Thursday 31 August 2023

DESCENT, FREESPACE, RED FACTION and SAINT'S ROW developers Volition are shut down for good

In surprising and disappointing news, the video game studio Volition has been shut down after thirty years in operation. During that time, Volition were responsible for some of the most beloved titles and series in those respective eras. The decision to shut down came after the disappointing performance of their latest game, a reboot of their Saint's Row series, and their acquisition by Swedish mega-company Embracer Group.

Volition started life in 1993 as Parallax Software Corporation, where they started work on a game called Inferno. After various deals with publishers fell through, they teamed with Interplay to release the game, now retitled Descent, in 1995. The game was immediately noteworthy for its 3D graphics and its fast-paced combat. Alongside the following year's Quake, the game became a testbed for 3D graphics cards. The game was quickly followed by Descent II (1996).

The company rebranded itself as Volition and released its space space combat simulator Descent: Freespace - The Great War (aka Conflict: Freespace - The Great War in some territories) in 1998, to immense critical acclaim. The game was praised for taking on the X-Wing and Wing Commander series and beating them both at their own game. They followed up on the game with the massively-praised Freespace 2 (1999), widely regarded even today as the single finest space combat simulator of all time. Unfortunately, a cutting of content, budget issues, no marketing and the collapse of the space combat market (which also adversely affected the same year's X-Wing: Alliance) led to the game being released with relatively little fanfare and extremely disappointing sales. Freespace 2 would go on to enjoy an extremely long tail in sales and a vibrant modding scene that continues to this day.

In 2000 Volition released Summoner, a well-received action RPG based around characters recruiting monsters they could release into combat. As part of the marketing campaign, Volition teamed with the comedy group Dead Alewives to create a Dungeons & Dragons-themed comedy video, in which characters from both Summoner and the in-development Red Faction team up to play D&D. The video was an early memetic success, and was also used to tempt video gamers to try out the then-newly released 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons itself. Lines like, "Where is the Mountain Dew?" and "I attack the darkness!" occasionally crop up in tabletop games to this day. Summoner 2 followed in 2002.

In 2001 Volition released Red Faction, a first-person shooter set on Mars. The game was noteworthy for its destructible terrain and scenery, with players able to blast through walls to create alternate paths through maps. The game was a huge, smash hit for Volition and was followed by three sequels: Red Faction II (2002), Red Faction: Guerrilla (2009) and Red Faction: Armageddon (2011).

In 2004 Volition released their first and only licensed game, The Punisher (2004), which saw Thomas Jane reprise his role as Frank Castle from the film of the same name.

In 2006 Volition made their biggest gamble by deciding to take on Rockstar Games and the Grand Theft Auto series. Volition's equivalent series, Saint's Row, leaned into GTA's ruder, wilder and more insane side, although not quite to start with. Saint's Row (2006) and Saint's Row 2 (2008) at least nominally focus on the gritty underworld crime dealings of the 3rd Street Saints, but become more focused on the doings of crazy characters like Johnny Gat (Daniel Dae Kim) as the series progressed. By Saint's Row: The Third (2011) the series had become a satire of both the GTA format and the glorification of criminal excess, with the game focusing on the Saints becoming a media brand and empire. Saint's Row IV (2013) saw the Saints take over the White House and fight to save Earth from aliens who had conquered the planet and effectively digitised it, with the Saints fighting inside a computer programme which gave them superpowers. Saint's Row: Gat Out of Hell (2015) saw the Saints going to Hell to fight Satan, as you do.

Aware that they had maxed out the viewer disbelief of the series, Volition decided to first create a side-game only nominally set in the same universe, Agents of Mayhem (2017) and then a full reboot of the series, relocating the game to a new city with a new gang and more grounded tone, in the annoyingly-named Saint's Row (2022). Neither game caught gamers' imagination, with the reaction to Saint's Row (2022) being particularly hostile due to the abandoning of previous fan-favourite characters and storylines.

Embracer Group acquired the studio in 2018, but after the initial release and disappointing reception to Saint's Row (2022), they rotated management and oversight of the studio to another subsidiary, Gearbox. As a result of declining revenues and debates over where to take the studio next, it was then decided to shutter the studio permanently.

