Thoughts On…Persona 5

Reviews, Video Games

One of the most interesting things about critiquing art (whether it bet books, paintings, movies, or video games) is how much a person’s own personal experiences plays into their views on the piece. For instance, when I was in high school I had all the time in the world and could immerse myself in World of Warcraft. At the time, I felt it was one of the best games on the market. Nowadays, I have a job and responsibilities, so, while I still think WoW is a great game, I’m never going to view it the same because I don’t have the time to grind out the gear needed to play the game at the same level I used to.

It’s important to bring this up because its been quite a while since I could feel my own life coloring my experience with a game like I did in my Persona 5 playthrough.

See, the thing to know upfront is that Persona 5 is an incredibly long game. In fact, even before all the padding they add through text boxes (more on this later), it’s probably a 60 hour game that took me twice as long to beat for various reasons. Unfortunately for me, the game came out at the exact wrong time. I was in the middle of Horizon: Zero Dawn and was about to leave for two months of work in about three weeks. Work where I would be unable to play any games.

Now, I loved Persona 3 and 4. I played P4 through three separate times (which isn’t really a brag, as it seems quite common in the community) and enjoyed every second of it. Needless to say, I was hyped for P5 and knew that I would have to push as hard as possible to finish the game before I left so I didn’t split up my playthrough.

In doing so, I made a pretty large mistake. I put the game on the easiest setting, “Safe”. My thought process was that save points are relatively slim in Persona games (though P5 is better than past games) and dying would lose me potentially hours of time. However, if you put the game in “Safe” mode, you can’t really die. When you do, you just respawn with full health and mana, while the enemy keeps it’s current health points. Effectively, the game plays itself for you.

What I didn’t predict was how boring this would make the game. I mean, at that point it was basically just a 100-hour text adventure. I’m all for a good text adventure, but, with little to no player choice in the game, P5 was not built to be a text adventure game.

So, for me, P5 quickly became a game that I didn’t really like, but would recommend to anyone looking to get into JRPGs or just fans of video game story in general. Sure, the supporting characters are weaker than past games and dialogue does drag at times (I don’t know how many SMS exchanges I had to endure, but it was far too many)

That said, almost every aspect of the game is improved from Persona 4. It’s incredible how far along the bland level design has come. In P4, dungeons were incredibly basic, with little to no interaction. P5 takes it up a notch and includes different types of puzzles to solve that break up the sometimes long dungeon crawls. Plus, the actual dungeon layouts are much more interesting than past entries.

On top of that, this game is absolutely dripping with style. The overlays and environments are top notch. The music is out of this world great. Heck, even the menus are among the best I’ve ever seen in video games. Even the biggest JRPG haters out there would have to agree that Persona 5 looks rad.

And for JRPG fans, I thought the combat was pretty fun. Sure, it’s a pretty conventional “this element beats that one, but loses to another one” style, but I found it fun nonetheless. My biggest gripe with the battle system is Persona’s continued use of the instant-kill spells that are guaranteed to set you back an hour or more at least once a play-through. However, that’s pretty small in the grand scheme of a 100-hour campaign.

So, at the end of the day, Persona 5 was a weird game for me. On one hand, I mostly disliked my own experience with P5. On the other, this is an incredible entry point for someone looking to get into JRPGs and seems like everything longtime Persona fans were looking for. Play this game. Just don’t play it the same way I did. Give yourself plenty of time and play on Normal. You’ll thank me later.

Thoughts on…Horizon Zero Dawn

Reviews, Video Games

For me, Horizon Zero Dawn came at very strange time. I had just come off a two-week binging of both Uncharted 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider. Plus, Breathe of the Wild was going to be released in just a few days. One could say that I was going through somewhat of an open-world/action game overload.

I mean, for various reasons, Uncharted 4 and RotTR are both excellent games. Uncharted does cinematic story-telling better than just about anybody and that facial animation is worth the price of admission on its own. And Tomb Raider crafted a really fun campaign filled with interesting RPG elements. Add in the fact that the hype for Zelda was at a fever pitch and it’s easy to see a world where Horizon didn’t a fair shake from me.

Which is why it was so impressive to me that Horizon was as enthralling as it was. Literally everything in my life was going against this game and it still made an impression. That’s when you know you have a true gem on your hands. Often, when playing games, my real life experiences help shape how I view the game. So, when a game takes my current mood in life and just says, “no, you need to pay attention”, that’s exactly what I do.

At the core, Horizon is so captivating because the developers have nailed two major things. First, the game is pure fun. Guerrilla Games locked in what is, for my money, the best bow-play in the business. The central shooting mechanic is so perfect that it almost feels like you’re handicapping your own experience when you decide to go for the easier stealth method.

Even beyond the shooting, the way different weapons in your arsenal interact with each other and your enemies make for a deceptively deep combat system. After awhile, you sort of find what works best for your playstyle, but it’s worth it to look for opportunities to switch it up. You’ll be rewarded with immensely satisfying fights that will truly test you.

