Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Review: Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 (PC)

When a game title includes the word “Simulator” there's a justified expectation that there will be an exhaustive tutorial or at least an extensive manual to consult. Imagine dropping into a Jane's flight simulator or even something older like Falcon 3.0. Put in control of a jet at the end of a runway or on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and 99% of us would like explode or eject before getting the wheels off the ground. That's what Car Mechanic Simulator 2015 is for the narrow field of car mechanic simulators.

Review: Convoy (PC)

convoy pc review
Convoy's biggest problem is that every time I think about it I get a glimpse of The Simpsons episode “Maximum Homerdrive.” Through a cartoonish series of events, Homer winds up hauling cargo in an 18-wheeler. At one point a version of the diddy, “Convoy!” (or at least a version of it) is repeated.

“We're gonna drive this convoy...!”

And that little excerpt of song spins through my brain every time Convoy – the game – starts. It's really annoying.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Playing Through The Longest Journey Pt. 1 - Talking Dragons and Burned Out Hippies

The boarding house where April lives
Warning: This post will have spoilers. If that's a problem, do not proceed.

Point-and-click adventure games are a genre that I never really sunk my teeth into. Growing up, the only game of that I ever went out and got was King's Quest VI. I think it was partly that the family computer wasn't all that great, thus limiting the selection of games that could actually run on it, and also in part due to how wholeheartedly I embraced RPGs at the time. As such, adventure games fell by the wayside.

In recent years, I've found myself wanting to actually spend some time with the genre, so I've decided to fire up The Longest Journey (TLJ). It certainly has a good reputation and seemed like as reasonable of a starting point as any for venturing into this area of gaming that I've neglected until now. At this point, I've just finished up the first chapter, so will be focusing on the events up to there. Hopefully I'll be able to make it to the end of the game. It's had the occasional time where it has completely frozen my computer, forcing me to alt-tab and restart. It hasn't happened often, but it is a thing, so fingers crossed it doesn't get too obnoxious and prevent me from finishing TLJ.

One thing that struck me while wander the streets of Venice (I'm guessing it's supposed to be in California) was how the game juxtaposes vastly different world. We start out with the main character, April, having a dream where she's on a cliff in some strange realm with unusual mountains off in the distance. Before long she's having a conversation with a tree, then meets a talking dragon. It's all very surreal, and more than a little prophetic. Suddenly, she wakes up to find herself in the boarding house where she lives, and we learn that April is a college art student with an important assignment due soon. She's a bit bothered by the dream and the fact she's been having a lot of odd ones lately, but shakes it off as she needs to get cracking on that project. It's all very typical fair. The sort of thing any college student will have to do. She went from talking with dragons to plain ol' reality. However, when walking to the art academy players are shown a cut scene of impossibly huge buildings jutting into the sky and flying cars. Now, April's simple college life doesn't seem so mundane anymore. She lives in the future.

the park in venice
A trip to the park.

With that, we can see that the game is actually balancing two very different worlds that tend to inhabit opposite ends of the fiction spectrum. This in and of itself has peaked my interest, as I am quite curious how this will play out. All the while, we have April and her friends keeping things grounded with their day-to-day goings ons. While talking dragons and flying cars aren't exactly relateable on a personal level, college life certainly is. Walking around, learning more about April and her friends, on more than a few occasions I found myself thinking, "Yeah, I remember someone like that back when I was in school." Even Cortez. I dunno, maybe that was just something from the 90s, invariably meeting an old, burned out hippy in college.

Actually getting to know all of the characters and learn a bit about April's background has felt somewhat awkward, though. Just walking around and striking up conversations with people, they'll go into a bit of a back and forth with the usual niceties, maybe giving a hint of some of what's going on in the world while they're at it. Once this is done, players get a number of conversation options, many of them questions. I understand that from a gameplay perspective this is meant as a sort of data dump. It's there to help us understand the world we're in and the people in April's circle of friends. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of questions comes off as a bit unnatural. If one of my friends came up to me asking all sorts of questions about myself, our friends, and themselves, I'd be a little weirded out. When did they become Hercule Poirot? In the end, it's something that I can let slide, but as I went from Fiona, to Charlie, and finally to Emma, it did feel a little strange grilling them so much. They didn't mind, though, and humoured April with her questions.

The cafe where April works
Heading to the cafe to meet Emma.
Back to wandering Venice, I had to find Cortez. He's an older, eccentric sort that usually hangs out near the boarding house where April and her friends live. Most people don't really have a problem. He seems a bit off, but not crazy, and he's extremely well-read with a pension for classic movies. The guy also knows about April's nightmares, and how the things she's seen in her dreams are starting to manifest in the waking world. Call me crazy, but Cortez may be important.

