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‘Observation’ is a tense, atmospheric puzzler where you play a modern HAL 9000 – TechCrunch

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When you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, do you find yourself criticizing HAL 9000’s machinations and thinking, “I could do better than that!” If so, Observation may be right up your alley. In it you play a space station AI called SAM that is called upon by the humans on board to help resolve a deadly mystery — though you may be a part of it yourself.

The game takes place in the near future on board the titular space station, a sort of expanded version of the ISS. You are booted up by astronaut Emma Fisher after an unspecified event that seems to have damaged the station. You, as the Systems Administration and Maintenance AI, are tasked with helping her as she first tries to simply survive the immediate aftermath, then starts to investigate what happened.

To do so you perform various tasks such a digital agent would do, such as unlocking and opening hatches, checking for system errors, collecting information from damaged laptops and so on. It’s mostly done through the many cameras mounted throughout the station, between which you can usually move freely and change the angle so you can get at this hatch or that scrap of paper on the wall.

But from the beginning it’s clear that this is not a simple case of a micrometeorite or some other common space anomaly. I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but suffice it to say that like in 2001, the mystery runs deeper than that, and SAM itself is implicated.

Observation is a puzzle game that plays out in real time, though you are rarely presented with a task that needs to be completed in a rush — your commands are rarely an urgent “Open the pod bay doors, SAM!” and more “Something’s wrong with the cooling system, so this hatch won’t open, can you look into it?”

And so you search using your cameras for, say, the server that controls that system, or the scrap of paper that has its schematic so you can reboot it. These solutions are usually just a matter of being, well, observant, but occasionally can be frustrating gadget hunts where you don’t know what you’re looking for among the busy background of a working space station and the detritus of the disaster.

If you’re having trouble with something, chances are you’re overthinking it. I had to look up the solution to one situation, and it turns out I had simply overlooked some interactive objects because they looked so much like background. (For the record, it turns out you can turn stuff on and off at power outlets.)

When you have to operate something, like an airlock, there is usually a little minigame to complete in which you must figure out which series of buttons to hit or hold — nothing too taxing, just a way to make it so you aren’t just pressing the Action Button all the time. The controls can be a bit clunky, such as one that had me hold down s to do one thing, then press and hold w at the same time. Do they not understand the same finger does both those things? Fortunately you can remap controls and although mouse movement is a bit stiff, there’s no need for twitchy response time.

Although the puzzles are a bit simplistic, it’s a pleasure navigating the station because it is so beautifully realized. The creators clearly did a ton of research and Observation, that is to say the station, is a convincing 21st century operation — cameras and laptops are stashed everywhere, and there are sticky notes from the Russian and Chinese denizens, luggage and experiments tucked away or half finished.

It’s also all viewed through a combination of post-processing effects that make it all feel like you really are viewing it through a security camera system. These effects are a bit inconsistent — at one time you’ll hear what sounds like the whine of an 80s drive or system spinning up; others reflect a sort of Windows 98SE aesthetic; your own interface looks like something out of Terminator. It isn’t cohesive, exactly, but the truth is neither are the systems on board the ISS and other space hardware. And it’s a nice touch that lets the developer differentiate each part of the station and the different devices you connect to.

The modeling of the main character, Emma, is also excellent, though lapsing a bit into uncanny valley territory due to some clunky animations here and there. Maybe it’s just the microgravity. But one thing that can’t be faulted is the voice acting — Emma’s actor is brilliant, and other voices you encounter are also well done. Considering the amount of dialogue in the game, this could have been a dealbreaker, but instead it’s a pleasure to hear. Ambient audio is likewise lovely — wear headphones.

The atmosphere is oppressive and tense, but not exactly scary; don’t expect a xenomorph to bust out of any vents, but also don’t expect Space Station Simulator 2019. This is a serious, adult (though not explicit or violent) sci-fi narrative and, from what I’ve played, a smart and interesting one.

I haven’t finished the game (which was sent to me in advance for review… but I’ve been in an intense love/hate relationship with Mordhau), but based on what I’ve played I can easily recommend Observation to anyone with a mind to take on mildly difficult puzzles and experience a well-presented story in a carefully crafted environment. Space buffs will also enjoy. At less than $25 right now (less with this week’s sale going on), I’d say it’s a no-brainer.

Observation released earlier this week on the Epic Games and PlayStation stores.

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Raised by Wolves S2 teaser reminds us why we loved the series—until the S1 finale

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The second season of HBO’s new original sci-fi series, Raised by Wolves is coming in February.

The first teaser for S2 of Raised by Wolves is here, and our feelings are mixed. On the one hand, once again, the visuals are amazing and we’re thrilled that the strikingly androgynous Danish actress Amanda Collin is returning to star as Mother. Her extraordinary performance anchored the first season’s narrative arc and spooky, other-worldly vibe, and that same moody, disquieting viibe is present in the teaser.  On the other hand, we were seriously disappointed in the S1 finale, which has shaken our confidence that S2 will rebound from that fiasco to become the genuinely original and visionary series it initially had promised to be.

