Monthly Archives: June 2017

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier review

Walking Dead main image

So much of episodic graphic adventure The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is right on the money. Following a group of mostly engaging characters, it tells an enjoyable story of family and loyalty brought to life by the striking, cel shaded art style that’s become synonymous with developer Telltale Games. It’s even got one hell of an ace up its sleeve in the form of everyone’s second favourite teen survivalist (after The Last of Us’ Ellie, of course), Clementine.

In fact, notwithstanding a couple of minor problems here and there, it’s difficult to pinpoint any truly glaring flaws with the finished article. Rather, like The Walking Dead: Season 2 and The Walking Dead: Michonne mini-series before it, A New Frontier’s biggest problem is an inescapable sense déjà vu.

Simply put, you can’t help but feel you’ve experienced many of these scenarios before.

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Clem, like any self-respecting American teen, armed with a deadly weapon

Set roughly 4 years after the undead apocalypse ravaged the planet, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier chronicles the journey of protagonist Javier Garcia, who, along with sister-in-law Kate, nephew Gabe and niece Mariana, lives a peripatetic existence rather than settling in a single, potentially vulnerable location. That is, until a misunderstanding in episode one embroils them in a feud with the New Frontier; a community of not entirely unscrupulous survivors inhabiting the ruins of Richmond, Virginia, led by a tetrarchy which includes Javi’s estranged, hot-headed older brother David.

Over the course of the next 5 episodes, the narrative focuses on the Garcia family’s attempts to extricate themselves from the ministrations of this insidious and fractured society, and Javi’s desperation to keep his adopted family together.

When reduced in this way to its most basic form, the main premise hardly exudes originality, but when you factor in the various sub-plots – the most intriguing of which being the Javi-Kate-David love triangle – A New Frontier possesses enough to keep the average player invested in the tale. This is despite the odd misstep here and there, such as the actions of amiable EMT Elanor at the conclusion of episode 4 which, bizarrely, don’t appear to be affected by your previous behaviour towards her, Gabe’s unconvincing transition to adulthood or the presence of overtly ruthless thug Badger in a peaceful settlement like Richmond.

Walking Dead image 2

Clearly, the undead are also susceptible to teen angst

The absorbing if inconsistent narrative is mirrored in the cast of characters. Javi, Kate and David are welcome additions to the series, each bringing something a little bit different to proceedings. Revealed to have been a rather self-centred and irresponsible ex-baseball professional prior to Armageddon via regular flashback sequences, Javi doesn’t exactly fit the mould of a typical Walking Dead protagonist (not once does he utter “this is who we are now”), yet he still manages to shield his loved ones from the horrors that surround them. Kinder and more prudent, though similarly unprepared for parenthood, Kate resonates with the player in the same way as Sasha and Snow White from Tales from the Borderlands and The Wolf Among Us respectively, in that you’re rooting for her from start to finish and acutely aware of the perils she faces on a daily basis. Lastly, despite his fiercely protective nature which at times manifests itself in brutal fashion, David ultimately comes across as a decent man who’ll do whatever it takes to keep his family and friends safe.

However, aside from diminutive amazon Ava and enigmatic drifter Jesus (a familiar face to anyone who’s read the comic books or watched the most recent television series), the rest of the supporting cast don’t cut such distinctive figures, feeling rather like generic, updated versions of previous characters. That being said, the closest thing to a poorly designed character in the entire season is only really the stereotypically argumentative, pissy teen Gabe; a young man who’s seemingly oblivious to humanity’s plight and totally unappreciative of Javi and Kate’s efforts to defend him against the undead plague.

I’m aware I’ve only mentioned fan-favourite Clem in passing up to this point. Unfortunately, this represents her relegation to a supporting role in the events of A New Frontier – much to the chagrin of some players. It’s true there’re a handful of flashbacks that provide you with the opportunity to guide her actions directly and discover what she’s been doing since Season 2; the problem is these sections are as infrequent as they are brief. It’s a real shame Telltale Games’ decided not to explore her character arc in greater depth during these segments; watching her evolution from philanthropic adolescent to the jaded and pragmatic survivor Javi encounters in the first episode would undoubtedly have been a fascinating tale.

