However, ask any gamer over 20 years old, and a Medal of Honor game is bound to have a special spot in their heart – likely due to the series’ strong focus on plot and stellar set-piece moments – a technique lifted wholesale by Infinity Ward for the Call of Duty series.

Remember the Normandy beach landings of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, for example?

The ‘other’ war

World War 2 was just that – a global conflict. I’d personally like to see a future WW2-set Medal of Honor focus on the exploits of some of the lesser known heroes of the age. Perhaps the game could focus on the ‘Desert Rats’ of the British 7th Armoured Division, fighting against General Rommel in Africa or Italy. What about resistance fighters in Norway, working to halt Nazi troop movements? Anything would do, as long as it’s not another American one-man-armying his way through the entire Nazi party.

Admittedly, such an approach is unlikely to gain traction with the bigger publishers, but it would be a refreshing change of pace not be playing as a honky-tonk, yeehaw American.

Plus, I’d like to see a future Medal of Honor take a leaf out of Spec Ops: The Line’s book, and explore the mental impact of war in an unexpected way. Perhaps, as part of a plot-led campaign, the player character could begin to suffer the effects of war on a personal level.

War is hell.

War is hell.

The Last of Us has shown that strong characterisation can more than carry a plot, and although Medal of Honor‘s first-person viewpoint makes such a connection with the player character more difficult, you need only look to the Deus Ex series to demonstrate that that restriction can be easily overcome.

As for replayability – often a stumbling block for FPS campaigns – a little player choice can go a long way to making a game far more enjoyable the second, third or fourth time round. Take, for example, my earlier suggestion of a campaign set around the actions of the Norwegian resistance. By offering the player a little choice on how to approach a mission – ambush, stealth infiltration, all-out assault – you can make a scenario play out differently each time. Throw in a little role-playing with team selection and arsenal options and you’re on to a winner.

Flawed thinking

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”, said notable German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke, and the same should become the core of a new Medal of Honor. One of my favourite games in the series, Airborne, took great pleasure in offering more open, less linear levels – and in keeping the action unpredictable throughout – and this approach is key to making a shooter replayable.

With modern games design offering opportunities for vast, open worlds, I’d like to see the same approach combined with Medal of Honor‘s solid shooter dynamics. Airborne‘s approach – assigning a list of primary and secondary objectives, and allowing the player to approach each in their own order, was refreshing for the time, and something that has arguably been lost in recent triple-A titles.

Black Ops 2‘s ‘non linear’ levels, for example, were still corridor-like once you looked past the set-piece moments and got into the core of the game.

Finally, I’d like to see a game that focuses on the realities of war in the 1940s – unpredictable equipment, mud, blood and rain – to bring a strong sense of immersion to the genre. With the graphical power available through modern consoles such an approach would pay dividends, and combined with Medal of Honor‘s world-famous score and some strong sound design, I’m confident any new title in the series would be a hit.

What would you like to see in a reborn Medal of Honor? Leave a comment below.

Article written for Pass the Controller

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | May 15, 2015

Pieces of Eight: Videogame ‘space’ levels

Continuing my exploration of the best random levels in games I’ve played, here’s my pick of the best ‘Pieces of Eight: Videogame Space Levels’, in no particular order. As for a few of them being set largely in space anyway… shh.

The graveyard – Dead Space 3

Dead Space 3, while the weakest of the series, boasted some of the best space levels in the business – and since most of the action took place on the ice world below, hurling yourself through the void from hulk to hulk was a thing of beauty and pleasure.

Deep Space mine.

Deep Space mine.

Exploring the derelicts in orbit over the abandoned world was a delight – a scary one, admittedly, but a delight nonetheless – and something I came to miss once I was tramping around in a blizzard for the next 10-or-so hours. Graphically stunning, the sound design – mostly engineer Issac Clarke’s desperate panting – drew you into the action and kept you there.

Xen – Half Life

Although the inclusion of ‘border world’ Xen divided Half Life fans’ opinions, I very much enjoyed leaping from floating island to floating island, discovering the bodies of previous explorers and fending off the strange reality’s many and varied foes.

Being forced to take your skills to the next level as you leapt from platform to platform like a demented Italian plumber was a refreshing change of pace – and since Xen offered up some of the most interesting opponents of the first Half Life (including testicle-on-legs horror Gonarch) it’s an experience that has stuck well and truly in my memory.

ODIN – Call of Duty: Ghosts

In the grand scale of Call of Duty games, Ghosts was a largely forgettable adventure that fits all-too-neatly into the ‘same old, same old’ category. That said, the opening 15 minutes were something of a stand-out set-piece moment – even among the grand scale of COD set-piece moments.

Satellite-based kinetic weapon platform ODIN – the USA’s dirty little secret – finds itself being hijacked by enemy forces who somehow stole a US shuttle and managed to approach the heavily guarded installation without Washington DC being any the wiser. After a brief shoot-out, combat-astronauts Mosley and Baker are forced to scuttle the installation in the atmosphere – but not before the huge tungsten kill-rods launched from the station have wiped out half the USA.

Sure, Ghosts was a distinctly average game (although it did give the world the delights of Call of Duty Dog), but this space-based opening set the pace admirably.

Operation Uppercut – Halo: Reach

In an interesting departure from the series’ much-loved ground-pounding action, Halo: Reach’s Long Night of Solace mission sees not-Master Chief Spartan Noble Six take to the depths of space in a customised ‘Sabre’ fighter craft and battle wave after wave of alien space fighters as the human forces attempt to retrofit a shuttle with a massive bomb and blow up an immense battleship.
Cool, huh?

