Cyberpunk 2077: More thoughts

After my first bad reactions, and after playing about 18 hours, I’ve reached a truce with Cyberpunk 2077. I think I understand my feelings better now: the story is pretty good, and often fascinating. The gameplay sucks.

Now that’s a stylin’ V, right? Right?

To mitigate this, I’ve a) lowered the difficulty, and b) grabbed a big frigging katana. I don’t know why, but my guns do about 150 dps while melee does over 300. That makes the combat go way faster.

What’s wrong with the gameplay?

  • It’s mostly guns. I was expecting cyberpunk.
  • There isn’t anything interesting about its guns. Borderlands knows how to make pew-pew interesting; C77 doesn’t.
  • The enemies are dull. Didn’t these guys make the Witcher games? Monsters are interesting; mooks are not.
  • The hacking continues to suck. I guess I need a new cyberdeck with more slots, so I’ll work on that. There’s very little to do and all it does is put off the gunplay a little.
  • The levels and powers aren’t designed for stealth. (They’re too small, there are no places to get back into stealth, there are too few takedown options.)

It frustrates me whenever I think about it, because there’s no lack of better models. You could stealth ‘n hack your way through Deus Ex. For basic stealth, see Assassin’s Creed Odyssey; for advanced stealth, the Arkham or Dishonored games. Or hell, for interesting hacking look at Gunpoint.

But yeah, I can get through the combat now at least. The stories are variable, but are often a lot more involving and well-written than they have to be. As one example, tracking down Evelyn Parker, I had to buy a session with a sex worker. (I think these people are still human, but heavily modified?) Sounds cheesy, right? But it’s not what you expect (e.g. there’s no sex). It actually turns into a heavy psychotherapy session for V.

Another: I’m tracking down rogue cabs for Delamain, an AI who runs a cab company. Again, this sounds like the sort of collectibles mission you’d get in Saints Row. But each rogue cab has gone astray in its own way, so each one is an interesting surprise.

One more: Jackie, your partner from Act I, gets an ofrenda from his mother. They put quite a lot of work into this, with no gameplay at all, and it works pretty well. It would have worked better if there’d been more opportunity to get to know Jackie, but it’s still a surprising amount of depth to add to one NPC.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have story complaints. In general, I have the same issue as with the main storyline of Borderlands 3: the writers often think they’re far more edgy and fascinating than they are. I get a little tired of the endless gallery of tough-guy gangsters and fixers. The whole idea of black market braindances is… I dunno, probably realistic but way more grotesque than it has to be.

I understand that they’re trying to do a dystopia here. But I feel like they’re not always clear on the difference between exotic and outrageous. One example: at one point you meet a doctor named Fingers. He’s obviously intended to be a piece of work– after all, he sold Evelyn to sleazy braindance producers. But they seem to want to express this by coding him as gay and dressing him in a collar and shorts and a mesh shirt.

This isn’t characteristic of the game as a whole (where, after all, there are gay and lesbian romance options and your character can dress as absurdly as you can manage). But, I dunno, it seems like a step backwards from, oh, Zimos in Saints Row 3… who’s an absurd pimp but also your homey and useful supporter. I just wish the game designers had more room in their heads for the idea of “weird but also cool.”

But anyway, I want to at least get that romance with Judy, so I’ll keep going. (I’m still not too enamored of Keanu, but at least he’s not punching me any more.)

Minecraft Islands

I could write about the coup attempt… it turns out the one thing that will make Republicans maybe turn on Trump is if he sends a mob to attack and kill them, who knew? But you’ve probably heard all about it, so I feel like talking about Minecraft.

A streamer played something that looked interesting– a Minecraft mode called Islands. It’s not a mod, it’s a world generation option. You get floating islands in the void, all one biome. It’s kind of like Skyblock but you can do actual mining. Here’s my base; you can see some of the islands as well as my attempt to make it look like the Nether.

Since it’s only the Plains biome, there’s a lot of stuff missing… you can’t even get clay, sand, or most types of tree. The islands don’t extend down far enough to get diamonds. On the other hand, you can pick up some exotic materials from wandering traders. Although the single biome is a little dull, the restrictions, and the fear of falling in the void, make it pretty interesting. (The Nether is normal.)

