Mass Effect vs Call of Duty

Posted by on Mar 20, 2017 in Editorial

Mass Effect vs Call of Duty

Late last week the “headstart” for Mass Effect: Andromeda allowed Origin Insiders to play the game for a full 10 hours, which I suppose was enough to get a Spidey Sense of the game but enough to provide the full breadth of what’s on offer.

Being the Internet, of course this relatively limited exposure didn’t stop people from raking it over the coals, with wonky animations being at the top of the list of people’s sudden and violent pet peeves, followed by bad writing, bad acting, which of course lead to personal attacks on a female BioWare employee. Supposedly, Mass Effect is a series that people generally love, and hate-supporters will be the first to exclaim that all of their trash-talk is validated by the infamous dust-up surrounding the end of ME3, and stems from the simple fact that they love the game so damn much that they hate to see BioWare “ruining” it.

I was hearing about these incidents over the weekend, and for some reason Call of Duty popped into my head. We never hear about crap like this when a new CoD game is released, despite the fact that the run-and-gun franchise releases a new title every six months to great (advertising) fanfare and massive sales which may or may not dwarf Mass Effect‘s lifetime retail. People love Mass Effect, to be certain, but people obviously really love Call of Duty, so why do these haters “love” ME to the point where they would rather jeopardize future chances of getting any sequels, while CoD fans are constantly just thanking the devs for the privilege by shutting up and playing the damn game?*

I’m starting to think that it’s not worth the grief that companies like BioWare get to make any more games in these beloved franchises because for every person I saw in my circles who was excited about the release of ME:A, there were a handful of stories about people looking for their five minutes of ill-gotten Internet fame by compiling GIFs of examples of the unsatisfying animation and passing them around on Reddit with snarky comments. That a female BioWare employee seems to always get harassed by the bacteria who will take any corner-case and use it as an excuse when a new game is released would make me (were I the head of the company) to seriously consider switching our business model back to making software for medical devices.

On some level, I get it: everyone wants what they love to be perfect and to align with what they’ve been building in their heads about a new game in a beloved franchise. People can feel let down when they don’t see an increasing level of quality over time, and there could even be a compelling case for saying that a company with BioWare’s reputation and talent should be able to achieve a certain level of quality that would head off petty attacks like these. But the Internet has no filter and takes no responsibility for the actions of its denizens; I’ve seen legions of people say they’d never play a game because they don’t like the character’s animations — which is absolutely mind-boggling to me that someone could be so specifically focused on missing the forest for the trees. Being critical of the whole because of a sliver is a classic baby-and-bathwater situation which negates any “because we love it so much” arguments that such a person might make. If they loved it as much as they claimed, then they’d love it no matter what and wouldn’t value being seen hanging with the snarky crowd as much as they apparently do.

On a tangent, I can totally understand why Valve hasn’t announced anything about Half-Life 3: It will never be worth the shit they’d get for it no matter how good it might be.

 

* That’s an entirely rhetorical question. ME boosters will cite story and investment in character and all that. I get it. One is an RPG, and the other is a shooter in RPG clothing. While there’s very little to link the two franchises, this post isn’t about nuts and bolts, but rather is all about the misguided way some people treat things in the name of “love”. Also, I’m not talking about people who truly love the franchise and who are thankful that BioWare continues to support it…just those who claim to love it the same way people start a racist sentence with “I’m not racist, but…”

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Mobilization and Rend

Posted by on Mar 15, 2017 in Editorial

Mobilization and Rend

Although I didn’t get to personally get to PAX East this year (second year running! Thanks, snipers!) I did check out a few offerings presented at the event. One of them is called Rend from Frostkeep Studios* which is called a “survival sandbox” game, because survivalbox games are the new MOBA, which was the new FPS, which was the new MMO, and so on. Rend‘s claim is that unlike other survivalbox games which are basically cycles of PvP irritation with high barriers to entry for new players on established servers, their game features three factions. Each faction has to concern itself with building its base during periods of protection from invasion for that one day when the shields drop and all player locations are invaded by NPC monsters. The survivalbox elements come into play when the environment can kill players, the oPvP, and the potential for other factions to take advantage of Shield Drop Day to help NPC monsters eradicate their foes.

I’ve tried many a survivalbox game in my time, and while they’re OK so long as I am playing on a private server hosted by like-minded individuals, I’m not so much a fan of the “survival” aspect. I find it tedious and pointless, the ultimate expression of busy-work as players must spend at least 50% of their in-game time tapping resources just to allow them to continue to tap resources. In fact, after writing that sentence, I’m starting to see better how mobile gaming is bleeding back into other gaming platforms when I’d always hoped it would be the other way around.