Speaking of immensely satisfying, the other thing Horizon nails is how to tell a story. Now, if someone wrote the plot of Horizon out and handing it to me, I don’t know if I would think it’s some amazing post-apocalyptic fiction. That said, Guerrilla Games understands how to string you along and keep you invested.

Countless times during my playthrough I found myself saying, “just one more quest”. Horizon’s drip feed of information is as close to perfect as I’ve seen in a video game. Every answered question comes with more questions and you have to know the answers. And, while the game doesn’t completely stick the landing, it does better than just about any other video game narrative I’ve seen.

On top of these two gigantic pluses in Horizon’s “pros and cons” sheet, the game looks incredible. The skyboxes are breath-taking and Aloy’s hair might be the best in gaming. Sure, the facial animations are a little stiff and the voice sync gets off from time-to-time, but those are minor complaints. If you want a game to show off your PS4 (or your Pro), this is a great option.

So, as you can see, I’m pretty high on this game. It became my second platinum (though the other one is Fallout 4, which is a game I kind of hate) last week and I’m currently rocking the platinum theme. I think this game is more than worth your time. It’s ability to stand out even during my open-world/action game overload made it a game I’d recommend to everyone. Do yourself a favor and pick it up, if you haven’t already.

Thoughts on…Firewatch

Reviews, Video Games

I played through Firewatch a few weeks ago and I’ve sat down to write this article at least three times since then. In truth, I think I’ve spent more time thinking about Firewatch than I spent actually playing the game. Why am I focusing so much brain power on trying to understand my feelings about Firewatch? Well, it might sound weird, but the focal point of my pondering has been me wondering why I’m so intrigued by a game that I didn’t think was very good.

For those of you still wondering, “what is Firewatch?”, let me give you the quick elevator pitch. At its most basic, Firewatch is a walking simulator like Gone Home. It’s focused on telling you a story and (theoretically) telling it well, while also finding interesting ways for you to interact with the world around. It’s a very contained 4-5 hour journey that has you filling the role of a fire lookout in Wyoming with a few twists and turns to (hopefully) keep things interesting.

Mechanically, Firewatch is pretty basic. You can talk to another character through a walkie talkie and you find a few ways to explore previously off-limits areas as you play through the game. Otherwise, you’re basically just walking about looking for stuff to explore. Thus, most of the interesting things that happen come from the dialogue between your character (Henry) and his boss, Delilah.

Fortunately, the two characters are by far the best part of the game (maybe even the only good part). I was really impressed with how they built these two up from the opening scenes. Firewatch starts by just showing you text and letting you make a few choices about Henry’s life before he went to Wyoming. This sounds pretty basic, but it was honestly my favorite moment in the entire experience.

You see, in most games this would be the opportunity for you to put yourself into the character. You would likely shape the character in your image (making them as perfect as possible) and then you’d have ownership over the character. That’s not how Firewatch handles this scenario.

Instead, you’re given very limited options in how to respond to the various situations presented to you. At first, this gave me some dissonance because there’s no way I would ever do the things Henry does to his wife after she comes down with a disease. But I’m not Henry and Henry doesn’t think like me. He’s a deeply flawed individual, which makes him feel like an actual person and not a digital avatar. For me, this was an incredibly profound way to force me to abandon myself and instead play as Henry. Would I ever flirt with a women I just met when I was still married? Absolutely not, but Henry just might. Unlike the majority of video game protagonists, Henry is a three dimensional person with hopes and dreams that I, the player, have no control over.

This idea of placing a multi-faceted personality into a digital being continues when the player meets Delilah. It would be easy to build her as a perfect person who could either teach Henry something about life or give him the perfect out to get away from his wife. However, like Henry, Delilah isn’t perfect. She has her own struggles and, though she puts on a brave face and tries to laugh at herself and her problems, she’s as flawed as Henry is.

This is what makes their relationship work. Heck, it’s what makes the game worth playing. Henry and Delilah’s relationship feels more real than almost any other pairing I’ve ever seen in a video game. They are so natural with each other that you wonder if their voice actors are best friends in real life. It’s pretty incredible what Campo Santo was able to put together between these two, but it also makes you wish they’d been able to do as well in other areas.

As mentioned above, the gameplay is fairly limited and I honestly don’t fault the team for that. After all, they are focused on story, not on mechanics. On a micro level, they nail their story-telling. Henry and Delilah are a perfectly imperfect match. It’s when you get past that and move onto the main narrative that I’m left deeply disappointed.

The narrative tries to give you a few twists and turns to make things interesting, but it never really goes all the way. Additionally, there are a few plot threads that never get resolved and don’t end up making much sense. My biggest issue in that regard, was the weird phone message you can listen in on between Delilah and an unnamed person. That ends up having no impact on the plot except to make you ask questions. Really, most of the story just seems like a series of red herrings that are thrown in because they needed to keep you semi-engaged for longer than their story actually warranted.

