Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hands-On With Darksiders II and WWE 13 and a Preview of Company of Heroes 2 and South Park Stick of Truth

Now that's gotta be the longest title ever. I was lucky enough to be invited to a Darksiders II event held by THQ on Wednesday, and got to have a look at some of their upcoming games, and do some stunt work. Yes, that’s right, actual, genuine stunt work, it was a lot of fun. I felt comically out of place, because there were people from serious publications there, like Dan Chiappini (Editor of Gamespot Australia) and writers from the Daily Telegraph, and I’m just some random guy with a humble blog and Youtube account, but it’s great that THQ support little guys like me and give us a chance to report on things and give our opinions.

The day started with the stunt work, which was loosely based upon the abilities of Death, one of the Horseman of the Apocalypse and protagonist of Darksiders II. The video below gives you an idea of what it was we got up to.

I thought I'd be able to make fun of my bad throwing, but I actually got it spot on each time, which was surprising due to how unco I am. The total lack of co-ordination showed up later though in the acrobatic workshop, where the trainers had to take longer than usual to get me even rolling properly. It was actually pretty damn funny. It was a great start to the day, and had us in a good mood for trying out the games and watching the presentations.

We had the chance to get a hands-on playthrough of WWE 13 and Darksiders II, but weren’t allowed to record that for obvious reasons. I went with WWE 13 first because it was less busy. I’m not overly familiar with WWE or the games, I only really know the big name competitors from a while back like The Undertaker and Stone Cold Steve Austin, who were both playable, incidentally. I was playing with someone else at the event who was equally unfamiliar, but we had some fun with it. She played as the Undertaker in the first match, and Sheamus in the second, while I played as Mike Tyson in the first match (who I never realised was a WWE star?) and Steve Austin in the second. It was a decent game, and I’m sure you’d get more out of it if you’re into the sport. I wouldn’t know if the roster had the right movesets and personalities for all the stars or not because I don’t follow WWE. It played similarly to the old games I played a few times, but I’m sure it’s more deep, it was hard to figure out what to do since we didn’t know the controls. We eventually figured out how to do stuff like jump off the posts at the side of the ring and pick up weapons from under the ring, which made it more fun. The number of moves seems slightly low, with some of them being situational, but there’s probably a movelist or something you can look at in the full version which would give you a better idea of how to play, as I said we were basically figuring things out for ourselves and didn’t have much experience with wrestling games. They’re not like traditional fighters where you can figure out moves with qcf and shoryuken motions. There’s a reversal system, which gives you the chance to break out of the opponent’s ‘combos’ and some of their moves, and gives you an indication of whether you were too early or too late in pressing the button. Since it pretty much tells you when to press the button, and what button to press, it seems like it could be really easy to just dodge all the opponent’s moves once you know the timing, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that.

The pin system is also more intuitive than the games I used to play. In those games, the system would either be ‘If you’ve done enough damage to the opponent they’ll be pinned no matter what’ or ‘The opponent can mash a button and never get pinned’, which weren’t very good systems. The new system involves the opponent having to hold down a button, which fills up a gauge, and they have to release the button when the gauge is at a certain point to break the pin, and if they release it too early or too late, they have to start again. The more damage the opponent has taken, the more the gauge will have to be filled to break out. While this seems like it would make things easier, remember that this all happens while the ref is counting them out, meaning if you stuff up the first time, you could be counted out before you get a second chance, as the gauge takes a while to fill up to that point. I thought the system really worked, as it allowed the player who has dealt a lot of damage have a better chance at pinning their opponent, while allowing the defender to have some form of a chance at breaking the pin. I imagine the game would be worthwhile if you’re a WWE fan, but otherwise I don’t think you’d get as much out of it.

WWE 13 releases November 1st in Australia, on Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii.

