Archive for video games

Torn Over The Evil Within

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2014 by trivialpunk

Oh, hai! I know, I said we’d be talking about Alien: Isolation again, but I just finished The Evil Within. And since there’s very little structure to my release dates, I figured you wouldn’t mind me sneaking in a review in the mean-time.

I’ve got to say, I’m really torn. On the one hand, I enjoyed playing The Evil Within. It was frantic, gory and fun! At times, I’d go so far as to call it brutal. On the other hand, that brutality is almost meaningless outside of the context of gameplay… That being said, there are plenty of moments of high-tension and surprised yelping to be had. They just feel visceral, and emotionally distant. Let me see if I can explain by splitting my brain in half. Trivial will be a critical ass-hole, and Punk will be my survival horror fan-boy. ReadaaaaaAAUUUGGH!!!

Psycho-Break

Trivial – Really? We’re going with that? The “original Japanese name”? It’s not 1996 anymore; everyone has Wikipedia. We’re not going to get cred points for that.

Punk – Dude, just… okay? Fine, THE EVIL WITHIN is a survival-horror game developed by Tango Gameworks, published by Bethesda and directed by the legendary Shinji Mikami!

Trivial – How legendary? He’s played a pivotal role in creating some of our favourite works of all time. He’s one of the progenitors of the Resident Evil series. At some point, he had a hand in creating Phoenix Wright, Devil May Cry, Aladdin (SNES), Vanquish, Dinocrisis, and Killer7. That’s a serious list.

Punk – Yeah, and survival-horror owes him a debt. You can really feel the influence of those past games in TEW. TEW… heh, I wonder if that’s why it was developed under the name “Project Zwei”?

Trivial – Heh… Although, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The influence, not the name… thing… Mikami’s stated goal in creating The Evil Within was to create a truly terrifying video game experience. To get away from the action. But, Mikami’s legacy is a stand-out stable of action-oriented gorror-games.

Punk – Cute typos aside, I kind of see your point. The bombastic opening with the high-speed get-away and the mid-air zombie-head-shot dive into the water were a little over the top.

Trivial – It’s not just that! The entire narrative is structured to high-light the gameplay. And the tone of the gameplay is intense, predatory action.

Punk – Yes! The gameplay was designed to create a sense of tension in the player. There’s a heavy focus on stealth. A focus that is encouraged by resource limitations and invincible enemies. Oh, and traps.

Trivial – The traps Are excellent. Not only do they help reinforce the omni-presence of our malicious antagonist, Ruvik, but they also encourage a cautious, thoughtful approach to gameplay, sometimes. When you’re not busy sprinting or blowing things up using their components.

Punk – I got a lot of good moments out of frantically disarming barbed-wire foot-traps, praying the hammer-man wouldn’t find me in time.

Trivial – You mean the safe-head guy? You kill like nine of him. And you don’t really need to disarm those traps; you can just shoot them. That’s how I feel this game is balanced: thrilling gorror over chilling horror. There’s a level-up system, a heavy arsenal, a precision-focused combat system and an incredibly competent protagonist. Not only that, you eventually over-power all of your antagonists. This is an empowerment fantasy.

Punk – Okay, I see what you’re saying, but it’s relative, isn’t it? Yes, he’s powerful, but the forces he’s arrayed against can control the fabric of reality. He gets tossed around more than an angry zipper in a tumble-dryer.

Trivial – True. The situations he’s in are horrifying, but the way those situations are brought across to the player keeps them at a solid distance from dread. Sure, there are a few stealth sections that leave you to wend your way through the jaws of death like a baby lamb, but those moments are usually followed up by having the player put those death-jaws in a reverse bear-trap, and then throwing the switch.

Punk – Yes, our hero usually overcomes the evil-thing, but they’re pretty terrifying creatures. The giant bizarro-world face-hugger Cerberus and the amalgamated end-boss are the sorts of creatures we could have only dreamed of facing when we got into survival-horror in the Playstation era.

Trivial – Which doesn’t change the fact that I’m playing a survival-horror game to experience horror. Not shocks. Not thrills. Horror. And there’s just nothing for me to latch onto emotionally. The main character barely exists. He has no flaws or emotions outside of being a hardened detective with a tragic past that drinks too much. He’s a walking stereotype.

Punk – A walking Bad-ass stereotype! Who else do you think could have faced this kind of challenge? He’s the perfect protagonist for a third-person shooter. His demeanor is reserved, but his aim is deadly. And he’s got all that great grit and detective determination. His character continuity is constant from cut-scene to credits.

Trivial – That doesn’t make him an interesting character. It also doesn’t mean he’s horrified. He goes from perturbed to actively being murdered. Those are his two primary emotional fear settings. It’s hard to empathize with someone who can take that much gore and death in stride. Now, Joseph, he shows some actual weakness.

Punk – Yup, losing his glasses, his struggle with the over-arching evil and his little I.A. mishap are all interesting elements of his character, but they also serve to flesh out our protag, Sebastian, a bit better. Remember, Sebastian’s struggle is literally the struggle of the game.

Trivial – But, again, the game is disjointed by design. You get knocked out and revived in more disconnected locations than a CoD player. There’s nothing to feel attached to, because the game makes it clear that anything and everything Could just be a hallucination. Floating between locations and into characters really reinforces the idea of being trapped within a hostile reality, but that context doesn’t inspire much fear when put next to the game-play, where you essentially warp in, kill everything, collect the treasure and exit at the next cut-scene.

Punk – You’re trivializing. The places you warp in to matter. Asylum, mansion, slaughter-house, doll-factory, creepy village… it’s basically horror’s greatest hits. Which was a little disappointing to me, because I was looking forward to something other than Resident Evil blended with Silent Hill, but I have to wonder how we’d feel about these locations and events if we weren’t already thoroughly inoculated against survival-horror tropes.

Trivial – We’d probably die a lot more. Thank the devs for the auto-save feature. But, regardless of our long history with survival horror, I have to ask, where does the horror lie? The monsters are horrible. The cut-scenes involve horrible events. The situation is horrible. The environments are nail-biting terror-halls. Despite all that, you win the game by hunting down and destroying all of your foes, and you do it without actually facing any of the evil within your main character.

Punk – That’s arguable. Ruvik does get pretty far inside your head. And, you do sort of discover the tragedy that brought your character to the edge. But, yeah, his jaded detachment –his only arguable weakness within the story-line– and drive to protect his comrades do end up helping him survive. It’s frustrating, because his tragic background is rife for comparison with Ruvik’s background. Yet, very little is made of it.

Trivial – Perhaps not openly, but there’s plenty to speculate on in the background details. You have to wonder, for instance, why your main character maintains his mental integrity so well. The more you learn about the game, the more disturbing that question becomes.

Punk – Yeah, when you put all the pieces together, they create an interesting picture. It’s a stark contrast to Alien: Isolation, where gameplay was designed specifically to create a narrative experience. The plot, characters and setting of TEW seem to exist solely for creating a framework in which the gameplay can continue. The gameplay being modern third-person shooting with corpse-burning and stealth mechanics.

Trivial – Yet, undeniably, the mechanics of the game are used to create some effectively tense moments. Even if the tone of the overall experience is over-the-top action, it’s juxtaposed with moments of quietly sneaking in the dark, avoiding the Minotaur until you get the chance to kill it. And you will have to kill it, because the set-pieces don’t give you the option to sneak past. Maybe it’s the order of presentation? Everything’s designed around a big end-of-game reveal and a well-spoiled mystery, so most of the early game is defined by that warp-kill-loot paradigm I mentioned. The inventory…

Punk – I miss my attaché case inventory!! It made for difficult decisions about loot! er… Sorry to interject, but… Yeah, having individual, upgradable slots for the items did feel a little too kind. Then again, later on, you’ll need to levy the power of your entire arsenal to take out the creatures you’re mashed against.

Trivial – My problem entirely! At the end of the day, the focus is on over-coming the challenge, not experiencing the fear. The goal of each section is to defeat the boss. Everything you find is either for killing, healing or upgrading your ability to kill/heal. Even the sprint function, which is also useful as an OH-SHIT-RUN button, is usually used to cover enough distance to blow your pursuer’s head off. The big-bads, the enemies set up to invincibly stalk you through the halls, are all eventually defeated, usually within their “Chapter”. Can you think of any way to undermine an invincible death-dealer more than by defeating it?! Zerksis, make a God bleed, etc. So, explain to me how this is any more frightening than Dead Space.

Punk – From our perspective, it’s not. It is undeniably over-the-top, frantically presented, constantly undermining its attempts at horror and far too visually campy to be considered frightening. The overall story resists immersion by holding back all of the details you might use to define and understand the world well enough to sink into it. And when you do, you’re bound to be pulled out of it by some bizarre set-piece, winking nod to the audience or instant-death. There are a lot of instant deaths. Still, the overall story and its elements are disturbing.

Trivial – True, but I’m cautious about including that as a good thing when I only sort of noticed them in retrospect while I was writing the review. As for the immediate experience of the game, it was…

Punk – …fun.
Trivial – …fun.

