Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Mortal Shell

Available on: PC (EGS Timed Exclusive), PS4, Xbox One
Played it on: PC
Played it for: 25 hours

RATING: 8/10

This was really refreshing.

As readers likely know by now, I'm a pretty big connoisseur of the Souls-like genre. I've played Demon's Souls, every Dark Souls, I've played Bloodborne, and I've played Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. For most of those, I've earned 100% of the achievements. But it's always nice to see other developers taking on the FromSoftware mantle, especially when they have unique ideas of their own to add to the table, and boy did Mortal Shell deliver.

Coming into this game, it's clear where the inspiration lies. It's got the health bar, it's got the stamina management, it's got the obtuse exploration and the obscured lore, it's even got the same oppressive atmosphere of the Souls series. Even the tutorial is a bit bizarre, throwing you into a boss battle within the first five minutes that it expects you to lose, and then boom, you're out in the game world... after you get eaten by a giant fish. Yeah, I don't uh... I don't even know the right questions to ask at this point.

Getting out into the proper game world, Mortal Shell wastes no time teaching you its two primary mechanics. You find your first Shell, a dead mercenary, right outside the tutorial area, and there are 3 more to find as you explore the central hub swamp. Unlike the Souls-borne games, there is no leveling up to get more health or damage stats. Once you get a Shell, that's pretty much the stats it will always have, so whether you want something balanced or something with very high HP or endurance, get used to sticking with a shell for quite a while as you learn to master it. The other important mechanic is called hardening. During just about any point in combat unless you're knocked down or in the middle of being grabbed, you can harden your shell into stone and pause your animation. Until you release the button or are hit by an enemy, you stay that way, and you don't take damage when you get hit. This completely changes the flow of combat from the usual Souls-like rhythm. Getting stuck in a combo? Harden. Getting low on stamina? Harden, and regain it while the enemy is recovering from being stunned. About to get slammed by a massive attack because you positioned poorly? Harden! It's an amazing get-out-of-jail-free card, and its cooldown of about 6 seconds is short enough to always be useful while remaining long enough that you can't abuse its power.

Even the first enemies in the swamp area have a very real chance to kill you. The first time your HP reaches zero, you'll be knocked out of your shell and have an opportunity to get back in it (though a single hit in this form will put you down). The second time you get knocked out, it's game over, restart at the checkpoint. This gives the player the same incredible tool that Sekiro does, allowing death to not just be an instant game over. But because it's so easy to get knocked out of your shell, the main thing this teaches the player is that hardening is extremely important. There is no block button in this game, so learning when to harden is essential to mastering the combat. From there it's just about exploration and finding a playstyle that fits well, as well as mastering the parry once you acquire it.

Between hardening and the extra chance to get back in your Shell, the game is much more forgiving than most Souls-likes. The default parry also lets you regain HP, giving you yet another option to stay in the fight, and the item that lets you parry will flash and make a noise when you're about to get hit by an un-parry-able attack, which you can escape by either dodging or hardening. The game is very clear about what it wants from you in battles. On top of that, the healing items can be farmed in the world, and will either be dropped by enemies or picked up at set locations that will respawn after a timer of about 3 minutes. If you just spend some time wandering the swamps, you can easily go into a temple with 20+ healing items. There are still combat sections that are tough, but I beat at least half of the game's bosses on the first try, including the final boss, simply because I picked up what the game wanted me to do. It felt amazing to play a game in this genre that was almost relaxing at points.

The locations are probably the best part of this game. Aside from the central hub of Fallgrim, there are three temples to explore. Each one contains a new weapon to try out along with a slew of unique enemy types, each of which requires time to master. And the level design, both from an artistic and gameplay perspective, is just awesome. The most difficult temple features a huge sprawling structure of obsidian, not unlike something you'd see in The Lord of the Rings. But this gives way to an assembly of jagged blocks that barely make a coherent path in the sky. This, combined with the obscured lore and cryptic inscriptions, makes for a world that feels very alien and just out of reach, and that makes it all the more enjoyable to explore.

The four weapons of the game all play quite differently as well, so while it may seem strange to go from Dark Souls where the combinations are nearly limitless to a game with a mere 16 possible combinations of Shells and weapons, each option is so different that I found it quite refreshing to ultimately find the combo I liked best. And sure, it only took me about 15 hours on my first playthrough, but this is absolutely a game I plan to revisit. I'm already about halfway through my new game + run, which is significantly more difficult than the base game, and it's clear that this is the sort of game for which I could get a random craving, play for a week, and walk away highly satisfied. It's exactly the kind of direction I'd like to see this genre move as more developers work out their ideas. Keep things unique, keep things fresh, and above all keep things fun. And that's everything that Mortal Shell accomplishes. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

From Software, Sekiro, and the Intent of Entertainment

Bloodborne did not need an easy mode.

Dark Souls 3 did not need an easy mode.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
 does not need an easy mode.

It's a topic that comes up every time a new From Software game releases. The games are too hard, therefore they need an easy mode. It has never been true. It never will be true. And to cut to the chase, if you believe it is, it's because you are missing the intent of entertainment that is the core of every From game.

There's something we've come to take for granted in the Western video game market. It has become the core of Western games that the entire medium of video games exists purely for non-committal entertainment value. And I don't think there's anything necessarily wrong with that, I really don't. Life is hard, and games should be fun, whatever that means to you. Horizon: Zero Dawn has the same inherent fun no matter what difficulty setting you play it on, so long as that setting is engaging for the things you seek as a player. I played it on the hardest possible setting because it was more engaging for me to struggle against the huge robots that far outmatched my initial skill level, but a friend played it through on Normal and still enjoyed it. Aloy's journey is the same, the robot AI behaves the same, it's all fine and dandy. The indelible story of Master Chief in the original Halo trilogy is just as compelling if you want to play on Easy or Legendary, because of the pure entertainment value that the game series is trying to convey. It's pretty universally well known at this point, that the intended difficulty of the Halo games is Heroic. But I played them on Normal and love them just the same. My buddy played them on Legendary LASO. Both of those experiences are awesome. And perhaps most surprising, I play Gears of War... on Casual. Not because I can't play them on Insane, I've done that run, but because I just think the games are more fun as a chainsaw-wielding, explosion-filled bloodbath. I don't want to think too hard when I play Gears, I just want to play Gears. I like it better that way.

