A lot of games try to take on the ‘theatre of war’ and they never quite seem to nail it. They never have that moment where there’s a long stand-off between opposing forces as troops hunker down behind cover waiting for the inevitable ‘big push’ from the other side. That anxious space of time that seems to stretch on into infinity as every little break between gunfire sends the heart racing as you think “oh god are they coming now?”
Now, everything I’ve just described doesn’t really appear in modern shooters. Sure, Battlefield can convey the scope of a real and changing war and Rising Storm can convey the stress of being constantly under fire. But these all take place in short sharp matches that are usually over within 20 minutes or so. What you really need is something that happens in a real war, stand-offs, firefights that last for hours as you claim territory inch by blood-soaked inch and stories of daring acts against impossible odds, that’s something that’s not really been covered in a lot of games. That is until Foxhole came along.
Developed by Clapfoot, Foxhole is what I can only describe as a World War MMO. Set in an alternate universe with an isometric view it’s perhaps the best analogue for how a real war would play out in a videogame.
How Foxhole works is there are two opposing sides with roughly 50 to 60 players on each team. The goal is to capture specific areas of the map to win the game. Now, that may sound like something that’s been done a million times before in other games, but where Foxhole does it differently is that each teams fight for territory depends entirely on their ability to work as one cohesive unit.
Everyone in Foxhole needs to fight for the good of the whole army not just themselves. The game drills this into your head with its tutorial, saying: “There is no ‘My truck’ or ‘My gun’.”
Just like in a real war you fight to help your buddy next to you behind the sandbag, the guys that are pinned down ahead and the dedicated souls at home that are farming for the war effort.
In Foxhole, you don’t begin with any gear. All the weapons, ammo and equipment you need must be requisitioned, individually built and then delivered to supply areas. So, each team needs to have a dedicated core of logistic players that are mining, producing and then delivering materials to where they’re needed the most. There’s also builders that need to reinforce areas with walls, bunkers and other defences, whilst the fighters protect them.
There’s this unspoken hierarchy in the game that you just find yourself organically fitting into. New players run in and die repeatedly, whilst the more experience form squads, start-up command units, gather intel and even take on raids deep into enemy territory.
For example, here’s one such mission I got roped into completely by accident.
It began with me walking into a base I thought was abandoned only to find a Lieutenant rounding up any passing soldier he could into a make-ship squad in an almost Saving Private Ryan-esque kind of way.
We formed lines and he began his debrief.
Over the space of 20 minutes he told us our job was to infiltrate the enemy lines, find their main supply line to the front and ‘give them hell’. We all knew it was a suicide mission, but if we could delay enough trucks to the front lines the main core of our army could advance further into enemy territory, so we were playing a small part of the war efforts bigger picture.
We were all given our roles, medics, riflemen, spotters, scouts and in my case ‘Guy who gets to blow things up’. Which meant I got my own little escort detail since carrying all the heavy gear meant I moved much slower than the main raid team.
Our advance was careful and methodical, the scouts would run out, report any movement they saw and our observation team would lay out our approach and any changes we would need to make. It was a painfully slow process, but after one real world hour we had reached our destination relatively unharmed and undetected.
We setup our ambush point, dug our foxholes and waited.
We didn’t need to wait long as the first truck approached and instantly got blown apart under machine gun fire. Then the second truck turned up, then a third, a fourth, then finally a fifth. Then nothing for a long stretch of time.
We sat in silence for a while, talking between ourselves in hushed voices trying to figure out what was going on, then our Lieutenant spoke up. We had gotten word from our intel group back at HQ that the enemy team were aware of us, and were moving to deal with the problem.
What followed was the most tense and stressful three real-world hours of my life. We were constantly bombarded and fired upon by enemy troops from all directions as they probed our lines. One by one our squad dwindled until it was just me cowering in a foxhole with our Lieutenant and a medic crouching close-by. I got out of the foxhole for a second to drop some extra ammunition I found for my fellow squad members when a grenade took out the lieutenant in his foxhole and our medic got gunned down by a sniper.
Suddenly I was alone.
With a pistol and one rocket to my name my options were to stay and die, potentially costing the enemy more time without supplies, or I could cut and run with the possibility of being shot in the back as I fled.
I went with a third option, I pretended I was I large squad of men. The voice chat in Foxhole is open to the entire server and it’s location based, so if you get near enemy troops you can hear their conversations and vice versa, plus you only see another player if you’re directly within their sightlines.
