This week, Brendan Frye, Phil, and Lisa are joined by Bryan Calhoun.
First, out team explores the ramifications of EA closing down Visceral Games, and lament the future of the new Star Wars adventure game from the studio, that will never be. They also weigh in on CD Projekt Red’s Twitter reaction to a slew of negative reviews on the job review site, Glassdoor.
Phil gives us his take on the immensely disappointing The Snowman, and Leatherface, and the intensely fascinating Cell Block 99.
Finally, the team talks about Battlefront II, Gran Turismo Sport, Rogue Trooper Redux, Monsters of the Deep, Secret of Mana Remake, and South Park: The Fractured but Hole.
Don’t forget to tune in every Friday the Pixels & Ink Podcast to hear the latest news, previews, and in-depth game discussions!
EA is shutting down Visceral Games, the studio behind titles such as Dead Space and Battlefield Hardline.
The Star Wars title that was in development will now be shifting studios and will be reworked into a new game entirely. Amy Henning, Ex-Uncharted director for Naughty Dog, who was overseeing the Star Wars project, is currently in talks with EA regarding the future of the Star Wars title.
“Our industry is evolving faster and more dramatically than ever before. The games we want to play and spend time with, the experiences we want to have in those games, and the way we play…all those things are continually changing. So is the way games are made. In this fast-moving space, we are always focused on creating experiences that our players want to play…and today, that means we’re making a significant change with one of our upcoming titles,” Patrick Söderlund said in an official statement.
Söderlund took to their official blog and talked about the Star Wars game and how the company has been developing and iterating the title based off of fan feedback. He went on to state that EA is currently in the process of shifting staff from Visceral into other sectors within EA.
A development team from across Worldwide Studios will take over development of the game, led by the EA Vancouver team that has already been working on the project. Steve Anthony, an executive producer at EA, will lead the team and will use much of the work that has been done to date by Visceral, according to an email Söderlund sent to employees that was obtained by Kotaku.
Hopefully, all the talented individuals at Visceral find new avenues and work opportunities that continue to contribute to the release of more great games.
Playing a soldier in FPS games is a routine, almost mandatory experience, but how often do you get to play a police officer? Or a crook? That’s what Visceral Games set out to do when they got handed the reins of the Battlefield franchise, and for the most part, they’ve actually managed to pull it off.
First, let’s get the technical elephant in the room out of the way. Yes, this is a sub-1080p game, it’s actually 720p for the Xbox One version reviewed, but usually manages to stick to a smooth 60 frames per second as a result. That framerate actually drops to a more cinematic 30 during cut scenes, but few will complain about that. Thanks to is rap/hip-hop heavy soundtrack and FPS nature, it’s also going to keep a home theater subwoofer pretty busy, although ambient surround sound is not as a rich as other games, like GTA or even the FFXV demo.
Getting into the meat of the game, Visceral have crafted an incredibly politically correct story about a good cop in a corrupt world. Thanks to the impressive budget EA is willing to lavish on its AAA games, there’s a slick presentation here, complete with actors like Kelly Hu and Nicholas Gonzalez giving good performances. The story is smaller in scale, with no planet in peril or American nation under threat of extinction, this is just about cops and the morally ambiguous world they live in. It’s a strong story that stumbles towards the end on an unconvincing note, but is enjoyable—up ‘till that point—and really does feel like a decent episode of a police drama.
The actual single player game doesn’t really feel like it belongs in the Battlefield world, since it’s more about stakeouts, arrests and interrogating criminals than combined arms military strikes. But that doesn’t hurt the game in the least. The shooting—as to be expected from a BF game—feels tight and polished, while the stealth mechanics allow players to flash a badge and arrest criminals with no bloodshed, and it works pretty smoothly. Adrenaline junkies may take issue with the occasional slower pace of the game, since it moves back and forth between cop/criminal shootouts and investigations, but for those that want to see what it feels like to be a good cop in a bad world, it’s an enjoyable experience. It’s divided into 10 episodes and those episodes are big chunks of gameplay, usually lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on how well you play.
