LTTP: Nintendo Switch

Posted by on Jul 10, 2017 in Consoles, Hardware

The Nintendo Switch continues to be the most elusive piece of gaming hardware on the market these days, which is why when Amazon had some available on Friday, I panicked and slammed the BUY NOW button as quickly as possible without even considering the ramifications. Like, spending $300 on a system from a company I like OK but have no overwhelming desire to concern myself with.

Thing is, when it arrived the next day (All hail Amazon), I was shocked by the quality of the thing. Not that Nintendo makes crap — I’ve had my 3DS for many, many years now without any issues — but after the relative debacle of the WiiU and the fact that Nintendo’s market strategy is “flip MS and Sony the bird, and throw themselves down the hill with reckless abandon while giggling all the way”, it’s apparent that Nin’s either pulling an Apple and eating their own dog food when designing and developing, or they are from the future and know exactly what’s coming next in terms of exciting things*. tl;dr: Nintendo’s stuff is usually either really awesome or just shy of being lukewarm.

The dock is…a piece of plastic. I know there was some disappointment in that the dock doesn’t help the output to the TV any, but I suppose that decision helps keep the price down. It has an HDMI output, a power input, and a USB jack for reasons (I’m guessing for charging something). Originally there were reports that the dock could scratch the screen of the tablet, but my dock seems OK thus far.

Also included were two peripherals. The first was a traditional controller grip that accepted the 2 wireless “joy-con” controllers, and the second was a sliver of plastic with a wrist strap that is intended to complete a single joy-con into a stand-alone controller. Why there’s only one of these slivers for 2 joy-cons is beyond me, except to provide another up-sell opportunity.

The wireless controllers are smaller than I expected and light enough that I have concerns about using them without the tablet or docked with the controller grip. As widgets that contain gyroscopes and sensors and all that, you can close your fist around each of them for games like A.R.M.S. I suppose. Sadly, I got a unit which suffers from the dreaded “left con desync” issue which means the left controller looses connection to the console if it gets too far away. I’m told that a piece of conductive foam added to the innards is Nintendo’s fix, but I have contact customer support to get a replacement sent to me (saddling me with possible downtime during the turn-around).

The “console” itself is actually larger than expected, at least lengthwise. And lighter. And snappier. Also, shinier, which makes using it outside next to impossible (I tried!). Actually, I guess I had some pretty low expectations for the Switch, but the overall package is better than the sum of its parts. I hadn’t bought a game when I made the purchase of the console (No time! Must beat the rush!) so we stopped at Target on Saturday to pick up Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Having really only played tablet-focused games on tablet-sized devices which tend to be on the underpowered side, the game was visually stunning. It ran perfectly, and even holding the thing with the 2 controllers docked on either side was comfortable for the most part (the tablet did slip from my grasp a few times when reaching for certain occasional buttons).

I am pleased with the Switch thus far. LoZ is the only game I have, and I’m content with that. I can’t really use it with the TV right now due to the desync issue, but I had always anticipated that most of its use would be in portable mode anyway, sitting in the living room while my wife watches TV. I now have to immerse myself in the Nintendo ecosystem, because aside from LoZ and Mario Kart 8, I have no real idea what the Switch offers or what’s forthcoming for the system.

 

*Some might discount the “from the future” notion by saying that if they were, then they would have known the WiiU would bomb, to which I say of course! But if they were wildly successful all the time, people would get suspicious and want a closer investigation into how Nintendo can be so damn effective while constantly producing products that go against the grain of what the games industry is always telling us is the most important: horsepower, speed, graphics, online, etc. By stumbling on occasion, Nintendo can shrug it off once in a while and keep their time-traveling shenanigans a secret.

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Ubisoft and Sony: Sorry For The Rideshare

Posted by on Jun 13, 2017 in Consoles, Editorial, Featured

I want to apologize for cramming Ubi and Sony into one post, but I wanted to strike while the iron was hot and not drag these thoughts out before I forget what I’m talking about (too late!)

Ubisoft

I actually missed a good portion of Ubi’s presentation because they started during my commute home, and no offense to the good work that the company does, but my getting the hell out of the office takes precedence over pretty much anything. I’ll catch up on the highlights later, but it looks like I missed out on the Nintendo/Rabbids crossover that many people are comparing to the recent treatments of XCom. I do not consider that to be a bad thing.