When I read about Rend‘s partial base invulnerability combined with a three-faction system which required players to build up their bases to make them defensible once the shield fell, I immediately thought of all of those mobile games like Clash of Clans which feature the exact same mechanic. In those games, new players have a “grace period” during which they can begin to set up their bases in order to have a fighting chance against more established players. It sounds generous, but it’s really a mechanic to draw you in under fear of missing a day and getting behind in your preparations, which isn’t something that I think Rend can get away from either despite their claims that vulnerability will be scheduled well in advance so your faction can make plans to be online. As someone who works and has family and other real world obligations, I know I can’t be beholden to someone else’s schedule — which actually sucks because being available to game is a luxury I wish I had.

Thing is, I might actually like Rend based on what I’m reading. Players join under a factional banner and have to specialize because no one player can fight and craft. There are exploration mechanics and RvRvR “risk vs reward” mechanics that could provide successful factions with military boons — assuming they aren’t c-blocked by other factions in the process. There are win conditions, which is different from other survivalbox games which seemingly have none aside from “keep on keeping on”, although Rend will have “seasons”, which is a trope I really dislike because it makes the game feel like an esport, which is the new survivalbox game, which was the new MOBA, which was the new FPS, and so on. Of course, there’s something about Rend‘s description that makes me think it would make an excellent esport contender, or at least would make for interesting streaming fodder.

I had hoped, though, that PC and console games would leak more into mobile and we’d eventually see far more in-depth games like a real edition of Civilization or a city builder like Cities: Skylines instead of the insipid click-to-collect versions we ended up with. Mobile games tend to make people feel that they have to play rather than working on providing them with a game they want to play, which is where survivalbox games tend to lose me; so much ongoing prep-work and not enough results makes me feel that I’m logging in not just to keep up, but to continuously work by clicking on resources most of the time just so I can have brief periods of actual gameplay.

I don’t foresee myself getting into Rend, despite the more RvRvR flavor to it, mainly because I don’t run in established PvP circles (quite the opposite, in fact), and while the developers believe that a heads-up for base vulnerability day is a generous idea (it is), I can totally see the players making unreasonable demands on other players to be present in order to mount the best defense possible. I don’t need kids on summer vacation or college students skipping class getting on my ass because I have to go to work during the day. That sounds a lot like having a second job.

 

* One thing I wish studio announcements would stop doing is listing off the lineage of their developers like game development is some kind of Highlands clan registry. It seems like every studio has someone who worked on World of Warcraft or League of Legends, and considering how incestious the games industry is, it’s actually news when the development team hasn’t worked on games we’ve heard of.

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The Struggle Is Kinda Real

Posted by on Mar 6, 2017 in Editorial, Featured

The Struggle Is Kinda Real

Here I am, posting a weekend recap. Here I am, posting at all, which I think is kind of weird in and of itself considering a few posts ago I was (once again) ready to write off the whole blogging thing. Truth be told, I’m waiting for a website to deploy, and it takes quite a while for the components to get their act together and move, so I have time.

Time. That’s kind of funny, because it’s what we never seem to have enough of. Between family obligations and the desire to get back to hobbies, something always gets shafted because there’s never enough time.

Numenera: Tides of Torment

Since I am unable to sleep like a normal person (which seems to be par for the course for a lot of folks in my timelines), I am up early on Saturday. This weekend, I fired up the Steam Link on the projector and reclined on the couch while I played Numenera: Tides of Torment. 

So far I have not done any combat outside of the tutorial. In fact, I’ve actively avoided taking missions where I know or suspect combat is the dominant or sole approach despite having at least two glaives in my party (they’re the combat classes). My goal is to talk my way out of everything, if possible, so the entirety of my Saturday morning was spent talking to people around Saugus Cliffs.

Once again, I am bowled over by the world design in this game. It’s like Clive Barker, China Mieville, and Felix Gilman rolled into one.

The Mysterious Package Company Package

Back before Christmas, my friends and I bought a package from the Mysterious Package Company. The package we bought, “Tempis Fugit” was the cheapest option they offered, and we split the cost about seven ways. TMPC is a service which sends you “clues” over time that you digest and think about while you wait for the next installment to arrive, and at the end, there’s a big reveal in the form of a physical object that plays into the narrative and is supposed to be really surprising and exciting.

We had thought that this service was offering a kind of ARG (alternate reality game) which would provide us clues that we’d need to solve in order to make sense of the next step. Unfortunately what we got was a very short story with minimal effort required to “use it”.

The big conceit of TMPC is that you are to anticipate the next shipment for the next chapter of the story. We collected all four parts of our story until all of the principals could get together, at which point we had hoped to put our collective intelligence together to solve the puzzle. We spent maybe about 15 minutes total going over the parts, being impressed at the final delivery, and then…we ordered pizza and forgot about the whole thing.