Then, of course, there’s the main event, and that’s multi-player. As advertised the biggest maps can accommodate two teams of 32 which turns out to be about as chaotic as it sounds. That’s not to say it’s not fun, but there are a lot of other modes with interesting variations if traditional team death matches aren’t your thing. The most original new mode is one called “Hotwire” which modifies the “control point” modes of other games by making CARS the points that need to be controlled. Players can hop into cars with other players literally riding shotgun to stay alive while the opposition tries to snipe, shoot or pursue by helicopter.
It’s here that the game starts feeling a bit more like its earning that Battlefield label, although it might move a bit faster than some are used to. For every moment when it hearkens back to the old age of Counterstrike with VIP missions, there are Call of Duty moments where you can get killed within seconds of respawning, depending on the mode you’re playing. The trademark combined arms of Battlefield are also present here, but on a much smaller scale, since this is about cops n’ robbers shooting each other out, not warring nations bringing out the latest lethal military tech.
Ultimately, Battlefield: Hardline succeeds in creating a cop show with frantic multiplayer. It doesn’t have quite the same scope as previous games in the series, but then in many ways, it often doesn’t feel like a BF game, and that BF label attached to it often feels unnecessary. If you’re looking for a fun, solid-though-not-brilliant cop drama to play through that then lets you jump into multiplayer and be the cop or the robber, this is the game for you.
Space is a pretty popular videogame setting for good reason. Venturing beyond Earth opens up so many possibilities to developers. They can vent their imaginations by creating fantastic alien races, implausible spaceships, and unheard-of technology. For the most part, though, the real wonder of the cosmos—its immensity and otherworldly nature—isn’t captured by videogames set in space. From the early days of arcade titles like Space Invaders and Asteroids to more recent releases like Starfox and Red Faction, space has been used as a kind of window dressing: an excuse to draw up weird enemy designs, hand players futuristic weapons, and maybe throw in a zero gravity level or two. This can be a lot of fun, sure, but it doesn’t take advantage of the wonder and mystery inherent to space. Luckily, Bungie’s Destiny is a game that accomplishes just that.
For me, the most fascinating aspect of space always relates back to a feeling I first had while staring at maps of our solar system or flipping through photo books as a kid. I would try to pinpoint Ontario on the picture of Earth, then move back to look at Canada, a little bit further to North America, and finally all the way out to the size of our planet itself. Earth would become dwarfed in relation to the galaxy’s size and the pinprick within North America that represented my house would, of course, feel like little more than a speck of dust against the unthinkable massiveness of the universe. That sense of being a tiny, tiny part of some gargantuan world—one filled with incredibly strange and completely foreign sights—captured my imagination in a way that few other things ever have. It’s this kind of enormity that I always hope to see reflected in space videogames. Whether it’s accomplished through mind-bending discussions regarding the vastness of time and space or just highly original art design, a sense of wonder has to exist for me to get a big kick out of the setting.
Most often, players hoping to lose themselves in the grandeur of space usually have to head to the simulator genre. For someone like myself who prefers story-driven games, we often have to be content for a Star Wars-style approach to the setting—one where strange characters, inventive technology, and galaxy-spanning wars take precedence over any real, deep look at humanity’s place in the cosmos. Titles like Visceral Games’ Dead Space may evoke something bigger when the player, as engineer-turned-alien-killer Isaac Clarke, floats over the surface of a strange planet in his zero gravity suit, but these are rare moments in a game concerned primarily with exploring blood-splattered spaceship interiors. BioWare’s Mass Effect has come closer to the mark, especially with its “fast travel” system—a menu that places each planet Shepard and crew are capable of visiting on a map of the universe, complete with swirling macro views of far-off galaxies. The best moments of the sprawling science-fiction series extend this feeling even further by asking players to consider Shepard’s fight against the game’s otherworldly antagonists—the Reapers—in terms of the end of all known existence: about as big of a concept as any science fiction could hope to tackle.
