Monday, December 31, 2012

Upcoming Games Of 2013 - Part 1

It's time for my annual round-up of the best-looking PC games that (in theory) should be gracing store shelves in 2013.

First out of the gate...

Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Expected: 26th March 2013

The third game in the BioShock series, BioShock Infinite is one of the most anticipated titles scheduled to be released in 2013.  Originally slated to be released in October 2012, Irrational initially pushed the game back to February 2013 before announcing a further short delay to March 2013 just a few weeks ago.

Whilst BioShock 2 was a direct sequel to the original BioShock, Irrational were not extensively involved in BioShock 2's development, so this will be their first release since the original game.  It is not a direct sequel (or actually prequel, since it is set in an earlier time period), but Infinite's lead designer Ken Levine has said that he considers "BioShock" to be more of a method of giving the playing multiple tools to solve objectives in a fantastic setting, rather than being tied to a specific storyline or set of individuals.

You play as Booker DeWitt, a disgraced former federal agent turned private detective, who is hired to locate a woman known as Elizabeth said to be captive aboard a floating city known as Columbia.  This technological marvel was originally built by the United States government to be a showcase of its artistic and scientific excellence, but which over time turned into something quite different, before being lost entirely.  Your employers give you the location of Columbia and the means to get aboard, but stress that the rest is down to you.

Since the game is set in 1912 then expect a fantasy steampunk setting, coupled with an assortment of weapons and unlockable "magical" abilities.  In the original BioShock these were known as "plasmids", but in Infinite are called "vigors".  All I know is that if Infinite is half as good as the original BioShock then it will be a game I would be willing to break my (right) arm off to play.

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Expected: 12th March 2013

The second installment of StarCraft II (following 2010's Wings of Liberty), Heart of the Swarm will concentrate on the zerg race, but will include smaller changes for both the Terrans and Protoss.

The plot is said to concentrate around Sarah Kerrigan and her issues in attempting to lead the zerg following the events of Wings of Liberty.  With Wings of Liberty being almost universally acclaimed (it has a current rating of 93 on Metacritic, one of the highest-rated PC games of all time) then the pressure is on Blizzard to retain their traditionally high production values whilst bringing worthwhile changes and modifications to the game.  Following the mixed reception to Diablo III earlier this year, Blizzard may feel they have more to prove than usual.

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Publisher: THQ
Expected: 5th March 2013

Based on the Comedy Central TV show, everyone's favourite fourth-graders are getting their own triple-A RPG, based on the South Park episode "The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers" (which you can watch online here at the official South Park Studios site).  There have been several other South Park games in previous years, of unfortunately quite variable quality, and this will be the first made by a major studio.  Obsidian are on shaky ground with me for the very average Alpha Protocol from 2010, so hopefully this will be (much) better than that.

THQ have been having some financial issues recently, which led to them filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month.  This isn't expected to affect their day-to-day operations, but you never can tell for sure until the ink is dry on deals like this.  The game itself looks to have captured the 2D art style of the show, and some of the brief periods of gameplay that I've seen has looked very interesting and reminiscent of a normal episode.  Hopefully the financial issues do not affect its release to any great extent, and the game comes out as scheduled.

Developer: Bethesda Softworks
Publisher: ZeniMax Online Studios
Expected: 2H 2013

Based on the Elder Scrolls games that first saw the light of day almost twenty years ago, TESO is Bethesda's first foray into the MMO genre in an attempt to bring several single-player games into an MMO universe in a similar way that Blizzard brought World of Warcraft into being on the back of several Warcraft games.

TESO is set a thousand years before The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the most recent release and, coincidentally, one of the highest-rated games of the entire series.  Not a great deal is known about the game right now, other than it will have three factions (which for me is an underused mechanic that I am very much in favour of), each containing three races: Daggerfall Covenant (Breton humans, Redguard humans, and Orcs); Ebonheart Pact (Nord humans, Dark Elves, and Argonians [reptilian humanoids]); and the Aldmeri Dominion (High Elves, Wood Elves, and the Khajiit [feline humanoids]).  There will be player classes, but none have yet been revealed.

The game's director, Matt Firor, was previously heavily involved in Dark Age of Camelot, a highly-regarded MMO released by Mythic in 2001, so I am hopeful that his pedigree will elevate TESO into more than just a cheap tie-in to Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim.  Beta sign-ups are expected to go up shortly and "2013" is all Bethesda will say when pressed for a release date.

That's all for now; be sure to check out part two in a few days time.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Honey, I'm Home

Well the game's been out for a month or so now, so I figured it was time to give this highly anticipated (by me) game the once-over.  Could SOE pull something like this off?  Does it accurately capture the spirit of the original?  Why am I asking you all these questions?  Read on, gentle gamer, and all will become clear...

I'm sure I don't need to rehash the original PlanetSide here for most people, but the short version is that it was a sci-fi themed MMOFPS released by SOE in 2003.  For various reasons it wasn't a breakout hit, although is well regarded by the few people that actually played it.  Fast forward to today, with server technology in a much better place, most serious PC gamers having powerful rigs and Internet connections, and the free-to-play elephant looming significantly over the room, and all of the relevant factors seemed ripe for SOE to try this thing a second time.

