Is this what the end of the world will be like? Horizon: Zero Dawn

It seems like the hot topic of 2017 is going to be the end of the world. Every day we come closer to finding (possibly hostile) life on another planet, North Korea keeps test launching missiles and a certain orange-faced entrepreneur has claimed the throne of the most powerful position in the known world. It’s only natural that the talking point of the coming year – and years to come – is likely to centre around us being wiped out by forces unseen, or worse; ourselves. So how do we take our minds off the gloom and doom? Make TV shows, movies and video games that explore the myriad of ways we are going to annihilate ourselves, of course!17038566_10158415284035165_6828717236732899887_o

Right off the bat, I have to say this: If the world was coming to an end I’d be spending my final moments furiously trying to complete Horizon Zero Dawn. I usually try to save my verdict of the game until the end of the review but let’s be honest, if you don’t like Horizon you won’t be reading this, you’ll have already been grabbed off the street and shipped to a dark, remote location where there’s no great hulking metal beasts roaming around. Or worse still; no WiFi.

Without giving too much away, Horizon is set on a post post (not a typo) apocalyptic earth. Humanity as we know it is no more. In addition to the remaining humans living in tribes, almost all evidence of modern architecture has been reclaimed by nature. As if that wasn’t harrowing enough, herds of roaming, metal monsters prowl the land. And they are far from friendly. You begin by following the growth and childhood of Aloy – an outcast of the Nora Tribe – as she is raised by another outcast, Rost. Aloy and Rost’s reasons for being cast out of the tribe remain shrouded in mystery for some time. And because I can’t resist a little spoiler – be prepared for an emotional roller coaster.

17038456_10158413680835165_6920432198003059852_oHorizon’s storyline is arguably the most gripping, interesting, moreish plot I’ve ever come across in a game. There are a lot of games that have recently come out with amazing dialogue and plots, but Horizon takes the cake. In the past I have found myself skipping through dialogue in most games, especially ones that are quest heavy (who cares what they are saying, give me that new +10 agility wrist guard!). Not so with Horizon. Not once have I skipped any of the cutscenes, dialogues or even the brief exchanges with merchants. I find myself wanting to absorb every scrap of information I can get my hands on. It’s in depth; so in depth that I’ve even invested a considerable amount of time to reading through the collectable texts scattered throughout the world. I’ve not put such effort into finding extra content since the dreaded ‘100 feather hunt’ from Assassin’s Creed. Yet it’s not so overwhelming that you forget what you’re supposed to be actually doing.

Having said that, I’ve lost great amounts of time to just appreciating the graphics. At its worst it is utterly breathtaking. At best you will forget what real life is. In all seriousness, it has got to be one of the best looking games (especially one that is set in a dystopian, technically apocalyptic world) ever to grace our screens. Developer Guerrilla Games obviously knew this was going to be a major selling point to the game, which is why there has been the inclusion of photo mode. A game changer for the video game photographers among us, Photo mode allows you to screenshot pretty much anything you want in the game (all of the photos on this review have been taken by me with the photo mode). There are a variety of functions included into the mode, including a colour changer, brightness and saturation sliders and you can even change the time of day to achieve your perfect setting. I should also add that all of the images seen here are during actual gameplay, not cutscenes. 17159345_10158414967125165_1339117804084930277_o

It’s even hard to find fault in the mechanics of the game. Horizon is entirely third person, with you looking ‘over the shoulder’ of Aloy. But when you look closer, the camerawork goes into much greater detail – you will seamlessly switch which shoulder you look over as you traverse different heights of terrain. This allows you to see as much of your surroundings as possible at all times, without really even realising it. Horizon switches between gameplay and cutscenes with a very appealing fluidity; even when speaking to NPCs. Couple that with a really well cast team of voice actors and you’ve got a real recipe for success.

If you’re a fan of games like The Witcher, the Uncharted series, Tomb Raider or even Skyrim, chances are you are going to absolutely fall in love with Horizon. A lot of people are still on the fence about even trying it out, with many fearing that Horizon’s rise to fame (and the amount of hype surrounding it) is hauntingly similar to that of No Man’s Sky. And I get the fear. What I do know is that Horizon Zero Dawn will 100% not suffer the same fate – This is a game that is going to stand the test of time. Unless of course the world ends.

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The Battle of Polytopia

Anyone who is even mildly interested in PC Gaming will have heard the name Sid Meier. A pioneer of turn-based strategy, his ‘Civilization‘ series will forever be the catalyst of nostalgia for gamers all over the world. But while it’s great for us to look back on these games with a fondness, there have been little, if any, releases that match Civilization’s caliber. That is until now; Enter: The Battle of Polytopia.