In short, the story feels sloppily done, which is in stark contrast to how well written Henry and Delilah are. It feels like Campo Santo got about two thirds of the way there and then had to push out the game. So they threw something together and put it on the PSN store. As mentioned, the game feels like they had one story to tell that wasn’t going to be very interesting decided to pad the game out with false stories that only served to annoy because there was zero resolution.

That’s why I struggled so much with formulating my thoughts for Firewatch. On one hand, it’s built one of the better relationships in video games and gives the player two, three dimensional characters that could exist in the real world. On the other, it’s a boring mess of a story that doesn’t capitalize on anything built between the two characters. Maybe it’s my fault for letting my hype meter get too high; however, Firewatch reeks of a game with unrealized potential.

And that’s why I can’t help but feel like Campo Santo’s next effort is really going to rock my world. They’ve proven they can build characters and relationships, now they just need to polish up the overall product. I wouldn’t recommend this game to a friend (or someone reading this blog on the Internet), but I am looking out for the company’s next product. There’s so much here that could be great and I believe they’ll pull everything together on their sophomore project to go above and beyond the foundation that is Firewatch.

 

Thoughts on Fallout 4

Reviews, Video Games

The Fallout series has been at the top of my list of favorite franchises for a number of years. I put 200+ hours into both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas and I’ve played the original games through multiple times. You could say that it was predetermined that I would champion Fallout 4 as the must have game of 2015. And you wouldn’t be far off.

I came into The Commonwealth expecting to love every second of my time there. After all, the gunplay is vastly improved, the setting is interesting to me (loved seeing what they did with Fenway), and I was more than intrigued by the new crafting system seen in both your equipment and your settlements. Heck, I put 200+ hours into this game (platinumed it even) and couldn’t help but ask myself, “is that it?”

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It looks big, but why doesn’t it feel that way?

You see, in a lot of ways, my time with Fallout 4 is perfectly summed up by looking at one of the main antagonists in story, the Synths. Synths are faster, stronger, smarter, and less likely to die from radiation poisoning than their human counterparts. However, as machines, they don’t have the soul that makes human beings human. In almost every sense of the word, they’re perfect, but, even then, they can’t hold a candle to the real thing.

And that’s how I feel about Fallout 4. For all intents and purposes, Fallout 4 is “better” than Fallout 3 or New Vegas. The “gamey” segments of the game take a massive step forward. Playing without V.A.T.S. is finally possible because the guns actually control decently well. The crafting system is deep, if clunky, and gives adventurers something to do when they get bored of exploring The Commonwealth. Speaking of The Commonwealth, it’s absolutely chock full of things to do. The density and scale of Boston are well represented here and put the relatively sparse Capital Wasteland and New Vegas to shame. There aren’t any boring subway tunnels or desolate deserts to explore here.

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A Sample of the Weapon Crafting

But, even with all of those buildings and environments to explore, Fallout 4 feels empty. At first, exploration feels great because there’s so much of it. But then you’ll hit your 20th named area, walk inside, look around, and realize that there’s nothing interesting here. The modern Fallout series has always struggled to tell a compelling main narrative; it’s the side stories and little moments out in the wastes that bring the game to life and give it character. And, in Fallout 4, there’s almost none of that.

There’s an image floating around that compares the quests offered in Fallout 4 to those in Skyrim that I’ll link here: https://imgur.com/a/Mvc3i. As you can see, the number of quests has gone down significantly and, as someone who’s done most of them, quite a few of those are repeatable and offer little to no story development. The most interesting quests in Fallout 4 are, undoubtedly, the companion quests. Unlike the majority of the game, your companions are actual characters with backstories and more than three lines of dialogue. Unfortunately, there are only four of those, which means the nine other companions are largely left out to dry. That doesn’t necessarily mean those companions aren’t worth picking up, it just means their impact is minimal.

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Nick Valentine has one of the better Companion Quests in the game.

Even putting the actual quests and narrative aside, the world feels like a barren wasteland, and not in a good way. In past Fallout games, the world felt lived in, there were people in the most random locations that made the wastes feel like a real place. This isn’t the case in Fallout 4. There are no memorable locations that aren’t included in the main storyline. You won’t find a Republic of Dave or a Gang of Granies. Those kind of fun, one-off experiences are no longer present in this world and that takes the magic out of what made Fallout such a popular series for me.

Even still, it’s hard to find much else to fault in this game (aside from the many bugs that are synonymous with Bethesda open-world games). In many ways, it is the best video game in the modern line of Fallout titles. However, it goes so far away from the essence of what Fallout is, that it’s hard for me to recommend even after spending 200 hours mostly enjoying myself. That’s why this isn’t a real review of the game. That would be me praising the game for the vast majority of the post and then mentioning in a few paragraphs how badly it fails at capturing the Fallout spirit. Instead, I think it’s important to simply focus on why this game isn’t what Fallout fans like myself are looking.

