It’s been a while, but that’s because I’ve been working an improbable amount. I don’t wish to complain about being gainfully employed, but I will nonetheless: being repeatedly surprised with extra work days sucks, especially when those are on top of already expected extra work days.
But that doesn’t matter. That’s all just to say that I’ve been guarding my play time viciously, like a dog guarding a large stuffed animal that it loves. Additionally, I’ve been extra tired from the surprise work hours, so I’ve been sleeping more. Neither of these lend to my desire to write, which clearly is what goes first when there’s a time crunch.
Nonetheless, I wanted to write today about the Division. I’ve see a lot of negative press, a lot of people complaining about this or that, and a lot of people arguing that the somewhat mixed genre doesn’t really work.
I wanted to write to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the game. I’ve been playing with my wife and my buddy, and each one of us has been pleasantly surprised by how much fun we’ve had with it. We’ve leveled to max and have done all quests and we’ve even done the dark zone for a few hours, and so far we’re still quite happy with the game.
I will qualify my opinion by saying I think a fair share of my enjoyment comes from having played with two friends. I can’t imagine playing it alone; I have no idea if the difficulty goes up or down with more group members (I don’t think it does, but I don’t know), but I imagine that if the difficulty does not change, that playing alone could be rather challenging at times.
The quests are in fact often simple repeats of other quests, defending this or rescuing that, turning this valve or killing that mob. There are also only four basic enemy types: gangsters, firestarters, jail escapees, and paramilitary forces mixed with variants of snipers, shock troopers, basic infantry, grenadiers, and heavies. Some have complained that the repetition of these enemy types makes the game boring, but I didn’t find it so; the variety of tactics needed to deal with mixed groups of those enemies spread out across a variety of settings in which you encounter them kept the game fresh for me during leveling.
The settings, too, really make the game enjoyable. Each “dungeon” has a very unique feel to it from both a story perspective and from a visual perspective. Being in a subway tunnel used as a morgue, Times Square, or the UN’s General Assembly room while battling both adds a personal touch (at least to me, as I lived in NYC for a while) and a somewhat grotesque fascination as epic battles for life and death take place in these otherwise “civilized” settings.
I’ll say, too, that my group of three had zero problems doing the dungeons together, even on hard mode. We only once recruited a fourth player, and he was terrible and ended up being more of a liability than a bonus, so we stopped recruiting random players. We were worried about three-manning hard modes, but they weren’t particularly any more challenging than doing the dungeons at level (or a level or two beyond, since you get FAR more experience and base resources than you need).
The Dark Zone also worried me quite a lot; I’ve gotten used in DayZ to being murdered for no reason, but I went solo into the DZ twice and with my little group twice and only got killed by other players once, when I was by myself. I suspect that my group’s size and the visual inability to tell someone’s quality of weapons deters others from targeting us.
In fact, I’ve found that there is essentially no reason to kill people in the Dark Zone; the loot drops are plentiful, there’s no way to know what look the other players have (if any), and the penalty for killing another player is a bull’s eye on your back for all players to see. So at some level, the disincentives are well balanced against the incentives, something that’s rarely true in PvP settings.
So I can pretty confidently say that most of the game (I haven’t done challenge modes or the new “raids” that are coming out) is fun if you’re playing with your friends.
Stubborn (Sniper, as usual)
7 Days to Die has been making a strong third showing. After playing it variously on and off over the past year or so with my buddy, I introduced it to a few others, and it seems to have taken off in popularity pretty well. There’s not a ton of new information in this post, but I can confirm that playing it with larger groups does exponentially increase both the fun and the hardware requirements for the game. It seems that having a fifth or sixth player makes it unplayable either due to machine requirements or Internet bandwidth even on the best of my little group’s computers.
Consequently, one of my buddies, who became quite enamored with the game and the idea of playing with a larger group, rented a server for us to play on. We spent a solid six hours or so on a Saturday night getting started there, and I was pleased with some of the newer players’ progress, as no one died for the entire first 8 (or was it 9? Who remembers?) days that we played.
