A Retrospective

Posted by on Dec 5, 2017 in Editorial

Something this morning triggered a thought for a new project, which I quickly realized was an old project, and that lead to a very short jaunt down memory lane. Having not a lot of active intel to write about, I thought I’d relay this stream of consciousness both for posterity and on the off chance someone out there who believes that blogging started and ended with WordPress can get straightened out a bit.

See, I worked in desktop support after graduating from college with a degree in Biology. I had computer knowledge and got the job through a temp agency. But there were changes happening in the company so I got my foot in the door with a web development company and eventually jumped ship to work there full time. This was great because it was a small company and we as employees had unlimited access to web and DNS hosting, databases, email, FTP…the works.

Being a web developer meant I had the skills and opportunity make whatever I wanted on the off-hours, and what I wanted to make was a gaming news website. Back then I had the support of friends who were as interested in such a thing as I was, although I did all of the design and development work. Problem was, we were about as far from the games industry as folks could be, seeing as how we lived in the Northeast, which was a blank space as far as the industry was concerned in those days. We had no contacts and no cachet, so I built a mechanism into the site that would allow me to enter RSS feeds, parse the content for keywords, sort the content into buckets, and allow us to peruse news and info from other websites as a starting point for our own content. Mostly this process revolved around digesting the info, seeing what other info we might have in the feed bucket about a topic from other sites (as a way to gauge the “importance” of the news), and then writing up the details, thoughts, and opinions on the subject. Of course, we had a full back-end user and content management system, comments, and gallery, so this site was effectively it’s own custom blogging platform.

However, things took a sudden turn when I was contacted out of the blue by someone who claimed to have trademarked the name of the site we were using. Naturally, I checked on this, and he wasn’t lying, but the trademark was filed well after our site had been in operation for several years, giving us prior claim that should have negated any attempt to grab the domain name out from under us. Still, we couldn’t continue to operate using that domain so the site had to go dark. This was at the time that my mother passed away from cancer, so I wasn’t in the mood to fight with this guy overpayment or anything. In the end, I made him pay the transfer fee and gave him the domain (since I wasn’t paying for hosting or anything anyway). I checked in a few years later, and apparently, his business venture was no longer in operation (it had been legit from what I was able to determine) so I guess all’s well that ends.

Over the years, web development kind of greyed out for me; it’s now something I do for The Man, and not for enjoyment. Plus, why reinvent the wheel in the Age of WordPress? Of course, the world has moved on from the days when there were a few respected, non-commercial gaming news sites like Blues and Shacknews. Now gaming news is Big Business, and while it often seems suspiciously like these sites are cannibalizing one another for news briefs rather than getting their info from the relevant sources, for a small potatoes site to do something similar would be the epitome of pointlessness.

Since I had been flying mostly solo during those early years, I opted to take up the e-quill again, first through Blogger, and then through WordPress.com before moving into a dedicated domain name, Cedarstreet.net. Cedar Street was where I lived in college, and I had opted to immortalize that time through a domain and website, but it didn’t quite fit with the subject of games. I came up with Levelcapped in a fit of irony: as primarily an MMO player at the time, I had almost zero level capped characters in any game. Instead, the idea was a play on the insistence that the game changes once a character reaches the cap; so, then, would my blogging focus as I staked out this new parcel of e-space.

My attention was “MMOs”, but not a single MMO. I was probably well away from Ultima Online by this time and was swimming through the WoW-focused explosion of games that were trying to ape WoW’s style while attempting to sell us on how different they were. I went through a LOT of games during that time, which seemed to be in stark contrast to what others were doing by focusing with a white-hot intensity on one game of choice. In retrospect, this was my bad because people seemed to always be on the hunt for specific information, and as they progressed they needed more and more specific information. My MMO tourism was probably good for some people who wanted an overview of esoteric games like Fallen Earth and Neocron, but as I moved on to other games I stopped being a resource for those people who needed the help when I started talking about other games that potentially regular visitors weren’t playing.