More recently, Destiny has used a space setting to good effect through some of the most impressive videogame art design to date. True to an experience that sees characters frequently travelling between Earth, our moon, Mars, and Venus, most every moment spent playing Destiny is an exercise in enormity. Aside from occasional trips through subterranean buildings and caves, Bungie is careful to structure its levels so that its combat takes place before the backdrop of dramatic skylines. The player is always reminded of how alien the worlds they’re exploring are not just because there are four-armed creatures trying to kill them, but because completing missions requires them to wade through gaseous pools of liquid on Venus or climb sandy red hills on Mars. Even the loading screen (which, as long and frequent as it is, has burned into my mind’s eye) features the player’s spaceship flying through a vortex of interstellar light before descending into orbit over the planet they’re heading to. Destiny’s confused, poorly told story fails at giving its audience a reason to ponder the vastness of space, but, luckily, its visuals are constantly prompting these thoughts and inspiring a sense of awe.
This is one of my favourite aspects of the game. Space is supposed to engage our imaginations and force us to consider what lies beyond the limits of humanity’s current knowledge. When we allow ourselves to wonder how much we don’t know as a species, it can inspire us to think bigger and spur on new discoveries. Videogames that contribute to that kind of inspiration seem pretty worthwhile. Let’s hope we see more of them in the future.
Between Battlefield Hardline and Dragon Age: Inquisition’s delays and The Evil Within and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s earlier-than-expected arrivals, this past week has highlighted the inherent weirdness of videogame release practices. Players who were anticipating these games were likely either excited or disheartened to see their launch days shifting, but, most of all, they were probably left wondering why it was necessary to make these changes at all. I can’t pretend to know what caused publishers like Electronic Arts, Bethesda Softworks, and Warner Bros. to move their games around by—in some cases—as short a period of time as a few weeks. But, I do know that when this happens, the end result is a lot of confusion on the part of videogame players.
Like all forms of commercial media, games are given release dates that will help their publishers maximize profit. Those with a chance of making the biggest waves in the entertainment world are often scheduled for the holiday season when consumers are out in droves, looking for gifts. Even as we’ve seen higher and higher profile games taking advantage of the less busy months at the beginning of the new year, autumn continues to see the biggest release coming out all around the same time. This fall will bring Destiny, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Super Smash Bros., Far Cry 4, and the aforementioned Shadow of Mordor, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and The Evil Within. The publishers putting these games out have enough confidence in the (ugh) selling power of these titles that they want to release them during a time period where people are shopping like crazy.
There are a few problems with this approach, but the most relevant one is that not every videogame is ready for release when its autumn launch date comes around. One of the most recent (and notable) examples was last year’s Battlefield 4 release—a release that obviously wasn’t ready for public play. Frequent game crashes and technical glitches continued to plague the game throughout the fall season, demonstrating that publisher Electronic Arts likely rushed development and made Battlefield 4 available for an autumn release schedule it simply wasn’t capable of meeting. Rather than shift its release in the way that some of the games listed above have for this fall, Battlefield 4 was shoved out the gate to give holiday shoppers and new console owners something to buy despite not being finished.
Aside from this issue, there’s also the problem of release date announcements being used to keep fans invested in ongoing series, even if these sequels are revealed far, far in advance of their actual development completion. Titles like Mirror’s Edge and the next Mass Effect are already being teased when there’s nothing more than concept videos and images to sell fans on. Why project release windows for games that we have no reason to believe exist as more than internal prototypes? In the worst case scenario, games like Half-Life 2: Episode 3, Beyond Good and Evil 2, Prey 2 are announced and then seemingly shelved indefinitely by their developers. The encouragement of the hype machine that continues to serve as the foundation for videogame marketing practices grows out of control in these circumstances, pressuring developers to match audience expectations (that will always inflate out of proportion over a long waiting period) or, worse, create bad will when a game is never released because it was announced to the public far too early.