I’ve learned a lot about the game by playing with others, like how brick actually sucks compared to cobblestone, which is easier to get and make (you don’t need a special structure – the forge – to make cobblestone). It’s still an alpha game, though, with new systems being added and numbers being tinkered with, so we’ll see how that plays out in the long run.
One interesting development that has come out of playing with a larger group is the post-apocalyptic social dynamics that have shown up. When I just played with my one buddy and, later, with my wife, we discussed what to do and usually came to a consensus. Sometimes that came from no one really caring and one person just deciding and going forward, and sometimes that came from real discussion and debate about how to proceed. With the inclusion of some new people who play games very differently – and let me be clear that I don’t think that’s a problem but is simply relevant to the point I’m making – the social dynamics have gotten a lot muddier, which is of course exactly what would happen in a real survival situation.
In particular, one of my new-player buddies has a different approach to the game that sometimes causes a little conflict. Frankly, I think that’s good, as it’s very hard to grow without something to shake up your basic beliefs (he championed cobblestone over brick, for example, and was exactly right). Nonetheless, sometimes I think he’s quite reckless, like firing a gun after dark at a single zombie, and while that particular incident didn’t draw death down upon us, my more cautious approach has proven correct a few times, too. It plays out very much like a post-apocalyptic situation might, with a struggle about what’s best for the group in regards to residence, responsibilities, and unwritten rules (like it’s best to collapse back to home 3o minutes early to make sure, if there is a safety issue, there’s time to deal with it).
The interesting dichotomy is that in the beginning, he had more raw knowledge, having experimented and (I assume) looked up information in the Internet about the game, which is fine but not something my smaller group ever did. But in those early days, I had far more experience, had died a lot and made a lot of mistakes, and had a lot of good suggestions that he occasionally ignored, which sometimes (satisfyingly) led to his unfortunate demise. My experience, though, was colored with bad information (like using brick), so he was able to make cogent arguments in those veins to improve.
But now he’s played more than me – significantly more, I think, maybe near the order of double – but I still find situations where I feel like he’s being reckless. I’m not sure if there’s a fundamental difference in our approach to the game that creates this schism or if it’s just me trying to justify a personal relevance for my own fragile ego. I try to play as I would in a real survivor situation: ignorant and trying to do everything I can to survive an not draw trouble. To be clear, I’m not saying he doesn’t play that way; I don’t know. We’ve never really discussed it.
Nonetheless, with very few exceptions, his actions much more often draw trouble than mine. Because he now has more knowledge and experience, he’s more able to deal with that trouble so it ends up being no big deal. Someday, though, I’m afraid it will be a big deal; it scares me when he’s coming back after dark on a horde night, running up the platform a few steps in front of the mass of zombies.
What’s so great about this – and I’m not being sarcastic – is that unlike another game, like WoW, where significantly different play styles makes working together a perilous task, like having a few people in a large raid who aren’t serious about it when everyone else is, in this game the different survival styles work. It is like the post-apocalypse, where people argue, nerves get frayed, and yet everyone still works together regardless – and it works. It adds interesting tension without creating unbridgeable rifts, which is the exact balance I always wanted to strike as a DM in pen and paper RPGs. It allows for insanely heroic moments, if you remember that the line between heroism and foolishness is quite thin.
So even though it’s unfinished, rough around the edges, and occasionally frustratingly buggy, 7 Days to Die strikes an authentic post-apocalyptic note when it comes to social issues. That alone makes it somewhat unique in its genre.
Stubborn (the real group leader)
I’ve written recently about a lot of specific titles I’ve been completing, but I’ve been playing a lot of others that I frankly have simply not and perhaps will never “complete.” I figured I’d recite a litany of those today.
Tales of Maj’Eyal had a recent expansion that I bought and have been playing. It’s an excellent addition to the game and just a frustratingly difficult as the original. For those who are unfamiliar with the game, it’s an old-school tile-based RPG with some rogue-like elements. It’s a typical “race/class/stats/skills” RPG with a ton of customization. It also allows you to play with permadeath (rogue-like), earned-lives (adventure) or infinite lives (exploration).