However, despite my propensity for picking wildly different difficulty settings for many of the games I play, I am devoutly resilient in my defense of From Software's lack of difficulty settings. And it's because From games do not aim to entertain in the same way the majority of Western games do. To suggest otherwise is a fundamental misread of what the games are trying to achieve.

To explain what I mean, for most video games, the intent of entertainment is to provide a wide-ranging possibility of experience, that allows the majority of players to find something within the game to enjoy regardless of what they're searching for. A fun romp through the story? We've got you. A brutally punishing test of endurance and wit? Also here, if you crank it up. This is a fine concept, and one that I don't begrudge if the game is built from the ground up to facilitate it. But that's not what From's games are here to do.

The intent of entertainment in From's Souls-borne games, a legacy from which Sekiro proudly inherits, is that they are hard... until they aren't anymore. This is something that every series veteran can tell you. After you beat one of these games, learn their internal combat rhythms and timings, explore every area, and discover the secrets, the games become less difficult because you, the player, have cranked up your own difficulty threshold. My first run of Sekiro took me forty-five hours, as I slowly internalized the game's unique dance of death and learned through failure. I even threw my controller once. But I beat it. New game+ took me ten hours. New game++ took me five. I stopped counting how many times I died on my first run. On new game++, my total death count was three, all of which were 100% my fault because I got too cocky.

This is the intent of the game series. Not to entertain in the sense we typically understand of video games, but to entertain by providing a visceral, brutally engaging experience that has been built, from the ground up, to facilitate a sense of accomplishment by providing one difficulty setting. Not two. You learn by failing, but you are never barred from trying again. Or failing again. But that's the point. You learn the move sets. You get better at the game's systems. You become more at-home with the controls and the rhythm of combat. Until, at some point, it clicks, you kill the boss, and you move on to bigger and better.

This experience is not meant for every player. But it was never designed to be. The truth of the matter is that From's fame with Dark Souls simply happened because they were poised in the right place at the right time, not because they made a game for everyone to enjoy. The Souls-borne games are, always have been, and always will be, deeply niche. You know what game is incredibly difficult, and within the same niche genre? Nioh. And I can say with absolute certainty that I have died more times in Nioh than I did in Sekiro, and by a pretty wide margin. But articles calling for Nioh to have an easy mode are extremely sparse, despite the experience actually being a significant step up from the majority of From's games in terms of difficulty. Why? Because Nioh isn't made by From Software, and therefore doesn't get the mainstream press attention that every From game gets despite its niche intent of entertainment.

The other argument I've begun to see is about adding an easy mode for the sake of accessibility. Not to diminish the value of the game's intended difficulty, but to instead allow people with various cognitive or physical disabilities to get in on the action. This is certainly the most compelling argument, and I do see where it comes from. Lots of people talk about Dark Souls, but not everybody can experience it, so it would be nice to allow more gamers to play. However, if you need assistance in that regard, the Xbox Adaptive Controller has been out for a while now. This controller has an insane amount of options to allow as many people as possible to play games in a setup that works uniquely for them. It accommodates for a lack of fine motor dexterity, missing limbs, you name it. If, even with this option, you are still unable or unwilling to fully engage one of these games, then it's time to accept that... the series isn't for you, and move on. And that's not a bad thing. Games need to cater to a specific audience, and difficulty is so innately married to the intent of entertainment in this series that a great deal of value would be lost in making the games easier. Not for those who play on normal difficulty, but certainly for those who do not.

There are other famously hard games, like Ninja Gaiden, that do in fact have multiple difficulty settings to chose from, but the intent of From's games is not to be brutally sadistic like Gaiden was, not at all. It is intended to teach gameplay through a cycle of failure that will eventually lead to victory, that's exclusively what these games do. I've seen people bring up closed captioning so the deaf can watch television, or braille so blind folks can still read books, and that this same concept should apply to an easy mode in Souls. But this misses the entire point. It would instead be akin to not understanding the film Eraserhead, not because you need closed captions, but because you simply struggle to engage with the film's intent, and then demanding to see a simplified, easily explained version of Eraserhead rather than engage directly with the weird, niche film like its fans have. The difficulty of understanding Eraserhead is tied to the experience of the film in the exact same way that gameplay difficulty in From's action games is tied to the experience of the games. And, like Eraserhead, the Souls-borne games are not meant for all audiences, and that's ok.

To demonstrate what I mean, I'd like to share a story of my time playing Sekiro during my first run.

I struggled against the final boss. Deeply. Perhaps more than in any previous From game. The final boss is hard, requiring players to completely master the rhythm of combat, parries, and counters, timed to his unique attack patterns that mercilessly ruin your health bar if you make a mistake. This final challenge is also the only one in the game with 4 health bars instead of 2 or 3. Eventually I grew so frustrated with this boss that I wanted to quit. If Sekiro had an easy mode, I know for a fact I would have given in to the frustration and used that mode. But that wasn't an option. Either you beat a From action game or you don't. No turning it down, no easy way out. You do it or you don't, that simple. So I put the game down. I watched some videos of others fighting him. I watched strategy guides. I learned his moveset without the interface directly in front of me, like learning a bit more about properly playing an instrument by watching a better musician. The next day, I came back refreshed. Five tries later, I was watching the credits roll, my hands shaking as I was coming down from my adrenaline high. That is the Souls experience. And it is something that would be lost with the addition of an easy mode because the game is meant to be frustrating, enough that some bosses would absolutely drive some players to that mode instead of engaging with the actual intent of the game. Which is why, intentionally, that isn't an option. You can't move the goal posts closer. But you can figure out how to finish the race.