It was only a short mission, sure, but the change of pace and well implemented flight controls made this mission a joy to play and replay – especially when you had a few friends along for the ride.

Sovereign – Mass Effect

Despite its cripplingly long elevator loading screens, the first Mass Effect was a smash-hit success for RPG developer Bioware, due in part to its excellent plot.

Towards the end of the first title, Commander Shepard and his/her team of hard-bitten space adventurers find themselves battling down the side of an immense space station, in the hopes of stopping a battleship-sized artificial intelligence opening a portal that would usher in the end of the galaxy. You know, as you do.

In a tense and thrilling zero-G firefight, Shepard and his/her team dash from cover to cover, mowing down scores of the enemy, while the shadow of the immense Reaper known as Sovereign attempts to open the portal in the background. Lovely stuff.

Mothership – XCom: Enemy Unknown

After just about managing to hold back the tide of alien invaders, global defence initiative XCom finally locates and elects to assault the alien mothership hanging in orbit over Earth. Scrambling to take advantage of the craft’s appearance, the group sends in a crack team of operatives to destroy the mothership, and end the invasion.

Meanwhile, in orbit...

Meanwhile, in orbit…

Among their number is the first psi-sensitive soldier – a volunteer who goes on to give his/her life to destroy the mothership, before it explodes and wipes out the planet. However, before this final moment, the aliens’ mission is finally revealed – they intended to groom humanity to fight in an upcoming battle against a greater foe, believing Homo Sapiens a race strong enough to defeat their pursuers forever.

Probably shouldn’t have bombed Earth then, eh?

Rocket Town – Final Fantasy 7

Final Fantasy 7 (which still doesn’t have a HD-remake, Square Enix…) was a game filled with melancholic moments. However, the one that stands out most for me was the tale of wannabe astronaut Cid, and his love/hate relationship with hapless technician Shera.

Having had to abort a previous rocket launch because of Shera’s devotion to duty, Cid fell into a deep depression, lamenting his chances of ever being able to reach orbit. However, fate intervened, and Cid eventually managed to make it to space – on a mission to save the planet, no less.

Now that’s a stylish comeback – and one that left a mark on my 13-year-old heart.

Sevastopol burns – Alien: Isolation

I love a good, heart-pounding finale – and Alien: Isolation didn’t disappoint. Trapped aboard an abandoned space station that’s not only infested by xenomorphs but also falling into a gas giant, desperate engineer Amanda Ripley has to traverse the station’s external architecture and release a transport that constitutes her only avenue of escape – all while dodging debris, flames and alien attacks – without even being able to defend herself. No pressure.

Got a favourite space level? Leave a comment below!

Article written for Pass the Controller.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | May 5, 2015

Andy’s Top Six: Things i’d like to see in Titanfall 2

Titanfall, the once-Xbox exclusive Call of Duty-like sci-fi mech shooter (try saying that while drunk) was a good game – not a great game, but a ‘good’ game.

After spending many an hour blasting my way through humans, AI-controlled grunts and towering war machines alike, I came to one conclusion – there’s considerable room for improvement in the Titanfall formula, and with rumours of Titanfall 2 on the horizon, here’s what I want to see in the next title.

Multi-platform

Making Titanfall initially an Xbox One exclusive may have helped Microsoft sell a few of its big shiny black boxes, but it also curbed the game’s potential audience considerably. Plus, as the Xbox 360 version was essentially identical (the graphical downgrade wasn’t all that noticeable, trust me…) there is definitely potential for a cross-platform release.

Purty - but I bet it would look even better on a PS4...

Purty – but I bet it would look even better on a PS4…

So, with Titanfall 2, I fully expect – and demand, as I am of the PC master race and the proud owner of a PS4 – that developer Respawn Entertainment will make the next game in the series a multi-platform title. Plus, with a money-grabbing publisher like EA distributing the game, multi-platform is pretty much a given.

Such a move will not only open up the IP to a wider audience, it would allow the developer to make use of the competing systems’ more powerful chipset, ramping up an already good-looking game to new heights.

Wider selection of Titans

While Titanfall’s three Titans offered just enough variety to keep things interesting, I’d like to see a far, far wider selection of metal behemoths available to trample enemies with in Titanfall 2. How about some four-legged, gunned-up walkers with the power to level city blocks, or some tracked, high-speed scout Titans with ridiculously long sniper rifles?

Granted, I sound like I’m heading down the Armoured Core route here – or possibly even the dreaded Chromehounds – but variety is the spice of life, and more mechs is always a good thing.

Enhanced customisation

Staying in the same vein, Titanfall 2 could take a leaf out of the excellent Hawken’s playbook and throw in a little customisation for both Titan and Pilot – incidentally, go check out Hawken if your mech itch needs scratching, it’s pretty good.

Wouldn't that huge metal monster look better with a grinning skull on its cockpit?

Wouldn’t that huge metal monster look better with a grinning skull on its cockpit?

I’d like to see Titans with personalised paint jobs, control interfaces, weapon skins and the like. Granted, later patches for Titanfall allowed gamers to adjust the Titans’ AI voice, but there is plenty of scope for customisation– just make additional options earned through kills please, Respawn, not microtransactions, and save the gaudy gold-plated rifles for Call of Duty fans with too much disposable income…

More players

One of the main complaints many critics and gamers had with the original Titanfall was the very limited number of human players on each team. Granted, the inclusion of AI bots (and massive bloody mechs tramping about) made each game an intense fight for survival, but there was definitely a lack of human opposition to be found – especially on some of the larger maps.

