Weekend Recap: Gloom and Doom

I had a great weekend, and that’s despite the fact that I was terribly sick for the majority of it.  Imagine how great a weekend has to be for that to be the case, that you can go to bed on Sunday night feeling at peace with the world even though you’ve been coughing your brains out and feeling like a huge lump of crap for 72 hours.

A lot of this has to do with my brother and his fiancee who stayed with us for the weekend.  They are lovely, lovely people, and my son adores them, and they even babysat for us while the wife and I took a desperately-needed nap on Saturday afternoon.  On Sunday evening, my wife and I asked our son what he wanted to be when he grew up.  He replied, without hesitation, “A cool person like Uncle Jono.”

 

I also learned that my almost-4-year-old son loves OK Go videos and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”, as featured in the animated movie “Sing”.  And for some reason this made me happy.  I don’t particularly care about Taylor Swift one way or the other but Henry was into that song, dancing uncontrollably all over the living room floor.  My wife and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

So, yeah:  good family visits, my son being adorable, and Trump’s healthcare debacle going up in flames were more than enough to make up for a super-shitty chest cold.  For a moment, all felt right with the world.

*   *   *

I am struggling with my feelings about Mass Effect Andromeda.  The one thing that makes it easier, I guess, is that I’m not alone in my disappointment.  I am a die-hard Mass Effect fan; this was one of my only must-have games coming out this year; I am very much wanting to give Bioware the benefit of the doubt.  If it was any other developer, I would’ve given up on this game a dozen hours ago; I keep hearing rumblings that it gets better the farther in you go, but I’m not quite sure what that actually means.  The gunplay is fine, for whatever that’s worth – for all intents and purposes it’s probably the best it’s ever been.  But I don’t play these games for the combat; I play them for the stories, the characters, the exploration.  And almost all of that stuff is either broken or badly written, and often it’s both.

I have no investment in my character; I don’t care about what I’m doing; I don’t like any of my crewmates – which feels odder than it should since Bioware seems to have gone out of their way to make sure you know that you can bang any or all of them eventually; most importantly, I have absolutely no idea how the upgrade and stat-leveling stuff works (I’m mostly content to simply auto-level for the time being until I get sufficiently powerful enough that I feel comfortable with a complete re-spec).  I do appreciate that my dialogue options are less obviously good/bad than they were in the earlier trilogy, which makes me feel more comfortable answering questions naturally, but I also find myself skipping through dialogue scenes because the voice acting is dull and lifeless and I read much faster than they speak.

Sometimes I feel like ME:A is what No Man’s Sky would’ve been like with a narrative.  Make of that what you will.  I’m not sure that patches are gonna fix what’s broken here.

*   *   *

I will say this – my ambivalence towards ME:A means that I’ll probably return to my backlog sooner rather than later, especially since as far as I can tell there’s nothing I absolutely HAVE to play until Red Dead 2, which is supposedly releasing in September.  I might actually get back to Final Fantasy XV; I’d like to finish Yakuza 0; I might even consider getting back into Gears of War 4, because why not.

*   *   *

Are you watching Legion?  You should be.  That show is fucking insane in all the best ways and I adore it.  I know it’s not for everybody – a lot of my Facebook feed is filled with people who are fed up with it – but it’s 100% meant for me, and I can’t get enough of it.  I may very well binge watch the whole season again once it’s over.

 

Side Quests: Avoiding The Big Story

The big story is that I am not yet ready to talk about Mass Effect Andromeda.  I can offer a ton of first impressions, almost none of which are positive.  I can also bury these impressions under the mountain of goodwill that I’m trying to hold on to, with respect to Bioware and the Mass Effect franchise.  I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, because they’ve earned it.  But YE GODS this game feels like a broken, buggy, unpolished mess.  I don’t really understand this need to radically re-invent the wheel as far as certain mechanical things are concerned – the first 3 games had an intelligent and intuitive user interface, and while I appreciate the desire to spice things up for a next-gen debut, the finished result feels decidedly unfinished.  The simple act of tracking a quest requires at least 3 button presses too many; I still have no idea how to add mods to my weapons, or how to switch my weaponry at all.  Now, granted, I’ve only just landed on Eos; I’m still barely into the actual proper game.  And Bioware RPGs are notorious for always starting off slowly.  But this feels like a mess.  I’ve already said too much.

Instead, let me talk up some other things that aren’t terrible.

First:  read this Kotaku review of Everything, which I downloaded immediately after reading.  If tonight’s run of ME:A remains as impenetrable as last night’s, I’m headed towards Everything ASAP.