There’s something extremely refreshing when developers and publishers buck these release timing trends. Nintendo, despite (or maybe because of) its non-traditional distribution practices, is fond of announcing new titles—Tomodachi Life and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds—only a few months before they’re available for purchase. It also puts many of its games out at non-peak times, selling A Link Between Worlds near the end of the holiday release calendar and new Yoshi and Kirby games during slow periods during the spring.
While not every company can count on the kind of support that comes from the loyal fan base Nintendo has gained through the decades, taking some note of the way it has found success outside of the typical release model might be worthwhile. Hopefully this is the case and change is on the way—the way games are launched right now too often leads to the squandered potential of rushed releases and a whole lot of unnecessary frustration for players.
Another talent at Naughty Dog has left the company. Lead character artist Michael Knowland has apparently departed from the house that Bandicoot built.
This is the most recent in a string of leaves for the developer. First, creative director of the Uncharted series Amy Henning left earlier in March and later joined Visceral Games in early April to oversee a new Star Wars game. Not too long after, Uncharted 4 director Justin Richmond departed and joined Riot Games who make League of Legends. And last week, art director Nate Wells left to join Giant Sparrow who made Unfinished Swan.
Knowland worked at Naughty Dog since 2011, where he worked on The Last of Us. Naughty Dog has yet to respond to the situation.
Former Writer and Creative Director of the Uncharted series, Amy Hennig joined EA’s Visceral Games to take over the creative director role in a new Star Wars game.
Hennig has a long history in the industry. Aside from her role in Uncharted , she’s known for her work at Crystal Dynamics where she worked on the Legacy of Kain series before she later moved to Naughty Dog to work on Jak and Daxter.
“As both a colleague and friend, I’ve always admired her approach to creative development – focusing on nailing down the soul of a game first, and then making sure the writing, the gameplay, the design and the art comes together to form a unified, interactive experience for the player,” Vice President and General Manager of Visceral Games, Steve Papoutsis writes.
According to Papoutsis, there were discussions on what game she would be at the helm of and Star Wars Made the most sense.
It’s pretty obvious just by reading the title that Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel is meant to be played with a friend. You and your friend (or AI partner if you decide to go about this game alone) will work your way through each scenario, for the most part, together, and that’s the best part about this game. Playing with a friend is enjoyable; figuring out who is going to draw fire and who is going to flank (as well as why one of you keeps dying) can result in some heated argument. This all adds up nicely on paper and should result in a good game. Unfortunately, The Devil’s Cartel falls flat in some other key areas.
The chief problems is that the game suffers from an identity crisis. Army of Two and its sequel The 40th Day, found a happy medium between over the top violence/destruction and over the top (and often hilariously lame) humour. The two main characters of those games, Elliot Salem and Tyson Rios, could high five each other in the middle of play or air guitar after an intense gunfight, adding to the feel that this game knew it was a parodying the genre.
In The Devil’s Cartel, it feels like the developers weren’t sure what they wanted this game to be. The one-liners aren’t as common (and aren’t nearly as funny, or so bad you can’t help but laugh) and the story takes itself more seriously. The entirety of the game takes place in Mexico, (ranging from the streets of Mexico to the buildings of Mexico and the tunnels of Mexico) your enemies comprised entirely of Cartel goons. Salem and Rios take the back seat for most the game, with players taking control of a pair known only as Alpha and Bravo. You begin the game escorting a politician wanted by the Cartel leader, things go south and chaos ensues from there.
That’s pretty much all the plot you need to know.
There is an interesting but completely predictable twist halfway through the story (so predictable that the characters actually mention they should have seen it coming) but aside from that it’s pretty by the numbers. You’ll work with the Salem and Rios for a little while, run into other members of your organization, T.W.O, often ending with death, but much of the game is Alpha and Bravo going about things themselves.
Alpha and Bravo are, unfortunately, just as generic as characters as their names would have you believe. One is your textbook tough guy wanting to run into danger, the other a little more cautious in how he approaches things. I won’t hold up Salem and Rios as the bastions of videogame characters but at the very least they had distinct voices, with Rios having the benefit of being voiced by Nolan North. Alpha and Bravo sound far too similar, and it wasn’t until the last third of the game that I could tell which voice was which because neither stands out.
