I picked this up a year ago, but bounced off it; I’ve been playing it again after the new update. Overall reaction: it has a great premise, and it’s not bad, but it has a lot of design issues.


Mmm, donuts

First, the concept: you’re set loose in an unimaginably large galaxy.  Articles usually say it has 18 quintillion planets, but they’re translating programmer-speak; what’s clear is that there are 18 quintillion possible planets.  That’s the number of seeds that can be given to the planet generator.  It’s not clear how many planets are actually instantiated, but presumably it’s a shit-ton.

In practice: you start out alone somewhere, and you can explore all you want. Each world will in general look like a 1970s sf paperback cover, or progressive rock album cover, but it will be different from all the others, and populated by its own animals, plants, and minerals. There are also varied dangers– some worlds are toxic, and some have frequent dangerous storms.

This is a brilliant idea, and in general NMS captures what you would want it to: fantastic landscapes in lurid colors, weird creatures, a range of dangers.  Flying over a planet is fun, and flying into space is pretty neat.

You can name planets, plants, and animals. I advise you to buy a scanner upgrade, which will make this process rather lucrative.

It’s a survival game, which means there’s a load of resources and crafting. For the first hour you’ll be very conscious of oxygen (to keep you alive), carbon (to recharge your mining laser), and sodium (to keep you safe from toxic environments).  Once you repair your ship there’s a similar list of things you need to keep it going.

The designers apparently went to the same Designer School as (say) Deus Ex and Mass Effect 1, where they were taught that players love inventory management. So a major theme of the game is getting more damn inventory slots. You actually have three types of inventory, and the process is different for each:

  • Your suit. You can buy new slots at space stations, or get them for free by searching for drop pods on planets.  (Free-ish: you’ll need resources, which will hopefully be at hand, at the cost of some grinding. One suit required a resource I didn’t have, but I knew there was some on another planet.  I went there, got it, and flew back– only I had lost the location of the drop pod.  Fortunately you can just go find another one.)
  • Your multi-tool (used for mining, fighting, and digging). You buy new ones at a space station. (This is a bit hidden: there is a multi-tool merchant, but they don’t sell the tools directly. Rather, behind them on the wall is a display which you can interact with to be presented with precisely one tool you can buy.)
  • Your spaceship. You can find broken ones and repair them, but this requires loads of resources you probably don’t have. Or, you check out ships as they enter a base or space station; eventually you’ll find one with more slots than yours, and which you can afford. Remember to transfer any goods you had stored in the ship before trading.

Shamus Young, for one, complains a lot about this arrangement. He’s not wrong, but I do think he misses what they taught at Design School: you have to impose some limitations on the player in order to have a game. (If you have a fighting game, you can’t just have the player look at an enemy to kill them; it’d be no fun.)  It’s not fun to run into inventory limits, but by gum it is motivating. Every suit slot is good to acquire, and you really want to grind to make money so you can afford a spaceship with more slots.

You can also build bases. Look, here’s my super-high-tech wooden shack:


Nice balcony. In space, you don’t need support beams.

Bases are nice, but honestly this is one of many things Empyrion does far better. You can make quite a nice little base in Empyrion… or for that matter a huge sprawling base… without hours of questing or grinding. (Empyrion also has far fewer resources to worry about, and is far more generous about inventory. Offsetting that, it’s just one star system.)

NMS made a lot of people mad when it first came out, but I don’t care about that because I didn’t get it then.  I got it at half price– for that matter, it’s on sale right now.

It’s also made people mad because it just insists on making things cumbersome. Nothing is game-breaking, but the frustrations just keeps on coming:

  • The galaxy map is really hard to use. You have to use the mouse to move around, and it moves in a very weird unintuitive way.
  • You learn alien languages a word at a time. Neat concept, but it’s so damn slow that, at 30 hours in, I can’t understand any message at all.
  • You fly using the mouse, but it’s nothing so simple as “fly where you point”. There’s a circle on the screen, and if you move the mouse outside it you go that way. Only your ship overshoots so you have to correct in the other direction.
  • Every sales interaction starts with some flavortext you have to click through. It’s interesting the first two times… only. After that it’s annoying if all you want to do is see the price of a starship.
  • There are robot sentinels on every planet that attack if you mine too much. If you leave the planet, they send ships after you. You can shoot these down… only more will immediately show up. You can outrun them, but it takes forever. Tonight I wasted half an hour on this rigmarole, in a system where there was no space station to escape to. I had to reload from an earlier save.
  • Moving around a system takes way more time than it should. You have two levels of super-drive, but it can still take 2 minutes to get to a distant planet. I mean, fine, it’s space and space is big, but it’s not even as interesting as walking from Point A to B in Skyrim.
  • Some planets have toxic storms that last several minutes, and give you only a few minutes between repetitions. You can take refuge within your ship (and take the time to log discoveries or something), but it’s just not a fun idea at that frequency.
  • The designers are terribly fond of using keys to move up and down in menus, or switch between modes. It’s like they never heard of tabs or scroll bars.
  • Just about every interaction is on a timer, including opening boxes or accessing portable machines. There’s cases where a delay is appropriate (e.g. mining) or can take the place of an ‘are you sure’ message (accepting a quest). But much of the time it’s just dumb. Heuristic: if there’s no harm in doing something, do it immediately.

