Battleborn – Interview with Randy Varnell

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Back at Gamescom, Sean got to check out Battleborn, the new first person shooter from Gearbox that marries elements of online play and the MOBA character style with their unique design and vision. He was recently invited to check out how the game has moved along since then and also got a chance to sit down with Randy Varnell, the  Creative Director of Battleborn, and talk about the game.

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Sean Cleaver: I played this at Gamescom and at this stage it feels like it has a lot more of its own identity. At Gamescom it was good but it still felt like it was Borderlands. Since then, we’ve had the videos of the 25 characters, it’s moved on and it feels like it’s become its own thing now. Does that feel the same developing it as well?

Randy Varnell: Yeah I think so. I started this right on the heels of Borderlands 2, I was one of the six that rolled right on to this project and very early prototypes were using Maya and little miniature Axtons as the dwarf. We did that for some reason, but we prototyped a lot, we had some similarities in gameplay like the action skills. So we did some things and had some rapid changes to the engine, just to try and prove out the concept. There was a time we were even using psycho midgets instead of robots for the minions. There was a point where it really started to deviate and it takes so long for us as developers, we use proxy models and prototypes for so long, and then all of sudden you’ve got enough characters and enough art in.

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Honestly, it was Wrath that did it for me. The very first time we had a full on melee character implemented in to the game. He was our first and the one where experimented a lot of different ways. How do you make melee work in a first person game? How do you balance it, and balance it against ranged players? He was our character that we learned on and he got in at one point with almost a Zelda-esque melee combos. Almost like Zelda and a fighting game rhythm combat and it started to really satisfy us.

It took a while and you guys are now beginning to see it. I mean we were competitive for so long so when layered a campaign back on top of it, we got some really cool and weird characters to fill out the roster. Marketing has its own plans and wanted to emphasize campaign for all the right reasons, it’s one of the things that is unique about our game. I’m glad that you can finally see enough parts that it’s something new and expanded from Borderlands.

Three years we’ve had this and it’s been playable for tow. August/September 2012 was right around the time Borderlands launched. By the time that it did I’d already been working with this for two or three months so we were already putting the first touches on. I think we had a playable rough prototype as early as October/November 2012. I mean it was really rough, and it was pretty quick. It took six months for us to be comfortable with the game and then another for the big art stuff to come in. We were still working on other games at Gearbox, Borderlands DLC, and other things.

About February or March 2013 we had enough to do a Gearbox wide play test, with some folks at 2K and this was the first time that we knew we had a game. There’s been some changes since then but, it’s been a while.

SC: One of the things being Creative Director and coming from Borderlands in to this. I think a lot of people are interested in how the brain goes to the screen, from the writing and everything how it gets from the brain to what you see. What kind of processes happen?

RV: Well there’s a lot o different ways and, to give you a bit of an overview, those first few months Randy Pitchford was very instrumental. He sat down and helped us with the overall game vision. He helped come up with the concept of the fiction. The whole “last star” idea, it’s not been done a lot in sci-fi. That’s an extreme epic and that was a big moment, deciding that we wanted to express our characters through factions and taking some inspirations. We always loved what Game of Thrones did. There’s always fighting but sometimes people need to ally together and we wanted that kind of vehicle.

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When you get the art and start working on the character, I mean very early on it was gameplay first. We knew we wanted a melee guy, we wanted a ranged guy and we wanted a support. We started with those first. Thorne, Wrath and Miko and to an degree Montana was one of our early characters too. We called him the big guy, but was also playing with his size. In a first person game size makes a huge difference so when you have a big guy like Montana you balance him differently than you do a little scrawny character like Origi, who is tiny and thin and jumping about so much that he’s really hard to hit. So you have to do things with the speed, the health and the hitboxes to get through all of that.

Then you get to the art and go through a process of what we want the game to look like. We have our art director, Scott Kester who was one of the guys who was very intrumental for the Borderlands franchise. He came on for Borderlands 1 and was one of the guys that helped that visual style change of Borderlands, if you remember earlier the earlier screenshots from that game. So this is, I think his first full project as art director and honestly, I love Scott so much.