Not horrifying, but fun. It’s insane and twisted, but it doesn’t really do anything wholly new. If you can get into this game for the gameplay and art design, then I think you’ll enjoy it. If you’re an old hat at survival horror and you’re looking for something novel, then I don’t think you’re going to get it from here. However, The Evil Within is an interesting recombination of a lot of old elements. And I honestly ploughed through a lot of the game just to see what kind of weird creatures and scenarios the devsigners settled on. If you’re new to the genre entirely, then I’d suggest giving the gameplay a look on the tubes.

I’m interested to see what kinds of reactions this game elicits from survival horror newbies. For a lot of people, I think this game could get by on the novelty of the carnage alone. The situations are horrific, but I question if that will mean anything to the player once they’ve become accustomed to the world and the gameplay. That is, of course, unless they feel for Sebastian’s plight, because Ruvik’s right: Seb does suffer. Yet, as a player, I barely noticed that, because I barely noticed him. I was just a little id sitting on his shoulder, urging him forward, demanding that he pull the trigger. Ordering him to kill in the name of survival… so, what does that make me?

The Evil Within doesn’t get to walk away with a blanket recommendation, but if you, like me, are a Mikami fan, then I’m sure you’ll find plenty to like in this game. Just don’t go in expecting any carefully-paced introspection or mind-blowing mechanics. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before, but it’s good stuff all the same: it’s very well executed on a technical level. It’s a fantastic splatter-thriller and a very present example of our current approach to survival horror. For providing me with twenty-one hours of visceral satisfaction (so far), I’m giving The Evil Within Two Frothing Looters With Chainsaws out of A Lone Skull Frantically Playing The Saxophone. Enjoy your trip into the omni-mind! I’ll see you on the other side.

Alien: Isolation – A Love Letter

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2014 by trivialpunk

Let’s start with the obvious statement: I love Alien: Isolation. It’s the best Aliens game I can remember playing, and it’s the best survival horror game I’ve played this year. I don’t say that lightly, either. There are a lot of reasons I adore this game, not the least of which is that I loved the franchise growing up. I’ve been wanting to play something like this for most of my adult life, so there’s that bias to consider. However, anyone that remembers Colonial Marines, or that has ever played a shitty franchise game, will realize that a brand can’t carry a game on its own. Well, it will sell the tickets, but it won’t make the ride any more fun.

Aliens: Isolation, on the other hand, feels like a game that’s true to both its source material and its identity as a video game. The story, the characters, the aesthetic and the gameplay all reflect the Aliens franchise, and they all work in tandem to bring across the nail-biting, flame-throwing, adrenaline-fuelled bull-clap that is working for Weyland-Yutani. In fact, this game feels so well put together that I’m probably going to be talking about it for a while. So, today, I’ll give you the short and dirty, hot and flirty, and, next time, we’ll go a bit deeper. Where to even begin?

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I guess… Alien: Isolation is a first-person, stealth-heavy survival horror game developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. (That’s right; they’re back, And they have a vengeance.) The game has a strong narrative focus that’s built around the engagement of the core gameplay. That is to say that the game is about hiding from threats in an atmosphere of intense danger and so is the story. If you want to mow down aliens with an over-powered machine gun, then this game isn’t going to provide you the fix you need. If you’re looking for something to make you feel the visceral effects of fear, then step right this way and let’s see how it’s done.

In truth, every piece of this beautiful puzzle is important, but let’s start with its most visceral element: immersion. For me, immersion is an endlessly fascinating topic, because it relies almost entirely on the designer’s understanding of how people engage with video games. Every piece of a game is crafted to be used and understood by humans. Everything from the sound to the gamepad is designed to allow you to project an “agent” into the digitally expressed world. The more intuitively you can control your character and receive information from the environment, the more likely you are to simply sink into the game. Still, you could study intuitive game design your entire life –it’s directly related to several massive fields– so that doesn’t get us very far.

Okay then, let’s get specific. The first and most obvious example is that, after gameplay starts, you *very rarely leave your first-person perspective until the end of the game. This seems small, but it ensures that you are always “you” when you’re in the game. More than that, every action you perform on the controller has some sort of analogue in the game and vice-versa. This is true for most games, but it’s done particularly well in this one. Any action that requires a single button-press only requires a single button-press. Looking around and pivoting all use the right analog stick (Also, the RAS occasionally stands in for your right hand when pulling levers). Whenever you’re moving something’s position around, be it your character, your head or your blow-torch, you’re using the left analog stick. It feels very natural. But wait, there’s another layer to this.

Every action you perform in the game takes time. Duh. Every save point, hack point and locked door requires a different investment of time and the performance of a mini-game. Usually, I’d barely mention this, or I’d only mention it if it became annoying, but, here, spending time is an essential element of gameplay. Each action takes place in real time and many of them rely on some form of accuracy on your part. So the, “Come on.. come on… oh shit, I fucked uaaAAUGH!” happens directly to you, unless you keep a cool head in the midst of your panic-inducing struggle for survival. And let me tell you, it’s hard to work carefully and methodically when you’re being hunted by slavering creatures from the vents.

Speaking of things hiding in vents, you can crawl through the Jefferies tubes, as well! Sometimes, it’s a relatively safe method of travel. Other times, it’s an alien brunch delivery system. Don’t worry, you can tell the difference if you just listen for movement in the vents or use your motion tracker. Of course, there’s more than just the alien out there, so that dot could be anything. That’s not always difficult to verify.

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Still, it makes it worth doing a run-down of the potential threats you’ll face on Sevastopol Station. The humans are your least threatening opponents, but they’re still deadly. They’re the survivors of the Incident that went down before the game started and turned Sevastopol Station into the fun-house of horror you’re currently tromping through. You’ll have to forgive them if they shoot first and ask the completely unrelated questions from their limited dialogue pool, later. You don’t have a lot of health, and you’re completely unarmored, so they can take you down with a pistol pretty fast. They do have a limited ability to react to your actions with something other than bullets, but so few of them are friendly that I just ended up bludgeoning them to death from behind, most of the time. Which is probably why they’re so unfriendly to begin with.

The Seegson synthetic robots are the real unexpected treat. Their creepy, uncanny valley-esque design looks like exactly the sort of thing you’d mass-produce if you were more concerned with cost than comfort. With glowing red eyes and a stilted speech pattern that’s used to great effect, you won’t soon forget why you’ll never buy a Seegson again. Seriously, Seegson is –right behind you– every step of the way and isn’t that just terrifying. Unfortunately, they’re androids, which means they’re made of tougher stuff than the average human. They’ll break your neck before you can properly bludgeon them to death with a wrench. You’ll need to go hi-tech to take these guys out. Or, you know, just apply fire-power liberally. If you’ve got the resources to waste. Maybe it’s a better idea to just sneak by.

Then there’s the alien. If you’re worried about authenticity, then this Wiki-post‘s “Development” section should get you started. Personally, I’m a fan of the design they settled on, which is nice, because you spend a lot of time with the alien. It is your constant companion for large sections of this game. It’s the threat in the vents you think about as you slide your keycard into a save point. When you’re hacking a door, you’ll be listening for the “slunk” that means it left a vent somewhere in your area. And when you can finally fight it, that’s the last thing you’ll want to do. I didn’t realize how insanely effective the flamethrower could be for a long time, because I was far more comfortable avoiding the alien than fighting it. That’s not always the best idea.

If you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to fight. Equipment check!

Motion Detector – Way-finder and monster-tracker. It sweeps a conical area in front of you, ensuring the necessity of frantically spinning in a circle, looking for threats.

Access Tuner – Acts as an upgradeable door-key and sonic screwdriver. Used to structure your access to the environment and for playing mini-games on while you’re being hunted.

Plasma Torch – Like the access tuner, but with fire and a different sort of mini-game. Much louder than the tuner, and generally takes more time.

Revolver – Almost useless against everything, except the humans. Takes a few seconds to aim properly

Shotgun – I used this exclusively to kill synthetics with a Stun Baton – Shotgun combo. (Stunned Synths take more damage TMYK)

Flamethrower – Useful against everything, but especially significant for its ability to drive off the alien or to make it think twice about attacking. It goes through fuel very quickly — use sparingly

Bolt Gun – Incredibly powerful, but it has a long charge-time. Takes synthetics down with a single head-shot, but almost useless against more mobile targets

Stun Baton – EMP Mine on a stick. I never used it on a human for this very reason.

Crafted items List: Found or made using schematics.

Flare – Provides light. Distracts things… It’s a flare.

Noisemaker – Can be thrown to draw enemies to the source of its sounds. Can be planted on the ground for the same purpose! Now with inconvenient four-second timer.

Smoke Bomb – You won’t be able to use the haze to vanish if you’ve already been spotted, but you can use it to block visibility in a single area. Can be planted as a mine. (The Mine feature of many devices can be used to warn you when something enters an area)

Flashbang – Disorient your foes! Except the alien. It’ll just eat you. Good for taking out large groups of humans.

EMP Mine – Disables synthetics for long periods of time. Facilitates beatings.

Molotov – Fire is one of the few things that will scare off the alien. You can use this as a mine to provide you with some limited protection if you’re doing something that needs doing. Lights synthetics on fire, making them more terrifying.

Pipe Bomb – The Equalizer. It’s a pipe bomb. Works on aliens, synthetics and humans alike.

