PC Gamer

In this week's episode of No Trace, I ruin Lady Boyle's masquerade ball with a bit of planning, a lot of luck, and a relatively small amount of unplanned crisis. By my standards - and if you've watched the previous episodes in the series, you can make up your own mind about how low that particular bar is set - this is probably the purest execution of the No Trace concept so far. At least in so far as I don't have to deal with rubber aristocrats or murder innocent people to cover my inept backside. As ever, spoilers within.

As everyone's favourite flying passive-aggressive is fond of telling us, this really will be Lady Boyle's last party. Ladies will move. Gentlemen will move. Somebody will ring an alarm. There may or may not be a fire on the roof.

(There isn't actually a fire on the roof. Nor can I, by the game's rules, throw any elbows. I will throw a few more Corvo kicks, however.)

You can watch all of the previous episodes in the series here, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for the rest of our video things. Check out Tom's Dishonored review for more on why it's one of the most exciting stealth games released this year.
PC Gamer
black ops 2 header

Everybody’s second-favourite Call of Duty sub-franchise returns, picking through the carnage of the preceding game’s CIA conspiracy while simultaneously barrelling onward into the cyber-enhanced future-war of 2025.

The game flits between control of David Mason, son of the first Blops’ protagonist, and flashbacks to (not terribly) covert missions taking place during the conflicts of the late 20th century. For the most part, it follows familiar Call of Duty rote: enemies swarm out and you pop their heads and push forward. Like Whack-a-mole, but with foreigners. You shoot men in 1980s Afghanistan. You shoot men and robots in future-LA. Hither and thither, men are shot, their demise serving a globe-trotting anti-terrorism yarn that would be amusingly ludicrous if it weren’t laser-targeted to evoke actual middle-American paranoia.

But before we get to that: let me tell you about my horse. My horse keeps on falling through the ground. It doesn’t fall far – just up to its flanks – but it’s very hard to fend off a Russian assault on a half-buried horse. I can’t get off my horse because I haven’t quite reached the horse-dismounting checkpoint. I am stuck. I reload and reload and reload and eventually make it through.

I mention this because my problem with Blops 2 and CoD in general is not that they are cinematic shooters of little mechanical imagination or meaningful interactivity – I’m completely cool with that. CoD is essentially Duck Hunt with multidirectional movement and a hysterically self-pitying, bellicose view of global politics. That’s OK. That’s allowed. But I take issue when I repeatedly crash through its flimsy world into the unglamorous workings behind.

It’s not even that Blops 2 is buggy: it’s just so inflexible and brittle as to splinter at the most gentle pressure in any direction other than the one in which it is ordained to move. Playing it is to tiresomely re-analyse the ever-shifting boundaries of interaction. The very first level kills you if you stray outside the invisibly defined battle zone; later you are gifted with an entire canyon to roam – assuming your horse remains above ground level.

At one point, I found myself stuck on a beach while angry locals swarmed through the jungle behind. The sign above my AI partner said, ‘Follow’. However, he had stopped. I’d been told there were some boats on the beach, which would seem like a mission-critical observation, were it possible to interact with them. “Keep running, Mason!” shouts my AI partner, apparently unaware that we are hemmed into this tiny sandy deathzone by invisible walls. Several reloads later, I discover that I have to press F on my companion and initiate an ending cutscene. Ah.

This seems like a shame because it torpedoes one of Black Ops 2’s most ambitious endeavours. At key points during the game you are given choices which dramatically change its outcome. But so trammelled are you in the interim that you may not realise your own power.

When the opportunity arose to execute someone, I couldn’t work out how to decline – or even if I could. I tried shooting other people in the room, but the gun just didn’t fire. I tried to wait the decision out, but eventually I assumed there was only one interactive option available. Bang. Sorry. Deciding whether or not to kill someone should be dramatic, but here it felt more like attempting to interpret faded washing instructions. Can I tumble dry this?

Still, such pivotal moments, when they work, do perk interest in the otherwise daft plot as it maniacally flings itself around history, occasionally stamping on the bits of it wingnuts don’t like. Despite all the techno-gobbledegook, conspiracy, brainwashing and betrayal, Black Ops 2 presents a paint-by-numbers world, in which the primary colours are fear, jingoism and self-righteous aggression. In this version of reality, Islamic terrorists are elided with South American socialists, hackers and anti-capitalist protesters.