Horizon: Zero Dawn

I played for about 15 minutes this weekend, which puts me further at the mercy of people online playing with the screenshot feature (which I can’t seem to get to work) who are much further than I am.

This game is troubling me. I had the best intentions on Saturday evening to continue with the story. I had found the missing war-chief, assaulted a cultist camp and discovered a way to thwart them, but on my way to do so, I got sidetracked by some side quests and then got sidetracked from the sidetrack by just…fucking around. If Civilization is the master of “one more turn” mechanics, then games like HZD are masters of the “lemme see how quickly/efficiently/stealthily/awesomely I can take down this herd/massive robodino/bandit camp”. It’s almost pathological: I’m riding along on the road and see the unmistakable blue glow of robodinos in the mist on the hill. I Dismount, stealth, and spend the next ten minutes stalking the damn things while someone, somewhere is getting impatient waiting for Aloy to show up like she promised she would.

Is it fun? Yes, yes it is. Is it sustainable for me? Ehhhh…well…I had my first mental thread pulled that I need to get moving or risk losing interest. Traditionally, that’s been the harbinger for actually losing interest, because I’m not as focused as I feel I should be. One of my missions is to get to the city of Meridian, and to do so I need to get passage out of the Nora lands by clearing out areas of corrupted robodinos. The map says one of those areas is level 15, and I’m level 11. I hate stuff like that, because it’s telling me that I must dick around and gain some levels. The game doesn’t care how I do it. Random hunting is fun and necessary, but my initial fears may be realized: the game’s main “cool thing” is fighting robodinos, so the design makes you do that as often as possible, even when it ends up being just busy work. I’m not so much a fan of that.

Sugar Shack

This has nothing to do with gaming.

My wife wanted to do something on Sunday and decided that we would be going to a sugar shack in the town of Temple. Heading out West from where we live puts us in God’s Country, NH: lots of wooded areas, few houses, hills, and winding dirt roads.

A sugar shack, for you urbanite or Southern folks, is where liquid gold is made: maple syrup. Being in New England means that visiting such a place is mandatory at least once in your life, whether through school or because you’re drunk and thought it might be interesting, and repeated visits to different locations tend to prove that all of these places are pretty much the same. However, this one place we visited was kind of different.

For one, they had acres of trees, with thousands of taps. Their method was also purely 21st century; whereas you might be familiar with the image of steel pails hanging off trees, collecting sap that flowed from the taps hammered into the trunks, this operation we visited was a web of blue tubing flowing through the woods like a massive circulatory network, drawing the sap from trees into the occasional two-story vat. I had never seen a tapping operation on this scale before, and we later learned that this particular operation was supplying syrup up and down the East coast.

They had one shed, 15 employees, and the company was owned by a dude in his 30s who wanted to get into syrup production since he was five years old. #Respect

Sharing is Caring

I bought both an XB1 and a PS4 because I don’t like having to decide between one or the other when it comes to being able to experience the games I want to experience. However, there’s another facet of this situation that is unavoidable: my daughter.

A while back she bought herself Tales of Berseria because she really liked the Tales of Zesteria. She’s not really a game-player these days. She used to live and breath Minecraft when she was younger but never really ran with the whole video game thing after that until she found the Tales games. The only reason she did was because of her genetic-level obsession with anime and all things Japanese.

Needless to say, ToB was obtained…for the PS4. That means so long as she’s playing that, I can’t get back to HZD. The situation is almost archaic in the same way families used to have to deal with just one television set. If dad wanted to watch The Big Game, then everyone else who might have had something that they wanted to watch had to do something else, like go outside or some other unspeakable horror. Or the days when there was only one telephone line in the house, and the teenager was monopolizing it, preventing anyone from making calls or even from calling in.

Those were dark times, kids. Dark times indeed. So I went back to The Elder Scrolls Online last night, which continues to be the most comfortable game I have on deck these days. Thank goodness for small favors.

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Horizon: Zero Dawn Impressions

Posted by on Mar 1, 2017 in Consoles, Editorial, Glamour Shots

I’ve never been able to write up good impression pieces, especially for video games. There’s so much to cover in games and so many angles from which to cover them that I tend to cross lines frequently and mid-stream so my posts are less “impressions” and more “that six year old trying to talk to you about Transformers after his fifth Pixie Stick”.