The pool was my first really big project. It’s quite deep, probably 15 to 20 blocks. Unfortunately it doesn’t generate squid or dolphins, though it’s an excellent source of Drowned.

I just finished the ziggurat today. It looks quite nice from the inside:

Actual ziggurats were, perhaps disappointingly, not hollow. But a hollow one is easier to build and has an interesting interior. Note that every block has nothing below it: I had to place each block on a temporary scaffolding block, and then remove the scaffolding.

I lucked out with this world, I think: I spawned pretty near a village, and not far from a ruined portal.

One of the curiosities of the Island mode is that deep mines– the ones with railroads, cave spiders, etc.– still generate, but below the islands. So they just hang there, all visible, in the void. Likewise strongholds. Villages often generate partly or wholly down in the void too. I found a lone cleric villager in one, but when I checked later to rescue him he was gone, poor thing.

What next? Not much, perhaps… I may have done everything worth doing. I may just wait till the Caves update is done and try a regular world again. Also I’d better see how V is doing. (People have told me the game gets better after the Heist chapter.)

Cyberpunk 2077: first disgruntled thoughts

I started Cyberpunk 2077 and I’m not far into it, just 9 hours. I’ve looked forward to this game for a long time– maybe too much, because it doesn’t seem to be what I was expecting. So far I’m not enjoying it much, but I hope it gets better. (Feel free to tell me if it does!) I haven’t played enough to call this a review; mostly I want to get my initial reactions down.

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First, the infamous bugs. I just got a new computer, because the old one was having disk problems. This definitely improved performance, though last night I noticed weird graphics glitching (trees from the distance weren’t getting culled). But nothing has really got in the way. I got stuck in cyber mode a few times, but learned that this isn’t a bug, just undocumented– you hit Caps Lock to get out.

The good things: it looks great. It’s very… cyberpunky. It’s certainly everything I wanted visually. The basic setup. Some neat characters, like Judy.

The bad things: everything else. I’m just going to go through my notes and complain. Note that there are spoilers for The Heist here.

1. The goddamn cutscenes. The Heist– the big mission that sets up the basic game predicament– is a bunch of short on-rails action sequences and one damn cutscene after another. It’s the sort of thing that makes me think CDPR forgot they were writing a game; they wanted to make a movie instead. 

An example: at one point you are guiding a little robot through rooms in a skyscraper. This could have been enormously exciting: navigate foot-high vents, wait for guards, solve minor puzzles, whatever. Instead, it’s literally divided up into rooms, where the big puzzle is “Use detective vision to find the next vent.” There is only one vent (or other objective) to find, and you don’t even get to pilot the robot.

Later on they give up on even this level of interaction. You just get one cutscene after another. At best you get a few dull dialog choices to make.

2. Combat is boring yet difficult. Enemies are bullet sponges– one website claims that a headshot at close range with a pistol removes 1/4 of the health bar. Whuh? I guess Borderlands 3 is like that, but in BL3, shooting pretty much is the gameplay and they’ve made it fun. In C77 it’s more like “you must eliminate these mooks before we’ll dole out more story.” And I dunno, is the heart of cyberpunk “shooting mooks with a pistol”?

3. Yet when you briefly play Johnny Silverhands, you can mostly one-shot enemies. I get that they wanted to tell the story at that point and not impede it with really
difficult mooks… but as I say, the entire mission is on rails, so in the rest of it they did want to impede the story with mooks.

4. Where is the damn ammo? I am probably missing obvious sources, but I ran out of ammo during the Heist missions, and yes, I did look for ammo boxes. Why doesn’t
picking up enemy guns give you ammo, as in every other game? Note that you’re absolutely screwed without ammo; luckily I was almost at the end and could just run to the elevator.

5. Yet again, this is a game with stealth where stealth doesn’t seem to be a viable option. Did CDPR play the Arkham games (they must have, see below) or Dishonored? Your options are wimpy, things like give an enemy a little shock, or blind them for a few seconds. You can disable someone from behind, but the levels are tiny, so the Arkham/Dishonored strategy of carefully observing enemies and taking them out one by one is rarely possible. And your “quickhacks” are severely limited: in effect, you can maybe use them for the first two of the dozen enemies you face in a level.

