Thursday, January 31, 2019

I hope you like text

Warhammer 40,000 Inquisitor Martyr has too many words in its name. But it's Warhammer, so being overwrought, wordy and far too complicated for it own good is a given. If it didn't have any of the over serious superfluousness then all it would be was another mediocre Diablo clone, which seems to be a theme for this year. Instead it is yet another mediocre Diablo clone that has layers of mechanics that I do not understand, are never explained, and that do not seem to required to not get killed.

There is one, and I mean only one, interesting mechanic that I would describe as unique. On top of the normal hit points gauge there is a suppression meter. As the player takes fire it does damage to both and, depending on the attack, it can harm one more than another. As the suppression meter decreases successful attacks have a greater chance of causing the inquisitor to stumble and fall. If the the gauge is depleted the inquisitor is officially fucked and can be stun locked to death.

In the realm of a 40K game, where bullets are everywhere and taking damage is not usually a problem, it makes sense. Sure, I have almost a bottomless well of hit points but taking a ton of fire hurts like hell and eventually it is going to knock me down.

I suppose I could describe it as a machismo meter, but I can't, because, well, current year argument.

That's it. Equipment management is boring and forces you to choose equipment base on its  'level' instead of it actual stats as the combined level of all equipment determines bonuses or penalties for missions. If your power level is below that of a mission it is not enough that the enemies are a little tougher, there are additional penalties to damage done and received.

There are multiple crafting areas that I have opened up a few times and never looked at again. Perks are earned based on requirements so deeply buried in menus that finding them is an achievement all its own. I am sure all of it would make sense if the game made an effort to explain anything. Instead it is preoccupied with using as many word as possible in basic conversation.

'Login rites and rituals to the machine spirit' is said without a hint of irony. So 40K, I guess? I have no love for painting miniatures so my knowledge of the source material is next to zero.




Thursday, January 24, 2019

January blahs

I finished Shadows Awakening last night. It made an attempt at humanizing the demon but none of the characters, alive or dead, were fleshed out enough to care about. My reaction was 'oh, that happened, time to move on.'

And move on I shall. To another mediocre Diablo clone.

...

Chamberlain and Chance - January blahs

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Armchair developer

It's easy to just label a game as mediocre and call it a day. Shadows Awakening is about a generic as they come. What's harder (and more interesting for blogging) is to play armchair developer and diagnose why it is generic and how it could be fixed. The isometric action RPG is a well established genre with stellar examples: Diablo 3 comes to mind as do older, classic console titles like Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance and Champions of Norrath (rest in peace, Snowblind Studios).

So what is Shadows Awakening missing, besides a name that makes sense?

First, and easiest: the loot drops suck and leveling up is unsatisfying. Diablo 3 works, as grind heavy as it is, because loot drops are constantly giving the player something new and shiny to use. A new piece or armor or a new weapon or even a new gem for slotting lands ever few minutes, keeping the player interested. Loot drops in Shadows Awakening are almost always worthless. It feels like the only good weapons are from scripted events which makes the loot drop lottery no fun to play because you never, ever win.

There are also not enough skills to learn to make each level gained feel tangible. Each character can only have three assigned skills at a time and the list of skills to choose from is not much larger. There are passive bonuses gained every three levels but they are almost all the same between characters and most of them are boring. And leveling itself takes far too long and suffers from tremendous XP inflation.

Second, and I will credit Chance for this term, the combat has no crunch. Hitting something in a game provides no tangible feedback beyond a little controller vibration so the impact must be presented visually and audibly. A good heavy hit should rock both the screen and the subwoofer. A bystander should take notice and cringe.

Combat in Shadows Awakening feels like fighting air. Just hold A and things fall down. Or disappear in a cloud of smoke. It just doesn't feel right.

This is a prime example of how a game can do nothing 'wrong' but still be a bore.

...

I have read the Game Informer article on Sekiro. It all sounded good, right up to the point where the director refused to discuss what the death penalty will be. I don't trust you, From Software, I just don't.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Bland bland bland

I am past the beginning of the year and things are calming down. I mean, working for a living is still not the way I want to live, but if I can convince myself that I do not need fast food every day I will have more time to to spend here. The blog has become an unfamiliar, empty place. It is not that I have nothing to say, it is that I have had precious little energy to say it.

Which is a pretty lame excuse.

Shadows Awakening is Diablo 3 with all of its good level and art design boiled away. It is the 7Up of games: bland and inoffensive but altogether unsatisfying. It is a game, mostly, so I will play it, but at the end of a session I feel like I have not really done much.

...

