Monday, 27 March 2017

A World of Assassination

It makes me very sad that I haven't yet sniped anyone from this church tower.
Okay, so I am now three levels into Hitman: No Subtitle, and it's going pretty well. There are bits of it that are tougher than others, but it's never yet frustrating and insoluble. The nearest I got was trying to sneak into the Swedish embassy in Marakesh. It took me three tries to get an unconscious guard into a box unnoticed, and even then apparently Swedish diplomatic protection is unusually hot on its security guards knowing each other's names and faces. Less so on local masseurs, as they all took me for the man with the golden touch despite the eight inch height disparity, lack of hair and bar code. So it goes; in Paris I successfully masqueraded as the world's most famous hitman.

For a game that is basically about killing people in inventive ways (on one notable occasion in Sapienza I just left an exploding golf ball in a box and walked away. Ten minutes later I got the kill confirmed(1)) Hitman: No Subtitle really appeals to the explorer type. The levels are huge and open, and full of people discussing things directly or tangentially related to the main plot of the game. There's this whole counter-blackmail thing going on in the Paris mission with a magazine editor trying to get dirt on the IAGO blackmail ring to keep from going under in the face of the advancing world of fashion blogging, which frankly seems reckless, but you can also stumble on her agents and overhear them bricking it, and on IAGO's models/spies discussing their assignments, some of which involve people we'll meet later in the plot and a so-far mysterious cult that seems to tie things together. None of this is essential, but it's also never discussed in the cut scenes or main briefings; it's purely there as background information that you can pick up if you want.

Well, I know what I'm doing this evening...
The other thing I've really noticed is that, for a game about an assassin, it really never wants you to feel good about killing people. Sure, most of your targets are bad people on one level or another, but even the nasty ones are pretty nuanced. The least diabolical of the six targets I've gone after so far, the least offensive are the scientists devising a genetically targeted virus designed to infect and move from person to person until it hits the one person it will kill, and one of them hired the ICA to off a local right-wing politician in one of the seasonal special missions. I guess the Wet Bandits from Home Alone maybe didn't deserve to be killed in the Christmas special(2), but you know how it is; play the gig, stay away from politics. Actually, the 'just play the gig' attitude is challenged by this game as the arc plot shows that the ICA is being manipulated into a series of seemingly unconnected hits aimed at bringing down a group called Providence. Maybe it would pay to look at the politics a little closer.

None of the targets are diabolically evil; that's the point. The serial blackmailers are on some level trying to go straight, the scientists are mostly in it for the science (evil science, admittedly.) The general angling for a coup de tat and the banker who ruined thousands of people and destabilised the Moroccan government I am less concerned about, if I'm honest. There's also just enough detail to the supporting NPCs(3) that murder seldom seems an easy option. Despite their apparent policy of sheltering wanted financial fraudsters who happen to be Swedish, there's a definite lack of relish on those occasions when I screw the pooch and just start capping off at consulate guards before reloading (although I confess, when I finally got fed up of the one guard who flatly refused to move, just stood there playing with his phone and waiting to witness you if you attacked the masseur, and just beaned him in the bread basket with a thrown hammer(4), that was satisfying.

Traversal in Hitman is definitely less satisfying than Assassin's Creed's signature free running, but the complete focus on the business of patient, meticulous assassination more than makes up for it. Played wrong it would feel like a particularly unsatisfying version of Ubisoft's occult murder simulator, but if you embrace the nature of the game it comes out more like a particularly strangley and non-judgemental game of Portal.

(1) I got two non-target kills for the level, but I don't know if that was that the golf ball got the golf coach and one of the guards, or because the box I later hid two unconscious scientists in was – as I only realised as the second one vanished in a flurry of bubbles – full of evil, biohazardous goop well above the tolerance levels of their hazmat suits.
(2) Quite by chance I ended up putting them in the same cupboard, which was satisfying.
(3) They really only ring false when they react to seven foot of cueball muscle putting someone in a mistimed chokehold by pointing and saying sternly 'you let him go now' rather than screaming for the police or even throwing things at you.
(4) Throwable blunt objects are a godsend in this game and I routinely load my pockets with hammers, wrenches, bricks and coconuts far more than guns or knives.

