Will Preston

Archive for November, 2012

Counting down the second Cold War

by on Nov.19, 2012, under Review, Video Games

Recently, I bought my first smart phone. Considering the first iPhone came out around five years ago, it goes without saying that I’ve arrived extremely late to the touch-screen party. The first time the high definition screen flashed up, I knew that things wouldn’t be the same again. There was a plethora of tasks and activities that I could now do thanks to the wireless possibilities of this £400 device. It was scary. But then again, the last technological advances of the last century have come by so fast, that you almost panic when you sum up how civilisation has progressed from using telegrams to viewing CGI-saturated feature films at a seconds notice. As usual, there’s the military aspect of it. If I can wield a supercomputer the size of a modest birthday card, what can the research and development department of the US military use to get rid of who they see fit?

Los Angeles gets bullet ridden

Call of Duty Black Ops 2 is a game of two halves, but it’s more than a five-a-side. It’s the first of the series to take place in the future, but it also has time to get distracted and look into the distance, reminiscing about previous real life military campaigns. You flick between Frank Woods, Alex Mason (both from the previous Black Ops) and David Mason – Alex’s son. It’s 2025 and remote controlled drones make up a majority of the US armed forces against the backdrop of an uncertain world trying to keep up with the technology that holds together society. China and America have entered a new cold war with a recently discovered (and extremely rare) material called celerium being the cause for such conflict. The earth element is used in all modern technology and has allowed leaps in technology, allowing such wonders as invisibility suits and personal heads up displays to be distributed as standard issue.

It has been a long time since Frank Woods fought alongside Alex Mason in Vietnam. An elderly wheelchair-bound woods is living out the last of his days in The Vault – what can only be described as a high-security nursing home. He’s visited by an armed platoon led by David Mason who questions him over his experience with Raul Menendez, a Nicaraguan narco-terrorist who leads the Cordis Die movement, a military cult with plans to bring down the superpowers of the world through cyber-terrorism. Woods’ past with Menendez spans back to the 1980’s where he was captured and tortured in Angola. This half of the game takes place in several late 20th century conflicts from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the US invasion of Panama (lots of invading!). But the game also flicks to modern (well, future) conflicts as well.

Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

One of the greatest things about this new Call of Duty is the ridiculous selection of arms and equipment. The prototype rifles come equipped with x-ray technology, you have a grenade launcher strapped to your wrist and your personal computer on your other wrist can do anything from hacking terminals to recording far-away conversations a la Splinter Cell’s Sam Fisher. Things even get a bit Batman when you infiltrate a jungle base using retractable parachute flaps built into your suit, giving you the appearance of a heavily-armed flying squirrel with stubble. It was at this point I burst out laughing over how far Treyarch were willing to make the future seem unrealistically ridiculous.

But just when things get too much (escaping in a Halo-style jeep from unmanned helicopters in a flooded city in Pakistan. for example), you’re whisked back to a more simpler time, where mobile phones were phones and nothing else. As both parallel stories progress, you are given a series of choices that will determine the outcome of the game. For example, at several stages in the game, you have the choice to kill or spare a character. Depending on what happens, different aspects of the final missions, and indeed the ending, will change. There are five endings in total, so it will take a few run-throughs to get the best ending. But that’s not all affecting the story.

Skynet, anyone?

Another first in the franchise is the inclusion of a series of “Strike Force” levels. These play out like a multiplayer match crossed with real time strategy. You take command of a mixed group of units (soldiers and A.I drones) on the field and can give orders and flick between each one via a remote controlled eye-in-the-sky satellite. There’s a single objective and you face a seemingly never-ending hoard of enemies. The aims of these missions range from base defence to assassination and can be pretty intense, seeing as you’re up against the clock and have only one chance to do them. It’s a fantastic addition to the game, but, like all the new features, seems too little too late to hide the fact that Call of Duty hasn’t made any major leaps or bounds since the first Modern Warfare was released. Other late features include complete weapon customisation before each single player level and the inclusion of a three-dimensional villain.