We said “This is a big vibrant sci-fi colorful game, what do you want to do?” so in that case I gave Scott an open ring and said “do something.” So he got a couple of concept artists and they went through a process of doing this and trying that and make the big art sheets and bring them all together. He started some stylistic treatments and some environment concepts and very early on he developed the language, he said “I’m going for Pixar meets Anime.” He wants that clean line kind of smooth rendered Pixar character, almost like the 3D model, but also the edginess and the maturity of anime. It still needed an edge to it, it’s not a kids game. I mean a lot of people are going to be able to play, but anime has that great maturity, it has a certain style elements that really exaggerate character features. And when he got the first few models, the first one we hated, the second one we loved. And then we started with the concept artists and started to go wide and explore.

One of the things I think is reflected in the art and playing the game is the tone, I suppose you’d call it a trademark Gearbox tone of “We’re not being completely serious, take it with some humor,” you know with things like Butt tactics which is one of the character’s videos.

You know quite early on with the heavy stakes of the last star in the entire universe, we were contemplating what the sky looked like. Well it’s black, there’s no stars. We actually contemplated for several months right at the beginning trying to be a bit more serious and dynamic, thinking this was going to be our sci-fi franchise. And I think it was Oscar Mike, our standard assault soldier who was originally named Chuck Abrahams. It was also the name of the developer who was making the character so it was weird and when someone suggested that, because he was a caricature of a soldier we should just call him Oscar Mike, like the military language for “On Mission,” it changed. And then he was the first VO test for the game and our writer Aaron Linney came in and started playing with that and writing, he’d have some dumb lines like “I’m going to air strike a pizza party” or something. And when he explained that he’s not really a caricature, he’s just very earnest. It became “Airstrikes are bad ass” and everything he said is in that tone of voice and acted in that way and we said “that’s really funny, oh we’re going to make a funny game again aren’t we?”

And then you get Montana and you start to go there and then you just go from there. I think it’s a great thing for us, we don’t get too dire or two serious on topic. I think we come out somewhere between Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Who, in the way that our tone and our humor works in there and it’s quite a unique place.

SC: What would you like to see really come out of the game between now and the February release date?

RV: I’ve worked on several big games now and one of the things that’s the most important thing is polish. You know I think you’re already feeling some of the promise on content. People are playing five or six or seven games and they’re not even able to play all of the fifteen characters we have on display today. So that’s not even a quarter of what we’re revealing that’s been played today. But polish is the thing that really goes from making it a pretty good game to a great game. And that’s a lot of things, like really telegraphing that you’ve been hit, adding that hit feedback, the messages, the sound and so on. And with having so many characters and being able to go back and see that it’s there really makes a difference between “that was pretty good” and “this experience was amazing.” There are times where we’ve got the effects and colour, we’ve got a who was an artist on The Iron Giant and that kind of Don Blume 2D animation style who came in and sat with our effects team and took the 2D hand drawn effects and mapped them on to 3D objects like the explosions and again, that’s another touch of stylistic effect and art on that.

And then we’ve loved it so much but there are times were there’s so much colour and you can’t see what’s going on so you have to expand and pull back, expand and pull back, and polish is all of those things, and those touches. And I think more than anything else it’s about having the time to go back and tune and polish and balance. We need to create the content and get it out there and make it as cool and satisfying as what you’ve seen tonight and I think the polish is what’s going to make it a really awesome game.

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LEGO Dimensions – Review

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Before I begin this review of LEGO Dimensions, we need to set the level straight on a few things, which are the most talked about issues people have with the physical and financial concept behind the game.

There’s been a lot of talk regarding how much this game is going to cost. There’s also been a lot of talk about different parts of the game being locked behind characters that you have to purchase separately and aren’t available at launch. I will answer this talk in a constructive way but make no mistake about it, LEGO Dimensions is really, really cool.

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The price point for the main game is a lot more than you’d normally expect for a LEGO game and certainly more than its main rivals Disney Infinity and Skylanders are charging. The additional packs are also more expensive than the others. But here’s the things that you need to know, the actual constructive things, that differentiate LEGO Dimensions.

