Impression: Prey

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Prey is how much of its cleverness is wasted on me.

Prey_Mimic1

There’s a Mimic in here.

I knew from prior reporting that this game was different than standard games. I had heard of tales of fancy solutions to seemingly impossible situations. That “cheesing” encounters might even be necessary to survive. What I had not considered though, is how tunnel-visioned I had become on rote, formulaic solutions to cliched problems such that I had not even considered the possibility of trying something else.

The very first weapon you pick up is a wrench, which is about as tropy as you get. Then you get the GLOO gun. This is a weapon that deals no damage, but spits out expanding foam balls that can immobilize enemies, put out fires, seal flaming pipes, temporarily block arcing electrical panels, and become climbable platforms when it dries. The silenced pistol comes an hour or two later, and by then you will have encountered quite a few of the stronger enemy types with just a wrench and GLOO gun. The designers were very clearly trying to educate the player on all the myriad solutions to the problems they want you to solve.

Trouble is, I’ve been “trained” too well over the years.

It’s only well after the fact that I realize a better solution existed. For example, I walked into a room, and saw the windows sealed with GLOO foam. A note on the counter read “I sealed two Mimics in there, but there are casualties, so as many as eight.” I wrenched the foam out of the way, and used a combination of Wrench, Silenced Pistol, bullet-time, and panic to kill the half-dozen or so Mimics that popped out of the window.

Prey_Mimic2

As it turns out, no Mimic in here.

After searching the now enemy-less room, I realized a few things. First, there was a broken turret in the hallway before this room. I could have repaired it, then set up the turret to cover the window. Second, there was a flammable oxygen pipe that run just under the window – which could have been shot to spray a jet of flame across the opening, catching the Mimics on fire. Third, I have Recycler Grenades, and could have just blown them all up. Instead, I chose the dumbest, most caveman solution possible and wasn’t overly punished for it.

Speaking of Recycler Grenades, these are items that basically convert everything within a certain radius into blocks of materials. And I do mean everything, furniture and enemies included. You can spend a lot of Neuromods (e.g. skill points) unlocking the ability to to lift ever-heavier items out of the way – and there are quite a few early rooms barricaded with heavy objects – or you can… just toss a Recycler Grenade at the obstruction and clear it instantly plus get some materials to make more grenades. This was not my own discovery, I had to read about it. It’s entirely possibly that I would not have even ever tried. That’s some goddamn 1984 doublethink shit, where you lack the language to even acknowledge your oppression.

Prey_Clever

At least four ways into this locked room, and I always choose the dumbest.

To be clearer in my own language here, I am praising Prey. It’s just blowing my mind a bit that years of other, less clever games could essentially atrophy any out-of-the-box thinking. I even played Deus Ex back in the day, and I enjoyed all the sequels too. Part of me feels like Prey should punish more mundane gunplay more, or just forgo guns altogether.

At that point though, perhaps forced cleverness isn’t really cleverness at all.

Anyway, six hours in, Prey is an exceedingly unique experience with some really inventive scenarios. The existence of Mimic enemies cause you to really examine all the debris in a room, which can sometimes (and sometimes not, apparently) lead you to realize alternative solutions to an otherwise straight-forward enemy situation. The GLOO gun is pretty much the closest thing to the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2 that I have seen a game introduce in a decade. And damn near everything else is similarly polished and grokkable in surprising ways.

Pick this game up when you can. On sale, of course, but on the next one.

Impressions: Sundered

Pretty much everything you need to know about Sundered is encapsulated in this picture:

Oh my

That’s the first boss.

The premise of the game is that you are a human (?) adventurer who gets sucked into a desert temple by some tentacles, and are tasked with defeating some monstrosities by the Shining Trapezohedron. If that sounds Lovecraftian, it is. In fact, that being in particular is straight-up from a Lovecraft book, and the rest of the game takes heavy, sometimes direct, direction from the genre.

Indeed, the eerie disquietness of the game proper has been a wholly unique experience for me. I have seen tentacled monsters with teeth and eyes in all the wrong places in games before. That’s common.

Pictured: tentacle monster with teeth and eyes in wrong places.