An argument could be made that six-vs-six is enough for Titanfall, given the sheer speed, freedom of movement and differing combat styles going on, but it is the duty of any good game developer to turn it up to 11 in their sequel title – so let’s up the player count.

10-vs-10 or more would only increase the intensity and enjoyment gamers will garner from the Titanfall experience – and imagine the pitched battles of 20 Titans on the field at the same time. That would indeed be a sight to behold!

Destructible environments

Drawing a leaf from DICE’s book, I’d like to see the battlefields of Titanfall strewn with destructible scenery. Although the first game boasted some excellent multiplayer maps (the one featuring a shanty town built around a crashed battleship was a favourite of mine), I’d of liked to be able to blow holes in the walls, or simply plough through them in my armoured behemoth.

Who needs doors when you can just blow a hole in the wall...

Who needs doors when you can just blow a hole in the wall…

Such a design choice (although horrendously difficult to engineer, I’m sure) would add a whole new approach to fighting in Titanfall. Groups of Titans levelling buildings to get at one another as pilots sprint along collapsing walls would lead to some tremendous, heart-pounding action, and the gradual destruction of a multiplayer map would require quick-thinking and initiative to adapt to.

Plus, who wouldn’t enjoy the sight of an Ogre Titan punching its way through the hull of a spacecraft to get at the cowering grunts inside.

A single-player campaign

Although billed from the start as a “multiplayer-led experience”, the original Titanfall suffered the critics’ ire thanks to its lack of a coherent single-player campaign. Despite its excellent production values and top-notch intro video, the exact ‘ins and outs’ that saw the Militia resistance go up against the IMC in the battle for the Frontier were basically drowned out by the sound of battle.

Attempting to cram a story into the tiny intro sections of certain multiplayer maps and then having named characters yacking over the fast-paced action simply didn’t work – and a game with the pedigree and success of Titanfall deserves a proper storyline to hold it together.

By all means adopt a Perfect Dark Zero approach – have other players take the role of weaker, nameless drones in a primary player’s campaign mode – but include an actual single player please, Respawn. I want to know what happens next, and I know thousands of gamers around the world want to know too.

What would you like to see in the next Titanfall? Leave a comment below.

Article written for Pass the Controller.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | April 13, 2015

Pieces of Eight: Videogame Prison Levels

Many games are set in a prison – you’ve got your Escape from Butcher Bay (a favourite of mine), and your Manhunt. Then there’s Prison Architect, which – though buggy – is still a great laugh. However, many games in our treasured hobby take a short holiday to high security, and here’s my pick of eight of the best videogame prison levels.

Ellsworth Federal Penitentiary – Splinter Cell: Double Agent

Gravelly-voiced and surprisingly nimble mid-40s secret agent Sam Fisher hasn’t had a good day. He’s just failed a mission and seen a team-mate die, and on the extraction chopper awaits the news that his daughter has been killed in a car accident. As ‘bad day at the office’ goes, that’s a corker.

Six months later, a slightly more unhinged Sam is undercover in Ellsworth Federal Penitentiary, trying to find a way to cosy up to a domestic terrorist cell. Naturally, having befriended a member of in the incongruously-named ‘John Brown’s Army’, one of the best ways to win some support is to cause a riot and help the terrorist escape, all without killing any of the work-a-day guards – and so was a kick-ass level born:

‘What about the guards killed by other escaping inmates?’ Uhm. Nevermind. Fifth-Freedom and all that …

Aljir Prison – Syphon Filter 2

Despite being infected with a virus – and the Syphon Filter virus ain’t no average flu – former Agency operative Lian Xing takes it upon herself to break into Aljir Prison, and break out an informant before he’s executed.
No pressure.

What follows is a tense gauntlet of guardrooms, checkpoints and perilous gantry clinging adventure, as the cries and sobs of prisoners sound around you – and some get smacked about in the corridors.
Good thing then that the prisoners get their own back after Xing kills the power to the whole prison, causes a riot, and has to shoot her way out:

Damn that music still gets my heart pumping, even a decade later.

‘Cell escape’ – Metal Gear series

Despite being either the source of or descended from the genetic traits which make up the finest soldier in the world, Big Boss and his cloned sons have a nasty habit of getting captured. Whether it’s Metal Gear Solid or Snake Eater, the Snakes usually end up in a cell at some point, and need to find an ingenious way to escape.

Solid Snake’s preferred method – laying on the floor on top of a pool of tomato ketchup – is effective but messy, but kudos to Big Boss himself for coming up with no less than four methods to escape his tiny cell in Groznyj Grad:

• Dig a fake death pill out of your back and ‘die’ due to poisoned food
• Feed your guard bad grub and have him peg it to the loo, then escape
• Get told a radio frequency… by a ghost.

Or, my personal favourite, for its sheer bonkers-ness.

• Spin the camera around Snake in the options menu to make him throw up, then brain the guard when he checks up on you.

Hideo Kojima – breaking the fourth wall like a boss.

Emperor’s escape tunnel – Elder Scrolls: Oblivion

Emperor Patrick Stewart needs to escape some assassins, and conveniently his escape route requires him coming through your cell and repeatedly punching a wall, while spouting some nonsense about visions.
Oh, and you’re in the visions, and he recognises you, and you should come with him.

When Patrick Stewart tells you to follow him, you do it. A shame, then, that he’s immediately murdered, and you’re dumped in a sewer filled with skeletons and huge rats and left to fend for yourself – and how you choose to fend for yourself helps define the role you will play in the story ahead.
Well played, Bethesda, well played.