Firstly, the packs are great value when you stop thinking of them as just game peripherals and consider them as actual LEGO, which they are. You get in the smaller £15 packs two LEGO things to build – one character and one vehicle/animal – which are able to used directly in the game at any time. There’s no level locking for the various franchises unlike the Infinity. The LEGO vehicles can also be rebuilt two time using the studs you get in game and can do multiple things in game. The packs vary in price and all of the packs can access the adventure worlds of their particular franchise. The more expensive packs like the level packs do give you extra playable content as well which, if you think the cost of each LEGO is £7.50, make each DLC level around the same price. Plus, because of the way it works, they can be used for any version of the game and aren’t console specific.

Secondly, you technically get a pack straight out of the box with the trio of Wyldstyle, Batman and Gandalf along with the Batmobile, the latter can also be upgraded in the same way. This also means that the LEGO Movie, Lord of the Rings and DC Comics worlds are also immediately opened. Regardless of if you own the packs, the story mode visits most of the franchises that are in the game at some point, so you will experience playing in a Doctor Who level, even if you can’t have the pack yet because it isn’t released.

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The third thing is the portal device itself which is a cool little LEGO build anyway (make sure you turn off the power save function on your console for when you’re building it), and is also a puzzle controller. At several times during the game, you’ll need to use the pad to solve colour puzzles, escape attacks and interact with the world in game. Even though all of these little LEGO things look cool, they all serve some kind of further purpose to add to their value.

In fact, we don’t often do this, but we know that people might want to see the kits and what they bring to the game. Thankfully, YouTuber GenerikB has been doing that and you should check out the playlist he’s made of unboxing everything that’s currently available.

The criticisms of the packs though are of course the cost (LEGO has always been an expensive toy though), the design of some of the builds can be a bit low key (Benny’s Spaceship doesn’t particularly fit well together and is a much more minimalist version of the ship that appears on screen) and the level packs not being exactly engaging. This last point is more directed at The Simpsons pack but it is still a fun enjoyable nostalgia trip to Simpsons fans. The problem is that some of these franchises don’t include original voice content (things are taken from the show’s archive) and that will obviously hurt narrative construction and limit the capability. Although the Back to the Future level is also a bit short, compared to the excellent Portal 2 level.

A problem here might have occurred with the actual process behind making the game being as unrelenting and in-depth as any single franchise LEGO game, and if that was a problem of having too much then it’s a good problem to have. We chatted to Mark Warburton, a producer from TT games, about how much went in to doing this behind the scenes:

“We treated every single one like a standalone game. Nothing was done small even though the footprint in the game is small. All the same research was done, the development time, time to get the likenesses to the characters, it was just as important. It made it difficult because we had to give the same amount of attention we’d usually give to just one brand to fourteen different ones.”

 

The thing is is that in truth, given everything they’ve had to work with and creatively combine, they’ve really nailed it. I mean TT Games seriously got it right and the level of enjoyment from playing the game and the nostalgia and excitement of seeing the various franchises at different points truly pays off in the playing experience.

How have they done this? Well by making a LEGO game, of course. At the core of the experience is exactly the same funny, reliable and accessible game as any of the previous games. The story is a good vehicle with which to combine these franchises and to give yourself a quest, a point A to point B scenario that enables you experience all the humour in the game. It has the same gameplay you know and whilst I’ve been critical in the past that it hasn’t moved on enough in recent times, for this it absolutely works and is necessary.

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Which brings us on to the games magical moments. There are times that the franchises themselves come out and be all they can be, regardless of their LEGO setting. Standing out amongst the rest is the truly mad and glorious GlaDOS and the Portal 2 levels that really feel like they are just more of the last game. The Doctor Who level in the game shows us how this has been a match made in heaven and it is criminal it’s taken this long to bring it about. Whilst the Back to the Future, Ghostbusters and Simpsons levels are all enjoyable, they don’t reach the heights of the other two, or the rather cool Ninjago level which sets about combating the lack of overall knowledge in the franchise by given us some great boss battles and puzzles.