After two matches of WWE 13 we went off and played Darksiders II. I was a fan of the first game (haven’t quite finished it though), and was excited to see what changes and improvements would be made in the sequel. The first thing I noticed was the UI overhaul, and how the game was much more like an RPG now. In fact, I’d say it could be argued that Darksiders II is very much an RPG as opposed to an action/adventure game like the first. You can equip different items and equipment, which boost your stats, like different armour and clothing, and also different weapons. There are three categories of weapons, Scythes (Death’s signature weapon), light weapons and heavy weapons. Within the latter two categories, there are various weapon types. Within my time in the demo I found claws/bladed gauntlets and a sword, both of which were light weapons, and played very differently. Some of the weapons aren’t definitively better than others in the same weapon type at the same level, either, I had to choose between a slower claw that did a lot of damage, or a faster, much weaker claw that had a better chance of critical hits, and did more critical hit damage. There are also items that can be used in combat, like in the first, including the pistol, which now has a form of ‘ammo’, in that the ammo replenishes itself over time, and the gun can’t fire without it, so that you can use it effectively, but not just run away from enemies while shooting the whole time like it was possible to do in the first. Another RPG element is that you can level up now, allowing you to use more equipment, and gain skill points which you can use to unlock and power up new skills. The skills are split between two ‘branches’, one revolving around combat skills, the other around necromancy and summoning ghouls to fight for you. I bought skills in this tree, but couldn’t figure out how to equip them, the menu is a lot different to the first game’s, all the menus are accessible by pressing select (meaning you don’t have to close your equipment screen to press a different button to open the map and vice versa like in the first game) and the user interface is very different. I like the new interface, it’s a lot more user friendly and it’s pretty, once I’ve got a manual and know how to work certain parts of it it’ll be fine. It could even be that this wasn’t a completed build and that functionality wasn’t available or something. Though I do believe it was a final, or very near final build, as I was unlocking achievements as I played!

When I picked up the controller, it was already in the middle of a saved game, and other people seemed to be at earlier sections than me, which also makes me think it was a near final copy of the game. I couldn’t seem to start a new game though, presumably so we couldn’t play the game from the start. I was hoping to at least play from the start of the ‘demo’ though. I was playing from pretty much the start of a mini dungeon, where I needed to restore operation to a forge used by the race of people/creatures that Ulthane from the first Darksiders belongs to (he was mentioned in a conversation, I take it there will be many references to the first game like this). The flow of play is how you’d imagine it to be if you’ve played the first Darksiders, fight enemies, solve puzzles, do some platforming and make your way to a boss. That’s obviously a very simplified version of it though. With all the different weapon types, combat was more engaging than the first game, and allows for some cooler combos, and the damage you deal to foes appears as numbers above their head, though this can be turned off. I also soon discovered the hard way that some enemies are too powerful for you to take on right away because they’re too powerful and a higher level than you (shown on their health bar), when a large enemy took down some smaller enemies in the dungeon and killed me repeatedly.

Death moves a lot differently to War, being much faster and more acrobatic. While War could only dash once, and move very slowly, Death can dash multiple times, and move much faster. He can’t grab onto ledges as easily as War can, making some of the platforming sections harder in some ways, as you have to time and aim your jumps a lot more precisely. He can, however, run up walls for a short distance, and ‘grind’ along them sideways, meaning he can traverse a lot more difficult terrain, and larger gaps. It took me a while to realise how useful this ‘grin’ ability was in clearing platforming sections, it’s pretty much required in a lot of instances. Basically, if there’s a large gap in between two platforms on a wall, you can run up the wall, then move sideways, and Death will ‘grind’ along it for a short time before falling. All these new acrobatic abilities that Death has made for some really interesting platforming puzzles, including a lot of optional ones that gave me some better loot. The puzzles are also improved, in the section I played there was a mix of the previously mentioned platforming (on which there is a greater emphasis), bomb puzzles (as in Darksiders, where you need to pick up live bombs and quickly figure out where to throw them to clear the way) and new ball rolling puzzles, which seem to have replaced the slow crate pulling/pushing puzzles of the first game. You have to grab a ball, and roll it around to try and fit it into holes which act as switches, and move platforms or open gates. There was one puzzle which combined the balls and bombs, requiring you to dislodge balls already in place using bombs in order to move them into different holes. This puzzle was an interesting one, there was a gate that couldn’t be opened with just one ball, meaning you needed to use a ball to open a gate another ball was behind, then dislodge it to open another gate along with the other ball. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the gist of it, and as this is an early dungeon I assume the puzzles will only get harder and more interesting, which is a good thing. The dungeon finished with a boss fight, which didn’t require the use of a weapon found earlier in the dungeon, and was more combat oriented, requiring you to use Death’s acrobatic movements to dodge the boss’ (highly) damaging attacks. Since this felt more like a ‘mini’ dungeon rather than a full one, I figure ‘main’ bosses will be more puzzle-like, like those in the first game, which were like the bosses in Zelda, requiring you to use weapons you found in the dungeon to exploit a boss’ weakpoints.

