games


Last night I had an amazing game of Heroes of the Storm.  Like most good Moba stories, it’s the story of a comeback. (When you roll the other team, it may be a well-played game, but it’s not a story.) Here’s the situation 11 minutes in; we are the red team.

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It was grim. They were two levels ahead, and were fighting at our core. (You lose the game when your core is destroyed.)

This is the Dragonshire map. The clever bit of HOTS, the thing that makes games last 15-20 minutes rather than League’s 40-60 minutes, is that each map has an accelerant, something that you can fight over that gives you enormous power. Here it’s a statue of a Dragon Knight which will come to life and fight for you if you can control two temples at opposite sides of the map. In the picture, the enemy Knight is Shodredux.

I’m playing Chromie, currently my favorite character.  She’s tiny but very powerful. Her Q is a sand blast that only hits heroes– thus, useless against forts and minions; however, that also means the minions don’t block the shot.  Her W hits a small area; her E sets up a trap, and her R is a fairly big sandstorm that drastically slows everyone in it.  Once she’s leveled up, her Q is devastating, and if you can catch people in her sandstorm, you can spam them with her other powers. She’s fragile and has no escape methods, though.

We killed the Knight, and the enemies behind him (some were captured in one of my sandstorms, just visible at lower left in the picture).  We fought off another attack on bottom lane, which allowed us to catch up in levels. The playback is a little embarrassing at this point, as it looks like I’m just wandering around. I ended up returning to base to restore mana.

Most of the action was up top, as everybody fought for the top temple. Well, somebody’s got to try for the bottom temple, so I went there and captured it. I was alone there… only, no, Medivh flew in!

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We traded blows, and I put a sandstorm on the temple region.  That kept him there just enough to finish him off with a Q. I was low on hit points myself, so there was nothing to do but teleport home, hoping that no one else would head to that temple.

I ran out mid to the Knight statue. There had been a grand battle for this, and by the time I got there it was reduced to our Butcher holding it, close to death, against Dva and Artanis.  I snuck in and took control of the Knight.

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(There was no time to negotiate this; better to use him as a meat shield. It takes about 10 seconds to take control of the Knight, and you can’t be attacked during this time. And really, mad props to SassySadist playing Butcher here: he had dispatched Artanis and got Dva running away, despite being close to death himself.)

So now we had a Knight!  I headed out mid, and the rest of my team converged beautifully on Butcher and me.  The rest of the game was a constant team fight, taking down forts and towers and the enemy team. The Dragon Knight was felled, but that just meant I was at the Core as Chromie; I set up a sandstorm and kept throwing Q’s into it.

If you know any Mobas, you can see from the mini-map how strange our victory was:

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Blue still has two of its three towers.  Normally you’d take them all down. You can also see that Red has no towers on the bottom lane, due to the fight at the core described above.

Only on watching the playback for a second time, writing this post, did I understand how we did it: our little knot of heroes stayed alive, and kept picking off enemies, so we usually had a 5-4 or 4-3 advantage, and right at the 20-minute mark, a team kill which allowed us to beat up their core at our leisure.

OK, these two games have nothing to do with each other, but at least one review is a positive and one is a negative.  First, To Be or Not To Be.

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It is permadeath, but you have options

This is Ryan North’s choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet. You can play as Hamlet, Ophelia, or Hamlet’s Dad, and you can follow Shakespeare or not.  And you will do all of the above, because in classic CYOA style the paths are pretty short and you’ll want to get a good sampling, at least.

I suppose some very earnest and glum person might not care for North’s off-the-wall humor.  I am not that person.  It’s pretty hilarious, and though North is not as well-versed in verse, I have to admit that in terms of choosing adventure, he’s got Shakespeare beat. I’d venture to say that his version of Hamlet is even better than Cowboy Wally’s. It’s also pretty cheap, so what are you waiting for?

About the only other thing to say is that as an engine for a mostly text game, it’s done very well.  You have to do maybe a little too much clicking to explore a previous path to the previous branch, but there are save points to help out, and it’s really not onerous to explore a bunch of possible plots.  There are also a bunch of illustrations for those who don’t like to read.

