Category Archives: Impressions

Current Addiction: Stellaris

It’s been a while since I was last gripped by a game for 5 hours straight. Over multiple days.

stellaris_map

*rubs hands together*

Stellaris is a non-Paradox game developed by Paradox. This is important because of my history with this developer. Much like with EVE, I had heard a lot about Crusader Kings 2, all sorts of crazy stories, and bought it thinking that I’d like to play the game that generated them. Nope, I played about 3 hours before uninstalling it. So when a friend of mine recommended Stellaris recently, I was skeptical. So skeptical that I ended up installing Galactic Civilization 2 (free download) and Galactic Civilization 3 (don’t even know where this came from) in order to scratch the itch that Civ 6 had left. Then, finally, a recent 60% sale on Stellaris pushed me over the edge.

I have been falling ever since.

I’m about 30 hours into my sort of beginner tutorial playthrough and I’m trying to decide whether to start over or not. There have been some noob mistakes on my part, and some additional jankiness with the game that I am coming to terms with. I was in a recent war, for example, and was prevented from claiming total victory because… an ally was occupying the last planet instead of me. This enemy civilization had zero unoccupied planets and yet they “forced” me into a truce… that still resulted in me claiming all their shit. Except that last planet, with was taken over by my ally a few in-game months later. I don’t even know if it matters – the internet is awash in outdated information on the game – but it still bothered me.

stellaris_war

Really? Really? C’MON!

Regardless, I am more excited about a game than I have been in quite some time. I’m still trying to figure out if it’s because Stellaris is a new puzzle for me to figure out, or if I’m excited about a new “survival-ish” experience of exploring and uncovering resources, or something else altogether.

Either way, I’m looking forward to figuring it out.

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Destiny’s End

I beat Destiny 2’s single-player campaign a week or so ago. Haven’t touched it since.

Destiny-2_Sun

I know it’s kinda a gimmick level, but it was still really cool.

If you were wondering if you could trust all the assessments about how the campaign is pretty standard sci-fi FPS fair, the gunplay being amazing, and then a hard transition from story into a grinding endgame… well, consider this another data-point on the graph of player experiences.

I was actually more impressed by the overall campaign than most, even though it’s pretty ridiculous from a premise stand-point based on what you actually see. I mean, it’s cliche to point out how the story treats you as basically a minor god amongst mortals – in this case, kinda literally – but that sort of criticism never really landed with me in most other contexts. Never bothered me in WoW quests, for example. However, in Destiny 2, they went through great pains to express the fact that you were the only one to receive your powers back. And then you finish whatever story mission you were on, to go grind public quests with a whole bunch of other people with their powers back, until you got a high enough GearScore to start the next story mission.

Destiny-2_Others

Pictured: totally not a whole bunch of other Guardians with their Light back.

In any case, as soon as I finished the final mission and the wrap-up quests, I started researching on the internet what would be the most efficient way to get better gear. Was it Patrols? Public quests? Should I be doing some kind of Daily? Then I realized: “Oh, right, there have been two DLCs since launch.” Much like in MMO expansions, I could be getting better green gear killing the equivalent of boars if I threw down the cash to catch up to everyone else.

But I’m not, so I won’t, so I’m done.

Destiny-2_Stealing.jpg

Indeed.

In the scheme of things, I think the Humble Monthly was worth it. I’m pretty miserly when it comes to games, so I probably would not have been happy with a $12 Destiny 2 purchase by itself – not quite sure about how many hours I played, but the spectacle was almost good enough. Almost. But the odds that I will enjoy something else from the full bundle is decent enough that I still consider the entire transaction worth my while.

Impressions: Subterrain

Subterrain is a poorly named, but surprisingly excellent indie-ish game that came as part of the April Humble Monthly bundle. It is essentially a top-down survival horror crafting game, minus any base-building. As someone with an interest in survival-type games, this one scratches the itch very well.

Subterrain_Zombie

Limited field of vision can lead to nasty surprises.

The premise is that you are a researcher on a Martian base who gets thrown in jail, and then the power goes out. For a week. You eventually escape the prison and work your way to Central Command, and try to piece together what happened and why there are infected zombies and other creatures running about.