Should you play this game? NO, NOT REALLY

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Scoring this game would be near impossible for me. It’s difficult to separate my expectations for a Fallout game from what I look for when trying to critically look at a video game. Maybe that makes me a poor reviewer; however, I think it’s important for a franchise as big as this one to, at least somewhat, cater to their fans. This entry goes against the main thing I would consider crucial to a modern day Fallout game; a wasteland filled with interesting characters who all have stories to tell.

Fallout 4 is bigger, stronger, faster, and possibly better than the games that came before it. But, much like a synth replacing a loved family member, it lacks the soul that made the series special and, no matter how polished and seemingly perfect the replication is, it will never have the same impact of the thing it replaced.

Thoughts on Life is Strange

Reviews, Video Games

(Note: Fair warning, this write up is going to contain a few spoilers for Life is Strange. I don’t feel like I can do this “Thoughts on..” justice without them. If you don’t want to be spoiled stay away.)

This write-up is going to be a little different from my traditional “Thoughts on…” series. That’s because, for me, the things that make Life is Strange such a must-play game aren’t really traditional to video games. Thus, I’m not going to waste time talking about the graphics (solid for an adventure game, though the lip syncing is very bad), the voice acting (stellar, especially Ashly Burch as Chloe and Dani Knights as Victoria), the gameplay (interesting mechanic that lets you rewind time to replay decisions with different information), the music (fits the setting remarkable well), or any other things you’d usually see in this space.

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Instead, let’s talk about makes this game so special. In a world of bad stories in video games, it’s rare to get a good one. Those usually come in the form of a major twist that blows your mind, some excellent character development, or a twist on a classic story. Life is Strange has all those things. The time travel story has been told before, but the ways we get there are new and interesting. The arc of Max (the protagonist) and Chloe is one of the better ones I’ve seen this year. And the game brings at least two major twists (one more expected than the other) that are sure to cause you to put down the controller/mouse for a minute or two.

All of that would be great on its own, but what elevates Life is Strange’s story from just good to great is how it takes a setting most of us know well (high school, those these students are at a super expensive art school in Oregon) and forces you to put your own perspective onto the events playing out in front of you.

This effect happened in a small way at first. You begin the game in your art class, but, once the bell sounds, you go out in the hall and see all of your fellow students milling about between class. This is a familiar experience and I wouldn’t be surprised if most people find a reasonable facsimile of who they were back in school if they take the time to look. For me, it was when I came upon Daniel DaCosta.

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Daniel is chubby kid who’s really into drawing and, when you first see him is getting beat up. That was pretty much me in middle school, if you replace drawing with Diablo 2 and Starcraft. Thus, I couldn’t help but feel for him and decided at that moment, it would be my mission to help this guy as much as possible.

After receiving my rewind powers in the girl’s bathroom, I went outside to go meet Warren (we’ll talk about him a bit soon) and saw Daniel sitting by himself in the grass. I ran over as fast as I could, hoping to spill all of my advice as someone who had been in his place 15 years ago. Of course, Max doesn’t have that knowledge, so I had to do the only option available. I let Daniel draw me like one of his French girls.

That was when I had to take a step back. Was I using Max to fill my own middle school fantasies? Girls didn’t talk to me. I didn’t have any friends my age. Was I trying to use Max to solve those problems I had had so many years ago? I often roleplay my characters as the best version of myself, so this is likely the route I would’ve gone in any other game. However, because I saw so much of myself in Daniel, it forced me to really examine if I was using Max as a tool to fix my own problems or actually playing the game the way Max would.

We put ourselves into video game characters all the time, especially in RPGs and adventure games. How often do we ask ourself if we should? Is it fair to Max to try and railroad her into a relationship (romantic or not) with Daniel? What if the real Max doesn’t like Daniel? Does that make me a bad person? Does it matter? After all, she’s just a video game character.

Daniel wouldn’t be the last person that forced me to ask myself these questions.

After meeting a few other students of Blackwell, Max and I walked over to the parking lot to meet up with Warren and continue our quest. Warren is a lovable goof, who’s interested in science class, geeky pop culture, and Max. It’s your typical “boy is in love with a girl who barely seems to notice and/or care”, which is a story I know too well.

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I spent my junior and senior years of high school along with most of my freshman year of college chasing after a girl very similar to Max. Every time I thought I was moving forward, she would re-enter my life and proceed to lead me on for a few months before telling me she wasn’t interested.

So, you can see why I was able to quickly level with my man, Warren. It’s obvious that he’s smitten with Max, but she doesn’t really seem to reciprocate. My first instinct was to force Max to fall for Warren by making the “right” choices.

But that felt wrong. I was forcing Max into a situation that she might not want to be in just because I had some problems with a girl in high school? What if I could find the solution I hoped would happen to me? So, with that new goal in mind, I tried my best to cut Max out of Warren’s life and let him realize that he has everything he wants in a girl in Brooke (another Blackwell student).

Unfortunately, the game doesn’t really allow for this scenario, but I was able to find solace in a late move that put Brooke and Daniel together. Maybe this was the game teaching me something I’ve struggled with so many years. It’s when you’re not really looking for love, that it actually finds you. Brooke wanted Warren, but couldn’t have him, and Daniel was only interested in drawing. It’s fitting that those two would end up together after I pushed so hard to put Brooke with Warren and Daniel with Max. And, much like before, this wasn’t the last time Life is Strange would surprise me.

