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It’s a Wrap: Many Games Finished Over Holiday

January 11, 2016

Dear Reader,

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.

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Image Courtesy of Amplitude Studio’s Website

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.

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Image Courtesy of Crate’s Website

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.

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Image Courtesy of Hare-Brained Scheme’s Website

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.

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Image Courtesy of Kotaku

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.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and game fulfilled)

Riding the Rails: Micro versus Macro

December 16, 2015

Dear Reader,

SynCaine of Hardcore Casual wrote an excellent post about the ending of Fallout 4.  What fascinated me the most was how different our interpretations were of the game, which led me to think about my railroading complaint from a few days ago.  While I still stand by my complaint, I’ve come to the conclusion that it was only “micro” railroading, affecting one particular choice in a specific way that I didn’t like.  That Syn and I could come to such different conclusions about the game is an excellent example of how the game world does NOT “macro” railroad you and lets you choose your own paths and interpretations.

The following is a direct response to SynCaine’s post, so I recommend you give it a read before continuing.  Obviously, there’s huge spoilers for Fallout 4.

Dear Syncaine,

Let me preface all of this by saying that while I disagree on several points, I in no way think your interpretations are “wrong” or that you have misjudged anything, just that we came to different conclusions based on our experiences, and overall I really enjoyed your post! I think it’s great to see how differently we approached the factions and the decision with which we were presented.

First, I agree that the Railroad is misguided; I had intended to side with the Minutemen but apparently made some choice that I don’t remember making wherein I sided with the Railroad and eliminated the Minutemen as an end-game possibility. I just don’t know where it was nor do I really want to start fresh to redo the whole game; I have a hard time replaying games because I dig in so much the first time that there’s rarely much “new” left for me to find.

I disagree, though, that the Minutemen are ineffective; they may have become ineffective after a serious betrayal that crippled them, but they are clearly getting back on track as we see later in the game, as you increase their numbers and range.  For example, during the Institute quest, they are there to help the Doctor you are trying to take into the institute, showing that their reach and prowess have improved under your leadership.

Additionally, I think that generally improving things is a “big picture” plan; that is, in fact, what I would define as the core principle of a government in an ideal world. It may not be “rebuild the world,” but it’s the small steps that would lay the foundation for people to take the big steps. The settlements would grow and improve, the problems would be eliminated, and the Commonwealth would start to look like its old self.

I disagree, too, that the Institute are in any way good guys. I think they’re a prime example of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. They may care for the abstract “commonwealth,” but they clearly do not care for its individual citizens, as seen by their replacement of real people and infiltration of communities for intelligence gathering. You can even have synths in the settlements you build who are there to spy on the settlers and, ostensibly, you.

I felt like they were just pre-brotherhood dictators who would without remorse remove any “damaged” people from the outside world, a world for which they repeat their disdain throughout the game, culminating in the rooftop conversation with Father which starts with how much he dislikes the surface and what a wasteland it is. They are kidnappers, murderers, infiltrators, shadow manipulators, and slavers of sentient beings (I admit the last one is my opinion, but having done a lot of Railroad quests, I don’t think the AI are faking it). I don’t see how they’re any better than the Brotherhood; at least the Brotherhood is honest about their bigotry.

For the record, while I agree they’re zealots, I also don’t remember the Railroad saying they wanted to save version 1 synths; in all the Railroad missions I did, I only saved “human-looking” synths. I believe that they’re trying to save synths that have gained self-awareness, which I don’t think was possible in earlier models.  Now that may be my misremembering or misunderstanding of what each different generation of synth was capable of, but I thought the gen 3 synths were the ones who were truly “intelligent” and fully human looking. I still agree the Railroad is misguided; I feel like it’s short-sighted to assume that synths are truly autonomous and that it’s safe to free them – in fact, we know it’s not when for the Institute you have to go “recapture” (I killed him) the synth who became a raider king.