I’m sure paying Patrick Stewart a huge amount of money for a day in the recording studio was waaaaaay worth it.

UNATCO’s dark secret – Deus Ex

Captured by a secretive sect out to take over the world, nano-augmented agent JC ‘sunglasses inside are cool’ Denton is forced to escape his cell through a little trickery and guile – and some outside help.
Finding himself in what turns out to be a pretty big detention/research facility, Denton used his augmentations, social skills and awesome leather jacket to fend off the augmented Majestic 12 troops, and finally escapes… into his own office.

Yes, the Majestic 12 facility was built underneath Denton’s former employer, the apparently squeaky-clean United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition.
Figure that one out.
All that time you spent checking every corner for soya bars, bothering the staff, exploring the ladies’ toilet and hassling Gunter Hermann, and you never noticed the paramilitary base under your feet. Expert detective work there, agent.

Vorkuta – Call of Duty: Black Ops

While I’m not a huge fan of the Call of Duty series, I have fond memories of the first Black Ops title (before it went all near-future and naff) – and specifically the fairly heroic Resnov/Mason escape sequence which saw embittered miners go from hurling rocks to downing choppers in one well-scripted prison break-out.
I’ll let the video do the talking:

Cold Ridge Prison – Dishonored

Although Dishonored was a short game, I was completely taken in by its chunky cartoon styling, cool story, multiple endings and wacky powers.
Let’s face it, being able to summon a plague of man-eating rats never gets old.

After a fairly memorable opening, heroic (kind-of) bodyguard-turned-assassin Corvo is thrown into the darkest corner of Cold Ridge Prison – a dreary, dank tumour of a building so run-down you can practically taste the decay in the air.
Good thing then that a mysterious, otherworldly character known as ‘The Outsider’ has gifted Corvo with powers, provided he do his bidding, turning Cold Ridge from a slow death into one of the best-realised tutorial levels in gaming.

Learning to use Corvo’s powers slowly, the player moves through the prison, subduing or killing the innocent prison guards, before blowing a massive hole in the wall and jumping headfirst into a river thick with fish guts and offcut whale blubber.

Dystopian? You bet. Fun? Hell yes.

Shinra’s downfall – Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII is a game that holds a special place in the heart of many a 20-something gamer. In a series known for its great characters, enthralling stories and tight gameplay (excluding FF13, which was naff all over), VII is still widely considered the best – and I personally remember the prison section for just how creeped out I felt afterwards.

Captured by megalomaniacal corporation Shinra, Cloud Strife and his merry band find themselves locked up and completely unable to escape. Days apparently pass as escape plans start to run out, and the plucky amnesiac, cross-dressing warrior starts to despair a little.
Then, the next day, Cloud awakes, and finds his door open. The walls and floor are smeared with blood and gore, and the guards are missing – and if that wasn’t creepy enough, the music has gone all ‘Blair Witch’ too.

Following the trail of destruction, Cloud comes across a broken storage container, and deduces correctly that a world-ending monster of prodigious strength has escaped, and killed everything in sight along the way – and only Cloud and his friends can put a stop to it.
Chilling, even to this day.

Got an entry for the list? Leave a comment below!

Article written for Pass the Controller

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | April 8, 2015

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided confirmed

I just peed a little.

Here’s hoping this is as good as it looks, and ticks all the boxes.

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | March 23, 2015

Homeworld Remastered Review

Amid the recent glut of HD remakes and updated versions of last-gen games, it would have been easy to overlook the Homeworld Remastered Collection. After all, since the first Homeworld was released way back in the mists of 1999, gamers are likely to barely remember it, right?

Wrong.

At the time, Homeworld garnered almost universal acclaim – and for good reason. With its sweeping, operatic story, great graphics and addictive gameplay, Homeworld managed to capture both the sense of commanding a vast space fleet and micromanaging each engagement in real time.

Detailing the continuing adventures of a people known as the Kushan, Homeworld is the tale of their exodus across the stars, in search for a new home – the mythical planet of Hiigara. Fighting back against the horrors of darkest space, the exiles form new alliances, discover new technologies and find their place in a changing universe.

Building on this sweeping story was a fantastically implemented 3D space strategy game – the first of its kind, and one that is still considered a genre-leading title.

This success was soon followed by add-on pack Homeworld: Cataclysm, and then Homeworld 2. The second game picks up the story years later, as the exiles are once again forced to the stars to battle a new and terrifying menace.

Homeworld 2 is when I first discovered the series, in my first year of university, playing on a crap laptop I picked up on the cheap. So enthralling was the gameplay, and so addictive the sight of your battle formations demolishing the foe, that I basically spent a week playing the game in every free moment.

So, naturally, when I heard that both Homeworld and Homeworld 2 were being remastered, I was first in line to return to the depths of space and rediscover a classic worthy of the word.

Back in black

Many HD remakes can fall short of their promises, but Homeworld Remastered hits previous attempts for six. Both Homeworld and Homeworld 2 Remastered look incredible – even on my fairly average gaming PC – and the inclusion of the original versions of both games allows a startling comparison of the graphical fidelity improvements 16 years have done for gaming.

While the lack of a remastered Cataclysm is a shame, the two core games offer up over 45 missions between them, ranging from small-scale scouting to immense battles featuring dozens of massive warships. Admittedly, a few missions are duds – the one forcing you to guide the immense Mothership through an asteroid field being a low point – but most hit that fine line between challenging and enthralling.