Sekiro comes out in a few months. I am not going to play it. Not even on a dare. I will read an article about it that has appeared in Game Informer but that is all the attention and effort I am will to provide. Unless I do play it and stream the attempt and subsequent nervous breakdown.

...

Podcast!

Chamberlain and Chance - 2019 Hype List

Sunday, January 13, 2019

I could see for miles and miles

I was not lying when I said that Mega Man 11 was hard but it is an authentic, well worn difficulty that has had its edges rounded off. Getting all the way through a level and through the boss in two lives is still nigh impossible on the first attempt. That attempt nets more than just information: accumulated bolts allow the player to purchase extra lives, energy tanks and power ups.

It's still Mega Man, it's just a modern Mega Man, and it makes Mighty Number 9 look even worse for getting almost everything wrong.

Much to my surprise I actually finished this one, something I had not managed to do with Mega Mans 9 and 10. It would not have been possible without the judicious use of armor power ups and, admittedly, and easier than expected final form of Dr. Wily. The game gave me a break when it was not expected, as if it knew that I was at my limit.

...

Beat Saber is is PSVR's killer app for me. I have not been back to it lately, as I am waiting for more songs, but it is the reason that the device was purchased in the first place. There was nothing else that I really wanted to play. After investigating the demo disc I did come up with one: Moss.

Moss didn't need to be a PSVR game. It could have been a perfectly average third person, physics based platformer whose hook was an impeccably animated, almost painfully cute mouse protagonist. I am thankful that it did more than this as perfectly average platformers grow on trees and Moss, save for one major misstep, is something quite special.

Much like Pyre, the player is an actual character in the game. Other character speak directly to the play, coincidentally call 'the reader.' but thank to the game being in VR the player is literally in the game. The first time I looked down into a pool of water and saw my own reflection (at least the reflection of my avatar looking back at me) it was almost magic.

As the reader I was looming over the world of Moss, a benevolent specter charged with guiding the hero mouse through her adventures. It works most of the time: specific items in the environment are moved by physically reaching out with the controller and pulling them. The same can be done to enemies, but this is where it break down. It is quite finnicky getting enemies into the right place, doubly so when you have to control the mouse at the same time. Not game breaking by any means, just something that needs to be polished up for the sequel.

And that, unfortunately,  is the game's big problem: it's just too damn short. I knocked it out in about two and a half hours. I had seen all there was to see and Moss thanked me by saying that Moss chapter 1 was done and that there was more to accomplish...

...just not in this game.

I wanted more. I wanted more of the mouse communicating in sign language, of her reaching out for a high five and a difficult puzzle had been solved.

Oh well, something PSVR related to look forward to, I suppose.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

A good beginning, a good middle, but...

It took hours but I finally got to the 'end' of Assassin's Creed Odyssey. Well, all three endings to the three concurrent story arcs. And none of them were satisfying. Seriously, hours and no real ending? This is the worst case of blue balls ever.

Of  the three arcs...

THPOILETH!

Being sealing Atlantis, killing all of the cult members and reuniting your family (or killing your sister if you are an irredeemable dick head) only sealing killing off the entire cult had any sort of connection to the Assassin's Creed universe, and even that was tenuous as it showed scenes referring to past (future) games.

I suppose getting the family back together was supposed to be the feel good moment of the game but unlike Alexios I could not as easily forgive Deimos for trying to kill me at every turn. And sealing Atlantis does lead to Alexios showing up a alive in modern times. He look damn fine in a suit but then he dies and it is back into the animus.

What I fear is that the actual ending has been excised to be sold back later as DLC. It is difficult to complain as the game still gave me hours. almost all of which was fun...

...but it's still bullshit. Part of the reason I play Assassin'e Creed games is the silliness. It needs to be kept at a minimum, as in Origins, but it still needs to be there. Instead Odyssey is a pretty good open world action RPG with no ending.

...

Mega Man 11 is fucking hard, yo.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Top ten games of 2018

It's blog clean up day! Time to trim the 'this year's games' list down to one and stare with bewilderment at the actual backlog. It's bad this year. I blame Assassin's Creed Odyssey.

My personal top ten games of the year were already codified aurally but I think it best to write them down here as well. I have not changed my mind about any of them. They are all precisely where they should be. If I must add an honorable mention then it goes to Beat Saber for being the single most expensive piece of software I purchased this year, at least when all of the bits of electronics required for it are added in.

This is my list. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

10. Assassin's Creed Odyssey

When I initially compiled by best of the year list I was twenty hours into Assassin's Creed Odyssey. That was twenty one days ago. Aside from dabbling with PSVR, Odyssey is all I have played since. Last night I passed ninety hours. That is past The Witcher 3 and edging dangerously close to the all time champion of time devouring, Skyrim. This is not to say that taking forever to get through is a positive, it's not, but holding my interest for that long is certainly an accomplishment.