I’m going to talk about Horizon: Zero Dawn, then, in two phases: first, the mechanics. Second, the impression. Mechanics are facts that you can probably get from the developer’s site anyway and therefore spoil nothing. Impressions, however, are more free-form, and a lot of the time I find that it’s impossible to explain the extent of an impression without talking about specifics, which may mean spoilers. Personally, I don’t really shy from spoilers, and I assume that there’s two camps who read posts on subjects like this one anyway: those who are already in the car on the ride, and those who prefer to take the bus. In effect, you’ll either know what I’m talking about because you are also playing, or you have no intention (or ability) to play the game but want to know what the hype is all about. Yes, third party, I know you’re there: the ones who will wait for a sale or something. But for you, I have nothing but sympathy, as I won’t be the only spoilery outlet on the Internet.

Mechanics

The best shorthand I can offer someone who knows nothing about HZD is that it’s a post-apoc FarCry/Assassin’s Creed. For some, that’s a plus. For others it’s a condemnation. I only compare it thusly because there are some obvious parallels, but mechanics are only one (and even then, a minor) facet of any game. FC/AC mechanics WORK, so I think this is a bonus because of what HZD’s game world represents: open world, exploration, and accomplishment.

The Focus Vision
Early in the game, Aloy acquires a piece of old-world tech that she calls a Focus. It presents a holographic display of items in the world and is used as a kind of radar for game-play purposes. It can see a limited distance and can see through certain obstacles to outline creatures (organic and metallic) as well as lootable corpses in the world. Occasionally, it’s used to present additional information on narrative objects, like when Aloy first encounters a signal being broadcast from a nearby longneck mech. When in Focus mode, Aloy moves slower, and if she’s in crouch mode, she moves agonizingly slow. It is used often for info, and to make sure I don’t blunder into an otherwise unseen pack of mechs.

Focus mode helps identify enemies, animals, and normally unseen clues in the world.

Doing Stuff
Aloy is a young woman who has trained her whole life to survive in a hostile environment. She has learned to use a spear and a bow, and most importantly, to move silently among the machine predators that inhabit the wilds.

Movement is smooth, and I haven’t had any issues with the camera whatsoever. For an action game, this is super important, because no one likes to have their vision screwed up as they’re trying to take down an enemy. There’s an analog speed mechanic with the left stick, a sprint, and a stealth mode.

I personally have issues in using the weapons (not as in “my personal gripe”, but as in “I suck at it”). The difference between using the bow and using the spear is a matter of context. If you use the left trigger, you zoom in with the bow and can fire with the right trigger. If you just use the right trigger, you take a light swing with the spear. Using the right shoulder button, you can perform a hard attack with the spear. Not a few times did I try and fire an arrow at relatively close range (i.e. not zoomed) and found myself taking a swipe with the spear which was just OUT of range. Beyond that, I simply suck at hitting things with the bow. Early on I bought the ability that allows me to slow time for a bit when using the bow, but it doesn’t stop the target from walking or twisting and putting the target zone out of reach before I could fire off a shot.

Crafting is a major part of the game and is one of the reasons I make FC/AC parallels. Not only do you have to make your own ammo (arrows, mainly), but you need to use resources to increase the capacity of your bags in order to hold more weapons, ammo, potions, resources, outfits, and traps. Thankfully, materials that you need early on are in abundance, but I’m hearing that more esoteric materials used for advanced items and upgrades are more difficult to come by.

Most of the gear is upgradable as well by using a slot system. You’ll extract items from machines that can be added to weapons and armor to increase their stats, and I guess there’s not a lot more to say about that.

Collector’s Edition armor with upgrade slot.

The World
Another FC/AC parallel is that the world is vast, open, and divided into points of interest. You start off in a region controlled by your birth tribe, the Nora. Within their walls, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Eventually, you’ll be sent on a mission outside those walls.

The map pinpoints your objective locations, giving you a route along the road to follow. Along the way, you’ll see icons for campfires (save and fast-travel points), side quests (green “!”), villages, merchants, and hunting grounds represented by an icon of the most prevalent mechanical game found there.

Nora citizens heading for the Proving.

Because you’re working within a pretty mountainous region (best argument I’ve seen puts the game world somewhere in Colorado), there’s a lot of uneven terrain. I rarely had issues figuring out how to get to where I needed to be and was only occasionally impeded by unclear pathways. One mechanic borrowed from Uncharted has Aloy able to climb rock faces using natural hand-holds as well as artificial pinions and ladders. Sometimes, these elements aren’t as obvious as they should otherwise be; I’ve circled a few rocks a few times looking for handholds that I know should be present, only to find them rendered in a very close color analog to the rock they were embedded into. The good thing is that simply pushing the stick in a direction will make Aloy leap, so traversing the vertical is pretty quick and very satisfying.

