Conan Exiles Early Access Preview – Performance Issues

Conan Exiles Early Access Preview - Performance Issues

WARNING: I don’t do content warnings, but I’m going to go ahead and issue a content warning here. This game features explicit nudity to cap off its visceral violence. If such things upset or offend you, you definitely shouldn’t play it (or probably even read this preview, for that matter).

Read moreConan Exiles Early Access Preview – Performance Issues

Stars in Shadow Preview: Space-Aged Adaptation of the 4x Formula

Stars in Shadow Preview: Space-Aged Adaptation of the 4x Formula

Stars in Shadow is a new 4x turn-based strategy game that I’ve now spent a weekend with, and I think I might have a problem. Not because of any journalistic concerns, or even because of anything wrong with the game itself, per se. No, my problem is more of an “ants on my skin” variety. You see, I grew up mainlining Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. The fact that the installer for the game acronymed the executable for brevity to simply “SMAC” was always rather appropriate, given my level of commitment to it. The one solace I’ve been able to take in recent years is that no other 4x TBS has ever quite grabbed me the way that Alpha Centauri did. That is, until now…

Stars in Shadow Preview 6Clearly, Stars in Shadow was inspired by that era of early Civ games, but has come bearing many gifts in the form of wonderful modern touches and an admittedly double-edged series of simplifications. Stars in Shadow begins with the usual fare: the player starts out with a single humble colony and a two units, one for exploration and one for colonization, so no surprises there. It’s a tried and true formula that works rather well, so no reason to change it. Though, the human faction starts with no colony and two colony ships, allowing a little more flexibility at the cost of a gamble on the first few rounds, given the limited number of hospitable planets in the early Stars in Shadow. The whole thing takes place in a randomly generated galaxy, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see hand-crafted scenario maps before long. In this regard, though, I’m reminded of Galactic Civilizations II and its system for colonies and outposts. Planets have different ratings for habitability and mineral resources, with the former deciding the number of structural improvements allowable on its surface. They’re still produced the way you’d expect from Civ or SMAC, but, again, planet quality is a limiting factor, as in GalCivII. It quickly starts to feel like the game cherry-picks all the best features and mechanics from other, more established IPs, then blends them with its own unique approach to art and aesthetic.

Speaking of which, the programming for Stars in Shadow is all done by a single person. The art, in turn, is created by just one more: Jim Francis, the creator of the webcomic Outsider. It feels a little indie / place-holder-y at first, but you know what? I like it. It fits with the developer’s vision of the game not being too cluttered of an experience. That experience, though? Huge. Way more than I would believe possible from what is essentially a one-man-show. The level of detail and number of player options are what really surprise me. All of my usual avenues for micromanagement in Alpha Centauri are catered to in Stars in Shadows, too, be it unit configuration, colony development, trade routes, etc. And, yet, it feels and plays like a much more streamlined game. There’s no analogue (or, at least, none I’ve yet seen) to the colonist morale / drone system, which speeds up colony management. Yet there’s just as much opportunity (and need) for expansion, given the overwhelming number of star systems that can be generated, each hosting a handful of planets ranging from barren to highly-colonizable.
Stars in Shadow Preview 5
The combat in Stars in Shadows feels like it takes inspiration from both f the Total War games and the Gratuitous series. There’s an auto-resolve feature, which seems to weigh the relative combat values of all involved vessels and decide a victor, but the real thrill lies in the player-controlled combat. It’s something you’ll be seeing a lot of, even as a diplomatic player, particularly due to the number of pirate factions that seem to inhabit any given galaxy.

Which brings me neatly to the point that Stars in Shadow is definitely still a game in development. There are clearly areas with room for improvement, such as the game’s desperate need for some form of pseudo fog-of-war, as there’s such an emphasis on scouting to discover viable routes of expansion, yet no at-a-glance method of keeping track of which stars have been explored. Ditto for explored systems with uninhabited-yet-viable planets. A system to manually mark these would be very welcome.