And the result has been clear. The Souls-borne games are massively popular for the niche audience they are trying to garner. They're not Grand Theft Auto V popular, but popular to the tune of three million unit sales of Dark Souls 3 - five hundred thousand more units than Nioh. But despite these numbers, it doesn't change the niche appeal that makes these games so good. These games are loved because they fill a specific niche, not in spite of it. And yet the demands for the games to become mainstream continue to pour in, sequel after sequel, which would directly hinder the core intent of their design. And that is why, no matter how many times you ask, no. No From game needs an easy mode. And they never will.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin

Available on: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Played it on: PC and PS4
Played it for: 400+ hours (that's not a joke, please send help)

RATING: 10/10


Not really, the game still does have a few minor issues that are simply inherent to the engine. However, this was the product that Yui Tanimura wanted to deliver after his co-director was kicked off the Dark Souls II project. Some of the AI has been improved, many of the enemies were re-positioned, all DLC content has been included, the netcode has been updated, basically everything that could have been fixed, was fixed.

So, where to begin? Scholar is so much more than a standard Game of the Year edition of a game. So much has been changed for the better. In many ways, it almost feels like a new game entirely, even if one has already played the original Dark Souls II. The vast majority of enemy placements in the game have been changed, with some enemies not even appearing in same areas at all. It does a fantastic job at keeping players on their toes, especially when they've already played the first iteration and have certain expectations of where enemies are.

The graphics are much more polished than the original game as well. Scholar runs at a buttery-smooth 60 fps, and the texturing has been highly polished in a lot of areas that give the game a new dimension of beauty. The simplicity of the overall models lends itself well to this improvement too, there are rarely, if any, framerate dips across the entire experience. It just looks good. It feels good.

The whole Crowns DLC trilogy has also been included and similarly revamped. They have been more properly integrated into the larger game, as the in-game keys used to access these areas have been hidden in the world rather than given directly to players at the start. As a whole, the experience has a much better flow. The world does a fantastic job of feeling organic. Areas are layered on top of each other in a way that is not necessarily logical, but is conducive to player progress. While this was also true of the original game, the enemies reflect this even better this time around. No longer will you find an enemy that makes no sense for the area, the game has been redesigned to reflect both a logical world coherence and a difficulty curve that better suits a gradual increase in player skill. The trademark hardship is still present, but the difficulty spikes are a bit more rounded in this version.

And speaking of the Crowns trilogy, the background lore added by this content is fantastic and deep. They connect the world of Scholar to that of the first Dark Souls in a way that is not too overt, but is extremely meaningful. The Crown of the Ivory King does this especially well, directly addressing the fate of the Chaos of Izalith in between the games. The Majestic Greatsword found at the bottom of a side tower in the Crown of the Iron King is, for veterans, the blade of Knight Artorias, referencing him indirectly in its description. And even on a base level, the content added in each DLC is some of the best that any Souls-borne game has to offer. Each area has three bosses, a huge amount of land to explore that is populated by unique, tough, interesting enemies, and of course teeming with unique loot that enhances the total experience.

This iteration of Dark Souls II also improved the netcode enough to make PvP a viable passtime. This doesn't account for simple poor internet connections between players, but when the internet is good, I hardly had any of the frontstabbing or other bizarre lag problems that were ever-present in the PvP of the original game. On the whole, every component of the game has been tuned as well as it could have been. To break the facade of impartiality, as a Souls-borne player, Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin is, in my thousand-odd hours of total series play, the best that the games have to offer. Hands down.

Now with that being said, the game still isn't flawless. There are still annoying aspects of area and enemy design that stayed over between iterations. Hitboxes are not always entirely accurate, for one, and that includes the PvP environment. Certain PvE enemy triggers are very strange and will put players into awkward situations that will absolutely cost estus uses or even a life if the player doesn't know what to expect. And, you know, Brightstone Cove Tseldora and The Gutter still exist, so... take that for what you will.

And as much as I love the Crowns trilogy as a whole, I can't get over certain deeply flawed parts of those areas. The optional boss fight of the Crown of the Sunken King's Sunken City of Shulva is a truly horrific exercise in frustration, as is the entire optional Frozen Outskirts area of the Crown of the Ivory King. The former features a grueling endurance contest against three tuned up NPC's, one with a full Havel build from the first Dark Souls game, one with a blacksteel katana build, and one with a greatbow who harasses players from the back of the arena. Certainly a boss that requires skill, but even the arena itself hardly works in the player's favor, and the boss still almost always takes me five or more tries despite the hundreds of hours I've put into the game, depending on how the enemy AI configures. And the latter is just... poor. Low visibility, bad enemies, it's a mess. And on top of it all, there's the entirety of the Crown of the Iron King's Brume Tower, which is designed with an extreme amount of verticality. Definitely rare in the Souls games... but for a reason. The games are not platformers, and forcing those mechanics has historically always resulted in garbage areas. Blighttown is the easiest example, but the Crystal Cave, The Great Hollow, and The Gutter are all examples of where verticality has been done before, and all those areas are universally disliked. Brume Tower is now another place on that list.

But despite all those criticisms, for me the game is still a 10. I adore Scholar, and it was the first Souls-borne game I played where I finally internalized the mechanics and learned how to play the games well. And I partially attribute that experience to how varied and well-crafted this game is. It's the most balanced that the series ever got, with the most diverse areas, enemy designs, and viable builds to enjoy in one place. I still play it to this day, and will likely continue doing so for the entire foreseeable future. So please, give Scholar a shot. Because it needs more love.

Monday, February 4, 2019

I'm Concerned About Anthem

So the Anthem open demo happened. That was... a thing.

Yeah, the VIP and subsequent open demo for Anthem didn't go quite like BioWare hoped, I would guess. I know I wouldn't be happy if I were a BioWare developer right now, and the vitriol surrounding everything that is EA isn't helping either. There's a vocal group of people who are screeching at the top of their lungs that Anthem is the Antichrist, and it's very hard to go anywhere on the internet to get away from this group. I don't agree with them, after giving the open demo a good 15 hours of play I can definitely state that there are great things waiting inside the game. But will I buy it at launch? ...Uh... well, about that.