I beat the first game on the earned-lives system, which my buddy said was cheating. In that system, you get a few lives (2 or 3) from that start and earn a few more at certain levels. I’ve tried the new game on hardcore and made it to level 20, but then stepped into a level 15 area and got obliterated by something I hadn’t seen before. I was a bit miffed, I’ll admit, perhaps enough so to go back to adventure mode. We’ll see. Regardless, it’s a lot of fun if you like that sort of game.
Armello hasn’t really been discussed here before, but I spent several hours playing it with my wife and occasionally her brother or my buddy. It’s basically a complex board game that’s greatly enhanced by playing it digitally rather than in the physical world. I think it would be possible to play in the physical world, but would end up being as complicated as a Settlers of Catan + Arkham Horror lovechild.
In the game, you play as a unique hero in a kingdom being overcome by a magically-corrupted king. You have a variety of victory conditions you can pursue, some of which will better match the strengths of your chosen hero, but all of which are attainable by anyone. The game uses dice and card decks to increase randomization of outcome which can be very annoying at times (like when you fail three 60% success chance rolls in a row). Of course, that leaves the possibility for amazing comebacks, too, like when that 20% success chance roll comes through netting you the last item you need for a sure victory.
Overall, it’s been a lot of fun playing the game with my wife, but we spent so much time playing her versus me and basically ignoring the mediocre AI that throwing a live 3rd or 4th person in really vexed our “sure-fire” strategies. That’s not a problem, mind you; it just meant we really had to readjust, which put the game on the back-burner for a while. Nonetheless, if you like competitive board games with gorgeous graphics, this one’s a great deal.
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime is the third tidbit I have to offer. This game, like Armello, was a purchase for my wife and I to play, and it’s been a lot of crazy fun. It’s in the vein of couch co-op games that are essentially teamwork and communication simulators. Here, you have a spaceship with 8 stations that have to be used in various ways at various times by only two people.
It’s essentially a 2-D space shooter, but having to manage all the separate stations with only two means there’s a lot of chaos and coordination as you attempt to steer into missiles so they’ll hit your shielded area while your partner simultaneously tries to shoot the flamethrower space bugs who want to fry the other side of your ship.
The game is knowingly silly with very basic but thematic graphics and music, which makes the whole experience a crazy, humorous flight through a colorful space-scape. It almost always ends in near chaos as you and your partner laugh about the foolish mistakes being made (like my tendency to fly into things while trying to avoid less-damaging attacks), which of course is the best kind of co-op game. It is only couch co-op, though, so plan to have two controllers hooked up to one computer and to squeeze around your monitor, but if you’re okay with that, I heartily recommend it.
I tried out a little indie gem on a sale and a whim called Satellite Reign. I was drawn to it because it had an interesting title and a nice, low price, but more because it reminded me both visually and spiritually of Syndicate, an old video game from my childhood made by Bullfrog Entertainment, maker of several early video games series like Populous, Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet, and the “Theme” series (like Theme Hospital). Syndicate was one of my very first video games with any depth; my first, as I’ve mentioned before, was Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen, but I believe this was my second. While they’re both “role playing” games, M&M:DX was more traditional fantasy fare, with a party of six with their portraits at the bottom, a viewscreen on the left, and information on the right.
This type of game had already entered my psyche, was already present in my mind, so while playing it was amazing and overwhelming at time, it was nothing truly new. Syndicate, though, was something else – something new. Cyberpunk was unheard of to me. The closest I’d come at that age was other more traditional sci-fi like Stranger in a Strange Land or the Foundation series – books I’d taken from my mother’s bookshelves and read.
Syndicate, though, was straight out of Phillip K. Dick or William Gibson. You controlled a team of individual parts, unlike in Xeen, which could move on their own, opening up all sorts of new strategies. There was also a meta-level, played at base, where you decided on research, chose missions, and geared up your soldiers.
I only vaguely remember the story, something about warring corporations where you wanted to take out the competition. But the gameplay was amazing, with destructible objects, vehicles you could ride in, and NPCs you could intentionally or accidentally kill. Syndicate taught me a lot of valuable lessons about sacrifice – unheard of in a fantasy RPG, but occasionally a good strategy when you really need to get that escort to safety and it doesn’t matter if one of your clones dies. It taught me about managing your money so that you didn’t run out of research funds while trying to buy gear. Most importantly it told me how stupid NPC escorts were, so when I encountered them later in WoW I was better prepared.
