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.

Buy Zeno Clash from Steam here

Visit the website here

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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.

Dragonborn is available on Steam, Xbox 360 and Playstation

Buy it on Steam here

Visit the offical website here

TAKE IT OFF THE SHELF: LEFT 4 DEAD

Left 4 Dead: it’s a well-known franchise that, to be honest, I had never actually played – until last week, that is. I was with a friend playing some Xbox when my eyes happened to glance over at his video game shelf. His collection sucked, but I did notice Left 4 Dead sitting up there, hardly touched. It took me an hour to convince him to play it, but once we’d started, we were hooked.

This was the most fun I have had playing video games in a long time. The game play is extremely fast-paced; that “edge of your seat” feeling as hordes of zombies rush at you from every angle. But, before I go on and on, let me explain the game a little bit. You’re a group of 4 survivors stuck in Pennsylvania with one goal: survive. Actually it’s more like escape but, with all escapes, survival is necessary. Additionally,  there are a large variety of different, special zombies for you to take on.

You have the normal horde, which can really suck in large groups; the Boomer, which vomits its bile on you that attracts the horde; the Hunter, which sneaks up and pounces on you, pinning you to the floor; the Smoker – he can grab you from far away with his tongue; the dreaded Tank, which screws over anything in its path (this takes all 4 of you to kill); and the Witch. Don’t piss her off, she will mess you up.

L4D is split up into 4 separate modes: Single campaign, Co-Op missions, Online mode, and Survival mode. In my opinion it’s all about the Co-op missions and Online, where you can just grab a friend and get killing. Individual campaign missions take about an hour to complete and are split into 4 parts, each with their own settings and difficulty. Online play is basically the same thing, except other players are given the chance to take the role of the special zombies and attempt to end the Survivors’ progress.

I’ll admit, I haven’t really completed the single player campaign – as you can tell from my crappy game description. Because, to be honest this game is not really about single player at all. Left 4 Dead is 95 percent about team work. In my opinion that is the campaign – learning to not be an asshole. If you’re the stubborn, lone wolf type, don’t pick up this game, because it’s all about communication and sticking together as a group: if you rush ahead, you’re gonna get killed. If you hog the med kits, you’re gonna get killed (if I don’t kill you first.) Stick together as a team, kill as a team, share resources and you will love this game.

I am hooked on Left 4 Dead and I’m sure you will be too. You can still find it at any GameStop for cheap (probably less than 20$), and it is available on the Xbox, PC, and Mac.

Thanks for reading the first edition of  “Take It Off The Shelf.” Got an old Xbox game you want me to try? Email me at:

tristan.haight@gmail.com

or tweet me at:

@tristan_haight

SECTION 8: PREJUDICE

If I had to describe Section 8: Prejudice in comparison to other games, I would probably say that it is a mash-up between the design elements of Halo, the upgrade leveling of Call Of Duty and, of course, the fast-paced, arena combat of Unreal Tournament – on which its engine is based. To many people, that combination of inspiration would sound absolutely brilliant, which is why it is such a shame that this 2011 release from TimeGate Studios ended up so very abandoned.

In terms of a single player campaign, you’re not going to get much out of Prejudice. Consisting of a couple of levels of ‘kill this/take control of that’, it’s got a repetition and ease that gets monotonous very quickly  – but, that being said, this is a frag-fest at heart and rather than nitpicking its faults, there are actually a lot of stylish, exciting additions that set it apart from being just another Unreal clone. Weapon and armour design could be seen as reasonably generic for a ‘future combat’ scenario, but nonetheless the style and aesthetics do seem very smooth and in no sense uninspired – there is a definite Halo feel, which is never a bad route to take.

With every kill you are effectively gaining experience for both your character and your weapon, unlocking future upgrades, such as grenades, ammo-types and tools that can give you an advantage on the battlefield, as well as being able to customise your loadout to form a certain class of soldier. In terms of movement, you have both a rechargeable jetpack and advanced sprint, helping navigation within the map and the ability to attack from a variety of different angles and paths, e.g. quickly scaling structures and environment for effective sniper spots. Both of these abilities work extremely well and are certainly a nice touch to the genre, however the advanced sprint has a delay in its use, which can result in it only kicking in after a few minutes of running, which can be slightly frustrating, especially so when you are rushing back to defend a command post.

TotalBiscuit gives an excellent insight into Section 8‘s gameplay, as well as expressing his own disappointment with its seemingly empty servers

Obviously focusing on multiplayer, Section 8: Prejudice contains a variety of online gametypes, which range from survival mode to territory gaining. My personal favourite has to be Assault, in which one team must defend its control points from being stolen by the opposition. When there is only one point remaining, however, the game switches to sudden death, meaning that any killed players cannot respawn. This certainly adds a nice twist of intensity, which I feel is lacking from a lot of games in this style – when you can constantly re-enter the battlefield, where’s the punishment of death?

On the note of respawning, this is certainly something that TimeGate has developed very well. Instead of your standard ‘appear back at base’ routine, Section 8: Prejudice lets you literally drop into any point of the map, plummeting through the air to your destination. Anyone familiar with the old MDK games might draw similarities between these drops and its stage introduction levels, with the danger of being killed whilst airborne due to enemy turrets and weapons. However, in the same vein of the weapon upgrades, additional armour boosts can be fitted to protect your soldier, allowing you access to much more heated sections of the warzone.

Overall, Section 8: Prejudice is a very cool, exciting title which can easily be enjoyed by any fans of deathmatch and arena styles of play. The weapons do seem to lack the sound and sense of impact you might find in other games, but that is hardly a complaint, considering the low price and replayability of this title in particular. I’m still in the early stages of playing Section 8, but I don’t see myself getting bored anytime soon. If it wasn’t for the lack of other players, I can definitely see this becoming a new favourite, extremely reminiscent of the Unreal Tournament and Quake 3 deathmatch setups that inspired it.

