games


I haven’t played an Assassin’s Creed since the first, and I never finished that. But touring (and murdering half of) Greece sounded fun, so I picked up ACO.

aco ships

Now how do you suppose I’m going to get a ship to go over there?

I am playing, of course, as Kassandra, because why wouldn’t you? A badass dude is boring; a badass woman is interesting. The voice actor, Melissanthi Mahut, even gives her a strong accent, which is a little unusual for the protagonist of a game.

Overall stuff: I’m not very far in (9 hours), but it’s fun so far.  Almost all of the baggage in the series– the Templars and Assassins, the future stuff, the assassination structure– has been downplayed.  It’s a lot like The Witcher 3, in fact.  Kassandra is a misthios, or mercenary, so your character, like you, wants to accumulate money and gear and murderate people. You work for various disreputable people, and there are plenty of side quests along the way. The game is absolutely gorgeous, and they’ve found a way to have quite a population of NPCs at any one time, so it doesn’t have the “three people represent a village” thing that many games have.

You can tell if a character is unimportant, because they’ll be speaking Greek. The handling of Greek seems inconsistent… characters pronounce the same word different ways (this is especially noticeable with drachmae), and it seems to me that some pronunciations are Hellenic and others modern. Definitely not classical: ph th kh are not aspirated, but fricativized. Kassandra seems to drop her h’s (Helios = Elios), but at least Kephallonia gets a [k] not an [s].

The writing is, well, serviceable. You start out doing errands for your disreputable pal Markos. Apparently you washed up on the beach as a young girl and he took care of you, but he’s a hustler and ne’er-do-well, kind of like Roman in Grand Theft Auto IV. He’s in debt to the local gangster, the Cyclops, who is the focus of the early missions.

Which is fine as a general setup, but if you look at any episode carefully, it falls to pieces. Markos owes a debt to Cyclops, and proposes paying for it by stealing a treasure of his. But you never actually sell it, and eventually– when you’ve advanced enough levels– you just murder him. Cyclops apparently has a ship, which is good because you want one. But instead of getting that ship, you rescue a ship-owner from Cyclops and he gives you his ship and crew. (For that matter, you’re also sent to talk to a shipbuilder, who quotes you an insane price.)

Now, Shamus Young would give you a 20-part series tearing all this apart, and probably will, but I’d just note that it all seems cobbled together to make the game work. We need an early infiltration mission, thus the theft; we need a ship, thus the rescue of the sea captain. Yet another mission is simply an excuse to meet Elpanor, the next quest giver once you’ve left Markos behind.

That’s all fine; it’s just an excuse to wander around being violent. The fighting is enjoyable, though I should really master the dodge mechanic. (You avoid damage if you parry or dodge, though if you fight people of your level– this is always clearly marked– you can get knocked about quite a lot before dying.) The stealth is more fun.  You can scout out an area with your eagle and mark enemies. You can parkour around, you can hide in bushes, and a stealth assassination is fast and powerful, more so than fighting.

Here and there you get choices which are apparently meaningful later. E.g. there are characters you can romance, though apparently this takes awhile.  (For reference, the first one is Odessa, who you meet on Ithaka.) I do like the climbing mechanic– Kassandra can climb just about anything. (There are high points you can clamber up, then use as fast travel points.)

One story thing that does bug me is that Kassandra seems to know little about her own home island.  She’s apparently known to be a mercenary, but the local thugs don’t fear her, nor does she work for them… what the hell has she been doing for her ten years on the island? There’s a burnt-out village a short walk from her house, and she doesn’t know about it. She doesn’t know that Odysseus’s palace is right there on Ithaka, the next island north, which she can swim to if she wanted. She also has a house, but she doesn’t seem to care about it and there’s nothing really to do there. It’s not even marked on the map; before leaving Kephallonia I found it again and made a note of the location:

aco my house

My record collection of ancient bards is there

I know, most adventure games don’t do this either. But they should! It’s nice to have a place on the map that’s yours, ideally customizable.

Once you get the ship, you can go and discover the wider world.  Naval combat is a whole ‘nother beast. Athens and Sparta are having a war, which you can join in, changing sides at will. The map looks intimidatingly large at this point… if it’s as full of things to do as Kephallonia, it could take weeks to finish. I don’t think games have to be this open-world; in fact, it can be discouraging to look at a huge map full of to-do icons. I think Arkham City is about perfect for the size and complexity of a map.  On the other hand, I’d like to think it works like a Fallout game, so I can choose to go to Athens or Sparta or Crete and just see what’s there.

One thing I absolutely don’t miss, by the way, is the future-world stuff from the first game. Or the Templars and Assassins, for that matter. There’s a cut-scene in the beginning that references the apparently interminable story, but it’s soon over; the game doesn’t even pretend to be interested in that stuff any more. (Maybe it does later.) I note in my review of the first game that it didn’t have a save command; in ACO you can save any time except in combat.