You see, we were told by BioWare that the Anthem demo is a six-week-old build. That means 6 fewer weeks of bug fixing, a changed economy at launch, and a few other things that the company listed as changes from the full game. Depending on how you read this announcement, it means that the demo is six weeks old from the time of the VIP demo launch, so a total of 9 weeks to fix everything wrong with the demo build. Or, it's a difference of 6 weeks between when they built the demo and when the game will be playable on Origin Access Premier on February 15th. In either case, I have disappointingly little confidence in their ability to fix the game by then.

As a BioWare fan, this is really starting to hurt. I was willing to write off Mass Effect: Andromeda as a one-time failure, a result of an extremely troubled development cycle that forced a complete re-imagining of the game's core concept not once, but twice over 5 years that meant the game we got was built in an unbelievably short 18 months. But now Anthem's demo has been fraught with insane bugs over its two weekends, from crashes to infinite load screens to server issues to who-knows-what-else. This isn't the BioWare I've grown to love all these years.

My personal experience with Anthem was on PS4 for the open beta this past weekend, and I personally had a lot of bad experiences. The game completely crashed on me three separate times. I got stuck gaining 0 experience after leaving freeplay more than once. I experienced severe sever connection lag despite being connected through ethernet, which means the server tick rate is horrendous. And on one notable occasion, I entered one of the world's dungeons to complete a world event, and the dungeon didn't load for 8 minutes. I was stuck in the skybox with no terrain around me, barely able to move around while stuck in the falling animation, as I tried desperately to hit enemies that teleported around the map while my friend completed the dungeon by herself. Oh, and the strike? I wouldn't know how fun it is, in three attempts we never completed it because a key item never spawned the first time, forcing us to quit and retry, and then the server crashed the other two times we played it.

The worst part about all of that is... I like the game. Fundamentally, I think there's a great game hiding under the technical problems. Flying around in Javelins is fun, I like the gunplay, the abilities feel great to use, every Javelin chassis plays completely different, it's all there under the gunk. The roleplay is lighter than previous BioWare games, but I don't really mind that much because I know Dragon Age 4 is in development and that's the real meat I've been waiting for. And on top of that, the super fun mech combat more than makes up for the lack of genuine depth in Fort Tarsis. But when I can't go more than thirty minutes without encountering something that massively tarnishes my experience, my fun is kneecapped.

So I find myself stuck. I want to support Anthem for two reasons: 1. Because I actually like the core gameplay, and 2. Because... well, EA has a history of canning companies that underperform. Visceral met that grizzly end a year and a half ago, and even though Dragon Age 4 has been announced... I have very little confidence that if Anthem fails, EA will still let them make it. But the technical issues present in the demo build, those don't excite me. The fact that they only have a few weeks to fix this stuff doesn't excite me. The fact that we have yet to see the real economy of the game, that doesn't excite me. Instead, I'm left befuddled, sad, and ultimately anxious for the future of my favorite game creators and confused as to why this game isn't getting another 4 months of development to ensure a smooth launch. And in its current state, I don't think it's justifiable to spend premium price on this unstable mess. I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't.

Will we get Dragon Age 4? Here's to hoping. But with the way things are going, I've already got some whisky set aside to pour out over BioWare's grave.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Changing Your Opinion - Fallout: New Vegas, and the Importance of Nuanced Perspective

I have spent years hating Fallout: New Vegas.

I think that's important to say, because it's not the first game to allow me to see things in a new light. As a game reviewer, it's quite easy to make early and often imperfect judgments of a game based on certain immediately apparent factors. It's important to have that ability, in many respects. As someone who enjoys being critical about games, it's validating to know that your repeated analyses are paying off, that you're able to easily recognize key features of games that you do or don't like. It's also useful as a gamer, because you're stuck with a game you dislike for far less time. You can dump it and move on to something good that much faster. But what happens when the initial impression is wrong? What happens when somebody says something, and it actually changes your mind permanently?

I recently had this experience watching YouTuber H. Bomberguy's video, "Fallout 3 is Garbage and Here's Why." Now, I'm a huge fan of Fallout 3. I played it for an easy hundred fifty hours in 2008-9, and I adored getting lost in the world and experiencing this post-apocalyptic RPG. The story was, to me, compelling and interesting. My character was a cool guy who helped out the Capital Wasteland, he wandered the wastes providing altruistic aid to all he found. He had adventures in virtual reality, in bombed-out Pittsburg, and even in space! Plus, how cool was it to explore a world that was a post-apocalyptic vision of a more technologically advanced 1950's America? I loved it all! So, when I saw Mr. Bomberguy's video pop up on my recommendations, I ignored it. For weeks, I pushed it aside. It seemed like clickbait, an easy target for controversy, something that would only make me mad for no reason. But it stayed in my mind. The video was an hour and a half long, surely he would have to make valid points and reasoned arguments with something so lengthy. And, more importantly, what kind of critic would I be if I never addressed an argument like that? This hobby all but requires debate and an allowance of shifting perspectives. I knew I would have to watch it.

And so I did. All one hour, twenty-nine minutes, and thirty-seven seconds. I was ready to defend my position, to somehow validate that my dozens of hours had been well-spent on a game that was, to my memory, a masterpiece. And the unthinkable happened. After a while, I began to agree.

WHAT?! Fallout 3 isn't bad, how could it be? I don't have bad tastes, right?! I wouldn't have spent so long playing it if it were a bad game, right?!


Well, that's a much more difficult question to answer. Games like Brink, RAGE, Prototype, the bad features of these trash piles are easily identifiable. The problems with Destiny are felt from an immediate, visceral level. There are aspects that are lacking, or straight up nonexistent, in these titles and make them objectively bad. But, what if a game is only... kind of bad? This is where Fallout 3 falls.