Next, Black Desert Online.  I promised a Steam pal a review, and here it is.  That is, there’s a review that indicates how some people might like it.  I didn’t manage to.

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One badass cutie, coming up

I heard about BDO, strangely enough, from a rave review of its character generator. And by golly, it does have a magnificent character generator. For instance, in the above image the blue spot isn’t a tattoo, it’s a control. You can take that area and shift it, rotate it, or resize it, and so with each other part of the face and body.

And yet, the process reveals that after this next-gen character generator, we really need a next-next-gen character generator.  As you can see, by default you get a cute Korean girl. And… what do you do next?  She looks fine.  Honestly it’s more interesting to spend the time in Oblivion  making its potato faces a little more acceptable.  Given a beautiful face, about all you can do is mess it up.  A next-next-gen program might help you discover how to move the face in a particular direction– e.g. you want Faye Wong or Lucy Liu or Ritsuko Taneda or Maggie Cheung instead of the default face.  Most of us have no idea how to program a face– what polygons to nudge to get those characters.

Once the game starts, what do you get?  I’ve read about it being a Different Kind of MMO, but it seemed like every other MMO I’ve tried, only more generic.  You have a starting village where you talk to people and learn the interface.  There are starter monsters that never go away, and yet killing a few seems to make an NPC happier. There are quests and item sellers and other PCs dashing around and having endless discussion of Trump in open chat. Combat is mostly mashing keys, though I’m told you get various combos later (but no real aiming). You can certainly keep busy, but none of this is as well done as (say) The Secret World, and the world isn’t as interesting as (say) DC Universe Online.

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It is gorgeous, I’ll give it that. It’s a pleasant colorful world. Above is how your character will appear in the world after all that customization: almost identical to other PCs.

Now, from the real review I linked to, you can see that you can invest in businesses, go fishing, hire NPCS, and so on.  Which sounds excruciatingly dull to me.  I can be amused building bases for awhile, as in Empyrion, but hauling products was a chore in Civ 2 and I doubt it’s improved since.  (Well, I did like Euro Truck Simulator 2, but the minimal tasks required to drive a simulated truck are more interesting than following a path in an MMO.)

So, if all this sounds like your cup of simulated medieval gruel, dive in!  I absolutely can’t say I’ve spent enough time in the game to really see what it has to offer.  But I do say that it does a poor job of selling itself in the first 4 to 5 hours.

 

 

This sounded intriguing, and it’s discounted in the Steam summer sale, so I picked it up. It’s not quite what I expected (which was roughly, more like Bayonetta, which is from the same developer), but I’m digging it.

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Operator 60 confesses her girl problems

I’m about 7 hours in, which might be a quarter of the way through the main story. Like Bayonetta, it’s intended to be played through multiple times. Unlike Bayonetta and just about everything else, the game is different on the second playthrough.

I did get a crash when I first started the game, but I upgraded my AMD drivers and it’s been fine ever since.

One warning: the beginning hour or so offers no autosave, a poor design decision that is not true of the rest of the game. And it ends with a massive boss fight, which sends you back to the beginning if you fail. This is pretty crappy while you are still learning how the game works.  Fortunately there’s a legit workaround: go through it on easy mode, and turn on the auto-targeting (with Q); then 2B will fight on her own and all you have to do is move her around.  You should only need to do this for the boss fights.  (It’s a nice mechanic, though.  You can enjoy the story without being fazed by twitchy bosses.)

Basic situation: you are an android named 2B, basically part of the android special forces. Aliens have taken over the earth, though they are unseen; instead you fight their emissaries, machines ranging from the size of a trash can to the size of a refinery. The androids fight on behalf of the humans, now exiled on the moon.

2B, because this is a Japanese game, is not a chunky space marine but a girl with twin samurai swords (plus a flying probe with a laser gun), dressed in Gothic Lolita style.  She has a partner, another android named 9S, also dressed in black but in boyish shorts. For some reason they both wear black cloth visors that cover their eyes. (Presumably not blindfolds as they seem perfectly able to see.)