This self-proclaimed ‘turn based strategy game with cute low poly graphics’ actually comes from the most humble of beginnings. The very first release from Swedish indie game developer Midjiwan, Polytopia sets to bridge the gap from PC to mobile gaming, a transition that usually makes or breaks a game series. Fortunately for us (and for Midjiwan), Polytopia delivers everything you’d expect from a turn based strategy game right into the palm of your hand.

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From humble beginnings to a colossal empire.

Obviously you cannot expect a full game the size of other civ-building games, as porting a game that big to a mobile device just isn’t currently feasible. What you do get from Polytopia is something brilliantly unique, however: A balanced blend of nostalgia and a brand new genre of mobile gaming.

From the outset, you are offered a variety of game modes (I should note that Polytopia is free to play, with optional in-app purchases) ranging from Perfection Mode – A quick game mode in which you have to get as high a score as possible in 30 turns, or Domination – You play until you’ve wiped out the entire AI (or until you are beaten…believe me, it happens). There is even a multiplayer element which has been cleverly called Pass and Play; You take your turn then pass your device to a friend, they take their turn and pass it back, and so on.

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Take control of your tribe.

There are four tribes available to new players (with another six available at around a pound/dollar/your native currency. These seem to be the only things you can optionally pay for and there are also no ads; something very rare for a free to play mobile game). You can play as the oriental Xin-Xi, the Roman-inspired Imperious, the barbaric Bardur, or the desert dwelling Oumají. Each tribe has their own strengths and starting tech, which may help or hinder you depending on the randomly generated terrain. You can also set how many AI players you want to be up against, as well as how difficult they will be.

Once you’re playing, you are offered a couple of helpful hints as you go, but you’re mostly on your own. And it just works. At first, the shortness and speed of each round was strange to me, after having put hours and hours into the Civilization series in the past. But that hasn’t stopped me clocking up some serious game time. In terms of graphics, the game is beautifully simple, carrying on the latest indie game craze of ‘simpler is better’. A great feature of the game is the simple yet efficient tech tree. Each tech will allow you to build additional troops or buildings, or may even start a quest for you to complete.

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Build your tech early for maximum effect.

If you’re looking to recreate the excitement and enjoyment you used to get out of old school, turn based, civilization building, strategy games then The Battle of Polytopia is going to tick all the boxes and keep you occupied for hours.

The Battle of Polytopia, by Midjiwan AB is available now for Android and iPhone.

All you need to know: Pokémon GO Updates

The world has been in absolute chaos since Pokémon GO‘s initial release last month. Swarms of trainers have walked long and far in the hopes of catching the more elusive Pokémon that are scattered across the world.

But the questions on everyone’s minds has always been: When is there going to be an update? Will there be trading? Battling? Where are all the Pokémon Centres?

Well, we have our answer. The first update for the game has been released, and it’s not exactly what we were hoping for. Read on for the main points from the update.

  • Avatars can now be customised. You can re-do your avatar by navigating to the Trainer profile screen.
  • Battle move damage values. Some of the damage values for Pokémon moves have been adjusted.
  • Safety warning every login. Concerns around safety have been addressed by adding a popup every time you login, reminding you not to play while driving.
  • Battle damage calculation. This has also been modified.
  • Pokémon footprints have been removed. No more hints as to how close that pesky Pidgey is!
  • Various memory issue and bug fixes. Niantic have fixed a whole bunch of bugs, especially ones around wild Pokémon encounters.
  • Minor map feature issues and text fixes. Just some small changes around some of the map interface and text.
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Pokémon Go at Central Park, NY

Other than that, there’s really not a lot going on in the game. Lots of players are in uproar about there being next to nothing in terms of new features, but what we must remember is Niantic are still focusing on just the full release of the game. What we do know is they have major plans for the game, and features such as trading and battling will be included in the future. We just have to sit tight for now, and keep catching them all.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Pokémon GO!

Who doesn’t want to relive their youth? At 26 I already feel old, but while most people tell me that I’m still young I can’t help but let my mind wander sometimes to days gone by. I’d like to say I’m quite lucky in that I am a true 90’s kid (just), which is arguably the greatest decade for kids entertainment. Remember Pogs? Tazos? Micro Machines? All great for passing the time between finishing school in the afternoon and starting again in the morning. But they all pale in comparison to the phenomenon that is Pokémon.

Short for Pocket Monsters, Pokémon swept the entire
globe when it was originally released as a Gameboy game pokego4in 1996 in Japan. As popularity grew, it developed into a trading card game, but the video game franchise had a solid foundation, and still thrives to this day twenty years later. For those who have been living under a rock, the idea of the game is to travel far and wide, collecting, trading and battling Pokémon to become the ultimate Pokémon master. A great premise and one so unique to video games when the idea was first conceived. One feeling we all surely share about the entire franchise though: What if we could go out and catch Pokémon in the real world?