I must admit that I am playing Odyssey the wrong way, which is to say, the same way I have played all of the other Assassin's Creed games. At its outset Odyssey offered two ways to play: the way it is meant to be played - with the pinpoint question marks on the map removed in favor of general directions from NPCs - and the way the old games were played, with every discoverable location illuminated as soon as the player arrives in the area.

It took ninety hours but I understand why the new way is the correct way: no one is supposed to find everything in this game. It's just too big. The player is supposed to take vague directions, like 'go south along the coast past a bunch of trees,' and strike out into the world, perhaps discovering something else along the way. I am playing a guided tour of glowing question marks.

It's still fun but I do think that I have robbed myself of the game's true intent.

Aside from that, this is barely an Assassin's Creed game. This is an open world RPG set in ancient Greece with reasonable combat, excellent stealth and a pretty good loot system. Is it better than Origins? No, but being cooler than Bayek is almost an impossible task, one that Alexios was just not up to.

9. Iconoclasts

There were a lot Metroid-vanias this year and the one that most people would call the best, Hollow Knight, disagreed with me on a cellular level. Iconoclasts is not as deep or as long as even as polished as its peers but it does not punish me for being bad at video games. It's playable, if a bit easy, and that is all it needed to be.

It also tells a pitch black story with a few incredibly grotesque scenes hidden behind its bright exterior. Robin goes through some ridiculous circumstances, all without speaking, and it worked because of her incredible animation.

For the first two thirds of the game Robin would shrink back in terror when terrible things happened. No words, just a very obvious 'oh shit, I am going to die' reaction. When the last boss arrives (and it was an out of left field last boss) instead of being afraid Robin flexes. She's ready. The game has seen her grow tremendously and it was conveyed with a simple and effective animation.

8. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

More indy games in your top ten?! Chamberlain, are you well?!

I'm fine. Mostly. And I am not joking about Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon. It is a modern day 8-bit Castlevania with none of the slow down or flicker and just the right amount of modern day concessions to make it enjoyable. It also has a brilliant new game plus mechanic.

Much like Castlevania III the player can choose from three different characters any time. Different areas and bosses are better suited to one character's abilities and if one dies off the player starts again a few screens back with one of the remaining characters. At the end of the game one of them dies and, in the manner of Ghosts and Goblins, the player is sent back to the beginning of the game.

The bosses are harder and the player has less options. It was so good that I almost attempted it. Almost.

7. Dragon Quest XI

Speaking of well done post game content.

Spoiler: I have never played a main series Dragon Quest game before. I do not know how it stacks up against previous entries. And the game is far from perfect. The music is terrible and enemy variety drops off a cliff in the second half of the game.

So why is it here? Because it is the best JRPG that came out in 2018. The world was big, it told a sprawling story full of sacrifice and heartache and the combat was simple but effective. It was everything that a modern JRPG should be: loyal to genre tropes but not averse to streamlining things for the player.

And the post game content nearly got me. I almost looked past the silly time travel bit and played on. One last complaint, though: please allow the main character to talk.  I understand that this is a Dragon Quest thing but it just doesn't work any more.

6. Guacamelee 2

My running gag of 'not being very good at video games' is mostly true but I do take some small amount of pride in my NES and SNES honed side scrolling platformer skills. There are reflexes living in may hands that I forget about for months at a time only to have them roused by games likes Ori and the Blind Forrest, another game that is higher up on the list, and Guacamelee 2.

I do admit that Guacamelee 2 is not as good as the first game. The developers hand is a bit too obvious in places. You can almost here them say 'Oh, you manage to do that, did you? Well do it again, but as a chicken, in a windy area, where touching any wall will fucking kill you.

Thank you, senor, may I have another.

5. Red Dead Redemption 2

Put your pitchforks down and disband your posse. Stop it. Stop it.

Everyone started out 2018 thinking that Rockstar's western magnum opus was going to be the best game of the year. And parts of it certainly were. Arthur Morgan is the best character out of any game that came out in 2018. He is the best written and is impeccably performed. His quiet moments, moments of introspection and, at the end, fear, are heart wrenching.

The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is equally impressive, at least visually. Environments are varied and all equally gorgeous. From the swamps surrounding Saint Denis to the rolling plains further west, this is as close to a real, living, breathing place as has ever been encoded on to plastic discs.

So why not higher? There is an arrogance to Red Dead Redemption 2 that cannot be ignored. It stems from the arrogance of a company whose representatives reportedly stood up and left the VGAs when their game (rightfully) did not win game of the year.