Sad news. Descent, Freespace, Red Faction, Summoner and Saint's Row are all very worthy franchises, with excellent games and some great ideas circulating around them. Volition were never afraid to take on the big boys and win, and their no-holds-barred attitude was refreshing in an industry that all too often plays it safe. Unfortunately, it seems their downfall was kowtowing to corporate requirements to be safe and predictable, with Saint's Row (2022) not being a bad game, just a redundant one once they abandoned the very thing that set them apart, their absurdist side and idiosyncratic sense of humour.

Hopefully the staff at Volition will find new roles, and Embracer will let some of their franchises live again in new titles that don't completely miss the point of the originals.

Tuesday 29 August 2023

SHADOW TACTICS developers call time on their company

In sad news, German developers Mimimi Games will be shutting down following the release of their most recent game, Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew. The Munich-based team are best-known for their thematic trilogy of stealth games inspired by classic 1990s titles Commandos and Desperados.

The company started off in 2011 with mobile title daWindci, before developing the colourful platformer The Last Tinker: City of Colors (2014). They switched gears to their first stealth tactics game, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun (2016), an extraordinarily accomplished and impressive title. The team got to work with one of their inspirational IPs when they then made Desperados III (2020). They returned to the success of their first title with a stand-alone expansion, Aiko's Choice (2021), before developing their last game. Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew (2023) is a much less linear and more open title than their previous games, whilst preserving their stealth focus. Despite extremely strong reviews, Shadow Gambit's initial sales were disappointing, likely a result of the game launching almost exactly between two of the biggest titles of the year (Baldur's Gate 3 and Starfield).

According to the managers, developing these three games one after the other proved extremely taxing and expensive, and faced with the prospect of doing it all again, they decided instead to call time on the company. It will wind up over the next few months whilst releasing patch and balance updates for Shadow Gambit.

This is sad news, as Mimimi's style of stealth tactics gameplay was extremely addictive, resulting in three polished, challenging games which rewarded ingenious and original play. Hopefully another team will pick up the baton of continuing this style of title.

Monday 28 August 2023

Babylon 5: The Road Home

John Sheridan, the first President of the Interstellar Alliance, has relocated from Babylon 5 to Minbar, which will serve as the new base for the Alliance. A routine inspection of a new Minbari power plant inadvertently dislodges Sheridan in time, sending him through a series of alternate timelines where his life, and the fate of the galaxy, took a very different turn. Somehow, he has to find his way home.

The Road Home is the first animated film in the Babylon 5 franchise and the first new instalment of any kind since the release of DVD movie The Lost Tales in 2007. The animated medium allows the surviving actors to reprise their roles and also allows new actors to take over the roles of those actors who are sadly no longer with us (and, as oft-discussed, Babylon 5's attrition rate of actors has been extraordinarily high).

The main appeal of The Road Home is nostalgia: the animated film is so steeped in deep cut lore references to the original show that I'm not sure how much newcomers will get out of it, let alone the massive spoilers it contains for the events of the series. For a B5 veteran, it is tremendous fun to once again see Bruce Boxleitner, Claudia Christian, Patricia Tallman, Tracy Scoggins, Bill Mumy and Peter Jurasik reprise their roles as Sheridan, Ivanova, Lyta, Lochley, Lennier and Londo respectively. Peter Jurasik in particular slips back into his role as if zero time has passed, and his vocal delivery is spot-on (apart from Tallman, the other actors do have some of the sound of the intervening three decades in their voices). The newcomers are mostly decent, with Paul Guyet outstanding in replicating both Michael O'Hare and Tim Choate's vocal performances as Commander Sinclair and Zathras. Andrew Morgado has the hardest job in replicating the unique vocal stylings of Andreas Katsulas and wisely doesn't even try, instead choosing a similar haughty tone and making it his own.

The character animation is very nice, with a good amount of expression captured from the original actors, although the space CGI is sadly disappointing and lacking in detail: the White Star ships look like unfinished pieces of clay and the Starfuries look like their mid-1990s Micro Machine models. It's genuinely disappointing to see the spacecraft looking so lacking compared to their original incarnations, despite some good design ideas (the Shadow warships now having moving protuberances, for example).

In terms of story and character, The Road Home is a mixed bag. Sheridan flipping between time streams is a nice reuse of story elements from the Season 3 two-parter War Without End, but this promising idea is wasted slightly in revisiting scenes and ideas from the original show that we already saw decades ago. Newcomers will be lost without context and OG fans will find this material redundant. As the movie wears on and we get into newer ideas and start seeing alternate timelines where things unfolded differently, things pick up. It's also nice to get to see things we never saw in the original show, like a Vorlon planet-killer in full action and a Minbari jump gate in operation. But whilst that kind of trivia satisfies, there are also a bevy of continuity errors elsewhere that grate.