A gripping thought, but obviously flawed. Or is it? The team over at Niantic Labs have been slaving away over what is potentially the most exciting Pokémon game in history; Pokémon GO. As of writing this the game is officially available in Australia, New Zealand and the US, though several clever boots here in the UK (myself included) have found a way around the location barrier, so to speak. If you are in a country that can’t get Pokémon GO on the market just yet, click here if you are on Android or here for iOS for guides on how to get the game early. If you’re waiting for official release, the current date for release is just 2016. Not helpful.

pokego5.pngThe game begins with the iconic intro that has become a staple part of the Pokémon video games. You are introduced to Professor Willow, who explains to you the basics of the Pokémon universe. Then you are tasked with choosing your gender, with a new feature of being able to customise your character’s, albeit fairly basic,  hair and clothes. Then it’s into the game itself. I should point out at this point that server loads are currently causing major crashes, intermittent connectivity and widespread inaccessibility. Apparently. Personally I’ve had very few issues with the exception of an hour or so where I couldn’t log in.

Staying true to the video games, you are presented with the choice of either Squirtle, Bulbasaur or Charmander. Bulbasaur was walking around my house and it was late, so I opted for the lazy choice and caught it. When a Pokémon is caught, it updates your Pokédex with information about it. As well as this, you have the option of increasing that Pokémon’s power or even evolving it. Word of warning; it’s going to cost you in the form of Stardust, which is collected by walking around and catching Pokémon, and Poké Candy, which you collect when you catch or trade a Pokémon. So that’s exactly what I went out and did.

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Magikarp…why?

It could be said that Pokémon GO is the closest way to “a real life Pokémon catching adventure”, but how does it achieve this? Firstly, the game itself is actually visually similar to Google Maps, in that your character is walking along a map of the place you live. As you walk, tufts of ruffling grass pop up: A Pokémon is near! When you are close enough to a Pokémon it will appear on your map. This is where it gets really fun. Pokémon GO has a built in Augmented Reality function; the Pokémon will appear in real life on your screen. To offer an example, this morning I woke up and caught a Weedle that was crawling along my bed. This AR function adds a whole new level to video game immersion, it really is the closest we have gotten to being able to catch a Pokémon ‘in real life’. It certainly will likely pave the way for a next-gen virtual reality Pokémon game.

That’s about as far as I’ve got with the game itself, as it is so new to the world. Hopefully a UK release is imminent, and I can look less weird walking around in public pointing my phone all over the place: the more people that are playing, the more accepted it will become.

A league of its own: Rocket League

I’m not a “stereotypical” guy when it comes to sport. The only kind of sport I’m really into is E-Sports (can we count that as a sport yet? Please?). But the more traditional sports just aren’t for me. Take football for example. I can manage to sit through a game with family and friends over a pint or three, but that’s really about it. With this in mind, it was with great reluctance that I purchased Psyonix’s latest release: Rocket League. Little did I know my world was about to change. 

I’d heard about Rocket League through a couple of friends who had played it on the Playstation (blasphemy!). Football, but with cars. The weird and alternative games always catch my eye, so after watching a few game-play videos I was convinced enough to give it a go. A few fellow Xbox players had already picked up the game, so I dived right into a team match against some online randoms.

From the offset it was chaos. It was a three vs three standard match, most goals in five minutes wins. I’m pretty sure that neither team had any idea what they were doing. I certainly didn’t. I was constantly rushing at the ball head-on, sending it hurtling towards walls and other players, and very rarely near the goal. That feeling of dread crept over me; “Good god, what have I done? What a waste of my money” kept popping up in my head. We’ve all been there, made an impulse purchase that has turned out to be a disaster of a game.

But then I steeled myself. Mark, you can’t judge the entire game on one match (which ended 1-0 to the opposing team), I thought. So we went straight into the next match. This one went a lot better as I had picked up on what to expect. Then a strange thing happened. Things started to slot into place. I started realising that you could angle the ball in different directions depending on where you hit with your car. Suddenly this two dimensional game had become much more complex, and entertaining. I was hooked.

Hitting the ball around on the ground turned out to be just the beginning. You can jump in the air, in your car. You can do flips, spins, even drive up the side walls to reach high balls. You can drive on to the ceiling of the arena to try and knock the ball away from the other team, while it’s in mid air. There’s even a boost function on your car that, as well as speeding you up drastically, you can use it to fly into the air to save enemy shots.

That’s when it hit me. Rocket League is all about physics. You learn to get a sense of where the ball is going to go after you hit it, how hard to hit and how to position yourself to save shots at your goal. Just like football.

Post game, I looked at the customisation menu, where I found the real treasure. Hundreds of different custom fittings for your car, including completely different car models, paint jobs, wheels, hats (I’m currently sporting a rather fetching pirate captain’s hat), boost trails, and antennae. You unlock new items every few games, so now I had to keep playing for the loot.

