Tag Archives: review

Spec Ops: The Line

Spec Ops: The Line is a game unlike any other in recent memory. It asks a lot of you. It’s emotionally exhausting, and it’s the biggest eye-opener to war I’ve ever played.

More on that in a bit. For what it’s worth, there will be a few spoilers along the way. I have endeavoured to keep the spoilering to a minimum though, in order for you to enjoy the game in its entirely at a later date. Thank me later.

My expectations for Spec Ops started out as they usually do when a new shooter appears on my gaming radar. The usual “ooh, new shooter!” excitement accompanied by a Google-ing of a PC demo. I found none, but I did end up watching the trailer on my 360, only to be incredibly disappointed: there wasn’t anything appealing here, just what seemed like a massive grind through an extremely linear level structure, doing the typical shooter thing; i.e. shooting things. Disheartened, I moved on and promptly forgot about the initially promising shooter that turned out to be nothing I hadn’t already played before.

Sometimes, it’s fantastic to be wrong. And boy, although I didn’t know it yet, was I wrong — on every possible facet and every possible level.

Fast forward to a few weeks later, when I’m going through my usual gaming feeds to see if there’s anything new. I come across the Destructoid review of Spec Ops, along with The Verge review of the same. I decide to read their reviews out of curiousity, to see if they came to the same conclusions as I did when I had simply watched the trailer.

What I read wasn’t just unexpected, it was flabbergasting. What The Verge and Destructoid described wasn’t the boring, cookie-cutter shooter I had seen in the trailer, but a masterfully put-together commentary on war and its effect on everyone involved.

And then I watched the Zero Punctuation review on a game that had piqued my interest for the second time around, and I realised something: I had to play this game.

As fortune would have it, Spec Ops was on sale on Steam during their Steam Summer Sale a few days after that, and that was that. I paid for, downloaded, and started to play the game.

Now, you have to remember where I’m starting out from: Spec Ops is a game that I initially was somewhat interested in, then completely uninterested in, then finally, very much interested in once again. I had high expectations going in, and Spec Ops exceeded expectations in almost every way.

It’s no secret that I love a game with a good storyline, and Spec Ops is perhaps one of the only PC games I’ve played this year that has delivered in spades.

The scene is this: Dubai is in turmoil after sandstorms have ravaged the once-beautiful city. The US has already sent the legendary Colonel John Konrad and his battalion, the Damned 33rd, to help with the evacuation, but something is wrong. In Spec Ops, you play the part of Captain Walker, a US Delta operator who is sent into Dubai with two of his buddies in order to find out what happened to Colonel Konrad and his band of merry men, the Damned 33rd.

Like many shooters of the same genre, Spec Ops stats out innocently enough. In the first half of the game, you’ll begin to hate the cover-based combat – it’s not too dissimilar from the system used in the Mass Effect series, and yet there’s a constant grating that means combat doesn’t feel fluid as it could. It’s not as intuitive as the Mass Effect system — sometimes when you want to run to cover, you can’t. You just run, and then stand next to the cover, all the while taking fire from multiple enemies. It feels every bit as awkward as it sounds, but it’s not a deal-breaker; you’ll get used to it soon enough.

Ammo is scarce in Dubai, so you have to make your shots count; head-shots, for example, are accompanied by a puff of red mist, and a slow-motion effect that lasts for a fraction of a second. Not enough to move the crosshair to another target, but enough for your adrenaline-fuelled self to plan your next move. In true third-person shooter style, you walk over ammo to collect it, and can pick up weapons from the fallen at your leisure.

Welcome to hell, Walker.

But it’s during the second half of the game where things start to get a little out of hand. It’s not so much a departure from the shooter norm than a complete, off-the-rails derailment that sends you spiralling into the abyss of questionable morals. The story progresses from simple “reconnaissance” to “search and rescue”, all the whilst spinning an intricate web of more questions than answers.

Suddenly, your two subordinates are fighting amongst themselves over a decision you made earlier in the piece. Suddenly you’re thrust into a truly unforgiving world, where horrific scenes are witnessed, where you have to make the choice between shooting a civilian who stole water or a soldier who murdered the unlawful civilian’s entire family as punishment. And, wait a second, why am I suddenly shooting US servicemen? Aren’t we supposed to be on the same side?