As it stands, though, Stars in Shadow is nonetheless a game that I’m very excited for. It feels like a game that can satisfy that craving for classic 4x titles, without (at least not as of yet) devolving into a state where turns take hours on account of micro. With five playable races on offer, and two more in the pipe, there’s enough variety to offer interesting strategic options for players, even if they’re not as nuanced as their counterparts in Sid Meier games. Certainly, I can’t fault a game that’s not even in Early Access as of my time with it for that. What we’re left with, then, is a very promising 4x game on the horizon. Now all the duo at Ashdar need to do is explore their possibilities, expand on their successes, exploit a gap in an unsatisfied genre, and exte… Perhaps just the first three Xs will do.

At The Mountains of Madness Preview

At The Mountains of Madness Preview

Here’s a tip: If someone asks if you’d like to experience H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness … read the novella. I would like to think that there’s a future for the Early Access game of the same name, but it’s hard to see just what that may be.

This is always a tough thing to do as a games journalist, knowing that a few words either way could mean the success or death of a project, but even being graciously optimistic, At the Mountains of Madness feels far, far too early in development to even have a home on Steam’s controversial Early Access list.

The Old Ones Would Shudder At The Mountains of Madness (Preview) 5

All of this is quite a shame, as I’m no small Lovecraft fan. Everything in At the Mountains of Madness is currently a placeholder. Or, at least, I hope it is. NPC models feel squat and unfinished , similar to the Grunts in Quake 2, sliding along the ground as their walking animation isn’t meshed to the surface they walk on—when the NPCs can be bothered to move at all ,as opposed to standing around rigidly. The attempt to mask the abysmally blocky everything with film grain fails to distract from the fact that cutscenes consist of fixed camera points while objects of assumed importance slide about the landscape, and there are almost as many invisible walls preventing the player from wandering as there are objects and surfaces that they can walk straight through. The Old Ones Would Shudder At The Mountains of Madness (Preview) 2Textures occasionally fail to load until they’re an arm’s length away; movement is cumbersome as if all input travels around a summer camp circle of the Telephone Game before reaching its destination; and there’s no explanation of any objectives, nor anything beyond walking along invisi-walls or through railings to guide the player, save for floating names over NPCs that correlate to those from the source work—which really only helps if you’re familiar with it. The snippets of dialogue in At the Mountains of Madness are read, seemingly phonetically, with an Eastern European accent via a desk mic; the load screens—of which there are many—are agonizingly long, often only to resolve so you can watch something slide across the screen before triggering another load, all the while displaying snippets of text from the source work (and sometimes Poe, for reasons).

The Old Ones Would Shudder At The Mountains of Madness (Preview) 6After you assemble your crew (for your exploratory vessel, although this is never explained), done by wandering around the wharf at the start of the game aimlessly while looking for the “Press E” prompt to pop up near NPCs, causing them to walk away without saying a word, you’ll end up trapped on the ice in the Arctic (because: reasons). At this point, there’s a survival element that’s introduced in At the Mountains of Madness without warning, which can cause you to freeze or starve to death. It’s usually around this time that you’ll notice that all the random clutter you’re collecting drops into an inventory, and that inventory can’t be closed by hitting escape. Even worse, trying to close it results in the main menu popping up, and it too can’t be closed by hitting escape again. This is a fairly opportune time to hit Exit without saving and wish for that part of your life back, but if you do  continue on, finding the flashlight and walking stick opens up a chunk of the game where you must venture through longer and longer ice caves in search of fossils (again: reasons).

