Monday, 29 September 2014

In Defence Of Video Game Achievements - The Problem And How To Fix Them

Since their introduction, achievements have frequently come under fire from fans and video game critics alike. Even now, over a generation on since they were first brought into the industry as accounts were popularised and online community aspects were pushed, the backlash against them remains ever strong. 
The very idea of them seems to be scorned by a lot of major figures, especially John Bain and members of Polaris, with the very idea of them often being ridiculed. Many are argued to be unnecessary, to be a pointless addition which ultimately adds nothing to the experience and something which the industry never needed before now. However, I personally believe that this is not entirely true. While achievements have been mishandled certainly, there is a definite reason for them to exist and benefit developers of all titles.

The real crux of the problem behind achievements today is not their presence so much as how developers use them. It seems that, especially in the AAA scene, achievements ultimately come down to one of three things - Complete a sidequest, complete a chapter of a story, or complete a certain objective a certain number of times. This certainly isn't universally true, but even in outstanding titles these shorts of things show up a lot. 

War for Cybertron and Fallout 3 might both be outstanding titles, monuments to the successes of their own franchises, but both featured every one of these problems when it came to their achievements. Things are often even worse in the multiplayer scene, with achievements near endlessly boiling down to either unlocking all the items, killing countless people in a certain way, or sometimes just switching to a different class.

There's little real imagination to these and nothing rewarding which truly comes from accomplishing them. They just come down to one more tick-box to check off marking your progress throughout a title or are one small pointless addition to something you can more easily prove. Unlocking every weapon? You can prove that to friends either by just showing them your profile or unloading some ungodly advanced doom cannon into their face during the next Call of Duty deathmatch.

However, despite this it's clear what the intent on the part of the developers is: To keep players going through their game and coming back to it long after they would otherwise be done. It's the same reason that progression systems are such a big part of so many multiplayer titles these days, force a player to work his or her way up the ranks and they'll invest hundreds of hours. On the other hand if you give them everything at once, and the game isn't Quake, there's a good chance the community will be smaller or only occasionally invest a couple of hours per week.

This is not mentioning the other issue that, on the whole, the average age of a gamer tends to be older these days. These aren't the glory days of the 90s here, video games aren't a brand new media which is mostly played by teenagers with free time. The average age these days is estimated to be somewhere between a person's early to mid thirties, and naturally people have far less free time. As a whole, achievements seem like a bonus supposed to add that small additional jolt of pleasure, that feeling of accomplishment to keep a person going. While developers might currently be doing this wrong, I personally think that this is the angle they need to focus upon.

Rather than simply tacking on achievements developers need to actually start thinking of them as trophies, awards, signs of real accomplishment and reasons to be proud of them. Some games already feature this halfway between the aforementioned problems, but they need to be taken a step further. If developers truly wanted players to invest hours at a time into their title, they need to push things to the next level and use achievements as incentives to play titles in ways they would never consider.

To give one example of a title which did do this right, take The Last Federation by Arcen Games. If you really read through its list of achievements on Steam, what you'll see is a long list of accomplishments and rewards which can only be won by playing through the game multiple times, often pushing a player outside their comfort zone. Some are fairly basic ones as you'd expect, achievements for completing a title on a certain difficulty, but many others emphasise keeping certain races alive or very specific approaches. There's an achievement for winning a game while a pirate empire still exists, another for effectively uniting the galaxy under an axis of evil, another for never breaking your word, and even more for allowing only one race to emerge victorious.

Each of these forces the player to go through with a certain very unique approach and carefully cultivate a certain outcome, often spending dozens of hours at a time on each one. Some can be accomplished simply by playing the game a few times over, certainly, but the really big ones require skill, luck and careful planning on each player's part. They're not treated like minor rewards for simply beating the game, they're treated like monuments to a player's skill and determination with this game.

Others which work in a title's favour are those which require a player to really go out of their way to accomplish. The Banner Saga features a few such moments and, while it might be something of a repeat offender for this list, a fair number of its achievements require players to really go out of their way to attain them. The achievements Innocent, High Spirits, and Quartermaster all require players to really push themselves to accomplish them, with the first making one character effectively useless and the latter two severely hamstringing a player's development, making them focus heavily upon one aspect of the resource management system. Forced March is the same, adding a time limit onto an already harrowing test, and none of these four are likely to be completed alongside one another. 

These ones are what really push the player to accomplish something else, and if anything they reward skill far more than the usual choices. Murdering five hundred foes with headshots is going to be a grind no matter how capable you are, but keeping several hundred starving people alive in a northern wasteland can be accomplished first try with enough talent. Again, it's far more like a reward and they're treated as a true accomplishment rather than a 

Do all of them need to be like this? No, but even those which aren't could definitely benefit from a little creativity in the part of the developers. Some can be pointless, but so long as they force the player to go a little out of their way to do them, or get a humourous chuckle out of their players. For all the problems War for Cybertron might have had, it and Fall of Cybertron both featured a fair number of funny additions, and High Moon Studios do tend to throw a few gems into the mix. In particular, both sequences where the player takes control of Megatron in these games offer achievements for in-character behaviour, executing masses of prisoners, ripping down monuments to Starscream and the like.

There's no real skill to performing these acts, no real additional benefit in-game to doing so, but it's a small bonus for either acting in a humourous manner or even just roleplaying a little. Some can even serve as call-backs to the series they are a part of and better appeal to the demographic the developer has targeted, as is easily the case here. From there word of mouth can help to spread news of the title and convince others to spend more time on it, give it a look or even build hype. It's certainly a healthier way of doing so than just throwing multiple achievements at the player just for starting the game a-la Ryse: Son of Rome.

There are plenty of other titles which could be brought up as examples of this done right, but by now the point is clear: What's really causing such a backlash, at least in my personal opinion, is that developers aren't treating achievements with enough creativity or difficulty in accomplishing them. 

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Doctor Who: The Caretaker (Episode Review)

This one is very simple. Sometimes in trailers, teasers and promos the audience is mislead, lied to or outright manipulated. Not so here. If you saw last week's teaser for The Caretaker, you're going to get exactly what you'd expect. If you're not a fan of the usual Clara/Danny stuff, if you're after a big focus upon science fiction, you're going to hate this episode. 

Taking place some time after last week's events, The Caretaker sees Clara juggling between her life on-board the TARDIS and her love life with Danny Pink. Despite being worn ragged by keeping up both, with more than a few close calls, she is managing to maintain both. However, when the Doctor departs alone only to show up posing as John Smith, the new school caretaker, her two separate lives risk colliding in the worst way possible.

