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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EVE’s Virtual Reality is better than your own reality

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The old marketing line of that Xenomorph attacking movie is that “in space, no one can hear you scream.” One of the best things about Virtual Reality is that when you’re in space, EVERYONE can hear you scream – scream like you’re a cross between Marlon Wayans and Ariana Richards. There’s a small part of it that is fear, but mostly it’s crazy, unbridled joy.

From the moment you fit yourself with the Oculus Rift and sit down in the cockpit of your Wraith Mark II fighter, you are amazed and a little bit giddy. Not at the disorientation, but more at the ability to see your limbs as if they were not your own. It’s not exactly out of body because you are in control buy your head turning and looking at all of these things, but still, it does a good thing of immediately displacing your own reality and dropping you directly in to the fiction.

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And drop it does. In the most fun parts of our science fiction movie history, we get launched from a tube like the best of our Battlestar Galactica/Star Wars fantasies at a terrific velocity and in to the rather crowded arena of our fleet in deep space. This of course leads to an incredibly space battle which sees you wildly flipping your head around (that from the outside must look like it’s going to fall off), desperately searching for that enemy in some excellent dogfighting. Add in to that Katee Sackhoff doing voiceover content, customisable ships and also the potential of Sony’s Project Morpheus, and you’ve got me sold.

This is the experience I took away from my time with EVE Valkyrie whilst at Gamescom. You can see the video below which is the same demo I experienced (although from the eyes of CCP) and it was also my first proper experience of VR gaming. I know, what a fool I’ve been to miss out. But I’ve always had a quiet respect and fear of EVE. It’s a game I’m sure I would absolutely love but the difficult learning arc, deep fiction and incredibly dedicated community can make it very daunting. However, I believe that Valkyrie can change that.

The great thing that CCP have done over the years is find a way to make their product, not only more appealing but more accessible to people like me. People like me who sit on the fence and haven’t been able to go further than dipping a toe. Because, let’s be honest, giant space MMORPG isn’t everyone’s cup of team. But giant virtual reality space dogfighting is. CCP have often tried to look outside of their own box, the PlayStation network game DUST 514 being a prime example (with an first person shooter that crossover over with the online play of EVE) to take the franchise away from its PC roots and expand to a console, attracting a new audience. The comic book series, EVE: True Stories is really interesting too, delivering the House of Cards-esque economic and political intrigue of actual situations in a narrative discourse with the fall of the Band of Brothers.

So it should be no surprise that the current four year development of EVE Valkyrie with the new VR technology is doing new things and pushing the envelope. If you’ve used the Oculus Rift then you’ll know that the only criticisms have been based on delivering a resolution like current monitors can and the power of the system that will be needed to power it come consumer release. But as far as the game goes, it is absolutely fantastic. But the CCP VR journey doesn’t end there either.

EVE: Gunjack is the upcoming launch title for the Samsung Gear VR, a VR headset add-on for the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. You stick your phone in the front of the Oculus developed peripheral and you’re good to go. Gunjack, developed on the Unreal 4 Engine looks absolutely excellent given the spec of the tech and and the scope it is going for. You get an incredibly similar scope of vision like you with Valkyrie but without the ship movement so it’s a lot more static. The best way to describe is is that it’s a one button shooter (the button is on the side of your headset) whilst you are in a fixed turret attacking the oncoming waves of enemies. It’s very similar to games like Space Harrier and Child of Eden with oncoming enemies in various formations with power ups abound. It’s a simple concept (perfect for mobile gaming) with a one button control (also perfect for mobile gaming) and is playable with or without the Gear VR. It also comes across very well and is just the right amount of casual for the concept and for the technology.