Medkit – Heals roughly half your health gauge. Keep your health bar topped off and you’ll be much harder to execute.

As you move through the game, your arsenal grows, improving your ability to take on the hostile environment you find yourself in. Yet, you’re never in a position to discount those threats. Yes, the flamethrower will cook all comers, but there’s only so much ammunition for it, and the alien is relentless. Even if you had unlimited ammo for the thing, you’d still have to keep your eyes and ears open, unless you wanted the next vent to be the last one you sauntered under. You could have all the coolest toys and a fully stocked ammo belt, and you’d still have to be careful. But don’t worry, it’s okay, you’ll never be THAT well stocked.

Even with my obsessive need to loot all the things, I started having to be precious with my resources as the game wore on. And that’s always nice to see, but, now that we have most of our pieces, let’s take a second and talk about how some of these items are used to reinforce the narrative of the game.

You start off with nothing. Eventually, you get what amounts to a giant wrench that you use to open doors and bludgeon things. (Pro-tip: Use it to hit the side of the ship to call an alien over for din-dins) That wrench serves very well against the humans, but as you start sneaking through maintenance tunnels, you start to be harassed by Seegson synthetics. These don’t respond very well to a decent bludgeoning. In fact, unless you do it correctly, they’ll just kill you. The Revolver you get is a little better, but it’s clearly no match for the Seegsons. Then, you meet the alien. If you get near it, it’ll eat your face. I’m being literal. That’s what it does. At this point, you’re the helpless mouse play-mate of a cranky, chitinous cat.

As you continue playing, you find the schematics for the different kinds of mines and equipment. Each one will give you the edges you need to survive, if used correctly.  Also, as you play, you’re getting better at playing. — Discovering the quirks of the A.I. — Figuring out what kind of things you can do with the different equipment. — Learning how to pin-point an enemy’s location using sound — By the time Amanda Ripley was ready to fight the alien, so was I! Of course, neither of us knew how to go about it, but that’s okay. That’s how it should be. Part of horror is going in blind. Acting in the face of the unknown. Occasionally, hiding in a cupboard and just not talking about the acid-dribbling thing outside.

The player’s gameplay arc follows, in large part, Ripley’s narrative arc; Alien: Isolation is a great example of “do, don’t show.” Yes, some of the things you do are slow and ponderous (a spiffy jaunt in space comes to mind), but they all serve the overall game. As a survival-horror-sci-fi experience, A.I. is fantastic. Of course, given its effectively rigid structure, I question its replay value. The alien A.I. may be organic, but the overall experience is not. I could see myself going back in for the DLC and a little play-time with my giant, black alien-kitty, but I don’t think it’s something I’ll play again and again. I got a great eighteen hour experience out of it, and it is an experience worth having if you love Aliens and/or horror, but your mileage may vary, especially with its AAA price tag.

Still, for having an incredibly thoughtful, engaging experience that was both fresh and authentic, I’m giving Alien: Isolation A Sack Of Leering Clown-Skulls That Was Hurled At Your Face out of A Quiet Dripping Sound In The Night. Good luck surviving the horrors of Sevastopol. And remember, be careful who you trust.

Addendum: I didn’t mention the stealth or go into any detail with the alien A.I. because I’ll be going into them in greater depth in a later post. For now, I feel that it’s enough to say that both of those elements are essentially functional and serve to create the atmosphere of ongoing oppression that defines large chunks of the game. Also, the sound design is gorgeous, and the art direction is painstaking, but this love letter is long enough. And there’s only so much time before the airlock closes… I’ll see you on the other side.

On Difficulty, Dragon Age: Origins And Streaming

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2014 by trivialpunk

As some of you may already know, I’ve started streaming on Twitch. You can find my channel here. Stop by sometime and game with me. I’ll still be putting out YouTube videos, but Letsplaying through Twitch is incredibly convenient. I used to spend way too many hours of each day editing and rendering videos. Now, my computer’s down-time has been cut in half, so expect more impromptu streams and a larger variety of YouTube videos.

A schedule? Well, I’ll be streaming Thursday nights with Boris and, occasionally, Squid. If we’re playing Skyrim, then that means we’re playing with Alignment Randomization. Every time we level, we roll a die and get a random alignment from the Lawful-Chaotic, Good-Evil scale, then we play for the next level as that alignment. We’ll be playing Captain’s Chair in FTL: Faster Than Light. One of us gives the orders, and the other carries them out. We’re going to try it with two Captains next… I’ll be gaming solo most nights of the week, otherwise. I’ll tweet about impromptu streams and start putting together a coherent schedule that I’ll post on this site. I’ll be playing Minecraft, Shovel Knight, Geneforge 5: Overthrow and anything else that strikes my fancy. Also, horror games. I’ve got lots of those.

I’ll have my tablet open next to my keyboard for chat. I’ve got microphone hot-keys nailed down and a few pre-made signs for BRBs and the like. Learning how to stream has been a lot of fun! I’ve been doing it for the last week straight. I slept and streamed and slept and streamed. I got kidnapped on Wednesday for socialization purposes. Then I streamed. That’s just how I’m going to game now. I like having people drop in to chat, and I like doing character voices. I do the voices when I’m alone, too, but then I feel weird. With that admission safely tucked away, let’s move on to…

 Valid And Sound

Oh, sorry, that’s our Twitch logo. I wanted to share it because Squid did the pixel-art. He’s mad-talented. I can’t wait to show you more from him in the future. Today, we’re talking Dragon Age: Origins and Difficulty.

Now, I know this is an endlessly reviewed game. There are plenty of reviews on Metacritic and if you’re looking for someone with a personal connection to the game, then look no farther than Simpleek. Many of those reviews will be better than anything I can put together without having finished the game recently or being immersed in the Dragon Age lore. Go check them out if you’re looking for a concise review of the game. I want to talk about what changed between the first time I played Dragon Age: Origins and when I began streaming it this week.

Let’s jump aaaall the way back to 2009 (is a sentence I never thought I’d write). At that point, I was living in a one-room dorm and writing about things on the internet. My computer was a clunky remnant from my broken engagement and my writings were tinged bitter-sweet by loss. It was in this miasma of despair and caffeine that I began playing Dragon Age: Origins. My computer chugged to render the game, but you’re damn right I played the whole thing. It was a beautiful mix of hopeless and triumphant that left me inspired to press on into the fog of the University and the ever-baffling expanse of human relationships.

Jump forward to this week. I’m renting a room in a house and gaming on a much nicer PC. Yeah, I just went through a break-up, but I’m not bitter about it. I’ve learned that you need to love for love and do what you can to accept that it’s not always going to be a thing. Sometimes, things don’t work out, but you press ahead, Dragon Age-style. This time, I sat down to play the game and decided to stream it on Hard-mode. I’ve already beaten it on Normal, so why would I start streaming it on Normal?

Well, the answer to that question came to me pretty quickly. I didn’t remember anything about the game. I knew some plot-points and where some armor was kicking around, but the combat mechanics were utterly alien to me. There was depth to it that I had never really looked for. Now, I needed to dive right into that depth to avoid the fireballs that were splashing across my wounded party. Oh geeze, no! DOGS! AUGH!. *ahem* I started to wonder why I was so bad at this game. I had beaten it, hadn’t I?

That’s a question that still lingers over me when I complete a game on Normal, especially when it seems too easy. Because, maybe it is. But, too easy for what? What does “too easy” even mean?

There’s something to be said for designing a game that everyone can experience and beat. It makes playing something like Dragon Age more accessible to those that just want to pick up and play one of gaming’s most epic tales. There’s a lot of whinging that gets done about games being too easy, but that’s why we have difficulty settings. They’re entirely adjustable. I don’t care what setting someone plays on; I care about how those settings change the game.

When I played DA:O on Normal, I experienced almost none of the depth in the game’s combat system: the game didn’t really require me to. I didn’t have to consider the stats of enemy types, because I just had to move my rogue into back-stab position. I built a really sloppy tank-build, but that didn’t really matter because the enemies didn’t do that much damage. I Never Ran Out Of Poultices. Now, I never HAVE poultices. I have elfroot, briefly.

Oh, I played well at the depth the game required on Normal. I believe you have to in order to beat the game. It’s not like it was easier, but it was simpler. And if you meta-game hard enough, then simple looks like easy. The game isn’t any harder to execute on Hard-Mode, but the decisions I’m making rely on more complex considerations. Does that mean it’s harder?

Or does that mean it’s a different type of game? The Dragon Age: Origins game I played on Normal was a Final Fantasy-esque real-time RPG with MMO controls. The Dragon Age: Origins I’m playing on Hard-Mode is more like an RTS with a pause button. The considerations I need to make to survive are different and the chances that I’ll die are far higher. Is that harder or just more complex?

I will definitely agree that DA:O would be a much harder game if I had to play Hard-Mode in real-time from the word “Go”. That’s not the case, though. The ability to pause the game and zoom out changes the player dynamic a lot. Being required to do so in order to survive alters it irrevocably. That’s not a bad thing if there’s something for the player to experience in that dynamic, though.

