Gamescom ::: Roundup (Part 1)

We continue with the best from Gamescom. Skylanders Swap Force, Diggs Nightcrawler, Max & The Curse of Brotherhood, War Thunder, and Eve Valkyrie.

War Thunder (PlayStation 4 and PC)

War Thunder brings World War II’s theatres of war to PlayStation 4 and PC. Boasting over 300 warplanes it is dogfight on a massive scale as two large teams compete in objective-based missions to rule the sky. Bombers slowly buzz by as quicker fighters protect and harry, jets scream past presenting an elusive threat, whilst all the time from the ground below the AA guns boom continual defiance.

The big things that War Thunder has going for it, especially when compared to its rivals, is that it has cross-platform play. The PC and PS4 don’t sit on separate servers but share a single user base meaning that even on day one PlayStation owners should have access to thousands of established players to enrich their aerial battles. In fact developers Gaijin are so adamant that the number of players is key that they cite that as the number one reason why War Thunder is also free to play. Players can buy boosts that will give them a percentage increase in XP and in-game currency, but there’s no pay to win we’re assured as planes are unlocked with ranks rather than directly through coin.

Those worried that a Dualshock, no matter the advancements, will be little match to a PC player should be swayed by the control scheme. Rather than the traditional control over pitch, yaw and roll, you simply push the on-screen reticule where in the sky you want it to go and the game will figure out how to get it there. It works the same whether you have a single analogue stick or a mouse, though full flight sticks will be supported for the purists. It takes a little getting used to, fighting the urge to control the machine and not the direction, but it does definitely take some of the frustration of manoeuvrability away.

Furthermore tanks are a forthcoming expansion, with battleships marked on game’s lengthy road map too. The aim is that all three will be able to partake in a single mission, though each having different objectives. How they’ll interact is curious as it seems for the most part they’ll be fighting their own kind but the spectacle alone should be worth experiencing.

Rating: Good

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Skylanders Swap Force (Multi)

I’m ashamed to say that the first PS4 game I played was Swap Force. At first I tried to pass it off as it being the first pad available, but secretly I continue to have a soft spot for its child-friendly approach to dungeon crawling. Away from all the toys and gimmicks, that’s what it is: you go through the level beating things up for loot, levelling your skills and character up on the way.

All previous Skylanders are present and compatible and will find an increased skill cap, new abilities and a host of fresh animations awaiting them when they sit on the Portal of Power. Their new Swap Force brethren however add a different twist to proceedings by being able to be split in two. They’re split by a lower half that determines how they move around and a top half that specialises in combat. So if you like Hoot Loops’ teleportation but the gun-slinging skills of Rattle Shake you can form Rattle Loops, who’ll appear behind foes and shoot them in the back. There’s a relatively wide mix and it seems the designers have added a selection of new ways to tackle combat with their choices.

On the whole it’s an evolution rather than a revolution as you wade through the level mostly punching enemies in the face, occasionally being pulled away for a quick mini-game to break up the flow. There’s more variety this time too with time trials, rail slides and lots of level-specific distractions. It’s all wrapped up in a completely new engine which adds a touch of next-gen sheen to everything; characters in particular have far better material mapping, no longer looking so flat.

It may not have the gameplay to persuade many people over the age of 12 to try it, but it’s understandable why they’re playing it safe. They are a big hit and changing that too drastically might upset the fanbase it has created. The new Skylander designs I believe are better than last year’s but I don’t think I can quite justify another hefty outlay for the same core game.

Rating: Good

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Diggs Nightcrawler (PlayStation 3)

As another Wonderbook game this stood out to me not because it was an IP I was invested in but because of how it used the physical book. With Walking with Dinosaurs and Book of Spells they used the Wonderbook as a platform from which the story would emanate but the actual control was done using the Move. The only interaction you had with the book itself was to move to the next scene by turning the page. Diggs treats the book very differently.

The scene I found as I sat down was one where Diggs the bookworm was taking cover from a spider taking pot shots at him down a darkened alleyway full of crates and trash cans. Not immediately sure what to do I nudged the book and found Diggs moved. Rotating the book left and right meant our literary hero ducked from left to right, with an extreme twist sending him out of cover and returning fire. The book in Diggs is the controller.