Friday, 24 March 2017

First Thoughts on Hitman: No Subtitle

"There's a voice, keeps on calling me..."
Thanks to a Steam sale, I recently picked up the first season pass of Hitman, a game most notable for having seasons. This is because it has been released episodically over the course of the last year, one level at a time, with extra challenges and 'elusive targets' - special assassination targets within the existing levels who must be eliminated in one attempt, and within a 48 hour realtime window - increasing the replay value and encouraging players to attempt the same missions over and over again to learn the level layouts and opportunities. Speaking of opportunities, for rookie slackers like me there are hints to lead you to particular assassination set pieces, but there are always plenty of options, including the high-risk, low-hassle option of a bullet in the head.

I stuffed up incapacitating the male model 47 bears an uncanny resemblance
to, so he was found and revived and actually walking about somewhere else
while I snatched his catwalk spot and his meeting with Blackmail Inc.
I've completed the prologue 'training' missions and the first real level so far, and it's a good balance between frustratingly difficult and insultingly easy. Enemy patrols are regular enough to predict, frequent enough to require swift action, and cones of vision finely balanced so that the guards neither seem insultingly oblivious nor utterly inescapable. Some of the opportunities seem unduly demanding, but increasing mastery allows you to unlock new staring locations and disguises which would make for radically different approaches. To increase one's mastery of each level, there are plenty of challenges to attempt, mostly relating to assassination methods, locations and disguises (including a whole set for doing the Paris mission disguised as a vampire magician,) although I suspect that some of them may be out of my reach if they require me to clock up collateral damage. I can live with a few incidental kills if they are corrupt FSB agents or PMC heavies, but draw the line at civilians.

Hitman is a game that rewards patience and observation, but does not demand long periods of inactivity and gives you plenty to look at and discover as you go through. It also, as I feel is necessary for assassination games, paints an ugly enough picture of your targets that you don't have to feel too bad lobbing them over a rail into the Seine (especially not when there's a punning achievement on offer.)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Game of Thrones Cluedo

Bom-bom baba-bom-bom baba...
Over the weekend, we broke out one of Hanna's birthday presents: Game of Thrones Cluedo.

This game follows the essential rules of Cluedo (Clue if you're American,) but with a twist. Each player takes one of six characters, moves around a map with a number of rooms and has to work out which of the six characters, including themselves, done a murder(1), in which room and with which of six weapons. All of the variables are on cards, and one of each is placed in an envelope to define the terms of the crime. Each turn you aim to get your character to a new room, where you can 'start a rumour', calling a character and a weapon to the same room and putting it about that this is the killer combo. In turn, each of your opponents gets a chance to prove you wrong by showing you one card from their hand that matches your rumour. Eventually, when you think you know the solution, you can make an accusation, check the envelope, and either win or be excluded from the game. Because the game was made in older and simpler times, the win condition is the same for everyone, even if you realise that it was you what done it.

Is anyone significantly murdered with a battle axe in the series?
Game of Thrones Cluedo has the twist of featuring two scenarios on its reversible board: Mereen, in which you are solving a murder in one of nine major buildings; and The Red Keep, in which you are figuring out who was behind a murder plot which reached its grim conclusion in one of eleven rooms, making for a slightly more complex case. In addition, because we no longer live in those simple times, each character has a special ability and an additional mechanic allows you to collect Intrigue cards by various means, which allow you to take extra turns, see additional cards and other such things. Just for funsies, eight of the Intrigue cards are White Walkers, which must be played immediately into a separate discard pile. Drawing the eighth White Walker takes you out of the game, and the card is shuffled back into the deck to potentially kill someone else later.

Varys: Master of Modifiers
Most of the Game of Thrones trappings are just window dressing on your basic Cluedo, and even the special abilities are interesting one-shots at most, but the Intrigue cards are a radical change to the pacing of the game. Given the near-certainty of someone stealing the prize if you stumble on solution – say by guessing the weapon and room out of nowhere, damnit – an extra turn can reverse one's fortunes. With only three players the White Walkers aren't that much of a thing, but I can see that with eight the Intrigue deck would be much more akin to a revolver(2) in a game of Russian roulette. All in all, it's the Intrigue deck that makes this more than just a reskin, with Miss Scarlett wearing some sort of creepy, serial killer Cersei Lannister mask.

Also, the world is clearly ready for a Game of Thrones edition of Kill Doctor Lucky, with Joffrey as the obvious victim.

(1) Murder has its own grammar.