Homeworld Remastered has also had more than just a facelift. Some of the streamlined gameplay from Homeworld 2 has been coded into the first game in the series, such as resources auto-collecting from the entire mission map as you hyper-jump away. However, the necessity to build interceptors one at a time instead of in squadrons, as in Homeworld 2, is still an irritation.

On the grid

While learning to control the Kushan fleet can be a considerable challenge at first, mastering use of the 3D strategic overlay and steering your battle fleets through obstacles both above and below the galactic plane becomes second nature after a while.

Zooming in from the overlay offers up a visual delight in both titles, as Remastered allows the gamer to zoom in on formations or even individual fighter craft, as they wheel and strafe through the dense dust clouds of stellar nebulae. Zoom out slightly and you can take in the graceful movements of frigates and larger warships, all of which boast independently tracking turrets for the huge variety of beam weapons and solid slug cannons of the slowly expanding Kushan/Hiigaran forces.

In fact, I’d thoroughly recommend turning the user interface off entirely when larger fleets meet in combat, as the spectacle is something to behold in full.

The beautiful, black and white cutscenes have also been lovingly restored, and battling your way through the sweeping adventure once again feels like playing a whole new game.

The sound design is of a similar quality, with screaming engines, weapons fire and explosions all present and spectacular, while the series’ tribal, pulsating score has also been restored with the same love and care as that applied to the graphics and gameplay.

Also included in the package is a multiplayer option, and though this is currently in beta, it plays well enough. I’d recommend working through the single player campaign first, however, as human players are a tougher nut to crack than the AI, which sadly lacks the tactical acumen to put up too much of a fight once you’ve earned your stripes as Fleet Command.

Conclusion

The Homeworld Remastered Collection is a masterclass in HD remakes. Building from the already strong base presented by the original titles, Remastered turns everything up to 11, reskinning every ship, from the smallest interceptor to the largest battlecruiser, and offering a beautiful galaxy to fight your way through. With two games for the price of one, it’s a package that long-term fans and newbies alike are sure to love.

8.5/10

Pros:

  • Stunning graphical fidelity (especially as it’s an update!)
  • Sweeping, story-driven campaign
  • Varied missions
  • Great ship design

Cons:

  • Some dud missions
  • Multiplayer is still in beta
  • No Cataclysm

Article written for Pass the Controller

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | March 17, 2015

Retro Reboot: G-Police

Games, these days, are easy. Sure, there’s the occasional indie platformer that can lead to controller-hurling incidents, and anything involving online play can often leave me foaming at the mouth, yelling about lag – but compared to the games I grew up with, today’s titles are easy.

Not so in 1997, when Psygnosis’ G-Police first span in my massive 90s-computer’s noisy disk drive.
G-Police was hard. Really hard. And I loved it.

Welcome to Callisto

Stepping into the former-army boots of a pilot called Slater, the gamer joins the ‘Government Police’, enforcing the law on the lawless colony world of Callisto, while also working to solve the unexplained death of Slater’s sister – another G-Police officer.

Over the course of a long single-player campaign, Slater and his compatriots uncover a corporate conspiracy to seize power, battle in the skies of Callisto’s massive hab-domes and – if you’re anything like me – fail missions over and over and spend the majority of your time running into buildings.

Taking control of a G-Police Havoc gunship (a cross between a fighter jet and a kickass helicopter), the gamer is tasked with a series of missions that escalate fast in complexity and fun. At first, it’s as simple as scanning cargo and shooting down the occasional drug runner, but before long you’re busily fending off waves of robots, fighter craft and crazed mercenaries – and it’s awesome.

The Havoc proved surprisingly difficult to master for a then-11-year-old. Using an analogue joystick (remember those?), I spent many an hour trying to figure out how to strafe around my targets, while also busily selecting weapons to fire clumsily at targets in the distance, or scanning every crate for a secret objective.

However, piloting the gunship became second nature after a while, and whipping between Callisto’s many Mega City-like domes was a joy.

(c) mobygames

To Serve and Protect… sort of…

 

Granted, the low ceilings were something of a problem – but it was the 90s, and decent draw distance (a ‘la Grand Theft Auto 5) was years off.

Rhapsody in neon

Although the 90s graphics seem laughably bad by today’s standards, G-Police’s Blade Runner-inspired colony domes were a delight to coast through at the time. The neon-lit buildings and elevated roads made each mission feel like a tense chase through a crowded city, and though the tricky control system and high difficulty made each assignment a difficult proposition, over time, Callisto became familiar – somewhere you wanted to protect… when you weren’t accidentally running into parts of it.

As the events of the game became less ‘bobby on the beat’ and more like a warzone, the missions and assignments arose amid a deep web of lies, as rival corporations battled for dominance, and the desperate G-Police fought only to defence Callisto – dragging the gamer into the story and fast-paced action.

Admittedly, the missions occasionally smacked of repetition, and the crushing and often unfair difficulty made the game a grind at points, but as a whole, G-Police was an absolute riot – a riot brutally put down by rockets from a police gunship.

Bring it back

So, with Psygnosis long dead (rest easy, and thanks for Colony Wars, Lemmings and WipeOut), who would be best placed to revitalise Slater and the G-Police?

Well, my first choice would have to be Gaijin Entertainment – and if you haven’t heard of them, that’s no surprise.

Bring it back!

Bring it back!

Gaijin is best known for cross-platform World War 2 MMO shooter War Thunder, but my first encounter with the Russian company was in the little-known title Apache Air Assault – one of the best combat flight simulator games I’ve ever played, and also a gem worth your time if you like helicopters and things that explode.