They also talked about — what else? — Assassin’s Creed. After yesterday’s dismissal of the franchise en toto I was linked a video by the Unstoppable PapaSnark regarding several new or revised features in the franchise assumed from the AC trailer. If the examination was correct, even in part, then I think several of my gripes about the series might be addressed. As stated, I’ve moved this game from a “hell no” to a “we’ll see”.

I came into the presentation during The Crew 2, which is about driving cars, boats, and planes.

Then stuff got weird. There was some Elijah Wood presentation for a VR title called Transference, but the video was too artsy to provide any real substance.

In keeping with the theme of E3 2017, there was a pirate-themed game called Skull & Bones. At first, it looked like a really cool PRPG (pirate aarrgh Pee Gee) but quickly devolved into a 5v5 PvP battle over booty. As stated on Twitter, it reminded me of a high-seas version of the spaceship battle game Dreadnaught, which is available now for those who can’t wait.

From the “no one saw that coming” department, Starlink: Battle for Atlas gave off a serious No Man’s Sky vibe, but with a twist: the trailer showed people playing the game with plastic spaceships attached awkwardly to their gamepads. These toys required them to swap out components like guns, missiles, or engines to have the change reflected within the game itself. Some people called it No Man’s Skylanders, while others attempted to smack Ubi in the head to let them know that unless you’re Nintendo, the era of toys-in-games is grinding to a halt.

And then there was FarCry 5. I have played a few FC games and I like ’em OK. There’s always something to do, but for me, having too much to do is a curse because I have trouble focusing on anything. In the wake of The Division and even Ghost Recon: Wildlands, and in the hopes that Assassin’s Creed Origins changes up its own game, I’d like to see some deviations from the traditional FC formula here. The trailer looked good.

Finally, Ubi surprised everyone by presenting a trailer for the long-awaited sequel to cult favorite Beyond Good & Evil that was teased several E3 ago. I have never completed the original because the controls are so gawdawful that I wanted to throw my PC across the room, but I’ve always enjoyed the unique world of BG&E in which humans and genetically engineered and sentient animals travel freely between the stars. It has a certain cyberpunk vibe but without the contrived magickal overhead of the equally off-kilter world of Shadowrun.

Sony

E3 always comes down to Microsoft versus Sony in a good natured “who won” discussion on the Internet, and while you might think that presenting second would give Sony time to one-up Microsoft’s event…well…They spent a lot of time talking up their own 4K abilities, which after the XBX announcement sounded like someone at the back of the crowd talking really loud in an effort to remind everyone that they were still present.

The first two presentations were for Knack II, a sequel to a game that I’ve only ever heard about from one person who has played it, and for — get this — a second screen initiative called PlayLink. The idea is that one person gets the gamepad and other people in the room get a smartphone/tablet app that allows them to interact with the game in a non-direct control scenario. The interesting game they demoed was called Hidden Agenda which looked like a story-based game where PlayLink users could “vote” on key decisions on behalf of the player. I blame the “Twitch Plays X” for this crowd-control focus. Other games showed that use this tech were more in the traditional “party game” vein because those games are traditional cash-cows, right? The second screen concept never really took off, so it’s kind of a head-scratcher as to why Sony decided to take this route. Still, it’s inconsequential, and doesn’t require any new hardware, so what’s the harm?

Speaking of buying new hardware, Sony devoted some time to VR games, and I can’t say that I’m overly excited. The big reveal for me was Skyrim VR. Bethesda announced a Doom and Fallout 4 VR, but didn’t say anything about Skyrim which seemed like an obvious oversight, but had apparently ceded that info to Sony. Do I want to play Skyrim all over again? Well… Do I want to play Skyrim VR? HELL YES I DO. Superhot made an appearance during this segment, but it’s already VR-enabled on the PC so it’s nice to see it coming to PS4. Final Fantasy XV made an appearance but as a…wait…what? A fishing game? Then came the head-tilted-sideways-with-eye-squint titles. Bravo Team is a military shooter (which I might write about on its own), Starchild is a platformer, and a cute game called Moss is about a small mouse with a magical gauntlet that can turn into a sword who makes her way through a diminutive world in search of something. Sadly, it looks like Sony is already sawing at the ropes that secures the VR bridge over the peripheral graveyard.

The good news is that Sony still had a lot of big-ticket Sony games to show.