The game’s arch-villain, Raul Menendez, is a product of American interventionism gone awry, but if there’s a warning there, it’s subsumed by the batshit fervour of his personal quest for revenge. Menendez is not a nice man (you can tell because he has a scar) and his response to his violation by America is to go around yelling and kneecapping people, so it’s hard to sympathise with him. That we are only encouraged to worry about American foreign policy inadvertently creating Menendez-like monsters is itself troubling, but I suppose people whose lives were just quietly and terribly fucked don’t make exciting antagonists.

After this calamitous introduction to the campaign, however, Blops 2 settles down. Its set-pieces become more coherent (if not the plot) and the majority of its novelties work. Except this time, there are no egregiously annoying infinite spawns. Indeed, the game sidesteps many of the series’ clichés. Turret sections are subverted almost the instant they begin, as are other staples: the slow-motion breach and clear, the last-second gun-toss.

Elsewhere, futuristic gadgetry brings welcome variety. You can target enemies with a fleet of drones or hunker behind shambling quadrupedal mechs. Their power is most visible in the radical addition of Strike Force, a simplistic RTS gamemode which runs in parallel to the campaign. Using a high-altitude view, you capture points, defend them, protect convoys and rescue hostages. At any point you can dive into the brain of a soldier or robot and take direct control. The major weakness is the AI – the lamentable pathfinding is all the more visible in the top-down view – but its incompetence obligates you to get your hands dirty, and so creates the delightful tension between strategy and ground tactics. It’s messy, perhaps, but fun: rarely in a Call of Duty game do you get the entire toybox to play with all at once.

Black Ops 2 also manages occasional spectacle, despite a creaking engine. The recreation of a Yemeni hillside township is both visually and spatially fascinating, a wonderful chaos of alleys and stairwells, offering as much vertical variation as horizontal. Elsewhere, an exclusive, floating mega-resort has been taking notes from Brink’s super-white sea-faring skyline – a dazzling, crisp utopia which is disturbingly cathartic to smash.

Exploring that Yemeni township is all the better in multiplayer. In fact, everything is better in multiplayer. Add a few real people, and levels that were inert backdrops to the campaign now reveal a more delicate construction: multiple strata and intertwining paths, every space run through with dozens of sightlines to keep you on your toes. On the deck of a burning aircraft carrier, your objective is to minimise your exposure, skipping between coverpoints, constantly craning this way and that to ensure you aren’t being flanked. A railway station generates an ongoing flow of combat through multiple, looping routes. Rarely do you find a position which isn’t in some way compromised, forcing continual movement.

Myriad multiplayer modes are divided and duplicated among a variety of playlists, although most of the new additions, like the roaming king-of-the-hill gametype Hardpoint, are fairly unadventurous reconfigurations of existing rulesets. The ‘party game’ playlist contains the most outlandish departures from regular Call of Duty gunplay – here you earn extra bullets with kills or automatically cycle through the game’s armoury.

Treyarch have made some canny rebalancing decisions: the special rewards formerly known as Killstreaks have evolved into Scorestreaks. Helping your team with objectives now contributes to earning UAV surveillance, drone strikes and other devastating powers. The unlockable-arms-race seems less painful for new players, too, thanks to an ample starting kit.

This is all to the good – but is it a reinvention worth $60/£40? The menus are biased toward gamepad controls and the lack of dedicated servers is regrettable. To my tastes, Battlefield 3 still remains a broader and deeper (and cheaper) online offering, zipping easily between grand vehicular modes and tight close-quarters firefights. And yet, perhaps because of Battlefield’s wider focus, it doesn’t quite deliver on the instantly gratifying bouts of hectic, adrenalising chaos that we see here.

Plus, Battlefield doesn’t have zombies. Blops 2’s horror-comedy wave-survival mode is its most elaborate yet: a series of four maps that can be played separately or as one. Each location is discretely contained, but visited periodically by a bus service which optionally takes players onto the next. While holding up in one location allows players to fortify it, upgrades and items may lure them onto the next stop. The bus won’t wait, however, initiating a mad scramble every time players hear the insistent honking of its horn – a microcosm of Left 4 Dead’s dramatic finales.

