It’s not what you play, it’s who you play it with

I’m writing this the day before Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 releases. At least for me and all the other season pass pre-orders. If you bought the Ultimate Edition, you could be playing now but if you only have the standard you have to wait another few days. Sad, but true.

That’s a comment for another day. What I wanted to write about was a question Kim asked me recently: “Why don’t you write about how exited you are for The Division 2?” Relatively straightforward at first but the truth is, I’m not. I’ve dropped a load of money on a game I’m not hyped about at all.

So why spend the money? Well, because Pete is beyond excited about the game.

Every Tuesday night, Pete and I play games online, or at least try to as sometimes life gets in the way. I look forward to it each and every week and I’m always gutted if we can’t play. Over the years we’ve played all sorts including Destiny (both the original and 2), Rocket League, Strange Brigade and currently Fallout 76. We’ve also played The Division.

Pete loves The Division. I’ve never known him be so passionate about any other game. He loves the setting, the look and most importantly the grind. Long after I was bored (and frustrated) with the bullet-sponge baddies, Pete was playing it on multiple systems and ranking up his characters to super powerful levels. He’s an absolute Division nut and his enthusiasm is infectious.

I love seeing passion in people, I love being a part of their happiness and it’s games like The Division which give that. Am I looking forward to the actual game? Not really. Am I looking forward to playing it? As long as it’s with Pete, you bet your backside I am.

For Honor and glory!

There’s a moment in For Honor when, with a flash of light, the camera locks into place and a white ring appears around the feet of your opponent. The heart starts pounding, fingers tighten around the controller a little more and eyes narrow at the screen. There’s nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. Only one of you will come out of this contest victorious and you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure it’s you.

For Honor, video game, battle, fight, swords, mud

Weapons clash, the sound of metal on metal echoes across the battlefield. Blocks, parries and dodges dominate, blood is spilled until one falls and the other stands.

It’s exhilarating stuff, and feels like a much fairer test of skill than in other fighting games. Agreed, I’m not a top player at all but there is a real sense of both combatants beginning the fight by sounding each other out, trying to sense a style or weakness before exploiting it. There’s no clock counting down or combos with dozens of hits to worry about, just good timing, reading of the opponent and knowing your character.

For Honor, video game, duel, fight, swords

In a sense there’s a SoulsBourne element to it as you will die again and again as you get to grips with the various human and excellent artificial intelligence (AI) opponents but the learning curve is all part of the challenge. Each defeat teaches you more than a victory and yet there’s no feeling quite like the rush of emerging triumphant. It’s just a shame there is no ‘bow’ emote to show respect to an opponent who engaged in glorious combat until eventually succumbing to your blade. Plenty of celebrations, no way of showing they fought with honour.

Now if only they could get the Star Wars licence and throw in some lightsabers…

Steep: almost at the summit

One of my favourite parts of SSX Tricky was when, once the game was completed, the player was allowed to snowboard unobstructed across (what I remember as) perfect snow. Here you were presented with an open slope with no checkpoints or trick targets.

It was just you and the mountain, giving freedom to simply enjoy the sensation of cruising down a run and carving your own route from start to finish. It was brilliant and after hours and hours of grinding out race wins, Uber Tricks and millions of points was the perfect, relaxing send off.

It’s a sensation in gaming I’ve never experienced since, despite the efforts of Shaun White and the SSX sequels themselves. That was until Steep came along.

Steep, video game, snowboarder, skier, mountains, snow, view, sky

Last night after a particularly gruelling gold medal grind against one of the expert challenges, which involved numerous restarts and swearing, I finally emerged victorious. I was wound up, tense, and had that familiar sensation of satisfaction at beating the challenge but still annoyed that it had taken so long to do it. I was tilting.

Recognising this I decided to see where the mountain would take me.

Off I went, gliding along on my snowboard, weaving my way down the slopes and relaxing into the ride. It was just what I needed, carving a route through trees, chalets, wide-open snow and the occasional other rider as I went from the top of the mountain all the way to the bottom. I even unlocked an ‘Edge of the Map’ achievement to boot.

This is where Steep excels. When it comes to winter sports it ‘feels’ right. Throw in some fantastic atmospheric sounds of the wind whipping by, fresh crunchy snow and just the right level of chilled out tunes and yes. Yes, yes, yes. I can lose myself to the mountain for hours.

Steep, video game, mountain, snow, sky, snowboarder, snowboard

The tricks and flips aren’t as wild as in other extreme sports games but Steep strives for as much realism as it can muster. Long story short: if you’re looking for a spiritual successor to EA Big’s classic, this isn’t it. There’s a decent extreme sports game here, but it’s hidden inside an amazing open-world mountain that’s a joy to explore.

Where Steep lets itself down is the design of the menus, the map and characters. The menus are unclear and badly organised. I’ve sunk almost ten hours into the game and still don’t understand exactly what certain portions are trying to tell me, or what will happen if I click on them. The same can be said for in-game too. There’s no feedback as to what event you’ve just been doing if you happen not to complete it or accidentally crash and lose your progress (a paragliding speciality of mine).

Yes you can hold a button to start event again but it doesn’t really start the event, it just takes you back to the last place you were in walking mode – which can be immensely frustrating if you’ve say, been zooming down the mountain for ten minutes, seen an event you want to try, zip through the start gate and then crash out. Holding the reset button down resets your progress from ten minutes ago.