You'll notice from that little description that there was no mention of any threat, no mention of the monster of the week nor even any spacey elements beyond the usual show conventions. That's really the problem here. This is one of those episodes where Doctor Who suddenly tries to distance itself from what it does best and tries to do pure drama, and things immediately fall to pieces. This is not a science fiction script so much as a very weak soap opera with a few background sci-fi elements to try and justify it as a Doctor Who script, none of which works at all. The human drama here is fairly forced, and it immediately falls back on comedy to try and keep the story's momentum going, which simply isn't substantial enough to carry a tale.

When people bring up great moments from Doctor Who's past which were fantastic for the classic series, or even the modern series, it's never the bits which were drowning in comedy. The famous conversation between the Doctor and Victoria about family in Tomb of the Cybermen, the drama of The Girl Who Waited, and the Third Doctor's death didn't need wacky comedy to help pad them out. If anything it would have greatly detracted from them and that's really the case here. While there are a few potentially solid moments which could have been used for serious drama, they're either breezed by thanks to the usual frantic pacing of the tale or drowned out entirely by wacky slapstick.

This isn't helped by some seriously inconsistent writing on the part of the protagonists, problematic side characters and a Doctor who is being written for this specific plot rather than sticking to his normal self. When going undercover every Doctor before now has gone by the pseudonym of John Smith, but when Capaldi's one opts to infiltrate the building under the guise of a caretaker, he insists people call him the Doctor. 

No, really. 

This is only a minor quibble in comparison to the bigger issues however, such as his attitude towards Danny. Following on from Into The Dalek, the Doctor has a sudden irrational hatred of soldiers, and because Danny was a soldier he now hates him/treats him with often condescending sneers. This isn't some sudden turn as there isn't enough motivation for this, and while the Doctor has opposed authoritative and militaristic figures in the past, anyone with a vague awareness of the show will know of his time in UNIT. You know, United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, that military group with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart leading it, something which was a staple for the entire classic series.

Danny meanwhile is little more than a jealous boyfriend now, and what we get of him is far from positive. He spends most of the story clueless, the rest of it aggravated, and it's clear that there's no real personality to him, just a bundle of possible tropes and ideas. His entire role seems to have built up to pointless comedy from other stories and new to give the Doctor a ten minute long arc which ultimately amounts to nothing overall. Clara meanwhile seems to have just slid back into the problems other writers have had, with elements of Amy Pond being tacked onto her rather than allowing her to truly be fleshed out as a character. Oh, and someone thought it was a good idea to make an irritating arrogant child aware of the TARDIS, Courtney in this case, despite the near universal backlash to this element from Nightmare in Silver.

Well, we're almost at the end of the review and the villain has yet to be mentioned, the monster of the week known as the skovox blitzer. Despite a very threatening outwards appearance, it's effectively a low grade dalek. Along with being in the episode for perhaps five minutes tops, it's ultimately a superfluous element and more of an excuse to cause problems for character relationships than actually serve as a threat. Every visual element there was ripe for a great villain but what we get is ultimately a joke at best, barely able to hit anything at close range and with the plot claiming it can destroy the entire planet in one go. All it ends in is a ridiculous computer enhanced effect of a man forward flipping over it.

Between its sloppy structuring and inability to offer anything of real interest, this is definitely one you should skip. Re-watch last week's episode, do not waste your time with this one.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Dark Heresy: Tattered Fates - Session ??? - The Last Rays Of The Thirteenth Hour

It's been some time since we've last tackled an RPG session, and I do apologise for this. Truth be told I have tried to write this a good four or five times to keep things going, but i've been running into the same problem again and again: There was too much going on but the story was ultimately meaningless.

Allow me to explain, since the last Shadowrun campaign we have had another member join our merry band of roleplayers. The quality of these recorded sessions was bad enough as it was, many desperately need a re-write, and I honestly have great difficulty noting everything down during the three hour sessions we have each week. Adding one more character, one more voice to keep track of, has started to cause things to fall between the cracks, especially with the group near endlessly splitting off to do their own thing. 

The other problem is that Tattered Fates seems to be an exceptionally badly told campaign. While our GM has blamed himself for badly explaining it, I honestly cannot see how it would work well. The party was treated like chumps, having all our equipment stolen without any tests to resist knock-out drugs, and we're then thrown into a plot we cannot hope to effect. The entire story revolves around two heretical groups wanting to use the Steel Clock for themselves, and the party can do nothing to actually stop them until the end. Just about the entire campaign is spent learning about Erasmus Haarlock, a character who never bothers to put in any kind of appearance, and the few times we did try to go after the villains it amounted to nothing. One was completely invincible and could apparently teleport to wherever he wanted to go in order to avoid us, the other would occasionally show up in crowds, laugh evilly and then disappear up his own arse for the next several sessions.

Ultimately this just resulted in our group pointlessly meandering about the building, picking up useless information on Haarlock's past which did not help us in the slightest, and occasionally getting into fights. As such, we're just going to skip to the end of this storyline, AKA the only bit of this tale which actually mattered and we could have any impact upon. The only bit you really need to know about is this - The party pillaged the living feth out of a number of artifacts from the building's trophy room. Upsetting security, the party managed to walk away with a few items of note from high quality kine blades to a legendary Space Wolf axe.

Okay, with that done, let's finish this damn thing!

As the Steel Clock slowly ticked towards the thirteenth hour, the ensemble of nobles, guests, dignitaries and rogue traders began filing into the towering antechamber where it was held. Surrounded by timers each gradually ticking towards the fated hour so many had come to experience, the Steel Clock's hands inched ever closer to that fateful moment where the heretics would make their move. Among the crowd, many were rather less than subtly readying concealed weapons, preparing to finish one old feud or another in a fleeting period where all laws would be rescinded and blood would flow through the streets. What better time was there for this Chaotic cabal to make its move, or to begin some unholy ritual involving the arcane machine.

Scattered among the crowds, the acolytes were in position. Dwr's massive form could be seen towering head and shoulders over a few frightened nobles, Bardason lurked close to the Clock itself with his new-found weapon of legend barely concealed beneath his coat, and Cromwell was ready to decapitate the first man to mention the Ruinous Powers. The only exception to this was Guilliman, who had opted to head for the upper terraces of the room. This had been in part to help the psyker pin-point the Widower or members of the cult upon appearing, but more pressingly a few precious blades just happened to be preserved in glass cases on that level. Hey, with all crimes being rescinded, who was going to object to him pillaging a few goods and start laying down the Emperor's justice.

Well, slowly but inevitably every clock hit thirteen and a deafening roar echoed throughout the building. The chimes from before had been loud enough to burst a man's ear drums or make him temporarily deaf, but these had some unnatural edge to them. Something was clearly wrong with the clock itself and this was only reinforced as a shadow cloaked man bearing an animal mask took to the stage before it. Right on cue our heretics had revealed themselves, but before we could storm the stage something terrible happened. 

