Wednesday, 29 August 2012

REVIEW: Sleeping Dogs (PC)

Sleeping Dogs is an open-world sandbox action game set in Hong Kong. I could probably give it a better description, but I'm sure you guys will understand it better if I tell you that it's essentially GTA: Hong Kong. As per my review rules, the main story portion of the game was played to completion. There was no difficulty setting.

In Sleeping Dogs, you play as Wei Shen, an undercover HKPD officer going deep undercover to infiltrate and bring down the notorious Triad gangs. Anyone familiar with Hong Kong cinema will recognize the bog-standard plot, and appreciate that the it's essentially Infernal Affairs: The Game. Stranglehold, the officially licensed John Woo game released back in 2007 was the last attempt to bring the world of Hong Kong action flicks to the gaming world. It succeeded with its flawless combat system, but unfortunately the rest of game was very short and very shallow. Sleeping Dogs has learned from Stranglehold's mistakes and has succeeded in bringing the islands of Hong Kong to life.

Vibrant neon signs help bring Hong Kong to life

This is one of the strongest points of the game. While GTA IV's sprawling metropolis of Liberty City was certainly much bigger than Sleeping Dog's portrayal of Hong Kong, it felt empty. The people were stoic and scripted, the locals were bland and samey, and it was very obvious you were playing a video game. On the other hand, the Hong Kong that Sleeping Dogs presents is very much alive. It's one of the first open world games I've played where the NPC's felt like people, not programs. Pedestrians open umbrellas (or flee if they don't have one) when it rains, street vendors call to you from their markets, and people actually learn your name as your notoriety rises. It really shocked me when I was buying a pork bun from the vendor outside my house, and he said 'Thanks, Wei' instead of his usual 'Thank you!'

Sleeping Dog's representation of Hong Kong is small, but lively

The smaller size of Sleeping Dog's map means that each district feels varied and distinct. As you explore them for the first time, you'll notice a lot of little things that jump out at you. For example, in one of the poorer districts, I spied an NPC reliving himself against a wall... 

As you progress through the game, you'll be able to spend your heard earned Triad blood money (or honest policeman's salary) on new, faster cars, clothes that give various social or combat bonuses, and short term 'buffs' to your combat stats. Buffs are collected by drinking energy drinks, eating food, and getting a massage. While this was a cool little concept, it quickly grew old and became tedious, as I felt obligated to refresh my buffs before starting every mission. A simple option to skip the animations Wei performs when getting the buffs would have gone a long way in reducing this tedium.

The 'lady killer' set unlocks additional dialogue options while on dates.
Combat in Sleeping dogs is split into two main areas: martial arts and gunplay. The martial arts fights draw obvious inspiration from the combo/counter systems of games like Assassins' Creed and Batman: Arkham Aslyum. It rewards you for performing flowing combos and punishes you for missing counters. It feels really natural, and when you get a good flow going and start to make use of the environmental takedowns (like tossing a goon into a dumpster) it makes you feel like you're Jackie Chan.

A red flashing enemy indicates a counter oppertunity

No Hong Kong action movie is complete without a fair share of over-the-top gun fights, and Sleeping Dogs is happy to oblige. Bursting from cover offers the gaming staple of bullet time, allowing you to dive over tables, disarm opponents, take precise shots, and of course, shoot many conveniently placed explosive barrels.

Wei does his gunfighting in cemeteries, SO THEY DON'T HAVE TO MOVE THE BODIES

Driving is generally well done - the vehicles handle well and the segments are never too long, but one of the coolest addition to Sleeping Dogs are the free-running sections. Often, you'll have to chase a crook through the side-streets and back alleys, clambering over obstacles and jumping across rooftops. It's really well done, rewarding flow and timing just like the combat system, making you feel like a badass when you can pull it off perfectly.

Sleeping Dogs lets you chase crooks by car, by boat, and now, on foot!