First, Uncharted: The Last Legacy featuring the incendiary duo of Chloe and Nadine from previous Uncharted games. This was not a surprise, but since it’s dropping this year it made sense for Sony to include it in the face of so many 2018 titles.

Destiny 2 got it’s Sony-money’s worth by being featured, complete with a rundown of what exclusives you get if you buy and play on PS4. I have it pre-ordered on PC, lag time be damned.

We got to see more on that zombie game Days Gone. Previously we’d been treated to technical showcases in which hundreds of procedurally generated undead canvassed a small farm while the protagonist raced across rooftops. This time we learn that humanity has formed enclaves (of course) and ventures forth amidst the zombie hoards for supplies and such. Not all enclaves are trying to bring humanity back; some are, of course, despotic and filled with assholes, and this demo saw the protagonist, Jeanjacket McMotorcycleStubble, using the environment (read: zombies) to overrun an enemy camp to rescue one of his friends. The game looked great and could be a really cool adventure style game. Except, zombies.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is getting DLC, and water is wet. I’m not ragging on this, only saying that they could have just said “Horizon: Zero Dawn!” on stage and people would have thrown money. I suppose I should get back to that and finish the game.

Skimming a few other things: Monster Hunter World is a thing that people like, and now they can like it on PS4. I know nothing of this franchise, except that you hunt monsters. Large, large monsters. Shadow of the Colossus is getting a remaster, Marvel vs Capcom is also a thing people like, and surprise! Call of Duty: World War II.

Now, what caught my eye: There’s a new God of War game which, as seems to be the Sony trend this year, looks to include some really great cinematic story and is not just room-to-room hack and slash. I might make this my first GoW game because it looked great. One of the wildcards from last year’s E3 (or maybe it was in between) was a game called Detroit: Become Human. This is from the people who made the games Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, which are both narrative heavy, action light decision tree games. This one is set in a future Detroit where androids are created to do the dirty work, but then some “awaken” and get minds of their own. You are one of those androids and have to make moral decisions regarding the relationship between humans and your kind.

Finally, there was Spider-Man. Now, I am not a Spider-Man fan, really. I like the character the way I like yogurt; I would never seek it out, but if it’s around and I’m hungry, it’ll do…but barely. Visually, this game was amazing. The animations were mind-blowing, and the effects (especially the webbing) were top-shelf. In the heat of the moment, I mentioned that I could get behind this game because it seemed like there was just so much Spidering to do! In retrospect, while the visuals were great, the gameplay seemed to be less open-world and more QTE interrupted by occasional brawling action. Now, like all E3 presentations, this is really just a controlled event that we understand doesn’t necessarily represent the entire experience, but whereas a Spider-Man game might have immediately caused me amnesia upon announcement, I might keep an eye on this for more information.

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MIcrosoft @E3 2017

Posted by on Jun 12, 2017 in Consoles, Editorial

MIcrosoft @E3 2017

I’ll be brief because at my age I only remember a few key elements of Microsoft’s E3 2017 presentation.

The Big Deal was, of course, Project Scorpio, now officially called Xbox One X (as Belghast pointed out, X.B.O.X, the best Easter Egg since the naming of the 360). It’s apparently very powerful, sporting a new power management scheme invented by and named for an Xbox engineer, lots of RAMS and teraflops and other things that I think everyone expected. The release date is November 7th and it’ll retail for $499. Expect that eventually, the only versions you’ll find will be Gametop bundle-only packages well in excess of $1000.

The good news is that the presentation was wall-to-wall games. A Big Deal was that not only will you be able to play your XB1 and 360 games on the XBX, but they’re bringing Original Xbox games to the console through their backward compatibility service. The only reason anyone would care about this is for Crimson Skies. There was also the obligatory Forza announcement, which I admit looked pretty awesome, and was apprently important enough that Porsche used a video game expo to reveal a new car model for the first time.

I remember a few games shown, but I wanted to kind of blanket them by saying that there’s a real theme to the games coming to XBX: post-apocalyptic survival battle royale. That include Metro ExodusState of Decay 2 (which looked pretty cool, and I hate zombies), Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds are just three of the titles which fell into that crevasse. These are not in my wheelhouse, so I kind of blanked during these portions. So let’s talk about the Big Deals.