Fallout 3 proclaims itself as an RPG filled with freedom of choice and player direction. It is a game that was designed from the ground up to have that same grandiose feel as The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but in a world that fringes on wacky science fantasy and is built on a contradictory notion of highly advanced 1950's technology. It accomplishes this quite well. It has "dungeons" in the form of exploring sewers or other ruined structures filled with zombified ghouls and big angry mutants, the world is grand, open, and exciting, and you help people like a good old fashioned fantasy hero (or spread chaos like a villain). And that's what I liked about Fallout 3 when I was fourteen. It was grand and open, and yet limited enough to not make me think too deeply. I could just be a hero and feel cool. But now that my tastes have matured, I'm forced to ask myself what actually constitutes a good RPG. It's a broad category, and there is no one cut and dry answer. Part of why we have so many games in general is that different tastes exist and there's no such thing as a perfect game.

But it's critical to think about Fallout 3 in comparison to its genre fellows. And in doing this, Fallout 3 lacks considerably. There is a blanket, uncaring Karma system that judges actions based on a deity-level, all-seeing moral scale. There are railroaded segments that force you to play only one of two ways, or sometimes just one period. Thousands of man hours were spent on creating this massive world that is limited and not entirely cohesive. A real RPG is nuanced. Fallout 3 is not.

More importantly and ironically, when Fallout: New Vegas came out, I hated it for this exact reason. New Vegas is by far an imperfect game, in my defense. There are too many massive text walls when encountering new pieces of the interface that are immersion breaking and horribly boring, the voice acting is less professional, the world is not as immediately gratifying and interesting. But underneath this shell lies an intricate web of mechanics, built in the same engine, that are far better overall at crafting a real, believable, and interesting world. After hearing Mr. Bomberguy's critiques, I decided to play New Vegas anew, with a fresh and much more critical perspective. That was when I had to face the music of being truly wrong.

Fallout: New Vegas is the best Bethesda-era Fallout game to date.

Now, I don't like the story as much as Fallout 3's. I like the drive of having to find my dad out in the wastes, and I love the setup of seeing a sped-up eighteen years of growing up in Vault 101 only to be forced to leave that world behind and face something terrifying and alien. The Courier's tale doesn't hold up like that for me. But all the other hundreds of hours spent in New Vegas? Now those are fascinating. Every town has a different opinion of your character based on their personal interactions with you because news travels very slow. Every faction thinks differently of you because of your actions. Every area of the map holds a unique kind of danger and is designed around player progression and earning one's stripes. For example, there is an early quest to take on a large group of deathclaws, and they will kill you if you try to take them on like an idiot with your low level gear and trash stats. But the longer you leave them, the longer a group of lovable, honest miners goes without work. That's a kind of pressure that is rarely present in Fallout 3.

On a more base level, you can take traits during character creation that permanently change the way the game works for that character. You can have a faster fire rate for less accuracy, you can get a higher critical chance for a slower fire rate, you can gain agility in exchange for less durable limbs. I took one on my new character that lowered her perception by 1 permanently, but gave her a +2 boost to the stat for wearing glasses. How cool is that? A rollplay element, needing to wear glasses, that has a mechanical effect in the game! It's an amazing way to get a cooler character right from the get-go, it immediately made me care more about the game. She needed to get glasses as a first order of business after leaving the doctor's house so she could see properly.

Now, to get back to the core idea of this post, all of this new way of seeing 3 and New Vegas is thanks to an ability to see them from a new angle. I opened myself up to other opinions, and was able to see these games in a better way. I still like Fallout 3, and I definitely disagree with Bomberguy that it's garbage, but I can see where he's coming from and acknowledge that these parts of the game do, in fact, lack considerably. New Vegas can still grate on my nerves, but now that I can see the elements that make the game interesting, I can actually enjoy my time spent in the Mojave and come out with an overall positive experience counter to my original knee-jerk dislike.

Is it ethical, then, to go back and edit an old review to reflect this change? Not only do I think it's ethical, I think it is necessary. I don't post reviews for games as they release, I post reviews for games as I play them. Generally speaking, this means I have a lot of time with each game before I craft my opinion into writing. That also means I have time to go back to old games to revisit and finish them, and my experience during this revisit may change my overall opinion of the game as a whole. Or I might have a conversation with somebody or watch a video that makes me question my initial findings enough to try a game again with a clean slate. When that happens, I've found myself conflicted about what I should do with a review I've already written. Ultimately, I've come to the decision that if my opinion has changed or deepened, then the original review is inherently flawed and incomplete, which is unjust to both readers and to the game. Sure, it may be obvious that it's an old review, but all the same I don't think that fact speaks for itself.

That's what Fallout: New Vegas taught me. That I'm not always right, and in not being right I have an obligation to amend previous statements to reflect a more honest and up-to-date attitude. As things go forward, you'll start seeing some old reviews pop up again, with more polish, a revised score, and of course a disclaimer of [REVISED] at the top of the review. This allows me both the freedom to return to old games when I want to, and the contentment of knowing that my opinions are allowed to change as I change and grow.

I hope I've properly explained myself, and I thank you for your understanding. As always, I am committed to delivering properly explained reviews, and I will always continue to providing quality content. See you soon!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fallout 4

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, and PC
Played it on: PS4

RATING: 6/10

To be completely honest, it has been incredibly difficult to write this review. I've gone back and forth considerably on this game. Is it good? Is it bad? Do the new design decisions work, as a fan of Fallout? Does it live up to expectation? I can't answer those questions in a straightforward manner because...

Well, the game is painfully average.

I remember the hype surrounding it. Years of rumors, culminating in an E3 presentation that destroyed all competition. Bethesda rolled out trailers for every major upcoming title in its publishing arsenal, including a sequel to Dishonored, which I loved despite the criticism. A reboot of DOOM that actually looked like DOOM, unlike the divisive DOOM 3. And of course at the end, the hour dedicated to unveiling Fallout 4. It all seemed so fresh back then, so amazing to be back in this world of post-apocalyptic 1950's aesthetic. I was so hyped that I pre-ordered the Pip-Boy edition with help from my significant other at the time. It looked like a return to everything I loved about Fallout 3 and a turn from everything I hated about Fallout: New Vegas. Finally! A return to form!

