It’s the heart of summer, the time when traditionally as the temperature rises, so does my desire to cloister myself away in a cold room playing games, while conversely the number of major releases trickles and dries up to match the scorched earth outside. So, in that spirit I’m going to cover a handful of titles that I’ve been playing since this effect kicked in and give my overall impressions etc. of them. [Slight spoilers ahead]
Let’s start with one that I remember being enthusiastic about when it was announced-- Perception. Developed by The Deep End Games, which was founded by former members of Irrational Games, who some might recall worked on the BioShock games. Touted as a walking-sim where the central conception and mechanic centers on playing as a blind woman named Cassie, who makes use of a Daredevil-like echolocation system to navigate and uncover the secrets within a creepy New England mansion that seemed to call to her in dreams, the premise seemed solid in theory. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. While it is admirable to represent a character who lacks what may be our most important sensory input system to convey a heightened feeling of unsettling confusion in a strange and possibly supernaturally tinged setting, what it translates to in gameplay is having to constantly tap Cassie’s cane on the surrounding environment every 30 seconds, or else be plunged into utter darkness. This may very well be effective at replicating what it would be like to live as a blind person, but in terms of gameplay, it quickly becomes repetitive and annoying, especially since the field of view revealed when using Cassie’s “sixth sense” is fairly limited and thus it is quite easy to become lost in the mostly same looking rooms and corridors.
Compounding this is the fact that the “Presence,” the aforementioned supernatural element, hunts Cassie based on the amount of sound she makes, so that one must either stop using the core sight mechanic to bumble around in the dark for a minute or two before the Presence goes away, or resign to being caught and restarting checkpoints that are sometimes few and far between. There is the obligatory hide-in-closet or under-bed option, but this requires Cassie to echolocate an appropriate spot first, which afterwards are indicated by a green glow amidst the impenetrable black so that again it is often unclear which direction or room it actually lies in when attempting to evade the Presence in a tense moment.
Perception’s level design is spotty at best, and the same can be said of the overall story. Most might know that I’m a sucker for Lovecraftian-inspired tales, and at the outset Perception seems to be going for that, but by the second chapter (out of four total) it becomes clear it’s just another ghost story, retreading and mining the infamous Salem witch trials to make it seem deeper than it actually is. The credits indicate that the story was based on a supposed true tale of an ancestor of one of the lead developers, and again while that may be interesting in theory, in practicality it doesn’t necessarily make for an engaging or satisfying narrative. Here’s hoping their next release learns from the pitfalls that I perceived to be in Perception.
Next up is Prey. Or as I described it: Deus Honored: IsolationShock. Ostensibly intended to be a “soft reboot/remake” of the original title, although due to its stay in development hell earlier, the final release has almost nothing to do with the 2006 title. Nevertheless, it was highly anticipated, as Arkane Studios (who worked on the first two Dishonored games) was given the project with Bethesda set to publish, which looked like a winning combination. And it very much is.
As might be gathered from my semi-tongue-in-cheek summary, Prey borrows chunks from all of the above games and stitches them together into a very enjoyable FPS sci-fi/horror experience that, if not completely unique, manages to spruce things up enough to create a Frankenstein’s monster of a game that is quite alive indeed. With RPG-like elements including both human enhancements and alien powers sometimes similar to (but never exact copies of) those from Dishonored combined with weapon upgrades, zero gravity sections and crafting systems all seamlessly working together, exploring and fighting through the Talos I installation is a tense and satisfying experience. Throw in some interesting alternate history backstory, such as J.F.K. surviving his assassination attempt, leading to an accelerated space race and eventual cooperation between a united U.S. and Russia against an encroaching alien threat that shows up precisely due to humans’ earlier presence in space, and it’s all a recipe for a damn good time.
Prey does attempt a mind-bending plot twist or two, and although it isn’t able to introduce anything truly jaw-dropping, it does sustain enough solid ideas scattered throughout which culminate in a more surprising and less bog-standard ending than what might be expected on the surface. It’s like discovering a newer movie or TV show that clearly owes a lot of its design cues to earlier works, but is quality largely because of that exact fact. All in all Prey does a great job of taking a familiar setting (derelict space station,) framework (human vs. alien,) and mechanics (scavenge/craft/upgrade/kick more ass/repeat) to produce one of the best FPS I’ve played this year. Definitely recommended and as of this time, there is promised (though details are unspecified) DLC which I’m quite looking forward to.