The Inquisitorial agents had expected the worst, they had expected daemons, perhaps even traitor astartes among their ranks, summoning circles and the like. It was at this point that they truly learnt why the Steel Clock had been so important to their plans. The room, perhaps even all of Gabriel Chase, was flooded with some unnatural blue light of an alien sun as reality itself seemed to crack open around the clock. Charged with the force of the Warp the light of an alien sun, an unnatural star, was unleashed upon the astonished populace as the cultists had begun firing. A few of our group, those more knowledgeable about such subjects realised the true magnitude of what Haarlock had chained within the Steel Clock: A fragment of the Hereticus Tenebrae. By some unknown means, Haarlock had managed to lock rays from the terrifying Tyrant Star within the construct. If we did not halt them here, if we could not find a way to destroy this baleful light, every living thing on the world of Quaddis would be gone within the hour. 

Mistakenly thinking that the cultists now firing into the crowds needed human blood for whatever ritual they planned, Bardason drew two laspisols and began picking off the heretics. The barbaric Guardsman was rewarded with a few kills, but failed to make any real impact on the slaughter, save for drawing some of the fire to himself. As he was dodging bullets, Cromwell opted to get in on the fighting himself and charged a cultist near the portal, starting a fight with him and a few other mooks. This unfortunately didn't go in his favour and the Tech Priest was soon on the back-foot.

With two members engaged against cannon fodder, Dwr opted to simply charge the one leading the cult, and bloody murder soon followed. Despite being an ancient practitioner of the powers of the Warp, a psyker beyond all reckoning, Dwr had the advantage of complete immunity to his abilities and being built like a brick shithouse. Cue the cultist being repeatedly punched across the room as the arbites officer shrugged off bio lighting, pyrokinesis and the odd summoned daemon.

I'd say this villain's name but quite frankly he was not important. He was featured so little in the campaign besides cameo appearances once in a blue moon, and is killed off by the GMPC, so he really didn't matter in the end.

What did matter was the sudden emergence of the Widower. Coming completely out of left field, the xenos creature was screaming obscenities, butchering its way through everything in sight as it charged towards the Clock. Even as Guilliman dropped down and entered the melee himself, things were going badly. Along with a rampaging creature bearing down upon two members of our group, Cromwell was losing his fight against one cultist badly. For all his enhancements and augmentations thanks to his power armour, the cultist he was brawling against was the more skilled warrior. 

Punched backwards again and again, the Tech Priest swung a multitude of punches before realising the clock was open, exposing its internal mechanisms. Something within it hung at the end of the pendulum, a solid core of some unknown crystalline material of deepest black. The only thing it seemed to resemble at all was the Widower. Even as he noticed this, Cromwell was slammed from behind by another foe and sent tumbling into the machine's inner workings. Desperately grasping for the object, Cromwell managed to yell a fleeting warning before he was torn to pieces. As the flesh was stripped from his bones and metal warped beyond all recognition, within mere seconds the Magos was ripped to pieces by the arcane machinery and unknown forces within the creation.

With a yell of denial, Guilliman and Bardason both charged the clock even as the Widower arrived before them, leering at the two humans and hungry for combat. Unhooking the Axe of Baldr, the legendary weapon he'd looted, from across his back Bardason stormed forwards, hacking again and again at the creature's viscous skin with the power of fate itself. Even as he did, Guilliman charged from the other side, both of his psychically charged weapons humming with the force of his mind, slashing through the creature in a blinding storm of spinning blades. 

Between them the two inflicted enough damage to kill a space marine twice over, and yet it was not enough. Within moments it reformed, completely bereft of all damage and slammed into Bardason. The Fenrisian staggered back, barely avoiding the same fate as Cromwell before spotting the same crystalline object within its centre. Reeling from one of the Widower's blows, Bardason spun, dropping the axe and lunging out with his bionic arm. Punching it towards the crystal, its outer casing warped by some unknown force of time energy within its centre, Bardason's metal fist closed about the object. Even as the Widower screamed in denial, striking him again and again, Bardason fell back, ripping it free of the Steel Clock's housing.

The effect was instantaneous. Still screaming, the Widower began to boil away, its form collapsing into little more than a graying puddle of whimpering alien matter as the fragment binding it to the Steel Clock was removed. At the same time, the light shining through the building abruptly ceased with a roaring thunderclap, the Steel Clock itself grinding to a halt within seconds of its pendulum's removal. As quickly as it had begun, the crisis was over, leaving no sign of the calamity which had almost befallen Quaddis save for the the corpses littering the room. The panicked moans and yells from beyond, far into the city, suggested that this was hardly isolated to the building itself, and worse had befallen those beyond Gabriel Chase's limits.

With nothing left of their companion, unwilling to accept blame for this incident and with no way to prove their connections to the Inquisition, the band bravely fled the scene of the crime to hide within the city. Only after looting a few valuable gems on the way out of course. By the time Van Graff and the rest of the Inquisition caught up with them, the band had been toasting Cromwell's memory with the expensive bottle of fine wine he had stolen from the Inquisitior's office.

Another task had drawn to a close, but with in far more solemn manner than usual the band drank to their victory. More conflicts would await them in the weeks to come, more aliens would threaten humanity and worse things awaited them in the cold void between worlds. Even as they drank their last, the bottled remnants of the Widower chillingly whispered the same words over and over again: "He is coming."

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Thursday, 25 September 2014

Destiny (Video Game Review)

Love them or hate them, few can deny the impact Bungie has had on the modern gaming scene over the past three generations with the Halo franchise. Having contributed to the success of the Xbox repeatedly, understandably, Destiny was hyped for the new generation. The result is a solid combination of Action-RPG and first-person shooter ideas, but don’t buy too much into the hype.

The story is certainly nothing to write home about. Some dark nebulous force almost drove humanity to extinction years ago, there’s a giant alien orb in the sky, and you’re one of a few heroes who can hunt down aliens. Peter Dinklage voices both a floating robot companion and the narrator.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Hyrule Warriors (Video Game Review)

Playing out as the Crisis on Infinite Earths of the Zelda franchise, Hyrule Warriors sees a new threat arising in Hyrule. Falling to the dark influences of Ganondorf, the sorceress Cia opens the Gate of Souls, a portal to various points throughout the timeline. Now the heroes of Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword must ally to prevent the Triforce from falling into Ganondorf’s hands.

