Category Archives: Review
Mass Effect: Andromeda was finished over the weekend.
My overall impression? Serviceable. Adequate. My /played time was about 90 hours, so it is a tad difficult to ascertain whether the characters blossomed by the mid-game or if it was a sort of Stockholm Syndrome effect. Well, I can say for sure that I immensely enjoyed Peebee and Drack’s company. Vetra too, perhaps, but she’s no Garrus. Cora can take a hike.
The combat and general environments are easily the best the series has offered. I played the entire game on Hard, which was appropriately named. It has been mentioned before, but a lot has been done to incorporate waist-high barriers into the environment in a logical manner. In fact, a sizable portion of the game have none. Which is real shame given how many enemies have beam laser effects, which effectively melt you outside of cover. Still, Hard is Hard, so it was a welcome challenge (most of the time).
The environments and the Frostbite engine in general were exquisite. I got a little tired of the theme planet trope (Desert planet! Ice planet!), but the terrain overall was varied and the organic vistas were amazing. Indeed, I can see now why such a big deal was made regarding wonky character animations given how outrageously polished the rest of the game looks – it seems so out of place.
What also felt out of place were the poorly-implemented mechanical aspects of the game. Fighting feels great. Switching abilities mid-battle feels less great. Downtime inventory management feels awful. Scanning things give you Research Points, which you then use to buy weapon blueprints, which then take resources collected from driving around to craft, which then take Augments and/or Mods you receive from fighting to improve. I’m sure it sounds like a reasonable way to tie all the player experiences together, at least on a whiteboard. In practice, you end up wasting tons of Research Points because every single gun is available from the start and you don’t know how it feels to shoot till you get one in your hands. By the mid-game though, you’ll have needed to pour all your points into upgrading a specific type of gun (e.g. Black Window) through its various iterations (e.g. III, IV, V, etc) to maintain combat effectiveness. So… either settle on something early, making the multiple pages of menus irrelevant, or try all the things and always wonder whether a specific gun sucks, or if it would have been good at max rank.
I played a little bit of the Andromeda multiplayer, and it was… basically ME3’s multiplayer. ME3’s multiplayer was a hidden gem and significantly extended my playtime of the game well beyond the (original) poor ending. That may have been a time and a place thing though, as I had basically zero drive to continue playing Andromeda’s multiplayer, despite an objectively more refined combat system. For the uninitiated, it is a 4-player Horde game mode where one caps out at level 20, but items/weapons/character options are gated behind lockboxes. Open a Black Widow sniper rifle? Now you can take it with any character. Unlock a second one, and now you have a Black Widow Mk 2 with slightly higher stats. And so on.
So far, most of this has been high praise, so you might be wondering why the game is “serviceable” and “adequate.” It’s relatively simple: Andromeda is not better overall than any of the prior trilogy. Graphics and combat? Better. Characters, plot, themes, cohesive narratives, emotional gravity, witty one-liners? Not better. I find it extraordinarily silly to judge Andromeda “on its own merits” considering it has Mass Effect in the title. Andromeda is better than a whole lot of other single-player RPGs, yes, but better Mass Effects (overall, mind you) exist. If you had to make an exclusive choice between all the titles, I’d recommend one of those other ones instead.
And perhaps that is part of the reason why Andromeda may be the last in the series. At first, I was a bit sad, but it kinda feels like the right move now. The Mass Effect name has a lot of baggage attached and, outside of the various character races, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot tying Andromeda to it. Yes, all these people are from the Milky Way, there are various Easter Eggs and such pointing to Reapers and Shepard, and so on. But there didn’t have to be. The fact that it was tied to the franchise just made the world-building easier – no need to explain five humanoid races tooling around with each other relatively peacefully. Andromeda could have been the story of five human nations from Earth and little would have changed, narratively. Hell, the eponymous “mass effect” was uttered like twice in the whole game, always in reference to shields. Eezo sickness could have been any other miraculous plot disease.
Ultimately… I dunno. Andromeda is certainly better than any random given RPG out there. Andromeda is not better than any given Mass Effect title. It is worth experiencing, but it is not essential to experience right now. Perhaps in another couple of years when we finally get some more concrete idea as to whether Bioware is closing the Mass Effect door for good.