Satellite Reign is absolutely the spiritual successor to Syndicate, very much in the same way that Endless Space is the spiritual successor to Master of Orion (though now I see that’s getting a reboot). In Satellite Reign, you control a squad of four class-based teammates who you level, gear up, modify with cybertech that you can research or capture, and who can split up to enable a variety of strategies. There’s no meta-level “in between” stages; the game is a seamless play-through with four “districts” which roughly equate to “levels” and have increasing difficulty.
It was a very solid game; I got it expecting a nostalgic romp but found myself very engaged with the game play. The story was largely typical with a typical-but-fulfilling ending that I predicted but still enjoyed both narratively and visually. The four “classes” represented by your characters are different enough to really allow you solve static problems in very different ways: stealth, bribery, violence, hacking, etc, which I like; the creativity this engenders feels much more satisfying than just having one problem with one solution like you see in many other games.
So while this game isn’t a 10 of 10, I think it’s a very solid 8 of 10 that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys squad-based games, RTS games, or cyberpunk settings.
As usual, my review of Pillars of Eternity appears in an untimely fashion, partially due to my cheapness and waiting for a sale and partially due to the long backlog of games that I work through to get to particular games to play. That said, I was very excited to get to Pillars of Eternity as I’d heard good things about its difficulty and its depth.
I played on the hardest difficulty with a ranged rogue main character, since I do like to stealth. I noticed there was an achievement for finishing the game while killing less than a certain number of monsters, which was initially very appealing to me, but that idea quickly vanished into gore-dripped piles of viscera.
I enjoyed the game quite a lot, but like Fallout 4, I was quite ready for it to be over when I finally finished. I did, I believe, every quest with few exceptions – for one, even though I kept the priest with me the entire game, I never finished his character quest. I’m not sure if there was a trigger I missed or if I chose a wrong conversation option, but he never finally got ready to open up to me – or whatever happens.
I also didn’t finish Od Nua. I got to floor 13 and, frankly, just got tired of grinding through it. I had a realization a few levels before that shook me to my foundation – a fact about the game that I consider to be one of its biggest shortcomings: a very low level cap.
The game operates in an RPG system with which I’m totally unfamiliar. The system has an oddity I don’t like: your initial stats can never be improved except by items. No amount of leveling can increase your starting strength, for example. This is the first time I’ve come across that in a system; in D&D, for instance, depending on the edition, you gain a stat point every 4 or so levels. In Fallout, there were perks you could take to increase your SPECIAL stats.
But in Pillars of Eternity, if you made yourself somewhat specialized but not a one-trick-pony, there was no way to improve. Some of the checks, too, were quite high – a 19 perception, for instance (10 being “average”), perception being an okay stat but certainly not a core one.
But that’s just a design decision that the RPG makers chose to limit character power. Fine. It’s just a feature of the system, and while I may not like it, I don’t disagree with its existence. However, the actual video game makers added a level cap to the game, a level cap not mentioned anywhere within the game and, in fact, somewhat hidden behind a misleading menu in the game: the spell book.
When you open your spell book, you can see that the highest level spells are darkened out, indicating that you will not achieve that level. But the next levels down are not darkened out, and in fact have little circles in which to assign spells later in the game. But those levels are never achieved, because the level cap cuts in much earlier.
Yes, I know the level cap was increased in the expansion pack. I somewhat assume that the spell book in the core game was expanded for that very reason, like a pre-expansion patch in WoW that changes all the mechanics into their new post-expansion systems. Nonetheless, I assumed I would be getting a lot more levels than I did, and when leveling started to really “slow down” at level 12 – the cap – I didn’t realize for several hours of game play what had happened. I had level capped myself about 75% of the way through the game.
Overall, that’s a rather minor complaint embedded within an otherwise interesting game. I enjoyed the stories, the characters, their development, and the combat for the majority of the experience, though as I said before I started to get a bit tired of it towards the end. There was just so much repetitive trash and so few unique fights. But those unique fights – wow. Early and mid-way through the game, those unique fights took a lot of consideration and reloading, a bit of luck and a lot of strategy. There were a few I had to stop playing and walk away from for a few days while I played something else and the combat strategies simmered. I was eventually able to overcome them all through thinking and practice, but some of them had to go on the backburner for a few levels.