Switching to Hard-Mode changed the game, but that change opened the game up. It forced me to engage with its systems in a completely different way. It’s also made streaming the game a lot of fun. I’m learning a ton from people that come by the chat. Strategies and builds are rich areas of discussion, and helping each other survive in DA:O is part of what makes it a gaming community. Sharing knowledge is, well, it’s still sharing. Nothing brings some people together like a challenge we can work on. I mean, look at Dark Souls.

But, let’s focus. The depth of the game was unchanged between Normal and Hard. However, my relationship to that depth changed immensely when I switched difficulties. There’s a depth versus complexity trade-off that’s discussed briefly in this Extra Credits Video and it has interesting implications for what we’re discussing here. These differences led me to have to dive further into the game, but greater depth often leads to greater complexity. The question I’m left with is: how foreboding is that complexity?

Well, the game encourages you to start on Normal. The first time through, I’d guess that most people probably experience most of the game’s content in N-mode. If they’re looking for a little more bite from the combat system, then they can skip up to hard. There, they might discover, as I did, that there’s more to this game than an MMO re-skin. The story pulled me through the first play-through, but the gameplay is pulling me through the second one. That’s a damn good engagement curve, if you ask me.

Does Normal sell the depth and complexity of the game’s combat mechanics a little short? In my opinion, yeah, but it does so to make the overall game more engaging for more people. If you’re someone who knows they like a challenge, then Nightmare and Hard-mode are ready and waiting for you. If you decide that you fripped up, then you can always scale it down (at any point). That’s really thoughtful in a game as long as this one, especially if you want to bump the difficulty up later on.

It’s hard to define what makes something “Hard”. Execution challenges, decision-moments and reaction times are nicely quantifiable variables, but they’re meaningless without the human experience they create. After all, it doesn’t matter how strong your twitch-kill game is, I guarantee that a computer could do it better. The fact that a game is tuned to specific human reaction times and sensory modalities is part of what makes it difficult. The game asks us to push the edges of our awareness and pwn that much harder, but that difficulty is a reflection of the game’s interaction with the player. The game that emerges from a multi-player match relies on the players’ relative abilities mediated through the game, but the game considers those relative human abilities in its design. That’s why we have noob-toobs  for effpeaesses and a Pause function in Dragon Age: Origins. The games provide the tools you need to succeed.

You can go elegant, the way Dive-Kick did, or you can sprawl the way DA:O does, but you still have to be accessible. And while it could be argued that Normal is too simple to Require a deep understanding of the mechanics and Hard is too complex to invite newbies to engage with it (if you’re not already familiar with RPG mechanics, then it’s even more-so, because this shiz is relative), I think it’s an elegant use of the difficulty setting. Normal makes the game approachable. It lets people experience the story without having to spam F5 and F9, but, when you’re ready, the Darkspawn lurk in Nightmare. It’s a gateway I’ll pass through someday; I’ll see you on the other side.

Addendum: If you’re interested in Difficulty Scaling in DA:O, then check out: DA:O Difficulty and DA:O Challenge Scaling

The Clockwork’s Empires Tick On

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hey you! I’ve been crazy busy lately, but this blog is where I started, so it deserves my love, regardless of the time I have. Today, we’re going to keep it brief and talk about a small subject: Early-Access.

Okay, it’s not a small subject, but the things that I can definitively say about it today are limited. As with any monetization model, it has its risks for both the developer and the consumer. It can easily be corrupted; it can easily fold in on itself. You never know if the game’s going to be finished, and you never know if you’re going to like the finished product after you’ve seen the original. There are many things to consider. But, there is something to be said for watching a game develop. I was in the Minecraft Beta, but I know folks that were in far earlier than I was. They, like me, recall watching the game grow with a fondness that I still feel for it today.

There was passion and dedication behind the dev(s) of that special little game that could and did. It didn’t feel like there were huge expectations for success; Minecraft was basted in the love of the game. And while Minecraft wasn’t the very first early-access game, it’s certainly the most salient success-story among the people I know. So, clearly early-access can work. However, there are some crass individuals who will turn anything beautiful into something sleazy for a quick buck. So, it’s best to know all you can before buying into an early-access game. Incidentally, Jim Sterling does a series of videos about a selection of Early-Access titles. Here‘s a playlist. But, please read on before you run away, because I wanna show you something…

ce_slide

Today, I’d like to talk about Clockwork Empires. It’s an early access game that is being put out by Gaslamp Games, a small indie studio in Victoria, B.C that you might remember for developing Dungeons of Dredmor. And, I think Clockwork Empires was designed specifically to make me love it. It’s a civilization game with a Cthulhian-Clockwork bent. It’s darkly funny and incredibly ambitious, and that’s why I like it. However, it’s also being thoughtfully put together and frankly discussed, which is why I love it. My friend grabbed the game the day it dropped for Earliest Access (Yes, that’s a thing), and we started playing it immediately.

It’s as Alpha as you can allow, because the devs want to make sure the engine’s humming before they add on the spoilers. Okay, there wasn’t much there, really. No save files. Only one spawn-point. A barely functioning Job system. Bugs out the butt. Game-breaking glitches. But, shit, we loved it. We loved it because we expected those things. The devs have been clear on what’s going on and how they’re progressing with implementation, so none of that was surprising. However, in the midst of those issues, we saw glimmers of potential. Potential that we felt would be built upon by a company that’s dedicated to the game’s quality. A stance they’ve wisely embodied in their dealings with their community. After all, trust is the life-blood of early-access.

When the game did work, its grid-based building system and Sims-esque placement mechanics were a lot of fun to tinker with. The character behaviours were wonky at times, but watching your pilgrims mill about and do their own thing is kind of what brings them to life. Also, watching the influence of the Occult spread through my little hamlets was always engaging. Harold the Baker and Susie the Blacksmith having frank discussions with George the Militia-man about the necessity of The Murder Act is always going to be a little bit intriguing. Watching a hungry settler wallow in depression and hunger before deciding to tear off the leg of a fish-person to quiet their wailing stomach seems like it will always be equally fascinating… even if it is a little macabre…

But, those are the cold realities of the life on the Frontier amongst the Cthulhian horrors that haunt us, so it all fits together. Even the writing is charming, which is a big plus to me. The fact that the Cultists occasionally rename your buildings as their influence grows is just icing on the companion cube. I mean, really, why call it a Kitchen when you can call it The Wailing Death-Pit?

You can take this as a recommendation to check out the game and the developer blog to see if you’re interested. But, mostly, I just wanted to tell you why I’m buying into this early-access game, because I think Gaslamp Games is going about it the right way. Hopefully, this game, and/or other games with similarly thoughtful developers, will do well. I’d like this to be the early-access norm, and I like to think that it is, but I had to give them some love, because they’re exemplifying exactly the kind of pro-consumer, we-love-games-too attitude that I like to see.

These are bold, new frontiers, and we’re the first wave of settlers. Whether this model will be corrupted into a tentacled monstrosity is beyond my ability to predict as it sits concealed by the dark wall of our unknown future. However, in the penumbra of our experience, there are shapes of glimmering knowledge interspersed with the Eldritch architecture. Reading those runes is the only way we’ll avoid the miasma that lurks in the dark… Have fun exploring! I’ll see you on the other side.

Moving On…

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , , on June 1, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! It is I! I’ve been busy the last few days. Actually, weeks, truth be told. Working on this project or writing that script. And you might be wondering, where on earth is all this effort going? Well, I’ll tell you.

I spend a lot of time on here criticizing the work of others. But, that’s because I see those as examples to be learned from, experiences to be cherished. At heart, I am a story-teller. Gaming is my favourite medium, but stories have always been the core of it. And, a little adrenaline-agitating game-play doesn’t hurt, either. But, mostly the story bit.

So, it’s time for Valid and Sound to grow a little bit more. I’m working on plenty of other projects with other people, but I don’t want to spoil those until the editing and uploading are finished. So, here’s what’s going up this week: WATCH_DOGS dropped, so you know I had to put a Letsplay series together for it. I took a bit of a summer romp in Far Cry 3 land. And I’m kicking off a live-action (reading) series with Grimm’s own Rumpelstiltskin and Godfather Death.

There’s so much more I can’t even talk about yet! Augh! But, you’ll find out soon. As things come to fruition, I’ll post them here as up-dates. However, an unfortunate side-effect of all this business is that I’m going to be going on a brief blogging hiatus to focus on the work. But, be prepared, because you’re about to see a whole new side of Valid and Sound.

Until I’m finished with the shooting and the editing, I’ll be reblogging the work of the people that I read. If there’s something you need to know, then I want to be able to share it with you. And besides, a little more exposure never hurt anybody.

Thanks for coming with me on this weird journey. When we’ve wrapped the shoot, I’ll post a couple nice, long horror gaming posts. Probably about Among The Sleep or something similar, because that’s coming up on the Letsplay chopping-block. Or, even, a less disturbing metaphor, like “next on the list”. Although, that sounds sinister, too. I’ll leave the choice of metaphor up to you.

Thanks for always indulging my word-play, and when this huge gulf of work is through, I’ll see you on the other side.