And then I played it.

It was good for a while. At first, I loved it just as much as I thought I would. The story was great, I thought it was fantastic to play from the perspective of a parent trying to find their child. It was way more compelling than the story of New Vegas, that much was certain to me. Boston was a unique location to explore, and the companions were neat. All of them had different likes and dislikes, and finding one that jived with your character was enjoyable. I even liked the crafting for a while. But after I kept playing, the paint started to chip away. That Fallout 3 nostalgia wore off. And I was forced to see what was lying underneath.

The game just doesn't function like its supposed to. It tries to get you to care about certain factions over others, but fails to present any of them in a meaningful way. It does the exact same shitty thing that Skyrim did by allowing the main character to immediately advance in the four major factions without hardly any setbacks or challenges. The vast majority of the characters are weak and forgettable. I only remember about half the companions because I spent the majority of the game with either Nick Valentine as my noir cop sidekick or Piper because she was my love interest. There was no reason to have anybody else, because they were the only two characters who meant anything to my Sole Survivor.

The locations? Largely forgettable as time went on. It becomes extremely difficult to remember what each part of the map is like because it's too same-y for the entire game. There are differences, yes, and they're distinct enough while playing, but it's extremely easy to get lost or turned around in many sections because it feels like a world too populated and overdesigned with things. And because every quest feels nearly identical, there's no reason to learn the world more intimately. New Vegas suffered from a similar issue, sporting a map that was too open in many areas and lacking in substantive explorative content, but not nearly to this extent. It feels like the Commonwealth is a direct response to criticism of the Mojave, and goes so far in the other direction that it ends up still suffering. Every location blends together, every encounter is identical to the previous one, no main quest is even remotely as compelling or memorable as something like Tranquility Lane or anything leading up to the Battle for Hoover Dam.

And what of that big, climactic battle that epitomizes every modern Fallout? The battle for the fate of the Commonwealth... sucks. Most factions struggle to make you care or feel conflicted, so you're ultimately stuck with something functionally no better than the Mass Effect 3 endings. You can either nuke the Institute or not, and then take down the big Brotherhood of Steel blimp or not. That's it. There's not even a reason to care about which outcome is best because none of them are. Functionally, mechanically, they are all the same. This speaks volumes through its silence. The world of Fallout was always meant to be complex and nuanced, but this feels like an amateur attempt to recreate something Fallout-like rather than a meaningful continuation of the universe. The RPG elements are so token, so shunted aside in this one, that it would be a genuinely better experience if they didn't exist at all.

And what about that good ol' boogyman, the Institute? Well, it's probably one of the biggest tragedies in the entire game. So much detail has been put into it, so much love, so many hours crafting a place that's meant to symbolize a new hope for humanity and the only beacon of progress in a dead world. It is by far one of the most gorgeous locations ever crafted in a Bethesda engine. And you know what? It sucks. It's supposed to be a heavily complex question of your character's morality, and there were moments where that came through. The scene with you and Shaun alone on the roof of the CIT, that was powerful. But ultimately, the entire personality of the Institute boils down to, "Screw the outside world, it's too imperfect and we should just live in our utopia with sentient slave robots." None of the characters in the Institute are nuanced or interesting, they're all cookie-cutter cardboard skeletons that repeat roughly the same thing to you over and over again. Granted, there are moments when the nuance of the Institute shines through like a beautiful beacon of much-needed storytelling, where the characters within feel deeply human. But those moments aren't what sticks, and they're a major faction that's introduced far after the main character is likely deeply entrenched with at least one of the other three, which means that there's just not enough time to care about them, not to mention the fact that siding with them is painted blatantly as an evil decision. It's the one major memorable location that left an impression on me, and it can't even act correctly as the crux of the story. What if, in visiting the Institute, you were tasked with assisting a lesson with a group of kids, talking about what the world above is actually like? No, of course it can't do that, because then you'd have too much of a moral quandary with your decision about nuking the Institute because these kids are ultimately innocent and it would actually force players to question what is right. But if the Institute is full of mostly faceless adults who are painted as condoning slavery, then there is absolutely no reason to care even remotely about them unless you force yourself to think about some of the more abstract consequences like a loss of progress.

Let's take a moment to talk about that story, too, and the RPG elements as a whole. Fallout has always been, since its start, a series of RPG games. You make a character, and you have options to play that character the way that you want them to be expressed in the world. Throughout the series, the games have accomplished this to varying degrees, with Fallout having some stumbling blocks but ultimately being a good rollplay foundation, Fallout 2 being by far the best at conveying story and an ability to play whatever character you want, Fallout 3 being at least interesting with its limited options, and New Vegas expanding on 3's design to provide an incredibly deep experience. But with 4, there was no impetus to get invested in a meaningful way. The dialogue system was nice, I definitely enjoyed the experience of playing a voiced protagonist, but so many of the options are completely meaningless, and many of them are functionally identical to the others. The lead writer, (and it honestly angers me to have to bestow that title on this man) Emil Pagliarulo, is an imbecile who does not have any clue what good storytelling is. He has essentially stated that because players will miss certain story elements in an open world game, that there's no point in story effort at all.

Sorry, Emil, but there's a massive crowd of RPG's outside your door, some of which come from this very franchise, that are carrying pitchforks and screaming that they disagree with your nonsense.