As you might have guessed from that description, what’s here is little more than an excuse for gratuitous fan-service but it’s hard not to grin as the nostalgia kicks in. From the classic themes to remade locations, what’s here is everything a Zelda fan would want despite the shift to a far more combat focused experience of fighting vast armies.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Final Fantasy II - A Story of Loss and War

It goes without saying that Final Fantasy is one of the biggest and most successful series on the market. Even after being repeatedly marred by the development team's obsession over Final Fantasy XIII and a disastrous initial release of XIV, as a whole the franchise stands strong. While certainly having a fair number of dumb storytelling moments, you'll find plenty of fans willing to defend just about any title in the series and put forwards genuinely good reasons why one in particular is a personal favourite. 

Some enjoy how X dealt with the idea of religion, others enjoyed the more straight forwards adventuring tale of XII and how it tackled the subject of loyalty, and VII needs no explanation. This said, one in particular seems to have been constantly overlooked despite offering some surprisingly effective storytelling methods which hold up today: Final Fantasy II.

Still fairly on into series, II still clung to the trappings of the original Final Fantasy. There were few lengthy cutscenes, the characters were ciphers with few scenes made to really flesh them out and little back-story to them. What's more is that little time was actually taken to really establish a world lore or even many basic ideas we take for granted today, such as each town having its own individual histories, or even for the villain to be directly connected with the hero in some way. Despite that however, it actually manages to enhance a few points present in the story and emphasises upon its main themes.

The big background to Final Fantasy II is that a massive war is raging across the land between the Palamecian Empire and the White Rose Rebellion, what little remains of the previous kingdoms. The conflict has been going on for some time now and you're only given a few basic hints as to how it started, where it came from and the enemy in question remains unknown. 

Your first real introduction to them is when the party's home town is invaded and occupied, causing them to flee and try to fight their way clear, leaving their identity very much unknown. While there are monsters among their ranks, many are obviously human and we never truly learn that much about them. On the one hand this does leave much of the Empire as a blank slate, but on the other it also helps to present a very ground level viewpoint on the enemy. The only thing you are aware of is that they want your side dead and that, ultimately, any meeting is not going to be amicable. There's no bit where you run into guards and they just let you pass or goof about like in other games, no lengthy cutscenes where they're humanised, you're a part of a war now and they will fight and kill you on sight as you're their enemy.

This lack of identity could be regarded as a flaw, but it helps to reinforce the brutality of their nature and the world itself. When you first visit a city occupied by the Empire, Fynn, the streets are crawling with the Empire's troops and you can't simply grind your way through them. Attempting to fight one will almost certainly result in a single guard steamrolling your entire party in a couple of turns and it sends a very clear message: You're in a very dangerous world which can kill you with one wrong step. You've only just been conscripted, you are not some unstoppable badass who can wade through troops at a moment's notice.

Much of the game is spent reinforcing this message and the very environments themselves can serve as a reminder of this. Unlike the Elder Scrolls games or later Final Fantasy titles, enemies on the overworld do not scale with you and it's easy to accidentally stroll into areas well beyond your ability to fight. Go too far north of Fynn and try to explore, and you'll have creatures spawning in you cannot hope to hurt and will one-shot you immediately. There are no barriers to prevent you trying to do this, no exact borders to help you show where is where, you can just easily run into a high level area by being careless.

This creates a sense of constant danger and encourages caution on the part of the player at every turn, building a sense of real threat in the conflict. When you are sent out on missions or to complete objectives for the White Rose Rebellion, half the time you are having to cautiously test environments to see how threatening they are. A nice bonus which definitely helps to emphasise upon this is that several high level enemies you can accidentally bump into serve as bosses early on. In particular the Land Turtle and Sergeant both show up as big boss fights, but can be easily run into within the first couple of hours by pressing too far ahead or being overconfident.

The obvious added advantage of this is that it also creates a far more palpable sense of gaining strength as you slowly turn the tide of the conflict and become stronger. As you become capable of taking down the Empire's Captains your party's objectives become bolder attacks upon the enemy. While your initial attacks might be infiltration missions and effectively delaying tactics to try and gain some edge against the Empire, taking the fight to them in open battles and overcoming the enemies which once crushed you in any fight.

However, it's not this which assists the war element of Final Fantasy II the most but how it deals with loss and death. In just about every Final Fantasy tale now characters will die in some glorious cutscene or their end be exaggerated somehow, whereas here it's very understated in almost every situation. There's little heroic or artistic about how it handles the deaths of countless people, they just die in needless or often unnecessary ways, some just caught in the crossfire.

An early example of this is in the early towns you visit, the White Rose Rebellion's headquarters in Altair, and small but unremarkable towns like Poft or sprawling metropolises like Paloom. These areas are treated as you would expect for any JRPG, as minor locations which have a few taverns, shops and NPCs who relay the odd bit of information about the world. Then the game twists your expectations in order to punch you in the gut. At a specific point the Empire launches an all out assault to finally take control of the remaining towns, cities and locations they cannot hold. These towns are devastated, their buildings torn asunder by heavy artillery and the townsfolk massacred. However, the difference here is that unlike later works by Square Enix, this is not done in some massive cutscene. You see the Empire beginning its attack, and then when you next enter a town it's in ruins. There's no massive moment to it, no huge monument to how powerful this assault was, just a few traumatised NPCs left of the dozens who once occupied each place.

This becomes even worse at a later point when the Empire uses another secret weapon upon them without you even knowing of it. The first real point you'll learn of it is when you take the airship back to Altair, land and try to enter the town only to just stand there on the overworld. There is nothing left of it or several other major locations, they are just gone, wiped off of the face of the earth along with just about everyone who lived there. It hits far harder than seeing this happen in some massively expensively animated cutscene, primarily because it hinges upon such a basic mechanic. The inability to even basically interact or walk about the ruins just hammers home how truly obliterated each one was and how everything there is now completely gone, lost for good.

The fact half the world's major population centres are wiped out is not the only area where the game really uses loss, and it's evident even among the party members. Final Fantasy II was the first in its series to use temporary additions to the party, and it's used as an excuse to rack up the body count to astoundingly high levels. Several of the major characters who do join you end up dead at various points in the story, often after they have long been established with unique backstories and histories for themselves. 

This would normally be almost expected of a title today, but the developers went the additional mile of making their losses felt as keenly as possible. While Firion, Maria and Guy are the main characters you stick with, they're ultimately ciphers with few lines and little in the way of backstory. They serving more as stand-ins for the players than figures in their own right, and it's effectively everyone else who has the notable history. As such, when you start to get to know a character who joins you, a small part of your mind is dreading the idea that they might fall in battle and be lost to you, because you're given more reason to care about them than anyone else in the game.