All of this is liveable, but it can make it feel like the NMS designers were themselves bug-eyed aliens who do not know how to make things easy for hu-mans.

Rather strangely, when you start a game you don’t get to choose your appearance. You start out as a man in a spacesuit. When you get to a space station, you can change your appearance then. At least it’s free and doesn’t require weird resources. (I’m kind of pissed that you can’t choose a female human. Yes, you’re in a spacesuit with an opaque helmet and a woman could be inside, but the body shape looks male.)

I’m only partway through the quests, so I can’t say too much about them yet. I’ve read about how the Atlas quest ends, and it sounds mega-stupid, but I’ll give them some slack there… it’s hard to give any sort of satisfying ‘ending’ to an exploration game.

(Conan Exiles flunks this problem pretty badly. The main quest there is to find all the artefacts which will unlock the bracelet that keeps you in the Exiled Lands. You do this, unlock your bracelet, and… you walk into the distance in a very brief cutscene. Your character is deleted and you start over.  You don’t even get to leave with Conan. It’s, like, they had the youngest and dullest intern work it up the day before they shipped. Weirdly, your buildings are not deleted, and your next character can go and loot them.)

On galaxybuilding, NMS is decidedly weird. It’s an exploration game, where supposedly each planet is unmapped before you get to it, and you can name everything you’ve discovered. Only… there are alien bases and artefacts all over, there are space pirates and space stations and occasional planetary bases; there’s a galactic currency and market; there are guilds of explorers and traders; there is an army of sentinels cruising each planet. For that matter, all the planets and animals and planets had provisional names. Yet there is not a single city or densely settled world. Nor do you ever see another explorer doing what you’re doing– walking around gathering resources.

It makes no sense; it’s neither a fully settled galaxy, nor an unknown one to explore for the first time. I see why they did it this way: you want to be able to “go into town to sell your goods.” And a planet is more interesting if it has something on it to go see. Still, it would’ve been nice if they had some coherent story about all this.

On a deeper level, though the randomly generated worlds are marvelously diverse and quite pretty, they’re also kind of monotonous. Each has only one biome type, and if it has a dozen creature types that’s a lot. The planets are huge, but each part of it is the same as the last.

(In fact, I’m pretty sure that only the part you’re currently on “really exists”, and the region your base is on.  Based on my experience trying to find the drop pod I’d found before, I suspect that if you leave a region, you can’t really get back to it. And e.g. if an alien gives you a quest, they may be in a different place when you come back to them. I haven’t checked if they still look the same…)

Also weird: they’ve basically invented their own chemistry for the resources. E.g. you mine rocks into “ferrite dust”. The name is obviously based on iron, so why don’t they call it “iron”? Or at least “iron oxide”? Then they have things like “ionized cobalt”, “chromatic metal”, “condensed carbon”. You can take “tritium”, which in real life is a form of hydrogen, and refine it into platinum. Again, it’s no dealbreaker, but it’s kind of lazy.

Also also weird: there’s no attempt to model stellar systems at all. There’s no orbits– the planets just hang motionless in space. There’s no gas giants. And space is filled with rocks.

All in all: NMS provides an experience which few games are able to provide: an entire galaxy of weird planets to explore. And a loop of quests, resource extraction, and upgrades that makes exploration worthwhile.

It does seem like there’s a greater game that it aspires to but doesn’t reach. Empyrion has most of what I would have wanted: much richer base building; multiple biomes per planet; robust multiplayer. It’d also be nice if you could throw in the rich interstellar civilizations of Mass Effect…





I don’t always get a chance to combine linguistics and gaming, so STRAP ON.


So, Overwatch is getting a new hero who’s a hamster. An adorable hamster piloting a deathball.  It’s pretty neat, check it out.

PCGamer has an article today on the hero’s official name, Wrecking Ball, and why many people prefer the hamster’s name, Hammond. Which I kind of do too. Though the French name is even better: Bouledozer.

