We’re halfway through our belated coverage of the EB Expo, with Lachlan yesterday delivering his verdict on the shooters of the show. Thankfully for me, I might add as the genre generally doesn’t get me giddy. I thoroughly enjoyed ploughing through the adventure games on offer, however, though it must be mentioned that the line was too long for me to be bothered with Dying Light; Lachlan had the patience for that one, though.
We had some trouble in working out a division between action and adventure games, so you might disagree with those that we’ve slotted into the two different articles. As a primer, we’ll be covering Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Ratchet and Clank: Nexus, Thief and Dying Light in this selection. These were four very different games – the combination of which shows off the variety to be found within the overarching genre and how diversity is very much alive in the modern video game market.
In development at Eidos Montreal (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) since at least 2009, Thief is a reboot of the revolutionary series. For those unfamiliar with the earlier iterations, it is conceptually very similar to last year’s Dishonored, sans the mystical elements. It follows Garrett, a master thief, who returns to his home city, named The City, to find it in the throes of a plague and ruled by a tyrant known only as The Baron. Impacting against this is a rebellion, led by a charismatic, verbose figure known as Orion, who is stirring the general populace into uprising. The wider role of Garrett in the story is currently unknown, and no new details regarding it were forthcoming at the show. We were treated to a pre-recorded hands-off demonstration of one of the levels.
It occurred somewhere near the middle of the game, with Garrett attempting to break into the mansion of The Baron in order to steal a priceless artefact known as ‘The Heart of the Lion’. It featured an expansive environment, encompassing building and the gardens surrounding it. One of the first things to be noted is that the level featured a optional side mission to pickpocket the leader of The Baron’s personal guard, who roamed about the garden. This task was not undertaken, but a wide array of gameplay mechanics were shown off nonetheless. The goal was to make one’s way through the garden. Although the demo displayed a generally quiet method, it was made clear that it was possible to fight your way through, if that is your preference.
Within moments of the demo kicking off, it was apparent that Garrett is a much more agile and aware character than Dishonored’s Corvo. His ability to climb to a higher point was one of the first things put on display, but the viability of a higher-level approach was not explored. Garrett also has the ability to peek around corners to get an idea of what is ahead. It wasn’t made clear whether he is visible to enemies when doing this, but it would appear not. With light and darkness playing a major role in your visibility to the AI, a small circle was visible in the UI that reflected how easily you could be seen, with it being transparent when in plain sight and clouded black when invisible. It’s a smart inclusion. We also saw the Focus mechanic in action, which heightens Garrett’s reflexes and allows him to pull off some incredible feats.
One of the highlights of the demo was the agency that it appeared to hand to the player. You have the ability to influence certain aspects of the environment, such as dousing candles with either direct action or through the use of a water arrow, and the freedom to deal with enemies in any number of ways. Having made his way through the garden, a series of puzzles awaited the player within the mansion, as he had first to find a secret room, and unlock the secret of a sarcophagus before finding the gem and completing the mission. All things considered, it was an invigorating demo that acted as a counterpoint to the bombast of most of the show, and proved that Thief could very well have what it takes to be one of the first killer apps of the next generation and one of the best games of 2014.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
The latest entry in Ubisoft’s flagship series acts a precursor to the previous release, following Connor Kenway’s grandfather, Edward, in his halcyon days as a buccaneer in the Caribbean. Specific details of the story are, as ever, scarce, but it has been confirmed that Kenway will interact with famous pirates of that era, including Blackbeard, Anne Bonny and Calico Jack. It’s reasonable to assume that the mythology that Ubisoft has built up around the franchise, involving the Apples of Eden and the clandestine war between the Assassins and the Templars, will play a role in the narrative. In addition, Desmond’s role in the ‘present’ timeline has come to an end, with a new, currently unnamed Abstergo employee stepping into his shoes and reliving Desmond’s ancestral memories via “the cloud”.
Running for approximately ten minutes, the demo was playable on the PlayStation 4 and comprised a segment of one of the game’s naval missions. The goal, which I failed to complete in the allotted time, was to bring down a pair of artillery towers of a sea-side fort, while fending off a number of enemy ships that were floating about in the vicinity. It was a thrilling snapshot, though I must confess to feeling out of my depth. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t managed to keep up with the Assassin’s Creed release schedule and so didn’t have the opportunity to hone my skills with the sea-faring segments of the third mainline entry. Learning to control the ship adequately in such a short timeframe was no mean feat, and when you add the combat mechanics into the mix, it proved to be almost overwhelming.
Even so, as my time with the demo drew to a close, I found myself growing accustomed to the way that all of the different aspects fit together, and beginning to actually put up a fight in the face of stiff competition. I found the controls to be a little too loose and slightly unresponsive, though this may be a conscious decision on the part of the developers to offer a balance between enjoyment and a sense of realism. This concept of 17th century naval warfare is a very interesting one, though it feels as though there is much further to go before it feels… right. Unfortunately, there was no option to take Edward either swimming or ashore, so I can’t say how that stacks up at this point.