The Old Ones Would Shudder At The Mountains of Madness (Preview) 1It was after wandering through a couple of these ice caves, when you reach a point where you need a hammer to break free a fossil that’s floating in midair, that I hit my breaking point and became depressed. Not just depressed with At the Mountains of Madness, but with everything to do with it. It made me hate Lovecraft for encouraging this waste; Unreal 4, for being able to look like ID Tech 2; that obnoxious freaking dog that just won’t die; Edgar Allan Poe for dying and not being able to prevent one of his poems from appearing in a loading screen for no apparent reason; my whole damn career, for leaving me so disenfranchised by the games industry. It goes on.

The Old Ones Would Shudder At The Mountains of Madness (Preview) 4

To wrap things up, At the Mountains of Madness was a life-changing experience for me, in much the same way that a rock-bottom gambling binge is when you look at it in retrospect. You really, really shouldn’t be spending $22 CAD of your hard-earned monies on such a poorly designed game. The only shine-through moment was that it successfully connected me to Professor Dyer’s misery, although not in the way the game developers intended.

Space Pirates And Zombies 2: SPAZ Harder!

Space Pirates And Zombies 2: SPAZ Harder!

The original Space Pirates and Zombies is one of my very favourite indie RPGs, and it’s eaten *snickers* an unhealthy amount of my time over the years. It managed just the right blend of action-based top down shooting, strategy, micromanagement, nerdy RPG mechanics, and ridiculously over-the-top narrative and dialogue. As you can imagine, then, I’ve had my eye on SPAZ2 for a very, very long time.

SPAZ2 is a massive undertaking. Having played through the story mode, and made significant progress into my first Sandbox playthrough (think story mode with tweakable settings and conditions), I’m astonished by the simply herculean task that the chaps at MinMax Games have conquered to present this game into Early Access. To deliver such a broadened sense of scope, replayability, and interactivity without upsetting the delicate balance in the game’s combat and progression of difficulty is truly remarkable. The captain AI alone is a thing of beauty. It imparts an adaptive, though unique, set of behaviours to each of the game’s 200 other captains that inhabit the galaxy. While not particularly large, the galaxy map feels constantly alive thanks to the combination of numerous human factions, rogue pirates, and eventually zombies, all fighting for the last scraps of the galaxy’s Rez, the rare element required for space travel that’s also inextricably linked to the ancient zombie infection that keeps the galaxy in check.
Space Pirates And Zombies 2: SPAZ Harder! 1
I’ll confess to being totally overwhelmed when I first started playing. So much so that I actually wasn’t having much fun during the initial adjustment time from SPAZ1’s top-down 2D interface, to the shiny new 3D one. It’s not perfect, I’ll admit, but it’s very nuanced, and is a great change for the franchise—particularly given how beautiful this game now looks as a result of the switch from 2D sprites to 3D models.

Also new is the tractor beam system. Where in the previous game, you would use a menu interface to change your ship loadouts, then warp them into combat, your flagship is now an amalgam of what you manage to find or buy in your travels. These parts are hotswapped, as it were, by detaching them with the tractor beam, then using it to guide new parts into the locking intersections. Or, should the need arise, to pull the game’s random powerups towards your ship during combat. For the particularly skilled, it can be used to slam asteroids or the game’s iconic explosive barrels into the hull of an enemy’s ship at high speed. Awesome!

The introduction of clever new mechanics such as that, paired with the pruning of other, less relevant ones, refocus SPAZ2 into a more refined experience. And yet, it’s lost none of its absurd charm. The dialogue is still ridiculous, the characters are still obnoxious, and the idle radio chatter is still every bit as good as it ever was—even if we did lose the iconic “The hull has been breached and the science is leaking out!” While the game has shifted slightly to focus more on your captain’s flagship, rather than a fleet of equally-important ships, many of your favourite hulls from the first game see a return as drone ships that you bring into combat with you, even if they can no longer be customized. It’s little things like that which show an allegiance to the franchise that could have very easily been lost in the pursuit of “bigger and better”.