First up: Minecraft 4k. This is a big deal because it reminds us that apparently people still play Minecraft. It’s also a big deal because I doubt anyone was foaming at the mouth for a 4k Minecraft.

Next, Shadow Of War. This game looked very obtuse to me; I haven’t played Shadow of Mordor, but I’m not really into brawlers of this type. It looks super complex, though, as you have to take your little anti-hero and subdue orc tribes to fight for you as you bring your war to Sauron’s doorstep. Although it seemed rather anachronistic, the orc featured in the demo named Bruz the Chopper was actually really well voiced and made me laugh out loud a few times…probably not the kind of reaction one might demand from a Lord of the Rings game, but there you have it.

It wouldn’t be an Xbox reveal without an Assassin’s Creed game, set this time in Egypt. Someone needs to put a bullet in the head of this franchise. Seriously. Moving on.

I traded in my XB1 in order to upgrade to the PS4 Pro, a move which I don’t regret save for one reason and one reason only: Crackdown 3. I loved the original but didn’t take to Numero Dos. Crackdown is kind of like GTA meets Robocop: lots of wanton destruction in an open world city. C3‘s biggest selling point is the distributed computing model which will supposedly allow you to literally level the city block by block (in multiplayer). And now, Terry Crews.

And of course, there were the two biggies.

Sea of Thieves presented a really well done scripted scenario which saw the participants sailing their ship to an island where they fought through a skeleton army in search of a buried treasure, and ended in a ship-to-ship battle. During the segment, we saw underwater exploration, use of clues, maps, and the compass, cannon, sword and gun fighting, ship boarding, and some jaw-dropping ocean visuals. If SoT can extrapolate that kind of rudderless exploration in a shared multiplayer world, it’s going to blow the doors off. I’m hopeful, but not holding my breath.

And of course, the presentation closed out with the reveal of the teaser we had seen the day before during the EA presentation. Sandwiched in between sports games during the EA presser, we got a 30-second clip of a new BioWare game called Anthem. It looked like maybe Titanfall. Maybe Blade Runner. During the MS presentation, we saw what appears to be another Big Name studio wanting to get a piece of that open world, squad-based exploration-and-explosion pie currently occupied by Destiny and The Division. The presentation started us out in a kind of futuristic desert bazaar where we’re told that we need to go out and fix someone’s screw-up. We jump into one of three (that we could see) suits of power armor and then leap from a ledge into an absolutely massive and lush jungle world below. We don’t just fall but jetpack through ruins and foliage until we land on the ground where we meet up with another player in a much heavier mech suit. The duo proceeds to push their way through the jungle, taking out mobs which seemingly have some kind of a purpose in their presence. Eventually, the scene cuts to a different point in time where they are confronted by something called a shaper storm — complete with high-speed winds, scenery destruction, and a vague glowing epicenter that the team (now four strong) bravely fly into.

Damn. I don’t know why but I’m really into the ideas of the squad-based games these days. MMOs are great, and other multiplayer games are OK, but these kinds of games feel like the sense of teamwork is as much a reward as whatever loot and XP we gain from the operation. That Anthem was stupidly gorgeous helped a lot. Of course, as presented we were told that we were a “bastion of civilization” living in a “walled enclave” in the middle of a “ruined world” — a la Destiny, a la The Division. In that regard, no points for originality, but I don’t really care.

Of course, this was a very managed demo. My initial reaction was to run around the room screaming with tears running down my face at how awesome I thought it was, but in the afterglow, I realize that this is the “wait and see” period. It’s using the Frostbite engine so we know it’s going to be visually stunning. The wildcard is actually the fact that it’s made by BioWare. They aren’t known for their pure action games. I don’t know how many conversation wheels we’re going to get with Anthem, but the free-space on my Anthem bingo card says “people who want to be able to have sex with NPCs just because it’s a BioWare game, and complain about it if they can’t”. Most importantly: Did they dissect Destiny and The Division to see what worked, what didn’t, and what people would have rather had? Or did they just develop this knowing that these squad-based games are hot right now, and that’s all they needed to know?

A lot of the titles on offer were noted as being available for both Xbox and PC, although it wasn’t universal, or else I missed it. I know Sea of Thieves is going to be multi-spectrum, but not sure about others. If Anthem is, then I don’t think I’ll jump on the XBX. If not, I’m going to have to get back into the Xbox ecosystem. I had anticipated maybe deciding to do that — my sale of the XB1 was purely mercenary, and I bear the platform no degree of ill will — but I’d rather save my $500 for the eventual release of the low-cost, higher-performance VR headsets.