In the past, the villains included cardboard cut-out Russian nationalists (See Modern Warfare series), Ex-Nazi scientists (See Black Ops) and Adolf Hitler’s gang (See World War Two). All antagonists seemed to be nothing more than arbitrary bad guys with no more reason to commit evil than your typical Bond baddie. Menendez is a different case. Coming from a poor background and eventually forced into a life of crime, he witnesses his sister crippled and horrifically burned in a warehouse fire. After a botched raid on his personal village by a team led by Woods and Mason, his deformed sister perishes, leading to him seeking revenge against the US. At several points in the game you take control of Mendez, almost as a away of making you see things from his side, especially when you see him tending over his sister with a rich sense of pathos and regret. For the first time in the series, someone’s actually come up with a fairly adequate story.

Always with an evil beard

But there are a lot of moments where you feel like there wasn’t enough due care and effort to make this game as outstanding as it could have been. Predictably, the seems to be running off almost exactly the same engine as the first Modern Warfare – which was where the series reached perfection, but considering that was released in 2007, isn’t it time for Activision to hire someone to bring the series into this decade? Aside from the all-too occasional glitch, the single player hasn’t decided whether it wants to be a game or a film. Too many times has the game taken control over certain cinematic moments, as if it didn’t trust me to do the right thing. An infamous moment that stands out is the first encounter with Menendez.

After fighting countless Cuban soldiers and downing a Russian gunship from a moving barge, you find yourself sneaking through a forest and into a communication building. As soon as you step through the window, you sneak up to Menedez at his radio terminal, take him hostage, stand off against several soldiers before a grenade is thrown onto the floor and you’re forced to dive out the window. Not once during this little sojourn did I need to press anything. No linear path. No sudden quick time event to make sure I was still awake. Nothing. And there were too many moments where the game was ripped out of my hands and I had to watch like a good little boy.

Groovy...

And the violence. Oh, the violence. After the particularly dark introduction video where we see Menedez’s sister almost burned to death, the game get’s progressively grimmer. In the first level, you start next to an upturned vehicle looking into the fire looming behind the windshield. Suddenly, two deeply-singed hands bang against it, followed by the screaming charred faced of a man burning alive. It was a horrific sight that suddenly brought out that inner parent that secretly disapproves of everything you do. That voice that frowns at the ethically redundant things you choose to do in Grand Theft Auto games. You’ll know what I mean next time you watch one of the Saw movies and her dulcet tone mumbles in your ear.

After completing one of the five endings the game has to offer, there’s the multiplayer and zombie modes to bite into. I’ve played through the series since the beginning and the multiplayer has not changed in the last four years. The modes are all there, the upgrade and ranking system stands still like an old man confused where to go next, and the maps and speed make the whole experience as hectic and uncomfortable to play as usual. For fans of the series, there isn’t anything that can be really said for the online battles apart from, more of the same with more added on for good measure. I lasted two minutes into a match where a shouting American child yelled at me before firing a pistol across the room into my head. Instant kill. Instant quit. Instantly unimpressed.

What did impress me, however, was the new zombie mode. Sure, it’s the same system as it always been, but there is a new, interesting inclusion. As well as the typical survival mode, one of the maps has a sort-of mission mode attached. You’re plopped in a bus depot surrounded by zombies and you need to construct various tools and contraptions to proceed through the midnight nightmare. Once you escape the terminal, a robot controlled bus awaits you to take you to your next destination. What starts off as you’re typical defence against the living dead affair soon turns into a gauntlet towards what seems like a logical end to the game other than death by an infinite horde of shamblers. I was very impressed and it still remains more addictive than tobacco peanuts.

Sadly, the William Tell Overture did not play

A cheeky bonus was the music. Instead of hiring yet another big name film composer like Hans Zimmer, the guys at Treyarch went a bit metal and dragged on Mr Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor, in to provide his superb brand of emotionally charged industrial noise metal to the game. I have to say that his compositions are really worth a listen. Another surprise was hearing Skrillex in one of the levels in a nightclub. bizarre. All of the pieces set in the future gave it a real cyber-punk feel similar to the recent Deus Ex. As a science fiction fan, I was loving every second of the soundtrack.