So overall it was an enjoyable experience and definitely worth a sale purchase. I’d recommend playing the rogue, too, as it was a class I didn’t find an NPC of throughout. If not a rogue, play a tank of some sort, as those are in somewhat shortish supply and make playing the game so much easier.
Stubborn (and Shakespearean, at the moment)
I’ve been playing a lot and working a lot, which hasn’t left me the time – or, perhaps, more honestly – the urge to write a lot. That said, that doesn’t mean I haven’t had some ideas to write about, though.
Let me start by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed both games. They both scratched an itch I’ve had recently – a game that was both puzzle and strategy, a side-scroller that required some manual skill rather than just pure intellect, and a game that provided a story that was enjoyable. Both Dex and Ori checked off all three boxes. But while I enjoyed both, Ori was just so much better than Dex. It really got me thinking as to why.
Dex is a cyber-punk film-noir-style mystery in a William-Gibson-meets-Raymond-Chandler style. Yes, that’s a mouthful, but it’s accurate. The story was well-written and the gameplay was well-developed. Most of the boards provided problems for which there were multiple solutions, whether it be to fight, sneak, hack, or talk your way out of problems. It played very much like a Shadowrun game set to a platformer, and it kept my attention throughout.
Ori and the Blind Forest, on the other hand, is a fantasy color-infused adventure in a Walt-Disney-meets-Rachel-Carson style. The story is much simpler, but in its simplicity it communicates its message more powerfully. The gameplay, too, is a bit smoother, more movement-based than puzzle-based, though there are plenty of puzzle elements to the game.
Both games also have a progression system; in Dex, you earn skill points and can purchase cyberware and weapons to improve your character. In Ori, you find life and mana nodes (similar to Zelda) and get skill points to improve aspects of your character.
So with two so similar games, both of which I enjoyed, why would I rank them so distantly? Because in the end, I would only give Dex a 6 or 7, but I’d give Ori a 10. A perfect 10.
Those are a rare find these days, having spent so much time now playing games that I can almost always think of another game that did some aspect of this or that “better.” It’s not that I want to be an old curmudgeon, mind you; it’s just that I notice the small weaknesses while playing games because I’ve been doing it so long.
In the end, I think the greatest difference is simply the production value. I don’t want to admit to being so greatly affected by superficiality – the window dressing or “fluff” of a game – but I can’t help but think that the amazing music and graphics of Ori, as you can see in comparison above, really impacted my enjoyment. Does that make me shallow?
I’m really not sure the answer to that question. Perhaps this issue brings to light a legitimate dichotomy in how we value things: at what point is a focus on the polish – music, setting, and/or graphics quality, all of which I would argue are not REQUIRED for creating meaningful atmosphere but can help or hurt it – at what point is that focus an act of artistic appreciation, and at what point is it just superficiality? Is there really a difference other than a positive and negative connotation?
What are your thoughts, dear reader?
Stubborn (and dabbling)
Over break I had a glut of free time which I used very “productively” by finishing a lot of the games I’d been playing and starting and finishing new ones. Thanks to the Steam Sale, of course, it didn’t make an actual dent in my play queue, but it was nice to rotate out some titles nonetheless.
The first major achievement was finishing a “normal” game of Dungeon of the Endless, a pretty merciless rogue-like about a group of spaceship-crash survivors trying to make it to the surface of the planet into which they crashed. The actual winning game took a while, as I was playing with one of my buddies and we had to coordinate our schedules. Even better, it was both of our first normal wins, which goes to show that two minds are better than one. He had almost won previously but had an extremely unlucky streak of non-resource-generating rooms, whereas I was quite lucky opening doors and found lots of such rooms. I guess it is better to be lucky than good, at least in DotE.
Grim Dawn was another vanquished conquest. To be fair, my other buddy and I had finished all of the released content on hardcore prior to the break, but over the break the developers released the final act and the final boss as well as a new customization system that I like quite a lot. So over the break my buddy and I dusted off our old characters, caught up with the new system (we had to go back and farm some old content to get the “points” to invest), and then pushed forward.