There’s various sub-plots in the overarching story of Spec Ops that only serve to drive home the realities of war. At one point, the game sees you team up with the CIA who apparently know what’s going on in Dubai and have a plan — but in the end, all your efforts to get some more answers only results in more questions, and perhaps even the realisation that something is very, very wrong here.

As the game progresses, it’s not just “search and rescue” anymore. It’s “escape”. It’s “revenge”. You’re forced to make terrible, terrible decisions – forget the lesser of two evils, and just choose what you can live with. You’ll die a lot, and the messages on the loading screen are chilling: “do you feel like a hero yet?”, “how many Americans have you killed today?”, and my personal favourite, “you are still a good person”.

Action or inaction will sometimes result in the same outcome anyway, so you might ask yourself: what is the point of Spec Ops? The point is to get you to realise that war itself isn’t just about killing. Make no mistake, Spec Ops doesn’t glorify war like other shooters might do: Spec Ops makes you realise that war is truly horrific. Bad things happen in war. Bad things happen to people who are involved in war, and sometimes, there’s just no coming back from that.

There’s not much more I can say about Spec Ops without spoiling it totally, but suffice to say Spec Ops has to be played. The only real sticking point about the game is it’s cover-based combat — something the Unreal engine isn’t really designed to do — but the gameplay mechanics pale in comparison to the real reason you’re here; I knew Spec Ops wasn’t going to be just another cover-based FPS, and I went in expecting a stellar storyline, great pacing, and believable characters.  Trust me when I say it’s worth it for the storyline alone.

What you get out of Spec Ops will depend on your resolve: some games aren’t just games you play sitting in front of a computer, but real experiences that make you feel like you’ve been there, and you’ve made those choices for yourself.

Spec Ops is a masterpiece of brilliance. It offers an experience like nothing else I’ve ever played, and as a narrative on the realities of war, Spec Ops is unparalleled. You should play this game.

Further reading:
Zero Punctuation’s review of Spec Ops: The Line
The Verge’s review of Spec Ops: The Line
Destructoid’s review of Spec Ops
Ars Technica’s piece on Spec Ops: The Line including an interview with lead writer (major spoilers, please only read if you’ve finished the game)

DayZ Review (feat. Diablo III)

The quintessential DayZ experience: three guys in a field, about to loot through a town, with a single zombie in between them and beans.

Another exam period finished, another game thoroughly played.

For a long time, I’ve always wanted a realistic zombie apocalypse game that was more military simulation than arcade first-person shooter, and in terms of realism, DayZ — the mod for ARMA 2: Combined Operations that’s perhaps the most realistic zombie apocalypse game I’ve ever seen — delivers in spades.

It would be unfair to describe Arma 2 as anything other than a military simulation, as there’s so many aspects to the game itself — radios, ranging, realistic bullet physics, real weather, and so on. DayZ builds upon that, with a few custom weapons and, of course, zombies.

The way it begins is this: you’re dropped into a post-apocalyptic world, filled with zombies. You spawn on the beach, and what you do from that point on is entirely up to you, with the overall goal being to survive as long as you possibly can. Everything is out to get you (zombies, the environment, other players), and you start with basically nothing; I remember the days when you spawned with basic gear — a small pistol, a few bandages, ammo, and enough food and water to get you started. But a few weeks ago, the developer (Rocket) changed the spawning gear to be just a flashlight, a single bandage, and painkillers. Lest you starve or die of dehydration, your first task as a new Survivor  should be to find a few rations — perhaps a water bottle that can be refilled from fresh water sources, or a can of lovely mountain dew.

What you do from that point on is up to you.

Do you lone-wolf it and try and find some kind of weapon to defend yourself from the zombies? Do you continually roam around the cities in your never-ending search for supplies? Or do you gear up and see what the wide open world of Chernarus has to offer?

It’s this combination of military simulation, zombie apocalypse, and open sandbox that means DayZ is so compelling to play. There’s so many things to do — if you’re geared up well enough, do you start setting up camp (provided you can find a tent)? Or do you start looking for a better mode of transportation? And if you run into another player, what then? Shoot on sight, or let them live? There’s so many questions that are asked of you during your time playing DayZ, and you’ll have to make all the choices. Will you explore the big bad world beyond the two or three main coastal towns?

