SHELTER

It was in the rapids that I lost my first cub.

There was no warning, just the sudden sense of shock as a vast wave swept through our pack, submerging us all in a rolling tide of water. Darting to the shore, I immediately counted my remaining children, silently noting a missing face. Waiting for a few moments, I clung to the hope that it had perhaps gotten itself stuck on some kind of branch or stone and would soon appear, so we could continue on as a family… However, there was no choice but to continue trekking through the wilderness – if not for progression’s sake, but for the hungry four that trailed, squealing at my feet.

Shelter is not in any form a conventional game release. Developed by independent studio, Might and Delight – best known for 2012’s Pid – it is, essentially, a badger life simulator. With no emphasis on controls or direction, the game places you into the role of a mother badger (or, sow), who must care for her five, individually patterned cubs that dance playfully around their earthy sett. Digging roots and catching smaller prey, you must keep your family fed as you travel the land, fending off danger and always keeping a close eye on the safety of your pack.

The true aspect that instantly attracted me to Shelter was its beautifully simple art style. Rendered in a very basic, I-hate-to-say-retro ruggedness, the game relies heavily on its immersive world and bright, organic patterns that certainly draw you into an atmosphere of pure, untouched nature. It becomes very clear how much Might and Delight opted to focus on character and personality throughout this experience, creating a game that feels almost as if you are playing through an intricate landscape painting – whereas, say, a studio that had tried to emulate realism in its graphics would have fallen far short of the mark, leaving us with a cold, artificial copy.

Shelter is a world that drinks deeply from your sense of concern and nurturing, quickly cementing a strong bond to your pack, without the need for introduction or additional information that most modern games rely so heavily upon. An atmospheric, acoustic soundtrack drips and fades along your journey, complimenting each subtle note of season, whilst also inspiring fear and dread with every passing danger. It is these small, immersive details that all combine so perfectly into an experience that can become heavily entwined in emotion throughout play. The huge sigh of relief as you finally manage to pounce on that elusive fox you’d been stalking, giving your cubs that little, extra boost; the careful, measured steps through the undergrowth, terrified of the hawk that circles above – the little moments and spikes of sentimentality that shape every minute along the way.

This is not by any means a long game – I counted roughly four or five stages in total – however, it certainly warrants the time spent exploring and indulging in its rich, lively environments. The gameplay itself could perhaps be compared to one giant escort mission, but it is important to note that the cubs are by no means a burden upon you, rather travelling companions that you honestly feel indebted to protect. In full circle, I began this review detailing the death of one of my own, and it was a hard blow of loss that far surpassed any other title I have played of similar ilk.

Beside being a great new addition and real victory for Steam’s Greenlight, Shelter inspires an appreciation of the hardships within nature and, ultimately, motherhood itself – a must play for any who wish to escape the decaying, urban shadow that haunts so much of our lives, for a small glimpse into the untouched circle of the animal kingdom.

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Buy it on steam here or from the website here

Visit Might and Delight’s website here

GUNS OF ICARUS ONLINE

In today’s online titles, ‘Cooperative’ does not necessarily indicate ‘Teamwork’ – a fact that should leave most gamers dropping their heads in shame.

Perhaps it was that time Coolguy94 slammed you off the map with a grenade launcher in Left 4 Dead, or maybe even the session where that frankly hilarious teammate of yours decided your vehicle was the most convenient way to carry some extra C4? In any case, the multiplayer scene in the majority of current games do not benefit the conscious companion.

Enter Guns of Icarus Online, the in-progress successor of Muse Games’ 2010 airship-based turret defence title.

Sailing past its interesting, albeit shaky, origins, this newly Kickstarted incarnation of Steampunk-themed dogfighting allows for players to finally test their mettle against one another in a variety of classic gamemodes, including deathmatch and king of the hill. With a choice of 7 unique ships and 3 classes, it is up to each vessel’s team of 4 to pilot, repair and fire each gun, working closely together to secure sky domination.

The real beauty of Guns of Icarus Online, however, lies deep within its community. With a dedicated force of helpers, guides and active forums, you are never far from receiving the odd push from those of experience. Captains and crewmen alike are happy to advise on ways in which to maximise efficiency on a ship, as well as an included, if basic, tutorial that covers the core aspects of gameplay.