The thing is, I’ve played the opening parts a number of times. Once with a friend for a stream, once for myself and once with my parents. Just to see how this whole concept worked between the most cynical of people, other games industry friends and of course the ones who teach you to hate the world. All were warmed. All were laughing. All were actually really impressed by the usage of the LEGO components and were gripped by the entertainment on screen.

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So I’m faced with a dilemma because this game does everything I want it to, yet also does all the things that cost me money and has wisely ignored my criticism of the previous games. But there are things that annoy me, like the inability to complete it without having to actually purchase certain things, and that I have to wait a good four months after release to get some of the level packs and toys. I can’t decide if that’s my impatience or my confusion that the business model is hoping post Christmas or January sales there’ll be more people playing the game after the initial release rush, and not giving everyone the opportunity to get everything straight away.

Ultimately I really enjoyed the game, I can see children and families enjoying the game as well and that’s important. Yes I’m a geeky guy hurtling towards middle age and I like and appreciate it for all the references and the franchises that I’ve enjoyed for the past thirty years. But really, I enjoyed the game too and having a game with franchises that both children and adults can understand, and seeing them interact with each other and learning about the many ages of our entertainment tastes and bond because of it.

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LEGO Dimensions does everything that every LEGO game has done before but that’s good because the portal brings a new way to complete puzzles and the obvious bonus of being able to place any character available in the game at any time. The problem is the cost of course and that completing the game for trophies/achievements needs characters that aren’t available to buy yet. But there is a joy and an great success that’s been achieved in combining these franchises in a fun an entertaining way where the game itself and not the content is the champion.

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  • Excellent franchises working brilliantly together
  • The LEGO toys themselves are pretty cool
  • The USB Portal is a great interactive element

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  • The cost of collecting everything is very high
  • Some of the content needs characters not yet available
  • Some of the content constricted by

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The game is probably the most fun I’ve had in a LEGO game since Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, in the actual game itself. But the franchises are so well adapted that, as long as you know what characters you need to get to complete the game and are happy with the cost, then it’s an load of fun and an excellent family game. It’s well executed and the game champions itself over the many potentially dominating franchises. A good example of balance, really.

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This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.

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Forza Motorsport 6 – Review

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One of the things that has become apparent since we’ve had Forza Motorsport 6 in our lives is that Forza Motorsport 5 was a bloody well made game for an Xbox One launch title. Forza 6 pushes the franchise forward in an interesting, if not slightly pretentious, way that takes some of the best things from Forza Horizon 2 but also gets rid of some of the best things from Forza 5.

The biggest addition to the game is the Mod system so let’s get this out of the way now. The Mod card system is excellent. It brings a brand new dynamic to the game that isn’t a full trading card or cheat system but a good way to give yourself more of a challenge for more reward or allow you to bump up the difficulty without completely destroying your races with overly zealous drivatars.

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The way the system works is pretty simple. You buy the pack using the in-game currency or win them from levelling up. They come in three types, the dare mods which add a great difficulty like forcing assists or specialist views, the crew mods which add a buff like extra grip or power but can also add track specific buffs, and the boost mods that will give you extra rewards like driver XP, affinity or money payout. As long as you’re clever about it, it can really up your game progression and you don’t really need to keep purchasing these packs. Some of them expire but some of them stay, and you can sell duplicates that you don’t want. Also, you don’t need to use them at all if you don’t want to. It’s a very good system that so far is very removed from the micro-transaction hell of previous iterations.

The game itself is, again, a wonderful display of the power the Xbox One can achieve with exactly the same level of 1080p 60fps detail seen in Forza 5. Which also begs the question of how much actually has improved. Well, quite a bit, especially now we have two new modes to race in. The ultra wet weather is an excellent addition to the game which I’ll go in to more detail about shortly, and the night racing is great at showcasing those reflections and curves in the excellent car models. Night racing is also rather tricky too, especially if you’re on a track with minimal lighting and end up smashing your headlights out in a needless collision.

