Category Archives: Preview

Cardinal Quest 2 Preview

[This article was published in the July issue of Indie Game Magazine]

Just so we’re clear on this, we only have a very early alpha build of the Cardinal Quest 2 (CQ2) available to us right now; so all those screenshots you see dotted around this article? They’re mostly made up of placeholder graphics recycled from the first game. It all looks perfectly fine as-is though, so I’d say the promise of higher rez sprites in the future is a tantalising one indeed. But more importantly, even in this early build it’s already abundantly clear that CQ2 is on course to be a quantum leap over the original CQ, which was a pretty neat little title in its own right (It scored 70% on our review scale back in February!). Rest assured, It still has all those lovely Roguelike trappings that fans expect: Randomly generated dungeons, oodles of loot, plenty of stats to tweak and, of course, a rather harsh difficulty curve (my first attempted playthrough lasted oh…..about 5 minutes?). But on top of all that we’ve now got a significantly expanded feature set that adds a whole host of new and intriguing tactical possibilities.

So what’s so different then? Well, the most significant change is the level of control you have over how character evolves throughout the course of your adventure. In the original CQ, you simply chose a starting class and then…..  that was pretty much it really. The game auto-equipped any decent loot you found without asking you and leveling up just increased your health a little. CQ2 on the other hand drops the whole auto-equip thing, allows players to invest skill points into a talent tree (every RPG has to have one of those now, it’s a law or something) and provides you with shops that offer randomised selections of loot to spend your hard earned coinage on. Together these mechanics allow players to build their hero in a direction they’ve actually chosen (e.g. a flimsy but speedy Warrior or a super bulky yet slow Wizard) while still not overwhelming them with pages of unnecessary statistics and decisions like so many RPGs are wont to do.

Joining the original trio of Thief, Warrior and Wizard we’ve got at least 3 new classes on the way. First there’s the Pugilist; a macho-man brawler that refuses to even touch those wussy weapons the other classes use, instead relying his ever-reliable friends “left fist” and “right fist” to stun then toss around anyone who gets near. Next there’s the Paladin; a powerful servant of light who starts with a high faith stat and a rare healing spell by default, but must sacrifice his own HP to cast non-holy spells like fireball. And finally there’s my personal favorite: the Ranger; that iconic fantasy archer extraordinaire, now accompanied by a delightfully derpy lookin’ dog that draws away enemy’s attention while you pelt ‘em with arrows.

In addition to the original’s narrow confined dungeons, CQ2 introduces expensive outdoor environments, which include tons of lovely lovely bushes! Wait, is that “uh, why are bushes a big deal?” I hear you say? Well, they have huge effect on not only your character’s line of sight, but also that of your enemies. This allows a correctly specced hero to get the drop on unsuspecting enemies, thus granting access to those brutal backstab damage multipliers previously only available to the sneaky sneaky Thief class. But be warned, hiding in the bushes also has a drastically detrimental effect on your defences, adding yet another layer to CQ’s engaging risk/reward dynamic.

The only downside to all this extra content is that it’s made CQ2 rather less ‘snappy’ than the original, resulting in a far slower and more methodical experience that may take a little longer to get to grips with than before. That said, It’s still an exceptionally accessible title. Thanks to a simple control scheme, a smart UI and very helpful tooltips, anyone with even basic understanding of RPGs should be bustin’ monsters with the best of ‘em in no time! To sum it up, CQ2 is looking like it’ll be everything a good sequel should: bigger, deeper and more fun, all while not abandoning anything that made the original so engaging in the first place. It’s one worth looking forward to for sure.

Crashtastic Preview

I don’t care what anyone else says; Lego was the best toy ever, no contest. Well ok, I guess Transformers were pretty badass too, but come on man! Lego! It let you make whatever the hell you wanted to; your own creation, build with only love, care and your own two hands. And best of all, you could then watch that sucker crumble into teeny-tiny pieces after you ‘accidentally’ crashed it into something (surely I’m not the only kid that did this?).