So, I crawled under a bush, stayed completely still and started to talk into my microphone loudly asking for more heavy machine gun ammunition, or asking if anyone needed a spare grenade. I even made up voices to just make it seem like there were more people to deter any more attacks hoping that somehow my charade would last long enough for reinforcements.
Surprisingly it worked for about half an hour before one lone scout figured out what was going on. He shot me, I respawned and found the base I spawned in to be in complete ruin. And so, I ran on into the wilderness looking for the front lines again.
All of that happened in the space of one night, I was so engrossed in the game that I forgot to eat or even turn on my bedroom light. I only noticed how much time had passed when I finally died. I just couldn’t look away, I was there in a war fighting alongside people I started to genuinely care about only to seem them gunned down in front of me.
The battles in Foxhole are ongoing, wars can last for days with some even running over a month on a persistent world where battle lines are constantly shifting. It’s as close as you’re going to get to a real simulated war experience and I genuinely cannot recommend it enough.
Even though it’s still in Alpha, the amount of fun I’ve had with Foxhole has more than made up for some of its shortcomings. There are a few nit-picks here and there that I do have with the game, the UI is clunky, it’s not very friendly to new players and the chat needs streamlining. But I’m still completely enamoured with it. I haven’t had a game hold my attention for such a long period of time like this one for a while and I already can’t wait to get right back into the thick of it.
So for now I’ll see you on the front-lines soldier…
Recently I managed to make a significant dent in my videogame backlog by finishing off Prey, so I thought I would get my opinion of it out before my frustration with the game gives me an aneurysm.
Published by Bethesda, Prey is a first-person sci-fi shooter that pits you against a range of horrible aliens on a spaceship with a bunch of weird and wonderful abilities and weapons. Not to be confused with the 2006 game Prey, a first-person sci-fi shooter that pits you against aliens on a spaceship with a bunch of weird weapons and abilities.
It’s confusing, isn’t it?
In the 2017 edition of Prey, you play the role of Morgan Yu a brilliant engineer and scientist that wakes up one morning in his comfy, quiet studio apartment in San Francisco where everything is calm and peaceful. Through a Groundhog Day style series of events, Morgan finds out that he’s actually aboard the research vessel Talos 1 and things have taken a turn for the worst. The ships infested with a race of shapeshifting psychic aliens called Typhon and Morgan must escape Talos 1, get his memory back and find out how everything went pear-shaped.
I really enjoyed the setting of Prey, it has some nice System Shock vibes to it as you explore the ship both inside and out, crafting resources from scrap you find lying around whilst approaching every situation in the game any way you like.
For example, if you’re presented with a locked door to a room you can try to hack it, crawl through a nearby maintenance vent or fling subtlety to the wind, smash a hole in the window, turn into a mug with your Typhon abilities and slide on inside.
The freedom you have over the environment is a nice change from normal first-person shooter games I’ve played where you must go a specific way or perform a set action to progress like breaching a room full of terrorists or performing a QTE to continue. Plus, it leads to a lot of fun moments where you find yourself going “Was I meant to do it that way?” as you mess around with Prey’s rather liberal physics engine.
It’s also got the most immersive ‘floating around in Zero-G’ mechanics I’ve ever seen. It genuinely feels like you’re weightless in suit as you gently bump off walls, zoom along corridors with a slight press of your thrusters letting physics take the wheel and it’s quite satisfying to watch nearby items in the environment ragdoll in low gravity after an explosion. Throw in the occasional deep breath from Morgan’s Oxygen Regulator as he floats along in his suit and the muffled sounds of weapon fire and it’s easy to lose yourself in the moment as you just bob along in space admiring the scenery.
The stories compelling, the alien powers you can use are interesting and combining them with your ordinary weapons can make you a force to be reckoned with onboard Talos 1 as you create all sorts of carnage.
However, as much as I enjoyed this game there are several issues I had with it and after taking some time to process it all after finishing the game I might as well line them all up now for further critique/mockery.
To start things off we have the difficulty curve at the beginning that ramps up to an insane degree after the first couple of hours. Unless you invest heavily in Typhon powers and weapon upgrades right out the gate you’re going to be pounded into the dirt by pretty much everything. Especially the cheap EMP spam projectiles from Technopaths that can knock out your electrical based weapons and your entire suit if you’re in Zero-G.