What I never really experienced is a sense of trepidation regarding a gorgeous, hand-drawn background that features nary a monster or blood stain, but simply a construction completely out of human scale. The whole time, you are immersed in an environment very clearly not made for you. Hell, even the Sanctuary – the place where you spend Shards to increase your stats – feels “off” due to the massive, smooth stone in the background. It reminds me of looking up at a skyscraper from the street, and feeling as though the whole thing is moments away from falling on me.

The weakness of Sundered comes from its gameplay direction. It plays as a semi-modern Metroidvania, akin to Hollow Knight or Ori and the Blind Forest. However, the map features no pre-set monster spawns, and has randomly-generated sections that change upon your death. You will be randomly beset upon by “hordes,” which are essentially a dozen or so enemies at a time. Defeating them sometimes grant you Shards, which is a currency used to purchase your way through a FFX/Path of Exile-esque ability grid.

Ah, yes, just make a right at the corner of Ehshkht’aetag’ling and Kytag’yeh.

The gameplay loop itself doesn’t necessarily feel bad, and the horde spawning mechanic does allow you to take in the environment more than if there were set spawns in specific locations every time. But it does end up feeling… weird. And not the Lovecraftian weird, but the sort of “okay, here we go again” weird. Also the “weird” in which you might find yourself overwhelmed and possibly dead due to what feels like random chance. For example, you might have been able to easily handle a specific horde composition if you were not “ambushed” in a tight corridor with spikes everywhere.

In any case, if you can persist through the first hour or so of the game, before you have unlocked any interesting abilities or encountered tricky enemies, you will possibly come out the other side… changed, as I did. I have not quite played a game that made me feel this way, not even The Forest or other traditional survival horror games.

In those games, the monsters were the invaders. In Sundered, it is you who doesn’t belong.

Ascension

As you may have heard, I continue to play Slay the Spire.

I have beaten the “normal” game dozens of times with all three default characters, and have unlocked all the cards and relics. When you defeat everything with all three characters, you can unlock a fourth stage with a super-secret boss, and you also unlock Ascension Mode. Each character has their own Ascension Mode tracker, and defeating the standard final boss will increment the Ascension Mode up one digit, to a maximum of 20. What happens on each level is the following:

  1. Elites spawn more often.
  2. Normal enemies are deadlier.
  3. Elites are deadlier.
  4. Bosses are deadlier.
  5. Heal less after Boss battles (75% of missing health)
  6. Start each run damaged (-10% health)
  7. Normal enemies are tougher.
  8. Elites are tougher.
  9. Bosses are tougher.
  10. Ascender’s Bane
  11. Start each run with 1 less potion slot.
  12. Upgraded cards appear less often. (50% less)
  13. Bosses drop less gold. (25% less)
  14. Lower max HP. (-5 for Ironclad, -4 for Silent and Defect)
  15. Unfavorable events.
  16. Shops are more costly. (10% more)
  17. Normal enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  18. Elite enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  19. Boss enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  20. Fight 2 bosses at the end of Act 3.

I have been focusing on playing the Silent, the 2nd character, and achieved Ascension 15.

Also, I am so done with this game.

This particular Ascension mode design is rather brilliant in a lot of ways. Many games have harder difficulties, including roguelikes, but most of them are not as granular as this. The first “downside” of more Elites, for example, is not technically a downside for someone skilled with the game – each Elite enemy killed will result in a Relic, which can substantially improve the rest of a run. It’s often advised to target as many Elites as possible in the first Stage, to either wash out a weak deck early, or load up on goodies when the risk to your time is low.

Plus, there is the more mundane benefit to the fact that even if you are a super pro player from the start, you still need to play through and beat the game 20 times before you reach the hardest difficulty. Per character! That’s a lot of gameplay. Or grinding, depending.

I lasted way longer than I thought I would at the beginning (Ascension 15, remember), but the fundamental truth is that each time I succeeded, each subsequent game became less fun. By design. Well, presumably I am supposed to become more and more proud of my ability to overcome challenges, but that doesn’t really happen in practice. Especially in Slay the Spire’s case, where after a while things become more and more RNG-based as the margin for success shrinks.

This is probably for the best. I prefer the discrete finality of a rolling credits screen to the ashes of burning out, but an ending is an ending. Now maybe I can move on to something else.