6. You get level-ups, but they seem to be hardly worth it: things like “increase crit chance by 1%.”

7. The Keanu thing, ugh. So you get a hallucination of Keanu in your head, who apparently is able to physically punch you, and also wants to take over your brain. This is… the plot of Arkham Knight. At least Joker was amusing.

8. An earlier mission makes a big deal of “braindances”, interactive memories. And there hasn’t been another one since. If it’s a device that’s used only rarely, they expended way too much effort on giving them a complicated UI. And it’s still basically “use detective vision to find the colored interactable objects.”

9. Like many others, I want to see my V. Supposedly they did first person view for “immersion”, but I find it less immersive. I want third person as an option, at least.

10. The grimdark. I guess it comes with the territory, but cyberpunk shouldn’t just be noir, it should have some sort of added futuristic grotesquerie. The game doesn’t feel like a Gibson novel, it feels like Grand Theft Auto. Everybody talks like a gangster, the story relies a little too heavily on killing your pals, and not even the villains seem to be having fun.

11. The intro sequences are another huge missed opportunity. You pick a background and get maybe half an hour of distinct gameplay, then you’re given a freaking
montage of Moving Up in Night City with Jackie.

I understand that choices have to be made when making a huge game. But this is a strange and bad choice. Being a near-helpless noob is an awesome narrative opportunity. The Fallout and Elder Scrolls games get this: the first ten levels, when you don’t know what you’re doing and every enemy is weird and ammo and health are scarce, are the best parts of the games. It would have been great to explore the city, take on side quests, learn what the bewildering build options are for, scrounge for beds till you get the reward of Your Own Hovel. Instead, you’re apparently an established minor mook with your own place. It feels like this whole part of the game was rushed, in order that they could do… what? I don’t even see the tradeoff gains, though surely they’re out there.

12. Speaking of your own place… V’s is boring. Contrast e.g. Adam Jensen’s apartment in Deus Ex, which is a master class in environmental storytelling. There is almost nothing to do in V’s place, nothing that distinguishes her from the NPCs, apparently no customization options. The only things it offers are a place for checking your mail, a vending machine, and a mirror, all of which could easily have been provided elsewhere.

13. While the main mission is on rails, the open world is provided essentially without any guide. I’m not as enamored of open worlds as I once was. Apparently you can do things like find all of Keanu’s old gear, which sounds about as fun as collecting CD-ROMs in Saints Row 2. Which are the fun side missions? I shouldn’t have to consult websites for this.

14. I’m really uncomfortable with the treatment of Japan. There was some of this in Gibson and Stephenson, but I didn’t get this sense of othering from them. There’s a CEO? yakuza leader? who talks like a samurai, wears samurai robes, has a rebellious son, and talks about Americans as “barbarians”… I mean, jeez, maybe you could get away with this in 1975, but does CDPR think this is how Japanese corporations work today? (It’s the American CEO, not the Japanese, who is likely to be an unquestionable despot.)

15. A minor point, but characters sometimes harrass you if you’re not addressing the main task. This is extremely annoying if, e.g., you’re searching for the one goddamn interactable object in the vicinity.  

Related: I ran into some cops hassling someone.  All three had interaction symbols over them… but I couldn’t seem to get into position to see how to use them, and when I got near the cops got aggressive. Did they do playtesting at all?  (When Valve used to make games, this used to be something they were excellent at. You were never confused in a Valve game except at points you were supposed to be confused.)

16. The city is often on multiple levels– cool!– but the wayfinding does not take account of this– annoying! 

What would I have liked instead? I’m not sure, but my major changes would be:

  • More expansive levels– comparable to a Dishonored level– where staying in or regaining stealth would be a viable strat.
  • A slower start that really builds up your experience in Night City.
  • Way less emphasis on guns. I haven’t played Watch Dogs, but maybe CDPR should have? I think “corridors filled with gun-toting mooks” should have
    been stricken from the level designers’ toolkit.
  • Tell the story with gameplay. If you can’t do that, maybe your story needs work.