But the article has a density of linguistic errors that made me simmer.  Kids these days, not learning basic phoneme and allophone theory.  Listen:

The three syllables in Wrecking Ball use three main sounds: the ‘r’ sound, the ‘i’, and the ‘ɔ:’. …you position your tongue and lips very differently when you pronounce these sounds, and you can feel this when you say it. To make the ‘r’ sound in ‘wre’, you curl your tongue up to the roof of your mouth. To make the ‘i’ sound in ‘king’, you keep your tongue up high but bring it forward to the front of your mouth while stretching out your lips. Finally, to make the ‘ɔ:’ sound in ‘ball’, you put your tongue low and bring it to the back of your mouth while also bringing your lips together.

OK, everything sounds complicated when people don’t have the terms to discuss it. There’s only one big error– they’ve confused [i] as in machine with [ɪ] as in bin. You stretch your lips for [i] but not [ɪ]. Anyway, the word isn’t that complex: /rɛkɪŋbɔl/. You pronounce much harder words many times a day. (Try strength, or Martian, or literature.) In rapid speech it will probably simplify to [rɛkɪmbɔl] or [rɛkĩbɔl].

In other words, saying Wrecking Ball puts your tongue and lips all over the place with no clean pattern or loop to connect the sounds.

Huh?  Words do not need any “clean pattern or loop”.  There are some patterns to English words (phonotactics), but “wrecking ball” is absolutely typical English.

And it doesn’t stop there: the ‘wr’ consonant blend is naturally awkward in the same way the word ‘rural’ is awkward, and the hard ‘g’ and ‘b’ in Wrecking Ball put unnatural stops in your speech.

The wr isn’t a blend, it’s one sound [r]. Rural is mildly awkward because it has two r sounds, which wrecking ball does not.

Edit: Alert reader John Cowan points out that some speakers do have [i] in final –ing; also that initial /r/ may be always labialized. For me, there’s some lip rounding in /r/ in all positions.

There is no hard g in wrecking. There is no such thing as a hard b.  Stops are not unnatural; heck, let me highlight all the ones the author just used:

And it doesn’t stop there: the ‘wr’ consonant blend is naturally awkward in the same way the word ‘rural’ is awkward, and the hard ‘g’ and ‘b‘ in Wrecking Ball put unnatural stops in your speech.

I highlighted nasal stops mostly because the dude is terribly concerned with what the tongue does, and tongue movement for nasal stops is exactly the same as for non-nasal stops.

Compare that to Hammond, paying close attention to the way your mouth moves when you say it. Not only is Hammond two syllables instead of three, it also barely uses your tongue. Your lips and vocal chords do most of the work, which, ironically, is why it seems to roll off the tongue. Plus we get the added alliteration of Hammond the hamster.

Hammond is [hæmnd], with syllabic n. I’ll grant that it’s two syllables long, but I don’t know why the author is so focused on tongue movements– presumably he’s not aware that he’s moving his tongue for æ and the final [nd]?

It’s true that Wrecking Ball contains two liquids, which is hard for some children, but shouldn’t be a problem for adults. (And English’s syllabic n, not to mention the vowel æ, are hard for many foreigners.)

As for alliteration, Hammond Hamster is maybe too cutesy. They didn’t call Winston Gary Gorilla.

(In the French version, Roadhog and Junkrat are Chopper et Chacal, which is actually a pretty nice alliteration, calling out their partnership.)

Of [the longer] names, five end on long vowels: Orisa, Zarya, Symmetra, Zenyatta and Lucio. Interestingly enough, four of these five end on a long ‘a’ because it’s an easy and pretty sound for punctuating names (which, if you’re wondering, is also why so many elves in high fantasy settings have names like Aria).

Argh: these are not long a; that’s the vowel in mate. These end in shwas, [ə].

And while we’re at it, Tolkien is largely to blame for elven names, and in this long list of his elven names, just one has a final -a. He liked final [ɛ] far more. If other writers use more, they are probably thinking vaguely of Latin.

If the dude really doesn’t like the name, all he has to say is:

  • It’s longer
  • It’s final-stressed.

Names are a tiny bit awkward if they have two stressed syllables, especially if they end in one. The only other Overwatch hero with this stress pattern is Soldier 76, and he’s usually just called Soldier. But it’s not that awkward; it’s also found in such common expressions as Jesus Christ, Eastern Bloc, Lara Croft or U.S.A.





I picked this up in the Steam sale, but I think I’m done. Though very few of my friends play it, so my guess is that not many people will care.


Must be an RPG if you have to talk to gremlins

I love the Saints Row games, and this is by the same studio, so it seemed promising. To a first approximation it is a Saints Row game– just continuing the trend of downplaying the gang angle and upplaying the superheroics.