Killing Floor and Left 4 Dead offer comparable thrills, and arguably more refined mechanics, but this is nonetheless an admirable component of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2’s formidable and mildly refreshed online package. Without it, the singleplayer’s occasional innovations do little to elevate the formula from vapidity, or help forgive its unpalatable tenor.
PC Gamer - PC Gamer
Podcast 79

Chris, Tom Senior, and Rich discuss the soon-on-PC Assassin's Creed 3, Football Manager 2013, Planetside 2, some game called Call of Duty, and much more - including plenty of Twitter questions and the first novelty physical challenge in the podcast's history.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here and download the MP3 directly from here.

Please excuse Chris' periodic background coughing, by the way. He's currently recovering from the plague but is trying to hold on to his cough because he feels that it lends him an air of tragic defiance. He is wrong. It's just gross.

Apologies if we didn't get around to your Twitter questions this week - we had a lot more than we had time for. Hopefully we'll fit a few into the next episode.

Show notes
Assassin's Creed 3 will have fewer bugs on PC, say Ubisoft.
Chris Schilling's Football Manager 2013 review.
PC Gamer
Skyrim Diary 14 - Dragon

This is the diary of me attempting to play Skyrim using only Illusion magic: I'm not allowed any weapons, armour, or magical items, and I can't attack anyone directly. The first entry is here, or you can see all entries to date here.

A hail of arrows shoots past me, and I scramble up some rubble to get away from the Giant. I look back to see if he's following, just in time to see him crumple a guard like a tin can. Oh Lord. Sorry guard!

The Giant stomps towards me. I still don't have any stamina to sprint with, and I haven't really got anywhere else to run to, so I just run to the other side of the tower. More arrows pelt him as he trudges round after me, into full view of the rest of the guards. At first this seems like a good thing, but then he stomps off into their ranks and starts crushing them one by one.

I do the only thing that seems to irritate him more than being physically injured: try to Calm him down. He turns and runs for me. Let's go around the tower again!

I scamper on a little, then turn back to see if he's following. He's not. He's found Irileth, the Jarl's housecarl, and is beating her to a pulp. She can't actually die because she's critical to the plot, so he's just incapacitating her over and over again, beating her back into the same hole every time she gets up.

I can't help feeling almost partly responsible for this. I anti-Calm him again, and he comes for me.

By my third lap around the tower, the giant's killed all but two of the guards, and the housecarl is on her knees again. The Giant raises his club above her, two more arrows thunk into him, and he goes limp. He crashes to the ground, finally dead.

I look sheepishly at the two surviving guards, then loot the corpse.

The dragon's body crashed down a long way from the watchtower, and as I'm about to head over to it, the guard who killed the giant stops me.

"Hey, I know you." Oh God. Not now. I must have a bounty on my head in this district, though I can't remember why. I suggest he's made a mistake.
"No, there's no mistake, you're a wanted woman, and it's time you paid for your crimes."
I blew all my money on Sarah the Implausible Horse, and all my most valuable possessions - my health potions - are stolen property. Getting arrested right now would be really, really problematic and really, really embarrassing.

But strangely, I have one dialogue option I've never seen before. I try it.
"I don't have time for this. Do you?"
The guard reflects. "You know what? You're not worth it. You can be some other guard's problem."


I'm almost at the dragon-corpse when I stop again. I see something bright in the bushes. It's a ghost... of a wolf. And there's a guy who looks like John Malkovich pushing his face through a mop running along behind him. Belrand?! Holy shit, man! Exactly how tough are you? And when did you land?

We trot up to the dragon corpse together, and it melts in front of our eyes. I'm shovelling its gold and valuable bones into my pockets when its soul flows through me, revealing to the city and the world that I am the Dragonborn, Skyrim's only hope of salvation.

We're all in quite a lot of trouble.
PC Gamer
Kingston Beast RAM

Memory specialists Kingston have hit us with a one-two combo of brand new solid state drives and a whole new memory module they’re calling the Beast.