As MMOs multiplied and the tribalism set in, discourse took a nasty turn almost everywhere you went. During this period I wanted to focus on why I was writing what I was writing about, and why people might want to read it: our shared love of gaming. It seemed that as people got themselves worked up in justification of their decision to play this game or that, they weren’t focusing on A) talking about what they enjoyed, and B) letting people enjoy what THEY wanted to enjoy. I wanted my posts to provide that positive message that games are made to be enjoyed, not to use as weapons against people who happen to like something other than what we want them to like. There’s just too much diversity on the market to claim that our choices are the RIGHT choices, and we should never block avenues from future consideration as a way to justify our own choices. We aren’t gatekeepers of any kind and should seek to share our love of our hobby with anyone who will listen. Having lived through the era when geekdom was an avenue to ostracism and ridicule, people were squandering their opportunities left and right.

Sadly, Gamergate happened and blew everything to hell. Amidst stories of blacklisting and doxxing of those who preferred to celebrate all kinds of games made by all kinds of people, my tiny corner of the Internet didn’t seem important enough to continue, lest I become someone’s easy target. Was this a mistake, not speaking up? Possibly, in the event of all-out war, but this was just focusing on an entertainment industry which I had no sway over; in my mind, shouting at harassers wouldn’t help the cause of the oppressed, and would only turn their focus on to me and my family. Instead, I decided to go on hiatus. Blogging didn’t seem to be much in vogue anymore anyway, with the prevalence of YouTube and the rise of Twitch and other game streaming services. A younger generation (who probably weren’t even yet born when I started my blogging career) seemed to be moving away from READING and wanted more hyperkinetic hosts and wacky facial expressions in their gaming info. Truth be told, a picture is worth a thousand words, and watching a Twitch stream or Let’s Play on YouTube is a better means of discovery for someone interested in a new game than some random old guy writing 1000+ words on the same subject. My readership had never been significant enough to worry about leaving people behind, and so I stopped my Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule and contemplated my options.

That kind of brings us to today. As you can tell, this post isn’t about A GAME so much as it is about a transcendence that I think a lot of gamers find themselves experiencing as they get older. While we continue to play, and continue to obsess over learning the ins and outs of our chosen titles, we also start to look back at a history of gaming, both personal and writ large. I don’t have access to a wealth of financial data spanning multiple studios or consecutive years, but I have a sense of where things have been that extend back to a time before the current popular market demographic. Today’s Twitch is yesterday’s blogging, which was that day’s forums, which were that day’s USENET. It’s kind of weird to find a niche of content delivery and attach oneself to it, and then to watch as it moves out of vogue for something that doesn’t seem to make much sense, but Twitch and YouTube aren’t any less important or relevant, for all of the controversies they seem to engender. Likewise, there’s still a lot of good to squeeze out of blogging because the Power of the Written Word will never fall out of favor.

Now I’m kind of in flux. I am not really playing A Game with any regularity, or even gaming at all with regularity. I thought I wanted to try and make a go of streaming, but it turned out to be quite the hassle and not really worth the effort to me. I still engage with folks on Twitter, but blog less because while blogging about ideas can be a kind of therapy, I hang out in our Combat Wombat Discord server which affords real-time conversations that can offer quicker catharsis than spending time writing and editing and publishing and promoting to a potentially indifferent audience can muster. Obviously, I’m not ABANDONING blogging, but I also think that Levelcapped is going to become less of a gaming-centric blog and more of a general catch-all space for slow rambles about games, technology, and the kinds of thoughts that people start to have as they look over their shoulders and back into the past.

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Xenoblade Chronicles 2

Posted by on Dec 5, 2017 in Editorial, Xenoblade Chronicles 2

 

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (i.e. XC2) was to be my Hail Mary, my Japanese Savior, and the final opportunity to pull my Switch buyer’s remorse out of the toilet. As the Switch had been an impulse buy, and with no strong loyalty to any classic Nintendo properties, I hadn’t been snagged by any of the existing Switch games — yes, that includes Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which I personally consider unnecessarily frustrating and overdone in all the wrong places. What I wanted was a game that gave me a reason to take the device from its cradle and use it until the battery died. I hoped that XC2 might fill that niche, being a game in the more traditional JRPG mold.

How’d that work out for me? Let’s just say that if they make a movie out of my relationship with the Switch, it’ll be a legitimate nail-biter.

Watching Titans die at sea is a spectator sport.