If Overwatch was a single-player game, it’d probably be like this. Apparently the bad guys, called Legion, have taken over the world, in a bright colorful future, but the titular Agents are on the case. You have a bunch of international agents (though you start with just 3); you more or less have to learn how to play each one, though you can play favorites; you fight cartoon supervillains and their minions. You have what are pretty much special powers on a short cooldown and an ult on a long one.

There’s also races, Legion hotspots to shut down, cars to drive, so it also feels like a Saints Row game.  They even kept one of the weirdest little mechanics of SR: you can “compliment” citizens with a gesture, and they’ll mime one back. There are fleur-de-lis and lots of purple.

You only play as one character at a time. But you have a squad of three, and can switch between them with the mousewheel. And you’ll need to, because a) you’ll need certain characters to whittle down shields and… um, other-shields. (There are two types.) And b) the characters you’re not using recover health, which is the way to get through long boss fights.

What I’m really mad at right now: the piss-poor checkpointing. I couldn’t defeat a boss– OK, fair enough, now I know what to do.  Only there are three stages to this fight, and the checkpoint is before the first one. And really none of the stages are fun or interesting; it’s dash up and do some damage to a turret or the boss, then hide while he uses his weapon, rinse and repeat for more than half an hour. And there’s no way to change the difficulty during a mission, which is simply incredible.

That’s the worst thing, but there’s other ways that the game just falls short.

  • The characters… oh lord. By the time of SR4 its characters– Pierce, Shaundi, Kinzie, even Johnny Gat– felt like old friends. The Agents are all kind of brash and chattery, but not very likeable. They have different abilities, but they’re far less differentiated than Overwatch heroes.
  • In general the writing is kind of excruciating. I get it, it’s Saturday morning cartoons, but even on that level it could be way better… cf. Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2.
  • You get gadgets from each mission, and there’s a load of customizable options, and there’s little guidance on what sort of build you will need. It seems way more fussy and detailed than the story demands.
  • Each agent levels up separately, which puts the new ones at a disadvantage.
  • There’s also a wide range of currency equivalents, which also feels fussy and tedious. Didn’t they realize that SR4’s ‘cache’ worked just fine? Now you have shards and upgrade cores and cash and a bunch of other stuff. (I don’t even know what the cash is for yet.)
  • The locations run heavily to Futuristic Skyscraper and Futuristic Corridors, and the enemies are all Futuristic Minions.
  • It’s set in Seoul– and the city looks good– but there’s about zero local color. Lots of Korean on signs, but since you basically don’t interact with the locals it could have been set absolutely anywhere.
  • One of the unusual pleasures of SR was its diversity…SR4, for instance, just has one white dude in its ensemble cast.  The Agents are multinational, but the cultural depth is about a millimeter. There’s a Brazilian agent, for instance, who speaks… Spanish. (Not that they even bothered with a Spanish-sounding actress.)  There’s an Indian agent, a female, named Rama. I dunno, this is like an Indian game having a white hero named Jesus– who’s a woman.  And despite the setting in Seoul, there’s not a single Korean or even East Asian character so far.
  • Another annoyance: the game plays at Ultra graphics level for me– except it spoils the stupid Hack action; the timing is off.  It’s fixed by moving down to High, but it seems to me they could have made some sort of adjustment for your FPS.
  • And besides the checkpointing problem… good lord are the missions interminable. the one I was on was two hours or so. I’d finish one bit, there’d be a checkpoint for the same mission, and I’d wonder if it was inviting me to replay it… no, it was more frigging supervillain lairs to take over.
  • No clothing shops.  Again, didn’t they play their own games?  Dressing up in SR was fun.

All that was pretty negative, and I have to say (like some of the reviews I’ve seen) that it’s not bad. It’s mostly mindless fun. All the agents get a triple jump, which is pretty fun to move around with. The basic idea is good, and it looks nice.

(I was thinking of picking up Cuphead in the Steam sale too, but decided to wait on that. I’ve seen playthroughs and I fully expect to, like, not even defeat the carrot.  Maybe another year.)


I’m both early and late to this party: Kentucky Route Zero came out in 2013, but it’s an episodic game and 4 of 5 episodes are out. The last one should be out, oh, any day now.


On a magic realist tour, always stop for the music

It’s a weird little game, though if you started with Grim Fandango, threw in some García Marquez, and marinated it in Southern Gothic, you’d end up about here. It’s mostly text adventure, but it makes effective use of some evocative, beautiful visuals. It largely tells a tale rather than letting you shape it, but your choices affect your experience immensely. And everything, from tone to which character is the protagonist, is subject to change.