There are day and night cycles, although it sometimes seems that they change for narrative purposes when the need arises. There’s also rain (which generates a dense fog) and some light snow (which is all I’ve seen so far). At night when there’s a low-lying mist, the lights from the mechanical creatures have the right kind of haze you’d expect animals with built-in headlights to have.

HZD is a beautiful game, and I don’t even have a PSPro. The landscape appropriately lush for a world where nature is running rampant, although I have to reserve the best praise for the character models, which I feel are second probably only to Naughty Dog’s stellar work in Uncharted 4.

Combat
Because Aloy is a hunter living among mechanical creatures who are stronger, faster, and (frankly) heavier than she is, everything about the prey is dangerous even when they aren’t actually attacking. Because of this, stealth is a major component in combat.

Crouching is augmented by hiding in abundant patches of tall grass which shields Aloy from the sight of most predators unless they’re right on top of her. She can throw rocks to redirect attention, but can also whistle to draw a target’s attention to her. Both of these are super useful because the name of the game is sub-system targeting.

Aloy set  upon by a Watcher.

Each machine has at least one weak spot, and it’s where you want to hit. For example, Watchers are like velociraptors with no front arms, and their one massive eye is their weak spot; get them to face you, and hit them once with a standard arrow to take them out. Other creatures may have a canister on their back in addition to smaller eyes, making it difficult to hit BOTH; hit the cannister and the creature will run away but hit the eyes and you lose visibility on the cannister. Some creatures have weak points in inconvenient locations, like the belly area, or move so fast getting a bead on specific body parts is difficult with advanced abilities. From what I can tell, then, the more visible or inaccessible weak spots a creature has, the harder they’ll be to take down.

Thankfully, there are more options than just rocks and whistles. Early on Aloy buys a tripcaster. This is a small crossbow which requires you to fire two ground stakes to string an electrified tripwire between them. Any mechanical creature of small or medium size that trips the wire is incapacitated for a time. There’s also the ropecaster which allows Aloy to secure targets to slow or immobilize them, but I haven’t bought that weapon yet and can’t speak about its effectiveness.

Aloy also has different ammo types. She starts out with a standard arrow but early on learns to craft flame arrows which explode and can set certain targets on fire. Even though they are mechanical, targets can be susceptible to elemental damage, and Aloy can discern this info using her Focus vision.

Beyond that, there are different damage types — fire, electrical, and a machine-specific CORRUPTION type — that can be applied to arrows, grenades, and traps.

NPC Interactions
A lot of NPC interactions are handled via cut-scenes and are driven by a Bioware-esque conversation wheel. Normal topics are listed unadorned, but critical path (i.e. decision making) options have a diamond icon next to them. On occasion, Aloy can choose from special responses designated by a brain (logical), heart (empathetic) or fist (strength) that have different effects on different NPCs from what I can tell. What the over-arching result of these decisions is, I don’t know.

Conversation wheel.

Mounts
Finally, you will be able to secure a mount. This system is most like the one found in The Witcher 3, with repeated taps of a button to increase and decrease speeds, and also the option (in settings) to have your mount stick to a path so you don’t need to constantly course-correct along the road (just when you reach an intersection).

Impressions

Well, the clinical stuff is mostly out of the way, at least up to the point I’ve gotten (about 8% of the game after a few hours). Now we can talk about our feelings.

HZD is a great game. It’s already nailed what I’d hoped to get out of it, which is the narrative and the immersion in this weird world that Guerilla has created. I loved the Uncharted series as much for its depiction of the Drake’s home life as I did when Nathan was running and jumping through jungle ruins because there was that sense of sonder built in. Characters are remembered for their heroics, but they can’t be heroic without a reason to get up off the proverbial couch and to me that matters just as much as high-voltage cut-scenes.

Aloy was raised as an outcast by a man named Rost who opted to leave the Nora tribe for reasons we don’t find out early in the game. When Aloy was a child, she stumbled upon some “metal age” ruins — an old lab. Inside she finds several aged corpses, and a bit of technology she calls the Focus which allows her to interact with the world using holographic interfaces. She learns a bit about the dead through recorded logs that they left which give us just a bit of creepy insight into how the world ended up falling: there was apparently some catastrophe which caused these specific people to lock themselves away until their only decision was how quickly they were willing to die.

Aloy finds the Focus in a metal age ruin as a child.

Rost trains Aloy because he hates that she has to live as an outcast and knows that some day she can participate in the Nora ritual of the Proving, when any young person who finishes can join the ranks of the “braves” of the tribe. For outcasts, this means an opportunity to return to the tribe. For the winner of the ritual, though, he or she can make a single demand of the tribe that must be granted, and Aloy already has her’s lined up: she wants to know who her mother is. She’s not Rost’s child but was given to him to raise for reasons we barely understand: Aloy wasn’t born, she was found inside the sacred mountain in what the Nora call the Temple of the All-Mother, their most sacred space. No one knows how she got there, or who her mother really is, but once the village is attacked by an unidentified cult who seemed to be specifically after Aloy, she leaves the Nora homelands for the city of Meridian in order to track down a lead on a traitor who might have some answers.