You start the game as Rex, a salvager, who lives on the back of a Titan and through exposition explains why and what that means: humanity was kicked off the planet’s singular land-mass by the Creator and was consequently forced to live on the back of these massive creatures that plied the seas. Why Rex is living alone on a relatively small (yet still massive) Titan was not addressed (aside from “dead parents”), but his job was. Salvagers dive beneath the seas to collect goods that end up down there either through accidents or because a Titan dies because when you and thousands of people live on the back of a mortal creature, you have to be aware that someday you’re going to take an unscheduled trip to visit Davey Jones when your neighborhood literally gets old and dies.

Rex is hired by a local Teamster because he’s from a particular Titanic (oh the irony) neighborhood. The team that needs his expertise doesn’t say what they’re after, but it’s quickly understood that they are looking for a special “Blade” called the Aegis…

…and this is where we’ll leave the plot and talk about the mechanics.

A “Blade” is a sentient elemental force that is bound to a “Driver” who wields the power of the Blade. In the presentation, the Blade is an aspect that acts more like Ash’s Pikachu than anyone else’s Caterpie in that they hang out and factor into the cut-scenes and aren’t simply deployed in combat. A Driver can have up to three Blades at the ready but can have more on deck. Blades come in three major varieties: tanks, healers, and DPS, so yay for boring consistency, I guess. 

The point of a Blade is really to impart Arts (or is it Artes?) to the Driver during combat. Arts are special moves that can be deployed after they’ve charged. A Driver charges his or her Arts by performing mundane auto-attacks. Combat in XC2 isn’t all that active; once you target an enemy, draw your weapon (an active process), and are within range, the Driver will begin a 1-2-3 cycle of attacks which do increasing damage within the cycle. For example, first hit might do 15 damage, second does 45, and third does 75, at which point the attacks return to stage 1, then stage 2, and then stage 3. Repeat until someone is dead. But the key is to find the best time to use available Arts, in a process called Cancelling. This really just means timing your Art use to coincide with the auto-attack animation for maximum benefit. What’s the benefit? Well, the purpose of the Art is one, but foe each Art used, another meter is filled. This one has four stages, and relates more directly to the Blade that the Driver has deployed. Using this special Art, the Blade will attack via a QTE. There’s really a lot more to things than this paragraph might indicate, but I’m not far enough along in the story, nor do I have enough party members yet to take advantage of all of the weird combos and chains that can be produced through skillful Art deployment.

So there I was, trucking along and enjoying the game. I was really feeling like XC2 was going to redeem my Switch purchasing decision, but that was only until I got to the first major city and found that Monolithsoft doesn’t give a damn about your sense of what is nice and good in the world. As I’m running across the wide open plain between the start of Chapter 2 and the first city, the mobs were as thick as ticks in the summertime but ranged from level 4 to level 8fucking1, all mixed up in an absolute aggro nightmare. I managed to haul ass to the city, but after that, I died anytime I went outside. Considering all my missions required me to go outside, that was going to be difficult. Even when I decided to grind low-level mobs right outside the doorway in the hopes of leveling up a little, I learned the hard way that the advertised level made no difference. There are normal mobs, and specialty “named” mobs of the same phenotype, so telling them apart is next to impossible. That’s how I ended up dying to a level 5 bunny who was made of kevlar and was packing an arsenal that would give the Punisher a boner.

So I turned to the Internet because even though the game has tutorials, there’s only so much real explanation that can be given in a few lines of text on the screen. There are all kinds of weird systems, like the pouch mechanic which allows you to apply timed buffs in the form of food, drink, and even board games and musical instruments. There’s item equipping, and a whole array of Weapon and Skill points to be allotted. And someone, somewhere at Monolithsoft figured it’d be cool to not only allow you to level by doing but to side level by spending some special category of XP whenever you sleep at an inn. Don’t forget to sleep now and then, even if it means you need to fast-travel out of your current story instance, kids.

With this and other Internet-sourced knowledge, I returned to the game. I also said “fuck it” because if I couldn’t get past this hump then the game would be dead to me anyway, so I started taking stupid chances…like swimming in clouds. There’s too much to really explain what this means, exactly, but I thought that jumping off a Titan and into the cloudy sea would be like falling off a cliff, except…it’s not. And the main story wanted me to cross a bit of that cloudy sea to get to my objective. So I did, and with my new found knowledge at hand, I was able to move the story along to a point where I got more NPCs in my party, which helped with more progress.

As of this point, I am pleased with the game again. In fact, I made such progress that I managed to not just progress, but to slaughter an entire nation’s worth of soldiers. This is not the mission objective, but as I’m running around trying to find the objective on this map, I keep running into more enemies. I just can’t not kill them all.