If that would be hard to do… make the game smaller. I would rather have a smaller number of well-crafted levels than a huge number of half-assed ones.

Genshin Impact

I’ve been playing Genshin Impact, a new game from China which apparently has made $100 million in a few weeks. This is quite a trick as it’s free.

It’s also extremely pretty:

If you know me, you’ll expect the straight dope on the name, so here it is: Genshin is the Japanese reading of the Chinese name, which is 原神 Yuánshén ‘The Original Gods’. (The developers are in Shanghai, so I suspect they name it in Wu instead, but I don’t have any Wu resources.)

The world of the game is called Teyvat. I would have expected the Chinese to mean something, but it doesn’t– it’s 提瓦特 Tíwǎtè. This could mean “hold pottery special”, but probably doesn’t. If anyone has any insight into the name, I’d like to know it!

There are two nations available so far. Mondstadt is 蒙德 Méngdé, which could be translated Mongol German. So, Foreignerland. The country is kind of para-Germanic, and Mondstadt means “moon city” in German. The other country is para-China, and is called 璃月 Líyuè, which translates to “glass moon”. Is it meaningful that moons are involved in both names, in different languages? Probably not, since the theme of the game is “elements”, not celestial bodies. Mondstadt’s is wind and Liyue’s is earth.

The plot is completely bananas, so I won’t bother to go over it. It gives you an excuse to explore the world, which is huge, and packed with things to do.

I’ll give you the standard worrying, which is that the game has microtransactions. However, you can play for free, and the game never nags you to buy anything– which is more than I can say for Dragon Age Origins, which literally put a salesman for paid DLC into your camp.

There are 24 characters you can get. So far the game has been quite generous with these. E.g. from this list of characters by tier, I have two of the four top-tier characters, after playing for only a couple days. You get characters by “wishes”, which uses special tokens called Acquaint Fate. And those in turn you can get by playing, or as quest rewards, or you can convert them from the far more common tokens you get all over the game, “primogems”.

It’s probably some kind of evil that there are at least half a dozen types of currency, and level advancement is absurdly complicated. Again, this is no worse than Destiny 2. And the game seems generous with its tokens. E.g. to “ascend” past level 20, your characters need more damn special objects. But, eh, I got the objects I needed to ascend two characters just by doing a few quests, and you can also buy most of the items with in-game currency.

Anyway! What do you actually do? Well, talk to people, then take on their various errands, which mostly but not always involve murdering monsters. It actually reminds me a lot of Oblivion, only with pretty 2020 graphics and anime characters.

You have a party of four, probably your favorites among the characters you’ve acquired. Curiously, you move around and fight with only one at a time– but you switch between them by the number keys. This is actually the key to combat, because each character has an element, and elements combine in combat. So e.g. you can catch someone in a whirlwind with your wind character, then switch to your fire character and set the tornado on fire. There are names for all the interactions, which I haven’t memorized, but suffice it to say: you want to switch characters a lot to mix up their abilities.

Combat is not too hard, but enemies can have shields, and outnumber you, so you do have to be careful. Most of them telegraph their moves, which can be dodged, so if you’re clever you can avoid most damage. I am only sometimes clever. Things are much easier once you realize that you can eat (restoring health) during battle, and eating pauses the combat. It seems to be essential to have at least one ranged-attack character, since some enemies have an annoying tendency to fly just out of melee range.

I often don’t like mega-open-world games, because the number of things to do gets overwhelming. I don’t feel that way here, I think because the activity count is out of control, which means I don’t feel I have to do everything. Tonight I traveled for the first time to Liyue, and it took forever just because there was so much to do along the way. There are markers on the map, but they don’t show everything; you mostly have to poke around and look at interesting things. Plus there’s daily quests, and resource collection, and gliding, and special dungeons…

If you do give it a try, I advise sticking with it at least till you can travel to Liyue. I’ve enjoyed Fake Fantasy China, like Jade Empire, but Chinese people are obviously better at creating Fantasy China than Westerners will be. It’s nice, for instance, that everyone in Liyue has proper pinyin names. Mondstadt is pretty, but not very different from every other Fantasy Medieval European country; Liyue is more interesting.