I’ve spoken about Economy of Design before, and there’s a compelling, intuitive call to action in this game. Specifically, the complex’s powerplant is slowly grinding down. There is already too much damage to sustain power to every single zone, so you have to choose which zones to send power to, with the others getting no Oxygen or Heat (assuming their Oxygen and Heat generators are even online). As it turns out, the infection plaguing the colony spreads faster in cold, non-oxygen environments. As each zone gets more infected, more powerful enemies appear, and at 50+% infection a bunch of zombies appear in Central Command and try to destroy the generator. So there is a race to find materials and blueprints to craft replacement power plant cores to power more zones and slow down the infection.

You have to balance the running around implied above, with more mundane concerns like food, water, sleeping, and even toilet activities. Each zone you enter typically needs to have Oxygen/Heat generators repaired too, so you have to bring along your own temporary supply of both lest you suffocate/freeze while exploring. There are enemies too, of course, so having a good supply of weapons and healing supplies are a must.

All the while, the clock is ticking and the infection is spreading…

Subterrain_Forks

No, really, I was super excited about finding forks.

To be honest, despite the above, it’s difficult for me to say how much fun the game actually is. I’m certainly enjoying it thus far, as it pressing a lot of my buttons in terms of survival and crafting and planning shit out. Fighting enemies is pretty easy, and exploring becomes quicker once you realize that 99% of everything is shit not worth sorting through. To an extent, I hate how formulaic it gets in the mid-game, where I’m at. I’ve unlocked everything in Tier 1, for example, and now to get the Shotgun v2 and Improved Nightstick (etc) I have to unlock Engineering Software v2 and Research Software v2, both of which were found in the 5th floor of X location.

In the meantime, I’m spending my time playing this instead of Destiny 2 because I like collecting all the things regardless of the pointlessness of the activity.

Humble Destiny

The latest Humble Monthly bundle has Destiny 2 as an early unlock. I’ve been subscribing month-to-month for a while now, and this was a no-brainer month to pay early.

Destiny-2_Farm

Graphics = good

Destiny 2 is the much maligned sequel to a game that should have been ported over to the PC the first time around. I am well aware that the endgame sucks, and that the (short?) campaign really just serves as a vehicle for expensive, disappointing DLC. Oh, and they actually removed content from the base game when the first DLC came out. Classic Activision Blizzard. Still, $12 is $12, and I wanted to see this train-wreck for myself.

You know, as a member of the Press©.

First impressions? It is a staggeringly beautiful game. Skyboxes are skyboxes, but D2’s are great. The gunplay thus far as been as good as they say as well.

Destiny-2_Titan

Actual jumping requirements? Interesting…

Once out of the immediate tutorial area, I found the sort of free-roam mechanics rather interesting. The first mission had a recommend gearscore Power level of 30, and I only had 20 at the time, so I stuck around and randomly killed enemies with other strangers until enough loot dropped to take me over the finish line. There were periodic public events, so things didn’t take too long, but it was interesting seeing this sort of MMO-ish Public Quest mechanic in a FPS. I’m sure things get significantly less interesting once you’re no longer getting upgrades, but until then… wheee!

Regardless, I am still super early in the experience – or maybe not… heard the story is like 5-6 hours? – having just unlocked the free-roam areas on Titan. Not sure that I like the rock-paper-scissor style of weapons though. Yeah, it’s fine have energy weapons be better at breaking shields than kinetic weapons. But having energy weapons deal less damage to normal mobs than basically any kinetic weapon? That means I basically only have the one weapon to use 90% of the time. Also disappointed that fun stuff like shotguns are limited to the “power weapon” slot that competes with grenade launchers and such.

Whatever.

I’m basically treating this like a non-cel-shaded Borderlands, so I’ll enjoy the ride until I don’t.

Civ 6: Just Kidding

I have already uninstalled Civilization 6.

I have gone over this before, but my history with the Civ series is deeply rooted in the past. My first experience was with Civ 2, which I played for hundreds of hours on the Super Nintendo, of all places. The very next Civ game I played was Alpha Centauri, which blew my teenage mind and honestly affected my intellectual trajectory almost by itself. Remember the real-world quotes that pop up once you complete a Wonder or research a specific Technology? They were so cool that I started writing them down, which led to collecting cool quotes wherever I found them, which led to reading the books in which they were quoted, all in service of finding more cool quotes.