Many of the characters' deaths are also far from glorious or dignified, and even go the additional mile of hammering in just how terrible their loss is. Several leave families behind you need to bring news of their end to, and the deaths of other characters mark the passing of entire orders of warriors with no one left to train the next generation. This is to say nothing of just how they die. 
The first character lost isn't in some massive Duel of the Fates battle against an overwhelming enemy, it's against a traitorous worm who you easily steamroll in open battle, only to activate a trap at the last second which kills someone. Another gives up his life because he has no other choice and it's the only way they can even come close to victory, solemnly accepting his fate. Even the one who does pull a full Gandalf ("You shall not pass!") is never seen fighting, and you don't see him gloriously holding his own against the inevitable to buy time for others. He just manages to buy the party a few moments, and you last see him about to be killed by an overwhelming foe.

Given its fairly basic graphics and very minimalist story, it doesn't feel underplayed or cheap as it might have otherwise done in a later generation. Like many aspects of the tale the limitations of this era , it manages to oddly enhance elements of the story and makes the impact of their deaths hit that much harder because they lack so many of the cues we've come to expect from video game deaths. Subconciously or not, while watching a lot of media humans have come to separate real violence and death with fictional violence. Whether it's a Mortal Kombat fatality or just the hammering thwack of someone's fist connecting with a man's skull, there's points which people pick up on to reassure themselves it's not a true death. While what's here might be eight bit deaths, there's a distinct lack of that element at any real point.

While the deaths of so many characters in this manner hits hard, its actually the ending which assists the most in hammering home this theme. While far more cheerfully done than it might be today, this was still being aimed at younger demographic after all, what's there is amazingly bittersweet for its era. The celebrations made are fleeting, with few people there and there's more talk about rebuilding or pushing on to move past the war than anything else. There's no cheering crowds, no masses of people attending your victory, you've won this war and life needs to move on. Despite it being the end of the game, it's not the end of the characters' lives and simply killing the Emperor has not solved everything.

What's also notable is that, given the sorts of allies the rebellion had to side with in order to claw back its way into power, the game makes it clear many will become problems in the future. Several criminals who assisted in taking down the Empire immediately break away from the White Rose forces and go back to their own lives, pillaging and stealing wherever they can. Leila, a pirate captain, was first encountered trying to rob and murder the party for her own ends, and she's now going back to that lifestyle with the war over. Paul, a thief who sided with the Rebellion, outright says that he will likely be forced to steal from the heroes with the Empire gone now. With the big enemy gone, the unity between these groups has broken down and they'll likely be fighting among themselves for the future.

Even a major plot point which surrounds a party member turning against his friends is never truly resolved. Killing the Emperor has ultimately changed nothing, and he's not truly turned good again. While he was willing to fight a far worse evil, he knows that there is too much bad blood between them and leaves for good, stating "For us, there can be no going back." The heroes have emerged changed from the conflict, and it is not entirely for the better, many will carry scars from the war for the rest of their days, despite wanting to live in peace once again.

The game's closing lines are hopeful, informing the player that the the wounds of the conflict would gradually mend and that peace would allow the world to recover from the harrowing conflict. That said, it's also suggested that this would take a great deal of time, and both for the rubble to be swept away and the memories of such bitter days to fade. The heroes' fight was worth it in the end, and they would be remembered for their efforts, but once again it's not a victory which would instantly solve every problem altogether. Compare that with the endings to many other Final Fantasy stories, especially V and XIII, and it's far more subdued in its own way, showing all the glory they have earned but not shying away from the blood shed in doing so either.

Is Final Fantasy II the best in the series? Definitely not. The title suffered from some exploitable gameplay issues it's become infamous for and many storytelling elements are fairly simplistic. It lacked the ambition of later titles and didn't take the same strides as them to really push complex narratives, but at the same time it manages to retain many key elements which they never fully grasped. It's far more intelligent than a lot of people give it credit for, and going back to look at it now it definitely deserves to be remembered for pushing for more mature storytelling and subjects of its time. This is to say nothing of the soundtrack, which is easily among the best music produced by early Squaresoft with an outstanding ending theme and excellent boss music.

If you are at all curious, the PSP remake did a lot to correct the original game's old problems and added on an additional story known as Soul of Rebirth, further expanding upon the fates of many characters. Given how cheaply it can be picked up these days, it's well worth a look if you're a fan of JRPGs or want to one day study the development of video game narrative in its earliest years. Plus, what else are you going to spend that cash on, the PC port of XIII

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Doctor Who: Time Heist (Episode Review)

The last time we covered an episode of Who, the big problem was that it was a solid episode from the get-go let down by a sub-par conclusion, at least in my personal opinion. Well, amazingly Time Heist actually does the reverse. While these reviews don't go into spoilers for obvious reasons, the episode starts out fairly weakly, but gets progressively stronger as time goes by, without out-staying its welcome. While hardly perfect it's one well worth sitting through, it just could have been better.

The story this time is that the Doctor, Clara and two other criminals suddenly awaken in a dark room on an unknown planet. Holding onto worms which devour their memories (a nice call-back to The Snowmen) they soon learn that each of them has voluntarily lost parts of their history in order to accomplish a monolithic task: Break into the most heavily secure bank in the galaxy, find several items, and retrieve them for an unknown employer. A difficult job even for the best of professionals, but one which they must complete in the name of survival...

Like much of the previous era of Doctor Who, this one starts extremely fast and is trying to rely upon throwing as much at the audience as possible. Right from the beginning you see this happening, as soon as the cliff notes for the group's heist is covered they immediately have guards hammering down the door to their bolt-hole. As soon as they enter the bank, the big monster is introduced taking down some other poor sap, along with an establishing moment for the villain. It's trying to keep you engaged by never allowing you to be bored, and this both does and doesn't work.

The first way in which it works is that, with less than an hour to tell the story, the episode can't pull off a full Hustle or Ocean's Eleven plot as it might want to. As such it needs to keep the audience engaged by starting the pacing at a run and never slowing down. That's fine and it actually does work for the later sections, once they get past the first act this means that there's never a dull moment and you are always engaged in what's going on. The writers know how to spin this tale and keep viewers guessing as new elements are added, but they don't over-complicate things with too many superfluous additions.

The obvious issue which causes this problems is that it means the episode lacks a real set-up. Every good heist tale or bank robbery needs a plan, investigations and a real establishing moment in which it gets viewers to know the skills of every person, and the possible traps that they face. This is all skimmed over with bits added here and there to try and make up for this. However, while this causes problems we'll get into in a minute, one particular twist in the tale manages to make this work, largely excusing this fault and suddenly giving the story a far more coherent premise.

Furthermore, while little is really seen of the bank's security or even the more extensive checks you would expect for a planet, the big method of keeping people out is terrifying enough. The Teller, one of the most interesting new aliens of this era so far, puts a new spin upon the threat of telepathy had is unique enough of a design to truly keep the story going. Massive, alien and seemingly radiating menace, it has enough fear factor to really enforce the threat failure poses for the group. While even the additional security measures made by the bank are barely seen, this thing's potential and the bank's ruthless methods are enough to cement how powerful they truly are. There's also another twist relating to the creature and several figures around it, but all are quickly delivered in a way which feels satisfying rather than coming out of nowhere.