Digital Humanities: Double the Entendres, Thrice the Parable

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , on May 19, 2014 by trivialpunk

I’ve had trouble explaining some of the core tenants of the Digital Humanities directly, so here’s a parable of one of its ideas:

This is Newsman 1. He knows a lot about A. There are a lot of letters in the alphabet, though. 26, to be exact! That’s a lot of letters to pay attention to at once, especially since A splits off into Aa, Ab, Ac…

Now, there are plenty more letters than that, and the combinations get pretty divergent. But, Newsman 1 knows that the people reading him are really only interested in Aa. He knows a lot about that, and there are enough people in the world that want to read about Aa that he can continue writing about it specifically. So, he does. He gets quite a following, which invests him with authority when speaking about Aa.

Now, there are also the people that listen to Newsman 1 because he can explain the news precisely and concisely. He speaks clearly and organizes his thoughts very well. And these people need someone like that, because the amount of information available to the average news-reader has increased exponentially. The number of things they have to know about is insane, especially if you consider that some of them are experts on B-Z. So, they rely on informed individuals to explain the complex nuances of things like Aa and Ab.

That’s a pretty efficient system for sharing information, but it has considerations that must be addressed. For instance, a lot of people who listen to Newsman 1’s  opinions about Aa also write about A or Aa. So, now Newsman 1’s opinions and ideas reach much farther than they did before. Some people credit him, some people don’t. That doesn’t matter for our purposes here; you can’t stop the signal.

This can be a good thing, if Newsman 1 is well-informed and even-handed. But, no one can know all things, even about something as specific as Aaa, let alone anything as generalized as A. That’s fair, though. We can’t expect people to be more than people, especially when they get to something they’re unfamiliar with. Or, when someone comes up with a new idea, like Aab.

Aab is kind of radical. Or maybe it’s counter-intuitive. Or maybe Newsman 1 just isn’t a fan of Aab. Either way, he says Aab is stupid and Aaa is obviously the superior idea. The people that listen to him take that negative impression into consideration when they’re talking about Aab. Now, Aab is always addressed from the angle of being compared to Aaa, which it might not have anything in common with, besides their shallow resemblances or context.

But, how could Newsman 1 know that? He writes what he knows and approaches that as thoughtfully as he can. Maybe he’ll change his mind, who knows? Maybe it’s a political idea, and he’s more on the fence than he lets on, but he has to have an opinion when he reports it. Whatever the reason for his disinterest in, or ignorance of, Aab, he is merely a dot in the chain of the spread of information. Whether he changes his mind or not, that perspective has spread through the web based on his authority on Aaa.

You might be thinking, “Yes, but aren’t there many different Newsmen. Surely, there are people who will provide coverage on the perspectives that Newsman 1 misses.” Absolutely true! But, what do you think the ratio is between people who interpret, then report, on A and those who read about it? It’s minuscule. The ideas of the many are being funneled through the visions of the few.

We rely on those people to be even-handed and informed, to report in an unbiased manner, but they’re already starting from a perspective. Unbiased reporting is a dream; good reporting takes bias into account as much as possible, but it will never try to convince you that it’s objective. Unless the reporters are lying to convince you of their opinions.

This parable represents a type of group-think on a scale that we could have never imagined before. Remember, in a world as chaotic and filled with information as this one, being even a little bit salient is a massive leg-up. It’s also a big responsibility. And it can be hard to know what information you’re actually spreading, some of it’s pretty tacit.

For instance, I used “Newsman” this entire parable. But, there are Newswomen. And, if I wanted to be truly thoughtful, I should say “Newsperson,” because I see the Gender Binary as an emergent, but artificial, social construct. But, if we ever get Androids to do the news or a member of an alien race, then “Newsperson” becomes a thoughtless generalization. And here’s where it gets tricky, if I say “Newsperson,” then will you ever imagine an alien doing it?

And if you never think of it, if it stays a strange, foreign idea, and you’re opposed to it, then how will you ever grow comfortable with it? Or even be exposed to it?

In a world as complex and chaotic as ours, as full of possibility and diversity as the bottom of the sea or the farthest star, the information people don’t address is just as meaningful as the stuff they do. A drowning man thinks only of the air-pocket, but ignores the ocean at his own risk.

So, that’s it: my triple parable. I don’t necessarily agree with all the ideas I put forth. And maybe later, I’ll realize I was being a newb and reconsider. But, for now, this makes sense to me.

The Titans Come

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hi! I just have to get this all out of my system, don’t worry about this becoming an exclusively Titanfall fan-site. I was working on a Titanfall fan vid and I thought: “Let’s procrastinate and make some Titan load-outs!” So, here are some of the things I came up with…

 OGRE-BP

The Hardpoint

Arc Cannon
Vortex Shield
Multi-Target Missile System/Rocket Salvo
Tactical Reactor/Regen Booster/Dash Quickcharger
Big Punch/Core Accelerator

Deployment: This is an end-game Titan and an important piece in any ground-engagement. As a giant hunk of metal and shielding, your battlefield presence is already impressive. But, augmented by your Kit load-out, you’ll be a persuasive force of battlefield control. The Over-shield Reactor ability always comes in handy, especially so when you’re taking some hits for your team in a narrow city-scape. Then again, there’s nothing like the ability to send a Titan flying with a single punch. Use your dash judiciously, or depend on your shields. Particle walls suit other load-outs, but you’re the mobile tank. You can’t afford to be unguarded on any side.

Don’t forget your true purpose: Staying alive and getting attrition points. Pilots, Spectres and Grunts are easy targets for the Arc Cannon’s chain-lightning. And every encounter you survive is another five attrition points denied. Be the shield. Live to tell the tale.

STRYDER-BP

Blaze of Glory

Quad Rocket
Electric Smoke
Rocket Salvo/Cluster Missile
Nuclear Ejection
Auto-Eject

Deployment: You are a missile that shoots rockets. Explode directly AT your opponents. Get them in clusters. Get them alone. Blow up from every available turret. This Titan is a sinister bet: that you can give more damage than you get. Calling this Titan down virtually guarantees your opponent five Attrition Points. But, that’s okay if you gained fifteen in the process. Or, if your team is getting spanked in the Titan game, and you need to level some Titans to level the playing field.

Nuclear Ejection is a powerful ability. Most Pilots are ready for it, but not everyone’s thinking about how much room they have to escape the blast. And, keep in mind, they might not be able to eject if you catch them, weakened, in the epicentre of your nuclear detonation. So, more points for you! But, try to make sure Auto-Eject has the air-space necessary to save your life, or you’ll bounce off the ceiling and back into some serious fallout. Don’t let giving up five points turn into giving up nine points.

ATLAS-BP

My Titan

40MM Cannon
Electric Smoke
Rocket Salvo
Fast Autoloader
Auto-Eject

Deployment: This is My Titan. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. It’s your basic Swiss-army knife. Does well at ranged combat, close-combat, Anti-Pilot combat, and leaves you alive to tell the tale… or to blow more things up. Control Line-of-sight with Electric Smoke, or use your agility to force a Titan into stepping inside the deadly vapor by dashing behind them and applying your fist. Once you’ve dropped their shields, hammer them with cannon-fire, liberally.

Your cannon doesn’t do a LOT of damage at once, but keep it firing and aim for weak-points carefully. A salvo of rockets should drop most enemy shields or tear a sizable hole in their life-bar. Either way, if their shields are down, shoot for the red until they’re dead.

OGRE-BP

The Hoplite

Triple Threat/Mine Field
Particle Wall
Cluster Missile
Regen Booster/Tactical Reactor/Nuclear Ejection
Survivor/Big Punch/Core Accelerator

Deployment: Not every mission calls for mobility. Sometimes, you’ve got to dig in. Hop in and become a wall. Clear buildings with your grenade launcher. Set the line in the sand with your Particle Wall, Mine Field and Cluster Missiles. Watch your enemies weather it all, then Big Punch them back through it.

It’s your choice. Depend on your shield, your Particle Wall or just raze the earth in the wake of your destruction. It doesn’t matter how, you hold that ground!

Good luck, Pilot.

Combat Evolved

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! It was just my birthday! Which means I’ve passed the threshold necessary to be +1 years old. I marked it on my character sheet this morning. (Make one for yourself; it’s nerd-cool >.>) So, in honor of my newly gained age, this week, I’ll be up-dating The Gift Box with a new game every 26 hours. (If I can’t get to it in time, I’ll double-post the next one!) Also, I’m going to teach Valve a thing or two by releasing some third instalments: Final Fantasy 14: ARRDark Souls and Titanfall

I was going to do another post on Titanfall, but I figured that you might want me to punctuate the giant robots with a little something else before this site becomes free advertising for Respawn. So, let’s do some free advertising for Microsoft, instead. Playing Titanfall got me thinking about next-gen game design, which, of course, brought me back to the first time I noticed a shift in design principles in my games: Halo: Combat Evolved. Now, I know a lot of people deride Halo as the beginning of the boring, cover-based, two-weapon shooter, but I protest. I don’t think you’re quite remembering it right.

That sort of thing started with people misunderstanding the thrill of the adrenaline-fuelled five-minute tactical fire-fight. A limited number of guns makes sense in that situation, because you’re never going to need more than one, really. You can switch between spawns and try new strategies with very little down-time. Stretching that hot-zone of bullet-riddled chaos into corridors of pop-up targets is what not to do. So, what do I think Halo did right? What problem do I think they were trying to solve? Let’s get to it.