I get that in a videogame difficulty is supposed to progress gradually higher as the game goes along to mirror your own increasing skill and abilities, but Prey insists on just dumping high level enemies on you super early on that only serve to strip you of ammunition and healing items that you just spent so long trying to scrounge up for in the first place.
Another issue that, at the time of writing, was pretty bad was the almost vindictive enjoyment the game had in removing items, weapons and ammunition from my inventory through what’s now been colloquially coined by the community as ‘Door Demons’.
What do I mean by that?
Well, during my playthrough of Prey there were points in the game where I would go through a loading screen door, emerge on the other side and be surprised to find that the game at random decided that I didn’t need an item in my inventory. At first, I didn’t notice this rather aggravating bug until it decided to strip me of my most powerful weapon in the game. Of course, I thought that I must have accidently dropped it in the previous room during a fight and after scrounging the area for an hour I gave up, reloaded a previous save that was significantly further back went through the door and it happened again.
According to the Prey forums this bug is still prevalent and there seems to be no immediate fix coming, so for now anyone playing Prey just has to deal. It’s like someone walking up to you at random intervals in the game and punching you in the head, just chock it up to ‘Extra Difficulty Level’ I guess.
Couple that with the aggravatingly long load times between sections and you’ve got yourself a ringside seat to the next performance of ‘Controller Thrown Off A Wall In B-Flat’.
Now this last part is going to go straight into spoiler territory, so if you don’t want the ending of Prey ruined then turn away now, finish the game and then come back.
*************************** Spoilers Below **********************************
Now the biggest problem I had with Prey would be its endings, there’s three of them and only two have any impact on the story. Although most modern games tend to offer this, where Prey let me down was that the developers behind the game, Arkane Studios, said that there would be “tons of permutations” within the games endings. But, there’s only really two sub-endings within the two main ones.
To simplify things, I’ll explain what exactly happens upon finishing the game.
When you get to the final chapter you’re given the option to either escape the ship whilst detonating a device that neutralises the Typhon or just blowing the ship up completely.
Once you pick one of these options you’re given a short cutscene, end credit sequence and then suddenly the game screen lifts to reveal that surprise, surprise, it’s all been a simulation based on the real Morgan Yu’s memories aboard the Talos 1 incident. You are in fact not Morgan Yu since he apparently died offscreen a while ago, instead you’re a Typhon hybrid that his brother Alex has been experimenting on.
Now, as aggravatingly cliched and awful as that ending is, where it really pushed my buttons was that I was presented with an array of robots that were all voiced by NPC’s in the game that I interacted with. This makeshift robotic Jury then lists off your interactions with their digital avatar selves within the simulation, did you save or kill them in their side quest, did you run an errand for them, did you use too many Typhon augments or not kill enough aliens, that sort of thing.
It’s at this point that the ‘many permutations’ that the game developers boasted so much about falls out of the air dead. Because you can almost see the logic diagram that they wrote for this; ‘Did player do A? if yes play voice clip A, did they not do A? play voice clip B’, repeat ad nausea.
Once I saw this the entire threat of the games ‘your choices matter’ just completely collapsed because clearly my choices didn’t matter at all. It just parrots back the things that I did with no real consequence other than my character being killed as a ‘failed experiment’ if I was too much of a bad boy. But even then, I genuinely think I could have scraped by with much less of what the game deemed as positive actions on my playthrough.
Once the Jury finished their deliberation you’re then given the option to assist Alex or kill everyone in the room. Naturally I saved beforehand to see where each ending differed and was instantly let down to see that they didn’t. Instead of some unique dialogue or a cutscene showing the consequences of this apparently monumental decision, I was instead given a 10 second clip in each choice of either shaking Alex’s hand or ramming a tentacle through his heart before the screen cut to black.
When that happened oh boy the red mist descended, I was upset, I was angry, I was filled with a frustrated rage that I’ve not felt since the early days of Dark Souls.
I felt insulted by the game, it had had built up this fascinating and intricately woven spaceship story of tension and drama as I had to make all my decisions count and seriously think about all my actions and their potential consequences. But no, it was ‘all a dream’, your decisions didn’t matter and the main character is dead here’s your endings I guess, we’re off to focus on the sequel.