The mysterious birth angle isn’t anything new, but the direction the story points us in is really how it should be judged. Aloy was left at a literal doorstep: a massive sealed door in the Temple, behind which is a complete and utter mystery. Aloy believes her mother exists behind that door. We’re given the hint through her Focus that Aloy is descended from someone specific who is recognized by the door’s security system and who lived before the apocalypse, but if it’s her mother, her original template, or something else, we don’t yet know.

The mysterious door in the Temple from which Aloy emerged as an infant.

One of the things that I think would be critical to nail is the feeling that Aloy exists in a stone-age world alongside both the shadow elements of a fallen humanity and the hyper-advanced living machine ecosystem. While the Nora aren’t the most technologically advanced humans we see, they’re not paralyzed by ignorance. They understand some technology but don’t have the faculty or know-how to recreate old-world technology that can work for them. More to the point, we get the sense that they don’t want to. When Aloy returns to the Nora village of Mother’s Heart, she can watch a storytelling session given to children where the speaker talks about how the elder humans left the teachings of the All-Mother and embraced the technology which lead to their downfall. The Nora see technology as evil and don’t want any part of it outside of what little they can repurpose for their own use — armor and weapons that are most effective aginst machine creature attacks. In this, I think Guerilla did a great job of making Aloy and the Nora the believable “contemporary” civilization, with the ruins of past humanity suitably ruined enough to be mysterious while being stupidly familiar to us as players, and the presence of machine beasts consistently feeling as alien as they first did when we saw the original reveal trailer, in part because Guerilla puts actual organic animals in the world as both a ground (“this is what hunters would normally hunt”) and a necessary as a crafting reagent.

Mother’s Heart, the center of Noran civilization.

I love the character models. Up close, we get the uncanny valley of design that tries too hard to make things look authentic: scrubby hair, shiny moisture, and massive pores. At speaking distance, though, the character faces are significantly different so it’s extremely easy to give characters physical personality beyond what comes out of their mouths. It looks to me like major characters were each crafted as individuals, and not cobbled together from a limited set of face shapes, eyes, brows, mouths, noses, and facial hair.

A fellow Norian destined for the Proving.

The voice acting is pretty damn good as well for most of the characters. They have the kind of cadence and inflection that you’d expect from someone in normal conversation, based on their personality and the situation they’re speaking about. The only stumbling block is Aloy herself when it comes time for her to respond based on a player-made conversation decision, a failing I call “Shepard Syndrome” because of the same result in the Mass Effect games. Normal conversation sounds fine, but when the character needs to say something in response to a player decision, the delivery sounds wooden and very “prompt-like”, as if they’re querying a voice-activated computer and aren’t expecting a human response. For how it’s done right, consider Star Wars: The Old Republic’s voiced player-character responses.

I see a dangerous precipice, though: the need for repetition. HZD’s conceit is that you’re a hunter who has to hunt robots for survival and for parts used in survival. At that level, a lot of games would push you hard into having to constantly farm targets even beyond the point where it’s fun anymore. Once I got the ability to “tame” certain creatures and got one as a mount, I just wanted to run full speed ahead to the next story destination but found myself having to dismount or slow because I had to avoid detection by roving mechanicals placed too close to the road. On one hand, I need the materials and the XP and — quite honestly — the practice, but on the other hand, I am playing on EASY mode because I’m all about the story and not any sort of chest-thumping that would accompany anyone taking issue with my choice. I know that in games past when I reached the point where content was becoming annoying, it was a harbinger of losing interest. While I also had moments comparing my time in HZD to my recent time in Uncharted 4 where I said “yeah I can see myself putting all else aside to return to this game until complete”, I don’t want to supersede THAT feeling because the design thinks fighting robots is too cool for anyone to NOT want to do it over and over and over.

An angered Watcher.

I suppose the question for anyone looking for info on whether or not to pay full price or wait for a sale is “is it fun?” I hate that question because fun is subjective. “Is it worth full price” is a resounding YES from me because even though I don’t care for the Assassin’s Creed-as-inspiration vibe I get which short-circuits whatever OCDness I have when it comes to task management, I don’t feel quite so overwhelmed with HZD’s implementation. At the point where I’m at, I feel that there’s enough to do without it being a burden or without too many side-quests becoming the “main quest”. The game has striking visuals, great acting, solid mechanics, an engaging story, and enough to keep players busy for hours without stopping (not that I recommend or endorse that kind of binge).