Halo-combat-evolved

As with every post of this nature, I’m purely speculating. These are things that make sense to me, but life is rarely so orderly. But, let’s step back in time, nonetheless. You’re playing Doom. You’re low on ammo and high from blood-loss. The sounds of explosions and feral death-dealers aren’t far behind. You’ve got no health. You fucked up. Now, what if I were to auto-save the game for you, right there? Crap. Well, I guess you’ll either have to master the game very quickly or restart. That sucks.

It does, indeed. For gamer and developer alike. Because, gamers have to play around it, but if situations like that are too plentiful, then it could break your game. Worse than that, your franchise, and the work you put into it, might suffer. So, developers have to plan their levels around situations like that. Health-packs, ammo dumps and obvious save-points/quick-save features are a few solutions. However, the necessity of each of those features is going to limit what you can do with your levels, and, therefore, your game.

There are games that just don’t handle the injection of quick-save features very well. Choice or story-based games come to mind, especially if you want to increase re-playability by weaving a complex, swerving narrative into one story. But, challenge-based games can also have their flavour changed quite significantly by the ability to restart from any point within the challenge. Sprinting an entire kilometre is an impressive feat of human perseverance, but not if you stopped to nap every fifty meters. It loses something in the process.

So, if you don’t want a quick-save, and you don’t want to be limited by weapon/health availability, what do you do? You ensure that your player can easily return to their full-health/ammo resting state at any point in the game. And, we facilitate that with the use of energy shields and limited weapon capacity. No, seriously, a limited number of weapons, and the similarities between the human and Covenant weapons, can encourage players to switch tactics mid-combat. You can’t really run out of ammo, because everything you kill drops a weapon. You’re not hoarding ammo, because you’re not carrying an armory on your back. But, your weapon might run dry, encouraging a quick swap. Done correctly, this can add variety to the combat.

If you remember, the first Halo game wasn’t quite ready to dump health bars altogether. Which I was alright with it, because it encouraged me to play intelligently to be pressured by a waning life-total. But, the shield bar did allow the devs to know approximately how much health you were walking into a given situation with. This allowed them to plan accordingly. Now, they could fine-tune the levels to any challenge level they wanted. Do you remember that structure from when you first crash-land on the planet? It was basically a mini-fort guarded by aliens.

I remember it as being challenging, but not impossible. As I ramped up the difficulty, the number of enemies increased, sure, but their placement became more thoughtful, as well. Phalanxes of Jackals protected Elites, as the Grunts swarmed forth unto death. It was neat. Each time I played it, the challenge remained robust, until I got to the point where I’d played it into the ground. And I think a lot of that has to do with a well-tuned challenge curve that benefited from a design that suited its deployment.

Am I saying that shield bars are better than health meters? Not even a little bit. But, there are benefits to shield bars that health bars don’t possess, unless they regenerate (very small practical difference, at that point), and vice versa. All I’m saying is that the mechanics craft the game-play, which is used to craft the experience. And the experience, here, is being Master Chief.

As a character, Master Chief was designed as a mobile weapons platform. His visual design echoes a tank for a reason. But, he’s not just the fire-power, he’s the intel, too. Cortana, his tactical A.I, gives him the tech-presence to also be a mobile command post. His whole deal is being a walking army. An unstoppable force wielding an immovable object as a shield. And what game-play style reflects that? Fast-paced, wit-fuelled, weapon-swapping, on-the-fly tactical combat. And when you were deep in the on-line melee or had it cranked up to Legendary, it could start to feel like that. Yup, that sounds like the right amount of bad-ass to me.

That’s not even mentioning what the increased processing power of the next-gen might have brought in terms of level-design freedom. But, honestly, I don’t know if it played much of a role, so we’ll say no more about it.

Every mechanic is another piece in a developer’s tool-kit, but not every tool is right for every job. Thinking about how those tools can be used to best effect has brought us some pretty excellent games. It’s given freedom to devs and allowed them to craft more thoughtful experiences. Sure, some people use mechanics thoughtlessly because they seem well understood, but when someone brings it all together to make something new, I call that next-gen. Graphics and processing power are fantastic, but next-gen is just an idea. So, ideas are its heart and soul.

Drop-Pod: Titanfall Review Supplement

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on April 30, 2014 by trivialpunk

Okay, so I wrote that review of Titanfall like an hour ago. After, as you can probably guess, I started playing Titanfall again. And I realized, as I played, that I’d left a few things out. Some minor things and one important one. I figured I’d throw the minor ones in and let you guess which one made me come back here.

titanfall-wallpaper

The minion-grunts (I refuse to pick a definite title) do a little more than Just add to the theme of the game or act as a mechanic. They’re also there to directly influence your behaviour by playing on your experience. As I was dashing around the world, spin-kicking and wall-running like I was in a wire-fu movie, I noticed that I was drawn to the sound of gun-fire. I realized that they were centralizing combat by drawing players towards them. Whether it was by revealing enemies on the mini-map or just drawing you towards them with their gunfire.

You see, the first minute of a Titanfall game is really quiet. It’s just two teams positioning themselves and crossing the map. But once the shooting starts, all hell breaks loose. And the pace never really stops. Part of the reason for that is the mini-map. Obviously, it shows you where other Pilots are, enemy and ally alike, but not all the time. Only when they’re engaged in combat or in the line of sight of an ally. So, minions break the fog of war the same way in both LoL and Titanfall, because the maps are big enough for giant robots. (They rhyme; now I’ll have to remember that forever. Damn.) But, they also serve a similar purpose in how they compel the player.

You know that desperate post-encounter moment in every FPS? When you’ve just finished securing a kill, And you’re running for your life, bullets pinging off your HUD, red EVERYWHERE, you’re  sprinting, looking for cover, hoping they won’t draw a bead on y…And you die? Well, there are a lot of those moments in Titanfall, except you don’t usually die. Because, usually, right after you’ve killed a Pilot, you’re getting shot at by grunts. And they don’t usually do a lot of damage, but they can scare the hell out of you. Or, in FPS terms, they encourage the application of an Expeditious Retreat. Wait, sorry, that’s D&D, I got my reference books mixed up. I mean, they make you enact a “tactical withdrawal.”

Also, last time, I extolled to you the virtues of the Smart Pistol. I told you that it was great for new players. I hinted that it could target grenades. What I didn’t tell you is how those two things are important to each other. You see, satchel bombs and arc mines are part of the standard Titan Pilot load-out. Most people use them once they get them. So, they can be littering the map. They’re pretty easy to avoid when they’re not being used aggressively, by which I mean, hurled directly at your face. Easy, that is, unless you’re not sure what you’re looking for. But, the Smart Pistol knows, because it’s… well, it’s Smart. It’ll target objects with a red line, alerting you to the presence of mines, bombs and skulls. Just another reason it’s great for initiating new players to Stompy-Robot Land

Finally, I compared Titanfall to CoD: Ghosts pretty frequently last time. And that’s because they’re the militaristic shooters that I’m playing right now. But what I left out were how those games made me feel. Well, I sort of told you how playing Ghosts made me feel. Either helpless or all-powerful. Maybe that’s just my experience of the multi-player, because I have either really good games or really bad ones. But, I didn’t tell you how Titanfall made me feel, besides what you might be able to extrapolate from my over-usage of the word “fun.”

It’s hard to explain, and maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it made me feel humble. Not, like, in awe of its greatness. God, I’m not that into it. I mean, it made me respect the skill of my fellow players and the power of wielding a Titan. Because, when you’re running around on the ground, you really are just an insect. You can jump on a Titan, yes, but if it’s an enemy Titan, and it’s doing any one of the following: dashing, punching, exploding, falling, shooting at you, etc, and you’re in the air in front of it, you’ll die. The only way to safely mount an enemy Titan is by dropping on it or jumping on it when it’s just walking. At all other times, it’s a wall of death. Of course, you can deal with that, because you’re a ninja, remember?

But, when I’m on foot and blowing up a Titan with an Archer missile, I feel that I’m dealing with a dangerous opponent. That it’s on me to respect it or I’ll die. I might still die, even if I do everything correctly, but that’s the truth of combat… That’s some Zen shit, right there. But, it’s true. The Titans themselves are a formidable force, but their power is magnified by the skill of the Pilot. As you become part of the ecosystem of robots, moving between Pilot-gnat and Titan-dog, you start to feel the flow of combat and your place within it at any given time.

Maybe that happens with every militaristic-multi-player FPS when you’re far enough in. I don’t know, because I haven’t used the word “l33t” to unironically describe myself for years. But, in Titanfall, between feeling the flow of combat and knowing the power of the Titans, I felt small as a Pilot. Powerful. Competent. But small. In a way, really human. And maybe this is just Attack on Titan resonance, but I started to respect and relish the power of the Titan. But, equally, to understand my relative size. And what did I do with that power once I had it?