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Virtual Reality is constantly being touted as the future of gaming. I’ve heard it from developers, publishers, technology journalists, a random guy in a pub who frequents many business shows to sell things… By this point you’ve probably heard it from your dog in a moment of existential mania. But the problem of course has been how slow the technology has taken to get in to the consumers hands and with content for it. Just look at how 3D failed to take advantage of anything in this regard. VR however has been worked on for many years, between b-movie horror in The Lawnmower Man to crazy full body experiences. EVE has an appeal beyond it’s core online subscribers because, even if we don’t understand it or can access it, most gamers who have heard about it are secretly really interested in what’s happening in there. Whilst Valkyrie and Gunjack both give a bigger platform for exposure, they’re success will be that they’ve made it easier for more people to feel like a part of the universe.

Headset or not, one button or a controller, or a fully beefed up PC or a mobile phone, that’s what I took from playing the games. I took the connection that I’ve probably lusted for since first letting my subscription to EVE Online slip, and enjoyed every second of it. If you’re going to any conventions or shows over the rest of the year, I implore you to go and try it and see if, like me, this is the way to satisfy your EVE craving.

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Dying Light – The Following – Preview

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It’s over two years since Techland went solo from their Dead Island franchise and found a new home with publisher Warner Bros. The result was last years release, Dying Light, which was a very familiar game if you’d played any of their former franchise. But with a focus on movement and parkour that freed up the constraints in the open world city of Harran, the game was different and enjoyable enough to earn the top spot in January 2015 for sales and became the highest selling debut survival horror franchise ever.

Now, the story continues as you take Kyle Crane to a new area of the world. Gone are the sprawling decaying concrete blocks, discoloured by the eastern Mediterranean sun, as you enter a new, vast farmland area, filled with brooks, small alcoves, interesting groves with people to find and farms and industrial buildings galore. The world is apparently four times the size of Harran. It is very sparse compared to the built up Turkish town and its not the worse for it. It allows for many different approaches to an area or a situation, which I’ll come on to later. But what you will find is that the shadows have given way to the glorious rays of sun that now dominate the skies and the view, really making some lovely use of the Chrome Engine and further solidifying why the last generation of consoles would have had no chance of running these games.

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The plot sees you trying to track down a cult called The Following. Presumably to eliminate them, although I must stress that the preview we played gave us no spoilers for the plot so we have no idea what we’re looking for or who we’re killing. But kill we shall because we are given weapons and the overwhelming urge to use them. In our preview, we climbed our way around a big mountain and dived from an impossible height down to a pool of water. As we climbed out, we saw our first hint of The Following in decorated rocks, much like those you’d see of native tribes around the world. Our journey then led us up to an abandoned house where the poor unfortunate souls before us left a gun and, most importantly, a crossbow.

Then we traversed our way across the farmland that was awash with zombies. Lots of zombies. Basically, don’t traverse the field if you can help it. It’s fun to start killing things with a crossbow, hitting people in the head, as we practiced at the house by clearing the garden. But as soon as you are outside and everyone is on you, forget it. Run. Where were we running to? An old water tower by a small farm building. There were a few ways there of course, either through the throng in whatever zig zag you’d like, up the path where the throng was less or up over the pipes that went across the field. I chose the pipes and ran my way to the high vantage point.

At the top of this vantage point, we saw our prize. A car, or to be more precise a buggy. After clearing the area of militia by using our crossbows at a sniping vantage point, we zip-wired down to the ground, mopped up the remaining guys hiding inside the surrounding buildings and jumped in to the waiting buggies. We, it must be said, was me and my co-op partner and what followed was a race and a slight moment of control adjustment to work out how the buggy went forward and reversed. The race culminated, after mowing down various zombies in the road, in a massive jump and an explosion that signalled the end of our play.

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What I managed to take away from this is that it isn’t a big leap from Dying Light, which is good. We also have a large, new area to explore and traverse. Also good. We have new interesting buildings like docks, processing plants, small villages and the like. Again, good. Then there’s the rather unknown story of this cult, The Following, and the presence of militia and zombies. It certainly gives you some intriguing propositions.