Now onto Gwent (still in public beta)- Based on the Collectible Card-like mini-game from Witcher 3 which garnered enough popularity that CD Projekt Red, responding to their fans’ passion in true fashion, decided to make it a fully fleshed out standalone product. For me it’s been the Witcher 3: Collectible Crack Game. Granted, I possess a huge bias and nostalgia for CCGs in general, and have become a big fan of the Witcher series as a whole, so attempting to ignore my blinders, I would still say Gwent is a blast. Any other developer would’ve likely just jerked off a cut-rate sub-par game to cash in a cheap and easy spinoff from its flagship franchise, but CDPR as usual went above and beyond to make an immensely robust online CCG on both the competitive and casual fronts. I found myself playing many rounds of it between/instead of other responsibilities (like for example writing more articles.)
The artwork first and foremost is top-notch, and there’s even an option to upgrade (or in game terms “transmute”) your cards to animate them. Which on top of being just plain cool to see, doubles as a sort of a status symbol, since you can show off your favorite/most played units after tweaking a deck to perfection. Addressing the kayran in the sea-- yes, while there is what some may call a “pay-to-win” aspect, i.e. you can spend real money for more in-game resources to buy card barrels (read: booster packs) and craft/transmute higher level/cost cards at a faster rate, I haven’t found this particular system to be broken or overly unbalanced, as the matchmaking (both casual and ranked) does a fair job of making sure you’ll be dueling evenly matched opponents often, and powerful ones only occasionally (mostly due to the available player pool at any given time.) Speaking of the matchmaking, I’ve found it to be broadly reliable, rarely encountering issues or interruptions during the hundreds of matches I must have played at this point.
If you’re into CCGs and/or the Witcher, or even better, both, Gwent is a ton of fun that can be consumed in small doses (matches usually last about 15 minutes on average) but also has the depth and range of a truly well-done game within the genre to be long lasting. When it eventually moves out of beta and into open public, I can see it rivaling even the likes of Hearthstone within the CCG domain.
Lastly, I picked up Get Even, whose elevator pitch might well have been something along the lines of “Amnesiac Liam Neeson ripoff gets cool gun while in his fractured memories.” Ironically, my initial impressions thus far find it a bit uneven in terms of gameplay and plot. I would estimate I’m about 55-65% through, and while it does have an intriguing setup, it seems to suffer, again almost ironically, from a sense of schizophrenia. For example, one of the core shooting mechanics provides a ‘CornerGun’, which allows Liam Neeson, I mean, “Cole Black” vision around cover at 90 degree angles and enables the possibility of eliminating foes from behind corners with various upgrades that progressively unlock as you delve further into the Memento-meets-Taken-in-VR themed storyline.
That’s a great idea, were it not for the fact that the game itself slaps you repeatedly for killing what amounts to non-existent adversaries. As it’s established early on, the action is filtered through a near-future VR framework, rendering the faux morality it attempts to impose completely moot. It is difficult to be invested in the lasting consequences of murdering a digitally projected construct already, and when a game’s narrative itself shows us the enemies are all just illusions while simultaneously telling us that we shouldn’t kill them because of…reasons, it’s even less impactful and more confusing. I suppose if a later reveal is something along the lines of ‘but actually they were real all along!’ it may carry some weight, but at that point, the way the characters and plot have been laid out so far, I’d say the effect would be minimal.
Aside from that possible poster case of ludonarrative dissonance, there’s nothing to really complain heavily about nor particularly praise. The writing is serviceable, as are the controls. There is also a bit of a Condemned component, having Cole use a smartphone to scan the environment for evidence and find collectibles/clues, but again it’s all just kind of there. It works, but doesn’t stand out. As I said, I still have a bit to get through in Get Even, and it’s narrowly possible that it will manage to pull off something truly surprising/effective in the end (in which case perhaps I’ll have to retroactively retract some of this) but as it is, I’m not betting on it.
So, that’s my summer of games so far and what I thought of them. There is one more title that I recently purchased and have yet to start, but am looking forward to- Little Nightmares, which has garnered good reviews that I’ve seen and at the very least the art/animation style looks right in line with my tastes. But from amongst the above, I would say check out Prey if you’ve got more downtime (as I neglected to mention that it’s probably a 40-hour or so game) and if you’re looking for something quicker and don’t mind CCGs, get yourself the (free) beta of Gwent and start dueling.
I’ll be waiting for the slew of releases to start hitting in October, just in time to spend my winter hibernating in a warm room, playing games.