Well, obviously, I used it to blow stuff up. I’d love to tell you that I used it to defend my friends and set up some moral lesson about empathy and compassion, but I can’t, because this isn’t the 80’s and I’m not writing a cartoon. Also, because blowing stuff up is what you do in Titanfall. That’s the game. But the impression stuck with me. And when I walked outside to check the mail, I looked into the sky and glimpsed a Titan in my mind. And I felt small. Singular. I imagined stepping inside, and I towered over my house. There is so much power in a Titan. But you remember, when you’re in that cockpit, what it’s like on the ground. It’s like a Spider-Man thing.

Feeling that power dynamic is nothing I’ve experienced in any other FPS. I can’t even explain to you why, because I’ve driven tanks in Halo. Vehicle combat is nothing new. But, Titanfall made me feel both powerful and tiny at the same time. I was both predator and prey. So, I felt humble.

I don’t know if that will be the common experience, because I got really into it. (It’s super immersive.) But, it’s there to be had, and I think that’s pretty cool. Cheers!

Addendum: Creative usage of Grunts. I saw a guy named IMC_Grumt that ran around with a group of Grunts so people would dismiss him at first and he could get the drop on them. Also, there’s a Spectre camo-costume.

Stand By For Titanfall…

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2014 by trivialpunk

Those of you who are on my Twitter know that, for the last day or two, I’ve been doing nothing but playing Titanfall. But, you don’t know the half of it. I’ll play for five hours, until my mind can’t keep up the pace any longer, then I’ll nap for a few hours. An event which is usually followed by more Titanfall. The reason I’m here, now, and not playing more Titanfall, is because I felt compelled to write a review for the game. Not because I think you need to hear how great it is for the thousandth time, but, rather, because I think a lot of people will dismiss it. I mean, it looks like just another militaristic shooter. But, it’s not. It’s so much more than that.

Some of the first multi-player games I started out playing were Quake and Counter-Strike. They were fast, adrenaline-fuelled Charnel houses. Five-minute rounds of reflex-testing fun. And since then, the model hasn’t deviated that much. They’ve added head-bob and guard-dog, slowed it down and sped it up, but the central pointy-clicky-deathy mechanic has maintained its central importance. It’s always felt great to win those games. The thrill of bringing a team to victory through your own wit and speed, accuracy and dexterity, is highly rewarding. And when there’s team-work, it’s always rewarding. But, that’s the way those games are designed, so it’s not really surprising. What does Titanfall do different? Well, let me stop posing panto-questions and just answer.

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The simplest way I could describe the difference between Titanfall and something like CoD: Ghosts is that Ghosts is fun to win; Titanfall is fun to play. The perks, Kill-streaks and spawning systems in Ghosts pretty much ensures that the winning team is going to start winning harder. Yes, it can be fun to turn it all around with an epic Kill-streak cooldown, but considering that most contests are already weighted by the vast skill-gaps that exist in that community, it being populated by large concentrations of some of the most hardcore and some of the most casual gamers in the market, the winners are probably using that momentum like a club. But, that’s a skill-thing. That will change from game to game.

What doesn’t change, though, is your place on the battlefield. The CoD: Ghosts protagonist is a highly-trained specialist in the field of role-playing as one of the 99% of germs that Mr. Clean “deals with”. When I play, I get killed by passing explosions, guard-dogs, assassinations, snipers, nearby gunners, grenades, nukes… A lot of the time, I never bother to find out how I died, because it’s not tactically helpful for long. Sure, it’s a realistic depiction of how personnel might feel on a futuristic battlefield, like important, squishy assets within the framework of a dangerous death-machine, but it’s annoying. And while it can be fun to dominate, I don’t really feel like I’m in charge of my own destiny.

Let’s cut to Titanfall, because it’s a game-changer. Right off, I’m going to admit my bias. Half the time I’m playing the game, I’m mentally role-playing as one of the kids from Attack on Titan. Just getting that out there: I’m not impartial. I’m having way too much fun. And that’s the thing. Titanfall is a delight to just play. I was laughing during the training exercises, and that hasn’t happened in years. A lot of that has to do with the movement system.

When you’re on foot, you’ve got a few options. You can sprint, crouch and walk, like a normal FPS. Or, you can wall-jump off buildings like you’re playing Assassin’s Creed. Or, you can take it to the next level and become a fucking ninja. You see, while most people are only going to see the two levels of combat: mech and human, there are layers to this game that emerge as you get better at it for deceptively simple reasons. 1: You get a major speed-boost from running on walls. 2. You can double-jump and change direction in mid-air, once per jump. 3. You can cling to walls to double-jump up them. That’s it. Three simple rules that change everything.

Because, now, as a Pilot, you can get to every vantage point, ever, if you know how to use the movement system properly (I can’t wait to see how broken this becomes). More than that, though, there is a qualitative difference between how you’re moving and how pilots on the ground are moving. With the right combination of manoeuvres, you can cover the entire map with a speed matched only by a dashing mech with its infinite dash-core activated (No, really, this is a thing that happens).

But, let’s not be too hasty. It’s not all about the movement system. You know how some games suck because the level devs weren’t talking to the game-play designers when they were hammered out? Well, that’s not happening here, and thank god. If it had, this would be another game of wasted potential. As it stands, the levels are honey-combed with different routes and escape vectors. There are free-running paths that don’t break the flow of combat, get in the way of the mech-fights or cover the whole damn level. Which is good, because you want to have to think about how you’re moving. If you can move every place equally as well, then you’ll never pay for stranding yourself in the middle of a field that mechs are using to play rugby with plasma, rockets or you, instead of a ball.

If you become tired of getting stepped on, you can have a Titan dropped out of the sky to smash people with. And, let me tell you, there are few things more satisfying than crushing someone’s Titan with your incoming Titan, a killing-method that I improve with a perk, because options. And, again, the game could have really fallen apart here. But, Titanfall earns its spot as a next-gen game. Your Titan feels huge, but the levels never feel out of place. You can crush pilots by stepping on them, but they Can combat you. Not on even ground, mind you, but with skill and finesse. Pilots can climb on you, either as support or to attack you (This animation needs some work, because it’s hard to aim from Titan-back while the rectical is clipping into the Titan’s uber-sprite) or take you out from afar. Pilots aren’t your biggest threat, though… The Titans come.

Once you call in a Titan, you’re the center of attention. Other Titans swarm you. Pilots are all over that. Even the game’s foot-soldiers, which we’ll get to in a minute, seem vaguely aware that you exist, which means a big step for and on them. So, make sure you know why you’re calling in your Titan. Don’t just warp it in to get torn to pieces. It’s a mighty power. You can change the entire shape of the battlefield with it. When it drops, it obviously makes a wall with its body, but it also lays down a sheltering bubble-shield and crushes everything it lands on. Great advantage; huge liability, because…

The most popular matches I’ve played (based on match-maker-assembly time) have been Attrition, which is basically a death-match where every target is worth a different amount of points. Titans are worth a LOT here, Pilots are worth a little less, and the foot-soldiers are worth about a fourth of a pilot. But, foot-soldiers run in groups of four or more, so it can be worth taking them out. That’s kind of the point of them. You see, while games like CoD: Ghosts insist that you get really good at twitch-killing players, Titanfall gives you the opportunity to use strategy. I’m not saying there isn’t strategy in Ghosts. There clearly is, because I’m not winning that game as much as I should be, even just statistically. However, Titanfall suggests that there might be other ways to win, besides exterminating your fellow man. Just take out the computer-controlled versions. Or spend your time exterminating Titans. Or play a different game-mode. Hard-point capture, Capture the Flag, and a game-mode I’m refusing to call anything but The Titan Rumble-Pit, because they just put each of you in a single Titan and demand that you discover the victor. Sounds pretty Godzilla: King of Monsters to me. You know, mechanized and all.

Some people complain that the minion-grunt A.I. sucks, (which is weird because no one complains about the minion A.I. in LoL,) but they serve their purpose. I think the game is better for their presence, if only as background dressing. Additionally, they could still have their A.I. improved or be used as a piece in a game-play mode, like Attrition, so we’ll see what they do with them down the line.

Let’s wrap game-play, so we can get to combat and the story, shall we? Titanfall is not a game you want to miss. It’s Brink meets Mech-Warrior fused with CoD: Ghosts and its current-gen ilk. To reiterate, it’s good because it’s enjoyable to play and the levels are designed to let you Play. But, it’s also good because of how balanced the combat is. There are differences-in-kind -qualitative differences- between the Pilot combat and the mech combat; their interaction is a lot of fun, but I’m not going to cover Anti-Titan Pilot combat. I’m going to let you discover how to take those bastards down on your own, because I enjoyed that the most. Pro-tip: Don’t use Anti-Titan weapons while “Rodeo-ing”; you’ll just blow up. Empty your SMG into its circuits.

The Pilot combat is well thought-out. The weapons are your stream-lined mix of combat types (Snipers, Assault, Assassin…). They’re all basically effective and come with their own attachments that you unlock via levelling. You know, like CoD: Ghosts, Battlefield 4 and every other game that makes me feel like I can just use the phrase “Rank-Based Perk-Levelling Load-Out System.” (RP-LOS) Create your kit, play with the abilities, and let the laughter commence! Sorry, I meant slaughter. Slaughter was the word we were looking for. But, there’s a secret stumbling block here that Titanfall crushes ‘neath its mighty tread.