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The thing is that whilst other things are visually better and further reaching in their weather effects (the dynamic nature of both Project Cars and Driveclub are well known), the wet weather effect is a testament to how good something can be with just a singular focus. Whilst it is very over the top (and quite possibly way too much for what you’d actually be allowed to race in with certain formulas), it is definitely the best representation of wet handling that I’ve played. Not how the car handles in the wet but what happens when you hit water. I know this because I drive and have done this myself and spent a good five minutes after trying to calm my heart rate down. When you hit water your car has no connection to the road anymore. The weight of the vehicle makes the tire sink in to the standing water, pulling it like the tide pulls you about on a choppy day in the ocean. You then have no grip, a car in the wrong direction and no control. That’s what Forza has expertly managed to replicate.

The differences then from Forza 5 are mostly in the type of racing available, but there are some other subjectively positive changes. A few cues have been taken from Forza Horizon 2, the most obvious one being the wheelspin function when you level up, which is also the best way to make money and get cars. The handling does feel slightly more arcade based than previous games which again feels very inspired by the aforementioned spin off. Some people might not like that but the more puritan car appreciation is still in the game.

Which leads me to a bit I miss. Top Gear. Never thought I’d say it but the Forza 5 presentation with the trio of Clarkson, May and Hammond was excellent fun and only appreciated when you don’t have it. Their quips and love for cars are accompanied brilliantly with great shots of the cars. But in Forza 6 this has mostly been replaced by a scaled down look at the different racing disciplines with static pictures and racing drivers/voice overs not being able to pull off the jokey sass when introducing people like The Stig (the entire dialogue is completely recycled too). And in fact it’s the presentation that gets the good, easier to navigate UI for car selection and shopping, and the choice of Forzavista locations, that also lets it down by not doing enough to live up to the almighty passion the game tries to communicate about the cars.

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The showcases are a little bit copy and pasted from the previous game but some of the newer additions like the high speed chase and the manufacturers showcases are great fun. The online modes are fun as well, although if you’re not in a club or can get enough for a private lobby then it can get a bit like car pinball. The rival challenges are great and the photo mode is once again incredibly powerful (as you can see by the shots I’ve included here. All me, thank you), which is combined with great community support and competitions for these ancillary features on the forums.

The pretentious nature of the game that makes the appreciation of cars the sole focus does come up a soft thanks to that. It’s also not a million miles away from Forza 5. But if you can see the screen shots, and love this kind of game then it’s the best one out there that isn’t pure racing or arcade based. It feels different enough thanks to the lessons learned from Forza Horizon 2, and it looks absolutely voluptuous. And, if we’re honest, who doesn’t want to race around Indianapolis at 200mph, or cruise Brazil in a LaFerrari?

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Forza Motorsport 6 adds a lot to the already established franchise and takes some of the best things from Forza Horizon 2, and some great new modes including the wet weather. It still loves cars to cringe-inducing amounts but that only happens because of the light presentation which is missing this time around. It’s still the best all round simulation based racing game for the Xbox One though and with a bit of the previous games presentation, or more dynamic environments it would be the best racing game full stop.

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Great new weather and night racing

Mod system is easy to use and fun

Good lessons from Forza Horizon 2 in wheelspins

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Presentation lacking from last year

Not enough of the weather across the available tracks

Not a million miles away from Forza 5

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Because in my mind the rating system works like so. Forza 5 was an 8/10. This is better. I’d rate Forza Horizon 2 as 9/10 though as that was a near perfect game. Forza 6 is excellent but with a bit more work on the weather effects, more dynamic feeling and more of the atmosphere of Forza 5‘s Top Gear presentation and Horizon‘s accessible party vibe, it’d be perfect.

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Minecraft Story Mode Ep.1 – Review

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Minecraft: Story Mode is the new adventure from Telltale Games. If you’re a fan of Telltale’s more hard hitting, difficult choice-based stories like The Walking Dead then you might want to look away as this probably isn’t for you. However, if you like a good fun story with a slice of Minecraft, and Minecraft that has a narrative direction, then you’re in the right place.

In our interview with Telltale Games’ Laura Perusco, she explained that this is what they do, “interactive stories,” and after Tales of the Borderlands they decided to look at what they could do with other video games and thus this game was born. But just to write it off as another Telltale Game would be a fools errand. To set the scene, you play as Jesse. It’s the day of the EnderCon building competition and you are going with your friends and your pet pig Reuben to build something awesome. The prize for winning this is to meet Gabriel the Knight, one of the four heroes of the land and part of a group called “The Order of The Stone.” The comparisons to modern day convention culture and the massive success of the game in various online media is evident and it’s quite enjoyable to see it played out in an actual narrative.