When I finished the dungeon and restored the forge, a notification popped up saying I’d clear part of a quest, and I discovered that (in very RPG fashion) the game is split into quests, and along with the main story quests there were sidequests to be solved as well, though I didn’t have any activated at the time. The game told me I could just fast travel to the area the person I needed to talk to to progress the quest was, as it was an area ‘I’ had already discovered, but I wanted to see what the game’s open world was like, as I’d heard the developers talk about it a lot. And I’m very glad I did. The map is split into quite large areas which you can traverse (made much quicker riding Death’s horse, Despair) in which enemies roam around, and treasure is often hidden, requiring you to complete a short platforming puzzle in order to find. I liked that it gave you an incentive to explore, rewarding you with money to spend, and better equipment, and if you fast travel everywhere and don’t kill enemies, you’ll end up being underlevelled and find later foes more difficult. I eventually reached the town I needed to go to, where the forge has been restored, and I was given the pistol (which puzzled Death, as it belongs to his brother Strife, and he wasn’t sure why it was there) and was told where I had to go to next. I got about halfway there, travelling across more of the world, and solving puzzles that required use of the pistol, before everyone was leaving, and I decided to go rather than stay there alone playing the game. Darksiders II is to Darksiders what Assassin’s Creed II was to Assassin’s Creed. When playing it, you can feel that it’s based upon the same foundation and base concept of its predecessor, but it has gone through a total overhaul so that it feels like a much different, much better game. This game is a sleeper hit which I recommend everyone to keep their eyes on, and check out the first game if you haven’t already.

Darksiders II releases sometime in August in Australia, on PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, and a Wii U version will be released in the console’s launch window before the end of the year.

Part of the way through my playthrough of Darksiders II, we also got shown a presentation which included a playthrough of Company of Heroes 2 and South Park: Stick of Truth, with developer commentary. Company of Heroes 2 looks like a real change of pace from the first game due to the game’s ColdTech system, part of the Essence Engine 3.0, accurately representing the conditions of the Eastern Front (i.e. ridiculously cold temperatures, and accurate snow and ice). The commentary (which I believe was from the game’s director, Quinn Duffy) explained that a lot of research was put into the game to accurately portray the battles and settings of the Easter Front, including a trip to St. Petersburg in February this year. He said the aim of the game was to not necessarily have the prettiest game, but have the most authentic game possible, with engaging gameplay elements. The demo started with a cutscene in which some troops were walking through the snow, when they tread upon the body of a fallen comrade, and look upon it with shock, and continue walking, the camera zoomed out and gameplay begun. A squad of conscripts embarked forwards to do some reconnaissance. They traversed the terrain, vaulting over fences to take short cuts, and trying to avoid the deep snow where possible. But as you can imagine, it isn’t always possible, meaning the troops eventually had to move through the freezing snow. A temperature icon next to the squad shows how cold they are, with extreme cold limiting their combat effectiveness and causing death if not treated quickly enough. When a blizzard broke out (which is dynamic and random, I believe), we saw the effects of this, as troops very grimly dropped dead, one by one, slowly, until one lone soldier was walking on a frozen river. But he too succumbed to the cold, and died a sad, lonely death upon the ice.

“Now let’s try to do this properly!” the commentary says, and everyone lets out a rather sympathetic laugh. Some more squads were sent out, and we were shown ways to keep the troops’ temperatures up. Combat engineers set up some fires for the soldiers, as some others garrisoned a building for them to hide out in. The cold, or ‘General Winter’ as the soldiers call it, is as much an enemy in the game as the enemy squads. The squads are sent over to fight the Germans, and cross the frozen river from before, at a different angle, and engage them. The blizzard wasn’t blowing across the river, meaning support could be called in. Later on, a tank is sent across with some troops, and it slides across the ice due to lack of traction. We’re told the ice can be damaged, demonstrated when the tank fires at it, causing the ice beneath the tank and troops to break, plunging them into the freezing waters below and killing them. This also meant both sides were unable to cross this area. That is, until the cold refroze it.

We were shown more of the tanks, as they moved through the snow. They left behind tracks in the snow, which are actually dynamic, and stay there, which was a great detail. It can also be used to tell where enemies have come from and gone to, meaning it’s more than just a pretty little extra, it also adds to the strategy of the gameplay. The tanks then moved across the ice, the light tank moving first, then the medium, and finally the big heavy tank. We were told this was inspired by Operation Spark, in which this tactic was used to get tanks across the ice. While the light tank didn’t have much effect on the ice it travelled across, the medium and the heavy tank, especially, left cracks on the ice, and taking too long can cause the ice to break, and you to lose your troops. The way the setting is taken advantage of in the gameplay, rather than just being a new skin for a sequel, is seriously outstanding. The tanks then engaged the enemy, showing off the improved AI, as the enemy tanks flanked them, and moving forwards and reversing in order to get in optimal positions. The enemy forces began to move across the ice, and the demo reached a stunning conclusion. We were informed that Katyushas had been called in, which were powerful assets used by the Russians in the war. We didn’t know what they were, but the camera panned over to them and we saw that they were huge, rocket launching trucks. These things had huge range, and power, and targeted the enemy forces, and the ice they were on. They took a bit of time to reach their target, meaning the vehicles had moved off the ice, but with the size of the explosions it didn’t matter, the vehicles were destroyed, and the troops behind them were plunged into the freezing waters. And with that, the mission was cleared. This demo gave a great overview of how the new setting would influence the gameplay, and the attention to detail that has gone into designing it has to be commended.