While many games in the past have tried to capture the same sense of childish glee that Lego provides, I think Crashtastic is one of the few to hit it so squarely on the head. The game tasks you with using a simple yet robust creation tool and an assortment of bars, springs, wheels and rockets to build a vehicle of questionable structural integrity. Then, after deciding how much thrust you wanna give those rockets (you *did* cover it in rockets right?), you get to see how well your sweet new ride fairs in a series of small performance trials, which all inevitably end with “Deathtrap Mk3’s” individual components violently propelled across all corners of the map.

These mini-challenges range from simple tasks such as traveling a set distance or at a certain speed, all the way up to more advanced assignments like navigating an assault course or surviving a head on collision without your little mannequin pilot dude falling off his seat. The idea is that you’ll continue to tinker with your design for maximum performance at each individual task, or maybe even build a one-off that’s perfectly suited for one particular challenge (pro tip: for head-on collision ones, just build something that can move out of the way!).

While at first I was a little sceptical about playing what looked like yet another ‘physics based puzzle game’, I just can’t deny that the core concepts and mechanics of Crashtastic are incredibly strong. Despite my rather limited imagination, I still had an absolute whale of a time trying out all sorts of crazy abstract designs, and then watching on in a mixture of horror and morbid delight as my creation disintegrates into shattered fragments at the slightest provocation.

My only real gripe is how little feedback (i.e. none) the game gives you on how and/or why these (beautiful) disasters end up happening in the first place, which can make honing your design to be a bit less accident-prone rather difficult. Are there too many rockets*? Are there not enough rockets**? Is the undercarriage too close to the ground? Do I need to fashion some kind of quasi-shock absorbers? Should I not be building my designs around the idea of constantly placing the pilot in mortal danger?  There’s really no way to tell what the actual issue is most of the time, so you just end up tweaking until the problem finally goes away, often only to be replaced with yet another new indescifrable and/or catastrophic design flaw.

** Always true.

But that stuff aside; the current direction of Crashtastic is very promising, and all it really lacks at the moment is more content to mess around with. Give it a bigger range of challenges and few extra types of building blocks, then this’ll be a game I can heartily recommend to any other Lego die hards out there without a moment’s hesitation. Sure, It might be a little limited right now, but I think Crashtastic will definitely be one worth revisiting further down the line!

You can currently pre-order Crashtastic for ~£5 ($7.99) on the official site, granting you instant access to the ongoing Alpha test (PC only).

AirBuccaneers HD preview

As a kid I had a fairly solid idea of what I *though* multiplayer video games would be like in the future. They would be all about cooperation on a grand scale; players working in harmony with one another as cogs in some grandiose social machine. Like a tank crew, each player would do their part to ensure the continued effectiveness of their team as a whole, with the most efficient team being declared the winner at the match’s end. Yes that’s right, I thought multiplayer games were going to turn into Commie’ simulators.

You may have noticed that, with a few notable exceptions, things kinda went in the opposite direction to my Soviet fantasies. Games became far more about personal glory rather than teamwork, with only high tier players even acknowledging the existence of their allies. But that’s what gave me an instant affinity towards Ludosoft’s AirBuccaneers HD, a game where I can finally live out my dreams of coordination and unity. Also it’s about combat blimps, which is totally badass.

As expected for a title that’s in a early alpha state, the thing’s pretty clunky right now. Controls are slightly awkward, certain mechanics don’t function quite right and the graphics are rather underwhelming. But even in this relatively early build, one thing above all else is abundantly clear: this game is so damn fun*!

*Provided there’s enough players around.

The basic idea is that each team serves as crew aboard a small armada of cannon equipped blimps, which are all styled as pirate ships and viking longboats. While one player acts as the ship’s helmsman, the rest of the deckhands run around taking care of other vital tasks such as loading different kinds of ammo, spotting enemy vessels, laying air mines, lighting fuses, aiming said cannons or even boarding nearby ships for a bit of hand to hand combat.

These tasks aren’t quite as straightforward as they may sound at first though. For one thing, the cannons have no cross hair or other such aiming aid, so firing on enemy ships requires you to be constantly accounting for each ship’s speed, height and trajectory in order for your shots to hit anything meaningful. Yes, sometimes it can become a tad frustrating when you miss your mark ten times in a row. But this trial and error approach also creates a rising sense of tension that slowly builds up every time your aim inches ever closer to that optimum firing angle, a sensation that’s only heightened when you realise your counterpart on the opposing ship isn’t too far off the mark either.