After Alpha Centauri though? Nothing. Well… nothing until Civ: Beyond Earth, but we don’t talk about that one. FPS games satisfied my itch for immediate stimulation, and MMOs gave me long-term goals to work towards. Spelled out that way, my prior criticism of Civ 5 makes sense:

I did a sort of beginner’s match in Civ 5 and just started a second game on normal difficulty/Civ spread. With things approaching 1000 AD, I am sort of wondering when the fun starts. The problem from my perspective is that I don’t seem to actually be making any decisions very often. I’m perfectly fine playing the “long game” in strategy titles, but I’m not particularly fine with spam-clicking Next Turn for 200 years. Moving a War Chariot around looking for Barbarians isn’t exactly cutting it.

There are a lot of subtle changes in Civ 6 that I enjoyed. The city districting system, for example, really grew on me. For one thing, it really made you think about where to place your cities strategically – you really cared about the terrain and what you’d be giving up for a district. For another, the fact that Wonders take up a tile all on their own means you can’t have just one uber-city with 37 Wonders piling up. There had never been a scenario in prior Civs where I unlocked access to a Wonder via Research and then was literally unable to build them. “Can’t build the Pyramids without access to a desert? I guess that makes sense. Wonder if there are any desert tiles around…”

Another feature I enjoyed was how Civics was on its own sort of research path, and the whole “policy card” thing. If you were gearing up for a war with your neighbors, you can make unit production faster, or focus on Trade Route bonuses, and so on. There was granularity there, with the design bonus of, again, preventing uber-cities that were good at everything.

Fundamentally though, a Civ game is a Civ game, and that’s where it lost me.

The whole “Just one more turn” byline exists because nothing ever happens in a turn. Or even over a couple. The most fun I have playing Civ games occurs immediately after world creation. You have reasons to move your scouts around, and the possibilities for city expansion are wide open. Things can still surprise you. There are barbarians at the gates, and hunting down their camps is a big deal.

Then, at some point, you hit the ADs and the game becomes clicking End Turn 10 times in a row. If you are shooting for a Science or Culture win condition, you literally have no reason to engage with other civilizations at all. Just sit around, wait for your cities to gain another population, wait for the Workshop to be completed so it can add X more Production to finish your Y project Z turns faster in the future.

Domination and Religious victories give you more things to do, of course. But that’s just the thing: the only way Civ becomes fun for me is with more moment-to-moment choices. In which case, why am I not playing a moment-to-moment game? Civ 6 is a terrible war game, compared with say, the Total War series. When you look at the Science and Culture victories though, again, it’s a whole lot of pressing End Turn and inevitably winning 300 turns later.

It’s entirely possible (and likely) that I’m missing the whole point with the Civ games. I mean, I did pound out something north of 33 hours in Civ 6 within a week, which is more than a part-time job. Obviously there are some components of the base game that I enjoy.

But that’s all there is for me: components. If you love the whole Civ package, that’s fantastic, I can see what all the fuss is about. I just… don’t. There is a gradient between instant gratification and the Zen-like abandonment of all earthly pleasures, and I find the spaces between payoffs in Civ games about 20 turns too far apart. There are options for shorter games, I think, but that’s not necessarily what I want either. Strategic density is more what I’m looking for.

And that’s something I’m going to have to find somewhere else.

DimmerRim

I restarted once or twice since my initial post, but now the colony of Pine View is well on its way to getting off this blasted rock. Or die trying. Maybe the latter.

It’s entirely possible that I am ruining RimWorld for myself in the process, however. I ended up choosing a lower difficulty, and have the ability to reload my Save files. My thought process is that enough of the game systems are obtuse and opaque to a ridiculous degree, so I wanted the ability to take them for a test drive. Trying something and failing though, is often the heart and soul of the repeatability of rougelikes (of which RimWorld is one… sorta). Making it all the way to researching a space ship and reloading my first encounter with death bots – who behave very strangely compared to all the other enemies – will make it significantly easier to plan around in future games.

Having said that, the game is seriously addicting in a Civ-esque “one more turn” kind of way. Usually, I leave the game speed on maximum, as what I want to accomplish takes place over several days. Crops take time to grow and harvest, research is usually slow, and wounds take time to heal.

Looks like Elephant is back on the menu, boys!