In terms of customisation, each airship can be decked out with a variety of guns, allowing much room for strategy and preferred ways of assault. For example, placing a heavy gun, such as a Carronade, on the front of the Goldfish will allow for powerful, piercing strikes to quickly breach an opponent’s balloon from behind. For the classes themselves, which range between Pilot, Engineer and Gunner, there are player-defined loadouts on which tools or unique ammo types you’d like to bring to a specific match. Players are given a wide choice of vanity costumes and headgear, which can be won through claiming certain achievements, however all are available for minimal fees through Muse’s own inbuilt store. These costume pieces, despite also being nicely designed and fitting for Icarus‘ style, can most certainly be considered donations toward the game’s ever-evolving progression – the most notable being its highly anticipated Adventure Mode, which is marked to release in 2014.

Guns of Icarus Online has proven itself to be a highly entertaining – if not sometimes frustrating – title that certainly appeals to the tacticians and teamplayers of the gaming sphere. Allowing for up to 6 airships in combat at one time, it is hard to find any other game that can compare to its class, bearing in mind that it is still firmly a work in progress. Although lacking the much-wanted mechanics for boarding an enemy craft, Muse Games are rightly defiant in their decision, as pulling any form of singleplayer combat into the title would have serious effects on its current dynamic, as well as remove from the cooperative emphasis on maintaining your ship as a whole.

Overall, I highly recommend this game for its refreshing backpedal into team-based combat, where each player is absolutely vital to the success of their ship. With its ever-growing community and update additions, Guns of Icarus Online has quickly risen to become one of my most played games since its release, and I can only predict improvement in its future.

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Buy Guns of Icarus Online from Steam here

Visit the website here

Guns of Icarus Online is also destined to be released on the PS4

ZENO CLASH

Effectively the equivalent of brawling your way through a Heronimus Bosch triptych – of which Chilean developer, ACE Team, were greatly inspired by – Zeno Clash offers a very unique and original take on storytelling, gameplay and, most importantly, presentation, that can both enchant and disturb you along its twisted paths.

Initially released as a Steam download in 2009 using Valve’s Source engine, Zeno Clash can appear to be rather mysterious, if not confusing, in its content and theme. Through the eyes of its rebellious, yet sullen protagonist, Ghat, the player is immediately thrust into the Frankenstein world that is Zenozoik – a cobbled together assortment of everything but the ordinary. One of many children under the looming, birdlike hermaphrodite that is Father-Mother, Ghat is forced to flee his clan after discovering a dark secret about their universal parent that subsequently ends in him taking its life. Assisted by his female companion, Deadra, the two travel far from their home into the unforgiving, violent territories that make up Zenozoik’s landscape, all-the-while hunted by Ghat’s siblings who are hungry for revenge.

Although containing an assortment of crude melee and ranged weapons, this game is centrally focused on first-person hand-to-hand combat, embracing this wholly untraditional style of gameplay with very satisfying effects. Using a simplistic control map (punch, harder punch, block, dodge, etc.), the player is given a lot of freedom to experiment and formulate a fighting style over a series of linear maps that mark each stage of Ghat’s journey, as well as his retelling of the events that lead up to his banishment. The key to Zeno Clash‘s intense combat, however, lies in its firm grounding and brutal placement within this alien world: whilst playing I often felt a rush of contradicting emotions between each combatant, reluctantly delivering the final blow to some, whereas others I felt driven by my own hate and fear to destroy – a good example of this being against the grotesque cannibal, Gabel.

In terms of story, some players may feel a little bit disappointed in comparison to the game’s otherwise bizarre design and philosophies. It is not badly written, as such, however the characters – especially Ghat – can occasionally feel a little lacking and flat, which is not helped by the speed in which the journey progresses (I completed the campaign over a period of 3-4 hours in total). It is important to note that more focus is certainly drawn to the environment and its inhabitants who you will find recycled throughout and, surprisingly enough, happy to recognise in repetition. This close-knit, community feel definitely adds to Zeno Clash‘s atmosphere, creating a sense of isolation, yet intimacy within its cast – if pummeling anyone and everything repeatedly in the face is to your favour, that is.

Overall, Zeno Clash, despite its flaws, is definitely worth experiencing for its creativity and fresh take on first-person combat, combining many elements from other games that inspired its design – a cross between, say, the stage-based fighting of Double Dragon and perhaps the (tamed) brutality and perspective of Chronicles of Riddick – lacking in size and freedom, however. The core factors that support this title definitely lie in its organic and natural feel, which certainly left me intrigued and wanting for more insight into the beautifully dark realm of Zenozoik. After completing its campaign, players are also given access to a Tower Challenge mode akin to Soul Calibur‘s ‘Tower of Lost Souls’, in which Ghat must complete each individual floor of ascending difficulty – a deeply satisfying addition for any player who wishes to test their mettle further within the Zeno Clash universe. I highly recommend experiencing this title, especially so with its highly anticipated sequel’s release at the end of this month.