So, a few bullet point caveats for those who are on the fence:

  • There are no Japanse voice options out of the box. There is a free DLC that adds that for those who want it.
  • That means the VOs are in English. In fact, many of the characters have accents from around the UK. I know some people (a.k.a. my daughter) demand that Japanese VO, but I kinda like the non-American accents.
  • When you move in combat your attacks stop, which kinda sucks especially when some of your Arts are designed to be triggered from behind or to the side of your enemy
  • And the movement is really sllloowww in combat. There’s always a lag between what you’re doing and when you’re allowed to move. Rex starts out with an Anchor Shot Art that generates a healing potion, but you best not wait to use it until you’re on death’s door, because the chances of you being able to move to pick it up in time are pretty damn slim.
  • I have a beef with the compass navigation. The current mission location is highlighted on the compass, but it has an obscenely wide swing, meaning that even if you turn a full 180 degrees the indicator is still in the center of the compass even when you’re really, really close to it.
  • And the map sucks because you can’t scroll or zoom or add custom waypoints.
  • Pyra’s boobs do not need to be as large as they are.

think those represent the limit of my complaints at the moment. My latest investigations and circumstances don’t alleviate the fact that I could get stomped by a level 81 gorilla on the plains while I’m looking for level 12 quest rewards, so there’s that.

Right now, though, it looks like I’ll be using my Switch more in the coming weeks than I have in the run-up to now. I can also recommend XC2 with at least one thumb up because I have already put about 7 hours into the game (which is a lot of consecutive hours for me) and I think that says something about the power of the game on a system that was in danger of collapsing under the weight of a blanket of dust.

 

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Thanksgiving Recap 2017

Posted by on Nov 28, 2017 in Editorial, Scopique Plays, Virtual Reality

I don’t really have anything pressing to say here but feel that I should surface from time to time in order to justify the cost of renewing the domain, so here goes.

As one might expect, I spent a lot of time with the Odyssey HMD. I finally got a VR version of Minecraft, which is amazing. I started hollowing out a mountain in order to build my own “Hall of the Mountain King”. VR gives the game a sense of scale that you really don’t get in 2D, so building a personal Moria is one hell of an ambitious and worthwhile goal, IMO.

I also “played” a bit of Elite Dangerous in VR. Seriously, if you played ED in VR and weren’t convinced about the immersion, you’d be lying to yourself. I docked with The Genosis, which was leaving its system for the last stop on its tour. I did some light trading because I didn’t want to (literally) miss the bus, but docking and undocking has never been so friggin amazing as it is in VR.

During the holiday sales, I picked up an AG racing game called Redout, which has VR support, though the WMR support isn’t 100% solid with this one. Still, anti-gravity racing from the cockpit with full frontal vision is quite the experience, I can tell you that. I also got Tilt Brush and Google Earth VR, both of which are cool exercises but I can’t see any practical use of either except to show the capabilities of VR.

In non-VR news, I finished Star Wars Battlefront II‘s campaign. People say it’s short, and I guess it is compared to Skyrim, but I also don’t weld my ass to a chair and blow through the scenery in a mad rush to get something done. That’s a blessing — I take time to experience the game, yo — and a curse, considering how easy it is for me to get disrupted and move on to something else. I felt the campaign was extremely well done, although the flying portions were a bit too easy. I kept waiting for a plot-twist but it never came. In fact, depending on how “canon” this story is, it could really set up the bridge between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. As it is, it explains why there’s a Star Destroyer face-planted on Jakku for Rey to scavenge from. Maybe, it explains more than that…

Speaking of disruption and moving on to something else, I restarted Horizon: Zero Dawn. When we last left my Aloy clone, she was at the Ring of Metal fending off a never-ending spawn of killers that were literally piling up at the doorway. Because an NPC seeing a corpse alerts the NPC to trouble, I couldn’t fight my way through the carnage to get to where I needed to be.

This time, though, I started over on “Story” mode because I’m more interested in the story than I am in achievement. I’ve already gotten past the Ring of Metal stage and have made it to Meridian where there are so many side-quests and errands to pick up that I’m kind of getting antsy. I’d like to just stay on the main quest and get through it, and then double back and play for cleanup and exploration if the game allows.

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