You can either go up close and use your swords, or stay back and use the probe’s gun.  Or both at once.  It’s said to work best with a controller, but I don’t have one.  Many enemies shoot out big purple bullets in nice patterns– a genre known as bullet hell.

I recommend rebinding the keys, though.  The default keyboard setup is absurd– e.g. weapons assigned to left and right shift.  How you are supposed to use those and navigate using WASD, I have no idea.  I moved all the weaponry to the numpad so I can move with left hand, fight with right.  (You can’t assign the weapon keys to the mouse, though you perhaps wouldn’t want to, since there are four keys. The mouse can be used to control the camera, or to advance dialogs.)

What surprised me is the pacing. Past the initial section, Automata becomes almost tranquil. You find an android base in a ruined city. You can talk briefly to various androids and collect detritus to sell. The city has some peaceful machine residents, and only a few hostile ones. When you see running water, you’re prompted to go fishing.  You have missions to go to, but in between you can simply walk around the pretty post-apocalyptia.

It’s pretty much lampshaded that Things Are Not As They Seem.  The androids’ dedication to unseen humans (they salute each other with “Glory to mankind!”) is a bit creepy. 2B is all business, mostly shooting down 9S’s friendly overtures. We soon meet peaceful machines who don’t want to fight the androids. We don’t see either the aliens or the humans.

There are some unusual design choices… one is that you can encounter the corpses of other players.  There is no multiplayer, but when you find them, you can choose to revive them (they will fight by your side for a time), or retrieve their parts. In either case you also get a little meditation on mortality.

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Ave atque vale, Eason. Though you must have been a noob to die in this spot.

But the real mind-blowers are supposed to come later.  E.g., there are 26 different endings.  You can sell various bits of your HUD if you like.  You can even remove your operating system… which will kill you, you fool.  Apparently one of the endings is a bullet hell version of the credits.

More later, but I like what I’ve seen so far.  (After the prologue.)

 

 

Back when I was playing League of Legends, I thought it should have a Legends Lite. Several people suggested Heroes of the Storm, but I didn’t play it until I had to in order to get a cool D.Va skin.  Which I don’t use because an even cooler one came out.  But I kinda got a liking for Heroes.

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They could’ve called it Horses of the Storm

Mind you, I’ve almost exclusively played against bots, and I’ve played, I think, eight heroes– two of them ones from Overwatch. Still, I’m a hundred games in, and I kind of know how to play Li-Ming now.

So, if you’ve played League or Dota 2, it’s definitely a Moba. You are on a team of five, you have minions and lanes, you take the enemy’s towers, and you end up destroying their Core.  You got your basic attacks and your Q/W/E/R superpowers, you got more heroes than you feel you’ll ever learn, you got your increasingly long respawn times if you die. You’ve got your tanks and your supports and your assassins.

But it really is a Moba Lite too, for several reasons:

  • The maps are smaller, and go faster.  A game is less of a commitment.
  • There is no item store.  Every few levels you get a choice of upgrades to your powers– there’s not much extra strategy there.
  • There’s no last-hitting and no denies.
  • For now, there’s about half as many heroes as Legends. And if you’ve played other Blizzard games, you know some of them already.
  • Roles are way less important. The laning phase is short anyway, and (so far as I’ve seen so far) people don’t get hung up on the meta.
  • There are neutral camps which you can take over, and then the dudes will fight for you. But there’s not really enough of them to make jungling a role.

There are a bunch of maps, each with a special activity.  E.g. on one you try to control two points, and if you do better at this you get a bunch of Zerg fighting for you. (These are a StarCraft villain.) On another you collect gems dropped by minions, and if you get more than the enemy you get a giant spider fighting for you.  On yet another a demon lord and an angel are fighting, and you are allied with one of them; if you defeat the other, your demigod will join you for awhile.  All this adds some variety to the gameplay.