I have successfully completed XCOM2. And I am not entirely sure I will be playing again.
There is a lot to like about the game. If you enjoyed the first XCOM reboot, this one will likely be right up your alley as well. Good turn-based tactical games are hard to come by, and this is decent. There is also the Civilization-esque “one… more… turn…” element when it comes to researching new technology or building new rooms; it is technically just watching a clock spin around, but you occasionally get “interrupted” with critical missions, which you finish, then want to the research to finish before closing the game, but then a new mission… etc.
That said, there are just some core design decisions that I just don’t like.
The biggest one – which admittedly hasn’t changed from the first game – is how enemies get a “free turn” when you first discover them through the fog of war. I mean, I get it, a squad-turn based game needs some sort limitation set so that a scout running around doesn’t let your team instantly mow down tightly-grouped packs of enemies before they can react. Still, I hate it every time, and it warps my tactical considerations in an entirely metagame way. For example, it immensely dissuades melee units, because they can inadvertently reveal new enemies in the middle of a turn, which then causes your team to get hosed out of nowhere.
Another arguably “unfair” criticism I have is the mostly binary damage model. Firaxis isn’t doing anything out of the ordinary here – tactical turn-based games are tactical. But when you have a dude sporting a minigun that sprays plasma rounds at an enemy from 10 feet away, missing a 68% chance to hit and dealing zero damage strains my suspension of disbelief. Missing a sniper shot is fine. Even a few shots with an assault rifle is okay. But shotguns and miniguns should be doing something to your target provided you pointing it in their general direction.
The last problem I have is the same one I brought up with my Impression post. Namely, the wildly uneven difficulty. Early game Sectoids mind-controlling a squad member when you can only field 4 at a time is ridiculously punishing. But by mid-game? My forces were almost untouchable.
I mean, it matches the narrative of a scrappy resistance slowly taking the upper-hand against highly advanced aliens. At the same time, the actual gameplay element immensely suffers due to it. Ironman mode might make things more difficult simply because of it exacerbating the problems outlined in the prior two paragraphs, but the fundamental problem is that more options = easier game. Throwing higher health enemies with extra armor at me does nothing when I can dance around them with Mimic grenades, grappling hooks, and wrist-mounted rocket launchers.
I bought XCOM2 via Humble Monthly bundle for $12, and it has generated 40+ hours of relatively enjoyable gameplay. It is entirely possible that something like the Long War 2 mod could generate even more. So, yeah, I can highly recommend this game. I just can’t particularly say that I want to play it anymore.
In Starbound, I have officially surpassed the number of hours I spent playing Terraria. And I am more convinced than ever that Terraria is the superior game.
Simply put, Starbound is a game of multitude of systems that have zero synergies with each other. Dig dirt, mine for ore, create armor, and so on. Pretty basic stuff, right? Not really. The actual crafting mechanics in Starbound are terrible, as are 99% of the items you can craft. Your “tier 1” armor is made from iron and woven fabric (made from plant material), but tier 2 is made from tungsten and cotton wool. Not only does this skip Copper, Silver, and Gold ores, but I’ve been playing 20+ hours since the 1.0 release and have encountered a grand total of three (3) cotton plants.
I can understand if the cotton bottleneck was intentional. But it’s not: the interplanetary gas station sells every fabric type other than cotton.
You can’t explain that.
Indeed, it seems like the devs simply abandoned any attempt to structure progression in the face of a billion procedurally generated worlds (filled the same three enemy attack types). Matter Manipulator modules are a sort of upgrade currency that can be found in nearly every box, everywhere. So are the tech cards, which unlock double-jumping and the Metroid-esque ball rolling. Getting those upgrades early kinda sorta maybe trivializes a lot of the content that comes later. And it’s not as though you get more of them in more dangerous areas – the algorithm basically puts one in 25% of all containers.
Then there is the fact that the best items are drops, full-stop. I mean, I get it, trying to balance gear progression around both player crafting and dropped loot is hard. But the fact that there are effectively zero good weapons from crafting means that that entire element is gone from the game. So your whole desire to dig for ore is reduced to the amount you need to craft the next tier of armor. Without the desire to dig though, you don’t, which means you’re just exploring the surface of the world and missing out on all the dungeons/set pieces that exist beneath it.