One thing that I have quickly become inured to is the game’s meme aspect. In other words, I no longer have any idea how interesting a given story can even be anymore.

For example, a common occurrence is having your base attacked by raiders. After the battle, you will very quickly have a dead body problem. If you leave a dead body out, your colonists will get a morale penalty each time they look at it. So, one solution is dig a grave and dump the body inside.

Another solution is to butcher the body into piles of meat and human leather. Aside from cannibals, no one likes human meat, but you can create Kibble for your creatures out of it – much better to use that instead of animal meat, since the latter can be used to create better regular meals. Meanwhile, human leather can be fashioned into clothing and cowboy hats, and is apparently very fashionable.

Human Leather pants are IN this year.

There are downsides, of course. The entire colony gets a morale debuff that lasts several days when a human body is butchered, and the actual butcher gets another debuff on top of that. In these situations, it’s helpful to have a Psychopath butcher, as they tend to be immune to these sort of penalties. Alternatively, you can simply increase the leisure hours of your colonists, and likely mitigate that sort of thing. Recreational drug use helps too.

Oh, and when you capture raiders alive, you can convert them into joining your colony. Or you can harvest their organs for later use and/or cash. And then turn their bodies into hats.

At some point though, the ridiculousness becomes rote. Sure, part of this is likely because of the difficulty level I chose, and the possibility of save scumming. But even in a complex emergent system, how many truly compelling narratives occur? It’s amusing the first time a colonist dies while trying to tame an Alpaca, but thereafter does angering a turkey hold the same amount of charm? It’s hard to tell anymore. And there can only be so many human hat stories.

In any case, I’m going to start over soon on a higher difficulty and see what happens. I will also try and investigate a few mods too, because there are some elements of the base game that are unfathomably dumb. The Research tab having zero useful information, for example, or the fact that I cannot mass-select my animals and designate them to a different Allowed Zone. There are workarounds the latter issue, as for many others, but it still feels kinda dumb.

Impressions: RimWorld

After becoming a bit impatient with Oxygen Not Included, I decided to buck my principles and buy the never-on-sale RimWorld. Technically though, I did get a discount through the Humble Store (10% off), so that’s the way I’d recommend going.

RimWorld_Base

My most successful colony.

If you have not heard of it before, RimWorld is a sort of colony-management game in the vein of Dwarf Fortress, with the visuals of Prison Architect. In the default scenario, you pick three survivors of a starship crash, and shepherd them through the trials and tribulations of life on a titular RimWorld. There is technically an end-goal of researching technology/production far enough to send at least one person back into space, but it’s a bit more of a sandbox than that.

Much like with Oxygen Not Included, your colonists are basically controlled via a granular priority system, augmented by their own mood and predilections. You can request that trees are cut down and the wood used to build a new room, for example, but it’s possible your colonists will start playing horseshoes or lay down on your solar panels to gaze at the clouds.

They can and will also do things like plop down a stack of turkey leather right in the doorway to your freezer, letting out all the cold air and potentially ruining your entire meat supply. There’s no real way to force a person to do one particular thing (aside from Drafting them for combat) – the best you can do is prioritize one thing to the maximum level, disable everything else, and hope for the best.

If the above examples seem silly… that’s kind of the point. Each colonist has an entire background narrative, with expanding needs and desires that influence their actions at any given point. Romances will form between two people, then a break-up, and suddenly one or both might experience a mild (or major) psychotic break due to the mood penalty said break-up causes.

Well, that social interaction plus seeing the colony pet terrier get killed by a Cobra, the fact that their bedroom is too small, and a number of other interactions over the last few days. Butchering the dead dog for its meat and then turning the leather into a hat probably also didn’t help things.

RimWorld_Lovin

“Lovin'” provides quite the stat boost.

The emergent narrative formed by these random, interacting systems is the heart of RimWorld.

Speaking of “random,” at the beginning of the game you get to choose the AI Storyteller and difficulty of your game. The default AI will throw increasingly difficult encounters your way (modified by game difficulty), ensuring that you never reach a point at which you become entirely stable. The other two AI choices give longer periods of calm, and completely random ones at random intervals, respectfully. I can appreciate the transparency of the system, even though it makes things… a bit game-y, I suppose.