Epic Shenanigans

In case you haven’t seen the news, the Epic Store has poached another timed-exclusive game release: Metro Exodus. The wrinkle this time is that rather than being planned from the start, Deep Silver must have been given a fat stack of secret cash because the game was already available on pre-order from Steam (which are still being honored, until removed from the Steam store). And, you know, the game was all set out to be released in 2.5 weeks.

I mentioned “fat stack of secret cash” because while the revenue split is more generous in the Epic Store, they are actually doing the only thing I said would matter in the competition space: Metro Exodus had its MSRP lowered from $60 (on Steam) to $50. Which means the gross revenue from this game would be:

  • Steam = $60 * 0.7 = $42
  • Epic = $50 * 0.88 = $44

That calculation demonstrates how a developer could still make a higher profit on the Epic store by dropping the price to $50, but here’s the thing: they are going to be losing a non-trivial amount of sales for not being on the PC’s largest storefront. Enough to matter? Remains to be seen. The Metro Redux (aka remasters) of the first two games sold 1.5 million copies back in 2016. That would be $3 million more in Deep Silver’s pocket if they sold the same amount of games… at full price… as the remasters of the last two games combined.

That $2 difference between revenue is 4.5%. If Deep Silver sells 4.5% fewer copies due to not being on Steam, then they lose almost $3 million. I mean, without even doing much calculations, you gotta know that for every Steam sale lost, they have to sell 22 copies in the Epic Store to break even. Ergo, I suspect that Epic was waving something more than simply the 88% cut in Deep Silver’s face.

And that’s kinda the baffling thing about all this. I’m not opposed to competition between companies, especially when it results in a gain in consumer surplus. Competing on price is a huge deal, and I’m sincerely amazed that Deep Silver pulled that trigger to sell at $50. But… why then yank the title from Steam as a “timed-exclusive release”? That isn’t consumer friendly or useful to anyone at all. Why not let the same title be purchasable on both platforms, and allow nature to run its course?

We’ll have to see how things shake out a year from now, when the game is finally released on Steam… presumably at a huge discount because it will have been a whole year.

Meaningful Experiences

I was browsing Kotaku the other day, and a paragraph struck me:

Nobody ever asks why anyone stopped playing Halo 2. No response would merit it. The game came out in 2004, and three years later, there was Halo 3. At some point, it got old. Another game came along. Friends moved on. It was just a thing you did, and then you went and did something else.

This is something I struggle with, internally. Not Halo 2, but with the general concept.

I used to play a lot of Counter-Strike back in the day. So much so that I was extremely bitter when version 1.6 came out and changed the way a lot of the guns fired (1.5 for life). I transitioned into Warcraft 3-modded Counter-Strike servers – Night Elves went invisible when they stopped moving, Undead had low-gravity and regain health when dealing damage, etc – before finally moving on entirely to Battlefield 2. I played that damn near daily for like four years. Then Magic Online for a while, then World of Warcraft for a decade.

Looking back, what can I even say about any of those decades of gaming?

“I had fun playing Counter-Strike.” Maybe someone else can say “me too,” and then commiserate about X or Y change in the intervening years. But that’s it. We can’t really share our experiences in any further detail – you had to be there in that moment, else it’s just a vague sentiment, if one tries to communicate the feeling at all. WoW is different in the sense that I eventually met my guildmates in the real world – and invited each other to our weddings – but I can’t imagine meaningfully talking with some random WoW player on the street.

Contrast that with, say, any of the Final Fantasy games. Or Silent Hill. Or really any single-player, narrative experience. If someone says their favorite game is Xenogears, I could meaningfully talk with them for hours. We could discuss our favorite team compositions, how shocked we were about X revelation, how funny the mistranlations were, and so on. That means something in a way that “This one time on de_dust…” does not. We played the same game, but had different experiences.

At the same time, I don’t want to denigrate other peoples’ experiences. I wouldn’t suggest that someone hiking in the woods or fishing is wasting their time, despite those discreet events being equally ephemeral and unrelatable. There are people who simply enjoy wandering around virtual worlds, like there are people wandering around the real world. If that’s what you like, keep doing it.

I worry about myself though. I started Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice the other day, and enjoyed the play session. After that, it’s been days and days of Slay the Spire (Ascension 12 with the Silent) and 7 Days to Die. The latter is especially egregious, considering it is in an unfinished Alpha state. Why not put it down and go back to Hellblade, which is – by all accounts – a much deeper experience? Because, in that moment, these other (potentially vapid) experiences are 5% more pleasurable.

