Category Archives: Impressions

Tabletop Simulator

In case you were unaware, there is a Steam game out there called Tabletop Simulator (hereafter TS).

TS is basically an emulator for board games, with the Steam Workshop operating as a ROM storefront. In fact, I’m not even sure how any of this is particularly legal. TS by itself is “merely” a toolset… but it is fairly robust and powerful to the extent that it’d be difficult to find some board game that it couldn’t recreate.

Tabletop-Simulator-Agricola

Hand sizes of 14 cards is a bit much though

The first time I used it, my wife and I played Agricola with a friend on the West Coast. The version of Agricola we played did not have any scripting beyond the starting board state, so we still had to manually place the extra resources on the board each turn.

Something I really appreciate about the game is the ability to see the “hand” (i.e. mouse cursor) of other players – it allowed us to point to cards, see who was already moving a piece, and so on. The 3D nature of the simulator itself obviously leads itself to some exciting possibilities in custom games (or presumably in VR), but it is more of an annoyance in traditional scenarios. For example, it’s sometimes difficult to pick up only one card from a stack, or place down multiple cards, or accidentally stack pieces that you did not intend to stack.

Tabletop-Simulator-Catan

Classic millennial gaming.

The second session a few weeks later had us playing a semi-scripted Settlers of Catan game. The starting tiles and numbers were already randomly placed for us, and the roll of the dice would highlight exactly which tile produced resources that turn. Settlements and roads also snapped into place, so there was not a bunch physics-based fiddling necessary. Oh, and scoring was semi-automated as well. I was somewhat disappointed that resources did not automatically arrive in our hand, but I suppose there should be some sort of interaction going on. I did like how you can take cards out of other players’ hands, for when you move the Robber.

Tabletop-Simulator-Robots

Good thing we already knew how to play…

After Catan, we played a few rounds of Ricochet Robots. This used to be a fairly obscure board game that sold for $80+ on eBay, but it looks like it was reprinted here recently as it’s selling for about $40 on Amazon. There was not particular automation here either, as there really isn’t any need for any. There were a few features that I wish were available, and depending on how difficult it would be to code, it’s probably possible to add them myself.

Having played about ~10 hours of board games using Tabletop Simulator, I will say that there is no substitute for sitting around an actual table with real people in the room. Right-clicking and rolling dice will never be the same as rolling them yourself. But if you are in a scenario in which remote gaming sessions were the only option, Tabletop Simulator is an extremely viable option. To say nothing about its usefulness in testing new games before buying them, or using it in the wild ways of creating your own games, running D&D campaigns, and so on.

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[WISP] The Division

(e.g. Why I Stopped Playing: The Division)

I can show you precisely the moment I decided to stop playing The Division:

TheDivision-BossSponge

I’d like to read the Tom Clancy book about taking 6+ bullets to the face…

There is nothing particularly special about this “boss” character. I had actually died to him once already, as he has a machine gun and is able to just keep firing for like 30 seconds as he walks around your cover and mows you down in a realistic way. Having respawned, I was able to safely stay at my pictured elevated position. I was compelled to take this screenshot because I just shot this dude 5 times in the face with a sniper rifle, and he still has a sliver of “armor” left.

I have had a tone issue with The Division almost from the beginning. This is not a game where you are shooting zombies. You are not even shooting infected people behaving erratically. You are shooting “looters” or “Cleaners” (who are trying to burn the infection out) or gang members or prisoners who broke out of jail. Granted, all of your enemies appear to be killing innocent civilians or otherwise impeding efforts to maintain law and order. But… The Division (thus far) made no attempt to even address the wholesale slaughter of people trying to survive in a government quarantine zone.

TheDivision-Beauty

A very, very pretty quarantine zone.

I bring this up because “motivation” is hugely critical in cover-based shooters for me. The core gameplay in these games is so banal and simplified, there is often nothing else to go on. Stay in cover, peek and shoot. Leave cover, die. The Division technically has some additional elements like special powers, and is definitely geared towards small-squad teamplay, including a trinity of sorts.

