Monday, 29 September 2008

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

I know I'm uber-cool. Heck, everyone knows I'm uber-cool, but when a game acknowledges how uber-cool I am, it instantly wins my love from that alone. Luckily, Bethesda know the way to my heart, and have assured my love through the ego-inflating yet undeniably annoying adoring fan. He just follows you around until he gets mauled by a passing daedra, but the fact that he refers to you as "Oh great and mighty Grand Champion" means he's worth sticking in the game, and worth speaking to once. And never again.

It's also worth noting that Bethesda put an awful lot of other cool stuff into Oblivion. Such as flower picking. However, they even went to the trouble of putting basic, mundane, everyday tasks in, such as sneaking aboard pirate ships and assassinating the captain, entering yourself for fierce gladitorial fights to the death, or simply saving the world. The work that they've put into the little details is astounding. Oblivion is, in case you've been living in one of the many fusty caves littering Cyrodiil, an open world game. After exiting the sewers near the start of the game, you can either proceed with the whole apocalypse prevention procedure or completely disregard all that you have witnessed in the first half hour of the game. If you choose the former, you'll spend the next hour of your new life chatting up a priest who actually happens to be heir to the throne, only to find that he'll only follow you home if you slap about a couple of scabby-faced ruffians who set fire to half of his neighbourhood. The latter choice will take you anywhere you happen to end up. It's all a bit hit and miss there, although eventually you'll probably end up finding your way into one of the guilds. Or you'll spend the rest of your life sucking the moisture from rocks, whiling away the hours talking to mud crab.

Called Ted.

Whichever path you choose, you'll always be in Cyrodiil, which has more places to go than you're likely to have time for. Luckily, there are also more things to do than you're likely to have time for, such as the above mentioned world-saving, or foiling a shopkeeper's evil plan to... sell cheap goods. The concept of all of these one off quests are great, and happily, they're all played out in equally great greatness. Huzzah! There as many different quests as quests you might want to do, and most people seem to have something troubling them. Oh, my flagon of ale has been stolen. Oh, my cat jumped off of a bridge. Oh, my sword has grown toenails, etc etc etc. As is so often the case in video gaming, most of the quests involve killing whoever the villain may be, rather than say, having a chat over a mug of ale. Ah well. I suppose omitting peaceful solutions is an accurate simulation of life.

When opening up a huge game world to explore, it's easy to just hope that the player may become so immersed that they won't notice that you've skimped on the graphics. Graphics skimping, however, has been skimped on in Oblivion. Your weapon shimmers in the light, orcs look as pig ugly and John Prescott-like as they should, and you can get some truly brilliant views. The only problem is with these views, in fact: the game only loads your immediate area. This leaves anything beyond that looking like a pre-schooler's snotted up papier mache replica of Old Trafford. On the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions you're stuck with this, but the PC version has a fascicle of mods available to make the game more pleasing on the eye. That said, even without the mods, Oblivion is still a beautiful game.

On the subject of mods, there are an awful lot that the community has now churned out. Any problems, no matter how obscure, that vanilla Oblivion had, have been ironed out by modders. One such gripe that angered many a fan was the lack of snail racing. That has since been corrected though, and you are now free to bet on and spectate this sport of kings (Once you've installed the mod, of course).

And now we arrive at the obligatory "things which this game fluffed up" part of the review. The most major problem is the combat system, which features a "block" button and a "swipe wildly in the enemy's general direction" button. You're not going to pull off Devil May Cry style combos however hard you may try, and the system's incredible lack of depth is what puts me off the warrior classes. Instead, I opt to sneak around in the shadows, picking off my targets with a well-placed arrow (and a 3x sneak damage bonus). Ranged attacks are much more interesting, the projectiles staying lodged in your target's throat until you pluck them back out. Or, if you're like me, leave them in and screenshot it, you sadistic bastard.

The game is also (On 360 at least) a little sluggish at some points when you're skipping through the countryside. On all platforms, there is occasional slowdown as the game loads the next area, yet the Xbox 360 version's frame rate seems to be a little more erratic than it would be on a decent computer. Saying that, the frame rate problem is slight, and you'll barely notice it thanks to all the fun you'll have killing goblins. Oh joy.

All in all, Oblivion is an open world RPG which stands head and shoulders above its peers. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, and the combat is far from the best you'll find, but Cyrodiil has been wonderfully crafted. Much like the under-garments of an inebriated Keira Knightly, it's a place you can't afford not to explore.