What’s most interesting about all of this – and I think what really makes this game so great – is that your and my interpretations can be so different. I wonder what particular pieces of the puzzle that I (or you, but probably me) may have missed that led us to such different conclusions, or if it’s more our personal views and experiences from other games or the real world.

Great post, and thanks for the link love!

Sincerely,
Stubborn

Fallout 4 Finalé

December 14, 2015

Dear Reader,

So as I predicted, I was pretty close to the end of Fallout 4.  It’s done now.  I had less qualms in the end than I thought I would, but I also didn’t end up helping the people I meant to help, apparently due to a decision earlier in the game that I don’t remember having consciously made.  Ah well, it turned out okay.

As last time, there may be some story spoilers here, so if you want to keep your play through wholly new, come back later and read this then.

So I was annoyed at having to piss off the Brotherhood, but their unwillingness to work with me and their uncompromising attitude towards ghouls and mutants – who we’ve seen both in previous games and in this game can be normal(ish) people – never really sat well with me.  At some level, I remembered them being bigoted tyrants in the past, but it didn’t fully come back to me until after I’d made my choice to continue to fake-help the institute so I could free the synths.

Mind you, at this point I still thought I could still permanently ally with the Minutemen; I’d made every single settlement I could find into a safe, well-fed, hydrated, prosperous community.  I wanted to go forward with that, helping lead the Minutemen to be the final “major” faction of the Commmonwealth, and perhaps in the end they were, but I apparently finished the game with the Railroad, having at some point made some life-altering decision to finish their story line rather than the Minutemen’s.

That’s not a huge deal, as from what I read afterwards I would have ended up doing basically the same thing, so I assume I got nearly the same ending.

All told, I played for about 74 hours with very little repeat; I’m a habitual quicksaver, so when I mess up I rarely have much to redo.  I missed two side quests that I have no idea where they began/ended but I know about because of quest items in my inventory, something about Eddie SomeGangster who did bad things and something about a silver superhero whose stuff I found.  I finished a lot of others, some of which were very satisfying, like when I saw Virgil in his human form, meaning that those who wish to be cured of mutantism can be.

I took some special satisfaction at killing both my son and the leader of the Brotherhood, who turned into a real bastard after I helped the Institute get what it wanted (even though I was still planning on betraying it).  If he’d just been a little more patient, he’d have seen my actual endgame and could have continued flying around on his blimp, though really I suspect he wouldn’t have been cool with the Minutemen in the long run and would have had to go sooner or later.  Power armor helmets doesn’t hold up well against a scoped Gauss rifle.

I didn’t feel too bad about killing the Brotherhood jerk at the police station or his boss, but I did feel a little guilty about killing all the scribes, especially the one in the police station.  It makes me wish I’d gone down the charisma tree and seen if I could cow some of those people into surrender, but alas, it was not to be.

So overall, I would give Fallout 4 a 9 of 10, with the one missing point being that some systems weren’t well explained and that I didn’t think the game should allow you to be a secret agent doing counterintelligence missions and then tell you that you couldn’t do that any more.  Let me do the mission and get caught by the Brotherhood.  Let me go back to their ship and be surprised that they’re pissed.  That’s how consequences work.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (Railroader after all)

Dungeon of the Endless: The Multiplayer Challenge

December 11, 2015

Dear Reader,

We’ve talked about Dungeon of the Endless before, but we’ve never talked about it in detail.  Today, I’d like to do that as well as talk a little about how multiplayer has enriched the game, rather than simply replacing content as it does in so many triple-A titles.

Dungeon of the Endless, or DotE as my buddy and I call it, is a genre-mashing game that combines real-time strategy, tower defense, rogue-like design, and RPG elements into a single game.  It’s hard to describe the game play, but essentially you protect your characters and a ship’s energy core while exploring a level of ever-increasing danger with every room you open.

The game progresses by “opening doors”; each room is its own unique package of death and destruction, and the only way to survive is to build resource-generating structures which require power and generate their resources every time you open a door.  Additionally, you must build defensive and offensive structures to protect yourself and the resource machines which themselves consume resources and require power.