I do have a few complaints, but they’re minor. I wish you could run faster and glide longer. There’s a gliding mission I keep failing because the controls aren’t well enough explained. Also the game crashes on me, though it may be that my PC is getting too old.

The character design is pretty darn anime. It’s actually pretty amazing technically, because the characters are 3-D modeled, but shaded to look like cartoons, and it all works seamlessly even if your camera is moving.

Some people seem to dislike this, but some people should maybe worry about the beams in their own eyes before complaining of the motes in other cultures’. I have to point out that the character above is a badass warrior, expert with a sword and wind magic. Her costume is kind of absurd, but probably less absurd than the American convention of basing superhero attire on circus strongmen.

I’m only a few days in, so I don’t know how the later game holds up. But it’s relaxing fun so far.

Minecraftery

You may have seen my tweet saying my Minecraft map was a little out of control. Never worry, it’s totally under control now:

I just added Map #243 up at the top. The northern section is about 4000 units from the origin, which isn’t visible above– it’s there, but below the ground. I have yet another base up in the sandy island at the top. My main base, with the map, is located at the brown square in the center, along the ocean.

You may have heard about the Nether Update, 1.16, which I love. It makes the Nether absolutely beautiful, and gives lots of neat blocks to build with. Naturally, I wanted to make my base Nether-themed. Here’s a pretty good view of it:

I’m pretty sure I was flying to take that picture, which of course means I have elytra, which means I defeated the dragon. (I’d done it in Skyblock, but this was the first time I did it in Survival. It’s hard to get by without elytra and shulker boxes…) So I also made an End-themed building in my other village:

To complement my Nether-themed base in the Overworld, I have an Overworld-themed base in the Nether:

I had animals there, but they all disappeared. I don’t know if they just despawned, or the hoglins attacked them.

Though I discovered Minecraft late, I’m having a lot of fun with it, not least because there’s a such a wide variety of things to do. You can explore a mine, make a mob farm, build up a village, grind for emeralds, look for Ancient Debris to get netherite gear, make maps, build a nice house, build an awesome house, play with redstone. When you’re tired of that, there are diverting variations like Skyblock and Oneblock. I keep running into things I’d never seen before: in my current game, a mushroom biome, a stronghold, a coral forest, an illager post. I am slowing down on this current world, but I’d like to find a woodland mansion.

One more pretty picture. Sandstone is one of the prettiest non-Nether blocks:

In the back is a bubble elevator… no more boring stairs!

Townscaper

I’ve played this game for, let’s see, an hour and a half.  But I’m happy with it, and I expect to keep dipping into it for awhile. Plus, it’s just $6.

townscape

It’s a town creator– not a game like Cities: Skylines or even Minecraft, but a toy for laying out towns by placing blocks. You choose only the color, and the game decides exactly how to render it– adding roofs, railings, support brackets, and so on.  Pretty much anything you do ends up as a pretty little seaside town.

(There are not many controls, but one that isn’t obvious: left-click to create a block, right-click to delete one.)

It’s in Early Access, so who knows what may be added to it. (If you’re listening, game creator, what I personally want is raw terrain for fields and hills and beaches, and the ability to import a map and build on it.) But it already makes a great toy, and has nice touches like birds that congregate on the roofs, and fly around if you build near them.

You can look at the Steam community page, or the #townscaper tag on Twitter, for all the neat creations that people are making.  My own contribution:

town creep

The game uses a slightly irregular grid, which adds to the charm.  I purposely kept this as I think it makes the Creeper more interesting.

(Minecraft aficionados will wonder if I got the mouth shape wrong.  No, I just used blue blocks for the lower parts of his frown. Open spaces didn’t work well, as the game then treats the bottom of his mouth as a balcony and creates supports for it.)

Minecraft Dungeons

I like Minecraft, and I kind of like Torchlight, and it got good reviews, so I thought this would be great.  And it would be, except it has a third parent, which is Dark Souls.

mc dungeons

The idea is charming, and it looks beautiful. What it’s taken from Minecraft is the blocky look and the monsters– there’s absolutely no mining or building. But that’s fine; it’s pretty fun to kill hundreds of mobs, and knowing Minecraft you come in already knowing how most mobs behave.