Between going to school to get April's assignment done, popping by the cafe where she works so she can pick up her pay, and playing cat and mouse trying to track down Cortez in hopes that he can explain what's going on, I got to see a fair amount of the city. It was during this time that it really became noticeable just how much effort goes into each location in an adventure game. Plodding through action games or an RPG there are, of course, moments when the player comes upon an area that really stands out. Maybe it's a castle, or an idyllic garden, maybe some hidden star system with gas clouds and colourful moons everywhere, whatever the case it's something that is impressive to have come upon. That being said, one usually has to travel through some relatively uninteresting areas before they get there for the big payoff. By comparison, adventure games feel like one area after the next of big payoffs, or, in the very least, less filler. A lot of thought goes into each location, making good use of every square inch of the screen. There tends to be a lot more little details tucked away everywhere, some of it functional, and some of it purely aesthetic.

While admiring these places, it got me thinking that for being in the future, Venice feels surprisingly contemporary in a lot of ways from what I've seen of the place so far. There are a lot of brick buildings, a park not unlike something I'd expect to see around where I live, a cozy cafe like something that might be tucked away on a Parisienne side street, and even the art school looks as though it could have been constructed in the mid 20th century. The major difference is the sheer amount of metal everywhere: girders, pipes, valves, and the like. It's obviously not our era, but at the same time it doesn't feel terribly removed from it. Inside the buildings as well, furnishings and interior design is more akin to something of our own time, doing away with futuristic tropes of what homes a few hundred years from now might look like. Again, it feels as though the environments are acting like an anchor to a reality that the player is far more familiar with, while the fantastic and the futurist hover at the peripheries. There are hints of these worlds, be it April's occasional hallucinations, or subtle pepperings of advanced technology throughout the neighborhood, but it has all been very subtle up until now.

At the cafe with Charlie
Talking with Charlie at the cafe.

Granted, Venice does seem like a bit of a rundown part of town and from what I've been told, it may be a home to the downtrodden with the homeless and starving artists comprising a large proportion of the town's population. All of that being said, one thing that caught my attention is the hints of the socio-economic situation in the game world. It goes for a more corporatist view of the future where huge conglomerates are highly influential and a permanent fixture in people's minds. This isn't anything new. Plenty of films and books have made similarly cynical predictions as to the direction our society might go in. What stood out to me about this is that Venice wasn't the dark, neon-lit, crime-ridden stereotype that often gets presented in these sorts of stories. The city is still a little dingy as rusted metal structures mingling with the brick buildings, and the polluted canals are pretty disgusting, but on the whole, Venice feels far more bright and hopeful. Maybe it's the youthful vigor of all the young artists there bringing life to their surroundings, but whatever it is there's much more of an easygoing, almost optimistic ambience to the town. I really appreciate this as things can often veer hard and fast toward the realm of cyberpunk when we're talking about a future where corporations are running the show. That's not to say I have anything against cyberpunk, but it's an intriguing choice to try and sidestep some of its tropes while maintaining such a socio-economic setup.

At this point, despite exploring the city, I feel like I've barely dipped my toe in TLJ. April still has a lot of questions that need answering, and I have a feeling that it's only a matter of time before we see more of this fantasy realm that has been haunting her. For now, though, it's off to talk with Cortez again. He seems to know something. Now, if only he'd be a little bit less cryptic about what he's getting at.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Frustrating Case of Koei Tecmo PC Ports

Toukiden: Kiwami is the latest example of Koei Tecmo's inability to make
decent PC ports.

From a fairly young age, I developed an interest in series like Nobunaga's Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It was probably some time in the late 80s when I picked up the former on a whim at the video rental place near my house.  Something about it just looked interesting, managing a small pocket of Japan and trying to expand, hopefully conquering the entire country. Over the following years, I made a point of familiarizing myself with Koei, trying out subsequent games in these series, and other offerings they brought to the West over the years like Gemfire.

So, when discussion came about a few years back that Koei Tecmo were thinking of making an effort to bring their games to PC on these shores, I was pretty excited. Their strategy games have been released on the platform in Asian markets for years, and the company was even looking at bringing their action games from Tecmo over this way as well.  It was something that I'd always hoped for, but was a bit skeptical that it would ever happen.

The mighty legions of the Dynasty Warrior cult will ensure
the series is a moderate success on PC at least.
Then the games started to make landfall here...and their quality was consistently poor to mediocre with a cringe-worthy price tag slapped on them for good measure. It's flabbergasting that this company has done such a poor job of porting these games and made all the more galling since these are often games that should otherwise be pretty fun, have a decent fan base, and could do quite well for themselves on PC if only they ran better on the platform.