But you won’t have enough power to keep every room lit, and every room that’s not powered may spawn monsters every time you open a door.

So the game becomes a balancing act between powering rooms to generate needed resources and powering rooms to defend yourself and those resources.  Generate too few resources and you won’t be able to build anything at all.  Build too few defenses and you’ll be overwhelmed by monsters from your unpowered rooms.  It creates a great tension between planning and chance, defense and offense.

Add in that each floor is randomly designed, two of the four characters in your party are randomly found, and the gear is randomly distributed – the rogue-like portion of the game – and you have a great mix of genres that keeps the player entertained and perpetually in danger.

Multiplayer adds to that mix.  In the single-player game, you end up controlling 4 different characters in real time, so the game enables a pause function; you can hit the space bar, survey your surroundings, and give individual commands.

Not so in the multiplayer; you’re controlling less characters (often two at a time, but one of those two may be providing passive support by working a machine to generate extra resources) so there’s no pause function.  You just have to make do.  That makes the opening of each door a tense moment: in a few seconds, your whole party may be dead with only a combination of your own errors and a bad luck to blame.

Still, I prefer the multiplayer to the single player because it allows me to discuss strategy with another person.  It seems the early strategy I read and adopted which has constantly left me lacking resources at later floors was simply bad information.  The new strategies employed by my buddy seem to go much better, and yet there are times where my earlier experience with the game gives me a gut feeling that (I feel) often proves to be true.  Of course, that “earlier” experience has LONG SINCE been overshadowed; my buddy likes the game so much he’s put in 4x as many hours since he started than I’ve played total.  We’ll see if my gut feelings still hold sway in the face of the massive investment of time on his part.

Regardless, it’s a great, unique game that offers a ton of replayability due to its rogue-like nature, a ton of great critical-thinking and problem solving opportunities, and deep resource management and leveling systems.  I heartily recommend it to anyone who enjoys trying something new.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (still haven’t beaten the game on normal)

Fallout 4: The Real Railroad

December 9, 2015

Dear Reader,

I really like Fallout 4.  I think it’s the best of the FPS entries in the series, and probably the second best of the titles over all (I still like Fallout 2 the most).  I wrote a few days ago on why I liked the most recent game, but today I feel compelled to write about something I really didn’t like about the game: railroading.

Now, there’s an coincidental connection with Fallout 4 and “The Railroad,” but the term I’m using is unconnected with the similarly-titled faction.  “Railroading” is a pen-and-paper RPG term used to describe a dungeon master who forces his players into situations against their will, as if they’re passengers on a train out of their control rather than co-pilots to a group activity.  It is generally considered to be a negative term used in an accusatory fashion from player to DM.

Every video game railroads its players by necessity.  It’s impossible to program a video game to allow for every possible action a player may want to take, let alone be able to take from within the game system.  That’s one area where tabletop RPGs shine; a good DM with good players can collaborate to create a story that’s far superior to anything any one person would imagine.  Railroading, as a result, is the antithesis to that sort of creative engineering, which is why it’s so often reviled.

So why complain about a game for doing what it was designed to do: railroad the players?  Simple: I felt the railroading was unnecessary and story-restrictive.  Let me warn you, there are some spoilers below, so don’t read on if you haven’t pursued the main story line.

I had predicted that my kid was going to be old when I met him.  I looked at every major character I met as a possible son prior to actually going into the institute.  When I met my cyber “son,” I doubted instantly it was the real one, and when I met his creator, the father, I figured I’d found my mark.  Nonetheless, I did exactly what I had planned to do: I shot the leader of the institute right in the face.  Kid or not, here was the head of the monster which needed to be severed.