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VR – A Window On The Future

Posted by on May 1, 2017 in Consoles, Hardware

VR – A Window On The Future

I’ve lived long enough to see commercial VR come and go, and then come again. Any comment thread on the subject of the current state of VR will be chock full of people who claim that VR is once again on the outs because the technology is too expensive, has too high a hardware bar for the masses, and that it suffers from a lack of software support.

All true, all true. The cheapest VR experience you can have will run you about $25 for Google Cardboard (assuming you have a capable smartphone which isn’t factored into the cost). This is VR in the way rollerskates are “a way” of commuting to work in the morning: yeah, you can do it, but not only is it horribly misrepresentative of the process, but you look stupid. The good news is that products like Samsung’s Gear VR can bring low-cost VR to the people, but the bad news is that the smartphone will never be able to give you the experience necessary to “sell” the skeptics — there’s only so many roller coaster simulations that people will try before realizing that such things are all that the low-cost option has to offer.

For the real deal, you need to shell out some coin. I recently put together a VR-ready PC which cost me about $1300. If I were to add a VR setup, that would add another $600-$800 to that. These configurations are the Real Deal, though — 1080×1200 per eye which is roughly on par with the current desktop monitor standard of 1920×1080, the sum of which is 2160×1200. While anecdotes relate that a VR headset isn’t as clear as a really good monitor, those numbers are nothing to shake a stick at. Still, no amount of technobabble about resolutions and refresh rates and polling intervals and tracking metrics is going to mean anything to the bulk of potential users if there’s no compelling reason to shell out for the PC and headset.

Right now, software is lacking — in the consumer space. Looking through Steam (Vive and Oculus have their own walled-garden storefronts that I don’t think are accessible outside of the visor) shows that yes, there are a good number of games out there made for or which support VR, but there’s nothing that’s getting traction on the scale of Mass Effect: Andromeda or Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. What people do know about VR software is usually due to early reports on the technology-focused “gee whiz” proof of concept demos that were made to showcase the tech: Job Simulator, Google Tilt Brush, and a lot of other products which might work well with the concept of VR, but which have that air of “get something out the door so as to be considered to have been a pioneer in VR”. Basically, there’s no killer VR game out there that’s going to silence the nay-sayers, or of the games that are out there, there isn’t one that feels like VR was a logical and the only best way to realize the concept. There is no end to the number of titles that people will throw out as “if only they had a game like [GAME X] in VR, I’d be sold!”, but we’re not at that point quite yet. Eventually, sure, assuming there’s a level of interest that makes VR in the consumer space a continuously viable option.

Consumers like to preach about things from the bottom of their narrow wells (helloooooooo?) but aren’t usually apprised of the whole situation. For example, VR is apparently massive in training, medicine, and therapy. It’s being used to train surgeons on techniques, and psychiatrists are using VR to help people cope with PTSD. Obviously from our perspective here at LC (and presumably your own as you are reading this) gaming is an important aspect of VR, but even if gamers don’t end up adopting the technology, it’s not going to die because its potential for other industries who don’t care about adoption rates and publisher demands are too great.

So why this post now? Over the weekend I picked up a Playstation VR headset. It’s the lowest-cost gaming headset out there, although it only works with the PS4*. I opted to go with the PSVR rather than the Oculus or the Vive partly because of price, but also because the majority of software for the PSVR are actual games of some quality, something I attribute to the fact that the PS storefront isn’t as “Wild West” as Steam is currently. Of course, that means that there are far fewer options for the PSVR, which folks in the industry explain is a result of the lag between the introduction of working dev kits and the amount of time it takes to make a decent quality game (about 2 years minimum, or so the sages claim).