(Major spoilers for the S1 finale below.)

The series was created by Aaron Guzikowski, with Ridley Scott serving as executive producer and directing the first two episodes. As I’ve written previously, the story involves two androids serving as Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim) figures on a strange virgin planet, Kepler 22b (an actual observed extrasolar planet), after Earth has been destroyed by the outbreak of a religious war. They are programmed to incubate, birth, and raise human children to rebuild the population and set up an atheist civilization to keep the human race from going extinct. It’s a harsh, dangerous environment, even for androids, and only one of their original six children survived: Campion (Winta McGrath).

Then the remnants of an extreme religious sect from Earth, the Mithraic, who worship Sol, found their way to the same planet aboard a spaceship, or ark, called Heaven. The reconnaissance team tried to abduct Campion and kill Mother.

That’s when we discovered that Mother has special abilities: she’s actually a reprogrammed weaponized android called The Necromancer, who once slaughtered atheists back on Earth. Her deadly sonic screams—which can disintegrate humans in seconds—were turned on the Mithraic, and she crashed their ark onto the planet. Her new maternal instincts led her to bring the surviving Mithraic children into her fold.

That did not go over well with the few surviving Mithraic, especially Marcus (Travis Fimmel) and his partner, Sue (Niamh Algar). They were determined to rescue their (technically adopted) son Paul (Felix Jamieson) from Mother and Father, against the orders of the Mithraic leader, Ambrose (Awissi Lakou). The various conflicts inevitably escalated, and the planet itself has its own mysterious secrets and hidden dangers, with the fate of the human race ultimately lying in the balance.

Enlarge / Amanda Collins once again stars as Mother, an android programmed to incubate, birth, and raise human children on an alien planet.

YouTube/HBO Max

Some viewers found the pacing of Raised by Wolves S1 to be too slow, but I genuinely found it atmospheric and weird in interesting ways—until the finale. Mother became pregnant after having virtual sex with her VR creator, “downloading” the required information. Except instead of giving birth to a baby as she’d hoped, Mother literally vomited up a creepy snake with suckers that—I kid you not—can fly with no obvious means of generating lift. In my review, I called it “a jarring, over-the-top ploy that simply wasn’t sufficient payoff for the viewer, and clashed mightily with the original set-up.”

Apparently the flying alien sucker snake (FASS)—which had rapidly grown to an alarming size in the final scene— is going to be a major part of the overall narrative arc for S2. This was not welcome news, especially since the ultimate fates of Mother and Father remained ambiguous. Fortunately, this teaser confirms that the pair will be back in full force for the second season, and there’s barely a hint of the FASS to be seen, apart from a brief glimpse of a snake figure painted on a rock.

Mithraic survivor Marcus (Travis Fimmel) seems to be devolving into one of the strange creatures Mother and Father first encountered in S1.
Enlarge / Mithraic survivor Marcus (Travis Fimmel) seems to be devolving into one of the strange creatures Mother and Father first encountered in S1.

YouTube/HBO Max

It’s not clear what’s happening in terms of plot, but the teaser opens with a shot of a badly injured Mother. “Androids can change, just like human beings,” her voice tells us. Father also has survived, along with the children and Sue. Marcus appears to be devolving into the strange creatures Mother and Father first encountered on the alien planet, and he hasn’t become any less zealous and violent. He’s still got some minion survivors to boss around, and he’s still intent on “bringing purity to this planet.”

Something violent seems to be reawakening in Mother as well, although her primary purpose is still to keep her children safe and find them a new home. The teaser ends ominously. “Perhaps we are becoming too human,” Mother muses, covered in what might just be blood. Will she re-appear in her full Necromancer glory? That would be a sight to see.

The second season of Raised by Wolves will premiere on February 3, 2022, on HBO Max.

The appearance of a flying alien sucker snake ruined the S1 finale for us. Alas, it's rumored to play a major role in S2.
Enlarge / The appearance of a flying alien sucker snake ruined the S1 finale for us. Alas, it’s rumored to play a major role in S2.

Listing image by YouTube/HBO Max

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Activision Blizzard “will not be a part” of this year’s Game Awards show

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Enlarge / A statuette from The Game Awards.

Activision Blizzard will “not be part” of next week’s annual Game Awards broadcast beyond its nominations, award host and creator Geoff Keighley said in a Twitter thread Friday night.

Keighley’s post comes after a more non-committal statement on Activision’s participation published in The Washington Post Friday morning. “We want to support employees and developers” Keighley told the Post before adding “we have to think very carefully about how to proceed here.”

That statement drew widespread condemnation among industry members and watchers on social media in light of ongoing lawsuits and investigations surrounding widespread reports of employee harassment and gender inequity issues.