By now, publishers and developers should know full well that a sizable number of PC gamers have certain technical expectations of games, and 60 FPS is one of them. Just look at the amount of backlash a game will get if its locked at 30 when it comes out on something like Steam. The game gets inundated with thumbs down ratings and angry comments which can sometimes damage a game's reputation for the long term even if the developers turn around and patch it to support the higher frame rate. Even then, we're lucky to get that as it often comes down to fans making patches of their own in order to deal with it. If the game's speed is fixed to its frame rate, well, good luck with that!

On top of this, it's not fair to assume that everyone with a PC is going to run out and get a gamepad, let alone an Xbox 360-styled one. There are a lot of people out there who are quite content to stick with their keyboard and mouse setup, yet we see countless ports come along with incredibly half-assed support for these.  It may say that the game can be played via kb/m, but it often turns into an unintuitive, and sometimes unresponsive mess. In particularly frustrating cases, the on-screen key prompts for actions and menu options will actually show the 360 controller buttons instead of their keyboard and mouse equivalents. It's like the game is saying to players, "We didn't actually think you guys would really use a keyboard..."

It may surprise you to learn that
fighting game fans like playing online.
Sadly, Koei Tecmo has been guilty of both of these issues and more. Dead or Alive 5 had no online multiplayer at launch, which is pretty darn important for a fighting game in this day and age. The company is apparently working to fix this, but in all likelihood, the game's player-base is gone and it's not coming back. Even more shocking is that the company has been releasing some of the recent Nobunaga games on Steam's North American store without even bothering to translate them into English. It's just insulting to see something like that. Why even release it here if you can't be bothered to localize it.

Still more outrageous is that the company thinks we're willing to pay top dollar for these games, as they regularly debut on Steam at around $60US, maybe with a 10 percent pre-order discount. Who do these people think they are? There are very few games that justify that price point as it is, and mediocre ports aren't among them.

Admittedly, there have been a decent number of cases where Japanese publishers have stumbled while making their way onto the PC platform, and I think the majority of PC gamers have been pretty understanding about the whole thing. It's something that these companies haven't really done before, and in a lot of cases they've been learning as they go. In the case of some companies we've seen steady, albeit gradual, improvement as they release more and more games on the platform.

Not even bothering to translate a game getting a Western release into
English has to be a new low.

Not so with Koei Tecmo. The consistently substandard quality of their PC ports has been truly disappointing to such an extent that I think they may irreparably poison their brand in PC gaming circles if they don't sit down and seriously look at improving quality when bringing games to the platform. There comes a point when goodwill runs out, and that time may be coming soon for this company. They've been fortunate to have a small, dedicated group of die hard fans shouting that we're lucky to be seeing these games come to PC at all, but who wants to listen to a bunch of people suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?

I genuinely feel bad for the people who have to promote the company's games in the West. They must surely know that these ports just aren't very good, and the price Koei Tecmo is asking for them is way too high. Nonetheless, they still have to crack a smile and tell people these games are good buys. Sadly, they are not. PC gamers have certain expectations and they aren't being met. In this day and age, publishers should be well aware that they'll be crucified if they don't at least get the frame rate up to 60, and have decent keyboard and mouse controls. It would also be nice if games released in North America were actually in English. I mean come on. Koei Tecmo can't seem to do any of this. It's unacceptable, and, even worse, very frustrating because they actually are capable of making some very good games, and I think a lot of people would have quite a bit of fun with them if only the ports were handled with a bit more respect.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Review: Codename: S.T.E.A.M. (3DS)

If you like Valkyria Chronicles, you are going to like this game. Maybe Fire Emblem or Advance Wars are more your thing? Codename: S.T.E.A.M. might be a good fit. Even if you have never played or heard of those games, keep reading because it still might be the kind of game you like.

S.T.E.A.M. stands for Strike Team to Eliminate the Alien Menace. That pretty much sums up what you need to do.

Instead of a top down view of a map in many traditional turn-based strategy games, Codename S.T.E.A.M. lets you view the game world from on the ground which is unique and refreshing.

The single player campaign in this game is great and balanced (much like the rest of the game). There are all kinds of missions and new aliens are doled out to you at a reasonable rate.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Review: Mario Party 10 (Wii U)

mario party 10

If you haven't played a Mario Party game I would be surprised. Starting out with three releases on the Nintendo 64, four on the GameCube and two on the Wii, Mario Party has seen a consistent release schedule since 1998. I'm not even counting the portable releases over the years on the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS and Nintendo 3DS. There was even Mario Party-e for the e-Reader, but that's more obscure than finding game cheat codes in modern games.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Review: Splatoon (Wii U)

Splatoon is the new property from Nintendo with a cute premise: anthropomorphic squid kids participating in an ink fight. The colored ink you shoot, spray, and splatter actually paints the terrain of the combat area. Your character is able to "swim" in your ink color to not only fast-traverse across the map but refill your ink ammunition. This basic game control makes for a very different experience compared to other games where proper ground control will dominate lone-wolf or sniping tactics.