Since the core of any reborn G-Police title would be flying a police gunship, a good control system is key – and although Apache Air Assault’s controls were difficult to master, once you had a feel for flying, zipping about the skies became a joy.

However, while I could trust Gaijin with the flight controls of a refurbished Havoc gunship, the other key parts of G-Police lie in story and environment.

So, when it comes to world-building, while big names like Bethesda and Ubisoft would be a comfortable choice, I’d be inclined to call in the folks at the curiously named Dontnod Entertainment, whose first game, Remember Me, was as immersive as it was a diamond in the rough.

Remember Me’s Neo-Paris was a standout example of world-building, and the combination of old-world charm and sweeping, metallic futurescape gelled perfectly. Given free reign to develop a new Callisto (with a decent draw distance) Dontnod would do a great job, I’m sure.

Plus, as Remember Me’s story was pretty good for a new IP, I’d trust the company to do justice to G-Police’s tale of corporate infighting and murder on the streets.

So come on, people, bring it back!

Andy Hemphill

Article written for Pass the Controller

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | March 12, 2015

Retro Reboot: Golden Axe

When I was a kid, I earned pocket money from my parents by doing chores.
I remember struggling to vacuum the house – my small form lacking the strength to handle the huge 90s-scale Hoover they owned – before I tidied my room, and helped in the garden.

For this, my folks would give me £20 a month – and once a month, on a trip into the quaint Midlands town of Tamworth, I’d spend that hard-earned cash at the second-hand game stall in the market.
Jungle Strike, Altered Beast, Sonic 2… over the early years of my life, I acquired so many now-classic games from that stall. Then, I bought Golden Axe – the Megadrive port of a popular arcade hack-and-slasher.

At the time, I was a fan of fantasy – I read the choose-your-own fantasy books, I watched the awful movies, and I could have been described as a nerd (nothing new there then).

So, when I bought Golden Axe, I knew I’d acquired something special – my first favourite game.

Muscles and mayhem

Deep in the lands of Yuria, the populace are living in terror.
The evil warlord Death Adder and his army of magical monsters have invaded and overrun the many towns dotting its mountainous terrain and, with the royal family captured and the fabled Golden Axe stolen, Death Adder is holding the known world to ransom.

Into the melee steps axe-toting dwarf Gilius Thunderhead, Amazon warrior woman (and bikini-fan) Tyris Flare, and irritatingly well-built barbarian Ax Battler. The trio proceed to kick ass across the many battlefields of Yuria, before felling Death Adder and saving the known world.

Also, they spend their evenings punching magic-stealing elves.

 

While my gaming interests have since broadened, and I’ve become far more a sci-fi nut than a fantasy nerd, my memories of playing Golden Axe with my father and friends remain as strong as ever.

With its crushing difficulty and high-fantasy setting, each time you booted up the (admittedly very short) game felt like you were setting off on yet another heroic quest – even though it was the same one every time

Someone's a gym bunny...

Someone’s a gym bunny…

There was just something special about beating your foes through teamwork, swordplay and spells, and the magical creatures dotted around – including fire-breathing dragons and stumpy-legged reptilian monsters – were hilariously fun to use.

Granted, this was mostly because you could punch your teammate off the beast and steal it for yourself.

16bit bombastic

While later Megadrive games would perfect the side-scrolling beat-em-up co-op gameplay Golden Axe boasted – with 1991’s Streets of Rage and its sequels being a particular highlight – Golden Axe’s addictive but simple gameplay was great for its time.

Admittedly, the game hasn’t aged well. The graphics are poor, the music laughable and the sound effects leave much to be desired (I remember being horribly unnerved by the ‘death’ sound effects that interrupted the MIDI music), but as any good fantasy fan knows, half the adventure is in the mind’s eye.

Then there’s the spelling and grammar – always a sore point with 90s games – which was just… awful.
Thankfully, the gameplay more than made up for Golden Axe’s shortcomings.

 

The series was vaguely rebooted in 2008’s Golden Axe: Beast Rider, but it was universally panned as a buggy mess – including by me.

Since then, little has been heard from the lands of Yuria – but there’s always hope that the legions of Death Adder and his allies will return, and a trio of brave warriors will again take to the steppes… and punch elves in the face.

Article commissioned for Pass the Controller

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | February 26, 2015

Top Five: Things I want to see in the next Deus Ex

Four years ago, Deus Ex: Human Revolution stealthed onto the scene, punched through a wall and brought a new generation of gamers into the dystopian world first seen in 2000’s seminal Deus Ex.
With little in the way of new information circulating about the future of the series, other than a maddeningly vague blog post from last year, I thinking about what we’d like to see from the next game in the series – and no, we don’t need any more Safety Dancing.

Multiplayer
As much as Deus Ex has been and always should be a single-player experience at its core, there’s a lot to be said for a multiplayer mode that fits neatly into the canon, and doesn’t detract from the main campaign.

Take The Last of Us for example. As well as a stellar single-player adventure, the game’s multiplayer mode was nothing to sniff at either – and crucially, adding it in didn’t cheapen or take away from the core single-player mode’s length or depth.

There are so many factions fighting for dominance in the darker corners of Deus Ex’s world that there’s bound to be a great multiplayer game in there. Ideally it would play along the same lines as the single-player campaign – players would select augmentations they like, and save them on a soldier (ala loadouts from Call of Duty) – then battle it out in one of the game’s ‘hub’ areas.
Developers could make use of ‘verticality’ and have teams using all their augmentations to the maximum, turning invisible at will, jumping to obscene heights and punching through walls.