Activision’s Call of Duty: Warzone will still have a place in the awards, owing to its nomination for “Best Ongoing Game” and “Best Esports Game.” But more than the presentation of actual awards, The Game Awards has risen to prominence in recent years as an annual holiday-season opportunity for publishers to promote trailers and footage of new and upcoming games to an audience of millions.

Activision won’t take place in that kind of paid promotion this year, Keighley said on Twitter. “The Game Awards is a time of celebration for this industry, the biggest form of entertainment in the world,” Keighley wrote. “I also realize we have a big platform which can accelerate and inspire change. We are committed to that, but we all need to work together to build a better and a more inclusive environment so everyone feels safe to build the world’s best games. All of us are accountable to this standard.”

It’s currently unclear whether Activision’s reduced presence at the show represents a significant change from previous plans. Keighley previously told the Post that the recently delayed Diablo 4 and Overwatch 2 would not be shown at this year’s show. But the Post also characterized Keighley’s earlier position on Activision’s potential participation by saying he “supported people coming forward with their stories but also didn’t want to diminish developers’ opportunities to spotlight their games.” Keighley was not immediately available to respond to a request for comment.

Rob Kostich, the president of Activision Blizzard, serves on the Advisory Board for The Game Awards alongside many other major game publishers and executives. There’s been no public indication of any change in that relationship.

Back in 2015, amid an employment dispute between Konami and Metal Gear Solid auteur Hideo Kojima, Keighley used his Game Awards stage to publicly criticize Konami for not allowing Kojima to come to the show to accept his awards. “[Kojima] is still under an employment contract, and it’s disappointing,” Keighley said. “It’s inconceivable to me that an artist like Hideo would not be allowed to come here and celebrate with his peers, his fellow teammates, for such an incredible game as MGS V. That’s the situation we’re in.”

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John Cena’s patriotic killer grows a conscience in Peacemaker trailer

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John Cena reprises his role in The Suicide Squad in new HBO Max spinoff series Peacemaker.

HBO Max has dropped the official full trailer for Peacemaker, the spinoff series based on John Cena’s murderously entertaining character from The Suicide Squad.

As we’ve reported previously, director James Gunn wrote the series last summer during the COVID-19 lockdown, just for fun, but then DC Films approached him about a possible spinoff series for one of the characters in The Suicide Squad. He picked Cena’s Peacemaker, since he felt audiences never got the chance to get to know the character in the film—where, it must be said, he does some Very Bad Things, even for a member of the Suicide Squad. Gunn wanted to make Peacemaker less irredeemable. HBO Max was sufficiently impressed with Gunn’s take that it ordered Peacemaker straight to series.

The eight-episode series is set after the events of The Suicide Squad, specifically after the post-credits scene, in which we learned that Peacemaker had survived what had appeared to be a fatal shooting. The first teaser dropped in October, showing Peacemaker (aka Christopher Smith) being recruited by Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji) for another mission in order to avoid going back to prison.

Once again, he’s basically an assassin, but at least he’s only killing bad people (maybe). He gets assistance from warden John Economos (Steve Agee) of the Belle Reve penitentiary, NSA agent and former Waller aide Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland), and new team member Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks). The cast also includes Robert Patrick (Terminator 2) as Peacemaker’s crusty father, Auggie Smith, who thinks his son is a “nancy-boy”; Freddie Stroma as Adrian Chase (aka Vigilante), a district attorney who fights crime and has rapid-healing abilities; and Nhut Le as Judomaster.

The teaser was heavy on the cheesy, off-color bro-humor, but it showcased Cena’s gift for physical comedy, and the irreverent, over-the-top tone was note-perfect—very much in line with the character. The full trailer opens with Detective Sophie Song (Annie Chang) telling her partner about Peacemaker. “He is a trained killer,” she says, and correctly predicts there will be trouble with “that maniac.” The very next scene is Peacemaker dodging gunfire to get to Harcourt’s getaway car, along with his trusty bald eagle sidekick, Eagley. (“That thing better not crap back there.”)

There’s certainly plenty of violence and explosions—this is Peacemaker, after all—but until now, the Peacemaker we’ve seen would kill pretty much anyone for his country. And he’d still find the time to do some vain macho posturing while he was at it. But the Very Bad events of The Suicide Squad have clearly affected him. (“I’m having… feelings about things.”) Suddenly he has qualms when ordered to kill women and children. And his Daddy Issues start kicking in when he goes to visit Auggie.

Harcourt dismisses Peacemaker as a clown, but Leota thinks “there’s something about him that’s kinda sad.” Even Vigilante warns him about the dangers of too much introspection: “The mind is a den of scorpions better left running from, not toward.” Will his sudden lapse of confidence threaten a vital mission? “Right now the world needs a son of a bitch,” Murn tells him. “And you’re the only one I got.”

The first three episodes of Peacemaker premiere on HBO Max on January 17, 2022. New episodes will air weekly every Thursday after that through February 17, 2022.

Listing image by YouTube/HBO Max

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