Really, though, SPAZ2 is just full of that sort of charm. For example, due to its Early Access state, the game doesn’t currently have voice overs for the story dialogue in the game. But rather than leave the player to read walls of text, it’s all been fed through a text-to-speech program with remarkably well-fitting voices and inflections. It brings an unusually deadpan sort of appeal to the game’s dialogue, and I do hope it stays in as an option, even after the game gets its proper VOs.

And that’s largely been my experience with SPAZ2. It’s not all more, more, more, or bigger, bigger, bigger—because it doesn’t all have to be. What it is, though, is better. Better in every regard. Sure, there are some minor interface nuisances, and the learning curve is a bit steep if you’re expecting more of SPAZ1, but it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and worth every bit of the wait up until this point. Given the rate at which it’s been patched over the last couple weeks since I started playing it, and the response to player feedback on the forums, I’m as equally anxious to see where it’s going to be in its 1.0 state as I was to play the Early Access drop—particularly once that Multiplayer button lights up on the main menu.

Despite its cult appeal, the original game still managed to slip under most people’s radars. Trust me on this one, though: if you’re a fan of a good RPG, great tactical, real-time combat, faction-based warfare, or even just a pretty explosion, you won’t want to miss SPAZ2.

H1Z1 Can Teach Us How to Improve Early Access

H1Z1 Can Teach Us How to Improve Early Access

Here’s a hypothetical to ponder: If you sat down at a banquet—for which you had paid ahead—for a steak dinner at a price of $X and before it arrives, the server returns to apologize that not all of the fixings are available for the sides, but they still have the steak to cook and serve you; would you still want it? And if you did, how would you feel if, once the steak arrived, you took a couple bites, only to have the server return to take your steak away and replace it with a burger and fries? You’d probably be pretty upset at this point and want your money back right? “But sir!” the server exclaims, “The meat in your burger still comes from a cow. It’s the same thing!” You, like any sane person, would be offended by the insult and outraged with the establishment for trying to pull one over on you.

So why are we accepting that DayBreak Games have pulled this exact scam on us with H1Z1?

H1Z1 Can Teach Us About How to Improve Early Access 2I, like many gamers, was won over by the ambitions of H1Z1 when it first came to Early Access last spring. The promise of a vast, open-world, evolving survival experience from the practiced developers at Sony Online Entertainment had me interested enough to pay the money and support what was to be launched as a Free to Play title. Then something strange happened; development slowed to a crawl. Not only were promised features not being implemented and promises being forgotten, a strange time-waster was brought in to hold us over between patches—Battle Royale. Then, as development promises slipped into nothingness, resources were continually diverted away from the core game to support the “I’m sorry we’re slow, have this while you wait” content.

Months went by with little done to address many of the balance and gameplay issues in the Survival mode, framework for promised systems was laid and then never built upon, and all the while, hackers ran rampant through the world of H1Z1. To SoE’s credit (Now DayBreak), they remained diligent about banning hackers, and I do appreciate that fact. But none of that makes up for the fact that development on the game was all but halted in favour of the Battle Royale game mode.

Recently it was announced (and implemented) that H1Z1 would be, by alleged “player request”, split into two separate games—Just Survive and King of the Kill—featuring two separate clients and two separate development teams. Along with this came the announcement that rather than launching as a Free to Play title—something that would drastically bolster the game’s struggling playerbase—the game’s buy-in cost would remain. Only now, it was to be doubled, as both games would incur the full $20 cost that would previously have allowed players to support a free title.

There’s a phrase reserved for exactly this type of scenario: Bait and Switch. It’s what we use to refer to a company that promises a product, and then upon receiving payment for said product, delivers a different and unequal version. It’s shady as hell (not to mention illegal), but it does happen. Here’s the thing; Steam has, in the past, been fairly consistent in refunding the purchases of games that have bailed on development or outright turned their back on Early Access promises. I’m sure we all remember The War Z incident.