Some choices are easier to answer than others: if you’re temperature falls below a certain amount, you better find yourself a heatpack, or stay indoors until you warm up. If you catch a cold, you better hope you can find antibiotics in a hospital, lest you attract zombies with your coughing and spluttering, along with the gradual decrease in your blood level to half what it normally is. If you’re thirsty, you should drink, and so on, and so forth.

Some of your actions even have consequences: if you’re hungry, you should eat. Consuming an easily-found can of beans only replinishes around 200 blood, but if you happen to come across an animal that can be killed, gutted, and the raw meat cooked, you’ll find that replenishes much more blood (800), but requires many more tools. You’ll need to find an animal, for one, then you’ll need a hunting knife to gut it, a hatchet to cut wood for the fire you need to cook the raw meat, matches to make a fireplace, at which point you can finally cook the meat you found on the cow’s dead body. Enjoying your steak raw, sadly, is not an option when you need the blood.

There’s so many ways to accomplish the same thing in DayZ. You can, for example, light a fire to warm up, instead of going indoors or finding a heatpack. There are many ways to replenish your blood, too: you can eat (beans or cooked meat), or you can get a blood transfusion, with the latter option requiring another player and a blood pack — an item only found in one of the four hospitals in Chernarus.

You'll do a bit of running in DayZ. Did I say a bit? I meant a lot.

It wouldn’t be a military sim without weapons, and DayZ is the perfect blend, weapons-wise, between realistic and military. Common weapons you can find include crossbows, double-barrelled shotguns, winchesters, Lee Enfield rifles, and a whole assortment of sidearms, from the humble Makarov (the previous starting sidearm), to the trusty M1911, revolver, M9, and many more. It isn’t until you start looking for higher-tier weapons that the real fun begins: you can find scoped hunting rifles like the CZ500, and then you get into the true military weapons: M16 and M4 variants, AK and variants, light machine guns like the M249, silenced sub-machine guns, and even massively overpowered sniper rifles like the M24, DMR, and 50-cal M107. All guns make a distinctive sound when fired, so you can tell whether a player is firing an M1911, or whether you should be running for your life any second now because he’s got the gun with the biggest range in the game.

In true DayZ fashion, the zombies are affected by pretty much everything. If you run, you’ll attract zombies. If you crouch-run, you’ll attract zombies. If you crawl, you might attract zombies. If you fire a gun that makes a sound, you can expect all the zombies within a 50-meter radius to hear it, and if you’re firing a weapon in town, you better hope that there aren’t any curious players who come to investigate. That’s kind of the beauty of DayZ: there’s always another way. If you want to kill a zombie that’s between you and an objective, you can — either use a silenced gun, or even melee using the hatchet or crowbar. Flares attract zombies. Smoke grenades attract zombies.

And the zombies in DayZ? The zombies in DayZ hurt. If you’ve got aggro, they come at you at a frantic pace, hurt when they hit you, and can cause you to start bleeding out, or even break your bones. Thankfully, you can outrun zombies if you’re standing up and running — you can lose the zombies if you break line-of-sight and they don’t see (or hear) you again, but you can usually expect your running to attract even more zombies, especially if you’re running through a town. The line-of-sight thing is pretty interesting, and makes zombies fairly easy to evade if you’re running through a town — harder to lose if you’re out in an open field, but still possible. The line-of-sight is an interesting game mechanic anyway, and means even that newer players have a chance to survive (or they’ll learn stealth, which will help them out in the long run).

Health in DayZ matters. You have a blood meter, and if you’ve been in battle and taken a hit, sometimes you’ll start shaking from the pain, making accurate gunfire impossible. Thankfully, you can take painkillers to numb the pain. If a zombie breaks your bones, or if someone opens a door on you and you break a bone (it’s still an alpha, remember), you can fix yourself up with morphine. If you start bleeding out, you can bandage yourself up.

Yes, there’s quite a lot to DayZ — and we haven’t even discussed looting, vehicles, other players, playing in a group, or even death. But the reason DayZ works so damned well — even in its current alpha state — is that it’s just fun to play.