As a Babylon 5 project, the film has a lot of wince-inducing dialogue and awful humour, which was a hallmark of the original show, and to be frank would be missed if it wasn't present at least to some degree. However, the original show balanced that out with some beautiful speeches and occasional gags that worked well. The latter are mostly missing from this movie. This movie also mistakes long-worn-out memes as humour, so we get a ton of Zathras focusing on his "comic elements" and completely missing the pathos and tragedy that made the character so compelling on his original appearance in the episode Babylon Squared. Tone is something the movie struggles with a lot: the film feels too light and funny for the massive, grave stakes of the story, and any notion of subtlety from the original series has been lost. In the original, the Shadows were master manipulators who rarely emerged from the darkness and worked through disposable intermediaries and minions. Here, they are recklessly suicidal drones who directly attack enemies in swarms, not caring how many die in the process.

The movie (**½) leaves a Babylon 5 fan feeling conflicted: it is undeniably fun to see these characters again, and it's particularly gratifying to see an actual sequel project involving almost the entire cast of the show, for the first time since the end of the original series (the various spin-off media and DVD movies since then have involved just a few characters, or newcomers). The animation is solid, the voice acting mostly excellent, and at 80-ish minutes the film does not outstay its welcome. But the story feels a little pointless, the humour is often painful and the "alternate universe" set up in the movie as a possible future setting for new material is (at least at this prototypical stage) uninspiring.

The film is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital platforms now.

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Tuesday 22 August 2023

HOMEWORLD 3 gets new trailer

Blackbird Interactive and Gearbox Software have released a new trailer for their upcoming space strategy game, Homeworld 3.

Defying titular logic, Homeworld 3 is actually the fifth game in the venerable series and is set around 100 years after the events of Homeworld 2. A new mothership, the Khar-Kushan, has been constructed and launched under the guidance of a new Fleet Command, a scientist neurally wired into the ship to act as its living intelligence system. The primary threat in the new game is "the Anomaly," an artefact capable of destroying planets and shutting down the Great Hyperspace Gates. Karan S'Jet, the Fleet Command from Homeworld and Homeworld 2, is missing in action along with her fleet, leaving her successor and distant kin Imogen S'Jet to guide the Khar-Kushan on a new mission. S'Jet's mission is complicated by the emergence of a new polity, the Incarnate, whose motives are initially unclear.

Homeworld 3 will be released on PC in February 2024.

Sunday 13 August 2023

From: Season 1

The Matthews family are confused when they drive through a small town only to find themselves repeatedly driving back through it again, whatever route they attempt to take. The locals tell them they are trapped in a snowglobe, a town which is normal enough during the day but at night is besieged by strange, human-looking monstrous creatures who only want to torture and kill. The family, and the locals, decide to try to find a way to escape.

Back in the late 2000s, every other show on television was a supernatural mystery thriller, inspired by the runaway success of Lost. Most of those shows crashed and burned without a trace, with the arguable biggest success - Fringe - both using some of the same creative firepower as Lost and also doing enough differently that it didn't come off as a lame cash-in. 

The last few years have seen a resurgence of such shows, most successfully with Showtime's Yellowjackets. From is in a similar vein, but taps some of the original team, with Lost producer-director Jack Bender and Fringe writer-producer Jeff Pinkner (who also wrote a few episodes of Lost) acting as producers on this show, along with first-time showrunner John Griffin.

From, at first glance, resembles some of those older shows in its construction. The central mystery is where the hell the town is (people stumble across it from all over America), why and how it keeps people trapped, and how people can escape, not to mention the nature of the creatures that keep attacking it. The show balances exploring these mysteries with more character-driven stories about both the town's existing residents and the newcomers. The Matthews family - father Jim, mother Tabitha, daughter Julie and young son Ethan - act as our eyes and ears in this world, sharing their confusion over how they got stuck in the town and how it should be possible to flee.