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Buy Zeno Clash from Steam here

Visit the website here

Left 4 Dead 2/Resident Evil 6 crossover DLC available now!

So, it’s finally here – the great crossover of all zombie gamers’ dreams!

Valve and Capcom announced a few weeks ago that DLC would be available from both companies crossing over the latest games from their huge zombie franchises – Left 4 Dead and Resident Evil. The new content went live on April 5. Here’s a trailer showing the changes in RE6 below:

As you can see, you can play as Rochelle, Nick, Coach and Ellis in Mercenary No Mercy mode, and it even uses some L4D monsters such as the Witch, and a ‘Mini’-Tank. It’s very interesting to see the characters move about in the RE engine, and the rolls, flips and shoulder barges that they are now capable of.

On the L4D side, the RE content can be downloaded as a new campaign from Steam. It features the RE6 enemies Ogroman, Lepotitsa and Napad, and Valve are even opening it up to you, the gamers – those who use the L4D2 Workshop can submit ideas for RE6 character skins that may get added into the game! Imagine playing Dark Carnival as Leon, Chris, Ada or Jill…

Crossovers are nothing new, of course, but this is incredibly exciting because it shows an unprecedented level of co-operation between two successful (some may say competing) game developers. Who knows what it could lead to?

This DLC is only available on PC versions of both games for now, sorry. Both sets are available for download from Steam.

BUYING INTO THE CONCEPT

Pre-ordering is a fairly regular practice these days, but that doesn’t disguise its shady nature. Or, at least that’s what a good number of consumers discovered last month with the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which bombed harder than a 90’s Manc at a warehouse rave (International readers click here). Reviewers were quick to assault the title with scathing criticism but, alas, it was too late – enough wallets had already been squeezed dry with little promise of refund, leaving many sad, angry and even embarrassed to have been conned into such an abysmal purchase. The trick of the pre-order is that it confirms a sale before release, no matter the quality of content and, very gleefully, playing on the commitment of the fans to their chosen franchise.

There are a few different paths our favourite developers like to take when releasing AAA titles, the most infamous being that of Collector’s Editions. Often promising a lavish array of soundtracks, art books or plastic sculptures, these are probably the most ‘fair’ of the group and can genuinely provide the odd fan with a good bit of extra enjoyment, if only to litter their shelves with a few more video relics. What is not so generous, however, is the popular trend of ‘in-game content’ that has begun to spread across the genres like a digital plague. Obscure perks, such as alternate character costumes and weapons (looking at you, Dead Space 3), are not exactly what I’d consider worth the extra cost, especially since they are being purposefully withheld from the community to earn a few extra coins. Exclusive DLC is certainly a target in this, revealing that more content had actually been created before release, but only for those willing to invest. To put that into layman’s terms, imagine buying a BLT, except you can only redeem the bacon at an additional cost.

Aliens: Colonial Marines – a sandwich without a filling…

Crystal Dynamics’ recent, gritty reboot of Tomb Raider managed to push the pre-ordering boat out into a new area of uncharted waters with uncertain consequence. Implementing a Kickstarter-esque reward system usually reserved for ‘we will produce what we can create’ situations, fans were coerced into investing early to unlock additional perks, which included digital artwork, copies of older games and the aforementioned horror of horrors, exclusive DLC. The question these kinds of systems are beginning to raise is how much content will developers be willing to withhold in future if it guarantees definitive sales? Not only is this bad practice, but our continued flocking to pre-order regardless of this fact only promotes its existence and influence on a title’s marketing – which allows me to segue rather shakily into the discussion of digital benefits and their real worth.

Receiving concept art, or the forever-popular map, is always a welcome treat in the box, but it doesn’t really hold as strong or exciting in .pdf format. In fact, I’d go as far as saying they are ultimately pointless and provide absolutely no incentive to the purchase as far as your printer ink is concerned. I readily challenge any buyer to prove me wrong in the value of this content, because it currently holds as much use as buying your cat decorative headwear (which is a very real thing indeed). But, I cannot be completely negative – sketches and early imaginings of our beloved characters and worlds can be very interesting and a nice addition to any collection, the issue lies more in whether they can be considered justifiable for the extra cost – despite the lack of a physical copy.