“But what about building bases and such?” Yeah, that’s still there. Given the default “survival” mode requires constant eating, it makes sense for even a story-focused character to stake out a simple farm. But honestly? It’s about a million times easier just coming across an already-built set piece randomly, and then planting your flag on it. Or tearing one down and transplanting it elsewhere, as opposed to crafting the individual components.
I don’t know. There are a million more things going on in Starbound than Terraria, but Terraria actually has synergy between what its got. In Terraria, the houses you build unlock NPCs you need, and the act of building settlements attracts monsters and even bosses. The deeper you dig, the more dangerous stuff appears. You can actually craft cool shit in Terraria. All the pieces fit together into a cohesive whole. In Starbound? Not so much.
Recommended price: $5/bundle
Metacritic Score: 80*
Completion Time: 14 hours
Buy If You Like: Match-3, Dating Sims, Being embarrassed
Let’s get this out of the way: HuniePop is essentially a dating sim in which you attempt to sleep with as many anime girls as possible. The default Steam version is “censored” (uncensored patches are available) but this is still a game that you are going to likely need to play in Offline mode with the door closed. And you’re still probably going to feel a bit embarrassed.
That said? I found the actual game elements to be incredibly engaging. The main game component are the Dates you go on, which play out in a Match-3 game in the same vein as Bejeweled, Candy Crush, Puzzle & Dragons, etc. The differences are the sort of progression mechanics involved.
Each girl has their preferred Affection token and least preferred (e.g. Red vs Green, etc) which affects the score multiplier for when you match said tokens. Then you have Romance tokens which don’t grant scores when matched, but instead boost the overall score multiplier. Then there are Sentiment tokens which, again, don’t affect the overall score but give you resources to then utilize up to six different Date items, which are sort of power-ups you choose ahead of time. Then there are Joy tokens, which grant additional turns when matched. Finally, there are Broken Heart tokens, which reduce your current score by a percentage, making them an escalating threat as you near your goal.
Oh, and you only have a limited number of moves to reach your goal. And matching 4-5 in a single move sometimes grants special Power multiplier tokens of that color. And you can upgrade Traits which generally improve the score multiplier of certain colors, or increase the limit of Passion levels, or increase the odds of Power tokens appearing.
Did I mention each successive Date has a higher score requirement to reach?
Successful Dates grants Munie, which you can spend on gifts, food, and drinks as you try to woo a girl. Successfully giving the girl the answers she wants to hear gives you Hunie, which is the upgrade currency. Giving the correct gifts to a girl also grants you a Date item, of which there are a wide variety that can change your general strategy. For example, some items increase the odds of a specific Affection token appearing, which is nice to swap in when Dating a girl who prefers that specific token. Other items transform all Broken Heart tokens into something good, or give you +3 Sentiment for every 4-5 of-a-kind match for the rest of the Date, and so on.
Outside of the game mechanics, I have to say that the writing and voice acting is pretty hilarious. Stereotypes abound, with the Indian yoga instructor, the tsundere, the girl next door, and what have you, but the dialog itself remains amusing throughout. If some of the responses seemed rote by the end, it was only because I realized I had played this game for 15+ hours and unlocked all the special characters. Without failing a single Date, mind you.
As to whether this game is worth it appearing in your Steam library… that still comes down to your own comfort level. The Match-3 and general progression component is actually very good, and absolutely could (and arguably probably should) stand on its own. The dating sim bits? Not so much. This is definitely a kind of “read Playboy for the articles” situation, just less socially acceptable.
But you know what? I both played it and wrote a review about it. So, you’ll probably be fine.
Started Finished playing Shadows of Mordor a few weeks ago, and my experience for most of it has been compelling. The game’s design hits the sweet spot in a whole lot of categories.
For example, running around in stealth and brutally executing orcs makes you feel overpowered. Manually attacking and parrying even a half dozen orcs does not. And so stealth is highly encouraged. And yet it isn’t the end of the world if you get spotted, as outside of specific missions, you can always just run away. Or even just kill every witness and get back to skulking about.
One of the flops though, is the RPG-esque Nemesis system. Or rather, the RNG aspect of some of the combinations.