The fact it isn’t a big leap also allows you to jump back in to the game very easily. I haven’t played Dying Light since November last year (before the release) and I picked up the controls like I’d never left them. Simple, natural and the buggy was pretty good once you got your head around how twitchy it is. The weapons are fun and the options you have in approaching an area are also pretty fun. But you sense that, despite a huge world that’s been promised, a lot of it is empty and just populated with aimless zombies for you to mow down. I always find that fast transportation does allow to kind of get away with vast unpopulated areas. I might be wrong, but I’d need to play and explore more.

All in all though, the expansion is solid, the lighting and art direction is great, as it was in Dying Light, and it’s really more of the same. Normally, these things end up being just missions and a few new buildings but a whole new area is a great thing from Techland and a new storyline, regardless of your thoughts on the original’s plot, is entirely welcome. If you’ve already got the season pass then you can expect it for free (I know, right? A season pass that actually includes the add-on DLC!) or if you haven’t then it’ll be $14.99. No news on a UK/EU price yet but I’m sure you can guess one.

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Gremlins Inc – Preview

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I have sunk what probably seems like a unworldly amount of time in to the mobile game versions of Ticket to Ride and Small World, and probably quite a lot of time playing the board games themselves as well. So when I was asked to go and check out a card game at Gamescom, I was a little bit reticent because I already had my perfect games and I probably knew that, if it was good, I’d lose a lot of my time to yet another game. What happened a was that I lost a lot of my time to the video game version of the game. About half an hour more than I was supposed to… Oops.

Gremlins, Inc. is the brain child of Lithuanian studio Charlie Oscar. Much like the drive to bring the games industry to the UK with tax breaks, Vilnius in Lithuania is trying to become the Eastern European regional hub for the video games industry. Charlie Oscar is a great example of this, boasting programming talent from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and even Spain. Charlie Oscar enlisted the help of Alexey Bokulev, creator of Eador. Genesis (a turn based strategy game that hasn’t done too badly itself) to create a new original world for the game. So what is it all about?

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It’s steampunk, steampunk, money-grabbing gremlins, some more steampunk and then a final bit of steampunk to add on top of that. The world of Gremlins, Inc. is populated by gremlins. Not your normal gremlins though with the aversion to water after midnight, these guys are immortal and immortality will always breed corruption, greed and power. Described as “immoral capitalist gremlins”, the idea is that you go around the board and get enough points to win the game. You do this must lie, cheat and steal the wealth of your fellow players to put yourself in the position to earn the most points, either by becoming the local governor or underhandedly keeping everybody else down. You select one of ten playable gremlins that all have their own benefits and attributes. If you imagine the robber from Settlers of Catan, well thats how you feel with every turn in Gremlins, Inc. It’s evil and it’s glorious.

You start the game with a hand of six cards. These cards have a dual function. Firstly, they act as your die for moving around the board. The board itself is a counter clockwise path with an occasional shortcut here and there for the big buildings of the world like a bank, a casino, a jail, a court and fun places like “The Inferno” and “The Astral Plane”. The first move you make is your movement so you expel the card you want to in order to move. This is where you have to think tactically because the second phase of the game is an action.

Your cards will have certain actions that can either benefit you by giving you extra gold, extra power or points, or can ruin the plans of your opponent by stealing points, sending them to jail, or utterly destroying the political gain they’ve just spent ages earning. These actions are also limited as to where you play them on the board. So if you have a card like the “Everybody Dance” card with the casino symbol on it, you can only play it while you are at the casino. This is where the strategy comes in of having to regularly change and use cards, even if they look cool, just for movement as the game can, and will, quickly turn against you.

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Of course you have this issue, as do all of the other players. This is then made even more treacherous by the board itself. There are several places across the board where you will be fleeced for bribes, be at risk of arrest for your corruption, or even have some misfortune (which could also affect other players as well as you). The good thing about this game, regardless of how high you put the points and how hard you make it to achieve a win, is that something is always happening. You’re always thinking about how you’re going to win the next round of turns and are even thinking or planning three or four turns ahead. The board is small and manoeuvrable enough to get to where you’re hoping to go in a few turns, as long as someone doesn’t ruin it for you.