After I’d disarmed the “dame” – it is after all a take on film noire afterall – we then entered a twisting tower, a spiral staircase heading deep into the book and stretching far above us. Rotating the book would make Diggs move to the centre of the screen, causing him to walk through the level, whilst a sudden jerk upwards would see him leap over gaps and a slow turn cause him to edge more cautiously. This was platforming controls using a piece of cardboard. The Move may be fine for the more abstract approaches of the other games but Diggs’ character driven adventure is perfectly suited to this tactile take on control.

The game itself is a child’s detective tale set in a land of fairy tales but yet again the novel use of the technology impresses me. Questions could be raised about the replayability but as a fancy story time between a parent and their child it should do well. I know I would have been captivated by it when I was younger.

Rating: Good

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Max: The Curse of Brotherhood (Xbox One and Xbox 360)

Max, he of the Magic Marker fame, returns to the land of platforming except this time with his younger sibling in tow. Or at least for a while he does before accidentally banishing him to another plane of existence. We older brothers are careless like that.

He sets off to find him still with his enchanted pen but this time it affects the elements. It can raise pillars of earth from the ground, grow vines on command, and manipulate water to flow in whatever direction you require. All this builds together to create a box of puzzle pieces that Press Play set to good use. Early puzzles maybe focus on using earth columns to turn a bridge into a ramp to reach higher ground, or using vines that also happen to float to navigate a river. Later however they can be used in seriously mischievous ways.

With each elemental power only being able to be triggered in certain areas the results may sound predetermined. On the contrary, there’s a full physics simulation behind them and so there’s the fun of sometimes being able to edge your way past puzzles in ways the designers may not have thought possible. Bridges and movable blocks are incorporated too, and combined with enemies – which you cannot destroy and so must evade – they all add further dynamics to the brainteasers. Some are pure logic, other require timing and dexterity to dodge past pursuers as you dart to next screen.

It’s a great advancement for the series, not resting on its laurels and simply pumping out a quick sequel. There’s a lot of effort has gone into making this notably distinct not just in terms of gameplay but in visuals. Max has gone from hand drawn to full 3D and from the level of detail and character put into the world it’s got a Pixar vibe to it.

Rating: Good

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Eve Valkyrie

Spawned from a tech demo that went down exceedingly well at the last Eve Fanfest, Eve Valkyrie is multiplayer space dogfight that is now a full game in its own right. Pitting faction against faction it embraces the deep fiction using space technology found in the Eve universe as two sets of nimble fighters pirouette through the void in a deadly dance. What is truly remarkable about it however is that it is designed principally for Oculus Rift.

And it’s the perfect vehicle for the new virtual reality headset to; in shooters or adventure games you still feel disconnected because although you feel physically in the world thanks to the headset you’re still using a stick to approximate your legs’ movement. It’s more as though you’re controlling a Segway. With Valkyrie you are sat in a ship and controlling the ship’s movements. Ignore the quibbles about the far flung future and suspend your disbelief as the situation feels far more believable.

There is a level of immersion that is far more than just the setting however. Subtle details such as scratches on the glass give an extra layer of depth and when you look down you see yourself in your flight suit strapped into the cockpit. The game mechanics play their parts too; missile don’t automatically lock on, they are initialised with a button press but then they are only locked on when you have tracked your target with your head for a number of seconds. It’s a delicate twist but one measured to remove people’s reliance with tweaking camera motions on an analogue stick and forcing them to use their neck instead.

All in all the effect is remarkable. Initially enemy fighters are but just dots in the distance but as you close and engage all hell breaks loose. As you bank attempting to avoid being shot down your head is peering this way and that, desperate to keep your eyes on your own target. In the heat of battle it’s so unique as you feel that there is no way other than with CCP and Oculus Rift that you feel this exhilarating feeling could exist. All it will take anyone to be sold will be when an enemy fighter streaks closely by overhead as I defy anyone not to find their neck snapping back in a natural reaction to track the threat.

Rating: Awesome

About James Thomas

I make my living as a programmer at a British games developer. In my spare time I try and spread myself between writing, gaming, drumming, goalkeeping, rolling dice and keeping my hair blue. Somewhere around that my wife fits in. Disclaimer: the views expressed are my own and do not neccessarily reflect those of my employer.