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My stepdad passed away this past spring in a freak small airplane accident. I’m telling you this so you can understand why I was able to connect, in some small way, with Chloe. Five years before the start of Life is Strange, Chloe lost her father in a car accident. And it wasn’t how the tragedy affected Chloe that got to me, it was how hard it hit her mom Joyce.

When I come home to see my mom, slumped over the bills she can no longer afford, I always think, “is there something I could do?” Could I move back home, take a job, and try to help her out until she’s able to get back on her feet? Would that make her happy? It’s a frustrating place to be in because there really isn’t anything I can do.

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But Max can do something. Max can rewind time. Max can save William, Joyce’s husband and Chloe’s dad. And she does. for a split second, it seems like everything is great. Max pops back to the future, finds herself back at Blackwell, hanging out with her friends, and decides to get to Chloe’s house as quickly as possible. For about 30 seconds, it’s complete euphoria. William is back among the living; standing there, greeting Max and calling for Chloe to come to the door. And that’s when the other shoe drops.

You see, in fairy tales (and lesser video games) stories like these can have a happy ending. The princess marries the prince and they live happily ever after. But real life? Well, real life is strange. And when you add mind-bending time rewinding powers to the mix, that’s when it gets truly crazy.

I sat there, hoping to see my good friend Chloe alive and well, enjoying the time with her dad that she lost in the other reality. Instead, Chloe rolled into frame in a wheelchair. She couldn’t feel her body below her neck and had to completely rely on her parents for everything.

That’s when I lost it. I sat there for a good ten minutes, just slack jawed. As tears welled up in my eyes, I realized that, in some weird way, this game was speaking to me in a manner I hadn’t seen before. Life is Strange makes you ask questions. Not questions about what will happen in the next big plot point (though those do happen), but questions about your own life. I had begun the game trying to fulfill fantasies from my middle school days and rectify mistakes I made in high school, but now, now this game, this video game, was helping me deal with a real adult situation that has deeply affected my family. And that was only in the third episode!

In my opinion, that’s the mark of a great story and of a truly great work of art. It makes you question things in life and gives you a new perspective on the problems around you. Life is Strange forced me to accept that there’s nothing I can for my mom except to love her deeply and hold as long as I can. I always knew I’d be there for her, but now I’m at peace with my own limited ability to help her. Just like Joyce and Chloe (oddly enough, Chloe is my stepsister’s name), my mom will find a way. Because that’s what strong people do.

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I don’t know if I’ve done this write-up justice. It was hard to write for many reasons, but, if you take one thing from this, it’s this: Life is Strange is worth your time. It’s the first video game I’ve played with a truly great story that you should experience. It tackles important mature topics in a meaningful manner and is among my favorite video game experiences of the year.

Should you play it? ABSOLUTELY

Thoughts on The Video Game Awards

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Last night (December 3rd), Geoff Keighley put on the second annual  Game Awards, which is an award show that doesn’t really focus that much on rewards (something that’s somewhat refreshing given how boring the Oscars, Emmys, and other often feel). Instead, Keighley slick production tends to put more focus on their “world premieres”. Back when The Game Awards was the Video Game Awards, these were usually big reveals of things like Skyrim, MGSV, and Mass Effect 3.

Sadly, for fans of seeing lots of video game trailers, those days seem to be behind us. In fact, the biggest news out of this conference might be the announcement that Psychonauts 2 is coming out (if you crowdfund it). That said, I wanted to take some time to post some of my thoughts on various announcements as something of a personal catalog that others are free to view.

Psychonauts 2 is COMING (but you have to fund it first)

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When this trailer hit, my jaw hit the floor. I honestly never thought we’d be getting this game because of how long it has been since the release of the first Psychonauts.That said, it was a little disappointing (though not surprising) that it was going to be a crowdfunded title.

Obviously, we’ve seen a lot of success in the crowdfunding platform over the last few years. And Double Fine has been among the most successful at building quality campaigns. However, it still feels weird to have something announced like this. I know Shenmue 3’s campaign was announced at PSX last year, but that felt like a one-time thing that was Sony’s way of showing that they are actively going forward with the “Building the List” initiative.

This announcement, on the other hand, felt like Double Fine’s way of trying to prove that Fig is a viable platform. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that they would go with such a cult favorite to be the first big game on their new crowdfunding site; I just didn’t see it coming and don’t really love the announcement for something that might technically never come out.

Of course, at the time of this writing, the game has raised 1.3 million or 40% of their goal, so the chances of it not hitting its funding in 34 days seems pretty low. I guess this is our new reality and old men (or twenty-somethings) like me will have to get used to it.