But otherwise? Peek and shoot. And 100% of the missions up to the point I stopped playing had been about killing people for vague reasons. Even when you are rescuing hostages, there is no sense that A) the hostages were actually being ransomed, or B) the hostages will be better off going back home.

I was actually going to quit playing two weeks ago, but Alex posted this live-action video in the comments. That was… kinda compelling, and set me in the right frame of mind for getting back into the game.

…at least up until I kept encountering these predictable boss characters, with their predictable face armor which takes a half-dozen sniper rifle rounds to remove.

I understand that the game is a looter shooter, and things are not supposed to make too much sense – not quite sure how a new holster is somehow giving me extra armor, but whatever. It would be quite the boring game if the first rifle you picked up from the body of an enemy was the same one you used throughout the entire experience.

But… I just can’t do it anymore. The Division just piles up too much unsupported nonsense and my suspension of disbelief cannot bear the weight. And if I don’t respect the setting and don’t care about the story, there is zero reason to play a cover-based shooter. So I’m not, anymore.

[WISP] The Forest

(e.g. Why I Stopped Playing: The Forest.)

TheForest_Mountain

Ah, the great outdoors…

Let me start off by saying that The Forest has almost ruined other survival games for me. Nearly everything about it is incredibly slick and intuitive. The titular forest feels (and sounds!) like a forest, and walking through it can be a relaxing experience.

The crafting and building game is on point as well. Instead of filling your inventory with hundreds of rocks so you can craft a furnace in your pocket, you instead lay out a blueprint out in the world. From there, you start building it piece by piece, by essentially “using” the items in your limited inventory. Most of the larger constructions require logs, which you cannot fit in your pocket. So you are out in the world, chopping down entire trees, and then either hauling 1-2 logs on your back or crafting a sled to move ~10 or so at a time. This makes each structure feel important, as you spend a lot of time crafting it and seeing it come together a piece at a time, in a way that doesn’t exist just chopping logs for abstracted resources. It’s hard going back to any other survival games after this one.

That said, the game lost me when it went from being The Forest to The Caves.

TheForest_Caves1

Hope you like this sort of thing, for the entire rest of the game.

Basically, nothing you do out in the world really matters – story progression is essentially exclusive to the cave system that snakes through the landscape. Sure, you need sticks and stuff to craft bows and your other weapons, but the experience of slowly creeping through dark, linear passages and encountering scripted amounts of enemies is basically the opposite of everything that led up to this point in gameplay. Those elaborate traps and your fortified treefort? Pointless. That house boat you built after felling a hundred trees? Pointless.

I mean, I get it. This game is technically a survival-horror, and even the craziest mutants lose some of the horror bits when you see them roaming around in the overworld instead of stumbling into them in a poorly-lit cavern. But really, these are two different games. The most you are crafting in the caves is a tent as a temporary Save location, so what was the point in expanding your carrying capacity? Or exploring the different biomes?

TheForest_Mutants

I dunno, seeing the mutants outside can still be terrifying.

So, I stopped playing. The caves are both nerve-wracking and boring, simultaneously. I have heard that I’m pretty close to the point at which the plot starts to unfold in interesting ways, but that plot is at the end of more caves, which is further from the truly fun and innovative parts of this game. And that’s a real goddamn shame.

Going forward though, I do hope every survival game copies certain elements from The Forest. Don’t let us keep Furnaces in our pockets, especially if we’re basically allowed to build them out anywhere in the world anyway. Make things feel more grounded in the open world. And, yeah, please keep the open world and not goddamn caves.

Impressions: Conan: Exiles

Conan: Exiles (hereafter Conan) is basically ARK where the dinosaurs are people.

Not really… but kinda.

ConanSandbox_Sunrise

It can be a very pretty game too.

The first thing I want to say about Conan is that this is perhaps the first survival game I have played that has completely nailed the setting and tone. In a lot of these games, you are a faceless protagonist, or a random nobody who just suddenly is completely fine with butchering cannibals within minutes of regaining consciousness. In this game, you are a barbarian, in a barbarian land, doing some very barbaric things. And it fits.