Second:  holy shit, iOS has had some INCREDIBLE games land in the last few weeks.  I’d already been charmed by Little Folks and lost hours to Slayaway Camp and Tavern Guardian, but then this murderer’s row of kick-ass happened, one right after the other:

  • Ticket to Earth, a puzzle RPG unlike anything I’ve ever seen before;
  • Bit City, a city simulator from the people that made Tiny Tower (another game I lost many, many hours to);
  • Cosmic Express, another charming (and quite difficult) puzzler;
  • Pavilion, a “4-dimensional adventure game” with a gorgeous art style;
  • TypeShift, a new and very addicting word game from Zach Gage;
  • Kingdom: New Lands, which is some sort of resource-gathering thing with an absolutely gorgeous pixel art style reminiscent of Sword & Sworcery;
  • Euclidean Lands, which mixes Monument Valley‘s Escher-like aesthetic with Rubik’s Cube gameplay;
  • Beglitched, one of the weirder and more charming variants of match-3 I’ve come across;
  • Death Road to Canada, the newest game from Rocketcat (one of my favorite mobile developers); and finally
  • Card Thief, which is some sort of stealth/solitaire/board game mashup that’s as ingenious as it is clever.

Any one of those games will tide you over for quite some time, let me tell you.

Third:  I finished Horizon: Zero Dawn at the end of last week.  I submit that it’s entirely possible that one of the reasons why I’m so frustrated with Mass Effect’s missteps is that HZD does everything correctly.  HZD is polished, intuitive, and graceful in all the ways that ME is broken, frustrating and clumsy.  It’s a remarkable game, and I only hope that it’s not forgotten at the end of the year, overshadowed as it is by the new Zelda.  Incredible world-building, fantastic production values, highly engaging combat, very involving gameplay.  If the story is somewhat predictable, the experience of playing it is anything but.

further adventures on Tattooine

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I was hoping to increase my writing output this year (on this blog, at least).  The problem with that, of course, is that January is generally a dead zone when it comes to new games that need to be talked about.  And it should also be noted that, for whatever reason, I don’t really have a backlog right now.  I suppose I could keep pushing on in Assassin’s Creed Revelations, but I don’t hate myself.

Still, though, I have continued to play the hell out of The Old Republic.  I hit level 28 last night, right before I logged off.  And that’s without doing any of the Heroic quests or the Flashpoints; I’ve just been cruising along on all the stuff I can solo.  I’ve developed a series of battle strategies that work for me, more or less – the only times I’ve run into trouble have been against Elite bosses with 10K+ health, because my companion stops healing me after a while and then it’s pretty much a race to see who dies first.

It’s funny – now that the game’s been out for a few weeks, the gaming podcast circuit is starting to talk about it.  And for the most part, everyone seems to be of two minds about it – they’re playing it a lot, but they hate it.   The space combat is stupid (although it’s gorgeous, and it really ought to be an iPad game).  The environments are pretty but also ugly and barren.  The conversations are engaging and well-written and acted but they’re also repetitive, and pressing “1” or “2” isn’t quite the same thing as actively participating in a discussion.  There’s So.  Much.  Running.*

I don’t hate it.  I’m generally pretty wary of MMOs (after having lost around 6 months to WoW), but I find that I’m able to log out of TOR without immediately going through withdrawal.   I go in, I kill some dudes, I craft while I wait for dudes to respawn, I advance my questlines a bit further, and then I log out.  It’s much like any other long-form Bioware RPG, and since Bioware makes great RPGs, that’s good enough for me.  I suppose I could stand for some fat-trimming; I don’t know that this story is so compelling that I need to play it for 100 hours, but that’s what an MMO is, and that’s how it sustains itself, and I’m having a reasonably good enough time (and there’s absolutely nothing else out right now that I’d rather play).

I don’t even mind the space combat stuff.  The thing that everyone seems to forget is that Bioware’s games always have stupid mini-games.  Remember the pod races in the original KoTOR?  Or the planet mining in Mass Effect 1/2?  (I can’t remember if there was one in Jade Empire or not, but I might be the only person on the planet who still likes that game.)  Anyway, the space combat stuff here is a pleasant diversion – it certainly looks amazing on my setup, and it’s an easy way to grind out some quick XP, and it’s only a few minutes long.

If I had one complaint about the game, it’s that there’s not all that much to do.  The entire game is basically 4 steps, repeated infinitely:

  1. Talk to quest-giver, who gives an objective
  2. Go to objective’s location
  3. Kill enemies, achieve objective
  4. Return to quest-giver

Sure, there’s the aforementioned space missions, and there’s also crafting and stuff, but you don’t even need to do that – you send your companions out for that.  And in a way, that’s unfortunate, because those mission descriptions usually involve heists and deceptions and explosive action, which is way more exciting-sounding that the 4 steps listed above; all you do is press a button, and then 5-10 minutes later your minion returns with some loot.  THE END.

I suppose I’d like TOR to have, well, other Star Wars-y stuff to do.  Stuff that doesn’t involve the same sort of combat over and over again – even though the combat is fun in its own rhythmic way.  There’s no sneaking around; there’s no explosive chase sequences; hell, there’s no pod racing.  There’s none of the card or casino games that KOTOR or Mass Effect have, which seems like a missed opportunity.  There’s no real way to interact with other game players except through joining in combat – and I’m not sure that the PvP side of things changes that.  Whether you’re a bounty hunter or a Jedi knight, you are still ultimately doing the same shit – just with different weapons.