Friday, 12 September 2008

The World Ended The Other Day

Wasn't it intense?

Medieval 2: Total War Review

In medieval Europe, everyone is a potential enemy: no one can be trusted. Which surely is a valid, if slightly unorthodox excuse to go to war with your neighbours, no? The Pope disagrees with my logic, however, and would much prefer that I was bashing muslims. A little xenophobic, perhaps, but beggars can't be choosers.

The world of diplomacy is such, and always has been. For some strange reason, the majority has never really liked war-waging, world-conquering dictators. But being yet another game with war in the title, M2TW demands you go at odds with that majority, for everything in the game revolves around military conquest. You build your economy to support your disorganized rabble of reluctant peasants and knights who get all over excited and orgasmic at the sight of blood. Diplomacy is a tool to convince other factions that you are not actually as much of a warmongering megalomaniac as you first appear, and that in fact, an alliance would be lovely. The royal family is there to lead your armies into battle and give rallying speeches prior to each battle to make your forces feel all warm, fuzzy and brave. The Pope is a barrier to stop you killing the French, unless you want to get yo ass crusaded. But if you had a hat like that, you'd have half of Europe hanging on your every word too. No, really.

The selling point of the Total War series is, and always has been the large scale battles, with thousands of troops bopping each other with longswords. The presentation of these centrepiece battles has been greatly improved in M2TW, with the 'clone' soldiers of RTW replaced with plate-clad knights, each of whom are now rendered in M2TW's fancy new graphics engine. The brilliance is in the subtle touches: the grubby looking peasant units, who are visually and statistically improved as you equip them with better armour; the diligently polished helmets of your hierarchally superior knights. The fighting itself has also been improved. Zoom into ground level and you will see the armies not taking it in turns to poke each other like in RTW, but clashing swords, knocking each other over and then giving them a good stab to the gut to make sure. Even the general's speeches have been given an overhaul. Gone are the misplaced and (I'd like to think) historically inaccurate American accents of Roman generals, and the I-woke-up-with-a-sore-throat Barbarian accents, and in their places are slightly more accurate region-specific accents, which vary depending on who you play as. They also seem realistically egoistic, with one of my generals describing how brave he was several times in the same speech.

Battles aside, the campaign map looks much the same graphically as RTW. The only differences I noticed was that when fully zoomed out and looking down on the map, the Alps and the Pyrenees looked artificial and maze-like, whereas RTW's alps looked more natural. If I were to stop being royally picky for a moment, I would spot no difference. What you can do with the campaign map now, however, has had a few minor additions. One such addition is merchants, who are controlled like armies and diplomats, but control resource deposits that they can raise variable amounts of moolah from, depending on their skill level and the resource in question. Princesses work much like diplomats, with the obvious bonus of being much more attractive (and seductive?), and being able to marry either to seal an alliance or bring new relatives into the royal family. Assassins and spies both make a return, the latter being able to stalk any other unit, the former being able to murder any unit. Both the assassin and spy now have short movies to show the success or failure of their mission, an omission since Shogun: Total War which now makes a return. While being entertaining to watch, and in some cases even humourous, the handful of movies tend to get samey once you've seen them a few times.

Diplomacy is a part of the game which sees a lot of use, yet even in this fourth iteration of the Total War series, it is still very basic. You never really trust your allies, and alliances themselves seem pointless. Rarely will you find yourself fighting alongside them, and much of the time even if you want to stay friends, they will backstab you with no warning but a menacing grin. The choices in the diplomacy screen are also limited, and it feels as though the diplomacy system was almost completely forgotten. Although in M2TW it now shows you faction reputation, relation to you, wealth and strength, it still feels like far too little.

City management is the final front you must master. Build roads, markets and ports to increase your income, and military buildings to improve the soldiers available - it's all joyfully self-explanatory. Managing your income, while upgrading your cities to cope with your citizens needs and having to keep your neighbours and the Pope happy all at once, however, is not so simple. Alas, such are the drawbacks of being a King.

While perhaps a little inaccessable and intimidating for some, Medieval 2 manages to balance battles and economic planning for the same remarkably well. It keeps what could so easily have been a daunting and over-complicated game in a relatively simple interface. I'm tempted to think that anyone other than Creative Assembly might have passed off the battles alone as a full game and still got away with it, yet CA also give you the control over the state itself.

Score: 9.5/10