Of course I tried D.Va, but she’s tricky.  Also strangely off-model. It’s weird that artists from the same company can’t quite seem to match the original art.

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And that’s the closest one. Her other skins are weird

She can bounce around quickly, getting people out of position and causing some damage, and she can create a small shield, but when I try her I feel like she’s too weak, and yet doesn’t hurt the enemy enough.

Li-Ming is fun to play. She’s an assassin, so she has a lot of damage.  She’s fragile, but her attacks are all at range, so she’s very effective against melee heroes. Her Q/W abilities are skillshots, but not hard to make– what I have to remember is to position myself so the minions don’t get in the way. Her E is a tiny teleport– often just enough to get out of someone’s range.  HOTS gives you two possible R’s; the one I choose is a disintegrating laser. The best thing about Li-Ming is that her Q recharges really really quick, so you can spam it shamelessly.

About the only other hero I’ve enjoyed is Valla, who is another ranged assassin.  Her Q takes more time to charge, though, so I will have to practice more.

I have to say, Blizzard’s art direction improved a lot between HOTS and Overwatch. Every Overwatch hero is colorful, attractive, and immediately identifiable. HOTS heroes run to interchangeable-looking humanoids in chunky armor, or weird-looking aliens in chunky armor.

If you’ve played Mobas before, you’ll get the basic idea quickly.   And if you haven’t… well, I can’t tell you how easy it will be.  There’s more to learn than in Overwatch.  But so far I don’t have the sense of a cliff of unknowns as in Legends.  But I’ll report back once I’m playing against more humans.

I finally got around to something I wanted to do for awhile… find out what some of the signs on the Hanamura map in Overwatch say.

In the arcade, there are intriguing posters of a lanky woman, not D.Va, who may have a mecha of her own.

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Super マシン2 = Super Machine 2

音樂! = Ongaku! = Music!

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ルパンター X = Pantā X = Hunter X

パワーガー  = Pawāgāru = Power Girl

The sign on the door of the outside door of the castle:

花村城跡地。立ち入り禁止。

Hanamura-jō atochi. Tachiiri kinshi.

Site of Hanamura castle. No trespassing.

The Rikimaru shop is labeled, not very excitingly,

ラーメン屋 Rāmen-ya = Ramen shop

Finally, the van outside the arcade says

うまさ世界 デリバリ = Umasa sekai – deribari = Tastiness World – Delivery

Thanks to alert reader Hirofumi Nagamura for corrections!

Edit: And also for providing translations for these signs inside the castle:

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Left: 七転八起 = Shi chi ten hakki = “Fall seven times, rise eight times”— i.e. “Don’t be discouraged by multiple setbacks.”

Right: 竜の心で気合全開 = Ryū no kokoro de ki ai zen kai = “With a dragon’s heart, go all out with your fighting spirit.”

First, check out this article on endings in video games. tl;dr: Dude thinks that open-world games should let you down gently at the end. They should provide some aftercare.  He wants to be able to go back and see how you’ve changed the world, see how the quest givers are faring, maybe pick up some grateful plaudits.

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But then what happened?

My overall response: no you don’t, dude.  You think you want that, but it’d be a shit-ton of work to provide, and you’d be bored of it in ten minutes.

Now, there is something unsatisfying about having to save the world, then never getting to explore what happens afterwards.  Fallout 3 and Fallout NV are like this: you do a huge thing and then you’re just told what happened later in a slideshow. And half the time this isn’t even very well thought out.  (E.g. in my ending of Fallout NV, I have a frigging army of upgraded robots, but I’m told that the neighboring suburb has become even more lawless.)

But really, to get what this guy wants, you’d have to add multiple hours of content (because who knows what part of the open world the player wants to check up on), and almost by definition, what you’re adding won’t be game-like. The big bad got impaled on something; you killed all his lieutenants earlier; there’s not going to be much to do. NPCs are not actually people; during the main plot they got a little simulacrum of being real because they had problems you could solve. It’s not at all easy to make them seem real when the plot is over.  “Thank you, Champion of Cyrodiil, things really are better now!” is not really going to be a compelling interaction for long.