And that moment when you manage land the killing blow before he does? Man, It’s honestly one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in a multiplayer game. The glory ain’t just reserved for the gun crew though. As the captain, correctly out maneuvering a rival skipper while giving your gunnery boys a clean shot is just as good as landing the blows yourself. And so too is plunging head first into the melee a part of a boarding party or any number of other tasks that further the war effort in your team’s favor. When everyone plays their part, everyone reaps the reward…….. comrade.

While the visuals still have a long way to go on a technical level, that doesn’t stop the large scale multi-ship battles looking absolutely glorious! Just think of it: a half-dozen or so ships sailing through the clouds, each filled with soldier dudes working feverishly towards a single goal while cannonballs and rockets fly across the battlefield like a medieval fireworks display. All this, interrupted only by the occasional roaring battle cry as one of the vessels descends to the earth in a gigantic fireball alongside the bodies of her vanquished crew. It’s a sight like no other, one that I reckon could make AirBuccaneers HD a must play multiplayer experience once it goes gold.

The only thing that’s really capping its potential right now is the player count. Even more so than most multiplayer shooters, AirBuccaneers HD requires a relatively decent number of players on each side for it to really come into its own. From my experience with it so far, I’d say that number’s around 8 or so players on each team. That might not sound huge, but being a relatively low-profile alpha game, it’s rare to see more than a handful of players online at once outside of the occasionally prearranged showdowns with the developers. You can play with less players if you really want, but I’ve found that those games tend end up as zero sum slogs that’re no fun for either team regardless of who “wins”.

I assume there might be some AI bots or something in the full version, which would go a long way to mitigate this issue if they’re smart enough to put up a decent fight. Regardless, in its currently unfinished state AirBuccaneers HD is already an absolute blast to play, and manages to provide a special kind of gratification you just don’t get very often in video games. Shooter fans with a heavy cooperative bent better keep a close eye on this one and make sure to give it a whirl when it finally hits. Hell, play it right now while it’s still free! The more scallywags the merrier!

You can currently join in on the AirBuccaneers HD Open Alpha over on the official site. Alternatively you can pick up the original Unreal Tournament 2004 mod here.

Mass Effect 3 Demo Impressions

Before I begin, let put your mind at ease friend! There’ll be no Mass Effect 3 spoilers to be found in these here passages. Firstly, I’m not a jerk. Secondly, I’m a big fan myself, so I know full well how vital every twist and turn is to the overall Mass Effect experience! Well, at least I though I did anyway. One of the first things the demo asks you – and I gather this feature remains in the full version – is whether you want to have the AI make all the dialogue choices for you, supposedly so you can focus on the combat.

While I question why anyone would want to play an RPG in such a fashion, it’s not as crazy a proposition as it would have been in ME1 or 2. If this demo is anything to go by, then the combat in ME3 is a significant improvement over that of the two previous incarnations, both of which I’d lovingly describe as “passable” even on a good day. Most noticeably Shepard is way more mobile than ever before; able to perform cheeky combat rolls as well as a some smooth parkour when the situation demands it. Plus, the commander no longer suffers from the dreaded space asthma, so can now partake in brisk jogs that last more than two or three seconds without needing to take a little nap mid-combat.

He or she (I’m gonna keep switching between the two from now on, just for giggles) has also finally got over his debilitating phobia of touching weapons not mention in her class description. So, much like it was in the first game, every type of gun is now available to all classes to use as they see fit. Grenades also make a triumphant return from ME1, with a different flavor unique to each class. Unfortunately said grenades ain’t mapped to a specific button in the console versions, and instead eat into your (still quite frankly ridiculous) limit of 3 hot-keyed skills at any one time.

Also unique to each class is the long awaited melee attacks. Contrary to what most ME3 promotional material may suggest, it turns out these attacks can be used whenever you damn well please and are not mealy a context sensitive stealth kills. But as there’s no way to accurately “lock-on” to enemies, I often found myself using these attacks to brutally pummel thin air, all the while being slowly eviscerated by the nearest goon. That’s ok though, cus’ they all look super badass even when you miss. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters right?