I really enjoyed Prey at the beginning, it has some legitimately good moments, the mechanics are fun and incredibly easy to get to grips with. The story is intriguing, but the way it just completely falls apart at the end is just terrible and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
I wanted to like Prey more than I did, I had so many great moments in it and I would still recommend picking it up when it’s cheap because the gameplay and setting is the best thing about it. Just, ignore the story and stick to messing around with psychic powers and the ability to turn into a mug instead.
A lot of the time porting a game to another platform doesn’t always work or it’s poorly implemented, like giving GTA San Andreas touch controls or Wii-mote controls in Resident Evil 4 that completely undermine any difficulty. But on that rare occasion you’ll come across a game on another platform that completely changes your opinion of it, in this case it’s Sunless Sea’s move to iOS.
Developed by Failbetter Games, Sunless Sea is a topdown exploration game where you’re given command of a steamship in a gigantic underground ocean called the “Unterzee”. You set sail from Fallen London, a dark and dreary looking mockery of old London town itself that’s been dragged into this enormous aquatic cavern by bats. Dripping from the gills with Lovecraftian horror this dark fantasy game is filled with terrors of the deep, pirates, lost colonies and mysteries for you to solve.
The writing of Sunless Sea is something I will drone on and on about until the cows come home because it is just utterly fantastic. Every description and conversation paints a picture of how stark and unforgiving the landscape is. From frozen towns filled with undead, to the raging ironclad inferno shores of cities turned into literal hellscapes by its populace, just like a great novel I’ve had trouble putting this game down.
Although the combat is a little cumbersome and there’s one hell of a difficulty curve at the beginning, once you start really sinking time into this game it can be quite rewarding. Every decision to “Set Sail” has consequence and each voyage could be your last. For example, do you stock up on supplies and fuel for long haul trips instead of buying new armaments but risk being sunk by monsters, or do you save your cash and buy better upgrades but potentially run out of food and fuel.
The same can be said for exploration, venture too far in this world without the proper preparation and you will pay for it. In one instance, I ventured too far off the map with one of my captains, lost all my supplies, several crew members and my ship was almost destroyed by dark gods. Luckily, I could avoid pirates and limp back to a friendly port for repairs before I lost everything.
However, if you do lose your ship it’s not the end of the game. Instead you just create a new character, pick up some of the hand-me-downs from your last brave leader and set out again. You won’t recoup all your losses, but having a little bit of an edge is better than nothing when you’re starting from scratch.
Now this isn’t my first rodeo with this game, I did initially play it on PC and as I’ve mentioned before I don’t always have a ton of time to sink into a game; so, sitting down at my desk and playing it for hours on end when I had stuff to do was less than ideal for me. I would play it for an hour or two, stop, feel guilt ridden about not doing more important things and start to slowly put myself off the game in a “this is all your fault” kind of way. And it did genuinely sour my interpretation of the game and that was something I came to later regret when I got my hands on a copy of the iOS port.
Having Sunless Sea on my tablet is genuinely one of the best ports I’ve ever come across. The menus are quicker to jump around in, the controls are more simplified and better to use as you can just set the speed, leave your ship and occasionally nudge its direction a tap with your finger. Whilst on PC you had use the old “WASD” setup and manually crank the engine speed up and down with another key and when you’re being blasted by pirates trying to manoeuvre and change speed was a tad difficult. So you can see why having that all at the tap of a finger is so much better in my opinion.
Another benefit to having it on my tablet is the portability.
I no longer have to squirrel myself away in my bedroom, sitting at my desk with headphones on completely isolated and alone. Instead I can sit with my family, idly chat whilst still reading the dialogue options or messing around in harbour shops. Plus, I can carry it around and casually play it whilst I’m doing something else only leaning over to check that my ship isn’t going to collide with anything when I set it on a straight line through some of the more vacant areas of the game.
After sinking more hours than I can count into this game I must say that I’m glad I took another look at it. When I first played, it I thought it was good but clunky in parts with a lot of room for improvement, the writing was solid and the only thing holding it back was the controls. These were all addressed in the iOS port and it’s completely changed my opinion of the game, it’s moved up a couple of notches in my personal score of 5 and a half out of ten to a solid 8. It’s genuinely good and has quickly become my new obsession that I’ve been dipping into now and then when I have a few minutes to spare.
Aside from the occasional crash the iOS port of Sunless Sea is in my opinion the prime example of how a port can improve a game. You take something familiar and tweak just one aspect of it to completely change and revitalise it into something so much better. If you have a tablet and like a good tactical exploration game then I recommend picking this up.