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Even for me personally, some of my favourite YouTube videos on Minecraft are one’s that have involved some hilariously hammy role-play that makes things enjoyable, but there’s no ham to be found here. Not unless you consider Reuben to be food. The story does the normal multiple choice speech options that will either enamour you more with your fellow characters or cause issue at a later time. And as far as the quicktime events go, there isn’t many, which is probably to help less experienced players enjoy it with others (kids playing with parents for example).

In fact it’s this family thing that is a bit weird for the more serious player. Firstly, it’s not Minecraft, it looks like Minecraft and there’s occasional points where you get to use Minecraft objects like chests, crafting tables and swords, but it is not Minecraft. It’s also not the dark and morally disturbing game that some of Telltale’s stories have been in other franchises.

The positives of this is that the story can indulge in comedy and expression a lot more than previous franchises. There’s some great voice acting going on here from the cast, both with the male and female versions of Jesse, and Reuben the pig is quite possibly the best pet character in a game this year.  He’s charming, and, depending on your actions, all kinds of adorable. The dynamic between the friends is good and potentially venomous as well and there’s a love interest (presumably, certainly a mutual “you’re pretty” thing) between Jesse and Petra which is not changed or any different regardless of what gender you play as. Good on you Telltale.

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The criticism is that this is more of a Minecraft animation at times than a game. It takes so many visual queues from media around it that it kind of loses Minecraft itself. You’ll notice visual styles that people like Captain Sparkles and the like have made popular on YouTube over the years. But the problem is that it kind of loses the fun and soul of playing Minecraft. Which is fine if you don’t want to actually play Minecraft and go in to a more comedic thing. At one point, Telltale use their own speech system to implement a joke, which was a pleasant surprise when I noticed it, but could be easily missed.

So is it a step too far in the wrong direction for Telltale? Is the formula getting stale? It’s certainly stretching the formula a bit, as was found during the Game of Thrones series, and others are now doing it just as well with Life is Strange being a prime example. But this game isn’t the same as those other franchises in so much as it is designed to be for family entertainment and a bit more for everyone rather than fans of a particular franchise or fans of the game. If anything it’s Telltale-lite. It’s kind of reminiscent of the early games like the Sam & Max, Monkey Island games, etc. But it has a much better narrative and a much better gameplay dynamic.

Of course we end on a cliffhanger and I’m not spoiling any of the episodes story other than you set off on a vast quest across the world of Minecraft to reunite the Order of the Stone, the title of this episode. It’s definitely a good game and a lot of fun for families and people who want to engage with Minecraft in a relatable way, which is great if you have kids that enjoy it, or you enjoy Minecraft anyway. Otherwise, it’s probably not for you.

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Minecraft Story Mode is only in its first episode and i’m sure it will have a lot of visual treats the longer we go on. The story is already a lot of fun but it really isn’t the usual kind of story that you’d expect from Telltale. It’s very family friendly and it’s very light on the actual game interaction. It is also quite far removed from Minecraft as a game. But it is enjoyable and worth playing just for Reuben the pig, this year’s best game pet.

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[tab title=”Good Points”]

  • Great amusing story
  • Awesome use of Minecraft visual style
  • Reuben the pig

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  • There isn’t a lot of stuff to actually do
  • Doesn’t have as much Minecraft interaction as you’d expect
  • Could be stretching the formula a bit too much

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Well, it’s a fun enough game and I mostly enjoyed it for Reuben the pig. But if I’m honest, it made me want to play more actual Minecraft. It’s fun and certainly good for families and people who want to sit around as a family and play an easy game together. But it doesn’t leap out as much as other Telltale games have. It’s a great use of the franchise, especially for the target audience, but not enough for a larger audience.

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Zelda Orchestra plays on US Late Night TV

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That’s right, Stephen Colbert has knocked it out of the park again by featuring, not only video games on his show, but some of the best example of video gaming. This time, he invited Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses to perform on his Late Show with Stephen Colbert programme.