In any case, I am enjoying my time thus far. There are still a lot of game elements that do not make complete sense – the Research system in particular is difficult to wrap my head around – but the sort of little narratives that emerge are pretty interesting. So, we’ll see.

Impressions: Monster Slayers

Monster Slayers is basically a worse Slay the Spire.

Monster-Slayers-Attack

Ugh, the visuals and UI are just bad.

The premise of this deck-building roguelite is that you are part of a guild of people trying to take down the Big Bad Guy. Your deck and cards are reset on death to the default ones associated with the class you pick (of which there are several), but you maintain any gear you have accumulated, and any Fame unlocks. Considering that gear increases the damage of your attacks, can give you “temporary” cards in your deck (that will persist as long as that gear is equipped), and boosts your HP, these are essentially permanent advantages that you maintain as soon as you collect them.

The issue is twofold.

First, it is physically impossible to actually “beat” the game without several cycles of death and gear accumulation. In other words: grinding. It’s not the grinding that’s necessarily bad, but rather how the game is balanced around it. You will essentially be paired up with monsters that you have zero chance of defeating, not because of poor planning or execution or even RNG, but simply because the game is “balanced” that way. Losing in that manner never feels fun. Roguelikes (and -lites) often feature punishing RNG, but that’s not what’s going on here – you are engineered to lose X times in Monster Slayers, guaranteed.

Monster-Slayers-LevelUp

Weeee

The other, more important issue is that… the gameplay is simply bad. In Slay the Spire, you get a notification of what the enemy is about to do, and so there is a possibility of some interplay or tactical considerations. Should you try Blocking the damage, or are you free to go all-out Attacking?

In Monster Slayers, beyond a description of what the enemy does in general, e.g. “Vampire Bats can drain health,” there is no real indication of anything. So what happens is that you just play your cards until you run out of cards or AP, and then your opponent plays their cards, and you wait to see if you’re dead yet or not. That’s really it.

There are some other “minor” issues like the game looking terrible, the UI being horrendous and mostly useless, not having a understanding of what cards the enemy is playing (not that you can interact with them much), the music being repetitive, and the act of playing cards not feeling good. For example, the Rogue class has several “Deal N+1 damage, draw a card” attacks, and while it’s fun chaining those together, if you click too quick, you’ll accidentally play a different card.

If you are looking for another Slay the Spire fix, look elsewhere. If not… play Slay the Spire instead.

Clever Flow

Despite not being initially impressed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI), I continued playing. And now I’m very impressed with the rather clever gameplay flow that Klei has touched upon.

ONI_Base2

My most successful base thus far.

Like I mentioned before, every game of ONI starts with three Duplicants appearing in the middle of an asteroid. While you have enough supplies for a few days, there is always a bit of a frenzy of activity hollowing out some living space for your Duplicants. Amusingly, toilets end up being actually a higher priority than even water. By the end of the second day or so, I’ve got a water pump set up, some toilets, a bunch of resource compactors (e.g. storage), some beds, a Microbe Musher, and perhaps a manual electricity generator hooked up to an Algae Deoxydizer.

This is where the subtle genius of the game design kicks in.

Ostensibly, your base seems self-sufficient. The Algae Deoxydizer is converting algae into oxygen, the Microbe Musher is turning dirt and water into Mush Bars (e.g. calories). And you presumably have a nice supply of water handy. For now, everything seems fine. Emphasis on the “for now.”

The whole time your Duplicants have been running around, they have been exhaling CO2. This pools in the lower reaches of your base, turning certain sections into unbreathable rooms. Even if you dig out a trench beneath your base for the express purpose of giving CO2 somewhere to go, it never actually goes away – it will eventually become dense enough to spill into upper rooms. So, you’re going to need to research technology to try and filter that CO2. Something like the Carbon Skimmer sounds great… but using that requires turning drinkable water into polluted water. Where is that polluted water going to live? Hmm, perhaps you need to research methods by which you can filter polluted water back into drinkable water…

And round and round we go.

While this seems like Game Design 101, I do appreciate the flow ONI has set up here. At times, things can seem incredibly frustrating insofar as a fundamental flaw in your base design reveals itself far too late for you to realistically do anything about it. But most of the time, I just get a bit more excited to start back over with a fresh world and learn from my mistakes.

ONI_IceZone

Found a valuable Ice biome… through a Chlorine-saturated hot zone.