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Farage as he would appear to Shallow Hal

Conversely, if Telltale’s failure to create a truly original story is a little disappointing, the lack of anything other than minor refinements to the tried and tested gameplay mechanics that so perfectly suit this style of game is extremely pleasing.

The ability to cultivate your own (relatively) unique story remains the biggest draw and, from that perspective, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier matches the very best Telltale titles; even Tales from the Borderlands. The signature dialogue wheels allow you to develop Javi and, to a lesser extent, Clementine’s character’s in vastly different ways from one playthrough to another, consequently changing the course of the narrative, their personal relationships etc. etc. Meanwhile, whether a result of the studio’s years of experience or the improved processing power of current gen hardware, the momentous binary choices that are the fulcrum of each episode likewise have the potential to generate fundamental adjustments to the wider story. For instance, one character (I won’t say who) died towards the end of episode 2 on my first playthrough, but survived the entire season on my second leading to completely new exchanges and situations, vastly increasing the replayability of this otherwise linear title.

Semi-regular quick time events – press X to crush this zombie’s head, press Y to shoot an approaching bandit, that kind of thing – affords some semblance of action amidst a torrent of conversations, though certainly not enough to impress anyone who prefers more bombastic fair. Other than that, you’re restricted to walking around specific, claustrophobically small locations here and there that, aside from the odd bit of expository dialogue, merely delay the start of the next big event.

That’s not to say A New Frontier doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Although I didn’t try it myself, crowd play (making its Walking Dead debut) is a thoroughly interesting concept that does exactly what it says on the tin: it enables let’s players to cede control of decision making to the audience in one of two ways. Firstly, the host can either reserve the right to have final say on all decisions if they don’t trust their viewers; secondly, a majority vote determines how events will unfold. Whichever option you select, crowd play’s greatest attribute is its ability to provide the kind of community experience that’s such an integral part of all Telltale titles.

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Jesus and his disciples

Elsewhere, though not quite as captivating as Firewatch or Life is Strange, the familiar cel shaded style and vibrant colour palette brilliantly convey the desolation of human civilisation. Cities lay in ruins; the rusted shells of cars litter the landscape and nature has already begun to reassert its dominance over the earth. Besides, given The Walking Dead’s comic book roots, it’s a particularly appropriate aesthetic choice.

Appealing as the visuals are, it does limit the quality of the character animations. Javi’s gait is comically unnatural, his movements incongruously jaunty, whilst the combat animations are pretty inelegant and feeble in execution. Fortunately, the largely impressive voice acting and excellent sound design helps to compensate for the problem. I’m especially fond of the bleeding effect at the edge of screen and the swell of the orchestra whenever you find yourself in a jam, a feature that never fails to ramp up the tension.

There are a few minor, almost trivial glitches worth mentioning. For one thing, the game struggles to render zombies en mass every once in a while, causing a touch of rubber banding. Additionally,  don’t be surprised if you see a recently deceased character appear suddenly in the background of a transitional scene at certain points although, if I’m honest, the latter is actually quite amusing, if immersion-breaking.

Episode length, on the other hand, is a slightly bigger issue. Whereas the component parts of Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones: Season One would take a diligent player approximately 2 hours to complete, each of A New Frontier’s 5 episodes can be finished in a leisurely 90-minutes; hardly a reasonable return for your £25 season pass. It’s so frustrating when you think how straightforward it would’ve been for the developer to add an extra 30+ minutes with expanded Clementine sections or a couple of additional sequences.

I know they say you should always leave them wanting more in the entertainment business, but this is just ridiculous.

At the conclusion of episode 5, fans are reassured that Clementine’s story will be continued in an upcoming, as yet unannounced sequel. And, while I’m reasonably excited for this next chapter, I personally think the series would benefit from an extended break. Much as I enjoy all things Walking Dead, like the long-running television programme, things are beginning to feel somewhat stale and predictable.

Let’s be honest, chances are Season 4 (as I hereby dub it) will revolve around Clementine and a new group of more or less good people battling to fend off a rival gang of unscrupulous individuals, culminating in the death of at least one close companion.

For this more than any other reason, Telltale’s latest foray into the zombie apocalypse just about scrapes an 8/10.