(2) A revolver that fires zombies.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

First Thoughts on Ori and the Blind Forest

Try not to get attached. Fail. Mourn.
Do you get tired of games that don't rip your still beating heart out of your chest within the first ten minutes of the game and stab it repeated with a blunt pencil while shouting 'this is what you get for caring?' If so, or if you like atmospheric platform puzzlers, you might like Ori and the Blind Forest.

Ori is a spirit of light separated from the great Spirit Tree of the forest and raised by a gorilla in a noh mask, until her foster parent dies of starvation because the forest is dying. Then Ori dies. Straight up, the opening sections of the game are: Ori drifts like a leaf and is adopted by Naru; Naru and Ori live happily; the forest dies and Naru starves to death while Ori is fetching food; Ori starves to death. The bit where Naru dies is bad enough, but then you have to slog slowly along while Ori expires. It's like watching the opening montage of Up.

Fortunately things pick up, as the Tree gives the last of its light to save Ori, who finds a spark of light called Sein that guides her to recover the light of other lost spirits in order to restore the balance of elements and save the forest from the rage of the owl spirit Kuro. She does this through a mixture of light combat and agile platform puzzling, retrieving various forms of key to open up new areas and explore the world of the forest. Defeating enemies and collecting light spirits allows you to level up different areas, loosely equating to combat, collecting and save management, which last is not something you often see on a skill tree.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a beautiful game, although it remains to be seen if the challenges will be varied enough to see me through the inevitable frustrating bits that come in any platformer.

First Thoughts on Octodad: Dadliest Catch

Adventures of an average, American family.
Do you get tired of games where the code takes over most of the functions of your character for you? Auto aim, context-sensitive cover and traversal, unified control of your character's limbs and body. If this is something that really grinds your gears, or if you're in the mood for some cartoon-style flailing around and burbling, then Octodad: Dadliest Catch might be for you.

In Dadliest Catch (sequel to the original, freeware Octodad) you take on the role of an unnamed octopus, who for reasons unknown (at least as far as I have got in the game,) has crammed his tentacles into clothing in order to masquerade as a human, marry a woman named Scarlet and raise her two children as his own. To do this, you switch between two modes: Legs, in which you use the mouse buttons and mouse movements to individually work the flailing, boneless tentacle pairs shoved down each trouser; and arms, in which you raise and lower, extend and retract your arm tentacle, suckering onto objects to manipulate them.

"The aisle is full of banana peels, but I'm the suspicious one?"
The game is divided into levels, each set in a different area (so far: church, home, store; and I'm at the start of the dreaded aquarium,) in which you have to complete a set of tasks and then, in most cases, escape from a chef who knows that you are an octopus and wants to turn you into a delicacy. As you go about your tasks, it is vitally important not to give yourself away by knocking things over, trampling flowers, or slipping on too many of the inordinate number of banana peels scattered about the world.

If it's not already clear, Octodad: Dadliest Catch is one weird mamajama, although for all its bizarre trappings, it's basically one long ragdoll physics puzzle. As a result, I do struggle to play extended sessions, but it's fun to dip in and out of.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Further Thoughts on Long War 2

Regions have different ADVENT strengths; currently I'm dealing with low
strengths, but I suspect it's going to get nasty once I manage to scrape together
the resources to build a radio room and reach out to somewhere I've not been
My second attempt at Long War 2 is going better; partly because I've better distributed my veterans and made serious use of the 'train rookie' function of my Guerrilla Warfare Facility, partly because I'm not attempting short-time missions(1), but also because I'm playing on easy, because I don't find getting repeatedly slaughtered fun(2). Even on easy it's pretty damned tough.

Once you get into it, two things strike you about Long War. One is the increased depth of the overworld strategic game; the other is how the way you play changes. Stealth becomes important for more than just setting up your first ambush. Whereas in the standard game it's a point of pride to get all of the aliens even if your mission is to evac a VIP; in Long War, you've never done better than if you never have to fire a shot. The first time I stealthed all the way to the cells and nipped out the back door with the prisoners without a single exchange of fire, I felt like a god; probably Loki. There's still a satisfaction - a huge satisfaction, even on easy - in a two-strong Ranger team taking on five-to-one odds to put down the guard on a prisoner transport, but it's no less a victory when you then book for evac without even stopping to see what reinforcements are coming.

Infiltration fundamentally changes human resource management.
The changes in the strategic game are simple, yet profound. Firstly, there is an overarching goal to the missions in each area. Many missions involve intel gathering, which may turn up a lead. Once you have a lead, you have a shot at Liberation missions, which reveal the location of Regional ADVENT HQ, unlocking a straight assault mission to remove the region from ADVENT control entirely (although I suspect not irrevocably.)