If you’ve never experienced VR, it’s actually difficult to explain its draw. Do we need it? No; I have a smartwatch which I also “don’t need”, but once I acquired it I found that it became far more useful than I could have imagined. The same goes for VR: it’s a “virtual reality”, and if we unpack that we see that we’re talking not just about another way to shove electrons into our eyeballs, like the difference between a 3DS screen, a 40″ 4K TV, or a massive movie screen. We’re talking about a new way of experiencing something. That’s the part that’s hard to get across in words, even with hand gestures. The first time you put on a headset and find yourself standing…wherever…and you move your head around, look down at your “hands”, or up at the sky, it doesn’t feel like you’re where you physically are. At least, until you start to move. The first game I tried, I almost toppled over when I started to move with the gamepad; it wasn’t motion sickness so much as vertigo, the feeling that I was moving while also not moving. There’s a real physiological effect there, meaning that for all the talk about resolution and refresh and cost and software, our senses treat VR as an actual reality. It’s right there in the name: virtual reality, but a reality nonetheless. We’ve only got one reality otherwise, which is really the draw of VR for me. Immersion is supposed to be a key element of great games, but we can’t imagine the level of immersion possible until we’ve put ourselves into a whole different reality.

Throwing VR under the bus because there’s nothing right now that speaks to us as individuals, or because we want to be able to earn street cred with the community says more about the naysayers than it does anything about the technology itself, and that’s really the way it should be: the tech should just keep on keeping on without paying any mind to those who have some kind of axe to grind for some kind of reason. I do agree that the requirements are too high; people should be able to use VR without having to upgrade their PCs. I also agree that the price is too high, but this is gen one, and that’s how technology always works. The software options will keep coming and will get better, but only if there’s a reason for them to do so. If people are adamant about not having VR this time around, then they won’t demand software. If there’s no demand, there will be no software. But it won’t mean that VR is going to end up in a shoebox at the back of the tech closet; it’ll continue in the industries where it’s valued for what it can do.

 

*As the lowest cost solution, the PSVR is a logical target for hackers, and there are already solutions in the works to get the headset working with the PC. The thing is, Sony is poised to be the cheerleader for VR due to the low price, but leaving it only on the PS4 is like leaving money on the table. If Sony were to make the PSVR officially PC compatible, I can easily imagine a much wider adoption of their product, and for VR in general.

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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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A Weekly Grab Bag for Apr 18, 2016

Posted by on Apr 21, 2016 in Consoles, Editorial, Featured, Gaming, General, The Division

A Weekly Grab Bag for Apr 18, 2016

Because I don’t have anything specific to fill a page with, I’m writing a weekly digest just to let the authorities know that I’m still alive.

Guild Wars 2 Mega Patch

DRfBxj-m-original

From more simple days.

I’m kind of sad that the GW2 mega-patch addressing Heart of Thorns didn’t get more play on my SocioScope. The patch notes were apparently quite sizable, and I saw a lot of folks saying that many philosophical issues they had with HoT were being addressed in the update. I would have liked to see more of the old guard returning to GW2, because I think we all had a great time getting from 1 to cap, visiting all the dungeons, and completing the story. It’s such a good game! I don’t know why it doesn’t get more re-traction from the Elder Wombats.

I logged in briefly on patch day and wanted to see if I could actually progress past the point where I was stuck. I had to reach a story point, but there were too many enemies that were just too powerful. Turns out they were still there, but another player happened by and helped me out, allowing me to get on with the process. I found that I was a bit rusty when it comes to this game, because I died a few times while I was derping around trying to figure out how to kill stuff.

The Elder Scrolls Online

teso-dark-anchors-from-far

Pete and Scott of the Pete and Scott Show have been talking back and forth about their forays into TESO on XB1, which has forced that game back to the forefront of my consciousness. I have it on all three platforms, but for some reason it just never gelled for me on any platform for very long. I liked Skyrim well enough, but I only got to level 19 with one character before I was drawn away to…something else.

With my restlessness being what it is, though, I thought I’d fire it up on XB1 and see what’s what. I created a new character, a high elf Templar of the Daggerfall Covenant, and once again started through the initial load of quests.

That’s pretty much about it!

LAN Party

LANTASTIC!

LANTASTIC!

We’ve got our annual LAN of Confusion scheduled for April 30th. We try and have one a year because it’s semi-historical, and because it’s an excuse for everyone to come over to my house and drink if nothing else.

Of course this year we’ve got The Division to spend time with. We’ll be having six people, which means we’ll have to break out into two groups of three, although we have two people who have level 30 characters, and the rest of us are at or under 15, so we might end up with two high level players in one group, and everyone else in the other group.

We have a few other options, of course, but folks are so enthralled with The Division that I think everyone would be OK to get hammered and shoot firearms. And play games.

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