Recently, it’s become very fashionable to denounce the Call of Duty series before even playing the most recent titles. Most of the criticism is deserved, but there are still aspects of the newer titles that should garner a bit more recognition. On the other hand, Battlefield 3 proved last year that a long running first person shooter series can knuckle down and leap forward to deliver a perfect videogame experience on both campaign mode and online multiplayer spheres. Now that the Modern Warfare and Black Ops branches have finally fallen off the tree, will Activision finally raise its hands, stand with a modest air of honesty and finally admit that the series has nothing new to offer? After all, just about every single 20th century conflict has been handled in the series and I’ll be buggered if I have to play through World War bloody Two again. There weren’t any mobile phones in that conflict for a start. Or Trent Reznor.

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The chances of anything hitting spot on are a million to one

by on Nov.05, 2012, under Review, Video Games

It’s always an invasion. Whenever we glimpse to the sky and consider that we may not be alone in the ever-expanding black sack of a universe we were burped into, many of us can’t help but think that anything light-yearing its way towards our blue-ish planet won’t have the intention of stopping by quickly to ask for directions to Alpha Centuri. Or even an interstellar version of Bill Oddie making a makeshift bush on the moon and gawping at us with some kind of laser-powered binoculars while narrating our scutterings to a half-interested daytime television crowd. No. It’s always an invasion. Whether it’s a gradual integration akin to the John Carpenter flick They Live or the galloping tripod massacre featured in the iconic War of the Worlds, Aliens rarely tend to come in peace. Or stop by to phone home.

Google had their part to play, too

It’s the near future and Earth is being invaded by a mysterious alien force for the first time in recorded history. Rather than arming Jeff Goldblum with a Macbook and asking Will Smith rather nicely to fly a capture spaceship at them, mankind has already grouped together in secret to unleash the XCOM project – a multi-national covert organisation designated with the task of eliminating any alien threat to the blue and green planet we hold so dear. A council of international representatives has just appointed a new commander to the project (played by you, of course) who will oversee the development of XCOM headquarters, manage research & development projects relating to alien technology, as well as commanding a team of hardened soldiers armed with an offensive amount of weaponry.

XCOM Enemy Unknown is yet another remake of a classic Nineties game, but this time, it’s not being converted into a cookie-cutter first person shooter. The original was a combination of both a turn-based strategy game and a base management simulator – both of which have been respectfully preserved in this new edition. Your ultimate objective for the entire game is to repel alien invaders for attacking Earth. But it’s not that simple. It never is. For a start, this is a publicly funding project. Each nation on earth has pooled money and resources into this operation, so there is a bureaucratic numbers game that must be obeyed. If alien attacks in Mexico rise to an alarming amount with little intervention from XCOM, you’ll have to look for your monthly pesos elsewhere. Not only that, but you’ll regularly receive multiple UFO encounters in a single in-game day, putting pressure on you to decide which country least deserves to be left at the mercy of an extra-terrestrial force. Just like a juggling act, you have to think two moves ahead.

The Thin Men look suspiciously like Dr Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory

The game is split into two modes of play. The main mode is managing your base as the days flutter by. You’re given a monthly budget to spend on upgrades, new soldiers equipment and anything else that contributes to alien death. Set up like some kind of bizarre ant farm, the base trails deep under the planet’s crust and is split into various sections. You have your hangar that allows the transport ship and your interceptor fights to launch out to anywhere in the world, there’s the troop barracks and, amongst the rest of the base, is your laboratory and your workshop. As the game progresses you’ll receive a large collection of alien artefacts, corpses and concepts for new technology. Your laboratory allows a team of scientists to examine your growing collection of alien junk in order to adopt, adapt and improve your fighting force. The workshop operates hand in hand with the lab to produce the new equipment. Before long, your team of basically equipped soldiers will be a heavily armed squad with flying suits and alien plasma technology.

In order to produce these wonderful, you will need to recover alien technology, as well as capture the odd extraterrestrial, in various missions occurring randomly throughout the months. At first, they’ll be basic abduction investigation missions, but as the campaign for Earth heats up, you’ll find yourself defending cities from alien terrorist cells, raiding downed UFOs and escorting VIPs to safety. Not straying too far from the original’s method of play, the missions take a turn-based structure. Each one opens with your VTOL troop transport craft dramatically landing into the theatre of combat with your team spilling out, guns at the ready. A fog of war prevents you from getting a good grasp of the area of operation, so care is needed when advancing the team as one wrong move and your recently promoted lieutenant could end up deep-throating a volley of plasma before being able to yell for back-up.