Kojima barred from attending by Konami

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In a surprising and disappointing turn of events, Hideo Kojima was legally barred from attending this year’s Game Awards by Konami’s lawyers. It was a pretty shocking and petty display by a publisher that has been in hot water all year long. Surely the bad will gained from moves like this are going to cut into the company’s bottom line at some point (at least in America).

It really was a bummer that an artist like Kojima was unable to accept the awards he earned by putting everything into his Metal Gear Solid series. It’s pretty rare in gaming to see a creator as synonymous with his creation as Kojima is and not seeing him present  for what should be a night of celebration left a bad taste on the proceedings.

The Witcher 3 cleans up

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The Witcher 3 led all games with six nominations and came away with Role-playing game of the Year, Developer of the Year, and Game of the Year. That’s about as successful as a studio can be at one of these things.

However, it felt weird to me. Obviously, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and if you want to champion The Witcher as your GOTY, then you’re free to do so. I just didn’t expect so many industry veterans to come to that consensus over Bloodborne, MGSV, and Mario Maker.

Listen, I adored The Witcher when I played it earlier this year. I was pretty glowing in my praise when I wrote about it for this blog. However, it didn’t really stick with me like other games did. I can’t really remember too many notable quests and the gameplay wasn’t good enough for the narrative to not matter. It’s a great game; I’m just surprised it’s the Game of the Year.

Telltale’s making a Batman game

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So, my brother is the biggest Batman fan I know. He loves all the Arkham games, buys tons of comics, and watches Gotham religiously. Thus, I was expecting he’d be excited when I told him Batman was getting the Telltale treatment.

His reaction? “You mean the ones where don’t really play a video game?”

And really, he’s not wrong. I’m sure this game will sell like gangbusters, but are Telltale games still worth getting excited over? The engine is pretty terrible and the whole “illusion of choice” seems to be wearing out its welcome. Time will tell, I suppose.

Xbox gets Rocket League (and other Microsoft news)

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It wasn’t too surprising to see Microsoft bring some noise in contrast to Sony pretty much saying nothing. After all, Sony has their own press conference coming up this weekend at PSX.

That said, Rocket League is a pretty good get. Obviously, this one was coming to XBone at some point, but it’s still something that’s going to really excite that community. Also, that Tomb Raider DLC is making it even harder to wait an entire year for it to come to PS4. Not that I’m questioning my console choice, but that last game was pretty great.

Quantum Break still isn’t really doing it for me. Even after reading Game Informer’s big feature story last month, I’m still not sure if I should be interested in this one or not. But overall, Microsoft had a subtly good Game Awards.

Her Story and Rocket League lead the way for Indies

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Speaking of Rocket League, it and Her Story won two awards each, which put them on par with any other game outside of The Witcher. I haven’t gotten to Her Story just yet (curse you Fallout 4), but I’m very intrigued to play it sometime soon.

Rocket League was one of the better games I can remember being released during the summer and I thought it should’ve been up for GOTY over Fallout 4. In a year of great Indies, it’s nice to see a few get some big time recognition at these awards.

Greg Miller and Reggie Fils-Aime bring the feels

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In the most heartwarming moments of the night, Reggie Fils-Aime and Greg Miller delivered poignant tributes/shoutouts to various developers.

Reggie, obviously, had a lot to say about his friend and mentor Satoru Iwata, the former Nintendo President who passed away this summer. It was a touching send-up of one of the more key figures in gaming.

Greg Miller dedicated his speech for winning Trending Gamer to the people who make video games. It was an excellent speech that you should really seek out for yourself here:

All in all, this was a pretty slim show as far as announcements go. I was expecting Microsoft to drop at least one big, Triple A bomb to get in front of whatever Sony’s bringing this weekend. Additionally, Nintendo was very quiet on the announcement front, which left the show feeling sparse. Of course, this could be a sign of Keighley’s production trying to put the awards first. If that’s the case, then I think they did a decent job and set a solid foundation to build next year’s show on. I guess we’ll find out in 2016.

Thoughts on Metal Gear Solid V

Reviews, Video Games

Metal Gear Solid V is one of the better games released this year, but also one of the most confusing. In some ways, it’s baffling how a series that has long been known for lengthy and ambitious (whether those games deliver on their ambition is up for debate) storytelling can release a game that is so deep in scope in regards to its gameplay, but lacks the same cinematic appeal that made the MGS series a fan favorite.

With that said, the moment-to-moment gameplay is some of the best in video game history. No one has ever done tactical stealth this well. The gunplay is intuitive and near perfect in its execution (something that’s always been lacking in past games). The breadth of options for how to approach every situation is absolutely mind-boggling. Many games claim that there are countless ways to approach every situation, but MGSV is the first game that I’ve actually felt like that is completely true in every encounter.

Your playthrough will be completely different than mine because of how many options we have at our disposal. Every gun type has at least three or four main options and those main types even break down into more options. And then there are countless different options for support items and various sneaking suits. It’s hard to wrap your mind around at first, but once you dive in, the game really opens up and you’ll love all the tools you have at your disposal.