Other than those bells and whistles, the core combat mechanics remain more or less the same as they were before: you and two other dudes with laser guns hide behind things and then shoot some other guys, whom themselves are doing much the same thing. Leveling hasn’t changed much either, the only notable difference being that skill “evolutions” are now offered at much lower levels than they were in ME2. The demo does suggests they’ve brought back in a loot system of some kind too. However most of those features locked out, so I can’t really give you any details on how that stuff works just yet.

Changes to the visuals seem fairly significant by comparison; character textures in particular are noticeably sharper than before and thankfully don’t seem to suffer from the Unreal Engine’s™ patented “texture-pop” technology. Unfortunately this is where the tone of this preview turns a little gloomy, so stop reading now if you don’t want a total buzz kill. So, after playing the demo on all thee major platforms (PC, PS3 and Sega Game Gear) I can safely surmise the following: the PS3 version is SO not ready. I realise the PS3 version of ME2 wasn’t exactly silky smooth either, but at least I could look at it without feeling ill! The frame rate is the the real deal breaker, from start to finish it was so abysmally low that I’m actually dumbfounded EA let this demo even see the light of day for fear of a PR disaster.

While that might sound like just a nerdy little nitpick, in this case I assure you it’s a very serious problem. If you don’t believe me, just imagine trying to line up a head shot or get engrossed in an emotional cutscene when the whole game looks like a child’s flip book. Given that the PS3 is my console of choice, I’m personally considering bringing my PC version Shepard out of retirement rather than having to put up with farce for even a moment longer. At the very least I’d recommend any PS3 gamers pull their pre-orders until you know for certain whether this issue is something that’ll actually persist over to the full version. But hey, the fixed the screen tearing issue! That counts for something right?

I should make it clear that I’m not saying the Xbox 360 version is without fault either, it has its share of jank. It’s all within reason though, so no need for the Microsoft faithful to turn up at EA HQ with torches and pitchforks just yet. Unsurprisingly the PC version is (provided your rig’s up to the task) goddamn immaculate in its own right, and defiantly remains the platform of choice if you prefer your space marines looking extra spiffy.

PS3 concerns aside, the action segments of ME3 are shaping up to be a pretty solid in my book. I feel like they’ve addressed a lot of the core problems that made ME2’s combat a little tiresome, namely the lack of variety and rather laborious pace of play. That said, I very much doubt it’ll be the shooter revolution that EA’s wants you to think it is, but I can’t say I blame em’ too much for marketing it that way. The “video game featuring bald man holding a gun” industry is pretty competitive these days ya know!

As for the big question on many an ME fan’s lips, e.g. “OMG! Have nerf storyline make Gears of Mass Effect 3?!?!11” I just don’t have a bloody clue mate. All the conversational segments in the demo seemed pretty alright to me, and the voice acting still sounds top notch. But for the most part this demo was all combat, all the time. Looks like we’ll just have to wait till March to find out if all that juicy space drama goodness made the cut or not.

Starhawk Beta Impressions

Enemies coming in form all sides. Snipers, machine gunners, tanks. You name it, they’re on my ass. In almost any other shooter that’d been made in the last 5 or so years (including Starhawk’s 2007 predecessor Warhawk) I’d be dead. Instantly. No question about it. But in Starhawk? I’d call down from the sky a miniature fortress covered in ammo pickups and turret hard-points and then I’d damn well hold the line.

That’s the power Starhawk’s Build n’ Battle system gives you. Within seconds you and your teammates can turn any old desolate little hovel into a buzzing military citadel complete with all the amenities a good soldier needs to get the job done. All you need is a flat patch of land and enough of the Sci-Fi MacGuffin “Rift energy” to instantly create whatever you need, wherever you need it. Could you do with a solid wall between yourself and the adversarial dune buggy speeding towards you? Build it. Think a sniper tower overlooking your enemy team’s flag would be cool? Build it. Want an entire secondary base on some neigh-inaccessible floating platform no one’s even set foot on yet? Build three.