And somehow, these sort of things feel like my mistakes, rather than the game being cruel. “CO2 is heavier than Oxygen, so of course I shouldn’t have built my beds on the bottom floor.” “Oh, damn, I accepted one too many Duplicants, and now my food generation isn’t enough.” “Shit, I have been relying on six different machines that consume algae, and now I’m running out!”

Oxygen Not Included is still in Alpha, so there are a lot of things that can change. While I’m having more fun with it than I was originally, in the back of my mind, I also sort of recognize that the game is “solved.” As in, there are optimal base configurations that maximize output and minimize waste. While the same could sorta be said for other survival games, the issue is that ONI is all about managing a finite amount of resources. With something like Don’t Starve, I could always just strike off and head into the wilderness and take a chance.

I dunno. The asteroid itself is randomly seeded with biomes each time, so I can see encountering special circumstances that might change a strategy. For example, most people head towards Electrolizers and Hydrogen Generators, because they combo really well in powering your base and providing Oxygen (at the expense of water). I was heading that way too, before I discovered a Natural Gas Geyser – geysers being the only source of renewable resources – within sight of my starting point. All of a sudden, I was rushing to figure out how to exploit burning natural gas. “OK, it dumps out polluted water and a bunch of CO2. The CO2 scrubber deletes CO2 and also produces polluted water, so I should pipe that through a Water Sieve to reclaim the pure water, then send that into an Electrolyzer… but what about the Hydrogen?”

Like I said, there is a lot about Oxygen Not Included that can be compelling.

For now though, I’m going to stop generating new worlds and wait for some more releases to flesh out the rest of the game. The recent “Rancher” update overhauled a lot of the alien critter mechanics, invalidating certain strategies and presumably enabling a few others. I’m hoping that after a few more of those kind of patches, we’ll start to see something resembling a story-mode, and/or a way to make the march to endgame a bit more varied. The Rancher updates does this a little, but I feel we still end up with Hydrogen Generators and abusing Wheezewort (cooling plants) mechanics.

Impressions: Oxygen Not Included

Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a base-building and resource management game currently in Early Access, in the vein Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld. At least, that is what people tell me, as I have not played either one of those. What I have played is Craft the World (pt1, pt2), and ONI is basically that, minus the dwarves and goblins.

ONI_Base1

My first base. Doomed to failure.

The premise of ONI is actually kind of compelling. After picking three Duplicants from a roster of randomly generated ones, they appear in the middle of an asteroid. The ostensible goal is to survive as long as possible using what resources you have available. Instead of controlling them directly, you the player can generate and prioritize tasks like digging out certain squares, constructing machines, etc, and your Duplicants will work to make that happen. Contrary to the title, some basic oxygen is included in the form of oxygen-generating rocks, but it is not nearly enough to last long-term.

Indeed, oxygen-management is indicative of what you will be working on over the arc of the entire game. In the beginning, you will create machines that convert algae (mined from special squares) into oxygen to supply your base. However, your Duplicants exhale CO2, and that will gradually accumulate in the lower reaches of your base (science!). So, eventually, you are going to need to either research technology to convert that CO2 into some other form, or at least pipe it elsewhere. Meanwhile, you also have to grow food, find water, and research some method of disposing of all the poop (or polluted dirt, if you prefer) your Duplicants generate. Have I mentioned there are germs and stress to worry about too? And the fact that you are in the middle of an asteroid, so the whole “pump the CO2 elsewhere” is really just delaying the problem for another day?

ONI_Gases

Gas management is much better in my current base.

As of right now, I do not believe there is a story or “campaign mode” for ONI, and I do not know if there is any planned either. The goal is to survive as long as possible, and there are some very optimized base configurations out there to ensure that is the case. However… I’m not sure that is enough for me, game-wise. Klei’s other popular game, Don’t Starve, also features an implicit goal of surviving as long as possible against escalating threats. The end-state of death there though, usually comes from violence or mistakes rather than slowly running out of finite resources. I felt much more agency in Don’t Starve, in other words, even if the outcome was very similar.

What I will say is that Oxygen Not Included grabbed my attention very early with a compelling premise, and makes me wish there were more Terraria/Starbound/etc survival games out there that I haven’t already played . Hmm… maybe it’s time for RimWorld then…