This isn’t to say the game can’t let you down gently.  I think the later Arkham games are good at this.  You can wander around for many more hours doing all the side quests, and finding Riddler trophies.  Or you can spend another hundred hours polishing your skills on the combat maps.

The game I just finished, Bayonetta, has a nice approach, I think. You don’t get a lot of “what happened next”. But you do get an explicit denouement scene that brings back the major characters (and offers an easy fight), then a credits sequence that includes a couple more fights, and then an extended dance scene.  So you move from some emotional closure, to some low-key interaction (sprinkling the credits with fights is a brilliant idea), to just sitting back and enjoying the dance.  It’s like stretching after strenuous exercise, it calms you down and makes you feel good.

The thing that most bothers me about the article is that it doesn’t seem to recognize that the plot’s ending is not the game’s ending. You may read a novel straight through and then put it back on the shelf, but games don’t generally work that way.  If you liked the game, finishing the plot may just be the start of your adventure.  You play it again, just for fun or to experience different approaches or to challenge yourself on a higher difficulty setting. The real ending is the point where beating up one more thug, or finding one more space durian for the helpless peasant, suddenly strikes you as boring rather than fun.

Besides, it’s a rare game where the actual plot ending is really the high point of the game. I’ve said several times that the best part of Bethesda games is the first 10 levels– the part where everything is new and scary, you’re half-bewildered by all the quests available, and a single stimpak/health potion is a rewarding find. Most game endings are variants on “fight some dude with a lot of hit points”, and often you only use a small subset of the skills you’ve learned. (E.g. many a stealth game offers no opportunity to use stealth during the last boss fight.)  If the game explored some darker or more nuanced ideas, that was probably in earlier sections.  So while the last fight should be cathartic, it’s a hard ask.

Of course, there are a few games that completely upend our expectations.  My go-to example is Fable 3: you have the final boss fight, murderate your evil brother, and become queen… and then find out that you’re facing an even larger problem, the one your brother failed to solve, plus all the promises you made to secure allies along the way now come due.  It’s a ballsy move– far more than (say) Fallout NV.

Finally, though it’s true that the devs could say “what happened” for each of the 153 side quests, I’m not sure the article author realizes that an author can always add More Story; the art is knowing when to stop. As Neil Gaiman remarked, in real life people’s stories don’t end until they’re dead. You can’t really ask of a piece of art to let you keep asking “what happened next” indefinitely. At some point the character dies, or the author dies, or you die. If you want more story, get the season pass.  Or just learn to appreciate closure, the artistic technique where author and audience agree to leave things be for a time.

 

So, Bayonetta (1) is finally out for the PC. It sounded fun back in 2010 when it was released for consoles, and it’s only $20, so I picked it up.  It is fun. Also one of the weirdest games I’ve even played.

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Punch punch kick is like a big evil kiss

I can maybe imagine a Western studio basing a game on the traditional Catholic hierarchy of angels.  But it would be a little eyebrow-raising that these are the game’s enemies.  And that you play a witch allied with Hell, fighting your way up the hierarchy, and the final boss fight is with the Creator.

Well, that’s Bayonetta.  Partly mitigating the weirdness of the concept, but also adding to it, you have the fact that the makers know no more or care about Christianity than, say, the makers of Assassin’s Creed know about Islam. It’s just a source of ready-made symbols for them; it has nothing to say about actual religion. It’s not even blasphemous– the ‘Creator’ here certainly isn’t the Christian idea of God. The “angels” are accompanied by heavenly music and have an appropriate white-and-gold color scheme, but they look far more like aliens than angels, especially as they get battered up and their masks literally slip.