My one complaint, and it’s minor, is that the game can be short on guidance. There’s tutorials for fighting, but not for climbing. (You just use shift; I kept trying space, as in other games.) The fast-travel mechanic isn’t explained, though it’s quite simple (climb to the highest point, then you’ll finally get a prompt). Also, you can fail a romance– or at least it seems you can; with my first options Odessa ran off in a huff. So maybe save before trying to make it with someone.

I’ve already heard speculations on what other locations should get the same treatment. Well, duh, Three Kingdoms China. I would love to be able to pick a side and fight at Red Cliffs. Of course I’d be against Cáo Cāo, but either of the southern kingdoms would be a good client. I’ll even suggest a great protagonist: Sūn Quán’s daughter, who in fact is fascinated by war and has her own troop of female archers.

 

 

 

 

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Well, I’m in a new galaxy, named Eissentam.  It’s apparently Galaxy No. 10 of 256.  I don’t expect I’ll visit them all. Spoilers ahead if you worry about that.

nms feeding

The questline of Conan Exiles– if you can find it– is that you build the MacGuffin, use it, get a tiny dumb cutscene, and start over in a new game. Well, No Man’s Sky does pretty much the same thing. You finish the Artemis questline, you get some alone time with Atlas, and your reward is to start over in a new galaxy.  (You do keep your inventory and ship. And it turns out you can summon your freighter and get the contents of your old storage units; but you don’t keep your base.)

The questline is great as a means of keeping you busy: there’s a ton of stuff to do, and it walks you through building and populating your base.  As a story, it’s basically incoherent nonsense. Making a game that simulates an entire galaxy, the devs decided to go meta: whoa man what if the game is about simulating an entire galaxy and you’re like an AI?  I think this is a trope which more or less never works.  About all that can be said for it is that at least it explains why the NMS galaxies don’t obey our laws of physics. (I do like the idea of the early part of the quest– you try to connect to other Travelers– but there’s no payoff to this part.)

An immense amount of effort has gone into NMS; still, after 76 hours, the seams are showing. The animals and plants are built off a limited number of models: your basic dinosaur, your basic bouncy thing, your basic bird, your basic jellyfish, and so on. I’m not bored yet, but I’m not expecting my enthusiasm to last through an actual trip to the galactic center.

There’s little bits that work really well.  E.g., you can feed the animals, they crowd around you, and then they poop coprite.  That’s what’s happening in the pic above– it’s part of a new set of weekly quests for Nada and Polo. It sounds dumb, but it’s actually rather charming, one of the few moments you feel like you’re interacting with the world.

The vistas of new worlds are also nice.  There are some worlds that look like the ruins of world-spanning cities, which are pretty eerie:

nms ruins

If this sounds mixed, well, that’s how it is. I think it works well as a survival game with an unusually broad canvas for exploration.  The base building is too punishing… seriously, dudes, 350 pieces of pure ferrite (not even a basic material) to build one fricking room?  The story is dumb; on the other hand, the mini-stories you get by taking side missions or talking to random aliens can be fun. There’s always something to do; also always something to complain of.

(OK, one more complaint: the language stuff is still pointless. I know over 400 words now; that’s just enough to point out how utterly unlike language learning the process is. E.g. for a long time the Geks would greet me with “Ammr friend!”  It seemed obvious that ammr was hello, and lo and behold, that’s exactly what it is. To make this process, you know, slightly more like a game, why not let me guess at words? Or let me ask for a particular word rather than a random word?  Who learns ‘isotopes’ before ‘is’?)

Edit: OK, one more bit of praise and complaint. The kind of nice bit: fixing frigates. The frigates can go out exploring, but the crew is incapable of doing minor repairs. OK, the justification is dumb, but the mechanics are cute: you clamber around the frigate to make the repairs.

The complaint: freighter missions are tedious. You send your frigates on missions, and hopefully they come back with some stuff. OK, but you have to go out to your freighter to start and stop the mission and maybe mess with inventories. And sometimes go fix the frigates. Why can’t you just make a phone call? (I suppose because then there’d be no reason for the freighters to have insides. It’s of a piece with the general problem of NMS: every area is super-pretty, and never feels alive.)

Did I complain about the base building?  Yes, I did, but I can always complain more. I finally learned how to make rooms of any size, using the cube modules. Nice idea, but each cube takes 200 pure ferrite, which is insane. The devs should play Empyrion to learn how to make base building actually fun.

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.

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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:

20180730005428_1

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.)

Edit: the last patch finally fixes this.  Still no face, but at least the body is female. Only took ’em two years!

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…

More thoughts after finishing the Apollo quest here

 

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

Overwatch-Hammond-Wrecking-Ball

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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