Being burned by Early Access titles that under-deliver is one thing, and that will always fall under the category of Buyer Beware. However, charging for a game under false pretenses and then walking off with the money is something totally different. Unfortunately, Steam’s Early Access program is far-too vulnerable to this sort of manipulation right now. It shows us that we need safeguards in place to discourage scams of this sort. At the very least, it illustrates why refunds should be available at any point during a game’s Early Access cycle, as games, even ones with good intentions, can change course radically from what we originally bought into. Moreover, companies that pull scams like this, including making development promises that simply can’t be delivered upon and falsifying development schedules, should have their sales halted on the platform.

Look, I understand that some people still enjoy H1Z1. Hell, I even accept that there are some people that like it more now that development has shifted towards the Battle Royale game mode. I would never call that into question. My point is that many of us supported a product that was never delivered upon. Even if you believe that SoE had every intent to deliver on their original development promises (and for the sake of giving them the benefit of the doubt, I will), you have to accept that this move was very underhanded. At the very least, refunding the purchases of players who cry foul of this isn’t just good PR, it’s a way to defuse a potential legal battle before it starts. What has been done here is illegal, and no amount of shutting down forum threads or squelching posts on social media will make it any less so.

Here’s the funny thing: had DayBreak been diplomatic about the whole situation and refunded the purchases of those who politely illustrated the reasons for wanting them, this whole thing would have blown over. Hell, I’d probably be writing an article singing the praise of DayBreak, rather than the one you’re reading. But now, by spitting in the faces of those who believed in them, not only has Daybreak lost the support and revenue from plenty of gamers, they’ve allowed this situation to fester into a wound much bigger than it would otherwise have been.

And if nothing comes of this situation on the Valve end of this, it is, at the very least, a lesson in precisely how not to handle PR.

The Kindred: An Early Access Look

The Kindred: An Early Access Look

I feel I should preface this preview article with a note explaining that The Kindred is still under heavy development, and as such, it’s currently very rough around the edges.

I found The Kindred to be a difficult game to preview. Not because it isn’t enjoyable or broken, mind you. Rather, it’s that it’s the latest in a very, very long line of post-Dwarf Fortress survival management games. It’s a genre that’s not only saturated at the moment, but also rich with titles that have been abandoned during development. With very promising games like Towns and even Tim Schafer’s Spacebase DF-9 having halted development, I’m both sceptical and hopeful for the frameworks that are present in The Kindred.

The Kindred: An Early Access Look 1That being said, if The Kindred does deliver, oh my will this be a fun little game. For starters your villagers, the Kin, can be directed individually. It’s a long-standing frustration I have with DF-likes: the hands-off approach to management. It’s refreshing to be able to more effectively micromanage my workers. But that’s not that groundbreaking, as welcome as it is. What is groundbreaking, however, is being able to walk around and explore in first-person view. It’s got a very Sim Theme Park kind of vibe, wandering around and appreciating your constructions from the ground. In addition, it’s planned to have construction and manipulation available to the player while in this mode, so again, more opportunities to directly influence change. Huzzah! The functioning (mostly) multiplayer is a very nice touch, too.

These are all the sorts of things one would expect from a DF-like, but they’re strangely absent from other games. It suggests that developer Persistent Studios is looking to advance the genre, rather than simply cashing in on its popularity. That’s the sort of respect for the player that I really appreciate from a developer, and I truly hope they can deliver.

That being said, this is clearly still an Alpha title, and with that comes all the bugs, glitches, hitches, and crashes you would expect. I’m okay with this, as this is exactly the kind of title that Steam’s Early Access program is there to support, but it’s important to note—especially in light of recent Early Access blunders—that this is not a finished title. What it is, though, is an adorable and peaceful little city builder, heavily stylized with vibrantly colourful voxel graphics, in which you work to build and develop a community and even generate electricity to power lights and such. It’s got a sort of 3D Dwarf Fortress meets Minecraft tech-mods kind of vibe to it, and I like where it’s going.