As if the memory market wasn't already macho enough, Kingston are looking to sex things up with the latest addition to their Predator line-up of memory upgrades. It’s all ostensibly dual-channel DDR3 in speeds ranging from 1600MHz up to 2400MHz and in kits of up to 64GB (sixty-four gigabytes! I felt that needed emphasising), with a range of memory latency ratings too. The Beast title is being given to the modules carrying the new “viciously aggressive” heatspreader design and that 64GB capacity is the largest in the HyperX performance memory family.

Silly name aside, these should be pretty good sticks, especially at the lower latency end. And Kingston can usually be relied upon to get as aggressive with its pricing as it does its heatspreader design and naming conventions. Grr!

Not content with that Kingston are also releasing a new generation of SSDNow solid state drives, the V300. The V series of SSDs are Kingston’s value range of drives - that’s not to say though that they’re any slouches.

As is Kingston’s way, these new drives are all running the same SF-2281 LSI SandForce controller we’ve seen in countless drives, but this time it’s being paired up with new 19nm NAND Flash modules. Kingston have also been working with LSI to customise the firmware of the drive to optimise it for the new memory too.

That should help with the drop-off in performance you traditionally get when it comes to working with incompressible data using the SandForce controller. That’s already compressed files such as images and video, which we shunt around quite a lot.

You can pick the new SSDNow V300 series up in three flavours, 60GB, 120GB and 240GB, in either desktop or laptop upgrade trim. At the moment we can only find them in 60GB and 120GB capacities though, for £60 and £100 respectively.

We should be seeing review samples very soon.
PC Gamer
Skyrim Dragonborn top

In an effort to recapture the limelight a soldier from Fallout 3 has invaded the upcoming Dragonborn expansion for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Desperate to relive the glory days of 2008, when Fallout 3 was quite popular, the Brotherhood of Steel member tunnelled his way into Tamriel. His plan to set up a shop in Whiterun before Skyrim's release where thwarted by a poor sense of direction and an inability to see anything through his helmet's ridiculously tiny eye slit. "It was the worst thing that's ever happened apart from the thing with the giant robot," he said. "And no, I don't want to talk about it."

The soldier, who wishes to keep his identity a secret, broke down quickly under questioning, revealing that all he wanted was to have an adventurer stray within earshot so he could loudly announce his life story. "Am I doing it right?" he asked forlornly, before folding his arms and resuming a well-practiced idle pose.

Authorities vowed publicly to have the soldeir removed in due course, but added that they couldn't right away, as they were too busy admiring the weird creatures and "mad awesome sky-lizards" present in the latest batch of Dragonborn screenshots.

PC Gamer

The Slender: Source mod, now known as "Faceless," has been having some trouble getting onto Steam despite heavy support from voters. "We've been the No. 1 game since the service launched and have yet to be Greenlit due to copyright issues with Slender Man, which is a free-to-use entity, and we've even gotten permission from the creator Victor Surge," designer, Justin Ross, told Joystiq.

Ross also pointed that similar games have already made it through the greenlight process. "We were happy finding out that we were the most popular game on the service," Ross said. "However, we feel a little bit screwed over as we have attained the highest rank, and yet some really arguable games have gotten in. Especially The Intruder, which is essentially the same premise of our game and from what I've heard uses the Slender Man mythos as well."

In a follow-up post on the Faceless Greenlight blog programmer Tom Clay insists that the mod hasn't been banned from Greenlight altogether, it's just being held up until its creators "have proven that we have the permission from Victor Surge’s option holder."

"Faceless is not being canceled, or halted. We’re continuing to develop the game, and we will finish it. Come hell or high water."

Release was scheduled for December, but that's been pushed back "to an unknown date." Judging from the brief trailers Ethereal have put out so far it could be the most accomplished take on the Slender format yet. It'll face competition from the likes of Slender: The Arrival, a high fidelity take on Slender: The Eight Pages which is due "in the coming months."