Honestly, my buddy and I were vastly over-prepared for the fourth, final act. Due to our previous online hardcore experiences, we over-leveled and focused heavily on survivability, giving ourselves more than twice the hit points of some of the “cookie cutter” builds we’d looked at. We found the final act so unthreateningly safe that we started revamping our characters a little bit to have more dps, like my wielding of an insanely powerful two-handed weapon instead of my previous sword-and-board.
Well, it’s a damn good thing we didn’t revamp too much, because the final boss was so much harder than the final act that it felt like a full difficulty higher. That’s not to say the final boss is imbalanced, just that our strategies and preparation paid off quite well in his chamber, where the final boss fight turned into a much longer, more tactical battle than a lot of the rest of the game. I can imagine people getting there and being frustrated, though, as I can’t see how someone with half as many hit points could have survived (well, yes I do, through more active abilities compare to my more passive defense), but we were really juggling a lot of mechanics there at the end.
We came out victorious, though, unlike our first run at the final boss of Path of Exile. I hold with my earlier impression that Grim Dawn is a superior experience to Path of Exile in all rights, but my buddy disagrees, so take it worth a grain of salt.
During break, I also both started and finished Shadowrun: Hong Kong. As with the previous two installments, Shadowrun Returns and Shadowrun: Dragonfall, I really enjoyed the narrative storytelling of the game. The characters were well-developed, the missions were unique and engaging, and the overarching story developed with the expectedly-unexpected twists and turns. That said, it felt like a shorter game than the other two. It may not have been – it’s hard to judge sometimes due to leaving a game on overnight by accident or starting a new playthrough, but I have 43 hours logged on the original, about 25 on the second game, and only 17 on the newest game, where I – as I always try to do – did every mission with every optional side objective.
I also played this game on the hardest difficulty, falling back on the somewhat OP character design I’d used in the first game: rigger / hacker with two very powerful drones. With full development, you essentially get 4 characters worth of actions in combat as the drones level up and get faster on top of the ability to use two of them instead of one of yourself. Most battles weren’t a problem at all with this strategy and a good team, so perhaps the longer hours in the other game were simply feeling out the mechanics. I’m not sure. Regardless, it was well worth its cost, and I enjoyed it fully.
Lastly, and perhaps the biggest final payoff was finishing Divinity: Original Sin. My buddy and I had been playing that for months by this point, but that being said, I was still really enjoying the game and was sorry to see it finish when it did.
I think D:OS is probably the best multiplayer RPG out there. It has its bugs, no doubt, as many indie games do nowadays. But for actual gameplay, character mechanics, combat design, and story, I can’t think of a better product. (Yes, Neverwinter Nights has more replayability through user-generated content etc. etc. I know. I’m talking about core products.) My buddy and I again played on hard mode, and let me tell you, while it made the game quite tough at times, really the toughest part was the early stages, before your characters have a full bag of tricks that allow you to manipulate the core combat mechanics: energy.
Using the proper energy attacks for a particular situation really make a huge difference in the game. Whereas at the end of the game I could (bear with me here) summon an ice patch under my enemies so they’d fall down while my buddy simultaneously rained poison on them that, in the next round, he’d detonate with his fireball, creating a huge explosion and melting my ice into water, which I’d then electrify to stun then survivors (phew), at the beginning, all we could really do with big trash pulls was try to box them at a bottle neck and spam weak-ish single-target attacks at them.
The lesson here is that if you’re struggling at the start of the game, stick with it; it gets easier as you learn more tricks. Also, teleport, which you can get at level 1, is probably the most powerful spell in the game (especially around lava patches). Keep that in mind.
So I had a very (game) eventful break and was quite happy with checking those four games off my list. For now, I’m playing Endless Legend with one buddy, 7 Days to Die with my other buddy and my wife, continuing into the next difficulty of Grim Dawn with that same buddy, and playing both Pillars of Eternity and Renowned Explorers: International Society alone. More on those another time.
Stubborn (and game fulfilled)