The fact that each of your Kin has unique stats and specialties, and that each type of crop has a different nutritional value means there are plenty of systems in place for a very rich and deep experience down the road. While the whole thing may be a bit Spartan at the moment, The Kindred is definitely a title that I’ll be keeping a close eye on. If you’re a fan of the Dwarf Fortress-like genre, this is a cute little title you’ll want to look out for as well.

Reverence for Retro: Brigador Early Access Look

Reverence for Retro: Brigador Early Access Look

I must confess that Brigador is a game I’ve had my eye on for quite some time now, and I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to do the Early Access sneak peek for Comics Gaming Magazine. From the first time I stumbled upon what was then known as Matador, I knew it would be something special.

And special it is.

There has been no shortage of games attempting to cash in on the nostalgia-rich market of 80’s and early 90’s sci-fi. There’s a whole generation of us now with disposable income and a great fondness for the post-Terminator era of sci-fi. You know the stuff I’m talking about: Universal Soldier, Cyborg, Soldier. I’m sure some of you have already fabricated a token story of genetically engineered super soldiers in action sequences set to a neon laser lightshow and an epic, brooding Synthwave soundtrack. Right? Right.

brigador insert 1Blood Dragon, the standalone DLC for Far Cry 3, was the first game I really remember testing these waters- bringing equal measures of stark parody and great affection— but the floodgates have since opened. So why bring all this up? Simple: Brigador isn’t a cash-in on nostalgia. It doesn’t feel like a game that’s been made to latch on to a fleeting market. It’s the real deal, like it was sent forward in time, without any attempt at irony or pandering—and it’s f*@$#ng awesome.

We’re a jaded bunch, games journalists, and we often focus far too much on the technical merits of games, seeing them as disposable achievements rather than items of value and desire. Brigador is fun in a way that I’ve lost the words to describe. It makes me happy; giddy even. It makes me pine for my childhood, and at the same time it transports me right back to that four-year-old boy sitting on the floor in front of his NES playing Jackal or Contra. It is to action games what Axiom Verge is to Metroidvanias; not a copy, but the purest expression of the source material, tailor-made for this moment, right now.

And that’s to say nothing of the gameplay, which is a wonderful blend of action and strategy, with each mission being a puzzle unto itself that must be approached with the tools at hand. It’s very reminiscent of Doom in this regard, whereby the action is just a test of skill on top of the underlying strategy and problem solving required to find an effective route through a map. When I first started playing, only Free Play mode was available, allowing players to choose a chassis and armaments to bring into various maps. Playing around with the various vehicles, crafts, and walkers, as well as the different weapon systems and their behaviours and shot arcs makes for some very interesting gameplay, but it did leave me craving a campaign in place of the sandbox.

The frequent updates have recently introduced the first campaign mission featuring a specific walker and weapon loadout on a particular map. It’s here where Brigador really shines. Instead of brute forcing a mission by selecting a favourable loadout, you’re now burdened with a sub-optimal loadout and an overwhelming number of enemies. Now, instead of running around blapping vehicles and stomping on infantry, everything becomes a challenge—and every victory becomes rewarding.

While it’s too early to deduce what the value and purpose of things like earned currency in missions will be, it leads me to suspect the game will take an approach to progression similar to that of Armored Core, and that’s just fine by me. Between the Battletech meets Mad Max vehicle design and the iconic Infantry-style gameplay, I have high hopes for Brigador—particularly if it sees a story of the same calibre as those incredible visuals. And damn would it be cool if it ever got multiplayer.

From the pixelated 2.5/3D renderings, the isometric camera angle and the oranges, reds and purples accenting the high-contrast colour palette, to the Battletech inspired aesthetics and the bewitchingly immersive soundtrack, Brigador is a game that I love like no other. Unlike most games, which I quantify by how satisfying they are, Brigador is F-U-N, and even in its current state of development, I can’t recommend it highly enough.