“If you’re having fun, what does it matter?” Well… wirehead. Also, having fun, in of itself, is not relatable. Which, I suppose, belies an underlying desire of mine to be relatable or at least capable of conveying relatable experiences. Even if there were people who wanted to read “I had fun playing videogames today,” I wouldn’t want to write just that. There should be something more.

I dunno. It would be one thing if the dilemma was between playing videogames and completing some meaningful task IRL. It’s not. There is nothing more #firstworldproblems than angst surrounding which two leisure activities provides the most long-term utility. Nevertheless, the worry exists, alongside a deeper one as to whether wirehead experiences have increased my fun tolerance beyond the reach of narrative games altogether. Or perhaps I am simply playing the wrong narrative games.

Zombie Smarts

I have been playing some more 7 Days to Die (7DTD) now that the Alpha 17.1 patch came around. There have been a lot of tweaks to the progression mechanics and Perk system, including some level-gating on Iron/Steel tool recipes. The biggest change, however, was to zombie AI.

In short, zombies are now impossibly smart… and impossibly dumb.

It’s been long enough that I don’t even remember how zombies behaved in prior patches. What zombies do now though, is behave in perfect tower defense intelligence: the shortest distance between them and you, with walls adding a virtual number of steps. Zombie are also perfectly prescient, knowing exactly which wall blocks have the lowest remaining health, and will attack that spot en mass to get to you. At the same time, zombies prefer not attacking walls to X extent, if they can walk there instead.

The result? Cue the Benny Hill theme:

Essentially, the current 7DTD meta is to not create bases at all, but rather mazes that funnel zombies into kill zones and/or large drops that loop them around until they die of fall damage. The devs have added a “zombie tantrum” mechanic to try and get some damage on looped mazes – zombies will attack anything nearby when they fall, possibly weakening your support pillars – but that will be metagamed away with multiple platforms or deeper holes.

To be clear, the prior zombie meta was solved by simply building an underground bunker. At that time, zombies could not dig into the ground, and disregarded the Z axis entirely – it was possible to hang out in the middle of a bridge and often have a nice grouped pile of zombies directly below you to hit with a Molotov. I played the game enough to recognize which Point of Interest had a pre-built bunker located underneath it, and often sought it out immediately after spawning so I could all but ignore the titular 7th day horde attack.

That said, how smart should zombies be?

The only way to answer that question is to ask what the game you’re making is supposed to be about. When you add tower defense mechanics, you get a tower defense game. This will preclude people from building nice little houses in the woods, and instead opt for mazes and obstacles and drops. It becomes a much more technical game, solvable with very specific configurations. Having dumber zombies frees up a lot more base designs, on top of possibly requiring a lot more attention to one’s base after an attack, as a single “dumb” zombie could be weakening a support in an unused corner.

My initial “solution” would be to mix and match, but I think that’s actually the worst of all possible worlds. Instead, I think zombies work best as environmental hazards. Bunkers might make you invulnerable to nightly attacks… but you have to leave sometime. Shouldn’t the punishment for hiding underground be the simple lack of information of what’s going on, combined with having to spend your morning hours slaying the zombie hordes milling about outside?

I guess we’ll see what the devs eventually decide. At present, there simply seems to be a maze-based arms race at the expense of any sort of satisfying nesting. If the 7DTD devs want to double-down, well… thank god for mods.

Quick & Dirty Guide to Starbound (Frackin’ Universe)

Frackin’s Universe (FU) is a Steam Workshop mod that revitalizes (and complicates) the entire Starbound experience. It is not recommended for a first playthrough – go beat the base, vanilla game first. Then, just when you think you’ve had enough, come back, load the mod, and play what feels like Starbound 2.0.

StarboundFU_Title

Beyond FU itself, I highly recommend the following (compatible!) mods:

In particular, Improved Containers will change your Starbound life. They added a button to automatically stack anything you’re carrying into an existing stack in a container. Great for off-loading one of the dozens of new ore types introduced in FU after coming back aboard your ship.

Beginning Recommendations

Play or skip the tutorial. When it asks whether you want the default ship or the Build Your Own Ship (BYOS) option, choose BYOS. This allows you to skip a huge block of vanilla Starbound progression and immediately construct a ship of your dreams.