If Faceless never gets the Steam go-ahead, it'll still be released on ModDB. Head to the Faceless page to see more screenshots and videos, like the latest trailer, which I've plonked right here:

PC Gamer

It's perhaps a bit cheeky of Rekcahdam - "Composer-Musician-Hacker-IndieGameDeveloper-Philanthropist" and, on his birth certificate, Roger Hicks - to embed a link to Celestial Mechanica's Bandcamp page within the game itself, but when he's just released the game for free, and that excellent soundtrack for a measly dollar, I'm ready to forgive him just about anything. Celestial Mechanica is a snappy exploration puzzle platformer - think Eternal Daughter meets Knytt - featuring wonderful music and pixel art, courtesy of Hicks and Super Crate Box artist Paul Veer.

If you're wondering where you know Hicks from, he also did the soundtrack for the similarly free Zelda-a-like Seedling. Hicks and Veer are currently working on an expanded version of Celestial Mechanica, which will be around 2.5 times bigger than this now-free now-taster version of the game.

Hicks thanks everyone who purchased Celestial Mechanica - "because of you guys I have food to eat and money to develop my next big project!" - but if you've paid money for it in the last two months and you're annoyed that it's now free, he's offering to "send you something for your troubles!" Which is awfully nice of him. You can grab the game here, for gratis.

PC Gamer

This weekend, Guild Wars 2 capital Lion's Arch will be besieged by an army of giant crab monsters from the Sea of Sorrows in a one-time event. Get ready to defeat them on home soil, then launch a weekend long invasion culminating in server-wide assaults against a boss that will only ever be defeated once. Can't wait? We've put together a quick video to preview the new content - the invasion, their newly discovered island, and a randomised, infinite dungeon called Fractals of the Mists.

(Yes, that's how you pronounce 'weekend'. What of it?)

The Lost Shores is a free update for all active players, kicking off tomorrow - November 16th, to be clear, and November 16th 2012 for any time travellers who need an extra push - at 12:00PM PST / 9:00 PM CET / 8:00 PM GMT. The new enemies, the Karka, will start by invading Fort Marriner's western gate. One dev told us that everyone will be boosted to Level 80 while in this area, another not. Even at Level 80 though, these guys don't mess around. They get two health bars to represent their hardened shells, and armies of hatchling facehugger types to get in your way and slow you down.

After the initial invasion, players will be sent around Tyria in search of a solution - literally - capable of weakening the Karkas' shells and allowing for a more successful counter-attack. From there, Saturday sees an invasion of their island in the Sea of Sorrows, Southsun Cove, where everyone will work together with both the Lionsguard and a trading group called the Consortium. Here, everyone will be boosted to Level 80 for the duration. Finally, on Sunday, big boss the Ancient Karka wants to say hello..

Evil? No. Just a little crabby.

The Fractals of the Mists also opens for business this weekend, as does a new beta PvP map, and they'll be sticking around - as will the new island, though ArenaNet is hazy on what will actually be there once the Karka are dealt with. Fractals of the Mists offers a set of challenges, randomly selected, covering the classic RPG zones - volcano, aquatic, swamp, Aztec, Futuristic sorry, that's the Crystal Maze. After every three, you get a break. After every six, there's a boss fight with a tentacled monstrosity called the Jade Maw in the middle of a solidified ocean. Then, the difficulty rises, introducing enemies capable of inflicting Guild Wars 2's new Agony condition, but also serving up a new item tier, Ascended, and special infusions that let you mitigate and survive it. This tier has been a little controversial, but so far at least, its mechanics only apply to this one dungeon.

See the full details on The Lost Shores here. To take part, you simply have to be in Guild Wars 2 for the attack on Lion's Arch. If you miss the initial assault there, an in-game UI will point you to where you need to be for the duration of the event. If you miss the weekend, you're out of luck. ArenaNet is working on something for December though, so keep your eyes peeled for winter-themed updates.
PC Gamer
Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light

Lara Croft and the Spear of Infinite Spearing would be a better name for this top-down Tomb Raider, which has won me over in the last half-hour by being both good and also sort-of free. RPS note that it's available to play in Chrome now through the Core site, which lets you watch ad to earn game time. Six minutes in, the game minimizes and a box pops up offering a choice of advertisements, each worth a different number of minutes.

I watched a one minute advert for Mini Ninjas and got 24 minutes of play, which seems like a reasonable deal if you're just looking to try it out. If you can't stand those sudden interruptions, you can play the ad-free version for $10. If you're not interested in this browser-based malarky a demo is also available through Steam.