In a nutshell, the Nemesis system simulates the ascension and power struggles of an orc army as they vie for control and fill in new vacancies made by you stabbing the predecessors in the throat/blowing them up/getting them eaten by wildlife. This specific part is insanely cool – the jockeying around and combat promotions – and is one of those features you kinda wish were in every open-world game from now on.
The issue comes from how the Captains have a random assortment of Strengths, Weaknesses, and combat abilities. Again, this is cool. Except when it’s not.
Witness, Hûmgrat, the Kin-Slayer:
I originally wrote several paragraphs about this guy – having hitherto unsuccessfully taken him out for bullshit reasons¹ – but I’m going to let the video speak for itself. Start at 2:50 (of this 5 minute video) if you want to see the actual “fight.” And keep in mind this is pretty much the only way to take him out, sans getting lucky with fire pit placement/existence or coming back after unlocking Branding (mind-controlled Orcs bypass the usual immunities).
So… yeah. Beginning parts are very fun, and then later ones much less so. You end up either facing more Hûmgrat, or you face an Orc you can practically one-shot. While Hûmgrat left enough of a bad taste in my mouth to almost poison the entire experience, he was not fully successful. And so I would recommend this game to any LotR fans, Batman fans, and/or Assassin Creed fans. If you can dodge the bad RNG orc combinations, there is much fun to be had.
¹ Bullshit reasons usually being other Orc Captains “randomly” appearing in the middle of my 5+ minute stunlock.
I finished GTA 5 a few weeks ago now, and my experiences can be summed up with this:
The game overall was actually phenomenal, albeit strangely balanced. It has been ages since I played GTA 3 and Vice City, but I remember those games being centered on steady progression with gun unlocks and even vehicle selection. For example, you couldn’t find the fastest cars in GTA 3 until the first bridge gets repaired, which only occurs after finishing several story missions.
In GTA 5? Some of the best cars are practically outside your first house. Indeed, several more things appear to be cash-gated too – gun unlocks and such – but completing a successful heist towards the beginning of the game ended up giving my characters over a million dollars apiece. Body armor costs $2500? No problem. Pretty sure I went ahead and unlocked most of the guns right away too.
One of the more consistent pieces of feedback I heard about GTA 5 going in was that nobody really liked Trevor as a character. Turns out Trevor is one of the more authentic characters in the game, IMO. Granted, he’s a batshit insane psychopath, but the body count of the other main characters are nearly as high, and yet they act like it is no big thing.
I did try out the GTA Online aspect for about a hot minute. One of the tutorial missions required me to go to a specific clothing shop that was currently being camped by a player with an attack helicopter though, so I Nope’d right out of that server. This aspect of GTA is apparently wildly profitable (to the tune of $500 million), but I have little desire to grind (or pay) my way to progression in this sort of game.
The single-player portion of the game though? It was a blast to play through. The three-person narrative worked out well, the graphics were sublime and ran at a silky 60 FPS with a GTX 970 the majority of the time, and there were plenty of emergent shenanigans. I barely played GTA 4 or San Andreas, so it’s hard for me to say how much the formula has improved, but the game is quality regardless.
Game: Fallout 4
Recommended price: $25
Metacritic Score: 84
Completion Time: 22-100+ hours
Buy If You Like: Fallout 3, FPS Skyrim, Post-apocalypse recycling simulators
After 95 hours of gameplay, I have come to one conclusion: Fallout 4 is one of the strangest games I have ever played. It is simultaneously brilliant and baffling; moving the franchise forward and pulling it back again; an unfinished and undocumented disaster packed with the most intricate of details.
Like I said: strange.
The main thing to understand right away about Fallout 4 is that it is almost a direct continuation of Fallout 3 (in terms of feel), and not Fallout: New Vegas. While many people say that New Vegas was the pinnacle of the (3D) series – and that may well be the case – it was also developed by an entirely different design team. Fallout 4 is a Bethesda game, not a Obsidian game, and so it has more in common with Skyrim than anything else.
From a gameplay perspective, Fallout 4 is the best that the series has ever been. The gunplay and FPS elements have been refined to the degree that it is now entirely possible to play the game without using the VATS system at all. Indeed, even when using VATS, time no longer freezes, but simply slows down, always keeping the player in the middle of the action. The addition of Legendary enemies (and their assorted loot) keeps enemy encounters relevant and exciting throughout the entire game. Many of the staple monsters in the game have received a conceptual facelift, such that Feral Ghouls, Deathclaws, and even the Sentry Bot feel both “new” and like they should have been that way all along.