The problem is– and this is really surprising for a game supposedly aimed at kids– it’s extremely unforgiving. You get 3 respawns, then you fail the entire mission. Which means you have to replay the whole thing, and the later missions are 20 or 30 minutes long.

The game is also extremely stingy with arrows, which are the best option against quite a few mobs, as well as some of the heavy mobs that will quickly overwhelm you.  You get a replenishing health potion, and can get a totem that also regenerates health, but when there’s a dozen bruisers or a boss bearing down on you, that’s not enough.

Now, I kinda get it. There are only 10 missions total, and the idea is that you keep replaying them, getting better gear as you go.  So in theory, if you can’t get through a mission (and I fail at what I think is the end of #9), you replay earlier missions again and again until you’ve leveled up.

Only, well, I’ve reached the “why bother?” stage. The gameplay is basically “click enemies till they die”– the only strategy seems to be knowing when to back off and heal. Even Torchlight felt like it had more options and alternatives, and it got tedious too. So replaying a level over and over is just not fun.

(Gearing up is important too, and it may well be that I’m using the “wrong gear”. But I’m at the mercy of the random number generator. To go on a mission at all, you have to have gear of a certain level, and you may not have found your favorite item at a high enough level yet.)

It’s a pity, because the game is very pretty, and the first levels are a lot of fun. But the design decision to limit respawns ruins it for me.  I don’t understand it… what would be so bad about respawning infinitely, as in nearly every other frigging video game?  If you really want a penalty, reduce the score or take away some emeralds or restart at an earlier checkpoint or something. Or, you know, don’t think you have to punish the player for playing your game.

You might have better luck, or a greater tolerance for grind.

Borderlands 3

I got this nearly a month ago, when it came to Steam, and my friend Ash and I just finished it. Overall: it’s big dumb fun.  Very Borderlandsy.  If you need big dumb fun during the pandemic, it will deliver.

bl3 amara

Yes, I pretty much always play the Siren

Now, it’s not as well written as Borderlands 2, not by a long shot. The jokes don’t always land or even get near the airport; the plotting is predictable; the Calypsos are no Handsome Jack, and the satirical elements are weaker than they should be. (The corporate dystopia element of the BL universe is more relevant than ever. But the game has nothing really to say about the situation, and it’s blunted anyway by two of the corporate scions being good guys.)

Tyreen and Troy are all right as villains. “Twitch streamer” isn’t exactly a rip-roarer of a theme, so they added “cult leaders” and “really really psychopathic”.  But that’s neither funny nor clever. The clever bit about Handsome Jack was that he really thought he was a hero and the players were bandits. That makes him interesting and provides plenty of hooks for stories and comedy.

BL3’s ideas for the Calypsos lean toward “add more psychopathy.” E.g. there’s a cameo from Penn & Teller, who play Calypso allies who specialize in torture and murder. That’s just not funny, and this bit is cringey when it was probably trying for edgy. The BL universe can be dark (cf. the whole Angel plotline in BL2), but the overall tone is way too jokey to support the sort of really uncomfortable humor of, say, “The Death of Stalin“.

The BL3 story does deepen toward the end, and not unsuccessfully. The game makes a little attempt to put distance between the two twins, which could be interesting but never goes very far.  The final twist works well enough, I think.

I don’t mean to be completely negative. BL understands that you want a strong enough villain to ensure that the player, and not just the player character, hates them. They do that. And there’s something to be said for doing just enough to tell the story, and then getting out of the way while the player goes pew-pew.  And they do that too, better than many a game does.

There’s also some material that lands pretty well.  The character of Vaughn, for instance, is a pathetic dweeb, and the joke is that he’s a very unlikely bandit leader. But, y’know, it’s a comedy, and he ends up funny rather than annoying. I think the team finally found out how to do Tannis right, too; they lean hard into her social awkwardness and science brilliance… it’s like after all this time, she knows herself and doesn’t try to pretend to be anything she’s not. (A minor weirdness is that she’s played by the same voice actress as Lilith, and the two sometimes have conversations… but the actress does very well at keeping them distinct, something that wasn’t always true in BL2.)