Bayonetta starts out almost as unsettled as the player: she knows she’s a witch, but has forgotten her history and doesn’t know why angels keep appearing and fighting her. When she collects their haloes, however, she can turn them in to her demon friend Rodin, who works as a bartender in a rundown US city and makes infernal magic weapons on the side, which he sells for haloes. Oh, and part of the exposition is given by a comic-relief character– a short, cowardly guy named Enzo, with a New York accent. (I’d love to know what he sounded like in the original.  I’m guessing he had an Osaka accent, as Japanese comedians tend to come from there.)  Soon she’s traveling to Vigrid, an isolated European country which is positively infested with angels to fight.

Combat is a remote relation to the Arkham games, or Remember Me: it’s not based on aiming and shooting, but on building combos while evading attacks (with Shift). The simplest combos are based on mixtures of punch (LMB) and kick (RMB), but there is plenty of complexity, and you pick up new moves and abilities at an alarming pace. There’s a large variety of angel types, each of which has attack moves that you must learn to recognize. If you can evade at the last moment, you get “witch time”– time slows down so you can get in some good combos. Some enemies can only be defeated this way.

Along the way there are several (fairly simple) puzzles and (less forgiving) platforming sequences. There are things to collect along the way, and you can build candies, the game’s equivalent of potions.

The Steam page suggest that you should use a controller, but PCGamer said you didn’t need one, which is good because I don’t have one. It’s certainly possible to play with keyboard and mouse.  (The main complaint I have about the UI is that the game doesn’t always orient the camera usefully. You can move the camera yourself, but it moves slowly.)

I found playing it on Normal to be too frustrating, so I switched to Easy. I’m not that good at twitchy timing, and there are some nasty QTE bits (though not as many or as annoying as those in Tomb Raider). It’s not always clear what to do.  But then, the game is intended to be replayed multiple times; as you do, you can easily dispatch enemies or find routes that were a complete bear the first time. (I just went back and finished a couple of chapters on Normal that I couldn’t the first time.)

The cosmology isn’t the end of the weirdness. Bayonetta quadruple-wields guns: one in each hand, and one on each heel. How she fires these is not explained, but it seems to work for her.

The game has been updated and perhaps retextured for the PC; it looks great, and often gives you astonishing vistas:

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In paradise, gravity is merely local

Bayonetta is a little like Catwoman, and not just because of the black catsuit. She’s sexy and flirty, and yet cocky and superheroic. The player may marvel at the huge and strange boss angels, but she doesn’t– she just makes fun of them and jumps into the attack. Some things puzzle her, but nothing seems to faze her. She has oodles of agency.

The single weirdest thing about the game– well beyond fighting the cherubim– is that Bayonetta’s catsuit is made of her own hair, and for special attacks it unravels and turns into weapons or monsters.  That’s… not something I’d expect DC or Marvel to ever come up with. If it helps, it’s not as pervy as it sounds: it occurs in the middle of a furious fight, so what you actually get is a split-second fairly PG-rated view.  Then the hair monster eats the defeated angel.  It’s just part of the general insanity.

I’m about 3/4 of the way through, so I can’t say much about where the story ends up. Suffice it to say that you learn a lot about where Bayonetta came from and about the line of witches that taught her, and that she’s nowhere near as antiheroic as she seems as first.

The game is from the same studio as Nier: Automata, which I’m eager to try next.

Edit: Finished the game. The whole story is about 14 hours, but (as I said) it’s designed to be replayed till you can combo your way through like a boss. The ending is not as weird as the rest of the game– it makes a valiant effort to make sense of the rest of the game. Nicely, the game lets you down gently at the end: after the final boss fight, there’s a denouement at the cemetery which features a small fight, and then there’s a couple more little easy fights during the credits; then a dance sequence. So you’re eased down from the adrenaline high.

Edit edit: Replayed the first 5 chapters on Normal, and it’s pretty frustrating. Being able to do something I couldn’t do earlier is nice (e.g. defeating a Fearless without Witch Time).  But then they throw enemies at you which are basically tests of reaction time, which is not fun for me.

Edit³: Trying some more: if you hate finishing a chapter with a Stone award (generally meaning you died too much), the best thing to do is replay it a few times. Then you remember how to fight its particular bosses and what QTE keys to press.

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