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5 insufferable video game companions

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I wish you could be my companion

Where would the majority of video game protagonists be without their companions? If not for Wheatley’s guidance (albeit incompetent), Portal 2’s Chell would probably have succumbed to GLaDOS’ scheming long before the end credits rolled. Likewise, it’s almost certain Joel’s life would have ended prematurely and violently if he hadn’t met Ellie at the beginning of The Last of Us; the surrogate daughter that gives him a reason to keep going.

Sometimes, however, whether due to bad programming, writing or a bit of both, a title’s hero or heroine is weighed down by an attendant who inadvertently mars an otherwise enjoyable gaming experience.

Here follows – in no particular order – 5 such insufferable video game companions.

Roman Bellic – Grand Theft Auto IV

GTA IV

Roman (left) not badgering you about darts for once

Anyone who’s played GTA IV for any length of time will no doubt remember groaning with exasperation as, during burgeoning gangster Niko’s illicit adventures around Liberty City, his irksome cousin Roman calls for the 50th time that day, begging you to join him for a few jars at the nearest bar or a quick game of ten-pin bowling at the local alley.

It might sound innocuous enough, pleasant even, however, Roman seems to wait until you’re just about to start a mission on the other side of the New York-inspired metropolis before calling.

Worse still, should you reject any of his incessant requests – because, you know, you’re trying to establish a criminal empire whilst simultaneously protecting Roman from the loan sharks that want to shatter his kneecaps – his passive aggressive, peevish reaction leaves you feeling both irritated and strangely guilty. And, on those rare occasions when he’s not pestering you over the phone, he’s getting himself kidnapped by gangs of heavily-armed thugs.

After 40+ hours of his nonsense, it does at least make the crucial choice at the end of GTA IV pretty straightforward: take the deal and enjoy watching Roman get whacked on his wedding day.

Winston Smith (The Butler) – Tomb Raider 2

Released in 1997, I was a child when first I heard the unnerving rattle of Winston’s tea tray as he stalked video game doyenne Lara Croft around the grounds of Tomb Raider 2’s Croft Manor.

Restricted to the mansion itself, he’s only really a problem when you’re exploring this central hub/training area and thus isn’t as much of an annoyance as the other people on this list. Despite that, he remains the most memorable feature of the entire game; although, to be fair, that’s probably because 8-year-old me didn’t have the wit or dexterity to get past the first level, let alone complete the entire story. In other words, I spent more time with Winston than any of Tomb Raider 2’s other characters.

Still, Winston clearly had an impact on countless other players around the world. Perform a cursory search on YouTube today and you’ll find dozens of examples of one of the most popular player-created challenges of the time; locking him away in Lara’s meat fridge. I myself tried this once or twice, hoping it’d spare me from his intrusive solicitations.

Aware of this little side-objective, the developer provided players with a more aggressive solution to the problem in 1998 sequel Tomb Raider 3, allowing Lara to bring her signature pair of pistols to bear on the terrifying if well-meaning old butler.

Donald Duck – Kingdom Hearts

Kingdom Hearts

If only Donald was as silent as this picture

Unnecessarily convoluted narrative aside, I’m a big fan of the Kingdom Hearts series. Boasting enjoyable combat, a mixture of faithfully recreated fairy tale worlds and the cream of the crop from both Final Fantasy and Disney canon. What’s not to love?

Donald Duck.

Possessing a voice so irritating it makes Janet Street-Porter sound as melodious as Morgan Freeman by comparison, every word uttered by the maddening mallard is as painful as being forced to listen to an auditorium full of blackboards being scratched.

Unfortunately, as a powerful red mage, Donald is probably the most useful party member available to you; in the original Kingdom Hearts, anyway. Elemental spells like ice and fire enable him to target specific enemy weaknesses, whilst his cure spell takes the pressure off the party’s potion supply and lets Sora focus on hacking through hordes of Heartless with his Keyblade.

Long-time partner Goofy’s voice is only fractionally less unpleasant, but at least he’s capable of producing sounds that don’t render high-end ear plugs a necessity.

Any follower – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

This entry is very much a result of the dodgy mechanics that, frustratingly, pervade Bethesda’s otherwise exceptional open world RPG Skyrim.

Be it blithely charging into a den of enemies heedless of your attempts to slowly and carefully pick off foes one by one from a safe distance with your trusty bow, blocking doorways or disappearing altogether, poor AI hinders each and every one of Skyrim’s numerous followers.