Diablo III isn’t quite the opposite in that it’s still fun to play, but it’s just not as compelling when compared to DayZ or even its predecessor, Diablo II. Diablo II was much, much darker than its successor, and Diablo III just feels as though it’s been given an overhaul for the worse. I know they’re essentially the same game, but it doesn’t feel as foreboding. It tries to be, what with the grotesque models and overall evil themes, but it just falls short of the level set by Diablo 2, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Don’t get me wrong, for the most part the graphical upgrades are more than welcomed (gaming at 800×600 isn’t my idea of fun these days), but instead of using those fancy new animations and graphics to make a better, gritter game, all Blizzard have done is put a few new colours in here and there, made gameplay simpler along the way, instead of making it darker, like a true sequel to Diablo II should be. I enjoyed Diablo II because it was exactly the kind of game I wanted to play — a dark and gritty game, filled with unknown terrors and semi-RPG elements.

Now, Diablo III feels like it just doesn’t have that special spark, and all because they’ve added a few new colours into the palette. The core gameplay hasn’t been changed all that much — Diablo III is still a dungeon crawler at heart — but it has been made to seem more attractive to newer players. The typeface is different, more inviting, which contributes a lot to the overall look and feel of the game. It’s a beautiful game, but there’s no compelling reason to play it besides the continuation of the storyline, and I’m honestly not sure if I would have played it at all if I wasn’t such a huge fan of the second Diablo game. For those that actually want a “nicer” dungeon-crawling game with a more upbeat tempo, there’s always Torchlight. Diablo was supposed to be the go-to game for dark and gritty, and the third one in the series just doesn’t deliver.

Which is a real shame.

DayZ is different in every way. Because it’s based on a military sim, it’s so much more different than your typical zombie apocalypse shooter. There’s not much actual gameplay, to be sure, but that’s half the fun: when you’re given no strict instructions and no real goal apart from just survival, you make do with what you have. At first, you’ll loot cities for all the beans you can get your hands on. You find a weapon to defend youself with. You kill any zombies that cross your path.  You make your own decisions when it comes to killing other players, or letting them live. You team up with other players with the goal of survival, and maybe you’ll abandon them to save yourself from the horde of zombies, maybe you won’t.

But that’s just where the fun begins.

Sometimes you're killing zombies, or repairing cars — other times, you're attaching scrap metal to houses.

SteelSeries 7H for iOS devices review — behind the scenes

My review for the SteelSeries 7H headset for iPod, iPhone, and iPad will be up a little later today over at MacTalk, where you can read the full review, but I figured I might as well publish something that didn’t quite make it into the final version (okay, was never going to be included in the final version, was never intended to be included in the final version). A behind-the-scenes look, if you will.

Little backstory: the SteelSeries 7H comes with a pretty unique micro-USB connector:

There’s one curious thing about the cable though, and that’s the fact it attaches to the headset on the left hand side, using none other than a micro-USB connector that our European friends seem to be so fond of. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and certainly makes the 7H headset a little unique in that regard.

Unique, yes, but also interesting: I’ve been looking for a new gaming headset for a while, and while the 7H ticks all the right boxes in terms of comfort and sound quality, the version that I reviewed comes with a strange plug that only has one 3.5mm plug for both headphones and microphone.

No matter, no matter — one support ticket and about 5 Euros later, a replacement audio cable for the standard 7H is in the post. The thing about the standard 7H is that’s it’s far more “normal” in that it has two 3.5mm plugs — one for audio, and one for microphone, just like PC manufacturers like it.

As it turns out, I guessed correctly — SteelSeries must make one version of the headset, then just vary the micro-USB cables that comes with it (and the packaging, obviously) to split it into separate products. The replacement cable plugs into the micro-USB port on the headphones just fine, and turns it into a standard 7H headset — which means the 7H works perfectly as the gaming headset I always wanted, but was never able to spend the money on (says the guy with AudioEngine 2 desktop speakers).

+1 ingenuity for me.

This post part of Blogtober 2011, just a little thing of mine where I (attempt to) post something up on my blog every day in October 2011.