My good buddy Rob and I try our hand at the new ‘Overwatch Uprising’ event. We do as well as you would think…
I grab my good buddy Rob and we try to solve puzzles with portals. It goes as well as you would think…
As I get older I’ve noticed that my attention span for videogames has gotten a lot shorter than it once was.
I was one of those kids that would always try to finish a game in one shot. I would stay up until ungodly hours of the morning trying to just power through something until I hit the end credits. Like the time I blew through Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater in one, six-hour sitting. It was 5am when I finished but it was worth it.
However, now I genuinely struggle to finish a game if it’s more than 10 hours long. It becomes even harder to finish if said game decides to pad out its run-time with unnecessary levels that contribute nothing to the story and just bog players down with boring gameplay.
The current target of my frustration is Berserk and the Band of the Hawk.
Berserk and the Band of the Hawk
Developed by Omega Force and published by Koei Tecmo, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk is a hack-n-slash adventure game based on my favourite manga series of the same name by Kentari Miura. There’s been quite a few Berserk games over the years but this one shook things up by taking the Dynasty Warriors approach of giving players an open battlefield that they can run around and cause all sorts of carnage in.
I’m a massive fan of Berserk. I’ve read the entire manga series cover to cover multiple times. I love everything about it: the brutal story arcs, the characters and of course the excessive gore, it all just appeals to me. So when I picked up Berserk and the Band of the Hawk it was with trepidation. There have been so many downright terrible attempts to truly capture the essence of Berserk as a video game. Luckily this game does it justice, they cover four arcs of the story across 46 missions and you’re brought up to speed relatively easily on what’s going on and who the chap with the big sword is.
The gameplay is fun, if a little repetitive, and there are some genuinely entertaining missions that made me feel like I was on a real battlefield. However, in this game the developers have a nasty habit of bogging you down with long boring missions that I’ve come to call “filler levels”.
Anime Storytelling Tropes
Now, normally in an anime there will be a filler arc where the main story gets put to one side for a minute whilst the characters have a (usually) non-canon adventure that lets the audience have fun and get to know the characters better. Unfortunately, Berserk and the Band of the Hawk doesn’t do that. Instead the game will often throw a mission at you just when the story starts to get good that boils down to: murder everyone in this area, rinse, and repeat. One frustrating incident of this was when I was given not one, not two, but three consecutive missions that had me run through an area, murdering bandits and thieves. These levels would last a half hour each!
I understand that sometimes if developers are stuck for ideas they might be tempted to just throw in gameplay that is brainless and fun. It’s fine, making games is hard especially when only using Dynasty Warriors as an inspiration. But when your story starts to get interesting and you decide to sidebar it out of the blue for something mundane like murdering bandits for an hour, it just gets boring and kind of noticeable that you ran out of ideas.
Filler for the sake of filler is not fun.
Filler as Game Design
When there is such an extensive and interesting world like Berserk to pick from, don’t bog me down with boring bandit killing missions. There is an entire Saturday morning cartoon cast of villains to cherry pick from instead of ‘Medieval Man with Sword #238’ and his friends. I don’t want to look at a mission goal that says “Kill all the thieves” right after a heart pounding battle, fighting the gigantic furry one-man army that is Nosferatu Zodd. Plus, it just doesn’t blend well to good storytelling in when the game suddenly slams on the brakes and dump an hours’ worth of generic bad guy murdering on us just for the sake of padding.
When a game revolves around such a unique and expanded world like Berserk and it still manages to bore the players, you know that somewhere someone seriously dropped the ball. I mean it’s the same franchise that has a giant that turns into a dragon made of Diamonds and a possessed horse with a man’s face, how did could they manage to make these things boring?
Currently Berserk and the Band of the Hawk’s mission list is at a massive 46 and I honestly think that they could cut that down to 30 and still have a succinct story. Most of their cutscenes at the beginning are ripped from the movies anyway so if you’re still not following what’s going on (although you would have to be brain-dead not to) you can always go watch those to pick up extra lore.
In closing, I really want to like Berserk and the Band of the Hawk more than I already do, as I said I’m a massive fan, but there were points were I legitimately struggled to go back to it and continue playing because of all the filler. The meat of this game has a little too much fat on it, if they were to trim that off they would have what I think could potentially be the best Berserk game ever made instead of something that feels like it’s been Frankensteined onto Dynasty Warriors because it worked so well for Zelda.