You see, getting people into a multi-player FPS is a difficult thing, for many reasons. There’s the vitriol that supposedly exists in the chat-boxes. And, there’s some of that, but I just ignore it. Why humanize the intelligences behind moving -digital- targets? And, there wasn’t as much as I expected, given how often it’s referenced. Most people are just there to have a good time. Then, there are connection issues and game-availability. But, that’s not As big a deal with digital downl…IT’S 50 GIGS?!? Oh, umm… then there’s the skill problem. New players are going to get the ground wiped with them by the veterans with LMGs unlocked, right? So, how do we even the playing field? Balance for skill, of course! Make something big and destructive to earn the new players some kills, like the AWP or the noobtoob. Something like… a pistol. Oh, for fu… oh, a computer-guided burst-pistol that can lock onto multiple enemies, or a single target real-good-like. A single three-round burst from the Smart Pistol will end a Pilot’s thrilling career forever.

And, luckily, it’s the gun they introduce you to at the beginning of the game, because they’re very aware of this. It’s not cumbersome; it’s powerful and elegant. And it really makes the fast-paced combat more approachable. It’s hard enough drawing a bead when your target isn’t making Ezio Auditore look under-geared. At the same time, the Smart Pistol isn’t your Best option. It has trouble at mid-long range, and it’s just not going to be enough to handle anything but 1-v-1 Pilot-on-Pilot combat. So, as you improve, you’ll replace it, which is what you’re supposed to do with anti-FOO weapons. However, it’ll still take down a wave of minions in a couple of trigger-pulls, make a grenade explode in someone’s face and easily execute a Pilot, so it’s Not Useless once you get past a certain rank. Now, that’s balance. It all hangs together rather well. The melee is an instant kill, but it can be difficult to jump-kick people when they’re flying around, so that’s usually a tight-hallway thing. Again, though, you can fly through the air, so, if you’re good, difficult becomes epic.

I think that’s the ultimate accomplishment of Titanfall. It rewards your improvement, but it doesn’t punish other players for your success. That’s your job. Because, no FOO strategy can make up for the ninja skills you’ll develop. Of course, very few ninja skills teach you how to deal with Titans.

You Guys Know These Things Are Free Wallpaper, Right?

You Guys Know These Things Are Free Wallpaper, Right?

After playing as a meth-squirrel, you might think that stepping into a Titan would feel a bit arduous. But, no. It feels like putting on the Iron Man Prosthetic. You can reap petty revenge against the metal monsters than squashed you AND do some squishing of your own. It’s a bit slower, I grant you, but it also feels like you’re moving through the environment at an enhanced pace, because it’s the same environment, but you’re huge now. You’re basically a tuna that’s taken over a shark. The weapons are varied enough that you can pick your own play-style, and the abilities and body-types are different enough that the lack of choice is compensated for by emergent variety.

For instance, I have a dash-type body for manoeuvrability, but it’s very lightly armored. So, I compensate for that by using explosive weapons. That way, I don’t have to hold a bead. I can fire, dash, forget. Or, the chain-lightning gun, because I think you’re obligated, contractually, to try it out. But, I also have a secondary weapon that unleashes a salvo of rockets and a pretty nasty case of electric smoke-gas. So, if I’m cornered, I dump the damaging smoke-screen and split. Or, I can decide to go all out, empty everything into the nearest target and…

Well, once your Titan is about to die, it goes into a Doomed state. Which means, it gets a striped health-bar and is seconds away from blowing up. At which point, it’s time to eject. Usually, when I go all out, it’s because my little mech has been cornered and is being helplessly dominated by some other giant mechs. That’s fine, because I get to choose HOW it blows up. You want to hurt my baby? Okay, well, I took the perk that causes a small nuclear explosion when I eject. Which automatically happens when my Titan is about to die, because I chose another perk that made it so. Enjoy blowing up. Running away? Okay, but I’m piloting the Dash Mech: the fastest mech in the game, and my mech may be doomed, but I’ve got enough time to get in your face.

There are some downsides to this strategy. If there’s a ceiling, I’m ejecting my face into that, directly. If they escape the explosion, then it didn’t do much good, but it makes a difference often enough that it’s in my standard loadout.

Because, customizing your mech actually feels like you’re customizing it. Not visually, obviously, but I don’t really care that much, because the devs put a lot of work into the visual design. Why should I paint it rainbow and pretend I’m piloting the Nyan-Bot? The custom mech options are different enough that they create interesting emergent combinations. (is this a pattern?) Check their specs out here, if you’re curious.

Let’s get to the muck, though. It’s pretty pricey for a single game. $60 for the basic package or $80 if you want the season pass. I picked up the season pass, against my better judgement, because Respawn (the people behind this game) have shown that they understand how fundamental level-design is to their game. Poorly designed levels will break Titanfall, moreso than any other game, because it relies on the movement system of the Pilots to balance the sheer strength of the Titans. But, they’ve got my trust, for now. If the new levels suck, believe me, I’ll Tweet it.

There’s no single-player campaign, and the story is very vaguely presented. I’ll recap the story here, as best as I can gather it so far, so you understand the gist of it while you’re playing. *deep breath*

“FTL technology has opened up space, but it’s a standard Stargate, jump-system scenario. The military fights using newly-designed droids and Titans, which they can produce and assemble very quickly. The Militia, the Rebels of the story, want to free the Outer Rim from the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation (IMC, the local PMC, our Greedy-Capitalism-Endless-Consumerism-Imperialism-Is-Bad stand-in). In order to do that, they’re going to enact the grand strategy of a military commander that defected from the IMC. The leader of the IMC forces used to be buds with this guy and recognizes the strategy as the one they came up with in High School or something. Basically, they’re going to cripple the IMCs fleet through a few ground-ops, then they’re going to destroy the jump-gate, effectively closing the door on IMC reinforcements until they manage to make it there the slow way.

However, by the final mission, most of the people on the IMC side are dead, and the lion-share of their ground-forces are just robots. Robots that the IMC Command Computer will create endlessly with one goal in mind: defeat The Militia. That’s why, during the last mission, The Militia leader says, “Dude, let’s just ally and destroy the plant. There’s literally no reason for you to fight for the IMC, because they’re back on Earth. There’s no gate to get there. It’s just robots, now.” Robots that were programmed with a specific blind allegiance to a ideological system. Here’s the scary bit!

With central command light-years away, and very few people left, the IMC robots will keep endlessly reproducing with the same goal in mind, even if the IMC ceases to exist in the 200-year journey from Earth. The robots don’t have cognitive thought. They don’t have loyalty. They’re an endlessly self-perpetuating cancer that will devour the galaxy, constantly consuming everything to build more of themselves. That’s where the Capitalism-Consumerist satire comes from. And, I’m only really aware of this angle because I wrote a similar short-story where a Self-Replicating Roomba gets lost in Space-Time and ends up creating a race of mechanized Slicing Dysons that try to devour the galaxy. But, that’s a pretty common problem.”

We’re almost done, but before we wrap, let’s address the issue that a lot of people seem to have with Titanfall. The multiplayer-only issue. Yes, it’s pretty expensive to pay $80 for a multi-player game. But, let’s be serious, it’s a lot of money either way. And, it shouldn’t matter if the single-player isn’t there if the multi-player is solid. BUT, that’s only if the multi-player is what you’re buying it for. I wouldn’t ask you to stick Death-match into SH2, so I’m not going to demand a shitty campaign that would have just sucked money out of the development of the multi-player.

People complain about this like it’s a new thing, but it’s not. It’s just the first time I’ve paid for it; I’m fine with that. I used to play 5-minute Counter-Strike matches for hours at a stretch. I play CoD: Ghosts the same way. I literally don’t know what the CoD: Ghosts campaign is like. I only know the story because, well, that’s my job. For the most part, I play Extinction or Death-match. As long as that’s what you’re buying Titanfall for, you’re going to get way more than your money’s worth. The pieces all fit together. This is not just next-gen graphics; this is next-gen game-design. Because, it’s a sprawled design process with a focused goal in mind: to create an excellent Death-match experience. If we mark it down for knowing what it is and what it wants to be, then we’re just perpetuating the next-gen problem of trying to create things to appeal to everyone. Please, tell the reviewers that do this, but complain about game-play stagnation, to get their heads out of their butts and realize that the industry listens to that twaddle.

At the end of the day, the best recommendation I can give for Titanfall is this: I had to edit the word “fun” out of this review 9 times, because it was becoming really redundant. And that, more than anything, should tell you how I’m enjoying the game. If you’re looking for a unique, fast-paced, next-gen-FPS multi-player experience, this is the game for you. If you want a strong story with stirring characters, then perhaps not so much. But, it scratches the itch it does with something made of titanium and cherub down. Whether that’s worth $60-$85 or not is up to you.

Honestly, I could go on, but I want to play some more Titanfall. So, I’m giving the game The Intense Spark Of Strange Love Under Flashing Black-Lights out of The Playful Caress Of The Afternoon Sun Waking You From A Nap. Join the cause, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Addendum: The match-making system is simple and intuitive. So simple that I forgot to mention it.  >.> But, it’s also pretty terrible at matching skill-levels, so don’t be afraid to bail on unbalanced matches before they start. You’ll be back in another lobby in under a minute.