Your Highness (2011)

Ooh, a movie review! Let’s get on with it, then…

Truth be told, my experience of Natalie Portman in movies has been limited to just the Star Wars franchise. Hearing her spout lines like “Oh Anakin, you’re breaking my heart” doesn’t exactly do things for me, but Your Highness changed all of that.

Look, I’m not a huge fan of stupid comedy. I prefer my stuff to be a little more subtle, a little more intelligent, and Your Highness was a perfect example of what I dislike about the genre. It’s trying a little too hard — a little too much sexual innuendo here, a little too much forced acting there. I like fantasy and the whole “sword/medieval/magic” genre, don’t get me wrong, but some of this stuff was just plain stupid, and not in the good way (if it tries to parody other stuff from the same sort of genre, it does a terrible job of it.

The only saving grace of this movie is Natalie Portman. She’s a badass, and that’s about as apt a description as I can think of right now. It also means I’m off to acquire more of her earlier work. She’s not the lead character, but far and away, she carries the movie across various terrible sub-plots.

Seriously, watch this movie, but only for Natalie Portman (or James Franco, if you’re a female).

The movie is bad, but Portman is a badass. There’s a difference.

Your Highness, 2011

Medal of Honor (2010)

Sometimes, I play games. Mostly when I’m supposed to be doing something else, but I play games. For the past few years I’ve somehow managed to complete a single player game during the school/Uni study break period (swotvac). I think the first time this happened I was playing Fallout 3 GotY, but that’s for another time. What follows is my review of Medal of Honor (2010), which unfortunately didn’t get completed in the study period just gone by, but only just recently. There are a few spoilers, but I figure that if you haven’t played it by now you don’t likely care that much anyway. Enjoy!

When I first started playing Medal of Honor, it wasn’t very compelling. The main appeal of this particular triple-A shooter for me wasn’t that it was an alternative to the Call of Duty juggernaut, but that it featured guns. Like a druggie looking for his next hit, I was chasing the feeling of looking down the sights (preferably ACOG, but I’ll take whatever the developers choose to throw at me) and taking down some enemy combatant at range with a well-timed headshot. As cliche as that may sound, I was in it for the gunplay — how the guns “felt” within the context of the game, in different situations, and so on — and Medal of Honour (MoH) has that in spades.

In the beginning, it feels a little like you’re a nameless, faceless grunt fighting someone else’s war — because you are. It’s a little “go here, shoot those guys, rescue this dude”, and it feels like we’ve already been here before in every other big name, A-grade FPS — because we have. The enemies pop up at predictable locations, you advance through different scenarios with your squad in a predictable manner, and it’s all very predictable, even nice, but doesn’t make for very compelling gameplay (even the gunplay is average and just doesn’t feel good).

I don’t know whether it was because I had taken some mind-alterating substances that day or whether I was just in a different state of mind, but I recently re-visited the single player campaign, and, well, everything was different. The good different, not the bad kind. Somewhere between taking out snipers in a tower and lasing targets for laser-guided missile strikes or strafing runs I started to enjoy the game. I was no longer a nameless faceless soldier fighting someone else’s war, I was Rabbit, a Tier 1 Operator part of AFO Neptune, lasing targets with SOFLAM for Predator air strikes under the cover of darkness, or taking out the bad guys at 1000 meters with the Barrett. All I know is, at some point Medal of Honor started being compelling and sucked me right in.

The pacing of the game is fantastic. The action scenes are truly hectic at times, and yet there’s always parts where you never feel overwhelmed by enemies — unless that’s exactly what the developers intended, as they do in one particular scene. Like I said, the story starts out pretty slowly with you saving some guy and then just clearing out the same old enemies in the same old locations, but soon you’re on ATVs assaulting enemy compounds at night, or planting locator beacons on enemy transports, or blasting away at enemy RPG positions from the safety of the skies in an Apache. Some sections leave you truly exhausted, but you’re a SEAL; you just get back up and ask for more.