PlanetSide 2 is amazing.  There we go, I feel better now that I've said it.  Don't get me wrong, it still has its issues (see below), but for the most part it is a breathtaking game that puts something out there you simply cannot get anywhere else.  PlanetSide 2 is essentially the only game where you can duke it out with hundreds of other players in an FPS environment, in realtime, without instancing.  None of Global Agenda's simultaneous instancing nonsense, or MAG's 256 vs. 256; no, this is the grown-up version of those two games, refined, distilled and available to play - for the low, low price of $0 down and $0 a month - without needing to pass "Go" or collect $200.

Graphically, PlanetSide 2 is perhaps the best game I have seen to date.  This visual fidelity comes courtesy of SOE's brand new ForgeLight engine, developed entirely in-house for their next-generation games (of which PS2 is the first), which is responsible for jaw-dropping vistas: blinding sunsets, wintery tundras and arid jungles.  I still find it difficult to believe that SOE were able to develop something this good, and that it's entirely a DirectX9 engine.  Unfortunately you do need a powerful system to be able to run the game on its highest settings (AMD processors seem to have particular issues, judging from the forums) and so a good i5 / i7 and graphics card is highly recommended.  The engine does scale back for older machines though, and SOE have stated that anything up to around five years old should be able to run it on reduced settings.

PlanetSide 2's scale cannot be understated.  Up to 2,000 players can be on one continent simultaneously, meaning it is entirely possible to have hundreds versus hundreds in the game's largest encounters.  Watching tracers fly through the sky at night, with tanks, infantry and aircraft on all sides is amazing to watch, and never gets old.

There are six classes in the game (Light Assault, Heavy Assault, Engineer, Medic, MAX and Infiltrator) and you can switch to them on the fly at any equipment terminal or when you respawn.  There are multiple paths out there for almost any kind of FPS gamer.  If you prefer ground assault then Light Assault (jetpacks!) or Heavy Assault is for you; if support-style play is more your thing then there is the Combat Medic (heals / res) and Engineer (vehicle repair, mines); the Infiltrator can cloak to help line up the perfect headshot for their sniper rifle (as well as hacking enemy equipment and vehicle terminals); and finally MAXes (standing for Mobile Armoured eXoskeleton) are basically walking tanks, and can specialise in anti-infantry, anti-vehicular or anti-aircraft weaponry that is strapped to their arms.  Whether you want to be on the ground, in the air, manning the front lines or supporting from the back, there is a role for you in PlanetSide 2.  The game is entirely what you make of it.

That's the good, what about the bad?

Well, it can sometimes be hard to find a fight.  Hotspots show up on the map, which are meant to be areas of active engagements, but more often than not you will go to one of these and find it's a couple of guys deathmatching each other, or worse, everyone has moved on from a recent fight and there's no one around at all.  It makes no sense that you can see enemy activity on the map but not friendly activity, and more than once I have cried out, wanting my "Reveal Friendlies" option that was available back in PS1 to be in PS2 as well.

In addition, the metagame is somewhat nebulous right now.  By "locking" a continent (owning all the bases on it, excluding the enemy warpgates) you gain a 10% reduction to either your mechanized, aircraft, or infantry costs, but beyond that there is no real reason to continue fighting on a continent once you have locked it, or, indeed, to defend it.  Many fights seem to be an exercise in zerging, where you load the continent with your faction, capture it quickly and then move on to fresh pastures, like a group of particularly hungry piranha.  The endgame clearly needs work, and SOE have identified this as one of their core issues to be addressed in early updates to the game.

Speaking of which, John Smedley (President of SOE) has said that the devs intend to release the initial draft of their plan for PS2's future in January, and that they will consider modifications and changes to it based on community feedback.  Ordinarily I would usually just consider this developer waffle, but since I was in the beta for months and saw first hand how they changed significant portions of the game due to tester feedback then I am more confident that changes will be made if enough of the community asks for them.  I would certainly expect to hear news of future continents in January's update (Searhus, the volcanic continent from PS1, is slated to be the next released in PS2) as well as talk of further vehicle and player customisations and perhaps even details of new vehicles (combat buggies are said to be coming in down the line).

The best experience in PS2 comes from playing alongside other people.  Trying to "lone wolf" it is theoretically possible, especially as an Infiltrator (who can cloak for short periods), but playing with friends is really the best way to get the most out of the game.  Finding a good outfit (PS2's version of guilds) opens up the game to a much greater extent, and seeing several outfit tanks / aircraft / ground transports all rolling together is a sight to behold.

The real question is: should you play it?  And the answer to this is overwhelmingly: yes.  The game's free-to-play nature removes the main barrier to entry, and so there is no reason not to download it and try it out for yourself.  It's not a perfect game, but it comes pretty damn close in my book.  With the right post-release support (read: not how they dealt with the original PlanetSide) this could be a game that runs for years and years.

After almost a decade, the king of the MMOFPS has rightly assumed his throne once again.  What do you have, Blizzard?