Then there is the crafting. Oh, the crafting. Every single piece of post-apocalyptic debris is now salvageable into crafting components to support the Settlement-building part of the game, or the gun modding. This one “small” change completely shifts one’s exploration perspective, as now suddenly all the empty rooms you might encounter are full of the priceless treasures that are typewriters, office fans, and aluminum cans. Indeed, this might almost work too well, as it is easy to get distracted with salvaging these things rather than seeking out other, more hidden loot.
By the way, let me just say that Bethesda seriously nailed the ambiance and setting in general. Boston felt like a real (ruined) city, and not just a series of loading screens and skyboxes. Even the surrounding cities and suburbs felt like actual towns. Putting aside their gameplay elements, the addition of Settlements really went a long way in making the wasteland feel populated by real people, rather than simply being trash heaps from which raiders and enemies spawn.
That said… a lot of the rest of the game just feels off.
The Lockpicking and Hacking minigames are back, directly lifted from their original incarnations, unexplained in any real way in-game. Speaking of unexplained, the Settlement system has one of the worst UIs I have ever seen in a videogame. The Perk system overhaul is similarly ugly as sin, giving the illusion of depth but none of the functionality. Perhaps the Skill point system wasn’t all that much better, but at least each level felt like it had tangible progress towards a goal.
The voice-acting is extremely good, but the dialog itself (and the choices given) all seem rather bad. Indeed, this was the first Fallout game I have played in which the main story quest felt inconsequential, incomplete. Several times I had to look up what the main quest even was, as the “find your son” narrative receded into the background radiation of the wasteland.
All told, I played Fallout 4 for 95 hours and still ended up skipping a tremendous amount of the game. In all that time, I never got around to doing any quests for the Brotherhood of Steel, or visiting Salem, or even really poking around the bottom-right part of the map. There is so much more that can be done… and I’m unlikely to muster the drive to see it through. Does this indicate the game is deficient in some (many) ways? Perhaps. On the other hand, what right do I really have to complain about a game that generated 95 hours of entertainment?
The bottom line is that Fallout 4 is a game worth playing, whether you are a fan of the series or if this is your first Fallout title. I don’t think Fallout 4 is possible to become anyone’s favorite game, but there is more here than in 99% of the other games you could be playing.
Game: The Witcher 3
Recommended price: $15
Metacritic Score: 94
Completion Time: ~68 hours
Buy If You Like: Medieval fantasy immersion, witty dialog, terrible game design
Having finally seen the ending credits after 68 hours of gameplay, I can now officially conclude that the Witcher 3 (TW3) is the worst best game I have played. That is not a typo. The typo is TW3 receiving a 94 Metacritic rating from the gaming press that spends more time praising TW3’s visual novel bits than the actual gaming bits – which are not only bad, but actively depress the few parts of TW3’s muted brilliance.
If I had to point to one particular quality that the Witcher series as a whole has nailed down better than any other game, it would be Immersion. This series has always excelled in conjuring a dark (but not grimdark) medieval fantasy zeitgeist, and it is as true in TW3 as the others. Isolated villages feel isolated; muck-covered peasants cough with believable phlegm; people are petty, cross, and rather accustomed to living as though they could be killed by monsters at any moment.
In a word, TW3 is authentic.
This authenticity more or less carries over to the questing elements of the game. Gone are the “kill 20 drowners” garbage quests from TW2. Indeed, there is a developer interview floating around out there that states the team was basically tasked with coming up with quest ideas first, before anything else. This ends up making them feel more like distinct, mini-novellas than the side quests one might be accustomed to in other RPGs.
This distinctiveness has a double-edge however, and the full weight of all the other poorly designed systems causes the blade to backbite deep.
For example, the overarching plot and impetus to action in TW3 is for Geralt to find Ciri before the Wild Hunt does so. As you might imagine, Ciri and the Wild Hunt always feel one step ahead of you – it would be a rather odd game indeed if she was found in the first place you looked. But the issue is that in your search for Ciri, the people with the information you need always have problems of their own… problems that you must solve for them before they divulge that Ciri has been gone for weeks. And those problems have sub-problems, sometimes nested four-deep. And in the course of solving those nested problems, you will encounter hundreds of entirely meaty side quests that have nothing to do with Ciri at all.