Plus, keep the team sizes small, and working together to snatch victory from your similarly augmented enemies would become a tense game of cat and mouse – especially if you fill the hubs with NPCs, like Assassin’s Creed’s excellent multiplayer offering.

Such a mode should force gamers to think creatively to flush out and kill enemy agents – much like the core game, Deus Ex’s multiplayer should feel free to play outside the lines.
Plus, you could create maps drawn from the series’ deep lore, such as Area 51, Hell’s Kitchen or the vertical city of Hengsha.

Proper boss battles
If there was one criticism that appeared in every review of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it was the boss battles. Farmed out to a company outside Square-Enix for some unknown reason, DE:HR’s final encounters broke the flow of the action completely, and committed a cardinal sin of Deus Ex: denying the player choice.

Ideally, the next Deus Ex should still feature climatic boss fights, but you should be allowed to use your brain, guile, luck and augmentations to avoid them, or win them in a way other than by repeatedly shooting your foe.
Take Anna Navarre and Gunther Hermann, for example. This pair – mechanically augmented and embittered UNATCO agents – could be killed in the original Deus Ex by discovering their ‘killphrase’, which upon being spoken would cause them to self destruct, saving you valuable bullets and time. Alternatively, they could simply be avoided entirely, if your stealth skill was high enough.

This kind of freedom to choose is at the heart of Deus Ex, and should certainly extend to the boss battles too.

Rechargeable batteries…
Deus Ex and Human Revolution both suffered from the same issue when it comes to the awesome augmentation technology the series is built around – power.
Both JC Denton and Adam Jensen boasted an amazing selection of cool augmentations, from the ability to see through walls to a tiny spy drone deployed from the eye, to powerful, strength-boosting muscles – but if you ran out of bioelectric cells (DE), or candy bars (DE:HR), then you were essentially buggered.

Many a gamer no doubt found themselves in a firefight after discovering they couldn’t punch an enemy down in Human Revolution because they ran out of bloody Mars Bars.
No, what’s needed is a rechargeable battery system built into the hero’s torso – one that charges the batteries beyond the first ‘bar’, and won’t leave you gasping when you need to make a quick escape.

A good example would be the Crysis series’ Nanosuit which, while powerful, required careful monitoring at all times, and had you walk a line between all-powerful superhero and crawling failure.
Make the more powerful augmentations suck power like an Xbox One power brick, certainly – but don’t make us beat up a vending machine to use them more than once a level.

Interlinked and unpredictable storylines
The Deus Ex storyline spans many decades now, from the bleak early years of augmentation in Human Revolution in the 2020s, to Deus Ex’s cyberpunk 2052 dystopia and Invisible War’s neon-lit 2072. Throughout it all, a decent storyline filled with betrayal, conspiracy and rebellion runs – and we’d like to see the next chapter bring them all closer together.

While details on the next game in the series, and the ‘Universe’ concept alluded to in Square-Enix’s October 2014 blog post, are vague, we suspect the next game will be set somewhere between the events of Human Revolution and Deus Ex.

While Human Revolution did an adequate job of revealing the early years of some of Deus Ex’s characters, this time period would allow a deeper exploration of the events that defined the original title. (Deus Ex nerdgasm/spoiler alert ahead).

I’d love to see an exploration of the birth of UNATCO and the schism between the Illuminati and Bob Page’s Majestic 12. Then, what about the nanoaugmentation project? What about the creation of JC Denton and his brother – were there failed attempts before the ill-fated pair?

Keep us guessing, SquEnix, and you’d be on to a winner.

‘Dynamic’ hubs
With the ‘next’ Deus Ex featuring “trans-humanism segregation”, and “a “ghetto-city’ voluntarily built in order to separate the classes”, the stage is set for some truly spectacular ‘hubs’ to play in.
All three Deus Ex titles were at their best in their respective ‘hubs’. Deus Ex’s New York, Hong Kong and Paris hubs were a delight to explore, rammed with side missions and things to see and do.

Similarly, Human Revolution and Invisible War’s hubs had a magic of their own, and all three allowed the gamer to explore and enjoy the feel of moving as an augmented human in a changing world.

With the next title, we’d like to see more made of these hubs. They need to be bigger, and boast more activities than ever before. Give us side missions, mysteries and murders until we never want to leave, and harness the power of next-gen consoles to populate them with a mass of NPCs going about their business.

The not-so-distant future...

The not-so-distant future…

For example, imagine a multi-tiered ‘ghetto-city’ filled with NPCs, moving and rioting and fighting – all of which the player can move through and influence. As the story advances, the hub will change dynamically around the player, showing day by day the effects of the player’s interaction and choices made.

Deus Ex’s brand of conspiracy works best in such environments, as the knowledge of events influencing the game world empowers the player – and makes every decision matter all the more when they can see the effects first-hand.

What do you want to see in the next Deus Ex game? Leave a comment below.

Article first written for Pass The Controller

Posted by: Andrew Hemphill | February 20, 2015

Retrospective: Warhammer Games

The war-torn battlefields of the 41st millennium have found more fans through the medium of mainstream gaming than it ever did on the 28mm tabletop.

In fact, Nottingham-based ‘world’s best plastic miniatures’ producer Games Workshop is making good use of its 25-year-old licence to bring in ancillary revenues (arguably to the detriment of the actual tabletop game) – but that’s not to say all the games with GW’s logo on are actually any good.