The amount of Rift energy you get passively over time is minimal at best, while the boost you get from droppin’ fools is pretty significant. So the only way you’re gonna be able to fund your massive doom fortress is to partake in the time honoured video game tradition of shootin’ other dudes dead. Oh, and what a joy such an activity is! As someone who is sick and tired of CoD style twitch multiplayer, playing Starhawk has in many ways been an extremely refreshing experience. It hearkens back to the days where the average time period between spawning and dieing could be measured in minutes instead of millionths of a second. The weapons could perhaps be a little more satisfying for sure, but that’s a relatively minor issue when they’re fired atop a giant transforming jet fighter robot or from a vantage point a mile high by way of personal jetpacks.

At present, infantry have access to machine guns, sniper rifles, mines, repair tools, rocket launchers and gigantic shotguns; with the promise of pistol and flamethrower like weapons hitting in future updates.

At the moment the beta only allows for a traditional game of Capture the Flag on one of two maps, Space and Acid Sea. Both have more than enough of the complex terrain that made Warhawk’s maps so engaging, but still have enough open spaces that let you make best use of the Build ‘n Battle system in interesting ways. Although I’m not too sure what else the finished title will offer, the mode selection screen clearly has grayed out options for Team Deathmatch, Vanilla deathmatch, and my personal favorite from the Warhawk glory days, Zones.

Sadly not everything about Starhawk is quite such a throwback. Most of the varied colour palette utilised Warhawk has been abandoned in favor of the well explored but endlessly fascinating shades that exist between brown and grey. On top of that there’s plenty of…. “Progressive” modern gameplay mechanics that’ve worked their way in. Most predictably regenerating health now replaces the venerable health gauge, so those of you who’ve gotten used to near instantaneously shrugging off bullet wounds (or worse, have never known any better!) needn’t have to start memorising medipak spawn points just yet.

In fact, don’t bother trying to memorize any spawn points. If you want something to spawn in Starhawk then you damn well MAKE IT spawn where and when you need it. Pretty much all the key weapon pickups can only be found on specific Build ‘n Battle structures, meaning it’s in everyone best interest to keep the military machine humming, lest they find themselves with only the default armaments when duty calls. Furthermore, vehicle factories will only keep churning out new products if someone actually gets off their ass and spends extra Rift energy on them once in a while. If you find this concept a little confusing, then just go ask a PC gamer. I hear they’ve been doing similar sorts of nonsense in their Genuine Time Tactical whatchamacallits for years.

The ability to airdrop onto your opponent makes even respawning fun!

No, I’m serious, read up on that stuff. You’d be shocked at how bad it turns out console gamers are at resource management. Many a time I’ve seen players flood the home fort with vehicle factories just so they can get a quick ride, even if there’s already an identical and perfectly serviceable such structure mere feet away. Not only does that sort of behaviour totally ruin the fengu-shi that I spend most of any given match working on, it also eats into the team’s shared building allowance extremely quickly.  Currently in the beta there’s no real way to tackle this sort of malarkey other than running around un-building redundant facilities like a mother tidying up after a naughty child.

I’ll admit that sometimes it’s just an innocent mistake; the build menu doesn’t give any indication as to what your team’s already built, and in the heat of battle it’s easy to forget that there’s already 3 or more expensive jetpack factories right next to you. Hopefully it’s something they’ll correct before launch with some kind of “Bro, you already got like 5 of those things!” indicator, or at the very least start giving players some way to curb those who get a little too carried away with the buildin’ rather than the battlein’. But you know, figuring stuff like that out is what beta tests are for! As it stands, Starhawk is shaping up to be a truly stellar multiplayer experience, one that I’m sure will be further refined over the coming months leading up to release.

But In the meantime, I could certainly do with some more practice! Rather ironically I’m still not entirely clear on what purpose titular “Hawks” actually serve in combat. Yes they fly incredibly fast and look super badass by virtue of being gigantic death robots, but their effectiveness against anything other than OTHER hawks feels minimal at best. Perhaps it’s just part of the game that hasn’t clicked with me yet? If that’s the case then, no worries, I’ll figure it out eventually. And you know why? Because I’m going to keep playing long after this article’s done. I’m probably even gonna keep playing when the full review’s finished sometime next year. You see, It’s been very VERY long time since I’ve manged to find a multiplayer shooter anywhere near as engaging or unique as Starhawk, so forgive me if I can’t help but indulge!