Finally, I shall end this rant on the biggest influence of all for digital pre-purchasing: the occasional, enticing offer of a discounted price. In contrast to their partners in crime, recent releases have allowed the consumer to save 10% off the final cost – a practice that has been strongly inspired by Valve’s effective use of Steam sales. “What is wrong with saving some money on a game I would’ve bought anyway?” I hear you cry, brandishing your credit card with experienced ease. Well, let me point you back up to the top of this article and the debacle that was the latest Aliens game. Pre-ordering a title is a huge risk for the consumer with only the shaky promise that it might be a successful purchase in hand, and this should certainly be kept in mind whatever the studio or franchise. Continued conformity to this trend only promotes and fuels the format, as much as we’d like to be the first to get our hands on that next big release. So, please keep in mind that every time you rush online to click that big, green pre-order button, you have logged yourself as yet another statistic in favour of these enticing, yet incredibly devious marketing tactics.

SKYRIM: DRAGONBORN DLC

Ever since Bethesda’s much anticipated release of Skyrim in 2011, one key question has been haunting our collective mind: “When are they going to let us fly a dragon?” Fast forward 2 years and it would appear that we have finally reached a compromise. Well, kind of…

The third DLC in the Skyrim roster, Dragonborn returns our chosen hero to the familiar, ash-soaked island of Solstheim – previously depicted in Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon expansion in 2003. On arrival it is discovered that the land has been plagued by a mysterious uprising of ash creatures and has fallen under the will of a second, ancient dragonborn: Miraak. Using a collection of new shouts and the arcane knowledge found within a set of powerful ‘Black Books’, Solstheim’s freedom and the fate of Tamriel lies in your hands.

If you’ve read my previous post on the Elder Scrolls, it’s pretty apparent that I am a big fan of the series and have a fair amount of background knowledge on each title – Morrowind in particular. Needless to say I was pretty excited with the announcement that Bethesda were set to recreate the architecture and atmosphere that I had previously grown so fond of, and they honestly did a very good job of it – ignoring their insistence on blanketing everything in a thick layer of snow, that is. Finally, all those classic armours, items and landscapes in vastly updated graphics – there was even the promise of no Cliff Racers to drool over! So what could possibly go wrong with a setup as flawless as that? Well, uh, quite a few things actually.

Voice acting. What is this weird joke Bethesda have been carrying on through their audio? If all their previous games have set the Dunmer with a deep, rough drawl, where has the inspiration suddenly emerged to equip all our blue-skinned friends with what I can only deduce as a dodgy attempt at a Yorkshire accent? Previous characters throughout Skyrim have certainly been victim to a serious lack of emotion, but Bethesda managed to cross the line into obscurity when they made this production choice final. Disregarding that, the island’s denizens are fairly well crafted, if a little two dimensional.

Ah, but now it is time to explore this Miraak character we have been hearing so much about; this demonic, overwhelming energy that has engulfed the land in darkness. Emerging from the void in a particularly engrossing cinematic, we are treated to a James Bond-esque monologue, detailing his evil plan and why you are too puny to step in his way, fully clothed in flowing, dark robes and one of Dragonborn‘s new Cthulu inspired masks. All in all, Miraak is pretty well placed as a villain, encompassing those dreaded feelings of ‘he’s actually quite intimidating’ and ‘I hope he doesn’t come for me’ in a nice little package. What Bethesda are really pushing for here is that knowledge is power and, as it turns out, Miraak is pretty knowledgeable – he’s even been cheating a little bit with the help of a devious God. This wisdom, though, can equally be acquired by yourself in travelling through the winding passages of the Black Books.

These sections right here are easily the most interesting and original out of the entirety of the DLC. Upon reading each book, the player is transported into the realm of Apochrypha, which is mainly composed of bubbling, tentacle-infested water and, well, books. Each section forms a labyrinthian maze of literature to explore, all the while fending off attacks from the shade-like Seekers and fish-headed Lurkers. Every aspect of this new feature screams Lovecraftian design and horror and no reference made is at all hard to miss. On completion of each Black Book, the player is allowed to acquire one of three unique perks or powers which are certainly very welcome, if a little overpowered. As of writing my current character is level 51, so in terms of necessity there is little – but thank you for the little escape!

If you’ve read this far just to hear my original claim about riding dragons, then I do believe you are in luck. Yes, in Dragonborn you can now, ahem, ‘fly’ one of those winged beasts – but, not exactly in the way that statement should imply. Using ‘Bend Will’, a new shout that allows you to turn enemies into allies, the player can mount and use a dragon in combat, however you are confined into a particularly disappointing sequence of circling the battle area, with commands limited to ‘attack that’, or ‘land here’. It was a bold concept for Bethesda to push out if they had no intention of fulfilling their word on the matter, however understandably so: with so much landscape and detail to render, there would’ve been doubtless performance issues had the player been allowed to roam freely.