The move is slightly promotional as the new game The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is coming out for the Nintendo 3DS System, but as far as promotional appearances go, this is absolutely amazing. I can only imagine, with the wealth of music in video games that we go on about, that Classic FM now regularly feature and even BBC Radio 3 has started, how many different opportunities there could be to show of games this way to a mainstream audience.

The orchestra played select pieces from the game along with other famous pieces of music from the Zelda series, interspersed on screen with clips from the game, as a suite. If you don’t know what that means, simply put it’s taking different bits of music and putting them all together to make one long piece.

This comes after the former Comedy Central political satirist featured prominent YouTuber PewDiePie on his show and also gave a platform for Sean Murray of Hello Games to show off No Man’s Sky, which we covered.

You can watch the clip from Colbert’s show on the YouTube video below and you can catch Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses on tour and find out more information about them on their website.

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Minecraft Story Mode – Interview

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Last week, we got to play the Minecraft Story Mode with Laura Perusco, the Creative Communication Manager from Telltale Games. You can read our review of the game here shortly.

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Sean Cleaver – Minecraft story mode, it’s lots of fun. It’s been worked on for quite a while. When did you first get the project germinating, how did it come about?

Laura Perusco – It basically came from, you know how we’re doing Tales from the Borderlands? Well that came first and we were already working on a video game that’s set in the world of another video game. We started thinking about what else we can do this with. A whole bunch of people in the office play Minecraft or have kids that play Minecraft, and that’s something that doesn’t have a story. People were just creating their own stories in that world. So we had the idea of reaching out to Mojang and floating the idea of doing a game. This was way back before Microsoft brought them out so our contract is with Mojang.

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SC – Minecraft is a very precise visual style because of what it is. But you’ve also managed to find a cinematic style out of this. There’s a lot of YouTube videos that have done these small animations. You seem to have created almost a movie out of it.

LP –  That’s pretty much what we do. We do playable stories, so our games are often thought of as playable movies or playable TV shows. Just the aesthetic of the world of Minecraft is very unique in and of itself. So we actually built a lot of the environments in Minecraft first and exported them to our engine, so it would absolutely, unequivocally Minecraft. Then we added a little bit to make it look more cinematic like depth of focus and changes and stuff like that but it’s all Minecraft. Absolutely.

SC – You’ve got your main characters, a band of four if you will, it’s a very traditional…

LP – And the pig.

SC – And the pig. I’ll get on to the pig now. The pet pig, Reuben. This year seems to be the year of the Dog for video games, every game has a dog and everybody loves them. You’ve gone with the pig and he seems to be much more charming than any dog that I’ve seen this year so far in a game.

LP – Reuben is my favourite character I actually had new business cards with him on. I think something that’s really cool about Reuben is that no one ever thinks of eating dogs in video games and that’s a new dynamic that comes up because pigs in Minecraft are always thought of as food. So it has that interesting dynamic.

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SC – I don’t think I’ve ever though about having a pet pig in Minecraft. I don’t I ever use them for food either but there you go. I quite like the idea with the story building on, a bit like what Minecraft really is, the convention scene. Creating Minecraft fandom within Minecraft itself with Ender Con and the Order of the Stone. What drew you to create that story out of it? Was there a lot of going around, looking at Minecraft, looking at the world, looking at the real life interactions with Minecraft? And are there plans for any more?

LP – The community around Minecraft is so important. That’s the reason for its huge popularity. There are so many videos online and people creating their own stuff. That’s what Minecraft is, it’s about creating things and sharing them. So we knew that was a huge part of the licence.  I actually went to Minecon in London to show the trailer and that was fantastic.

There’s so much love around this game that we wanted to put something like that in there. You might have noticed but the people who come on stage to introduce Gabriel at Endercon are Lydia and Owen, their director of communications. They voiced the characters too. But the thing about the characters in this game is they don’t know they’re in Minecraft. They don’t have any meta awareness or some other real world. As for more? We hope people play it and people enjoy it but beyond that, anything can happen.