On top of all these ridiculous options (which I could go into more detail about, but won’t to keep some secrets for you), you unlock various companions throughout your journey. These range from a horse that helps you get around faster (and can poop on command) to a Walker Gear that you can outfit with tons of different options. For my money, Quiet, your sniper friend, is the most helpful. Once you get her a tranquilizer sniper rifle, she’ll singlehandedly knock out everyone in an outpost and you can meander in to Fulton everyone.

Now, I said I wouldn’t talk about any more items, but the Fulton has to be mentioned. Essentially, it’s a balloon that you attach to knocked out guards (or weapons or cars or tanks or shipping containers) that whisks them off the battlefield and into your arsenal. This is how you build up your base, which is a very important part of the game.

Base improvement brings quite a few major perks. For one, it opens up more of those gun and support options mentioned above through your R&D team. Additionally, you’ll get better weather and enemy position intel as well as a better strikeforce to send on missions that get your more materials. As mentioned, it can be hard to wrap your head around everything when you first start, but as you play, you quickly pick it up.

That speaks to how slick this game is overall. We’ve talked about both the base building and gameplay systems and how incredibly well put together they are, but I should also mention that the game looks great. Metal Gear games have been pushing graphical boundaries for years, and this game is no different. However, it’s the scope of the environments that really got me. There are two massive areas for you to explore and, while there is a lot of empty space, both maps feel very well laid out and interesting.

And really, the end of that sentence sums up my overall feelings about the game. Everything feels lovingly crafted and you can tell they put a ton of time and money into development. Everything, that is, outside of the story.

For a series so renowned for its bonkers narrative, it’s disappointing to see Kojima step away from that. Most of the story is told through listening to tapes and the handful of cutscenes aren’t near as grandiose and insane as past entries. That isn’t to say the story is bad, it’s just not good in the same way other games in this series were.

Adding to the lack of narrative development is the weird way the story is doled out. As mentioned, a lot of the story comes through tapes that you listen to, but the cut scenes you do see are structured in a very non-traditional way. The game has two acts and the first one is pretty solid. Sure, nothing that noteworthy happens, but there are varied and fun missions to complete. Then, the second act begins.

It was here that the game started to fall apart a little for me. At first, you get a few story missions to complete, along with a few important side ops. But then your next missions are simply harder versions of missions you completed in act one. As you complete those, you sometimes unlock more story, but it’s never really clear what exactly unlocks those.

And then, the game just ends without too many of your questions answered. If this wasn’t Kojima’s last foray into the series, that’s not a big deal. However, this is (supposedly) his last entry and I don’t think many fans will end the game satisfied from a story-telling perspective. It honestly feels like they build up this very solid opening act (which, it should be noted, takes about 40-50 hours) and then ran out of time, money, and passion. The second act feels thrown together, potentially by a different team. Obviously, I know nothing about the game’s development, but it just doesn’t feel like this is the ending Kojima would want for his swan song.

Maybe I’m being overly negative about the story because of how excellent the gameplay is. If something can be a game of the year and disappointment of the year competitor, this is it. There’s so much promise here that I would whole-heartedly recommend this to anyone. However, I can’t say I was, as a huge fan of Kojima’s story-telling, was completely satisfied when the final credits rolled.

SHOULD YOU PLAY IT? YES (?)

MGSV reminds me of the James Bond film, Skyfall. Both are incredible works of art in their field. Skyfall is the best film in the James Bond series, but also didn’t really feel like a James Bond movie. MGSV is the same. It’s an absolutely must-play game, but it doesn’t have that MGS feel. That will turn some people off, but this is something you should probably experience for yourself.

Thoughts on The Unfinished Swan

Reviews, Video Games

The Unfinished Swan is a short, fun romp that gives you interesting new things to do at every turn and smartly doesn’t overstay its welcome. Lesser (read: more bloated) games would take the simple idea of painting a world to solve puzzles and fill it out with 20 hours of content to make it a slog. Luckily, the team at Giant Sparrow knows exactly how to pull off a memorable indie experience.

You begin the game in a world that is completely white. Your character, Monroe, was left by his parents and given only a magic paintbrush to remember them by. In the distance, Monroe sees a swan and decides to follow it.

From there, the game spins a tale about a King who loves to paint and his kingdom that Monroe is puzzling through to find the titular swan. It’s an interesting yarn and is short enough that it’s worth your time to set aside a few hours on a lazy Sunday to play it through in its entirety.

However, the gameplay is where this experience truly shines. Smartly, The Unfinished Swan starts out with its best stuff. As mentioned, you begin the game in completely white world; you can’t see anything. The only thing you can do is throw black paintballs to show you what’s actually there. It’s a really neat mechanic that I haven’t ever seen in gaming. In fact, I liked that first section so much that I was mildly disappointed when the game slowly started adding other elements to the world.

You see, as you move through the kingdom to catch that dastardly swan, you’re always watching as the King grows in his painting skills. First, he adds shadows and then colors and it keeps getting deeper from there. The only mechanic that I didn’t love was relatively late in the game where you can begin building shapes yourself to make platforming possible. It was just a little too fiddly for my taste, but, with everything else being so fun, it’s pretty easy to overlook.