It wouldn’t be so bad if there was a way to see, say, the last three events you tried, or had a map that was easy to navigate but there isn’t. The map is a 3D representation of the mountain which looks stunning but is a complete mess to navigate. Form over functionality is never a good thing.

Then it’s not actually you-versus-the-mountain as the marketing would suggest but one-of-a-selection-of-pre-made-characters-hidden-deep-in-the-menus-with-no-explanation-as-to-who-they-are-versus-the-mountain. They could be pros, they could be random, there’s no clue as to which. It jars me as the game pushes the player to express themselves and their personality by doing whatever they want but it has to be done in the shoes of an avatar you have no control over. You can put them in a giraffe costume though so I suppose that makes it all better.

I wouldn’t mind the inclusion of a way to greet the other players I meet on the mountain too. Right now it’s a case of ‘press X to group’ and that’s it, an emote or two wouldn’t go amiss.

At the end of the day Steep is a very good game for those that want to explore and see the sights. A more coherent menu, a couple of tweaks to the various interfaces, an instruction manual and (dare I say it) a touch more hand-holding of the player in the early stages and it would be a vastly improved beast.

Have you played Steep? What do you think?

Preview: Tom Clancy’s The Division

Ubisoft’s long-in-development Tom Clancy’s The Division launches on 08 March 2016. I recently had a good old playthrough of the open beta and, unsurprisingly, have a few opinions I’d like to share.

New York (apparently created on a one-to-one scale) looks and feels fantastic. I’ve only been there once but The Division captures the way the city towers over you perfectly. There’s a real sense of size and scale here that allows for a map that takes time time to explore. The game also throws in day- and night-time cycles and changeable weather that help bring the environment to life. Importantly, the placement of available cover feels realistic too. Abandoned cars, concrete barriers, scaffolds and emergency checkpoints a situated in such a way that the player can duck behind what they need to without it feeling too obvious.

Graphically it’s great too: player models look sharp and the attention to detail on clothing and rucksacks are great. There seems to be a decent amount of variety also, with outward appearance being separate from armour so if you find a jacket you really like there should, in theory, be nothing stopping you from wearing it from start to finish. I only came across one performance issue in the beta, where a defeated enemy model clipped halfway into the floor but aside from that it ran nice and smoothly.

It was also a lot of fun. The cover mechanics and shooting are great, although if you’re used to a Gears-of-War-style one-button-for-everything control system you’ll have to get used to a format that requires much more dexterity. The RPG elements work well, as does the base-building side of things. Even though my character was randomly generated (because, you know, beta) I felt invested in getting the look of him just right and was able to spec him as a sniper / healer who could handle his own in a close range scenario. Player-versus-player (PvP) is a tense affair and worth it for the loot but there are big problems there that need to be addressed. Thankfully, grouping isn’t one of them but by God there needs to be a way to communicate outside of voice chat. As you might expect, I learned a few uncomplimentary things about my mother from the mouths of teens. Charming.

The city is a beautifully crafted thing but lacked that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that would have made it feel alive. More survivors wandering the streets, more looters, more sudden and unexpected outbursts would have been appreciated. As it happened the world felt dead – if you’ll excuse the pun. I appreciate that the city was decimated by the viral outbreak forming the cornerstone of the plot but there should be more people trying to scavenge, more citizens to help and assist. The best open worlds, whether massively-multiplayer online (MMO) or RPG manage to feel alive and with things happening. The Division, at beta admittedly, lacked that.

This was reinforced by the lack of variety in citizen and enemy character models. Random thugs especially all wore the same hoodies in the same colour with the same mask over their face. I agree it helped identify them as hostile but seeing the same guys again and again really breaks the immersion. It works when they have a uniform, such as the faction known as The Cleaners, but random thugs should be just that: random.

There was huge dialogue repetition too. It seemed every bad guy I took off the streets was called Alex. “He shot Alex!” rang out just as frequently as my bullets. As with the character models, it’s difficult to know what variety there will be in the final game but I hope it’s something that Ubisoft address.

The Dark Zone: the wonderfully-tense PvP area where you never quite know if your team-mate is about to shoot you in the back to steal that hard earned loot from your still-twitching corpse. It’s just like the main game but friendly-fire is on and the only way to can keep the new stuff you’ve earned is to make it to an Extraction Zone. Here you call in a team to get you out. So long as you survive the ninety seconds it takes for them to arrive, you’re home free. The premise is excellent and when it works, it works really well. Teaming up with (polite) strangers who may turn out to be a snake in the grass (they will) as you wait for the extraction timer to count down is a blast.

Tom Clancy. The Division, New York, video game, night, show, street, abandoned, cars, man

But… extraction points are fixed which means they are full of high-level campers just waiting to pick you off. It’s gamers being gamers and exploiting the system for the best loot, I know, but it spoils the fun immensely. And because they are high-level, with all of the best loot you don’t stand a chance in a firefight. It’s a big turn off from the Dark Zone and as things stand I won’t venture in there again until I’ve hit the level cap.

Whether Ubisoft intended this final beta as a stress test, demo or other clever marketing ploy I can safely say The Division has my attention. The pros definitely outweigh the cons and it strikes me as a game I can take my time with, learn, explore and improve at over time.

To cut a long story short, I’ll be hitting the streets of New York on 08 March 2016 – will you?