As you complete missions for the police and the triads, you'll gain points that you can learn to unlock various permanent upgrades for the respective skill trees. You can also get upgrades by completing side missions or collecting various items strewn throughout the city. The main story progression was very well done - the game never 'forced' me to do anything I didn't want to, and I never felt 'brickwalled' into doing a whole bunch of side missions to build up my character. I sunk around 18 hours into the game, and actually felt myself hungry for more. This surprised me, as I usually can't stand these kind of sandbox games. I never even finished GTA IV.

Complete Triad missions for triad score, police missions for cop score, and side missions for face score

Sleeping Dogs wouldn't be a GTA clone without an array of useless, poorly implemented mini-games. Wei can go sing Karaoke, bet on cock fights, and hack various security cameras around the city. Just like in GTA, they don't really add anything except maybe a little extra flavour. Hacking is forced on you a couple of times for some specific missions, but it's so hard to fail that it makes me wonder why they even put it in at all. It's an immersion crutch, like the ever popular quick-time events (which are thankfully far and few between in Sleeping Dogs).

1, 2, 3 and uhh.... 4

Sleeping Dogs has been a sleeper hit for me (no pun intended), coming out of no-where and enticing me enough to re-think my views on the open-world sandbox genre. But more importantly, I feel it has accurately captured the feel of Hong Kong cinema. As someone who recently acquired a collection of every Jackie Chan movie ever made (including The Tuxedo) I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a big fan of Hong Kong cinema, and this game had me feel like I was playing through a video game version of Hard Boiled, Infernal Affairs, or Police Story. All it was missing was an explosion of doves every time I entered a room.

Verdict: Buy it

Buy Sleeping Dogs on the Steam store

Liked this article? Check out my Death Rally review

Sunday, 26 August 2012

PSA: (Video) Diablo III Patch 1.04

What's this? Two bonus Saturday videos two weeks in a row? If I release another one next week I'll have formed a habit, and then what? It'll be too late to stop me. Anyway, Blizzard recently released patch 1.04 for Diablo III and it's smashing! Go play it!

Liked this article? Check out my PSA on Team Fortress 2!

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

SUMMARY: (Video) Skyrim - Dawnguard (PC)

Hey guys. Over the past week, I checked out the first major DLC for Skyrim: Dawnguard. I played the main story content to completion on expert difficulty, and now I offer you a summary of the DLC.

There's no transcript for this video because I tried something new. This time, my recording was completely ad lib and unscripted. What do you guys think? Do you like this style or my old, scripted style? Let me know in the comments.

Verdict: Buy it

Liked this video? Check out my In-depth guide to TF2's Heavy!

Friday, 17 August 2012

PSA: (Video) KILL MANY ROBOTS, AKA - Why you should be playing TF2 RIGHT NOW!

Because I love all of my readers so much, here's a special bonus video, even though it's not Wednesday. Who knows, maybe I'll start updating TWO times a week! Holy smokes.

PS: The posting of this video in no way guarantees more than a single update per week, and in some cases (hungover, laziness), not even that.

My steamid is 'thetacoman' if you're interested in playing with me! I also occasionally host a MvM server.

Liked this video? Check out my PSA on Diablo III patch 1.04!

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

REVIEW: (Video) Death Rally (PC)

Hey guys, here's my Death Rally review. As per my review policy, the single player portion of the game was played to completion. There was no difficulty setting.


The original Death Rally was released way back in 1996 for MS-DOS. It was made Remedy (the folks behind the original Duke Nukem games) and had full LAN support. The premise of the game was essentially a car race with guns, where you could either be the fastest, or the deadliest. It quickly became a LAN party favourite, and I remember wasting many hours of my youth ramming my friends with spiked bumpers and setting up mine traps.

Now it's 2012 and Remedy have got around to giving Death Rally the HD treatment. Originally being released for smart phones and tablets, it finally cropped up on steam for $8.50. Being a big fan of the original, I decided to pick it up and see if it still keeps that Death Rally spirit.

The game's paper thin story is told through comic book panels. You play as an illegal street racer who is picked up by the cops, but given a chance to avoid jail time if you infiltrate 'Death Rally' and find it's king - 'The Adversary'. I don't think the original Death Rally had a story, and I think it's better that way. This just feels cheesy and stupid, with the final panel of the story having your character literally drive off into the sunset.