Company of Heroes releases sometime in 2013 on PC.

The second presentation was a gameplay demo of South Park: The Stick of Truth, an upcoming RPG set in the South Park universe. I wasn’t sure what to expect of this, I’m always wary of licensed games, and a South Park RPG would either be hit or miss. So far, it looks like a hit. The game looks like an interactive episode of the show, including all the same kinds of humour and Trey and Matt doing the writing and voices. The audience was in stitches for the whole duration of the demo. The demo was at the start of the game, with you being a new kid in South Park, who is left to find their own entertainment as your parents… investigate the bedroom of your new house. You walk along the street and find most of the gang LARPing (Live Action Roleplaying), but they don’t want to have anything to do with you. You come across Butters, who tells you the Wizard King wants to see you. This wizard turns out to be Cartman, who shows you around his ‘kingdom’, which is just his backyard, but with shoddily made ‘structures’ which are typical of RPG towns, like a store, and a stable which holds a cat. You can interact with everything in the environment, prompting humorous cutscenes. You go into Cartman’s ‘castle’ of such, who asks for your name. The onscreen keyboard pops up, and you enter your name, but when you press enter, Cartman says “So, your name is douchebag?”. You can press yes or no, but regardless he will ask again “Are you sure you wish to accept the name of douchebag?”. Again you select yes or no, but you’re still welcomed to the kingdom as douchebag, and then select your class, out of Cleric, Mage, Fighter and Thief, typical RPG classes. The kingdom is then attacked by elves, and you have to engage them in battle. The gameplay is very much like that of Paper Mario and the Mario and Luigi RPGs, in that you encounter enemies on the overworld (and can attack them for an advantage and vice versa), but when you bump into them, the real battle begins. The battles play out similarly, with them being turn-based, but prompts appear during the attacks allow you to power them up somehow, like holding down a button and releasing it at a certain time. You can also counter attacks by pressing a button at just the right time. Anyone familiar with the previously mentioned RPGs and games similar to them will have an idea of how this works. I’m glad it’s using a more engaging system than just choosing attacks from menus.

A later part of the demo was set in a graveyard, where some vampire kids were lurking. Some loot was found, including a revive taco and ninja stars. Although the ninja stars were referred to as ‘***ing Ninja Stars!’, without the censors. It’s safe to say if you don’t like South Park’s humour, you won’t like this game. We were then given a look at weapon customisation, in which you can add effects to your weapons, like a poison effect used in the demo. We also got a look at the character customisation, which was surprisingly in-depth. As well as all your stat-affecting equipment, at any point in the overworld you can change your character’s appearance with cosmetic items. In the demo the character was given a monocle and a beard. The player then fired a bottlerocket at the window of a cathedral, opening the door. Inside was a shrine dedicated to Mrs. Choksondik, and we were told the game would have more of such easter eggs and references. The player, and Cartman who was in his party, were then attacked by vampire kids, who were dressed as goths. We got a better look at the combat system, with more moves being used and even a summon (which will be talked about in all its glory later on). The battle involved fire breath, characters being incapacitated from groin punches, goths resurrecting each other, and Cartman farting. The banter between all the characters during the battle made it all that much funnier. And then there was a summon. Oh gosh, was there a summon. When the boss wasn’t going down, the play decided to summon another character from the series. This character was none other than Mr. Slave. And what did he do? He took that vampire leader and put him where the sun don’t shine. I’m not even kidding. As I said, those who don’t like South Park’s humour will hate this game, despite the fact the gameplay looks like a lot of fun as well. And with that humiliating defeat of the boss, the demo was done.

South Park: The Stick of Truth releases March 5th, 2013 on Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.

So that hopefully gives you a good idea of what the event involved, and some more info on the games that were shown. Big thanks to THQ for holding this event! I also got given two Darksiders II backpacks and notebooks, might run a giveaway if anyone's interested. Be sure to keep an eye on my blog for future news and the like as infrequent as it can be sometimes.

South Park Stick of Truth screenshots sourced from here, all others were supplied to me by THQ.

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