Secondly, infiltration completely alters your troop management. In the basic game, you get one or maybe two squads-worth and train them hard, while the bottom of the order sort of languishes. In Long War, teams spend days at a time infiltrating mission sites. Between that and healing times, you'e going to use much, much more of your roster and it really is worth cycling through to keep everyone trained up. Weapon and armour management is also once more a thing, as Long War removes the squad upgrade option; new weapons have to be built individually and supplies are at a premium. Something is nicking most of my drops and I still don't know what. Maybe if I can get the Officer corpse I need to make a skulljack(3) I can finally find out!

Finally, there's the whole question of managing the resistance. I've barely got into that, and although it mostly seems simple - each resistance member at a haven can scavenge for supplies, snoop for intel, recruit new resistance members or hide - I suspect it may become important later and I may regret not paying more attention now. Given that the havens are now persistent entities with characters who do things for me, I anticipate retaliation missions feeling a lot more personal.

(1) Attempting anything with less than 200% infiltration is a doomed venture, at least with basic gear. Once I can send a couple of heavily armoured ninjas into the field, I may spec a squad for short infiltrations.
(2) I'm basically not committed enough to break the cycle, so I never get the catharsis of victory to counter the constant frustration.
(3) Proving Ground projects don't need huge amounts of supplies, but tend to require 'parts', and since most of your missions end in evac, you don't have as many stiffs lying around. You can't pick up dead or incapacitated enemies and carry them to evac; I've tried.

Friday, 20 January 2017

First Thoughts on Long War 2

Moar choices!
Back in the days of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a group of enthusiastic fans produced 'Long War', a massive full mod which extended and expanded the gameplay with more soldier classes, tech tiers and missions. When it came to making XCOM 2, instead of slapping these upstarts with a cease and desist order, Firaxis Games gave Long War Studios (now Pavonis Interactive) early access to the project so that they could begin work on 'Long War 2', a similarly epic reworking of the sequel. The mod was released yesterday via Steam Workshop, and it resoundingly kicked my arse.

Make no mistake, Long War 2 is not just about making XCOM 2 last longer, it makes it tough. Entry level missions have Sectoids and armoured drones with stun guns, and new ADVENT troops like the Engineer with her grenade launcher and the Sentry with her mad Overwatch skillz, and they all dodge like absolute bastards. Your hit rates are for shit and there's every chance that even a successful shot will be dodged for a minor graze. Oh, and there are a lot of them on each level, with a tendency to converge on you as soon as you go loud.

Now, it's not all doom and gloom. First, you begin the game with a few extra bits and bobs, in particular three grenade/utility slots, nanoweave vests - which provide 'protection' instead of extra health, which means that the first few damage levels don't count as wounds - and sweet, sweet flashbang grenades. Within the first mission I had come to love these little beauties, so much so that I felt betrayed the first time an ADVENT Engineer lobbed one back at me. On the other hand, regular frag grenades are much less reliable.

In addition, you begin with the ability to ship eight soldiers on the Skyranger, so you can send a hell of a lot of hurt out in a single package; the flipside is that you no longer land in the combat zone. The Skyranger drops off your squad and they infiltrate the AO, a process which takes several days, and longer the more people you send and the more heavily tooled up they are. Missions are time limited, and if you don't have time to fully infiltrate the already bastard hard opposition is increased. At low infiltration levels, the mission launch screen advises that the opposition is 'impregnable.' So, while you can send eight heavily armed bastards, unless you have plenty of time available, it may be better to send a leaner squad to face a reduced defence. As an additional factor, emergency extraction is not instant; it takes time for the Skyranger to fly in. Best not to hold out to the bitter end.

All in all, Long War 2 is a tougher, grittier version of XCOM 2, with more choices to make and much more of a feeling that you are scrabbling against the real power in the world. There's a whole extra level to the Strategic game as well, with Resistance Havens to manage and a sector control game I haven't even touched on yet on account of getting my arse kicked in the missions the whole time. Now, partly this is because I screwed up. The game assigns all of your squaddies from the first mission to a single squad - a pre-assigned group of soldiers that can be quickly selected in the load-out screen - and I didn't mix them up, so I have one unwieldy group of shitkickers and a bunch of frail and unsupported rookies instead of salting the veterans across the squads to support the newbies in leveling up. And partly it's because the game is brutal.