The basics: you start out playing a truck driver named Conway, who gets lost trying to deliver a shipment of antiques. He stops off at a gas station and learns that the address he’s looking for is more or less in neverland– it’s on the titular Route Zero, an underground highway that you can’t get to by normal means. He’s sent on an increasingly bizarre quest to find the entrance to this highway.

Along the way he picks up a very motley crew of other strange loners: Shannon, a girl he finds in an abandoned mine; a boy named Ezra who hangs with a giant eagle and whose parents have disappeared; Junebug and Johnnie, traveling musicians who happen to be robots, though no one is gauche enough to hassle them about it; Cate, who runs a tugboat along an underground river and also serves as a midwife. We end up learning quite a lot about each of them and their predicaments.

A lot of fantasy is empowerment fantasy. Not here. Magic realism is a sort of inversion of Samuel Beckett: ultimately the universe is bleak and tragic, but damn if we aren’t going to have some fun along the way. The story of KRZ is full of terrible things: a flooded mine, unscrupulous corporations, infuriating bureaucracies, debt, decay, and medical emergencies. Against all this, there’s only friendship, kindness, and music. The story hints that Conway has a tendency to look for escape in a bottle. But there’s other kinds of escape, even if only momentary, like the sudden dizzying pans or zooms in KRZ’s visuals where you realize that the flat-seeming images are really 3-D modeled.

There are a lot of references to other works… let’s just say that very few of the names in the story are random. It’s not intrusive, though, just a nod to fellow travelers.

I mentioned Grim Fandango as being closest to what KRZ is like as a game.  You don’t really have the puzzles, however, or the hope of a happy ending. (We’ll see. I hope at least someone in the story gets one.) You make choices, almost always by choosing a line of dialog.


OK, not a fascinating choice, but it’s the only screenshot I had that showed choices.

I’ll warn you right now: it seems like your choices don’t impact the overall story at all. (But we’ll see when Act 5 comes out.) You get about the same story in the same order no matter what you do. And yet the choices aren’t meaningless; they’re a low-key form of roleplaying. You can choose to be distanced, or empathetic. You can intensely pursue your quest goals, or you can accept digressions.  You can define some of the characters’ pasts and how they feel about them.

In some ways the game, without redefining the basic idea of a dialog tree, makes it work better than almost any other game. The big Bethesda and Bioware games almost always give you three basic options: be nasty, be helpful, or don’t get involved. The choices here may not be highly consequential, but they’re generally all reasonable, at least.

The story opens out quite a bit in Act 4, where you’re travelling on Cate’s tugboat, making various stops. At each one you choose which character you want to follow. So here you can really only get half the story, though apparently (I haven’t tried replaying it) you get hints of what happened in the other branch.

Oh, a warning that might avoid some surprised swearing: the game has three save slots, but it doesn’t remember which one you used last. I thought it hadn’t saved my progress at one point, but it had– I just had to choose the right save slot.

Will you like it? Well, if your idea of a game is “shoot all the things”, maybe not. I think it has its longueurs; on the other hand, I’m eager to see how it all comes together in Act 5. For the most part it’s aiming at a particular strain of melancholy, leavened by some comedy and bemused folksiness (none of the characters quite knows what’s going on, though some are less troubled by this than others). Mostly it hits its marks.

Sometimes it’d be nice if it really gave into the weirdness, gave you some of the exhilaration of parts of (say) Edith Finch. But that would probably spoil the quieter bits, which you’d rush through to get to the set pieces. This is a game where some strangers bonding over mushroom hunting (next to an underground river), or deciding whether or not to talk to the dog in the straw hat, are as important as pursuing Conway’s increasingly unlikely delivery.





I’ve been revisiting Conan Exiles again since it left Early Access. It’s definitely way improved, and worth trying out if you like survival games.


Somebody looked at a bunch of reference pics of Indian/SE Asian temples

First, what’s different?

  • The map is way bigger. (Also, the in-game map is actually useful now.)
  • Combat is revamped; there are multiple actions, and a punishing stamina meter.
  • Animals have been redistributed (for some reason).
  • A lot of the crafting is different. In general there are more things to build.
  • There are a fair number of interesting locations, side quests, and boss monsters.
  • I’m probably forgetting a lot. There are more religions, for instance, and they’ve added a climbing mechanic, and achievements, and pointers (in lieu of a tutorial).
  • You can actually meet Conan in game.
  • Many of the things I complained about in the first review are fixed; e.g. you can loot enemies now.

Now, I still have no interest in PvP.  I think Exiles might be a great co-op game, but I don’t have any friends who play. So I’m evaluating it as a single-player game.