Let's take a second to imagine the four factions as something that has huge consequence for the player and the world. Imagine an Institute that was an entire world unto itself, like the Vaults, but better. An entire functional society underground, with bases all over the Commonwealth that you could visit and gain new technology from, that were researching different aspects of post-nuclear life. Spouses, kids, aunts, uncles, entire families that were raised in this environment with an entirely different worldview than the protagonist's. Now, siding with them means understanding their beliefs with the potential of guiding them in a new direction thanks to your connections in the outside world, but also knowing that this society couldn't function without the use of sentient, synthetic slaves. Imagine the Brotherhood of Steel as an organization with forward thinking, if flawed, morality that believes in law and order, but is too entrenched in preserving the past and being unable to change their ideals. Now, siding with them means sacrifice for the greater good with the knowledge that while you're only a cog in the machine, you're contributing to a better society. Imagine the Minutemen as something greater, as a collection of people who want what's best for the Commonwealth and are willing to fight to protect one another from the evils of the wasteland, who concretely believe in freedom and the common good without the strict militarism of the Brotherhood. A people focused on each other and the future, without being hindered by dogmatism and tradition like the power-armored princes. Now siding with them may mean losing the concrete order and technology that the Brotherhood would provide, but ultimately gaining a better society as a result. Imagine the Railroad as an organization growing too zealous within its own mission, coming to believe that synths are inherently better than the humans around them despite how much help you've give them, with slanted comments about how much better you would be as a synth. Given how zealous they're becoming, what if they're the only ones who want this final solution of nuking the Institute because they can't see any other way. What if siding with them meant a slowly creeping indoctrination that ultimately resulted in you switching your consciousness into a synth body, and what the ramifications of that would be both mechanically and story-wise as you choose who to share your secret with. Now every faction matters. Now the choice of who you side with in the end is truly difficult and really does boil down to how your character rationalizes the decision and what they value and prioritize. Now it's an RPG.

It's this fundamental misunderstanding of what they think players care about that forms so much of the foundation of why Fallout 4 ultimately fails to deliver as the kind of game we were promised. Remember when Todd Howard said in the E3 presentation that Codsworth had a list of hundreds of the most popular names that he would use directly to address the player? That's what we expected. We expected Codsworth to matter for more than eight seconds, for one. But we expected this to carry over as a design philosophy. Not just that it was neat that our servant robot knew our name, but that we would matter, and be deeply entrenched in the entire composition of this world. But that's not how it feels. The RPG elements are so light, so non-existent for the vast majority of game time, that this bombshell drop of cool design back at the E3 presentation is meaningless after the first two hours of the game. That is bad design at its finest.

And while I'm here, why, oh why, DO I GET POWER ARMOR SO EARLY?!?!?! I actually have no problem with how power armor operates in 4, I especially enjoy all of the customizations and variations I can have with the different collectible sets. It felt very Tony Stark to have this big room in my house dedicated to all my different suits of power armor. And it was even nice to finally feel the weight of putting on gear like that, something that wasn't present in previous titles. But being handed a suit of power armor at level 3 in the very first town? That is not how you pace a game. You don't trivialize a fight with the game's first deathclaw and hand the player the power of god immediately upon starting. It's not even a piece of equipment one has to really use sparingly, there's dozens of power cores throughout the game that are extremely easy to find. The power scaling only grows more poorly handled as the game progresses because of this, and the end of the game can be spent almost exclusively in power armor. It's incredibly bad design, because it feels less like a reward and more like a crutch or yet another token inclusion because of the way the player is introduced to it. It's very heavy-handed, which explains a lot about how the rest of the game feels as well. Forced.

*Sigh.* But you know what the troubling thing is? I can't fully write this game off as bad and call it a day. The side quests, despite taking place in an awful map, are actually interesting for the most part. Some of them were far better than the main quest. I did deeply care about taking care of jobs for the Railroad, for one. Letting me choose my own code name was a fantastic touch, I loved that they called to me specifically as "Fixer," and relied on me to live up to that name as a sort of clean-up crew. All of the synths in the Railroad were great characters as well, they felt like this ragtag group that was Fighting the Good Fight™ despite their clear differences in approaching their overall goals. Desdemona was an imperfect leader, but always felt as though she was trying to do the right thing overall. It was something that the Minutemen desperately needed, especially as a group that was billed from the start of the game as the main faction in the Commonwealth that you're supposed to care about as the protagonist. It's no wonder I sided with the Railroad in the end, they were easily the faction I cared about the most thanks to this characterization. The whole game needed more of that, and it shows a glimpse of what could have been.

A few other locations were also highly standout. The slightly on-edge, grunge feel of Goodneighbor stuck with me for the whole game. I thought the Castle was actually pretty neat, and was easily the most memorable thing for the Minutemen (though that is admittedly a very low bar), and the Glowing Sea, now THAT was some proper game feel. They do manage to stick out in this overall dismal world design, and again show what could have been.

The gunplay is also fairly decent, I have to admit. It takes the FPS elements and pushes them even more than
New Vegas, and the care in this part of the game shows. I was never unable to have fun or be challenged during combat. To segue into another element I can't conclude without mentioning, crafting parts for my weapons did take up a large part of my time, and I did enjoy it. Many of the weapons do feel great to use in battle, and all of them feel different enough to justify their existence. The upgrades are the same way, they greatly change the feel and utility of each weapon in a noticeable way.

The crafting overall, however, is the most middlingly mediocre part of the game. In some areas, there's too much of it. There's way too many settlements to even remotely begin to care about. The interface is clunky and organized weird. The electrical system is, in general, silly. But for those two settlements I did built out, it was usually fun to make houses and furnish buildings for my settlers, and to build up enough defenses to keep them safe. Until building houses stopped functioning because pieces were unable to click together and it just wasted my time trying to find parts that worked. The same can be said of the guns, there gets to be a point where there are too many guns to care about so you stop making them better, and there's not enough part variety to make it fun in the long run, but it is nice to have the ability to tinker with weaponry to make better or different versions of what you started with. Eventually it boiled down to a long stock, long barrel, glow sights, a muzzle break, and the best regular receiver for pretty much every weapon I had, but I liked that the other options were there for modification, and that they genuinely did make the weapons handle differently.