The show stumbles a little bit compared to early Lost, which remains a masterclass in how to deliver a huge amount of interesting character introductions and exposition in a pilot, attached to a well-crafted story. From's characters are less immediately compelling and it takes a few episodes for them to become anywhere near as interesting. It doesn't help that ostensible co-lead Jim Matthews (a game but under-challenged Eion Bailey) is a little bland as a character. More compelling are Catalina Sandino Moreno (Oscar-nominated for Maria Full of Grace) as his wife Tabitha and genre stalwart Harold Perrineau (also of Lost, but also the Matrix films, Oz and Romeo+Juliet) as the town sheriff Boyd. Perrineau in particular gives a very strong performance as Boyd's desperation to protect the people and find a way to escape is palpable, and later flashbacks show the horrible decisions he's had to make along the way to keep people safe.

The town is split into two groups, with one group living down in the houses in along the main road and another living in Colony House, a very large house atop a nearby hill, which is a bit more hippy-ish. The Matthews family becomes divided between the two locations due to family drama, which the show maybe leans a bit more into than it should.

From's biggest early problem is trying to feel fresh whilst indulging in over-familiarity. One character has a crush on another but cannot articulate it. Other characters are having visions and weird dreams which may be clues to the mystery or might just be the logical outcome of stress. One brilliant but socially ill-adjusted character (with shades of Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica) is trying to find a way out but is constantly frustrated by the stupidity of everyone around them. There is tension between the people who've been in town for a while and made a life for themselves (albeit one that's dangerous), and the latecomers who are more focused on escape. There's only so many shows with psychic kids that one can take. A late-season obsession with erecting a radio tower to send out a mayday makes one think of Lost's first season obsession with a raft, and both shows have something odd happening underground.

Still, if From is ploughing a familiar field, at least it does so entertainingly. Once the first few episodes, with their clumsy exposition and stodgy pacing, are out of the way, the show does a better job of rotating between the character dramas and the mysteries. A devastating late-season event does a great job of raising the tension, whilst the finale builds up to a nice series of cliffhangers (and, as the second season is already available, it's not a major issue to roll straight into the next batch of episodes).

Scepticism over the show's long-term viability is natural, and certainly From (***½) doesn't start with the verve and confidence of either Lost or Yellowjackets, but give it a few episodes to heat up and eventually a reasonably interesting horror-mystery drama emerges. The show airs on MGM+ in the USA and on NowTV in the UK. A second season is already available, and a third season has been commissioned.

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You're having the definition of a bad day: you've woken up with a severe case of amnesia in a stranger's backyard. And you're also about 70mm tall. Surviving the myriad hazards of the giant backyard and finding a way of getting back to your proper size is not going to be easy.

Obsidian Entertainment, and their preceding incarnation as Black Isle Studios, have spent a quarter of a century crafting intricately-designed, well-written roleplaying games. They created the Fallout franchise as Interplay's inhouse CRPG team, crafted Planescape: Torment (still often cited as the greatest CRPG of all time) as Black Isle Studios, and as Obsidian delivered the critically-acclaimed (if janky) Knights of the Old Republic II, Alpha Protocol, Neverwinter Nights 2 and Fallout: New Vegas, among others. In the last decade they have been heavily involved in creating retro-style CRPGs with the Pillars of Eternity universe and the chronically underrated Tyranny, as well as returning to full 3D, first-person CRPGs with the decent-but-unspectacular The Outer Worlds.

It's therefore a surprise to see Obsidian turning around and making a survival and crafting game, especially a somewhat cartoony-looking one, apparently designed to appeal to children. But, first impressions aside, Grounded ends up having more in common with their previous roster of games than you'd think.

Grounded plays like many such games in the genre, but its mix of accessibility and a strong focus on story makes it feel like a spiritual successor to Subnautica, the previous "survival game for people who don't normally like survival games". Like that game, you start off in a highly precarious position, effectively abandoned in a hostile landscape with no food, no water, no weapons and no real idea of what to do. Fortunately, you quickly discover miniaturised shelters and supplies scattered across the backyard, confirming you're not the first victim of the shrink ray (and, if playing in co-op mode, Grounded's ace card for gameplay, that quickly becomes obvious). You also soon find a friendly miniature robot who quickly sets you on the road to success. As with Grounded's aquatic predecessor, it's impressive seeing how quickly you can go from having nothing to living in a massive base protected by tough defences.

