Breaking Down the Backlog V: Smarties, Scoia’tael & Spores

ON THIS MONTH’s Breaking Down The Backlog, I take the long way to Planet Majorca, get my throat torn out by a rabid fungus and try to clear my name

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Unsurprisingly, The Witcher 2 is one hell of a game. It is gorgeous to look at, great to play (with some practise) with a story that, for me, sets a new standard for modern RPG stories. The Witcher, a game I thoroughly enjoyed looks almost sophomoric and amateur in comparison.

Arguably the most important part of a RPG is the story and the writing. You are, after all, supposed to be invested in the characters and the world the developers have made since you will be playing it for literally dozens of hours (The Witcher 2 took me about 25 hours to finish, give or take). Luckily, the main story is superb. It starts with Geralt, the main character, getting framed for

Ivoreth, the elf bandit I sided with

Ivoreth, the elf bandit I sided with

the murder of a king. After escaping prison he sets out to clear his name and find the person who did. It story quickly becomes complicated with three main strands that interweave one another: Finding the kingslayer and putting him to justice, finding your companion Triss and rediscovering Geralt’s forgotten past. Each strand is masterfully interwoven throughout the 5 chapters and keeps you from getting too caught up in the politicking and warfare that is happening all around you. It reminds me of the first game in that regard, but much The Witcher 2 is more morally grey since you can’t just default to being an neutral character. You have to choose a side and you aren’t judged for that choice. I chose to stick with the elves and never felt like I was missing out, or made a poor decision, even when there are bad repercussions. Also, hats off to CD Projekt for their characterisation. Almost everyone feels realistic despite of the fantasy world as there are few characters who are solely good or bad. Finally, the side quests are even better than the previous game. They are more mature, for one. Less incest and rape in a fantasy game and more about morality, greed and general bastardness. For example, early on you can save or condemn a she-elf for the death of some guards. If you save her from the irate townsfolk, she tries to kill you anyway later on because you “know too much” then, you can choose again whether to murder her in an act of vengeance or scare her off. There are few modern RPGs where ‘good deed = good reward’. I must compliment the game for having the best ‘quest-log’ ever since it is written from the standpoint of the game’s narrator Dandelion, a bard. It actually sounds like you are part of a great epic poem.

It is with no exaggeration when I say that graphics in The Witcher 2 are sublime. I turned on all the bells and whistles and was stunned at just how good the game looked. The characters, the world, the lighting, the way smoke curled in the air… utterly jaw-dropping. Problem is when you come across parts that aren’t given the same attention, they stick out like a saw thumb. Like a character that doesn’t have all the shaders the main characters have or there are just some parts of the world in the game that just don’t look that good. It is understandable though since it is such a

This game looks aaaamaazzzinnggg

This game looks aaaamaazzzinnggg

big ambitious game, that there would be parts that aren’t as polished as others. Don’t get me wrong though, when The Witcher 2 is firing on all graphical cylinders, there are few games even today that can equal it. Other parts of the presentation, however, can be a bit lacking. The voice acting takes a bit of getting used to; Geralt can be a bit monotonous and the strange accents some of the characters have can seem a bit stilted. The animations, on the other hand, can be very hit or miss. Geralt animates superbly but everyone else, even in cut-scenes, seems really stilted as they go through their pre-canned animations. It can be really jarring, but it isn’t game ruining. One final thing: some monsters literally spawn before your very eyes like an MMO. That is just simply unacceptable and lazy.

Last but not least; the game-play. The Witcher 2 is similar to The Witcher 1 in that the game starts really hard but becomes almost trivial at the end. That is because the game throws multiple enemies at you before you have the means and the skills to properly defend yourself against more than one or two enemies at once. Although frustrating, it does teach you to do two things: plenty of preparation before fighting and dodge a whole lot during the fight. The preparation comes from drinking potions, making bombs, traps and knives. With the correct potions and bombs, you can almost breeze your way through most fights providing you dodge and time your attacks right. The alchemy in this game is much like the first game in its depth and complexity as you have to read up on monsters and scour the landscape for the eight or so reagents so you can make potions. The actual combat is relatively simple, very action orientated and actually easier than the previous game since you don’t have to change stances depending on who/what you are attacking. It is based around light and strong attacks and by chaining them together you do more damage. It is hardly Bayonetta but it works and is a league above the likes of Skyrim as your hits actually feel like they have some weight behind them. There are also mini-games. They range from arm-wrestling, gambling, fist fights and Quick Time Events during certain boss battles. The majority of them are easy – the QTEs especially – as I only failed one or two…apart from the gambling. I have always loathed gambling in video-games because it never seems fair when you go against the computer. Whilst I am being negative, the bosses can be annoying because they sometimes come out of nowhere so you have no time to prepare. And if you do in fact prepare, your oils and potion’s effect will run out because it is time based, and that time continues ticking down during cut-scenes. Which is rather irritating.

Despite these little gripes when it comes to mechanics and the lack of polish in some places, The Witcher 2 is a phenomenal modern RPG and stands as one of the best examples of the genre.

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Wow. Just wow. The Last Of Us impressed me in every single capacity. I was sceptical, as I am wont to be, after all the Game Of The Year awards it got in 2013. But, after playing it, I believe The Last Of Us earned every single one of them. Though I will say that the best parts of the game aren’t necessarily the parts you actually play it.