Ultimately, Fallout 4 does feel like a game whose heart is in the right place. But it feels as though it's fallen victim to a cavalcade of inherent design flaws that have come to define certain aspects of the series, and instead of improving and innovating, they just left it because the lineage is good enough and there's too much of a precedent at this point. A lot of the problems ultimately boil down to pacing and an inability to convey itself properly. This is compounded by the existence of Emil Pagliarulo, who needs to leave Bethesda immediately, and what feels like a focus not on design quality, but instead on feature quantity. At the end of the day, I wouldn't hate myself for playing more of it, especially because the two major DLC's are pretty fun. But it falls far short of expectations, and it's obvious that there is a rift between what players actually want and what Bethesda thinks they want. Fallout 4 can't be a good game, because it fails to come together as the cohesive experience it should be. And unfortunately, the saddest category of games in existence is the bin in which it now finds itself - the depressing, forgettable world of just being ok.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Discussion About Good Games

What makes a good video game? Wow. What a colossal question to answer. I've been a game reviewer for a long time, and no, I don't post nearly as regularly as I should, I admit that. But I've also spent the last 4 years studying game design in order to break into this field, and that's the one question that has plagued me for my entire higher education. What the fuck makes a game good?

What has become clear to me in recent years is that most AAA companies with big publishers have no. fucking. idea. what makes a game actually good. The cynicism is so blatantly obvious and present. The fact that 343 Industries and The Coalition exist in the first place is proof positive of that. The fact that Bungie made one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, knew when it was supposed to end, ended it, and then 343 dug up its corpse for a quick buck. The fact that The Coalition just couldn't leave Epic's magnum opus alone. At least Gears 4 was good, unlike Halo 4.

Lawbreakers released into an extremely over-saturated market, and instead of trying to actually distinguish itself, decided to pander to the market as much as possible in order to put itself in direct competition with the juggernaut titan that is Overwatch. That is not how you make a game. Thanks to a recent video by Crowbcat, I really started to think about why it is that Lawbreakers failed like it did. I will link the video at the bottom of this post, just in case you would like to watch it, too.

In it, Crowbcat does not speak. Just as he always does in his videos, he simply lets Cliffy B. and the team speak for themselves. And while it starts as something fun and interesting, the cynicism creeps in after a little while, and it becomes painfully clear that Cliffy B., great designer though he may be, has become an extremely arrogant ass since his retirement from Epic at the conclusion of Gears of War 3. In another one of his videos, Crowbcat compares Bungie in their Halo days to 343 now. The differences speak for themselves.

This is the core problem with AAA. There is a very real reason that good indie games have a rock solid following. There is a reason Undertale is as popular as it is, and deservedly so. It's because Undertale is fun. It's because Toby Fox took a risk, and made something with love. It's because he was a perfectionist with an idea. There is no substitute for passion, and he nailed everything about Undertale. Bungie wanted to make something fun with Halo: Combat Evolved and its successors. It is still entirely possible to create a game that good in the modern era, Doom (2016) is proof of that. It's even possible to do it with a new big AAA IP, as Horizon: Zero Dawn proves. But these games are, depressingly, not the norm. No AAA company would risk making Undertale. None of them would risk making OneShot. None would venture into the territory of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, or Wasteland 2, or Owlboy. These are thought of as the scraps, left only for partially competent indie devs, experiences that are too risky for publishers to get behind. Yet these games, offered for half or less the price of a "premium" experience, are often the greatest games created in the modern games market. Because they remember what passion is.

That's the core component that the vast majority of current AAA games lack. Passion. Drive. Mixed with a healthy dab of perfectionism. Not cameos, and the "cinematic" (gag) experience, fan service, or the "premium" game. They have forgotten that for a game to be good, first it must be fun. That before a level is pretty, it must feel good. Before a gun is implemented, it must first be unique. Before a core mechanic is finalized, it must first enrich the experience. Dead Space 3's gun building was detrimental to the game and ruinous to the feel because it was not properly supported in the game. The cinematic bullshit that was added to Halo 4 and 5, replacing the player-first mentality of Bungie's work, destroyed the player's relationship to the game. And for god's sake, can we please stop this trend towards making absolutely everything an open world experience? It's not good for every game! It's just not! Dragon Age did not need to become open world, and it massively damaged the pacing of Inquisition in comparison to Origins and II. You know what the best parts of Inquisition were? The directed, limited-area DLC's that returned to the design principles of the first games.

Do you want to know what fun is? Fun is exploring Yharnam in Bloodborne, because the game is incredibly tight and exactly as directed as it needs to be. Fun is delving deeply into the world of Torment: Tides of Numenera and rollplaying in a setting that actually has replay value. Fun is what The Elder Scrolls and Fallout had before Skyrim and 4 respectively, before they forgot how to make a world that's good to explore rather than a cash-in with a trash story that does nothing to further what's enjoyable for the player. Fun is what The Legend of Zelda had before Ocarina of Time ruined it with formulaic tripe that cheapened and worsened an experience that should be about exploration and becoming a hero. Ocarina is how we got the travesty that was Skyward Sword. All of Skyward Sword's problems started with Ocarina. Never forget that, I don't care how much you like the game.

Great games are objectively great, but in an intangible way, and that is what is so hard to understand about them. They are not great because of any one feature present in all of them. They're not great because of perfection in a certain realm of design, like soundtrack or level design. But they do share an intangible means of wrapping the player seamlessly into the flow state, that indescribable feeling where the interface melts away and the player is within the game itself. Because the core of the game is so damn good that nothing else matters. That is how you make a game good.

I know that no AAA producer is going to read this post, and that's fine. They don't give a shit about player feedback anyway. If they did, DICE's disgusting, failed attempt at Battlefront would not be the flea-ridden travesty that it is. Mirror's Edge: Catalyst would not be the haphazard open-world mess that we got. Dragon Age: Inquisition, for as much as I love the game, would not have been bogged down with useless mechanics like shard collection and astrarium puzzles that set fire to the pace of the game and took time away from what really mattered.

You don't make a good game by adding bullshit. You make a good game by removing what isn't fun and refining what you have until it is fun. You don't rest on your laurels and just expect players to enjoy what you shit out because you think it's cool, you rip the game apart every time it's not fun and you ask yourself, "Why?" And then you rebuild it and repeat until you find the fun. Only then are you allowed to move on.

THAT is the difference between Undertale and Dead Space 3.


The Lawbreakers video by the great Crowbcat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJ4v2LgVlEA