As such, it’s an interesting, kind of weird experiment. I’ve put about 130 hours into it, so I’d say there’s plenty of fun to be had.  It also falls short in some also weird ways.

Why is it weird? Well, mostly because it’s so undirected. This is the exact opposite of games that have a voice in your ear telling you what to do next, and puts map markers all over so you know where to go. Besides the new pointers (things like “catch a fish”), there is no direction at all. You could easily miss all the more interesting locations and monsters; you have to go in search of them.

Which is a really interesting design decision! Most games, though treating you as The Prophesied One, don’t trust you to know how to have fun on your own. Exiles relies on normal curiosity: what’s in that big temple? where does this river go? what new resources might live in the jungle?

Also, the map is immense, and large parts of it are nearly empty. This is unusual too: Skyrim, say, is also huge, but it’s dotted with dungeons and towns and in general feels unnaturally full. The Exiled Lands feel big. There are long lonesome vistas, and you can easily get lost.  I have two main bases, which aren’t far apart on the map, but it’s a fair walk to get between them. I like this; it really gets past the usual video game convention that a tiny tiny area stands in for an entire city or wilderness.

(Of course, the huge area is there for people to fight over on multiplayer servers. But it gives a particular feeling to the single-player game.)

So what do you do?  Well, survival, combat, building, thralls, and monsters.

As a survival game, well, it’s not really hard. You have hunger and thirst, and you start in the desert… but you’re a short walk away from a freshwater river. You can subsist on slugs and bugs if you like, but you can quickly make stone weapons and kill and cook animals. You very quickly get to the point that you have way more food than you can eat. About the only tricky bit is making sure you have enough water if you take a long trek to explore.

Combat involves four basic actions: light and heavy attacks, block with a shield, and dash-evade. All of these take stamina, and you have to kite your opponent frequently while your stamina rebuilds. The blocking isn’t very satisfying, especially as shields break easily, but maybe I’m just not good at it. You can make combos by alternating light and heavy attacks.  It’s not that I don’t like it, but, well, it’s not great. It’s no Arkham, or Bayonetta. (Funcom, if you’re listening, here’s one idea that’d make it far better: reward successful combos with stamina.)

Building: I like that you can get started with nothing but trees and stones. You can quickly build a mini-base in a new territory. (Getting up on a foundation block is useful in avoiding combat, especially useful at night.) You can go really far with this, building increasingly elaborate castles.

The problem here, I think, is balance. If you really want to build a castle, it will take a shitload of resources. And the finer tiers of building material require multiple crafting cycles of their own: mine ironstone, turn it into iron bars in a furnace, make “steelfire” from tar and brimstone, make steel bars from iron and steelfire, make steel reinforcement rods, make brick from stone, finally put it together into building pieces. Plus, this all requires several different crafting stations.

Empyrion did this right: make building easy enough that you can easily construct ginormous spaceships and bases, only going out now and then for more ores. That’s how you get huge interesting buildings. Exile’s process is just way too tedious.


Queen of all I survey 

But, there’s a solution– cheat! Excuse me: use the admin menu.  I try to only half-cheat: I only build things that I know the recipe to. Some huge portion of that 130 hours consisted of banging on rocks and trees; it’s OK for awhile, but I’m kind of tired of it now. So the admin menu allows me to build a nice base and go play the fun parts of the game.

One of the advertised features is thralls. You can knock out a human NPC instead of killing them, drag them to your base, and break them on a “wheel of pain”– a kind of millstone they have to push around till they’re docile. Then you can move them to a crafting station to speed it up and add recipes. Some thralls can fight for you, or dance for you… which turns out to be the only remedy for fighting “corruption”, a magical disease that saps your health, acquired in certain ruins.

Interesting idea, but again kind of tedious to really take advantage of solo. The problem is, most settlements consist only of fighters, and for the crafting stations you need specialists. So it may take quite a few raids to find the one you want. Plus it takes a long time to break thralls, which slows the process down. At least I found a dancer this playthrough, so I’m not pissed at the corruption thing.

Finally, monsters. These are basically your side quests, the rewards for finding the really interesting locations. They are unfortunately balanced for multiplayer games– they are huge HP buffers and take forever to whittle down; but they drop the better loot. Honestly, I find it best to just cheat again and turn off damage. (Again, it’s a balance issue. When you die, you go back to your base, and you’d have to make your way to the monster again, who of course will have regenerated at full HP.)

There’s also bits of lore scattered around, and plants you can use to recolor your clothes, and there’s a town of non-hostile NPCs… at this point, in fact, I’m mostly interested in wandering around finding all the strange stuff they’ve put in.