This constant going back and forth in my game with production assistant Monika Dauntye was only halted when we were told how long we’d been going and that people needed to go home. It was utterly captivating and I’m really excited to play more of it with my friends when it comes to Early Access in September. There is also a board-less card game being created in conjunction with the video game version, which is easily transportable and follows the same concept (minus the die movement). Even talking with other journalists later in the day, we were all surprised how much we enjoyed it. Keep your eyes open on Steam for when it comes.

You can find more information on Gremlins, Inc. over at http://gremlinsinc.com/videogame/

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Constructor HD – Preview

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Back in 1997, a game was released by Acclaim on MS DOS and then ported to Playstation in 1998. It was a very difficult game, which took on a life of its own with a dedicated following that enjoyed its sense of humour, its challenge and, probably most importantly, its playability. This game was Constructor, developed by System 3 and it was one of the first games to successfully make the leap from PC to console in the strategy market (apart from real time games like the Command & Conquer series and possibly Sim City on SNES).

The aim of the game was simple. Build houses, get tenants, compete against the computer players (or friends on a LAN) in building more and gaining control, whilst your tenants become more unruly and moan… A lot. The game had a little bit of the dodgy dealing cockney kind of 1960s feel about it. You’d probably get the sense of the camaraderie from the original Guy Ritchie movies like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrells, but it probably owes a lot more to the late George Cole’s Authur Daley from the Minder TV series. The problem with the game was that it was incredibly difficult. The dedication you’d need to keep any semblance of control, keeping tabs on the thugs, builders, tenants and the opposition whilst everything potentially crumbles around you, was immense. Of course as video gamers, we loved it and lapped it up like cats with a saucer of milk.

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But of course it isn’t 1997 anymore. It’s 2015 and the original game, re-released a few years ago on PSN and GOG, has certainly aged. The humour and style is still there but the years have not been kind to its 256 colour palette, its very close view or its steep learning curve. And in this age of remasters, forgotten classics and current generation accessibility, the game is going to return. Recently announced by System 3, Constructor HD is coming to PC, Xbox One and PS4 in 2016, in the hands of original developer John Twiddy. Why? Well in his words “of all the games I’ve done, this is probably the one I enjoyed the most.”

It hasn’t been for the want of trying though, as John told me after seeing the game at Gamescom “I know it’s taken a long time to get around to it, but it was never the right time. We always planned to do something.” Over the years of course the technology has moved along so that System 3 can improve on the game and give the fans, and hopefully new converts, something they’ll enjoy. A lot has certainly changed to make it more accessible, and I’m not just talking about the however many million more colours there are.

Firstly, the game itself is exactly the same. Same premise, same enjoyable caricatures of British or more London stereotypes, same neat animations and unique ways of dealing with problems. Thugs can still be deployed to take over a property to intentionally piss off your tenants. Or repair men can fix, or cause, any issue that the ever more demanding occupants of your properties may come up with. You’ll have local mills and cement works ready to give you the tools and supplies you need to build your property empire. All of them though are lovingly upgraded from the original drawings to the new HD era. But the best thing though, by far, is the upgrading of the user interface.

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On the face of it, it’s exactly the same design as it was in 1997. A right sided tool bar with a ticker up top and the game being displayed in a window. But now, thanks to screen ratios and better design tools, the toolbar is much more free. It’s a part of the game window rather than your game window being a part of it. The essential information is now conveniently positioned on the sides of the screen, so as to allow more game space. The biggest improvement in this though though is in the map and view itself. as you can zoom out much further and see much more of the maps that you are playing.

One of the biggest cruxes of the original game was the limited view that you had. Another crux was that the sub-menu screens dominated the whole playing area. When you clicked to see about a house or move tenants in or any kind of sub menu, it literally took over and was a bit clumsy. But now, these menus fit on the same screen and are mostly opaque so you are never fully taken out of the action of the game. And, thanks to the original simple design of the menu, the controller works perfectly with them. There are some that still need you to go deeper like selecting individual houses but for the main part of your game, construction and assigning your workforce, you’re never away from the map.