Now, with the trailer for GW’s latest cash-grab, Warhammer 40,000: Regicide (essentially 3D chess with Space Marines…) doing the rounds, it’s worth looking back on some of the tiles in the company’s Warhammer-licenced stable which – like Star Wars – often vary massively in quality.

Dawn of War(hammer)

Chances are, if you’ve owned a PC capable of running a 3D strategy game, you’ve played Dawn of War – or one of its 3.2 million add-on packs. Or the sequel. Or the sequel’s add-on packs.
Relic Entertainment’s original 2004 release: Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War, was a masterclass in video game design. Drawing heavily on GW’s lore, the title placed the gamer in the power armoured boots of a commander in the Blood Ravens chapter of Space Marines, and tasked him or her with liberating the planet of Tartarus from a horde of invading Orks. It also featured this fantastic intro cutscene, which probably sold more than a few boxes of Space Marines on its own:

 

Fans of the tabletop game, critics and video gamers new to the series were all almost universally delighted with Dawn of War, which brought the crunching battles once only in their mind’s eye to life on the screen – a dynamic which GW and Relic then milked to death, releasing add-on pack after add-on pack. Then came the sequels – and more add-on packs – all of which cheapened the base-building battles of the original down to a squad-based skirmish game.

However, before Dawn of War, Games Workshop’s licence had been used to make many a strategy game – strategy being at the heart of the company’s long history in 28mm.

Long before Dawn of War, the 1995 Mindscape title Shadow of the Horned Rat was bringing the bloody battlefields of the medieval-styled Warhammer universe to life in blocky graphics, and the fondly remembered Final Liberation brought the 1900s’ obsession with FMV video into the gaming sphere.
Shockingly bad voice acting aside, Final Liberation was a pretty amazing title for its time, and worked on a scale that even Dawn of War failed to capture, drawing as it was from the ‘Epic’ line of really-miniature miniatures GW was pumping out at the time.

Similar strategy titles in later years include the entirely underwhelming Warhammer: Battle March in 2008, which failed spectacularly to capture either the grim nature of Warhammer’s world, or even what it takes to be a good game – one of Namco Bandai’s many failed enterprises.

‘My bolter’s jammed!’

However, aside from strategy titles, a number of excellent (and not so excellent) first- and third-person shooters have carried Games Workshop’s splash screen.

One of the earliest, 1993’s Space Hulk, is memorable for its tense atmosphere, tight controls and incredibly tough difficulty. Space Hulk‘s sequel, Vengeance of the Blood Angels, was even tougher and often pant-wettingly scary – especially when the alien (and deadly) Genestealers morphed from sprites to gun down in the distance to slickly animated and very much in-your-face monsters which would kill you if you slipped up once in close combat.

 

Years after Vengeance, 2011’s Space Marine – one of now-defunct publisher THQ’s stable – was a very enjoyable, if laughably shallow hack-and-slasher, with a pretty kickass multiplayer and a half-decent storyline (notable because Games Workshop titles typically lack a decent storyline…) However, despite a cliffhanger ending, the chances of a sequel are pretty much nil, owing to THQ’s dramatic fall from grace.

The Space Hulk series is currently undergoing something of a renaissance, in fact, with Full Control’s 2013 title Space Hulk returning to the series’ roots as a tactical – and often unbearably tense – skirmish game, while Focus Home Interactive’s Space Hulk: Deathwing is set to bring Left 4 Dead-style co-operative shooters into the 40K universe with a bang – it certainly looks good so far, in as much as you can trust a pre-alpha trailer…

 

And it’s not just mainstream consoles and the PC crowd that are suffering under the barrage of GW-branded titles. Mobile title Squad Command reviewed well back in 2007, but suffered on the back of lacklustre Western sales of Sony’s £400 PSP paperweight.
More recently, Storm of Vengeance and Drop Assault have brought the brutality and betrayal of GW’s ‘Horus Heresy’ storyline to Android and tablets – but both are shallow, repetitive and fairly dull lane- and tactical-strategy titles, respectively, and aren’t likely to enjoy the same popularity of earlier titles in the company’s stable.

In the grim darkness of the far future…

As for future games bearing Games Workshop’s Aquila logo, things are looking up. Alongside the aforementioned Genestealer-kill-a-thon Deathwing, another mobile developer, Pixel Hero Games, is working on a 3D action/adventure title based on the excellent Black Library novel Eisenhorn: Xenos, by Dan Abnett.
Details are sketchy at the moment, but drawing from 25 years of lore – and Abnett’s excellent fiction – one can only hope the title will do Eisenhorn’s sweeping tale of betrayal, adventure and danger justice.

Similarly vague on details is Tindalos Interactive’s Battlefleet Gothic – Armada. Although the initial screenshots look great, exactly what is going to be involved in a videogame adaptation of a now-defunct GW tabletop space strategy game remains to be seen. However, with Gothic being an aspect of the Warhammer 40,000 universe beloved by longtime fans, hopes are high for a title crossing the deep lore and ridiculously large warships of 40K with a gameplay style similar to Relic’s excellent Homeworld series.

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So, 25 years on from the opening of a small shop in Nottingham, Games Workshop – and the many tales of the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 universes – have spread across the world through every almost medium available in entertainment.
Sure, there’s been a number of duff titles in the past, but with the likes of Armada and Deathwing leading the way in coming years – and rumours of an MMORPG refusing to die, despite Square Enix’s Eternal Crusade seemingly mired in development hell – things can only get better.

Article commissioned for Pass The Controller

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