I do appreciate that they have a different villain type in BL3.  I wouldn’t have been happy to see Handsome Jack again, nor to have the main villain a different corporate scumbag. Plus, of course, it’s fun to get to entirely new planets.

As for gameplay, in general they’ve smoothed things out and made things better than ever. Replaying BL1 and BL2 last year, I was struck by the uneven difficulty, and the Gearbox tactic of making a level harder just by throwing more dumb enemies at it. I didn’t feel that way this time.  It’s rarely very difficult, and never difficult for no reason.  (I’m looking at you, level-in-BL2-with-too-many-spiderants.) The BL3 fights I remember as hard should be hard: key boss fights, and an all-out assault by Calypso forces at the end.

Shamus Young found that the enemies were frustrating bullet sponges. I didn’t have that experience at all. Toward the beginning I re-specced my Amara build, realizing that I didn’t want to rush at enemies and brawl; instead I relied on her Phasecast tree, which is suitable for ranged combat and includes a hold-in-place ability much like Maya’s from BL2. I found good guns, and the mooks pretty much melted.

BL2 could sometimes veer into overload. NPCs were constantly calling you up, often while some other NPC is dropping some exposition. The current questgiver has notes, or Jack wants to chat, or Claptrap suggests that you do some missions, or you found a log that autoplays over an already talking NPC. BL3 is calmer, and better for it.

There are some nice quality-of-life changes:

  • You can fast travel from anywhere.
  • When an NPC helps you fight, they will revive you if you’re down.
  • You can set loot boxes to be individual, so you never fight over them. (I do miss pointing out good guns to Ash. But it makes things smoother as you can just grab everything.)
  • You can play with friends of any level, and everyone contributes and has fun. In BL2, you really had to be within a few levels of your friends to play.
  • Ammo machines offer a one-click ammo refill.
  • Marking junk, and selling it all at once, is pretty easy.
  • Guns that change elemental type are very useful. You should no longer have to keep one of each elemental type for each gun type.
  • The increased verticality is fun. You can climb all over the place.
  • After the first few ammo storage upgrades, I was pretty happy with the ammo situation. I was never too fond of BL 1/2 bosses that were such bullet sponges that you ran out of ammo.
  • Level design is good. It’s hard to get lost, and the visuals are always pretty.
  • BL 1/2 really required paying attention to quest level. I don’t think we ever hit a BL3 quest and felt underpowered.

Also a few things that are disimprovements:

  • Fast travel must have been designed by their dimmest intern. It has way too many levels to it and takes too long to set up. There was nothing really wrong with BL2’s list of locations. (Well, the addition of a map is good, but a schematic map would do.)
  • You can’t get badass ranks till you finish a playthrough.
  • Not sure I like the weapons that require warming up. Though they do tend to do great damage.
  • The 3-D maps are nice, but too big to easily consult.
  • I have trouble with some of the jumps. Games differ on whether you press jump early, or at the last possible moment, or somewhere in between, and there’s no feedback except dying.

I also have to say, I don’t like or get why the loadout slots are so stingy. It basically means you have to pick four of the six possible weapon types. What would be the downside of having six slots? Plus, I’m a little tired of multiplying damage by fire rate; why can’t the game calculate DPS for you?

Now, I like the series a lot, so I’m happy that they’ve added more planets and more story and that they didn’t ruin it. Storywise, it’s not as good as BL3 but far better than BL1. But do note that I make no promises about playing it solo. It’s a co-op game through-and-through, and far better when you play with a friend.

Skyblock endgame

You know what you could do to pass the time at home during the pandemic?  Minecraft! Specifically, Skyblock.

I wanted to write about this more because I’ve gotten further than I ever thought I would. I figured I could never defeat the dragon alone. But look!

mc wings

Oh yeah, dig those elytra. They are way addictive, and fortunately I learned how to repair them, with phantom membranes.  In the early game, before I had a bed, I hated phantoms– nasty creatures that put the mare into the night. Now it’s like, come at me bro, I need your membranes.