Visit the website here

Buy it on Steam here

FALLOUT 3

Bethesda, a subsidiary of ZeniMax Media, is widely known for their ability to create stunning role playing games. They have created fan favorite games such as The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and its sequels: Oblivion and Skyrim. But in 2008, they amazed the whole of the gamer community by releasing a game that to this day, is considered one of the best there is.

The Fallout series is set in the future, in a world that instead of focusing on improving its society, focused on technology. This fast advance in technology caused weapons to improve, and weapons mean war. A war between the United States ended in a nuclear conflict and left the world ravaged by nuclear power (hence the title). Set in the capital of the US, Washington D.C., you start off the game as a dweller of a vault, a bunker built for withstanding the bombs.

Fallout 3 is a spectacular game. Not only because of its story, but due to the hundreds of features the developers decided to include. I’ve always been a fan of the Fallout series, and let me be honest: I was nervous when I heard Interplay wasn’t making the next game in the series. But when I finally had the controller in hand, venturing into the wasteland for the first time, I fell in love with this game.

It is rare when you get to experience a story such as Fallout’s. The creators manage to get you attached to certain characters through dialogue and without any cut scenes at all. With a stellar cast in voice acting (Liam Neeson, Ron Perlman and Malcolm McDowell) the game transmits feeling like no other game. And let me tell you, when you hear Liam Neeson’s impressive voice acting in a specific cut scene (no spoilers here) it will surely bring a tear to your eye. And even the secondary characters, such as your companions (I’m pointing at you Fawkes) are written so well, that you will start being cautious about what you do as to not upset them.

Being a first person shooter (although you have the option to change to third person, more on that later though) Bethesda decided that they needed to introduce something innovative. And so, V.A.T.S. was created. The Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System will help all players getting through the game, as well as making them chuckle when they see their enemy’s head popping in slow mo (or is that just me?).

Although the graphics are not top notch, they do hold up, and in 2008 they were pretty impressive. Again, they provide a fun perspective when you kill an enemy. But the soundtrack does make up for it. When you are exploring a cave or the run-down subway, a    creepy track will play, and will tense you up. Or when you’re wandering the wastes, and all of a sudden the music turns from peaceful to threatening. This is what makes the soundtrack great.

The game also has a bit of comedy, which is perfect to break up the tension. I remember chuckling often, as a companion made a remark about the surroundings. Or when listening to the radio, as Three Dog made his PSA’s. The franchise’s fantastic mascot gives a light feeling to dark things, such as blowing people up.

So far I have only talked about the positive things. But lets take a look at the negative, shall we?

Big terrains can be a good and a bad thing. Although it gives the player much more to explore and scavenge, it also creates a few problems. Let’s face it, you get bored when you have to walk too much (although the quick travel feature really does help) and usually that means that you start fidgeting around. Many people tend to start jumping, for example,  and sometimes, if you’re unlucky enough, you might get stuck between two rocks. And since Fallout is such an immersive game, the player forgets to save. Thats not good at all.

Being such a big game, it takes a toll on the console’s systems and will often freeze. Adding on to that, if you disabled Autosave or perhaps you haven’t gone through a door yet (autosaves when you do so), it can be quite frustrating. Also, to be honest, the third person system just doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it’s because your bulky body will often block your view, giving the enemy the perfect chance to kill you.

It is a shame that the developers did not put as much effort as they did with the music, dialogue, writing and combat in the animation. The way that the people walk can sometimes be quite ridiculous, but well, thats just about any game.

But overall, Fallout’s positive aspects outgrow the negative by far, and this makes it a great game. Even though it is nearly 4 years old at this point, if you haven’t, you should definitely give it a try.

TOY SOLDIERS

Following in the footsteps of many other titles this year, Signal Studio’s Toy Soldiers has joined the invasion of Xbox Live Arcade games being ported to PC, already gaining a strong new fan base with its Steam release.

A deadly combination of tower defence, hoard and survival, Toy Soldiers has definite attraction for bringing an interesting new style to its genre that is reminiscent of old Army Men titles, however with a lot more depth and direction: each piece and detail within the game has been designed to emulate the look and feel of painted miniatures, all captured atop a variety of replica battlefields.

Using a multitude of upgradeable gun and infantry placements, you are tasked with fighting off swarms of enemy soldiers and vehicles, all intent on invading your toy box. The ability to control individual pieces is certainly what sets this game apart from others within its genre, allowing for precise, tactical aiming and speed – as well as using biplanes and tanks to freely roam the environment.

My main criticism of this game lie in its settings – with extremely limited options, not much can be done to configure graphics or speed, which caused a highly frustrating lag to descend every time too many units were in play, but there will (hopefully) be updates and fixes to this in the future.

Overall, Toy Soldiers is fun, addictive and educational, following the progress of real battles across the First World War with a confidently antique aesthetic. Allowing you to easily switch between units or full bird’s eye view, there are potentially a lot of different strategies that can be used throughout, combining tactics, speed and prediction to manipulate the course of war.

The campaign itself is restricted to single player, but the included DLC’s allow for multiplayer combat in a selection of unique maps and scenarios – and all for a very reasonable price.

Visit the website here

Buy it on Steam here

– I forgot to mention that this game is only playable through the Windows Live overlay, so be prepared for the DRM and stress that it comes with.
 Lag issue can be fixed by turning off hardware acceleration of sound in DxDiag, but the music will not work properly (Start > Run > dxdiag).