Incidentally, you can construct your dream ship out of any materials lying around. Including dirt. Despite floating in deep space, you are free to destroy the walls and background tiles of your ship at any time; there are no decompression mechanics in Starbound. Just note that “loose” items/blocks fall to the bottom of the screen, and walking onto a spot without background tiles puts you in an airless, zero-g environment. This will likely be fatal to you at the start of the game, so construct your ship from the other side of a wall first.

Get off the starter planet ASAP. Complete the required quests first, but try to get to a different Lush or whatever planet when you can. Tungsten Ore is an especially vital part of early-game progression, and the starter planet probably doesn’t have any.

Get a Mining Laser ASAP. It is better than Mining Picks, Mining Drills, and the best, most upgraded Matter Manipulator any day. You will still want to upgrade the latter over time though, as the Mining Laser burns through both normal and background blocks, which can be problematic in certain edge cases. Like when the background is full of lava, for example.

Roughly 99% of your deaths will be related to fall damage. That is not so much a recommendation as it is a fact. Mitigating fall damage is super important, but you won’t have very many options at the start, especially considering how dark FU is generally. Until you can get armor/Augments to assist with the issue, your best bet is to focus on unlocking Physics Field tech in the Tech Console. That way you can press F if you notice yourself falling to prevent all damage.

Cheese the lighting system by printing lighted signs. One of the FU changes is that you no longer emit a minimum aura of light. Combined with the fact that EPP upgrades are not cumulative, you will often be in a situation where you need to craft thousands of torches to see anything. Alternatively, once the Pixel Sign maker is up at the Outpost – unlocked after the first artifact – you can create a white, lighted sign that practically shines with the force of a thousand suns.

StarboundFU_Lighting

It also costs nothing but the effort of spam-clicking the print button. Torches are still useful in that they don’t require background tiles to work, but signs are otherwise better when you can use them.

Check every vendor you see. Most of the time, a vendor’s inventory is randomly set when you meet them. This can sometimes result in fortuitous situations like a vendor selling unlimited amounts of, say, Graphene for 28px a pop.

StarboundFU_Graphene

Base Recommendations

Build your first base on an Ocean planet. If you are anything like me, you’re concerned about where your “real” base should be located. So you go planet to planet, looking for the perfect spot, and meanwhile junk and crafting benches continue to accumulate wherever you placed them (probably on your ship). Eventually, by the time you find the ideal location, you’re overwhelmed by all the items you have to move, so you stick with your first “choice.”

StarboundFU_Base

I recommend an Ocean planet base for two reasons. First, it’s a planet. Ship bases are perfectly viable options, but you essentially forgo easy power generation from Solar/Wind stations, and easy materials from Atmospheric Condensers. Second, Ocean planets have infinite water tiles. There are craftable Wells and other water sources wherever you are, but nothing beats the convenience of holding down left-click and soaking up as much water as you need. Or automating it all later.

Keep a Sifter up and running 24/7. A full stack of 1000 Sand will keep a Sifter occupied for quite some time, but the end result will be a dozen or more different materials, some of which can be loaded back in an Alternator to power the Sifter to continue generating free goodies. The Centrifuge is similarly useful, but certainly less perpetual… unless you have Solar panels on an Ocean planet.

Farming Recommendations

Did you build a base on an Ocean planet? Lobsters are EZ-Mode. Craft some Lobster Traps and watch as they magically fill up with free food. Lobsters stack to 99, do not require cooking to eat (but you can if you want), and actually sell for a decent amount (1980px per 99 stack). While there is an indication of freshness, lobsters do not appear to spoil; this may be a bug that is fixed later.

Rice is the easiest vegetable crop to manage. Uncooked rice stacks in your inventory, never goes bad, and you only need a Campfire to cook it. Wheat is similar, but Rice does not need to be replanted (assuming you aren’t using Growing Trays). You forgo any fancy buffs, but it is incredibly straight-forward. If you haven’t found rice on a planet yet, “purchase” it from a Greenhouse.

Grow Trays/Hydroponics are niche tools. On paper, they sound amazing: drop in three seeds, a stack of water, maybe some Fertilizer, and off you go. The problem is that there isn’t a good visual indication of when the product can be harvested. Or when it runs out of water. Or when all of the output slots are full of spoiled food.