Graphically, it looks very impressive. It's come a long way from those 1996 graphics. It has some cool touches to the maps like overhead trains in the city maps or hovering helicopters in snow and jungle maps, and the car models themselves are very nicely detailed. The sounds and music are rough and dirty, fitting to the feel of the game. The only problem I had is the NPC drivers only have one or two lines of dialogue, and that gets old really fast.

The game itself plays almost exactly like the original, utilizing a top down view as you race around tracks trying to kill each other. There are essentially two ways to win a race, finish first or destroy every other car. The best way to play often includes a combination of both - destroying a few cars and then trying to pull in front of the others. Destroying boxes in the map will drop items, these include a nitro boost, extra ammo, extra cash and a small repair. It's a bit strange to see the nitro bar from the original replaced with a single use nitro item, but it's not that big a deal. As you destroy cars and win races, you will receive parts that unlock new maps, weapons, and vehicles. You'll also get a bunch of cash which you can use to upgrade your car after the race is over.

This brings us to one of my major gripes with the game. You have to spend ALL the winnings you receive after winning a race, and you can only spend it on the car you used to win the race, and the weapon you were using at the time. It's really frustrating that you can't 'save' money, for when you unlock a new car or weapon. This has the side effect of making the new cars feel 'weaker' than your old, fully upgraded cars, as well as making it difficult to switch weapons, as you would have to use the underleveled weaker weapon for many races before it got to the same level as your fully leveled stronger weapon.

The list of unlockables is actually relatively impressive. The original Death Rally only had 6 cars and a single weapon option (chain guns), while the remake has 6 weapons and 8 cars - as well as the spiked bumpers, mines and laser sight. While there are only around 10 maps as compared to the original's 19, you have to remember that many of the original's maps were simply recolours of the same map. Obtaining everything should take you a couple of hours.

New to the game is the 'death match' mode, where you simply try to destroy the other racers. It's a really obnoxious mode that just has you wildly circling each other while trying to get a hit in. Without the pretence of a race it's just kind of boring, and the whole mode feels really tacked on, especially as there is only a single map for it.

The game's final challenge is 'The Adversary'. I really have to say, this is by far the most frustrating part of the game. The adversary's car is faster than any vehicle the player can get, so you need to rely on lucky drops from boxes during the race to win the game. It got to the point where If I didn't get a nitro or ammo from the first box at the start of the race, I would just quit and remake as there would be no way I could catch him. In the end, I opted to destroy his car rather than trying to beat him in a fair fight. This is death rally after all.

Beating the Adversary unlocks nothing except an ending cut scene. It can be done in around 2-3 hours, leaving very little replay value. The game boasted an online multiplayer mode, which I tried to use several times yet kept returning to me with a 'matchmaking error'. The fact that there is no LAN support saddened me a bit, as LAN play is essentially what made the original game so great in the first place.

Death Rally is essentially what you'd expect in a remake - the original game given a fresh coat of paint and a couple of new features. I bought it for $8.50 and it gave me around 3-4 hours of gameplay. I mostly bought it for nostalgia reasons - if you never played the original you might not get as much enjoyment out of this. This one is difficult to judge, as it was an OK little distraction but I can see how people could feel ripped off. I'm going to give it a new rating 'Buy it when it's on sale.' I'm sure it will eventually crop up on steam for 50% off, grab it then, unless you are a diehard Death Rally fan.

Verdict: Buy it (When it's on sale)

Buy Death Rally on the Steam store

Liked this article? Check out my Terraria review!

Check out my Twitter and my YouTube channel

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

REVIEW: Terraria (PC)

When a game becomes popular, the only thing that is inevitable as its success is copycats. To say that Terraria is a Minecraft copycat is an understatement at best, but does it really matter? League of Legends started as a DoTA copycat, and has now become one of the biggest games in the world. Even Warcraft and Starcraft themselves were Warhammer copycats. Copycats more often than not, take a popular formula and expand upon it. I feel that Terraria has taken the essence of Minecraft and altered it in a meaningful enough way to warrant itself as its own innovation.