Of course, even though it was a silenced pistol, the entire Institute went hostile and I failed a quest.  I figured fine, I’ll play along for a while, and reloaded to pursue the actual story, but I was annoyed.  I didn’t want to get to know the Institute, I didn’t want to find out what they were all about, and I DAMN sure didn’t want to work with them – not only as a player, mind you, but as my character, who’d seen and heard the type of physical and psychological damage the Institute was wreaking on the Commonwealth.  I was the leader of the Minutemen, damnit, and I wasn’t going to be swayed by some fancy technology and honestly irrelevant family bonds; hell, I only new the kid for what – a few weeks?  Months?  Not that long.

And yet, as a player, particularly one who wants to actually see the main story play out from start to finish, I was again and again being forced to work with the very enemy I was sworn to destroy, and on top of that, in conversation after conversation, I was being portrayed as this stupid, sentimental mother who can’t seem to understand the fact that her son is a bad guy in charge of a bad institution that harms the world.  I had slayed the Mirelurk Queen!  I was head of the Minutemen!  I kill mutants left and right! Why was I being so dumb?!

Look, I get it; there’s nuances here.  Maybe I get to be the leader of the Institute and change things, but I don’t know.  I stalled in playing when I got to the next serious railroading moment, when choosing to pursue the Institute’s goals or telling on them to the Brotherhood would immediately and permanently make you the enemy of the other.

Why?  How would they even know?  I understand that perhaps during the mission an action I take in front of them might cause that, but just by accepting one side or another?  Madness!

And I don’t even really like either faction!  I’m a Minuteman.  I’m okay with the Railroad; I think they’re good people who are just a little careless.  But I don’t see the drawback with the Minutemen.  I don’t see their flaw, like the Brotherhood’s hawkishness or the Institute’s moral bankruptcy.  But I fundamentally do believe I can affect a change to improve the world better from inside than outside of a system.

I would just prefer to option to continue to play both against each other.  I would prefer to be able to go to the Brotherhood and tell them that I intend to get the reactor back online and then blow up the Institute.  In between, I can smuggle out some or all of the willing synths, which would piss off the Brotherhood but, hey, they don’t need to know.  As complexly integrated as these missions and stories are, I don’t see why that wasn’t an option.  Everyone can feel like they won (except the Institute, but I don’t care about them), and who really won was the Commonwealth, which, of course, is the goal of the Minutemen.

So I feel a bit railroaded.  I don’t really want to help the Brotherhood or the Institute.  I don’t want to make a permanent enemy of either of the Institute yet, either, which would likely prevent me from helping synths escape via the Railroad.  So I’m forced to continue working with them, actually helping them, and make a permanent and lethal enemy of the Brotherhood, who I’ve been helping so far.

For such a nuanced game, this feel very brutish.  I wanted better.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (Bing-Bong.  Please stand clear of the closing doors.)

A Spot of Brightness in the Dying Light

December 7, 2015

Dear Reader,

Despite my intense (but waning) love for Fallout 4, I figured I’d be talking about another game, one that I finished before Fallout 4 but simply didn’t write about until now: Dying Light.

I hadn’t expected too much from the title, if I’m honest.  Being a triple-A title about the current zombie fad set in a modern-warfare style setting filled me with worry.  But at some point I saw a single comment on Twitter saying it was a surprisingly good game, which I mentally filed away for later.  So when the game went on sale over Halloween, I scooped it up and starting playing.

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know how the game was being advertised, but based solely on what I know about most triple-A zombie-themed war simulators, I would say that the game was miscast.  It’s really not a zombie-horror-survival-shooter.  It’s much more a game about movement, about maps, and about planning.  Sure, by the end of the game, you can pretty easily clear away a swarm of zombies with your electrified, flaming, toxic katana, but early on, it’s deadly to get caught even by a few zombies, let alone a swarm, and to be out at night – even at the end of the game – can be extremely dangerous.

Hence the ideas of movement, maps, and planning.  The game really should have been sold as a spiritual relative of Mirror’s Edge, a game about free-running or parkour.  I spent a vast majority of my fifty or so in-game hours running and leaping from building top to building top or climbing the sides of buildings, lights, or even huge bridge pylons.  In fact, many of the “puzzles” in the game were jumping, climbing, and running puzzles, whether it was to escape the nighttime terrors or replace lights on the top of skyscrapers.