Plus you get such a good view:

mc vista

The End is pretty freaky, and fortunately it isn’t skyblocked.  I say fortunately because I lost my spare pair of elytra and had to find another End City to get another pair. I got some other great loot there, but the best thing besides the elytra is shulker boxes and ender chests– the closest you can come to extra inventory slots.  Plus the first diamonds I got in Skyblock.

With wings, I was able to take this place on:

mc mansion

That of course is a Woodland Mansion… basically three floors of monsters, including some specially nasty ones– evokers, which create dangerous flying monsters. In Skyblock, the most valuable thing here is the mansion itself, a treasure trove of wood and bookshelves.

Besides this, I’ve been working on the advancements list. This involved learning some new things, such as: in Skyblock, husks drop sand and drowneds drop clay. Great!  But how do we get husks and drowneds?  Well, husks spawn in the desert, so you find the desert and build a mob farm. For drowneds you need an ocean, so you can build one. (There is also an Ocean Monument, but that’s a scary place and I haven’t taken it on yet.)  Sand and clay allow you to take on a very time-consuming challenge: create wool, concrete, and terracotta blocks in each of the 16 possible colors. I just got that one today.

If you’re at all interested in Skyblock, I recommend Impulse & Skizzleman’s series. They know what they’re doing, and I learned a lot from it. They create all sorts of machines to do the work, and you can download the initial and final maps.

I may be close to done on this run, but I’ve thought that before.  I have to express some admiration for Minecraft: it’s really surprisingly deep, yet it’s simple on the surface, and you can have fun not knowing 90% of what’s there. You can learn as you go. Though kind of sadly, you’ll have to learn most of that arcana from the wiki or Youtube; there’s no in-game way to learn e.g. what a particular object can be used for.

But then: there’s also Borderlands 3, which is now out on Steam, and 50% off for the next few days…

Kentucky Route Zero done

Well, that took only a year and a half.  Waiting for Act V, the conclusion, I mean. And that’s if you discovered KRZ when I did.  If you got it when Act I released, it’s been seven years.  Still faster than Black Mesa!

krz-five

[Reassuring meow]

As ever, the storytelling is innovative. It’s a full 3-D environment this time… well, it mostly always was, but in earlier acts it generally posed as 2-D. After the beginning cutscene, you can wander around… as a cat. When you come upon people, you can stop and listen, and occasionally contribute a meaningful meow.

The clever bit is that as you wander around, things happen that you don’t see. So you keep going (the map is basically circular), and projects advance, people intermix, things happen.

Now, the last episodes got somewhat dark, so I was curious what they’d do for the finale. So, besides the death of–

Oh, yeah. Spoilers.  I won’t give away any story elements, but I will talk about the overall feel of the last act, so if even that’s too much, come back after you’ve played it all.

Also, I didn’t replay Acts I-IV, but maybe you should. I was forgetting a few of the characters and what their previous dilemma was.

Anyway, they didn’t go grimdark; they chose a low-key, reflective ending, with an air of elegiac melancholy. They basically leave it up to you to seek closure or not. That is, the little choices you get in the dialog can imply either a sad and dissipating ending, or a more hopeful one. I really like this… the events you witness go the same no matter how you choose, but you give them the meaning you want to. And what I wanted was to give this little band of misfits a chance at community.

I will say that it’s not as weird as some of the previous acts. The surrealistic elements are muted.  They do open up the story a bit– there are new characters with their own implied stories. But it was probably a wise decision, and fits with the overall character of the game, which has a keen sense of the quotidian.  These characters bond– if you let them– doing mostly ordinary things.

The political themes are muted too, though as with the surrealism they don’t go entirely away. The place you’re in has basically been ruined by the evil corporation that’s been dogging the characters all along. There’s no resolution to that. But it’s background noise by now, and there’s a hint of escape.

Anyway, if for some reason you read all this and haven’t played it and were wondering if you should: yes, please do. It’s not quite like anything else in games, and if you’re interested at all in game design, it’s a rich vein of techniques and ideas. Yet it doesn’t leave me with a list of regretful complaints as some experimental games do. It does things in its own deliberate way, but once you’ve adapted to that it’s very satisfying.