Perhaps most importantly however, the timey-wimey element of the story is in the title, but its exact nature is held back. You're kept guessing as to how this all plays out, but once it is introduced it explains just about everything behind the story. Better yet, it's also an establishing moment which leans more towards the darker nature of Capaldi's Doctor, displaying more of what was promised and pushing him in the direction of Sylvester McCoy's famed chess master incarnation. This is really the time-travel element done right and it's what the show needs more of, not so overly showy and complex that it causes problems, but intelligent enough to keep the audience enthralled.

Special props also needs to be given to director Douglas Mackinnon for his work on this tale, as he manages to balance the best elements of a heist's visual storytelling with everything you would want in science fiction. The normal kinetic and frantic shots you would expect are all there, along with the odd stylised transition at key points, but it also manages to home in on the money shots the BBC would want for dramatic reveals and trailers. This is especially clear with the Teller, and Mackinnon shows he knows how to let the advanced make-up and brilliant design of the monster do his work for him. That might sound like a back-handed insult, but it's a problem with certain directors in a lot of films - Some are given truly brilliant set-pieces to work with but they never know how to shoot it or let it shine through on its own.

Now, despite all this praise there are problems and Time Heist is far from perfect. The obvious problem is, as you might guess, a fairly weak opening act which, while having its moments, causes plenty of problems. Once again we have Clara and Danny's relationship slammed jarringly into the story and taking up the first few minutes. While thankfully ditched quite quickly, it's yet another unnecessary addition to a tale and ultimately adds nothing of real worth. Furthermore, there desperately needed to be a point set to properly explain things. Without any real establishing moment, the story does suffer and it lacks that build-up most heist stories have to truly get things moving and create a sense of anticipation. Without that, the tale really is suffering from the start and too much time is spent getting into the swing of things.

The story might break conventions in many respects, but they were also conventions established for a reason, and not enough is done in their place. While the specialists are introduced, the issue is that we barely know them. For all the importance the episode places upon Psi and Saibra, two additional specialists, it does little to flesh them out beyond their skills. While the actors' talents do offer a little dimension to them, their involvement lacked the real impact it needed. This definitely wasn't helped by the fact that, without properly establishing several big security problems for them to overcome, their skills eventually seemed needless. Okay, not entirely fair, there were points where they were needed but they go off without a hitch and they're brushed over so fast they might as well be blink-and-you'll-miss-it bits. That lack of classic complication only hurt the story and any reason the audience had to truly care about them.

Another distinctively irritating point, and the one issue which really holds back the Teller, is that the episode once more delves into territory which is becoming cliched. There is a whole sequence which reeks of the "don't blink" sort of trend we keep seeing done time and time again, which worked far better in Deep Breath in every possible way. Worse still, this leads to an unfortunate number of plot holes which the story immediately glosses over and opens no end of issues for one specific point in the tale. Add to that the same reliance upon brief nods to classic tales to distract old fans, and it's still relying upon bad habits the show seriously needs to kick as soon as the writers possibly can.

Ultimately, is Time Heist poignant and a monument to television? No, and it's not something you'll re-watch any time again soon. That said it does remain solidly entertaining for all its flaws, the episode focused purely upon telling a solid story and it ultimately accomplished that goal. It's still very much a mixed bag, and the story definitely needed another fifteen minutes and a few script edits to shape things up, but it's good for an entertaining Doctor Who episode. Plus, whatever else you might think of it, it's well worth it for one late scene with Capaldi who continues to take his role in stride. Keep your expectations grounded but don't judge this one too quickly.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Firestorm Armada In Sixteen Sentences

If you've ever been interested at all in Firestorm Admada, or are simply missing the days Battlefleet Gothic was actually supported by its creators, here's a quick run down on the factions. Believe it or not this is surprisingly accurate and sums up the most appealing elements of each one.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Doctor Who: Listen – 7 Failures Which Destroy The Story

Broadcast this past weekend, Listen was the latest episode in Doctor Who to try and established just who Capaldi’s incarnation of the iconic Time Lord truly is. From the manic beginnings with a lengthy regeneration story to a shocking ruthless streak in Into The Dalek, then some plain old silliness in Robot of Sherwood, series eight seems to be trying everything and anything. Listen now took things a step further, but with mixed results. While a chilling tale with excellent writing and direction for the most part, by the end just about everything falls to bits.

The Batman Effect - Why Warhammer 40,000 Works

An unfortunate trend in many articles on this blog and The Founding Fields is that, beyond Black Library books, many articles about the setting tend to be negative. Looking back, the vast majority of codex reviews have been negative or moderate, with few times when anything has been truly praised with any great enthusiasm. So, in order to correct that somewhat, this article is going to look into why Warhammer 40,000 works as a setting. This will specifically look into just why the universe is so great, and it can ultimately be put down to one thing: The Batman Effect. Something it does even better than the caped crusader himself.

Anyone who has actually looked up Batman, or most superheroes for that matter, will know they've run the gambit in terms of themes, styles and presentation. The character has had such a varied number of artists, authors and creators working on him for so long that he can be molded into just about any story and someone, somewhere will still find a way to make it work. 

Think about it for a minute. First of all he was quite a dark, serious vigilante still using guns to bring down the cowardly and suspicious criminals while dressed as a winged rodent of the night. Then, during the Silver Age and Adam West TV series, he turned into a bright, bold, colourful character who often operated during the day and did little to strike fear into the hearts of his enemies. Since this time, presentation of the character has gone back and forth continually, occasionally angling towards the serious portrayal while others veer towards the Shark Repellent Bat Spray look.

What makes this specially notable however, is that both work equally well with the character and have their own kind of charm. The very idea of a billionare dressing up as a bat is just that very specific kind of ridiculous that it can pass itself off as a Christopher Nolan film, or something like Batman: The Brave and the Bold without any problems. This same element can be found within many franchises over the years which have seen surprisingly solid writing despite their origins, but I'd honestly argue Warhammer 40,000 is the setting which truly exemplifies this. Why? Because it can simultaneously pull off ridiculously satirical parodies of grim dark futures, while at the same time telling fantastic downfall stories.

This is the universe which features both the Horus Heresy and Ork WAAAGHS! after all. One is a genuinely well told tale of downfall and tragedy which saw the death of a truly hopeful future for the universe and a slow, grinding conflict which turned the Imperium into a true dystopia. The other consists of a massive swarm of cockney accented humanoid fungi who constantly engage in a hybrid between a pub crawl and a holy crusade. Both exist alongside one another, yet neither is out of place and they manage to fit together without any problems.