That said, there was some combat in the game, though most was avoidable.  For one quest, you had to hunt down a specific nighttime zombie and kill it to collect a sample, but stealth was required there, not force of arms; in fact, the zombie would run if it detected you.  And while I’m sure that some people would prefer a straight-up hack and slash approach, the weapons in the game were mostly fragile and never lasted longer than a few hours of real time at best, so becoming heavily invested in a single weapon would be pointless.

The game did have a single, massive flaw.  I really enjoyed the game for about fifty hours, but I played it for about fifty-one.  The last segment of the game I found painfully terrible.  It seemed like a completely different team had designed it; it changed the free-thinking, strategic movement into a Battletoads-Speeder-like level that simply had to be replayed over and over until perfected and used virtually none of the intellectual tenets taught earlier by the game which had been replaced by visceral twitch game play, something I have no interest in.  Additionally, after building up to the final climatic battle, instead of getting to actually fight the last boss, I was forced to play a “press (this button)” style game instead.  It was a complete disappointment.

So if you’re looking for a game that rewards you for planning, moving, and thinking quickly when your plan inevitably goes a little wrong, then Dying Light is an absolutely excellent choice.  But when you’ve finished it, when you’ve gotten to the final stage, just quit playing.  Don’t bother.  You’ll thank me.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (two posts in a week!)

50 Levels of Fallout 4

December 4, 2015

Dear Reader,

Long time no hear!  Well, the good news is that during the interim I’ve been playing a lot of really excellent games: some new, some old, and some surprisingly good.

Today, I wanted to talk about Fallout 4.  You know, dear reader, I almost never purchase games at full price, but I just couldn’t wait on Fallout.  I’ve been playing the Fallout series since it was called Wasteland, and they’ve always been one of my favorite games for their character progression system, setting, and gallows-humor-infused atmosphere.

In two of those cases, the most recent did not disappoint, and overall, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the game.  But I have to be honest; I preferred the more complex skill and perk system.  I realize that functionally the new “talent” system really wasn’t any different; it used the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attributes instead of skills + attributes as prerequisites, but nonetheless I found the new system off-putting at first.  I got used to it by the end, but it initially seemed overwhelming, like logging into your WoW character the first time after a major expansion patch without having read any of the patch info.

That was a pretty minor complaint overall, and I understand that simplifying it made it more approachable to new players, which honestly I’m grateful for; I want this series to stay profitable and alive for a long time.

I also felt like the setting was uniquely different from the previous games; I didn’t like the linear and somewhat claustrophobic setting in Fallout 3, and while I really enjoyed the New Vegas setting, it was really just “more of the same” from Fallout 1 and 2.  Fallout 4 really created a unique and attractive setting that had strong enough ties to the series to clearly be a continuance while also being different enough to warrant a new game.

The new factions were interesting and a lot of fun to interact with, as well.  Each of the four major factions had a clearly different imperative, not so much in direct conflict with all the others as simply different shades of purpose.  Of course SOME were in direct conflict, but nonetheless, they all felt like an organic growth from the setting more than the Legion, for example, which just felt like a “bad guy” faction dropped in as a threat.

That said, I’ve been playing about 60 hours and have no concept – NONE WHATSOEVER – of how much I have left.  Jasyla wrote on her recent post she had finished but it had turned into a “slog.”  I’m getting to that point, too.  It really is related to not knowing how much of the main story is left, though.  Nonetheless, I refrained from asking because I also don’t want it to be spoiled.

So I’ve really enjoyed this newest installment of Fallout and have enjoyed experiencing a new story line in a new setting.  In fact, I’m not really experiencing any problems that a “% of story completed” stat somewhere wouldn’t solve.

Sincerely,

Stubborn (Minuteman –  not an Institute crony, Brotherhood thug, or Railroad zealot)

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