“Because the original Playstation version was a straight port of the PC version, it never really worked that well. It was always a bit slow,” John tells me. “Where as now, with the shortcut keys I actually find it easier to play with the controller than I did with the keyboard and mouse originally.” Back in the PC/PSX days, you could have a keyboard and mouse controller, which was alright but never spot on for the PlayStation. But as John told me, the use of the controllers now allows for very quick and easy accessing of various options and submenus. Something that is a lot easier thanks to the bigger screen, easier controls and very fluid shortcuts. Of course the biggest part of all of these improvements is that game retains what it originally had, which was fun by the bucket loads.

And it has. The demo we were shown allowed us to flood an enraged tenant out of their apartment. Another allowed us to have a Young Ones-esque perpetual house party, much to the annoyance of the occupants. The wooden fences went up around an empty lot that we selected and a team of builders came in and erected a house. We made someone else happy by giving them a rather garish iron fence around their property. The metro system allows for super fast travel and the yard, your base of operations, still has that backwater hut feel about it. The kind of trailer that you’d see at the back of a scrap yard and be impressed that there’d be a fax machine in it, regardless of whether it was plugged in or not.

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The game looks great of course as the original material was cartoonish and comical enough that it kind of transcends its age. In fact the only thing that really dated Constructor was the technology and graphics. So Constructor HD really doesn’t have that much change in its design. The only thing it really has changed is the aspect ratio and the easier, less intrusive sub menu system. Although the game has had some modifications to its famously unforgiving difficulty.

It’s all about rebalancing the game, John tells me. “People got overpowered by the complaints, so we’re reigning that back in to give more balanced gameplay. For the story, similarly, we’ve got new tutorial modes because it is quite a difficult game to get in to. So we’re trying to make it for a more modern audience who want a bit more ‘pick-up-and-play’ and try and improve it for them.” But they are keeping the masochistic difficulty level. “You have to make it difficult to give someone a challenge,” according to John.

Of course it might well be the right time to start looking at strategy games on consoles. It’s not been a popular genre for the twin analogue stick machines, but Zoo Tycoon is a pretty decent game. Civilization Revolution was a fantastic game on console and the Tropico series seems to have made the leap superbly. There probably hasn’t been a better time, especially with the announcement of Halo Wars 2, for a strategy IP to make a comeback. Constructor HD will probably irk the more casual gamer and if it does, then expect the boys around to trash your house and get you to move out, you complaining tenant!

Constructor HD is due for release in January 2016 for PC, Xbox One and PS4.

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Mafia 3 – Preview

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The year is 1968. The Vietnam war has been raging for over ten years but the American public have begun to protest against the reality of the violent images dominating the headlines. President Lyndon B. Johnson declares he will not go for re-election after assuming the Presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which then sees the election of Richard Nixon at the end of the year. America begin to win the space race after Apollo 8 orbits the moon. Elvis Presley’s Comeback Special cements the artist’s place in music history. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated causing riots across the country and lead to the biggest social change in recent history. The Khmer Rouge comes in to power in Cambodia and a coup d’état sees Saddam Hussein become the Vice Chairman of the revolutionary council of Iraq leading to his assumption of total control. It’s safe to say that 2K and new studio Hanger 13 are right in saying they’ve chosen one of the most turbulent years in American and world history in which to set Mafia 3.

The story and the date are paramount to the sense of opportunity and upheaval that the America of the time presents. Mafia 3’s lead character, Lincoln Clay, comes back from the Vietnam War without a cause, without a family. He finds one in New Orleans with the Black Mob but as soon as he finds his new home, his world is once again shattered when the Italian Mob attempt to murder them all. Clay survives and starts his one man war against the Mob, starting his own “family” of close lieutenants and vying for control of The Big Easy.