Admittedly, the universe does veer from one presentation to the next when it comes to these factions. You wouldn't see the Eisenhorn series featuring Doomrider or the like in all their manic glory, and when orks have shown up in the more seriously told books they have often been shown in a more outright dangerous light. The Soul Drinkers series, Rynn's World and a few other novels have done this, but no fan bats an eye because their characterisation is broad enough to allow for a portrayal without so much intentional humour. The universe is flexible enough, adaptable enough, that each portrayal can work without any real contradictions. When it really comes down to it, you can compare the Gaunt's Ghosts series with Ciaphas Cain books and, despite the differing tones, there's never any difficulty in seeing them be part of the same setting.

The few times when things go wrong in terms of writing are not down to the universe in question so much as the writers covering it. Just going back to Batman for a second, Batman and Robin was made to emulate the Adam West series, but it seemed not to realise why any of it worked. It kept the same campy elements but it lacked the same truly manic charm and seemed unwilling to truly embrace it so wholeheartedly. This is to say nothing of Batman himself, who was more based upon later incarnations than the 1960s version. As such, while it gravitated towards the old TV series, it was ultimately stuck between two very different ideas.

The same can be seen in the worst of Games Workshop's codices, especially those which take elements from the Second Edition. In the case of many, much of the original idea was still there but it was played too straight faced, and without any effort to really make jokes at an army's expense. You can probably guess the specific codex which truly shows just how bad this can be at times.

Overall though, its for this reason that I would argue the setting works. While established canon and certain points in its history need to be maintained, at least those which are well written, it has enough of a range and is broad enough of a setting to become what an author needs at the time. You can argue the same for Warhammer Fantasy, but in all honesty that setting seems to work better when played a little more straight faced on the whole. Admittedly though, that's also a universe which has Gotrek and Felix still merrily slaying anything they come across.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Doctor Who: Listen (Episode Review)

The series so far has been quite the roller-coaster ride hasn't it? For every serious episode we get it's immediately followed up by a wacky comedy or some massive tonal shift to something entirely different. So, after last week's Robot of Sherwood we now have Listen, apparently set up as a horror story and nightmarish tale of woe. It's certainly a bit jarring to go from one to the next, with each bit only working if you completely separate them out, and that goes for the episode as well.

The Doctor has become obsessed with an idea, thinking of things which hide in the corners of the universe and stay away from all others, of primordial fears and old ideas. His theories are seemingly proven when something is written inside the TARDIS, in his own handwriting, yet he has no memory of ever leaving it there. Clara meanwhile, returning from her disastrous date with Danny, is soon dragged into this event and soon many things are thrown into question...

Now, to be completely clear, the episode works for the most part. Unlike Into The Dalek, this is not one which is outright bad and there are multiple segments which do work. For the most part the episode is fairly solid and the idea does work. Despite a rather abrupt introduction with the Doctor ranting to himself, the hook proves to be so effective, and Capaldi's performance is so great, it immediately works. The same goes for the following scene and the one next.

Overall the episode is aiming for a very creepy vibe rather than an outright scary one, and taps back into the concept of childhood fears. Now, while we've seen this done way too many damn times before it's initially handled well enough to warrant the audience's interest. This is only improved as the story goes by, oddly thanks to it breaking a core rule of directing. The episode tells the audience things rather than truly showing them, but the idea behind the monsters is that they are never seen. We catch the odd possible glimpses of them, hints of their presence, but it never directly shows them. This allows Capaldi, Coleman and the other actors to react to some serious potential threats, building the atmosphere.

Most of the episode leaves the audience almost entirely in the dark, never knowing the full truth nor allowing them enough real information to truly judge what is going on. It manages to hook the audience in with enough details to keep them interesting, pull them along with tantalizing hints and letting Steven Moffat do what he does best with his writing. Better yet, some extremely creepy scenes are shot by Douglas Mackinnon fantastically capture the haunting nature of many locations, especially those in the past. Focusing upon key objects and building with the right number of close ups, he manages to shoot every scene effectively like that of a horror film creating a very unsettling feeling from the start.

Things work even better towards the end as they move into the future, heading to the very end of days. They encounter a man trapped there, accidentally stuck on the very last place in existence, yet with the door to the outside world locked. There is also something very specifically interesting about this man as he is tied into Clara's past and leaves some very strong hints for his future. Much of this also works because the script knows when to take a break and branch off into secondary things to help break up the feelings of horror. This primarily comes into play with Clara's date, and unlike before it's definitely more integral to the story. While still awkwardly shoved into the narrative, you can at least see its reason for being there and what role it plays within the tale.

Unfortunately, things start to go very wrong in the final act. Up to that point the episode had made missteps, but somewhat forgivable ones. Okay, the story was working more as a series of isolated segments than a single cohesive piece and it was obviously re-using Moffat's old ideas with very little editing. At the same time however, they were well done enough that it was easy to accept they were there and the episode was obviously going somewhere with its ideas. Unfortunately, by the end, it then pulls a Lost. Everything leading up to that point stops making sense, and while the writing is trying to be smart, it only succeeds in ripping a few dozen plot holes into its narrative.

While the conclusion cannot be talked about without spoilers, you'll quickly see where things go wrong. It not only directly contradicts everything leading up to then, completely contradicts rather than plays with people's expectations, but it breaks a few major taboos. It's not only trying to turn Clara into the most important companion ever once again, it also suffers from the failing of going into the Doctor's personal history to an unforgivable degree. This would be bad enough, but it not only torpedoes any goodwill of the audience, it manages to destroy any potential behind the re-used ideas. Whereas before they could have been something great, now they are obviously just cut and paste jobs with no payoff.

The ending is truly abysmal, and while the episode tries to deflect it with fan-service it fails to deliver any real answers or even go anywhere with its main concepts. This could have been something fantastic, and for almost the entire way though it is solid, but it then putters out into complete tosh. It's truly sad to see this happen, as without it this could have been the first truly outstanding story of the Capaldi era. 

Still, perhaps this is the trend we're going to get now. Every odd episode is good, every even episode is bad in some way. It'd certainly be an interesting trend to remember this series by.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

10 Astounding Tales Which Exemplify Dwarf Fortress’ Insanity

Even in the day and age where entire video game communities can be built upon personal modding and the indie scene is booming, it’s safe to say there’s nothing quite like Dwarf Fortress. Despite spawning a fair number of imitators, not one has yet to capture the same staggering difficulty curve, insane level of detail, sheer madness nor the charm which comes from a minimalist graphics set and almost inaccessible interface. Almost the entire community of Bay 12’s Forums is driven by accomplishing the impossible and discovering the new exploits with every new version of the game. From attempting to convert an entire ocean into one massive mermaid farm to abusing a programming bug which turns drawbridges into atom smashing weapons of war, there’s seemingly no end to the creative madness both behind the game and among its players.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising (Video Game Review)

Before we truly get into the meat of this article there's something which needs to be commented upon: Someone on the development team was obviously a fanboy of British sci-fi. It's either that or they had one of the best casting teams ever attached to a project.