Speaking of Nolan North, he does not return to his role in this game, which is a shame because I thought that character had an interesting arc during this game. That’s not to say the new actor does a poor job, his delivery is fine. It is just very noticeable that the actor has changed since the voices aren’t at all similar.
Having said all that, there is very little fundamentally wrong with the way this game plays. The shooting is near identical to the previous titles in the series and most third person shooters on the market. The cover mechanic is troublesome though. A single button is used to snap your character into cover (much like everywhere else) but the game doesn’t seem to understand where you want to go. A very small indicator will pop up on screen signifying where your next destination will be, but it’s hit or miss whether or not you can get the icon to where you need it.
You can have your character standing right beside a wall and the game won’t get that you want to duck under it. Sometimes it will decide you meant to run right through a hail of gunfire and grenades to take cover behind a car right beside your enemies. When it works, it’s competent. But it rarely ever works.
Play long enough and your Overkill meter fills, letting you unleash a rain of bullets without being vulnerable to return fire. With Overkill activated the game slows down, letting you get a feel for where everybody is before taking them out. Limbs will rip apart and blood will spray in all directions while in Overkill.
Perhaps the best part of The Devil’s Cartel is the customization options. Much like in the first two games, you can upgrade your weapons to increase the clip size, add a scope, silencer or a grenade launcher. You can also just make cosmetic changes to your weapons and characters to change the colour of your gun, change the style of your mask and attire. I can’t tell you how motivated I was to unlock and buy a specific mask. It’s meaningless overall in terms of how the game plays, but it’s the small things like this that generally add to the overall enjoyment of a game.
All of this can be done by spending the money you earn after each mission. That money is earned based on how you perform in each mission. You’ll get money for the obvious things like kills and headshots, but you can earn bonus dollars for headshots and melee kills along with taking down tougher enemies like brutes or (most importantly) working as a team.
If you don’t have a co-op partner to play with the allied AI won’t hold you down. When you’re down the AI will come to your aid and is generally smart with how it goes about eliminating your foes. The same can’t be said for the enemy AI though. At times they’ll just stay in one spot and wait for you to come up and end their life with a satisfying melee kill. Other times they’ll just blindly lob grenades. If you run into a big group in a constrained area you’ll run into some difficulty progressing, that’s about as hard as this game gets.
In the end though this is not a bad game, it just feels soulless. It doesn’t know what it wants to be. The Devil’s Cartel ditched the self-aware parody feeling of the first two titles and tried moving towards a more serious tone, but then pulled it back to the comedy slightly, and that didn’t work. Army of Two now feels like it’s trying to please fans of all genres to broaden the potential audience, but ultimately fails when it comes to standing out at anything.
I didn’t care much about what was happening on screen, didn’t have a personal attachment to any of the new characters introduced. Even when something marginally interesting happened, it was surrounded by so much mediocrity, it didn’t feel like it mattered. The game teases another sequel at the end, but if that game ever comes to fruition (and I doubt it will anytime soon), whoever heads up that project needs to re-evaluate what Army of Two is and should be.
If you can find a friend to play with (whether online or split-screen) this game can be fun. Look past the generic story and bland characters and just enjoy the co-op. That’s the way to play this game. But just because something is fun doesn’t mean it’s good. This game feels lost, not knowing exactly what it wants to be, and is forgettable at the end of the day. It’s sure to be a let- down to most the fans of the first two games, and fans of the genre at large. There are better third person shooters available, seek those out.
Horror in videogames has been a hard thing to do well. Once accomplished, however, it can yield fantastic results. Dead Space was a game that managed to straddle that line between horror and action, allowing the player to experience feelings of dread yet still give enough tools to overcome the hell that has surrounded them. Unfortunately, the series has been on a downward trajectory since that first landmark installment. It is sad to see this trend continue with the latest title. The largest, most feature-packed in the series, Dead Space 3 sadly lacks much of what made the first game so strong. Pair that with a powerful arsenal and co-op, and all feelings of powerlessness are removed, leaving a well-built but ultimately flawed action shooter.