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The development of the Mafia has pinged about a bit as 2K reshuffled themselves and the 2K Czech studio closed. But the newly formed Hanger 13 picked up the mantle over in California and for the past two years has been up to a lot of secret work developing the game. One of those secret things has been a lot of upgrading to the games engine. You probably wouldn’t believe it but Mafia 3 uses the Mafia 2 engine that has been heavily updated and it looks absolutely awesome. The open world of New Orleans looks great with tiny little alleys and small buildings with neon signs advertising Jazz. But it also seems to operate well enough with a lot of entities going around. The streets are a buzz of life and people trying to forget the looming threats in the world. The big graveyards with concrete tombs painted in the vibrant colours and celebrations of life are the perfect meeting grounds for New Orleans’s dark underbelly. The clubs are frequented by many people looking for fun and a good time and behind every door in these clubs, in every cellar, there could be a hideout for the mob, waiting for a hostile takeover.

Hostile is very much the aim of the game here, hostile and violent. In a world that has been born of corruption, ruthlessness, warfare and oppression, violence is inevitably the human answer. Open world games have come on quite a way, even since Mafia 2 and one of the things that exposes a lot of the genre to criticism is violent combat. Mostly because it is taken out of an arena where violence is blindly accepted and put in to a social, close context. The game is very violent but only in the same regards as Hollywood action movies and rolling news’s normalisation of brutality. The third person perspective gives that feeling similar to GTA V and Uncharted in that the game suddenly turns from open-world exploration to cover-shooter and stealth killer. Anything from shooting guns and hiding behind scenery that slowly breaks with more bullet holes, to pulling your combat knife from your holster and lodging it deep in to the brain of your assailant via his eye socket. Car chases will ensue where the Police and the mob will chase you, highlighting the repercussions of your actions, shifting the power dynamic. But Clay is a man that knows nothing but violence. Between war and crime, it is the only way he knows how to respond effectively. This won’t be for the feint of heart.

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That dynamic shifts as you take over the various businesses and hideouts that the mob controls. You don’t just want to kill those that tried to kill you, you want to take everything from them, everything they’ve owned, everywhere they deal, you want to annihilate them completely. Your lieutenants, after you’ve enlisted them, become vital to your operation. They can be set to control these new acquisitions and have different skills that will get different bonuses out of them. They can also be called from pay phones to help your situation, like clearing your wanted level for example. If you’re a Mafia fan, you might even recognise one of them. Vito Scaletta returns from Mafia 2 but his story has moved on somewhat. He’s joined by new characters Cassandra and Burke.

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The New Orleans of the time is a vibrant and superstitious city. Louisiana is a place of the soul and of magic, the population as enraptured with voodoo and the darkness as they are with the escapism of 1968 America. The French Ward, which we were shown around in the demo, is a colourful place that feels like there is something going on everywhere. It feels like the multicultural party city it is portrayed to be and the soundtrack especially evokes that. Some excellent cuts come over the in-car radio as well as the clubs of the city. From choice riffs from Jimi Hendrix and the great hearty soul and blues of Sam & Dave, The Rolling Stones, and others, this is a game that wants to place you within a time and within an era.

From our first impressions, Mafia 3 looks like it will be a great game. Yes it’s going to be a departure from the Mafia’s we knew before. The move forward to the end of post-war America and a game at a time of social upheaval is actually quite exciting. We’ve had many games deal with sensitive points in history but never before have we had one so focused in a particular time and place that wasn’t a satirical pastiche or a historical war game. I’m interested to see more of how the game handles the time but I’m very confident in how the game handles gaming. It looks, sounds and appears to play very well and I’m looking forward to more.

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Battleborn – Preview

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Gearbox is at it again. No, it really is. Borderlands may well have been setting the bar for co-op shoot and loot FPS games, but their sights have now been set on something much more team focused and something much more competitive, despite the inclusion of a story mode. Battleborn is the studio’s latest attempt to look at the competitive scene and maybe break in to that much coveted eSports arena.

It’s something 2K hoped to crack with Evolve but, regardless of how good the game was, the amount of people playing it and the fairly long nature of play and upgrading characters hasn’t taken off as well as they’d have wanted. But Battleborn aims to capture this market, especially when Blizzard are releasing Overwatch, and give a decent and enjoyable story mode for you to play as well.