Grounded deviates from that game in one very major way: combat. The yard is crawling with hostile wildlife, including mosquitoes, wasps, bombardier beetles, stinkbugs, and angry little mites. There are other creatures who are indifferent or even friendly to you, but their bodies can be harvested for essential supplies or for food, including ladybugs, ants, aphids and weevils. Combat plays out like a simpler version of a Soulslike, with each creature have a distinct attack pattern heralded by animations and sound effects. Periodically you encounter larger boss creatures, who require much more work to defeat.

How much you like Grounded may depend on your attitude to combat in a survival game. If you see it as a good thing, Grounded is a great game with lots of varieties of enemies and how to handle them. If you see combat as a distraction from base-building and crafting, then the amount of combat in the game will likely get on your nerves.

Building and crafting is fun, but not massively necessary to complete the game. I constructed a very small, modest base with just the essentials for getting food, water and creating new weapons, equipment and armour. Later on I did erect a large tower and built ziplines from the tower to distant corners of the garden, allowing relatively rapid transit from a central base to other locales, which made the latter part of the game easier than might have otherwise been the case.

Graphically, the game is superb. This was the first game I played on my new nVidia 4090-powered system and the result is a glorious riot of colour and foliage, rendered impressively in 4K. I did experience occasional CTDs without an obvious explanation, which encouraged regular saving (you can also set the frequency of autosaves). Controls were responsive, and base-building was pretty easily accomplished. Inventory management could be a little better, with the sheer number of useful tools and the need to carry different armour loadouts (some armour renders you invisible to the creatures that armour is made from) making it easy to max out the three hotbars the game gives you, but it's not a major problem. The game is also playable from both first person and third person perspectives, which is very welcome.

The game's narrative provides a good sense of direction, and the story (initially unfolding via audio logs but later through more direct interactions with NPCs) is bittersweet, with some harsh decisions and character twists being revealed. There's also some branching to the narrative: going off-mission and exploring remote parts of the yard can open up new storylines or impact the main quest, leading to a better (or worse) outcome. There's one optional boss hiding in a remote corner of the yard whose defeat reveals major information about the story that otherwise you'll never encounter.

The yard itself is brilliantly-designed and one of the most entertaining recent game worlds. The central grasslands give way to the mysteries of the impenetrable hedge (with an important base located high up in its twisted branches) and the depths of the koi pond. If you can avoid the indestructible koi guardian of the pond and work out how to preserve your oxygen supply, massive underwater rewards await. Later, you can travel to the sandpit, a vast desert realm suffering an inconvenient antlion infestation, and once you can access to explosives you can penetrate the rockwall to the upper yard, a punishing new biome that will tax your fighting and survival abilities to the maximum. There is a good 50 hours of entertainment here for a focused playthrough aimed at completing the story as efficiently as possible; for those who want to build incredible bases or towers higher than the house, or grind for the best weapons and gear to fight the horrific broodmother optional boss, that enjoyment will easily last for multiples of that time.

Grounded (****½) is a big swing from Obsidian, far outside their normal wheelhouse, but one that pays off handsomely. The game is fun, colourful, good-natured but not without its grim moments, and constantly challenging. It is available now on PC and Xbox consoles, via the usual vendors and Game Pass.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Monday 7 August 2023

BALDUR'S GATE 3 becomes one of the most popular Steam games ever

Larian Studios launched the extremely long-awaited third video game in the Baldur's Gate series last week on PC. The follow-up to BioWare's Baldur's Gate (1998) and Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000), the game is another fantasy roleplaying epic drawing on Dungeons & Dragons rules, with the player taking control of a motley crew and setting out to save the world, or at least to start with, their skulls.

The game had a lengthy three-year gestation period in Early Access, during which time over two and a half million people played the game and Larian received extensive feedback on how to improve balancing, combat, classes and characters.

The extensive Early Access period and pre-release hype seems to have paid off. In the four days since release, the game has peaked at just under 815,000 concurrent players, making it the ninth-most-played game in Steam's history. Larian have not disclosed how many additional sales were notched up in the release period, but the game has sat at the top of Steam's sales charts for a considerable chunk of that time. The game has likewise been the biggest-selling title on GoG for the past week or so.

Baldur's Gate 3's sales are restricted to the PC format only for the time being. The game will launch on PlayStation 5 on 5 September and an Xbox release is planned for later, although Larian have encountered technical difficulties in getting the game to run well on the lower-specced Xbox Series S console. They hope to resolve the problem soon.

For myself, I'm a dozen hours into the game and so far it's been a satisfying fantasy adventure. It may be some considerable time before a review, however. This is a very, very big game.