In ARK, you tame dinosaurs by beating them unconscious with clubs, rocks, or narcotics. Then you… put food and more narcotics into their inventories. In Conan, you beat warriors/cooks/etc unconscious with a club. Then you… tie a rope to their legs and drag them along the ground back to your camp, and lash them to your Wheel of Pain, feeding them gruel or even human flesh, until their will to resist finally breaks and they join you. Crom would be pleased.

ConanSandbox_Thrall

Just another future Thrall, about to be lashed to the Wheel of Pain.

Like I said, it fits the theme and tone of the game. All of that is further reinforced by the demonic mobs, corruption of mad gods, and other sort of weirdness that permeates the land. It feels right.

Having said all that, there is a lot of jankiness all over the place. I’m not just talking about the typical survival game tropes like carrying 500+ stones in your loincloth inventory, or how your Thralls will sometimes unequip themselves of their weapons. I mean the very consistent outright bugs, like how attacks don’t register if you are fighting under a tent. Or the overall jarring inconsistencies in progression, like the ridiculous hoops you have to go through to complete the early-game Journal task of “skinning a creature with a knife” (literally a dozen+ steps). Or the general incongruent nature of a more “realistic” game in which you cannot simply loot the items that NPCs are wearing, or interact with any of the set pieces that dot the land.

ConanSandbox_Bug1

Pictured: no damage being taken, because standing next to a rope.

I think that, more than anything, there is one thought that is draining most of my enthusiasm away from playing Conan: “Elder Scrolls Online did it better.” Can you slaughter a camp of people and drain the Unfulfilled Desires from their corpses to fuel your ritual offerings to Derketo in TESO? No. You can, however, interact with the world in a meaningful way, like… you know, sitting in a chair, opening a crate, stealing a bowl. Certainly the whole dungeon thing works a hell of a lot better when death does not send you back across the map, naked and alone.

For the record, my experiences in Conan have been from the viewpoint of someone playing it single-player on a local server. I ended up cranking up the resource gain to x4 rate, which is probably too high, but farming iron ore for days and days is just dumb. It was dumb in ARK too, but that was on purpose: you were meant to tame dinosaurs to make collecting resources more efficient. In Conan, it’s just mindless labor meant to create PvP opportunities in which someone jacks all your stuff.

ConanSandbox_Base

My current base, sans defenses.

We’ll see how long interest lasts. I tried my first dungeon the other day, and was slaughtered by the boss all the way at the end. Despite having admin powers and the ability to spawn all my equipment back on my body and teleport back to the area, there was a very tangible part of me that felt like that was an interest-terminating loss. I never felt deprived in ARK for not seeing the bosses there while playing single-player, but dungeons in Conan are more of a thing. Probably because there are less “things” in the world otherwise.

Impressions: State of Decay 2

As mentioned, I buckled down and bought State of Decay 2 (SoD2) recently.

SoDecay2_PyramidHead

Pyramid Head

It is difficult for me to directly compare this game to the original, because I last played it in 2014. Based on that review, a lot of things have stayed the same. You are still selecting base locations at predetermined places, you are still looting all the places for supplies, you are still recruiting survivors, and are still faced with Ironman mode – auto-saving checkpoints and permadeath.

Let’s assume you haven’t played this series at all before. What’s it like?

After the (extended) tutorial, you are basically given a base and four survivors. Your survivors are going to consume certain resources every in-game day, such as 1 Food/person, 2 Medicine when healing from injuries, etc. Missing those resources will lead to negative morale, which leads to in-fighting, which leads to survivors leaving and/or dying. Thus, you need to keep supplies high.

SoDecay2_Base

Current, fairly successful base.

To keep supplies high, you can scavenge for them. Each building will typically have 1-5 spots where you can look for stuff. Some of those things will be individual items/upgrade materials, and others will be the duffel bags of base supplies that you are really looking for. Your character can only carry one duffel bag at a time, so extended scavenging is best done with a vehicle that has decent trunk space. Of course, that vehicle will need to be gassed up from time to time, which requires you to scavenge for Fuel too.