Different skills open up advanced tactics

The tense sudden death feel of the original has been replicated with perfection. You’ll see yourself losing your temper as an enemy instantly downs your well-covered soldier with a pin-point shot, and that’s just the first mission in and you’ve barely had time to admire your guy’s shiny battle armour. Thankfully, there’s a new system in place that keeps the game flowing at a good pace, so you’ll be able to lose your temper quicker. Each turn gives you two moves per person. You can use both moves to allow the guy to sprint, or you can play it safe and move half the distance, allowing you to use the remaining move to fire on the enemy, heal your team or stand guard. Sometimes, you won’t have the luxury of carefully marching your team out with care. If it’s one of the dreaded terror missions, you’re racing against the enemy to save as many civilians as possible. And I don’t joke when I say that you’ll be lucky to get a quarter of them out alive.

Rather than sending an endless horde of samey bug-eyed monsters at you, the alien army consists of different races working together. In the early missions, you’ll find yourself trading fire with Sectoids (your garden variety grey alien with shiny black eyes) and before long you’ll find yourself rethinking your tactics to take on the juggernaut-like wraiths known as the Mutons. Each alien species brings their own significant traits to the battlefield that require you to adopt a new strategy each time. One particularly fiendish creation comes to mind. The Chrysalid is an armour-plated quadruped that gallops across the battlefield like a Geiger horse. Rather than wield a gun, it zips up to people and slashes them with a fatal attack. Only once you’ve researched and manufactured the best armour in the game does your team surviving a close quarter fight with these spindly nightmares. But it doesn’t end there. Should a human fall to one of these ghoulish bastards, they come back as a zombie in the next turn that roams the game beating people to death before a newborn Chrysalid rips them apart from within, starting the unholy cycle all over again. Until you can kill the zombie in time, of course.

Built like a crude platitude

While the game is extremely immersive, there are a few glitches and problems that pop out of nowhere to spoil your experience slightly. First of all is the cover system. Well…not the cover system itself, but what happens when someone takes cover. When someone fires at someone in cover, the bullets tend to fly right through the wall. This glaring error is made more obvious with the added action-cam pointing out why this looks so bad. Maybe they have armour piercing weaponry, but it ends up looking like rushed design. Another problem lies the un-skippable moments of the game. Sometimes, the enemy’s turn seems to take an age while you impatiently wait for an entire team to scamper around the playing field before you can do them the discourtesy of stopping them from scampering anymore. many times I found myself chewing the keyboard in a desperate attempt to let the game know I’m losing my patience. Long-time XCOM fans will be disgruntled to hear that the panic system is still in play. Should a member of your team become intimidated or witness the quick death or a comrade, there’s a chance they’ll lose their grip on the mission and throw a sissy fit that results in them either running in panic with arms waving, or firing wildly in the vague direction of combat. If the latter happens, sometimes fate smiles upon you and an enemy is accidentally killed. Other times, your stressed rookie shoots the highest ranking member of the squad in the face. And that’s IF your guy hits anything, as each shot has a percentage chance of hitting anything. Too many times have I seen a soldier get the drop on an alien, only to shoot wide despite being close enough to cuddle it. It’s all the luck of the draw in the end.

XCOM Enemy Unknown is a lovingly re-imagined game that pays a great deal of homage to the DOS classic while tinkering with the core gameplay with a large amount of respect. Fans of the old game will welcome the HD reworking of the older foes from the floaters cyborg masks to the flying discs added array of firepower. The super shiny visuals mixed with the impeccably cinematic approach just shows that in the right hands, a remake can almost surpass the original. Do take care though. I forgot to mention that is ten times more addictive than sugar coated smack. For a week, I didn’t have any free time to myself until the end credits crept up the screen and I breathed a sigh of relief before slouching into a pile of junk food containers and piss jars. If this game is widely played, we really don’t stand a chance against alien invasion.

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