Graphically, this game was on a whole different level when compared to other console exclusive games. There was so much detail the world, I have never seen such a variety of different rooms and

Kinda unbelievable that The Last of Us is on PS3

Kinda unbelievable that The Last of Us is on PS3

locations that were totally extraneous to the actual plot – you wander in a room that would be very different to any room you had been in previously, albeit only marginally. As amazing as the world was in The Last Of Us, it was the character models that impressed me the most. Joel and Ellie looked phenomenal, with little details like the purple badge on Ellie’s backpack or Joel’s peppery beard. The enemies also looked great. The zombie-esque things were disturbing and a very cool take on the tired old zombie trope since they were covered in fungi. The human enemies, although less interesting, animated well and I especially liked that when you strangle one, you can actually see their blood vessels in the eyes burst. Also, shout out to the gore in the game, using the shotgun to explode heads and send limbs flying was oodles of fun. On top of all that, the voice acting was impeccable, as was the sound design. All the main characters, especially Joel and Ellie, sounded like they were coming from them and not some person in a booth. Hats off to Troy Baker for quite possibly the best voice acting I have ever heard from a protagonist in a game. But when it comes to sound quality, the clickers take the cake. The noise they made was so disgusting that I couldn’t play the game with my mum in the same room, because it made her feel ill. Funnily enough, the extreme quality of the cut-scenes were so good that they showed up just how ‘bad’ the actual in-game graphics were, so much so it made it jarring whenever the switch was made. You’d go from quite possibly the best CGI in a game ever to a good looking game that lacked anti-aliasing and high resolution textures. Regardless of this, The Last Of Us is still  superb looking, so much so it might be the best looking game on the last generation of consoles.

As I mentioned earlier, the actual gameplay of The Last Of Us isn’t the best part of the game. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t play well…its just not the draw, if you get my drift. I mean, the shooting and mêlée combat felt great and looked powerful thanks, as previously mentioned, to the gore and sound design. Plus, for the actual game to be a stealth based third-person shooter with resource management it came as a surprise just how good it was to play, for the most part. The sneaking was fine thanks mainly to the sheer amount of tools you are given to distract and silently kill people and when you are caught, you are just powerful enough that you don’t feel like you might as well re-load. I just wish the stealth was a bit more informative. Yes, you can listen and pinpoint where

Actual screenshot from a cutscene

Actual screenshot from a cutscene

people are, but it is rather difficult to tell where your enemies are moving too and where they are looking. Which is especially frustrating when the zombies that run at you also bring with them Clickers that can – and usually do – insta-kill you. And, much like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, the aiming was a bit too fidgety. Maybe I have my aim calibrated too high or its my inexperience with the Playstation controllers, but sometimes I would miss by this much because I nudged the analogue stick slightly. Also like Uncharted, the enemies at the end were stupidly powerful (two head-shots, really Naughty Dog?) which soured the final level for me somewhat.

Minor quibbles aside, what really makes this game one of the best games I have ever played is the story. The journey of Joel and Ellie make, both physically and emotionally, was told with maturity and skill very seldom seen in a game. I can see why they are adapting The Last Of Us into a film. It has no ‘sick’ twist that comes in two thirds of the way through that ruins/transforms the game and story into something unexpected. Each story beat feels like they logically followed one another, with nothing seeming out of character or put there ‘just cause’. And the ending…my GOD the ending is literally awesome, as in, I was in awe of what I just witnessed. It was a point where the story and graphics coalesced in such a way that if either one was lacking, all the emotional weight would have been lost. The Last Of Us is the crème de la crème of video-games, a game that all subsequent big-budget games should strive to be in a way: creative and bold. A game so good that it makes me glad I bought a Playstation 3.

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Giants Citizen Kabuto is the oldest game I have played in the series so far AND is in fact the oldest game in my backlog at roughly 6 years old. It was difficult working out just how to judge it coming off of the likes of Bioshock Infinite, The Last Of Us and The Witcher 2 which are all powerhouses when it comes to graphics, mechanics and story-telling. Giants…has actually aged pretty well. Yes the fourteen/fifteen year old graphics are pretty basic by today’s standards but the humour, atmosphere and the actual designs of the characters keep it from looking its age.

What Giants has most going for it is the sheer variety of things you do in the game. It begins as a robust third-person shooter, then it turns into a real time strategy from the third-person perspective. It repeats this patten for the first two thirds of the game but keeps the gameplay fresh because you control an entirely different character in the second third which controls very differently has its own challenges (it also throws in some misguided racing segments). But the coup de grace is the final third, where you control the titular Kabuto; who has to eat to grow and can lay eggs that turn into very powerful monsters in their own right. Boredom very rarely sets in from mission to mission. There are a couple of problems. The strategy sections are over-long and can

Delphi in all her censored glory

Delphi in all her censored glory

get pretty tedious since you have to go through the same motions of: collect Smarties, kill things to get meat/souls, take resources back to base to keep the smarties building whilst defending your base. You do this about five times. And the first time this happens, it is such a difficulty spike that I had to actually cheat so I could skip the level and continue. That is how boring/hard it was. It got easier once you change character, admittedly, but still. Also, the less said about the ATROCIOUS racing sections, the better because Jesus Christ they were awful.

The story, or more accurately, the writing is very charming and incredibly British. The overall story is about a group of humanoid Meccaryns who crash on their way to Planet Majorca (pronounced MajORKa) on an unnamed planet. They get dragged into a struggle between the Smarties and the Reaper Guards lead by Queen Sappho, whose daughter Delphi has betrayed her and fights against her evil reign. In the middle of this is the aforementioned Kabuto, a humongous monster who runs rampart. The story is very light and is basically used to string together the missions and put the characters in humorous situations. The cut-scenes are where the Giants’ charm really shines.

I don’t really need to talk about the graphics. The models look unique and the landscapes look suitably alien with large vistas and weird plateaus. It is the textures that show the age of the game as they are all low-resolution and blurry. But that didn’t detract from what was, barring some bad old-school game design, an enjoyable game that I was glad to have finally played after all these years.

Next up on Breaking Through the Backlog: Dust: An Elysian TaleBulletstorm and Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

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