Another way to get supplies is leveraging base upgrades. Building a Garden, for example, will grant you +1 Food/day. That Garden can be upgraded if you have a survivor with the Gardening skill, and it can also be modded (say with a Compost Bin or Fertilizer) and temporarily boosted at the cost of Seeds. Doing all of those things, including providing your base with water somehow, can boost the Garden into providing 9+ Food/day. You can also turn the Garden into a Medicine factory by switching the yields to herbs.

Bases also allow you to claim Outposts. You start off with two possible slots (up to 5, I think), and you can essentially claim almost any building anywhere as an Outpost. All Outposts will create a zone where zombies won’t spawn, and will allow access to to your storage area and the ability to swap out characters. Additionally, certain Outposts can passively give you resources – Ammo Stores give Ammo, fast food joints give Food, etc. Some just give you more bed slots, and others actually give you base-wide power or water, at the cost of daily Fuel.

SoDecay2_Drone

Heroes never look at the explosion.

I mentioned all of the above rather than getting into the meat of the actual gameplay because the above essentially creates the gameplay. You need to scavenge for materials to make your base more self-sufficient, or scavenge to make up for the deficiency. You recruit more survivors because the one you are currently controlling has gotten injured, or is exhausted. There are quite a few guns and explosives and different melee weapons in the game, but zombies don’t drop loot and are best avoided in general. Technically, killing them will periodically grant you Influence, which is a catch-all currency in the game, but eventually weapons wear out and you’ll likely be spending that Influence on spare parts to repair said weapons.

Don’t get me wrong, the game is a lot of fun for me. But if you don’t like the base management and/or resource management side of things, SoD2 is definitely not for you. This is not Dying Light or even Dead Island. There are quests to follow, but since any member can permanently die at any time, there isn’t really a strict narrative going on. The overaching “point” of the game is to destroy all the Plague Hearts, which involves tossing a bunch of molatovs inside a building while waves of red zombies attack you. That’s… basically it.

Like I said: fun. For me, for now. For you? Maybe, maybe not.

Impression: Project Zomboid

Project Zomboid (PZ) is an Early Access, isometric post-zombie apocalypse survival game set in Kentucky. While the pared down graphics and isometric camera might give one pause, I was fairly excited to give the game a try. What I discovered is possibly one of the more “realistic” survival games out there… and that realism is way overrated. And less fun to play.

ProjectZomboid64_Tutorial

Fairly accurate tutorial.

Honestly, I was actually surprised how much I disliked PZ almost immediately. After character creation, you take control inside the one for-sure non-zombie house – your own. From here, you go through houses and find… normal stuff. Fully stocked refrigerators and freezers. Ovens to cook raw meat. Working lights. Faucets that deliver fresh water directly to your mouth. While your character starts with no skills, you are fully capable of surviving quite a while just fine doing nothing.

That does not last for long, of course. Within a month or so, both the electricity and water will shut off permanently. So the game’s central conceit reveals itself: how long can you survive?

In the abstract, this is not dissimilar to, say, Oxygen Not Included, wherein there is no win condition per se. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find myself immediately repulsed by PZ, conceptually. When you wake up naked on a beach in ARK, there is a very obvious, grokkable progression path towards survival. All of that is turned on its head with PZ. I found myself ransacking houses for supplies, and then asking myself why.

ProjectZomboid64_Sticks

Have to unlearn decades of survival games, e.g. can’t pick up sticks.

The answer is supposed to be “to prepare for self-sufficiency and safety after the lights and water turn off,” but that feels like such a weird, abstract endgame. It’s definitely unique in this particular genre, don’t get me wrong, but I feel like it’s probably unique for a reason, e.g. it feels bad. You aren’t building up to self-sufficiency, you’re building down. It is also harder to feel any particular sense of urgency without metagaming the entire experience.

I dunno. There is technically a starting game mode which takes place 6 months after the start of the zombie apocalypse, which features the water and lights already off, and most things already looted. In other words, a more typical survival game experience. But after spending a few hours with the base game, I don’t know that I feel it.

This is definitely going to be one of those Early Access titles that needs more time in the oven.

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.

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.