On more than one occasion during my most recent playthrough, for instance, I was left isolated amidst a swarm of foes, frantically downing healing potions as I tried to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat, all because my chosen companion got his or herself knocked-out at the very start of the encounter contrary to my orders. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

You can command your follower to hang back, a tactic which does prevent them from alerting the entire dungeon to your presence before you’re ready to engage. However, apart from the fact this defeats the object of bringing some extra muscle, it can be just as infuriating to see your partner standing 20 feet away with their thumb up their arse, watching stony-eyed as you struggle to overcome a battalion of opponents single-handedly.

If they weren’t such useful decoys and effective damage sponges, I’d seriously consider playing through the entire game solo.

Hope – Final Fantasy XIII

FFXIII

Hope and Vanille: 2 of Final Fantasy’s very worst

Final Fantasy XIII isn’t a great game; some would go so far as to say it’s not even a good game. Yet, despite the unsatisfyingly linear design, cheesy script and rather dull combat, its biggest flaw is Hope; Lightning’s adolescent teammate not the “feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen”, obviously.

There isn’t simply one thing that makes him such an aggravating character, rather it’s a combination of factors. He’s surly, petulant and unaccountably blames Snow (a character not even Troy Baker can make endearing) for his mother’s death. And did I mention he sounds like a pound shop Christopher Mintz-Plasse without the awkward, underdog charm? Every time he opens his mouth you’ll wish Square Enix included a button for cracking him across the chops with the hilt of Lightning’s sword.

To cap it all off, due to the way the Crystarium works (FFXIII’s progression system), he’s the best white mage in the entire game by a comfortable margin and is therefore a vital party member for the duration of the main narrative and post-game quests, much like the aforementioned Donald Duck.

I realise there’ll be many characters equally deserving of a place on this list that don’t appear. Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Larry from The Walking Dead: Season One are two that spring to mind.

Nevertheless, I think most will agree the guys and girls who appear here withstand comparison with any of gaming’s most annoying characters.

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5 games to look out for at E3 2017

E3 image

It doesn’t seem 5 minutes ago since E3 2016 ended, yet here we are again eagerly awaiting gaming’s biggest event of the year.

Over the course of 6 action-packed days starting on the 10th of June, developers and publishers alike will gather together at the Los Angeles Convention Centre to showcase their latest games to the world’s press and, for the first time ever, a discerning public.

As always, there’s sure to be something for gamers of all shapes and sizes. However, amid the torrent of AAA blockbusters and indie gems, these 5 titles are, for my money, the ones to look out for at E3 2017.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

FFVII Remake

Two years on from that famously uproarious reveal during Sony’s 2015 presentation, and we still have precious few details about this long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake let alone a concrete release window.

Yes, we know that it’ll feature fast-paced action combat a la Final Fantasy XV, an episodic publishing format and a fully-voiced cast of characters, however, beyond that, there’s not much more to say.

Yet, with such little communication in the past 2 years, that seems likely to change at this year’s E3. I’m betting Square Enix will finally give us some juicy new details to keep us busy over the coming months, preferably addressing the planned expansions to the story and how the limit break and materia mechanics will work within a real-time framework.

Besides, surely Square Enix will explain more fully its decision to forgo external support and develop the game entirely in-house going forward; for instance, it’d be nice to know if the studio was unsatisfied with the way CyberConnect2 were handling the Remake, if the move will have any effect on the title’s development and why they chose to promote Haoki Hamguchi to lead designer.

As someone who feels equal parts excited and apprehensive about the game, whatever Square Enix deign worthy of public consumption, I really hope E3 2017 will go some way to alleviating my concerns.

Dreams

Dreams

One of the most interesting titles likely to make an appearance this year, Dreams is a game all about creation, sharing and pure unadulterated joy; in contrast to most of the games on this list.

First announced in 2013 and the brainchild of LittleBigPlanet creator Media Molecule, Dreams is a game of astounding ambition that looks to take the studio’s signature community creation facilities to a whole new level of depth.