A small example: Arthur skinning an animal is a very well done, detailed animation. It would have been fine to see it in its entirety the first time and then a shortened version thereafter. At least give the play the option to skip it. Nope, that lengthy animation plays out every single time. Red Dead Redemption 2 got so far up its own 'western simulation' ass that it forgot to be a fun game to play.

If there was a category for excruciatingly detailed simulation then this game would win. It would win this year and probably would win the same award again and again, forever. I don't know about anyone else but I am here to play games, not watch games.

And I don't care what anyone else says, the shooting sucked.

4. Forza Horizon 4

If there is an entry on this list whose position I cannot adequately defend, this is it. By my own admission Forza Horizon 4 is just more of the same. It is Forza Horizon 3 repackaged in the UK (which was just Forza Horizon 2 repackaged in Australia). It also has a few pieces of the game carved off into multiplayer and carrot on a stick mechanics designed to pull the player back in for the next season.

But this is also the best looking racing game I have ever seen. 4K, 30fps, all day, every day, regardless of what is going on. It continues to ride the fine line between arcade and sim racers, eschewing its name sake in favor of balls out, over the top racing with just enough sim in the mix to make the player work for it.

But this is the last time I will open this package, see that the contents are the same, and be satisfied. Playground Games is officially on notice. Time to shake things up.

3. Celeste

I am not properly equipped to speak about Celeste as anything more than it is on its surface. Its deeper themes are somewhat lost on me. So that is all I am basing this placement on. At its core it is a 2D pixel art side scrolling platformer whose difficulty is a hairs breath away from Super Meat Boy territory. Translation: I died a lot in Celeste. I died a lot and I kept coming back for more.

If a game is going to require nearly pixel perfect inputs then the controls themselves had better be both streamlined and responsive. Celeste does both. The player is never overloaded with skill choices, and as new powers are added they are skillfully taught through use instead of text. They feel natural before the player is asked to be perfect with them.

And then the player is asked to be absolutely perfect with them and dies, over and over, until they get it right. This is not the kind of punitive nonsense that I despise in games like Dark Souls and their ilk, this is a more old school 'you missed that jump because you took off too late, try again.' Try again from the same screen, mind you, not minus any progress or collected macguffins, just try again. And again. And again.

And then you get it right, and you are the top of the mountain, and the sun is rising, and everything is okay, at least for a little while.

2. God of War

I am not embarrassed of the original run of God of War games. I refuse to retroactively apply modern jadedness to things that worked in the context of their time and place. That being said, it is very good that this God of War is not that God of War. It would not have been okay.

This shift is applied to all facets of the game. It is now an over the shoulder action game that never cuts away. Combat is more personal, much closer up and a lot crunchier thank to the change of weapon. The world is now more open. Not quite open world, more of a hub with many linear areas spun around it, but there is something to be found around every corner, and most of it is useful.

Kratos has mellowed quite a bit in his old(er) age. He is quite self aware - he knows what he was and he doesn't want to be that any more. He wants to shelter his son from both his past and his burdens, even when that sheltering causes the boy pain. I believed his hesitance to retrieve an old weapon, making it all the more powerful when he literally confronted the ghosts of his past to try and save his son's future.

Much like Red Dead Redemption 2, the game is not perfect. There are perhaps two boss fights of any size and scope. The rest will bee soon forgotten. The Valkyrie fights are thankfully optional because they are difficult in the all the wrong ways. Freya is a terrible character, Baldur is under used, and the game ends and what should be the starting point for the third act.

But it got a lot more right than Rockstar did. Just not as much right the next game.

1. Spider-Man

Why do any of us play videogames?

To be entertained, of course. We play games because they are fun. We play games to escape for a few hours at a time. We play games to indulge in child like fantasies that have long since been burned away by decades of grown up life.

We play games to forget. We play games to remember.

Every single moment of Spider-Man accomplishes this. It is intuitive, it is satisfying, it is beautiful. The swinging feels like a long lost skill that is quickly dusted off and ready to go. Combat is fast, precise, and always at the sweet spot of not too easy but not too difficult. The game world is relatively small but more tasks are unlocked in the same space as the game progresses. creating a familiarity with the world that is not possible in the sprawling expanses of other open world games.

Characters are well written and well acted, Peter especially feels lived in, like he has the whole Spider-Man thing pretty well figured out and is getting a bit bored with it. He just wants to be able to pay his rent on time.

This is a list of the best games of 2018. Not the best simulations. Not the best apology tours for previous sins. Not even the best returns to well worn genres or tropes. Spider-Man is hands down the best game I played. It is a reminder of what games can be:

fun.