In terms of the plot, you would not be mistaken in feeling a little bit of deja vous. The side quests are fairly unique in part, but we’ve come here to fight that Miraak bloke, haven’t we? Already in place is the expectation of fighting your way into the big, final showdown against the nasty, old boss who’s been hounding your progress for ever so long. On playing, however, I was surprised to see that Bethesda chose to, essentially, take the Alduin route and just roll out another ‘you can only reach this place by dragon’, ‘you will not get the glory of winning it alone’ story. In a series that prides itself on intricate lore and detail, re-using tried and tested formats is fairly enjoyable, but certainly not at the peak it could have been.

I’m aware that this review has maybe appeared a little bleak, but that shouldn’t be seen as a deterrent – Dragonborn is unquestionably a worthy DLC and certainly worth shelling out for if you are a fan of Skyrim and its universe. But, as is with all things Bethesda, it has its numerous bugs and defects that should not go undetected. If, like myself, you play this title on a computer, then I strongly recommend checking out the huge number of community-created mods that patch up all the leaks Bethesda left behind. These can be found through the Steam Workshop, or, for a lot more power and depth, it is advised to use the Skyrim Nexus, which can be found with full instructions here. Solstheim itself forms a decently sized addition of explorable land to the vanilla game and introduces a good number of new enemies and items to tinker with, so should not be passed up just because of a few minor shortcomings – for those familiar with Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the much-needed makeover given to those horrid little Rieklings. Overall, let it be said that I fully endorse this DLC, if just to snatch a glimpse of the ashlands once again – a safe and enjoyable purchase.

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Dragonborn is available on Steam, Xbox 360 and Playstation

Buy it on Steam here

Visit the offical website here

IN MEMORANDUM

 Simplicity is key in this current day and age. We live our lives between screens, counting down the seconds to each new console, phone or any of the other numerous distractions we can get our hands on. And why not? We live in a convenience culture, carefully crafted to supplement all the needs of the modern man: why sing when you can be auto-tuned; walk when you can drive; read a book when you can watch a film? But, it’s not our fault, God forbid – this world has just been much too generous for us to refuse. Sadly, that leaves humanity in a bit of a predicament, rotting away mentally while technology continues to grow and flourish.

Although that introduction may seem a little bit dire and exaggerated in comparison to the current state of gaming, it does still hold very true. With every new mainstream release the bar is being lowered and lowered in terms of true involvement from the player, requiring less effort and application on their behalf until all you’re left with is essentially a digital colouring by numbers, £45 RRP. Where has all the challenge and achievement of old gone? Do the new generations of gamer only want quick reward and satisfaction for their virtual actions; a shiny badge for every minute wasted online, smashing pixels together? Having grown up with the emergence of popular consoles and titles, such as Tomb Raider, or Marathon (now continued in the Halo franchise), the thrill of playing lay in the completion of a particularly hard level, or solving that frustrating puzzle that had kept you clueless for days. It is a shame to see now that only the independent developers have risen to defend the intellectual and punishing genres of the past; the Roguelikes, Strategy and Logic titles that essentially created gaming as we know it today.

The problem, I think, lies in the creation of the Casual genre. People just don’t have the time or motivation to really work for success in their virtual fantasies, ironically defeating the point of their own escapism. A good example of this would be in the vast popularity of Rovio Entertainment’s mobile time-waster, Angry Birds, which has been downloaded over a billion times since its initial release in 2009 – a staggeringly high figure for any developer to boast. However, the pulling power of this game does not lie in its complexity, storyline or challenge, but rather its repetition and quick reward system that gives instant gratification with no fault for mistake: just another 3 stars to show off to your friends. Comparing this system to the current setup of modern, ‘advanced’ titles – such as Call Of Duty - the concept of even having difficulty settings anymore is quickly called into question. I don’t mean to condemn Casual games as the instigators of our current situation, but they are very much to blame for the effect it has had across all platforms, mimicking the evolution of our society into the Short and Simple – i.e. far from the Nightmare Mode we used to relish so fervently.

So, can we still restore gaming to its original state and help save ourselves from mental decay? Yes, of course – you just have to make yourself heard and show the support to those who really need it. Portals such as Indievania, or even Steam Greenlight, have all worked hard in bringing the spotlight back to the community and allowing for independent developers to showcase their art to a mainstream audience, gaining the recognition and opportunity that is normally only found in the wallets of established publishers. This is not so much a whimpering cry of ‘support the Indies’, but rather a backlash to what appears to be a massive decline in front line content and production. I may be jaded, but I honestly urge all those who still believe in the integrity of gaming as outlets of logic and true art to please consider these humble words before you purchase that next spin-off sequel the minute it touches the shelves.