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Conan Exiles Re-Revisited

Posted by on Feb 8, 2017 in Editorial

Sandbox games and I don’t usually see eye to eye. Thus far I’ve only gotten one to work on a wavelength that I can be interested in, which is why I feel bad about having picked up Conan Exiles. Twice.

See, I’m not averse to evaluating games as they come. If there’s a game that looks cool, or has excite people I trust, then I’ll consider it even if it’s in a genre that I usually steer clear of (notable exception: Blizzard games, because people are irrationally excited about Blizzard games all the damn time). When Conan Exiles hit early access (EA) I had absolutely no intention of getting roped into this survivalbox game. I had tried ARK, H1Z1, Rust, Planet Explorers, et al., and of the long list of games the only one I liked was Eden Star because it was the most forgiving of all of them, IMO.

But as you may know, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to git with other people when I feel that the gittin’ is good, and this seemed like a great opportunity. I had two groups of folks who were starting up paid servers, so I bought the game and jumped in with the rest of them to make my way in Hyboria, a place I admit I know very little about. 

I died. A lot. I got lost. A lot. I collected a bunch of stuff and lost it all…a lot. It didn’t take long before I was asking myself what the hell I was thinking. How the hell was this considered fun? My staple requirements for enjoying a game are that I have a fighting chance and that I see myself progress, neither of which was happening here. While I was within Steam’s refund window, I resigned myself to the fact that survivalbox games aren’t for me, and requested a refund. 

Being me, however, means never having to stick to my guns. It was only a few days of keeping up with the activity on the servers by listening to folks in Discord that I started to think that I didn’t give the game a fair shake. So I bought it again. This time, though, I put my head down and charged through it. I took it slow, keeping my wits about me and making sure I wasn’t in a situation where I was overwhelmed. I spent a lot of time gathering food and water. I spent a whole lot of time harvesting rocks and wood and fiber from shrubs and trees. I build a small rectangular house where I could throw down my spawn-point bedding, and I was pretty impressed with myself…until I looked over the yard and saw the palaces and fortresses that other people were making. 

I don’t have the stomach for the kind of work that I need to do in Conan Exiles. My time consisted of collecting rocks and sticks and grass. Eventually, I would be able to make a wall or ceiling tile. Of course, I always had to stop harvesting to spend materials on repairing tools. And of course I always had to interrupt my harvesting or repairing to gather food and water. I ended up spending far too much time doing repetitive work and that kind of bothered me. 

Syp of Bio Break fame asked why can’t he get into survivalbox games and proceeded to list of his requirements. That got me focused in on what I feel is throwing me off this genre myself:

  • All work and no play. If I wanted to spend my evenings performing tasks for very little payout, I’d stay at the office. Zing! But seriously.
  • Ultragrind. Survivalbox games are all about starting with nothing and making something. In order to do that, they mete out bigger and better things so you feel like you’re “growing” as a character in skill and reward. But in order to realize that, you need to break a lot of rocks, feel a lot of trees, and thatch a lot of roofs. A massive portion of these games is just you spending the time harvesting resources to build, and then to maintain, if not your tools and structures, then yourself.
  • Kill or be killed. Supposedly, Conan Exiles has a narrative in there, but most survialbox games don’t. They rely strictly on interpersonal conflict, and rely on it in some of the most agonizingly antagonistic ways possible. Your body doesn’t vanish when you log out, meaning people can kill and loot you when you can do nothing about it. People can trash your structures (see points one and two above for the ramifications of that). PvP is really the foundation of survivalbox games the same way it is for pretty much every flippin’ mobile kingdom builder game is — hurry up and build your defenses before other tribes find you, because people are dicks, and dicks are the kind of people we’re courtin’. 
  • Lack of purpose. If you’re not into PvP, tough shit. Hope you brought a stack of magazines to keep you busy in between the days worth of harvesting you’ll be doing. 
  • Missing the potential.

It’s that last point that makes me sad. Survivalbox games are great in theory. Remember TV shows like Earth 2, Terra Nova or even Battlestar Galactica? Those were shows about people in environments where they had to survive, and they didn’t do it by quarrying rocks to build mediocre huts. They worked together to make something in the face of having nothing, and while we can do that in survivalbox games, the only mechanically supported reason why we would is for protection against other players. 

Instead, I’d love to see a game in this genre whose mechanics throw people across the map without a GLOBAL channel. Players have to work together in tribes because each player can only learn so many tradeskills, and all tradeskills are needed to make a building, and then a village. Specialists are always in demand, so it’s important to not reject someone who happens along with a skillset that your group doesn’t have. And even then, take in refugees with redundant skills because not everyone can be online 24/7. 