From a technical perspective, Black Flag was solid, with visuals that go a long way towards showcasing the capabilities of the PlayStation 4. The voice work that preceded the demo, though only a brief example, seemed to be of a high calibre. Finally, it must be noted that the high seas felt suitably untamed with the Jackdaw being subject to the tumult of the waves, though I was less impressed by the fact that crashing headlong into enemy ships was more like riding in a Dodgem Car than the destructive affair that one would expect. All things considered, it feels like a very solid product that wants to put too much focus on the novelty of the experience, rather than what Assassin’s Creed originally felt like.
Ratchet and Clank: Nexus
In recent times, Insomniac has experimented with the core formula of their hallowed Ratchet and Clank franchise, first turning it into a co-operative platformer and then into a tower defense hybrid with All 4 One and QForce respectively, but they return the series to its roots with Nexus, a shorter, ‘budget’ epilogue to the Future arc. The deuteragonists are escorting twin criminals to a prison when a jailbreak occurs and they find themselves stranded on a planet in an abandoned sector of the galaxy. As you might expect, things escalate and they wind up facing an inter-dimensional crisis that threatens the entire universe.
I only had a brief time with this demo, electing to hand the controller over to the polite commentator behind me after about ten minutes, but that was more than enough to hammer home the message that Nexus will be instantly familiar to fans of the series. Ratchet moved with his regular agility, jumping, double-jumping and gliding with the assistance of Clank’s propellers, while the faithful wrench was back with all of its old crate-smashing efficiency. There was only a limited array of weapons on offer, with the Omni-Blaster and Fusion Grenades being the only two that were actually offensive. In addition to these though, Insomniac’s patented creativity was on show.
The Nightmare Box and The Repulsor were also present in Ratchet’s arsenal, and they both offer a degree of player agency to the proceedings, with the former distracting enemies and the latter hoisting them up into the air for a time. Combined with the more traditional weapons, it was a recipe for smiles. The presence of gravity as the gameplay ‘catch’ was also on display here – primarily in the form of the new Grav-Tether Gadget, which allows players to create tractor beams between set points. It’s a simple enough concept that should give rise to ever-more inventive puzzles as the game wears on, as you are capable of setting up more than one at a time, and the demo hinted at the depth that could be inherent in the idea. I also got to attempt one of the Clank sections, but I was thrown into it headlong and failed to work out how to interact with it in all but the most basic manner.
If I’m being completely honest, it seems like a visual step back from A Crack in Time, which looked, at times, like a Pixar film. Whether that’s because it is an early build is up for debate, but when a game is as capable as putting a smile on your face as this one, the visual prowess (or lack thereof) takes a backseat. I witnessed a single cutscene, and even there, Insomniac’s patented humour was present, so that should not be anything to worry about. This one will definitely appeal to fans of the series, but it doesn’t seek to expand its audience. Take that however you will, but I loved every second.
At the Warner Bros. booth was Techland’s latest zombie apocalypse survival game Dying Light. A spiritual successor of the Dead Island series, Dying Light attempts to merge the zombpocalypse with an urban environment, via freerunning. It appears to be a perhaps slightly more serious take on the topic compared to Dead Island, with an overall grimmer feel.
The world definitely feels darker, with quite a few of the undead lumbering about. They’re satisfyingly dumb and harmless by themselves, but, en masse, they can turn you into little bits quite quickly. Melee weapons felt powerful. Combatting one or two zombies was a simple matter, although zombies were somewhat damage sponges. When faced with a horde, your best recourse is to flee for your life.
This is done with an emphasis on freerunning. Scrambling up conveniently placed boxes and crates out of the grasping hands of the hungry biters to reach higher ground, or jumping across rooftops and vaulting fences – the environment is the biggest obstacle to aid in your survival. The parkour elements seemed a little sticky for my liking. It didn’t have the fluidity of something like Mirror’s Edge, with button presses for jumping and climbing seeming either slow, or timed specifically a little late. The protagonist’s movement lacked much of the elegance that a game focused on movement and running.
The freerunning is helped somewhat by clever level design. Most nooks and crannies can be reached some way or another, and it’s not always straight forward. The one map I played – a sort of ruined semi-industrial/storage area was a daylight map, seeing me leaping from building to metal shipping crate to broken bridge. On my way around the map I happened across a group of deadheads banging on a wardrobe, from which plaintive cries for help issued. Sure enough, upon beheading the zombies, I opened the closet and released a grateful survivor. This act issued me points, although I didn’t get to spend them on anything.
It’s not only zombies that are a threat. Upon reaching the objective that I had been directed to reach, I discovered a number of living people decked out in protective gear. In the resulting scuffle I managed to kill them and execute them and search their dead bodies for whatever they were holding. Their attack patterns were more menacing than the zombies, with a purpose behind their attacks. Actual combat with attackers broke up the cannon fodder routine of killing zombies, although the AI wasn’t the most complex I’ve ever seen.
Dying Light is looking pretty decent so far. It’s pretty, it’s tense, and night time is promising to be quite frantic. It currently needs polish to the movement mechanics, and combat needs a touch up too. Hopefully it will be more hit than miss, and improve upon the previous Dead Island games, but only time will tell.