The story of DS3 centers around the series protagonist, Issac Clark, who is living with the ramifications of the events from the first two games; the weight of the people he has lost, along with the reality that he is powerless to stop the Markers, or the Necromorphs it creates. With the world set into chaos and his former girlfriend, Ellie lost in deep space, it is up to him and a team of soldiers to stop the extinction of mankind and save the woman he loves.
The story works well in developing the lead protagonist, as Issac feels much more fleshed out this time around. Moving from the nearly silent protagonist of the first game to a character with depth was a necessary move for the series. His motivations and pain at all that was lost, feel real. He is a man that has lost countless friends and seen how hopeless reality can be. These experiences have broken him and, in my opinion, make him feel relatable. He is not a nameless drone built for killing, but rather a man who has landed in a situation that he wants to escape.
The first instinct is to feel sorry for Issac, but the game thwarts this instinct at every turn. Shaping Issac into a walking tank as players work their way through the game takes away this feeling of fear. Little can stop Issac, and as the game progresses this becomes more and more evident. The empowerment of the player only detracts from the impact that the story is trying to convey. Horror works when the feeling of helplessness is always present; the world that was once known is now foreign and personal safety is in jeopardy. Since this formula is disrupted with a nearly indestructible character, much of this impact is lost. Although it makes a fun action romp, it no longer has the gut-wrenching terror it had at one time.
This is never more true than with the addition of drop-in/Drop-out co-op. Visceral has done a fantastic job implementing the feature. It gives the option of players to experience the game from a different prospective, and gives life to an important NPC. Sadly, although done well, the idea of co-op takes away the core element of lonely fear that makes the series so interesting. It becomes a well-built shooting gallery, more akin to games like Borderlands than a horror masterpiece.
Despite these issues, Visceral has made many improvements to the core aspects of the game. Weapon crafting has been refined this time around. Gone are the cumbersome nodes used in Dead Space 2. Resources found around the world are the new method of upgrading weapons, armor and abilities. These resources are easy to come by, as they are found with every slain enemy and scattered around the landscape.
I found trying out new weapon combinations and fitting them to my play style was fun and engaging. New parts were always fun to experiment with, seeking ways to create the best mix of power and speed. There is a limit of two guns, yet the ability to break down these weapons without consequence made experimentation very rewarding. Throw in the ability to trade the blueprints of the guns you have constructed and you are left with a well-conceived and executed crafting system .
This is where the micro-transaction nature of the game also rears its ugly head. Players are given the choice to buy resources with real world money from the start of the game. These resources could be a new set of gun parts, new items for upgrades or even new armor. Although these do not take away from the core gameplay experience, and are not a concern after three hours of game play, it does reek of a cash grab. The trend suggests that these sorts of options will soon become the norm, but it would have been better if EA found a way to include them in a less obnoxious way.
Length and design are other areas Visceral could have improved for this installment. Longer and more bombastic then previous titles, the games feels padded. The pace and sense of alienation was what made the first game, and in some part the second game, so good. They moved well, mixing moments of tension with moments of action, never leaving the player in one area too long. Dead Space 3, sadly, feels like a greatest hits mix tape of moments from the previous titles. If you have played any of the previous games, you will recognize scenes lifted from those titles.
The thing that kills the suspense for me in any horror story, is when the author extends beyond what’s necessary. It breaks the sense of urgency and makes what could be a tense story into something bloated and drawn out. This is the case with Dead Space 3. The beginning third of the game moved at a brisk pace, giving new locations and objectives as you moved from place to place. It is a shame that once you reach the ice planet all this pacing and urgency comes to an abrupt halt. Pacing is thrown out the window as the player is forced to slog through dull locations and recycled designs for the remainder of the game.
At its core, Dead Space 3 is a solid horror title. Great aesthetic choices and compelling characters make me want to like the game more than I do. But poor pacing and questionable mechanics make it feel more like a serviceable action title rather than anything revolutionary in the horror genre.