All that stuff is truly enjoyable, don’t get me wrong. It’s exciting, the gunplay at that point is incredible (oh selective fire, how I’ve missed you), and everything is as you would expect for a shooter of this calibre (pun not intended). It isn’t until about the last third or last quarter of the game that the whole story element comes into play and you start to feel that all this might actually be real. I won’t lie; I felt real relief after playing through one particular section where the position you’re holding for extraction is quickly becoming overrun by enemies who are almost constantly firing RPGs and all manner of rounds are whizzing past you, and just when you’re about to throw in the towel (your companion tech specialist even tells the brass to hold off the support troops he called in earlier), the calvary comes and saves the day. From the desperate calls over comms to having to put down guys left right and centre while running pretty low on ammo, that feels real.

And it only gets more real from that point on.

As a game, the model animations are as good as any. When you’re huddling with three other soldiers behind a wall talking about how you’re going to smoke the enemy position for an air strike, things seem real.

When you’re falling out of a friendly chopper, things seem real.

When you have to choose between bullets and broken bones, things seem real.

When you’re falling off a cliff (broken bones heal), things seem real.

While I have huge respect for people that serve I’ve never gotten into the whole military aspect of life that Americans seem to have. All that cliche gung-ho, trigger-happy, shoot now attitude just seemed too far fetched, a little too removed from reality to actually be. After playing Medal of Honor, I’m convinced that is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s games like this that demonstrate what war is like, how people like Rabbit live, and how they die.


Medal of Honor is easily the best military FPS I have played in a while. While I do enjoy the sheer excitement and pure action of the Call of Duty series, there’s nothing quite like a good plot to keep the story going, and Medal of Honor delivers on all fronts. The multiplayer uses a different engine to the single player, but is still quite enjoyable (although perhaps not as much as Bad Company 2). Medal of Honor keeps it real while delivering everything a military shooter enthusaist would want, which means it’s a pretty damn good game indeed.

A (mostly subjective) review of Essay, the rich text editor for iOS

Essay is more fancy. Essay isn’t perfect either, but first, here’s what it does do. Firstly, it’s a text editor. Off to a great start there. There’s no accompanying web-app for easy access to my writings away from the iPhone, but it does sync the HTML-formatted files to Dropbox which is fine. For a writing app, it has some pretty advanced features. Things like rich-text, combined with pretty standard HTML stuff like lists (ordered, unordered), sections, paragraphs, and so on like in the screenshot above. You can create hyperlinks to other files within Essay, or to actual web locations. Bold, italic, underline, strikethrough — all present, all easily accessible through the custom keyboard add-on (which works brilliantly, by the way. Fluid, simple, all-round excellent implementation that could have been very convoluted indeed). The iPhone app is very new (just released today, in fact), so there’s no word count (that I can find, although I assume it is in the iPad version), and it even has a full blown web browser in-app to allow you to browse links.

The number one issue I have with Essays is that it isn’t fully native. Not that it’s a web app or anything like that, it isn’t, but that the main editor view is basically some glorified HTML interpreter. Let me tell you what I mean. While the editor tries its very hardest to appear native (at least it includes the standard text selection tools), it’s unlike any other editable text section I’ve ever seen. This is evidenced by a couple of factors:

  1. The marquee tool that appears when you tap and hold to finely place the cursor makes text look pixellated. I’ve never seen that before, on any app. Example: Essay, Simplenote. It’s not just the iPhone version that does this, it looks just as bad on the iPad too.
  2. The cursor blinks at a different rate, in a slightly different way to any other cursor I’ve seen.
  3. Selecting text is sloooow. There’s a lag associated with everything.

Points one and three lead me to the conclusion that it must be some sort of emulated HTML interpreter, not the native iOS text view that I know and love. I’m guessing it’s this non-native text view that allows such advanced features as text styling, lists, highlighting, and so on, but it’s also this non-native text view that has some serious drawbacks:

  • Selecting a part of text, hitting “select all” frequently results in the standard “cut copy paste” popup not popping up. Selecting a few words works, however.
  • Tapping the time doesn’t take you to the top of the current scroll view, like it does pretty much everywhere else.
  • Points one and three above — sure, pixellation is just a cosmetic issue, but having slow text selection is a functional one. It’s also terrible UX, that’s how much the cursor-placing lags.

It’s these small things that make Essay not what I’m looking for at the moment. Sure, it’s fancy — but when fancy comes at the cost of serious drawbacks I’ll have to turn down that particular offer.

via iOS Reviews.

Written by yours truly, of course.