This game has been so cleverly crafted that it turns sport-haters like myself into die hard fans, shouting at the screen when things aren’t going their way, or even if they are. Rocket League has the potential to reign in a completely new group of players that may have had no interest in video games before, just for the sheer sportiness feeling it exudes. I’ll be at the front of the queue when Rocket League is added to the E-sports roster. Just let me practise my shooting first.

 

World of Warcraft – Life begins at level 90

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As previously said, it’s actually only very recently that I have managed to get a character on World of Warcraft to level 90. For me, this is a massive achievement that took a great deal of hard work and time (I have commitment issues when it comes to level grinding), but its actually fairly straightforward and easy to reach that point in the game. Admittedly I did it with a hunter which some could consider cheating, as they are certainly the easiest to level with.

But what happens now? No more exp from quests, no more “ding” in guild chat when you slay that 300,000th trogg. For a good while I found myself wandering the streets of Silver moon, wondering what else I could be doing, but you would be surprised at just how much there is left to do! So here’s at least a few of the many things you can occupy your time with.

See the world! Azeroth is huge, and you can easily spend a great deal of time exploring it. There are even multiple achievements to be completed by seeing every corner of every map, so its worth doing. Speaking of achievements…

Finish all the achievements. This could in theory keep you busy for a very long time, as the list of achievements is pretty much constantly growing as Blizzard adds new game content. Some are easy, some are tough, and a lot of them are just downright ridiculous. But ridiculous or not, they must be completed.

Become a master craftsman. There’s always room for improvement when it comes to your character’s personal talents. Even if you’ve maxed out your two chosen professions, you still have plenty of skills to develop, like First Aid, Cooking, Fishing and even the newer skill, Archaeology.

Loot and Pillage. A lot of players are big on PvP and raids. I personally have little experience in this field, but for those in the know it can be very fun, and very rewarding. Not to mention insanely time consuming; you’ll likely never grow bored of it if you are good enough to win at it.

Take to the stage. Those who can’t raid, roleplay. Of course this isn’t true, as a lot of players do both! And my allegiance lies firmly with the RPers. Roleplaying is like building up an entire world of your own where the possibilities are only restricted by each players own imagination. Definitely the most time consuming thing that I have been a part of on WoW.

So there are a few things to get you going, but obviously there’s a lot more to be getting on with. Got something to add to the list? Comment below and let’s discuss it.
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World of Warcraft – Back To Where It All Began.

I dread to think just how many hours I’ve spent playing video games. I can honestly say that at various points in my growing up I was addicted to gaming, more specifically to MMORPGs. Looking back, whole school holidays were drowned with gaming. Guild Wars comes to mind straight away, swiftly followed by Lord Of The Rings Online. There are countless others that I have trialled and binned, but a ridiculously long list of my past gaming experiences wouldn’t be very exciting. All of them pale in comparison to one in particular though; World Of Warcraft.

Rewind almost eight years and you’ll find me unpacking my brand new Battle Pack. This was a combination of the original World of Warcraft release title, plus the brand new (at the time) expansion pack; The Burning Crusade. Fast forward those eight years again and here I am blogging about that very same game, after what is probably the best part of a 9 hour session of the new(ish) content; Mists of Pandaria. 

Never before have I found myself both amazed and annoyed at a game, for the simple reason that over basically a decade I have yet to become bored with WoW, or even come close to completing all they have to offer. It will surprise and tickle some of you that I have only just recently managed to get a character to the level cap (I’m a RPer, it’s never been a high priority!). So for me, that was quite an achievement. I did briefly find myself thinking “So now what can I do at level 90?”, but that worry quickly disappeared when I realised that this is where the game really begins.

Not so cute and cuddly.

Not so cute and cuddly.

MoP itself is beautiful. I mean absolutely visually stunning. I actually had to turn up my computers settings to max, just to enjoy the view at many points throughout my exploration. Something else was massively different when compared to other games I have played – I found myself really involved with the dialogue and storyline that unfolding as I played. Very rare for a MMO, where normally I’d find myself button mashing through quests to turn them in as quick as I could. But not this time. This experience was much less about the rewards and a lot more to do with story and character progression, and a feeling of success as I handed in quests.

Historically, WoW gets a lot of bad press for causing young people to become addicted to gaming, but I personally think that people should look at their own “real world” lives before blaming a game. It has always been at particularly bad times in my life that I have found a much stronger connection with the game itself, and have poured countless hours into gaming. But I think the main reason people become addicted to games, WoW in particular, is because of the high quality of content and story progression that is found within the game. It gets people involved and makes them feel like they have achieved something. A lot of people have to said to me “Mark, what do you get out of gaming?” and my answer is always the same – “I get everything that real life sometimes fails to give me; a place to be myself, a place where I feel accomplished and proud of my achievements, which in turn boosts how I feel day to day”. And that is something worth spending so much time on.