'The Jungle' is one of the first progressions in difficulty

Just a quick aside before I go further into this review: yes, I know this game has been out for quite a while. I only picked it up in the most recent steam summer sale, and in accordance with my review policy, I played it until finishing the main game as well as playing a good chunk of the 'hardmode' unlockable difficulty.

So anyway, this review will draw a lot of parallels to Minecraft because, well, it's the obvious relation.  Just like in Minecraft, Terraria sees you controlling a miner, digging your way through multiple levels of underground caverns mining for rare minerals, as well as battling dungeon monsters along the way. Again, just like in Minecraft, Terraria has a plethora of crafting options, from simple pickaxes and swords to complex gadgets and potions.

'The Eye of Cthulhu' is the first boss you will encounter

Unlike Minecraft, however, I found Terraria's crafting system to be infinitely more refined and intuitive. Rather than combining ingredients into a crafting window and hoping you got it right, Terraria's crafting system automatically scans your inventory and provides all viable crafting options in a single scrollable menu. You still have to occasionally check the wiki for the more advanced crafting recipes, but I found it easier to use than Minecraft's system.

NPC's will inhabit your houses... if you follow the housing rules exactly...

Terraria is a 2D sidescroller, with that trademark 'indie game' pixelated  art style. I feel this is the most significant change from Minecraft. Trying to mine in a 3D world is disorientating. The 2D setting is much more enjoyable as you can easily see your mineshafts and what surrounds them. It makes it a lot easier to find your friends when playing in multiplayer too, and I do recommend playing multiplayer. Building something amazing or getting a set of cool rare items is much cooler when you have a group of friends to share it with.

'The Eater of Worlds' another of the game's bosses

While Terraria lacks some of the insane sandbox playground features of Minecraft, it makes up for it by having an actual game behind it, with levels and bosses. Progression through the game is not quite your traditional linear progression, but there are different areas with more difficult enemies, and a set of bosses that gradually increase in difficulty until reaching the final boss, which unlocks 'hardmode' when defeated. The item grind is pretty well done too, with items of varying quality and power being dropped or crafted with random stats. It gives it more of an RPG feel - even though your character has no 'levels', there is a distinct sense of progression as you acquire more powerful weapons and armour, as well as cool little utility tools like rocket boots.

Hell, the area at the very bottom of the map, and the 'Wall of Flesh,' the game's end boss
In terms of the sights and sounds, Terraria is visually and aurally pleasing. The music and sound effects, though occasionally becoming repetitive, are fairly well done, and the cute pixelated visuals are very fitting for the world. It's not a very graphically demanding game so it should run smoothly on pretty much any system. The only real gripe I had with the game was with its numerous bugs. The biggest one's pertained to NPC's, who would often refuse to spawn even though the game had flagged the houses I had built as 'suitable'. Others include stuttering bugs, monsters getting stuck in terrain and mineshafts that would inexplicably kill you while falling through them. If I had to pick something about the actual game that I didn't like it would be that it doesn't really have  too much replay ability. Once you have beat the game, acquired the best gear, and fought most of the hard mode bosses, there really isn't anything else to do, and the fact that Re-Logic have stopped releasing updates to the game means that this is unlikely to change.

Defeating the wall of flesh will unlock 'Hardmode'

So what do we have here with Terraria? It lacks the 'build-anything-including-functioning-computers' aspect of Minecraft that gives autistic people wet dreams, but makes up for it by having an actual 'game' behind the mining simulator. I played it pretty obsessively for about a week before exhausting all of its content, so for the $10 asking price I would say it's worth it - even more so for the $2.50 that I picked it up for during the steam summer sales!

Editor's Note: I would like to take the opportunity with the first review on this blog to tell you about my review verdicts. I, along with many other respectable journalists, believe that review scores for video games are worthless. A quick look at metacritic sees that very few games fall below the 60/100 mark. What this means is that bad games will get good scores because critics don't understand why they are bad. Video games are a lot more subjective than a movie, and personal experience plays a big factor. When I write a review, I describe my own personal experience and leave it up to the reader to decide if this is the kind of experience they are looking for. I don't want people skipping to the end of my reviews looking for an arbitrary number. However, I would like to quickly distinguish between games that are worth investigating, and games that I believe will never be worth your money, thus, I will only ever have two verdicts in my reviews: 'buy it' and 'don't buy it'.