In any normal game, the Take Your Time trope that this turns into would be just whatever. But TW3 is not “just whatever,” it is a game that has to leverage its immersion for full effect – an effect that evaporates into the mists once you realize that you just spent 20 hours doing random shit that doesn’t matter in finding Ciri. Why create this huge open-world map to explore when the central plot is a supposed race against time? When you stop taking the central plot seriously, even the “meaningful” side-quests start sounding hollow; the writing tries to make you feel something about the world, while cheapening it at the same time by simply existing.
Every other thing about the game just gets worse from that baseline.
I could spend hours on how poorly designed everything is about TW3’s core systems – and who knows, I still might – but I feel the root revolves around the gutted crafting system. In prior titles, you collected all the things because you needed all the things to keep stocked on potions, oils, bombs, and so on. In TW3, you only have to craft a given item once, to essentially unlock unlimited amounts of them; crafting Swallow (the ever-useful health regen potion) might only give you 3/3 uses, but an hour meditating restocks all consumables. This has tremendous cascade effect on the rest of the game systems.
Using Swallow as an example again, the recipe calls for one Dwarven Stout, one Drowner Brain, and five Celadine (a plant). Craft it once, and you’ll have unlimited Swallow potions. There are upgrades to potions and bombs and such, but… do you know how much Celadine you’re going to ever need? Thirty (30). That’s enough plant material to craft every single thing in TW3 that requires Celadine. Drowner Brain? Six (6). Do you have any idea how many Drowner brains you’re going to accumulate throughout TW3? A fucking million. And every one of them after the first six are going to be useless.
As you might imagine, needing only a tiny fraction of items you loot to gain immense power essentially makes looting pointless. At least, if not for the fact that TW3 also has random loot. Not just random loot, but unbounded random loot, such that you can find a level 20+ sword recipe in a burlap sack at level 3. Or never find it at all anywhere. There are some sanity checks involved regarding actual gear, but ingredients are all over the place.
What gets me the most is how much this affected my own sense of immersion. There were a lot of things wrong with the first Witcher game, but the convoluted Alchemy system felt right in the setting. You were in a dirty medieval world, crushing flower petals to combine various elements together to create a potion that was pure poison to a normal, non-mutated man. You had to keep collecting herbs and monster organs because otherwise you wouldn’t be powerful enough to survive the next encounter. That kind of system has a positive feedback loop with immersion. The one in TW3? It is a negative feedback loop. One and done, everything else is trash.
Then there is the combat itself, which is similarly
streamlined dumbed-down. Left-click to light attack, Shift-left-click for strong attack, right-click to parry, Alt to half-dodge and Spacebar to full dodge. Use Signs and Bombs and whatever as you need them. At the 3rd-highest difficulty, combat was always a snooze-fest even if I died; a level 12 Drowner took out my level 22 Witcher in 5-6 hits because I got too lazy to time Alt correctly. Having to pay attention is usually a hallmark of an engaging, difficult combat system, but it simply isn’t in TW3’s case. It is more that actually paying attention and being careful makes TW3 combat a joke; it is only hard precisely when you’re trying to speed through it because you want to be done.
Don’t get me started on the talent trees and Rune systems. They’re bad, whoever designed them is bad, and every single person who allowed them to occur should feel bad. Seriously, after you spend 20 talent points in the Signs tree, the entire 3rd row of talents you unlock is… +5% Sign Intensity for a given Sign. The first two rows granted new abilities and effects to your normal Signs and you follow-up with +5% to an incomprehensible stat? And that’s exactly what all those precious Rune slots in weapons and armor are: +2% chance to stun, +3% Igni Intensity, and similar garbage. It’s like the designers aren’t even trying.
At the end of the day, the people out there praising this game are praising the Telltale Presents: the Witcher 3 story. From a game mechanics standpoint, this is one of the worst designed games I have played. It’s not clunky, it just works against all of the strengths that the game otherwise brings to the table. In other words, the worst best game I have ever played.