Then strike out and explore. These games need reasons to venture out that aren’t strictly about finding better resources programmed to spawn further from the starting points. Resources can come in many guises, like recipes, retainers, or even ruins that can be repaired and used. Fight the flora and fauna in dungeons, or go on a rescue mission to retrieve a tribe member who went missing.

And eventually, tribe will meet tribe. But maybe eradication doesn’t need to be the default diplomacy. Trade routes should be considered. Maybe tribes have been focusing on different aspects, like minerals versus crops. Maybe there’s an exchange of knowledge. Maybe there’s a need to reach a critical mass of players to undertake a common project.

These are the kind of actions that build worlds. What we have now are neolithic Hunger Games scenario-builders, except you don’t get a nice house in a shitty district for surviving…just more rock splitting and tree collecting over and over and over. Once again, I regret my second-time-is-not-always-the-charm purchase of Conan Exiles, but I suppose it being the impetus for this post serves as a warning to my future self not to fall in with the hype for a genre that I have never been able to find purchase in.

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Posting Mortem – Adopting Imzy

Posted by on Dec 5, 2016 in Editorial

Posting Mortem – Adopting Imzy

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A few weeks ago, we created That Gaming Forum community on a new social network called Imzy. I thought I’d written about this earlier, but I checked and…I guess not. 

Imzy is a “nicer” social network. It’s got more stringent rules in place than “those other guys who shall remain Reddit nameless” in order to ensure that people who want to have intelligent conversations don’t have to dodge shitballs from shitballs who just want to make people angry or push agendas. Like other sites, you can subscribe to different communities, so if you find a community you like, jump in. If you find a community that infuriates you, just move along. It really is that simple. 

We had a Twitterburst conversation that left a group of us feeling that, once again, Twitter is not the place to go for group discussion. A bunch of us tried working through Pages on Facebook (to keep our gaming stuff and personal stuff divided), but that ended up being too much work, maintaining a double-life that way. Sadly, Google Plus ended up being a bust; Google doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, doesn’t promote it much, and keeps rearranging the furniture in an attempt to capture some fung shui that will make people think better of it. We’ve got a few Discord servers, but not everyone likes Discord, and although there’s a bunch of “by gamers, for gamers” networks out there like Player.me and Anook, they didn’t even register (although I prefer Anook out of the two examples, I can’t access it from work, which is why it didn’t register when thinking about a new home for our discussions).

So we ended up on Imzy because I’d heard about it a while back, signed up for it, and then promptly forgot about it until I remembered about it when we decided that our current schemes weren’t working out. 

How is this working for us? Pretty well, I guess. We started out with a few members — people involved in the initial Twitterburst — and I thought that was great. People were actually willing to give this a shot, which made me happy. Imzy is a good platform, but is under active development and feedback is welcome, so it’s not the most robust or logical platform in its current state, though it is most certainly usable. In a short amount of time, we gained a lot of members — we got notified at 100, and 500 members. As of the writing of this post, our community That Gaming Forum is at 757 members?!

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That’s a nice number! But how many people are using our community on Imzy?

According to the cool dashboard that leaders have access to, we’re getting an average of about 60 “activities” each day…which I assume is a measurement of how many people are looking at our group, whether it’s directly or alongside other groups that they belong to. 

Imzy doesn’t have an in-depth metrics view yet, but scrolling back through our posts, it seems that we’re getting a respectable few posts each day. Weekends may tend to be slower as people go about other business, as we see in general blogging circles. Of those posts, there are about five people who make up the overwhelming bulk of participants of new material (I’m not surprised by who they are since they seem to be the ones who have been willing to adopt these new crazy schemes we come up with). We get a few additional people who comment, but not too many over and above those core five folks. 

Obviously for a community of 757 people, having about 10 or fewer people actively participating is kind of sad…On paper. But I don’t feel any kind of sadness about it. We’re getting a rough average of 60 views per day, with a few posts per day made by a handful of people…fact: there are more people apparently viewing this community on a regular basis than there are viewing this very blog on a regular basis!

From a personal perspective, that’s good stuff! But this isn’t about me, of course; it’s about getting people together who like to talk about similar stuff — video games and general geekery — without being hobbled by character restrictions, worrying about mixing business (family stuff) with pleasure (gaming and such), or about having our platform pulled out from under usagain. Naturally, we’d like to see this community grow. While the numbers are certainly mind-blowing, what we really look forward to is people willing to post new content, start new discussions, and to draw new members in by (respectfully) talking about things of community interest. We started this community so we could talk in ways that blog comments or existing social media structures never really and fully allowed us to do, and we’d love to see more folks giving our community a shot. 

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