If you were to go into this, just booting up the game without looking up any new information, you might be a little surprised to hear Tom Barker's booming voice serving as the narrator. A little surprising to say the least, but this was from the early 2000s, and Baker had worked on a few video games in that time. Of course, then you see Warren Ellis' name being credited as the head writer, and in the following scene hear Paul Darrow and Glynis Barber discussing a new threat they face.

Yes, this is a title in which the Doctor as narrator, two members of Blake's 7 as your support team and the story written by the mastermind behind StormWatch. Throw in Grant Morrison or BRIAN BLESSED and Hostile Waters would be a one game British sci-fi convention. It also helps that along with this staggering amount of talent you get a fantastic real time strategy title.

The story behind this one is set in humanity's future, several decades ahead of now. Despite years of conflict, war and strife, the world has begun to fully advance into a utopian society. Having cast off the corporations, corrupt governments and warmongers of the last century, it seems at long last that peace might finally reign across the earth. However, old monsters do not die easily. United as a Cabal, the old remnants have united as a single force and are ready to try and take back the world they consider to be theirs, by force preferably. It is now up to a few chosen leaders to re-learn the ways of war and awaken the last of the adaptive cruisers from its watery resting place. A final war has begun, to decide whether Earth's future lies with the people or in a tyrant's fist.

Yeah, it's a Warren Ellis script. The guy might be good at writing, but he's not subtle and a lot of his old tropes appear here. Nanomachines are key to humanity's future, corporations are evil, governments are corrupt, conspiracies are afoot and the ending looks bleak. The presentation of the events building up to the end and the plot twist are a little played out by now, but Ellis still finds a way to keep them interesting with his own unique brand of futurism.

It's admittedly well handled for the most part and the presentation at least is interesting, but there are a few cutscenes which will leave you facepalming. The scene featuring the cabal in particular is so facepalmingly over the top that it simply can't be taken with even a smidgen of seriousness. That said, it still remains far more engaging and better written than what's traditionally found in many RTS games, save for the likes of Homeworld or a few others.

Still, the story here mainly serves to set up atmosphere, drive the tale along and to help justify missions. It's got substance, but it's still largely window dressing, so what are the mechanics like here? Inspired heavily by Carrier Command, you're given the opportunity to create, outfit and deploy multiple units at a time, choosing who pilots each one and what they are armed with. Half the time you control them via a map screen RTS style, pausing the combat and ordering each unit about as they attempt to complete their mission. The rest of the time you get into the thick of the fighting yourself, switching between craft at will.

Its overall style is somewhat akin to the old Battlezone series but it's also far more refined and streamlined. There's certainly no base building present here, you already have what you need, but the real tactical incentive comes from how you approach each mission in turn. For example, resource management is key as you need multiple collectors to scurry about, rooting through ruined buildings and chewing through the hulls of enemy vehicles. As your base is a floating assault carrier and there are no stockpiles of ore, you can't have these hang back and need to cover them in a gradually advancing blitzkrieg. 

This would normally be irritating to those preferring turtling tactics but the ability allowing you to pause, personally take control, and tailor make vehicles to your liking gives a new element. It means you can rely more upon personal skill and careful planning is hardly thrown out of the window, forcing you to keep going but never devolving into a chaotic rush. Even choosing the right pilot for the right job is key as giving them something they are skilled in will yield a damage multiplier.

The levels ease players into this new style with ease within just a few missions. The first few are breathers which gradually build up the enemies after introducing one mechanic after the other until you can start truly fighting. It's a smooth transition and that honestly goes for just about everything in the missions which follow. Several major twists take place, completely changing the nature of the game's big enemies or with exceptionally powerful new units rearing their ugly heads, but it never feels out of left field. This might sound like unnecessary praise, but anyone who has seen this go wrong with too many new elements thrown in at once will know how easily it can torpedo a promising title.

The controls for each vehicle, no matter if they are tracked, VTOL or supersonic jet, are all extremely responsive and easy to use from the start. Given how you are so often expected to take manual control of vehicles and the variety of weapons on hand this is especially welcoming, and it never feels too simplistic in spite of this fact. While you might hunger for a secondary weapon or want to develop some new method of fighting your way inland, this is quenched by the customisation system and the variety of vehicles on offer.

Now, despite this Hostile Waters does have a few notable shortcomings thanks to its age and a few poor design choices. The game's visuals have not aged well, that much is obvious just from looking at it, but that does go for almost anything of its era and at least the animations are fairly smooth with some decent textures. No, the real problems come from the game's set-up and certain gameplay elements.

You might notice the black bars present in each picture so far on this article, and each of those were generated by the game itself. You have to do a bit of fiddling about in order to get the screen right and deal with a few issues like the fact no one has joysticks anymore. It's only a small issue which should be obvious, but if you've become accustomed to most games working right off of the bat then it can catch you off guard. The more irritating problem is that you can't edit screensize or a lot of options in the game itself, and need to leave it each time until you get things right.

Still, that's only a minor qualm. A bigger problem is that there are a few obviously gamebreaking builds which can allow players to stroll through most missions. The really big one is using the cloaking device on the Puma and equipping it with a flamethrower. This will allow you to perform hit and run attacks at key resource locations at your leisure and there's few points which it really doesn't work. Even before getting the flamethrower it's still effective so long as you don't mind risking losing the vehicle, and even then they make excellent spotters for your carrier's guns. For a title with so many customisable options, it just seems like they should have spent more time ironing out the issues behind this specific combination.

The final issue, and perhaps the most irritating one, is that Hostile Waters seriously lacks much in the way of replay value. It's a single player title and you're only given little more than a dozen missions. While this will keep you entertained for the better part of a few hours, there was so much potential here for a great multiplayer or custom map system. The whole mechanic of customising and switching between units would have been fantastic for a skirmish mode title or something similar, and the lack of any options is simply baffling. It's simply lacking a key feature which has been such a major strength within the RTS genre for so long, and keeping it single player limits what could have been something revolutionary.

Despite these issues, is Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising? The answer is a resounding yes. For its price these days you will get far more than your money's worth, and even a single play through will keep you solidly entertained for a good few days of casual playing. It's streamlined, smart and engaging, and despite a few niggling issues the concepts behind it are fantastic. It honestly deserves more love and should be better known, and if you're at all interested by the premise or mechanics it's well worth a look. 

While the game is available on Steam and Green Man Gaming, your best bet for a great experience is to take a look at