There’s also a main quest, which is, in the spirit of the game, hidden. You’re trapped in the Exiled Lands by a metal bracelet. If you beat monsters and find certain items, then read the flavortext, you learn that you can put those items together to undo the bracelet. So, eh, you can do that if you want. Or you can just lord it over the Exiled Lands.

If you do like resource extracting, base building, and beating up animals and NPCs, it’s probably worth checking out. I’d just add that if you stick around the river in the south, you might get bored without, well, actually seeing what’s in the game. You have to kind of make your own goals in this game, but one of them should be to explore as much as possible. A lot of the game content is quite interesting, but it need to be sought out.

First, enjoy, if you can, this TF2/Overwatch comedy video thing.

When Overwatch came out, I said it was like TF3.  The similarities are obvious and deep. Yet it’s not a simple copy.

For one thing… you really can’t make a great game by slavishly copying another game. Cheesy imitations just make people want to go back to the original.  You can do the same genre, even use the same tropes, but if there’s enough talent involved it’ll be it’s own thing.

For another, the only thing that prevented Valve from making TF3 was Valve. Valve has lost its verve. They don’t seem to have any interest in innovating great new games, they’ve bled off their best writers, and their best idea for TF2 is basically “more of the same”.

And finally, let’s talk about differences between TF2 and Overwatch.

One: Valve humor is not Blizzard humor.  Valve’s humor is “everybody is dumb”– kind of like South Park.  It’s too cool for school; it doesn’t care about anything; every TF2 character is annoying and stupid. And that’s absolutely fine for a game! Their “Meet the…” series is brilliant, indeed far better than most of Blizzard’s videos. But their worldbuilding doesn’t go beyond “a pointless, endless battle between pinheaded idiots.”

Blizzard (at least in Overwatch, I’m not talking about its other properties) is almost painfully earnest. Though they have their comic elements, every Overwatch character is a hero, or a strangely appealing villain. As Tracer says, the world could always use more heroes. The backstory is full of drama and rivalry, and there’s a story about a human-omnic war that’s rather dark, but the overall tone of the game is still optimistic, even utopian.  And kind of by accident, it appeared just at a time when ironic detachment suddenly seemed tired and even suspect.

And the game wants the player to feel heroic, too. There are a lot of subtle things to downplay competition and feelings of loss, from the hiding of team stats, to the merging of kills and assists into eliminations, to the assembling of a personal highlights reel. Even the sound design cooperates: you hear your enemies squealing in pain as they die; you don’t hear the same sounds when you do.

Not unrelated is the commitment to diversity. TF2’s characters came from around, well, the Euro-American world.  All are men (which baffles me… Valve has endless energy for making hats and costumes, but can’t make female versions?).  Overwatch, unusually, has 13 male and 13 female characters, plus Bastion. Just 3 are American.  13 are non-white (counting Reaper as Hispanic). I don’t say they’re perfect at this, but they are putting effort into it.

Also worth noting: with all those characters, none are easily confused with each other, and they’ve taken enormous pains to make their silhouettes, voices, and animations distinctive and interesting.  If you play it, take some time to look at the first-person animations– the walks, the gun reloads, shooting. Each character is different, and everything reinforces their personality.

Also, I think Blizzard does so well at making its characters likeable that it’s easy to forget that this is not an easy thing at all. Disney, for instance, never quite got the knack: Mickey Mouse is just not interesting or likeable in the way Bugs Bunny is. A lot of TV characters are not really likeable, only amusingly grotesque, like the TF2 characters.

The TF2 aesthetic is absolutely stunning– for 2007. It looks wan and repetitive next to Numbani, Lijiang Tower, or Junkertown.  This is to be expected with nine years between them.  But again, Valve could have reimagined their game themselves in that time, and chose not to.

The simplicity of the weaponry (most characters can’t change guns) combines with the idea of ults to make the gameplay seem quite different from TF2. Teams are maxed out at six, and don’t allow multiples of one character, while TF2 teams can be as high as 12. All this focuses the game quite a bit.  In TF2, half the players can treat the game as deathmatch most of the time, and it doesn’t matter much. Overwatch requires a higher commitment to the objective, such that you really notice if your Hanzo or Widowmaker is indulging themselves rather than actually making their shots.

And precisely because teams are smaller, and characters can’t be doubled up, you can’t just turtle up, which was the strategy much of the time in TF2. If Blizzard studied TF2, surely one of the conclusions they came to was “don’t let the turrets dominate the game.”

Plus, the two dozen characters make for far more interesting choices, as well as the constant expectation that Blizzard will shake everything up with a new character. I think TF2 made it far easier to slip into a comfort zone– e.g. I mostly played Pyro and Soldier. I have more range in Overwatch, though perhaps not enough, as many rounds of Mystery Heroes have demonstrated.