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That mode should allow for five player co-op online or via splitscreen and is what 2K are referring to as “Modular”. What that means is that you have a voting system of what missions to do next within your party, but you can also replay missions you’ve already done for better loot. So each mission is its own module or block. Loot and experience, much like Borderlands, is a key element here but, because of the competitive nature of the game, it is much quicker and easier to implement. The DNA helix is a very nice system, quite similar to those you find in MOBA’s for quick levelling and adapting your play style to suit the objective. The helix has a tier of ten different levels and you select the path you want by hitting (on the controller anyway) left or right trigger to select it. It’s quick and easy, it works well, it doesn’t take you out of the game, and it is very… Modular.

Battleborn is going to boast twenty five playable characters, some of which you’ll see in the video below. But you’ll get characters with a lot of different specalities like healing, massive destruction, speed… The usual you would expect. But it was definitely interesting to see a bit of the behind the scenes of these characters. We were treated to a look at the test game area in the game engine to see how the destruction skills of these characters are over an area and how much damage they actually do. Ambra for example can command a meteor down from the sky and compared to her small three space area staff attack, this makes the battle area look like game of Guess Who that’s close to the end – flattened. These powers are also helped by your loot improving your player. But this kind of talk doesn’t make for a great preview. So how does Battleborn play?

Well… It plays like Borderlands really. I’ve spent a good week trying to work out, from a single player co-op perspective anyway, how I can separate the two so that I can talk about the game in a bit more depth. But with the gameplay, the style, the humour, and more, everything is Borderlands-esque. When I say that, I don’t mean it’s Gearbox-esque. Gearbox is a good studio (regardless of what you think about the ex-magician in charge) and they’ve had a great success with the Borderlands games. So really, there’s no need to change the formula. But this feeling of similarity goes beyond just the basic mechanics that make those games.

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Our four player co-op mission saw us going through a fairly cavernous and empty futuristic storage complex that had been built in to an otherwise barren rock. We went through as a team, defeating the minor enemies in the way, to get to a certain checkpoint where there would be a mini-boss and then progress through to the bigger boss. On the way we can open up containers to get some power ups or health packs in the shape of little green balls, and all around us was amber shards of rock that we could destroy to earn cash. We were being guided though with a bodiless radio communication between characters at the top of the screen giving us the exposition we needed to fulfil our objective.

Our objective was to get this automated tank like unit called a “Wolf” safely to an area where it can open up a big door and where we get ambushed by these dark gangly creatures with white faces. The cash we’ve earned allows us to activate upgrades on the Wolf to help defend itself such as a big healing shield. There’s a lot in this co-op that would be good with friends albeit possibly a bit easy and, if you’ve had the six years of Borderlands, you might be asking where the differences are.

The differences of course are going to be in the competitive arena which will have three game types. Incursion sees you trying to destroy the enemy base whilst AI minions battle it out for mid-ground supremacy, Devastation is a deathmatch-come-king of the hill type game and Meltdown which sees you throwing minions to their deaths for points (much like a reverse Lemmings really). The humour of Gearbox is there and there’s a lot of different character choices with their own styles to make that experience a lot more fun and unique, and there’s going to be a lot of differences in the arsenal that can keep it fresh at least.

But even with the new colour palette and the slightly more fantastical art look, I still felt the game was a bit too close to Borderlands to have its own identity at the moment. Although that maybe exactly what you want. It certainly works well enough and the gameplay is fun but there wasn’t enough there yet, and I stress the word yet, for me to be sinking hours in to this and enjoying that time. I think what I want at this stage is just a bit more of Battleborn’s lore to come to the front, a bit more of the weapons and loot to be explained and more examples of how it all implements to your gameplay and character progression. Battleborn definitely looks like a game that can stand on its own but still has that air of a younger sibling about it. I’m sure as soon as we get towards the end of the year and some beta testing starts appearing, we’ll be able to see how much it has grown up.

Battleborn is currently due for release on February 9th 2016 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One

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