In Dreams, players are essentially free to design levels and even worlds from the ground up, creating everything from basic environmental assets and sound effects, through to bespoke gameplay mechanics. In other words, it’s possible to create entirely unique games within Dreams itself. In addition, much like Media Molecule’s previous offerings, there’s an emphasis on sharing. So, if, like me, you find it painfully difficult to create anything noteworthy, you can simply download another player’s constructions to populate your levels. And, as always, the single-player campaign will teach you the basic tenets of building as you play.

With the likes of Death Stranding, The Last of Us Part II, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and perhaps even Bloodborne 2 (though I’m not getting my hopes up for the latter) on Sony’s E3 itinerary, Dreams would be an invaluable part of a remarkable show for the Japanese giant.

Days Gone

Days Gone

Not only is PS4 exclusive, third-person shooter Days Gone expected to appear at E3 2017, it will feature heavily, according to actor Samuel Witwer; the man providing the voice for protagonist Deacon St. John. Sounds good to me.

Seemingly similar in tone and aesthetic to PS3 masterpiece The Last of Us, some may accuse the title of attempting to cash in on the current, if waning, zombie craze. That, however, would be doing this extremely promising game a huge disservice.

The crowd tech alone was a revelation when it was unveiled at last year’s show, capable of filling our screens with vast hordes of freakers – SIE Bend Studio’s entry into the ever-growing undead pantheon. But, when you consider this incredible mechanic will be set within a huge open world, I don’t think I’m being too optimistic in expecting some thrilling, truly emergent gameplay when Days Gone eventually launches. And, intriguingly, that day might not be far off. Following news the development team has doubled in size over the past year, many speculate Days Gone is fast-approaching completion.

Could a release date be on the cards at E3? Maybe, though I have to say, I’d be content with learning a bit more about the core narrative, characters and the kind of missions we’ll be able to undertake during our adventures in the freaker-ridden American wilderness.

Death Stranding

Death Stranding

Roughly a week ago, Metal Gear Solid auteur Hideo Kojima posted a Tweet informing fans he’d recently been in talks with SIEA (Sony Interactive Entertainment America). He didn’t explain what was actually discussed, but the timing of the meeting alone has convinced many in the gaming world that PS4 exclusive Death Stranding – Kojima Productions’ debut project – will feature in some capacity during Sony’s press conference on the 12th of June.

After all, little is known about the game at present, aside from the identity of the actors portraying the protagonist and antagonist (The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus and Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen respectively), and that Death Stranding will be an action-adventure title in the same vein as the Uncharted series. That being said, as this is a Hideo Kojima title, it’s safe to assume there’ll be generous helpings of political allegory (revolving around pollution, it would appear), feature-length cut-scenes, innovative gameplay and quirky characters.

So, assuming it does make an appearance, we can be reasonably confident of receiving a new, more extensive trailer, though perhaps not a definitive release date. Personally, I would love to see a slice of gameplay showing us what we can expect from the dream combination of master craftsman Hideo Kojima and the incredible Decima Engine.

The Last of Us Part II

Last of Us part 2

Of all the games mentioned so far, the one I and many others would like to see most at this year’s show is The Last of Us Part II: who could resist the opportunity to experience another superlative human drama set amidst the ruins of civilisation?

Thankfully, Sony seem set to include Naughty Dog’s magnum opus during its presentation.

Taking place a few years after the events of the original, writer Neil Druckman has already confirmed two important elements. Firstly, The Last of Us Part II will focus on hate instead of love; secondly, players will step into the shoes of resourceful heroine Ellie this time around, leaving many to speculate previous protagonist Joel may no longer be on amicable terms with his surrogate daughter (have his actions at the end of The Last of Us caught up with him?) or, worse still, dead.

Unfortunately, given how early the much-anticipated sequel is through the development process – as was explained when it was first revealed at the PlayStation Experience 2016 – there probably won’t be anything substantial on offer at this year’s E3. Still, a new 60-second teaser or even a handful of screenshots would be more than enough to keep me going over the lean months to follow.

I could name dozens of other games that are well worth keeping an eye on in the build up to E3 2017; some of which I’ve already mentioned in passing.

However, I’m just as excited to see what surprises are in store for us this year. You can bet your bottom dollar a handful of developers will somehow manage to buck the modern trend and keep their games concealed from the public until the 10th rolls around. Could this be Half-Life 3’s big moment? No, almost certainly not. Still; we can dream, can’t we?

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