Finally, there’s the whole Overwatch League thing.  I’ve found these high-level matches pretty interesting.  TF2 now has ranked play, but I’m not sure how well it’d work as an e-sport.  Again, the turtling and the omnipresent snipers make it difficult for teams to coordinate a strategy.

None of this is to disparage TF2, which I played with great enjoyment for, omigod, like eight years.  It’s a great game!  But Overwatch has surpassed it, for me at least.





I actually picked this up when it came out, but never finished it.  And I still haven’t, but I’m playing it again, and I’m almost done, so I’d might as well write a review.


I sure hope there’s a zipline so I can get down there

Re-reading my review of the reboot, I’m struck by how many things I didn’t like that they’ve now fixed:

  • Basically no Quicktime events. (There are a few “run away across a collapsing building” scenes, but they generally use moves you’ve mastered anyway.)
  • Not as many cutscenes in general. You mostly get to control your own camera!
  • No gallery of ‘friends’ who do nothing to help and are there mainly to get in trouble and/or get killed.
  • No snotty ‘friend’ who’s set up as the obvious betrayer.  (There is a betrayer, but they provided a plausible motivation this time.)

Almost all of the game is set in Siberia, looking for the lost city of Kitezh. Now, Kitezh is a city from Russian folklore which supposedly resisted the Mongol invasion by slipping into a lake.  A Rimsky-Korsakov opera has it becoming invisible instead.  Also it’s supposedly near Nizhny Novgorod, which is not in Siberia.

Whatevs. Here it’s founded by Byzantines, who’ve come from Syria, led by their Prophet, who seems to have the secret of eternal life.  An evil cult named Trinity wants this, and so does Lara Croft, but in a much nicer way.

On the plus side:

  • It’s really pretty; the mountains and the forests and the various ruins are very well done.
  • It has much bigger areas to explore, and you’re able to mess around all you like. (There were some small hubs in the first game, but there wasn’t much to do in each one, and the plot was always hurrying you on.)
  • I like Lara’s voice actress, Camilla Luddington. There’s much less character development this time, so most of the work of making Lara likeable comes down to the voice acting, and Luddington makes her sound earnest and concerned. OK, that may sound dull, but compare that to your basic space marine, who usually sounds indifferent and/or bombastic.
  • There is less emphasis on “hard enemies which mess with what you’ve learned so far”, which is fine by me. E.g. you have armored enemies, but you also have some good options against them.
  • The basic gameplay loop is fun.  Sneak around, shoot arrows or bullets at people, solve some physics puzzles, do some mild parkour. Everyone who’s passed through Kitezh– Trinity, the Byzantines, the Mongols, the Soviets– is fond of leaving ruins which can only be traversed with Lara’s particular gear– climbing pick, rope arrows, etc. Some places even give you a choice of route!

Honestly the open world aspect can be wearing.  There are optional tombs scattered around– you’d might as well do as many as you can, since they offer perks. There are challenges and optional missions and resources to pick up and animals to hunt and relics to find and… well, if you like that sort of thing, there’s a lot of it. The first time I played the game, I put it aside halfway through, and I think it’s because of all this cruft. I feel like I should do everything, but it becomes a chore.

I’m enjoying it more now, mostly because I’ve given myself permission to skip anything I don’t feel like doing. Anyway, in general, this isn’t a Bethesda game, where the main questline is the dullest of them all.  They put the most work into the main story.

On the minus side–

  • I don’t mind dying to enemies– the fights always seem fair, and if I die it’s my fault and it’s usually easy to see why.  But I hate dying because I missed a jump, especially if it has fiddly positioning or timing to it. The game doesn’t even have the excuse of Mirror’s Edge, that it’s about split-second button presses. Rather than falling to her death, Lara should recover, like Batman.  (You could make her repeat the last bit, if you want mistakes to have a cost.)
  • The plot idea of ‘vindicating Dad’ is far less interesting than the first game, which moved Lara from frightened young girl to badass warrior woman. Once she’s that badass, there’s little she really needs, so the emotional temperature drops a bit.

There’s another sequel coming out later this year, so I hope I’ve put Trinity down by the time it comes out.

Edit: Finished it tonight… I really wasn’t far from the end. The final boss fight isn’t terribly hard, which is also fine by me.

Though they lost the character arc from the first game, I think the story here is a lot more meaningful. The story in the first game is more or less “try to escape this extremely dangerous island which Lara’s dad for some reason wanted to get to.” Here, it’s all related to having the secret of immortality… it’s not any more believable, but at least you can see that it has big consequences which explain why everyone is after it.




Next Page »