Minecraft: Story Mode by Telltale games is available now on Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, PC and Mac.

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Cities Skylines After Dark – Review

 

There is no secret here – we loved Cities Skylines. So what do you do when one of the best games of the year brings you an add-on that brings you more? Well, you rejoice, naturally as ‘After Dark’ is now here. Except that probably the biggest part of it is actually free. So what are you actually getting by parting with your hard earned money? Actually, quite a bit.

It’s something that SimCity did, and to be fair to Maxis inglorious city-building swansong, it actually did it quite well. Day and night cycles made a fairly middling game look absolutely stunning, especially with some of the futuristic buildings. If there is a criticism of Cities Skylines, it was that the passage of time didn’t really feel very much like a passage of time. Part of this was because there wasn’t a night cycle, but part of it was because the timer and the date function feels rather arbitrary.

Now with the addition of the day/night cycle, it does feel like there is a certain progression but only if you don’t pay much attention to the clock. The beauty of the mode isn’t the visuals though (which are indeed absolutely lovely and don’t tax your system that much more than your current operating requirements). It’s the ability to micromanage things that are happening in those cycles. For example, the game will naturally increase crime during the night because it’s dark and criminals often work under that cover. So you can adjust your budgeting to allow for a greater police presence in the night and less of a presence in the day to balance it out. It’s useful for other things too, including trash collection (by creating a time with less traffic to operate these services).

That visual aspect, along with the micro management side of of this expansion has been added for free to the base game. But there are little bits to make going that bit further a lot more worthwhile. There are two new specialisations that bring their own challenges as well. New to the game are the Leisure and Tourism specialities, which allow you to build new bars and entertainment strip areas along with making use of beaches and hotels. So thankfully, all of your map can be used to exploit its natural beauty and give yourself challenges. Fancy making Atlantic City? Go for it!

Also added is the new dedicated lanes for buses and public services. There’s also plenty of new buildings and services for you to unlock which has been helped by the stellar job the modding community has done. In no small part, things have been implemented in to the game because they are popular mods and there is obviously a demand for them. City services, special roads and new additions to existing buildings can make life a lot easier.

For example there’s now a bus/bike lane to help the flow of traffic or at least help your services survive it. There’s a metro station built in to the airport now. There’s better train access for cargo. Lots of things can make your life easier. But make no mistake about it, this is an add-on. Not a new game, not a change in the game’s parameters or a fantasy world, it is a new bunch of stuff to stick in to the already existing stuff and help address a few issues the original had.

It’s arguable whether or not it does that. Traffic is still traffic and will still be a big issue the bigger you are. The crime rates stay fairly similar and Chirpr still overly chirps. The main focus here is that the game is just getting some more stuff. If you want to go further in to the rabbit hole for £11 then you can, but the main focus of the add-on’s title and the benefits that it directly brings are available to you now, for free, in the updated game.

Does this then negate the add-on? Possibly, it depends how much you’re willing to spend and to be honest, the game isn’t expensive so you’ve probably not payed out anywhere near what SimCity asked of you. Plus you will get some extra goodies so that also counts for something, and everyone’s thought of making their own version of Magaluf’s notorious strip in a game before so you can exploit those tourists for all their alcohol money… Haven’t they? Just me? Bugger.

Summary

Cities Skylines After Dark adds some cool new things but that’s basically all it does – Add. It’s not a game changer, or breaker. And the biggest part of the content is included for free in the day/night cycle, which you can switch off from the main menu if your system is struggling. There’s not masses there but for a game that’s got so much mod community support, it needs very little except to start the spark. Which this does.

Good Points

  • New industry specialisation
  • The day/night cycle is visually awesome
  • The biggest part of the pack is a free update

Bad Points

  • The biggest part of the pack is a free update
  • Not a lot of content beyond the cosmetic
  • Hasn’t improved certain issues like traffic congestion

Why a 7.5?

A lot of the value of the add-on will depends upon what you’re actually looking to get. And as the game has added probably the biggest part of it already, and for free, it does question how much is in the paid additional content that you’d use. In that regard, it probably doesn’t add as much as you’d have hoped but is a nice support for the game none the less.