Liked this article? Check out my Sleeping Dogs review

Check out my Twitter and my YouTube channel

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

FEATURE: (Video) In the heart of the swarm - a look at professional Starcraft in Korea

As promised, I went right into the heart of the swarm (GOMTV studios in Seoul) to check out what all of this e-sports business is about. Enjoy.


When you talk about professional starcraft, one place immediately comes to mind: South Korea. As I was on vacation in Korea just the other week, I thought it would be a shame if I didn't try to see some live matches. While I've played quite a bit of starcraft, I really don't follow the competitive scene. Nonetheless, I went down here, to GOMTV studios in Seoul, to see what all the fuss was about.

The studio itself made a pretty lasting first impression on me, it looked like the set of some futuristic TV game show, complete with multiple impressive-looking cameras and live commentators.  The players sat in self-enclosed little booths that I assume were to minimise distractions and the action was streamed onto a giant screen for the benefit of the spectators. Granted, it wasn't as big as some of the huge stadiums I have people playing in, but for just everyday qualifying matches It was really impressive to see a video game given the same level of attention and respect as any professional sport.

I said before that I didn't follow the competitive starcraft scene. I had some anxieties that I would be completely lost trying to follow the games, but these guys made those anxieties completely evaporate. They are Tasteless and Artosis, the English language commentators for GOMTV studios. When I arrived at the studio I was given a receiver so I could listen to their commentary, and I gotta say it was really spot on. For someone like me who knew how the game worked but didn't know all the advanced strategies, their commentary was incredibly helpful, insightful, and amusing. They really made the whole experience for me.

The actual games themselves were on a level I didn't even know existed. I crumble under the pressure of ladder matches played anonymously from my own home, yet these guys were able to perform at the highest of their ability while being broadcast on national television. Some of these clips show some pretty intense high-stakes battles, with micromanagement so complex and rapid that it felt like instinct to the players, but my favourite match was actually this one, with JYP's Protoss facing off against Hack's terran.

As you can see, a lone banshee is fighting against a handful of stalkers. Both of the players had somehow managed to destroy each other's bases, and were desperately trying to hunt down the remainder of each other's forces before the other. As both sides knew that they only had so few units, every battle was intense and felt like it could be the last. Eventually, Hack's banshee managed to save up enough energy to cloak and mop up the rest of JYP's units.

Watching streams is one thing, but being right there in the thick of it is something else entirely. Being able to see an intense battle and actually see the expressions of the players as they react, as well as the reactions of the other fans observing with you is pretty exhilarating. It was really something to see fans (including some particularly attractive female fans) lining up outside the studio to collect autographs from their favourite players. Plus the studio staff gave us free Krispy Creme donuts.

I'm not really a fan of any professional sports, so I have never been able to understand the fevor that sports fans exude when attending a live match. 'Why not just watch it on TV from the comfort of your own home?'  I would think. But seeing a video game played in the same fashion, as something that I can relate to and appreciate has completely changed my perspective.  If you are ever in Korea and you are a fan of video games, you don't even have to be a starcraft fan, I urge you to attend one of these events.

E-sports in Korea is a truly fascinating thing and it gives me hope that I'll one day be able to turn on the 'sports' channel in Australia and be able to watch exceptionally talented athletes engage in a battle of the minds rather than a bunch of blokes in short pants running around a field trying to thrust their faces into each other's arses.

Please enjoy the rest of  these clips, which show some highlights of the matches I watched.

Matches Watched:

Quantic_TheStC (Terran) Vs. LG-IM_MvP (Terran)

FXO_GuMiho (Terran) Vs. StarTale_Squirtle (Protoss)

EG_JYP (Protoss) Vs. StarTale_Hack (Terran)

TSL_HyuN (Zerg) Vs. Genius (Protoss)