In any event, it’s what I’m playing, and it’s what I expect will take up most of my time for the next few weeks.  I’m mildly interested in Final Fantasy XIII-2, and I’m curious about Kingdoms of Amalur, and I’m very hopeful for SSX, but I’m not planning on taking any vacation days until Mass Effect 3 arrives, which isn’t until March.

Bear with me, then, in the meantime, and I’ll do my best to keep things interesting.  Certainly there’s some iPhone stuff to talk about…

 

 

* Justin McElroy (formerly of Joystiq) had some interesting comments about this.   He’d been talking about Saints Row the Third, and how that game’s designers appear to respect the gamer’s time by not making you wait to get fun stuff to play with, and contrasting that with TOR, which (a) makes you run everywhere;  (b)  gives you a “sprint” boost at level 10; and (c) ultimately gives you a mount in your early 20s, which is essentially the game’s designers telling you that they know that walking sucks, but tough shit.

new digs / dragon age 2

So here we are.   I think one of the reasons why I haven’t been posting lately at the old site is because, well, Blogger feels like ancient technology.  I’ve been keeping a personal blog here at WordPress for a while now, and frankly it’s just easier to write here.  I am hopeful that this will translate into more SFTC posts, especially because 2011 is starting to get serious.

Case in point:  Dragon Age 2.

I took a sick day yesterday, and as a result I’m now about 12 hours into the campaign.  I can’t speak for the larger structure of the game, but from my experience with Bioware RPGs, I’m guessing I’ve finished the first “act.” *

My spending 12 hours with it already should tell you everything you need to know, frankly; I managed barely two hours or so with the 360 version of Origins, and maybe only an hour on the PC.

I knew from previews that Origins was meant to be a PC experience – which is fine, as I was a big fan of Neverwinter Nights – but the 360 port was ugly in every sense of the word.  It presented itself as an action RPG, but the combat was turn-based, or something – it was a loose translation of KOTOR‘s combat, I think, except not fun.  The controls weren’t intuitive and combat didn’t really make any sense.  And for a graphics whore like me, it was just awful.

I didn’t fare much better with the PC version, which I picked up during one of Steam’s insane holiday sales.  It certainly looked a lot better, and it certainly made sense on the PC, but… well… it’s been a long time since I’ve used a mouse and keyboard to play games, and I kept getting lost with the controls.

I’ve heard a lot of bitching about DA2 being “dumbed down” for consoles, but look – if this is the level of quality we can expect when Bioware dumbs something down, then I’m all for it.  Combat is fluid and responsive and FUN.  Conversation trees now use the Mass Effect system, which is intuitive and informative.  It looks… well, maybe it isn’t jaw-droppingly amazing, but it certainly looks quite good.

If I have one piece of hyperbole to dole out, though, it’s that the choices in DA2 that I’ve had to make so far are, without question, the most difficult choices I’ve ever had to make in a videogame.  And I’m only at the end of the first real quest!  ***(Slight, vague spoiler, just so that you know where I am:  I’ve finished the Deep Roads, and am currently exploring my estate in Hightown.)*** The choices I’ve been faced with have been so tough, in fact, that it virtually guarantees that I’ll be doing another playthrough; I need to see what happens if I do x instead of y.  And I’m sure that it’ll be just as agonizing the second time around.

Speaking of which, I’m also really impressed with the game’s writing.  Whenever I play a game with a moral system, I invariably play as good and morally upstanding as possible; I don’t ruffle any feathers, I don’t get overly aggressive, and I certainly don’t sass.   But in DA2, for whatever reason, I’ve been feeling a lot freer to actually speak my mind; the dialog options are smart and well-written, and for the most part there’s usually a speech option that reflects how I, Jervo, actually feel about the current situation.

If I have to find fault with the game, I guess it’s that it can adhere a bit too tightly to the standard Bioware template.  For example, if you ask a character a question, there will always be 3 dialog screens that follow before you respond.  It’s a pattern I’ve noticed for a while, now, and it kinda took me out of the moment a few times once I became aware of it.  Similarly, there are quite a few side quests that you’re given in the beginning of the game, and if you ask why something needs to be done, you invariably get some variation of “Why does it matter?  I’m paying you, just do it.”  Which is maybe a little lazy on the part of the writers, although it’s nothing egregious.

In short: it’s everything that DA:O wasn’t.  And so far, it’s one of the best Bioware games I’ve ever played.

 

* Bioware RPGs generally follow the same pattern – a gigantic opening chapter with a big main quest and lots of sub-quests, as well as lots of random side quests and various errands to run, and then, after the conclusion of that first main quest, the momentum picks up dramatically.