The game has pretty basic upgrade system that gives you a few powers after you hit a certain number of balloons with your paintballs. It’s pretty barebones and isn’t crucial to progression; rather, it just makes going back through levels to get 100% that much easier.

There’s not much else to say. I know the Internet’s opinion on indie games (particularly on PS4) has soured in recent years; however, this game is worth your time. It’s got some very interesting mechanics and doesn’t linger like so many open-world Triple-A games do nowadays. In fact, I firmly believe The Unfinished Swan is one of the better palate cleansers available right now. Once you’ve put down MGSV or The Witcher 3, throw down 15 bucks and play through this one. You can thank me later.

SHOULD YOU PLAY IT? YES!

Shadows of Mordor Review

Reviews

Let’s get this out-of-the-way, if you’re looking for an elevator pitch of The Shadow of Mordor, you can’t really go wrong with telling your friends that it’s Assassin’s Creed meets Arkham Asylum meets the appendices of Tolkien’s greatest work. If that interests you, you’re going to have a good time here.

 

The open world is, as mentioned, basically Assassin’s Creed. You’re parkouring all over the place, scaling towers like it’s child’s play. That part of the game feels great and comes with the same polish we’ve come to expect from the Creed games. However, the selling point is not the movement. If you’re playing this game, chances are you’re here for the combat.

 

Arkham Asylum-style combat is almost always excellent, which is why so many games steal it. Mordor’s moment-to-moment combat is essentially the same, but there are a few changes that make it unique. First of all, you can slow down combat and use those precious few seconds to let loose a few arrows into the closest Uruk’s face. This becomes a lifesaver as you move through the game and come across new Uruk types that differ from your standard fodder. Defenders, in particular, are a prime target for your trusty bow, as they aren’t countered by the same button as everything else and generally serve to throw you off your flow of combat.

 

Another thing Mordor does to differentiate itself is to throw a host of various abilities at you that change how you fight. For instance, early on you learn the Wraith Stun, which allows you to stun an enemy and knock it out of combat for a few seconds. You can also vault enemies to get behind them and deal extra damage. It’s smart additions like these that make Mordor’s combat interesting throughout.

 

Speaking of new abilities, the game does a remarkably good job of providing you with a slow drip of new things to do, right up until the final moments. This means you’re consistently being greeted with new types of missions and gameplay options throughout the 20-hour campaign. One would think that, with the numerous side quests, you’d run into some duplicate mission types fairly early. However, even the side quests are varied and interesting, making this a game that is easy to 100%.

 

You’ll want to do those side quests too. Specifically, I would recommend everyone finish all of the weapon-based missions. These constantly introduce you to new ways of dealing with enemies and you might just supplement your preferred fighting style after seeing the many options in front of you. The collectibles missions aren’t something you must complete, but the hunting missions are a fun little diversion to take part in while you run to your next storyline mission.

 

If the game has any weakness, it’s the main story. Interestingly, this is less a function of the story-telling being bad and more that the emergent stories produced by the Nemesis systems are so much better. It’s much more effective to let a player learn to hate or care about a character through gameplay than it is in exposition, and in Mordor, that works against the tale crafted by the developers. You can tell me that The Tower is a bad dude, but I haven’t interacted with him and thus, to me, Zunn Meathooks is the real antagonist of this story.

 

Now that we’re talking about the Nemesis system, I should say that this is the reason to play the game. It’s an absolutely fascinating new development and one studios are sure to copy going forward. Essentially, you’re shown a tree of Uruk captains and war chiefs and then let loose. Later in the story, you can actually dominate a Uruk and bring him under your command, but it’s how interactions with the captains and war chiefs play out that is the interesting thing here.

 

You see, you and I will have different Uruks on our tree. That’s because Uruks rise in power when they kill you. So if a random berserker chops your head off in a melee of 30 Uruks, then he becomes a captain. Later on, he might engage in a Beast Hunt or a Duel and gain standing among his fellow Uruks. Over time, that lowly Uruk might become a war chief and rule the Uruks from his throne of skulls.

 

This is what next-gen should be about. Shiny graphics are great, but thinking of new ways for us to interact with our medium are much more interesting. This is something that later games will build upon and could become a major staple of game design in the next few years. Developments like this change the gaming landscape forever and make titles like Shadows of Mordor a must-play. Think of the possibilities for this engine. Do we get a Bully 2 where you’re trying to climb the Nemesis system to become the most popular kid at school? Or what about a sports version of this where you build your rival through a system similar to what exists in Mordor? It’s an exciting time to be in gaming because titles like Mordor show that next-gen is finally here

 

Score: 9.5/10. Mordor is my early game of the year. The main story has problems and the combat can drag toward the end. However, the Nemesis system is great and the game has found a near-perfect trickle of upgrades to give you new and interesting options up until the very end. A must-play and a great reason to own a next-gen console.