Where Grow Trays excel is when they are used either with a stackable product, such Silk, or with a food item that normally despawns when harvesting, such as Wheat. In most other situations, I prefer planting crops in dirt.

Aeroponic or Hydroponic Tubing is strictly better than dirt, once you unlock them. They are kinda expensive considering dirt and the broken sprinkler are so early in the tech tree, but there are benefits to be able to pack more plants into a smaller area (sprinklers need height to water everything). Just keep in mind that you do have to “till” the tubing before planting.

If you want the most-filling food, then you’ll want Ultimate Juice. Incidentally, it also provides +20% Jump/Energy/Health/Run Speed and a Rage effect. This requires six different crops to craft though: Boneboo, Feathercrown, Oculemon, Neonmelon, and Toxictop. Finding these crops before reaching the endgame will be a challenge.

Critical FU Functionality

Frackin’ Universe adds a lot of very complicated systems. Here are the most important/useful ones.

Power – Both Power Generators and Batteries (when charged) output X number of Watts. Plugging a 4W battery into an Arc Smelter (req. 40W) isn’t going to work. That said, wattage is cumulative on a wire. Connect ten 4W batteries to that Arc Smelter – or preferably, to a Wire Relay – and you will be in business. Just note that if you are using 40W, that is 40W less on the wire. If you have multiple stations running simultaneously, you will need a power surplus to keep all the lights on.

Terminals – A Terminal is a clickable interface that grants you access to an “Item Network.” Linking all your storage units together into an Item Network means you can use Terminals to search for and retrieve your items from a single location, e.g. the Terminal itself, instead of having to manually look for it across all your storage units.

StarboundFU_Terminal

What you’ll need:

  • Storage unit(s) full of stuff
  • Craft and place Storage Bridge near storage unit(s)
  • (optional) Craft and place Repeater to hook into multiple Storage Bridges
  • Craft and place Terminal near crafting stations
  • Connect the blues to the reds, e.g. Storage Bridge to Repeater/Terminal

Item Movement – If you want to take something from one container and physically put it into another container, you want an Item Transference Device (ITD). If you click on the ITD, you will get a bunch of pseudo-programming options that I have zero interest in learning or explaining. Instead, all you really need to know is that it basically works out of the box. Connect the red circle of your container to the blue circle of the ITD, then connect the red circle of the ITD to the blue circle of the other container. Bam. All items that appear in the first slot of the first container will get moved.

StarboundFU_Transfer

For me, the most practical use of an ITD was moving items from a Lobster Trap or Growing Tray to a box automatically. If the box is actually refrigerated storage, then all the better. Red, blue, red, blue, done. If you want something more fancy, you are on your own.

Survival Recommendations

One of your quick-slot items should be Dirt. If you find yourself in trouble, close off the tunnel you’re in with dirt; it will block melee and the majority of ranged attacks while you heal yourself or escape. While it’s a kinda cheesy move in vanilla Starbound, the enemies in Frackin’ Universe are exceedingly more deadly. Some enemies can pass through walls though, and explosive damage can penetrate tiles, so take care.

Always deploy with your Mech on new worlds. Depending on how much (if any) time you spend with the Mech-building side of things, your Mech will not make you invulnerable to planet effects or damage for long. That said, it will absolutely extend your life by a few precious seconds in case you get beamed down in the middle of a USCM camp full of snipers that can one-shot you. Just note that if your Mech explodes, you die with it. So either beam back up to your ship or bail.

Craft a few dozen flags and plant them everywhere. Flags are cheap to craft and act as bookmarks that allow you to get back to where you want to be quickly. Think you might die or encounter a tough fight? Plant a flag. If you come across a planet with a lot of good resources, plant a flag and name it “Penumbrite (Acid, Hot)” or whatever. This will save you oodles of time if you find yourself in a situation of needing more of X resource but being in a Y system instead.

Get an X (Radiation, etc) Ball Wand/Staff. Regardless of your fighting style, having a Wand/Staff with Radiation Ball (or whatever) will change your life. Specifically, it will allow you to attack enemies around corners/from range with guided death. Even better, you can dig a 1-block hole in a wall or floor and then squeeze your orb of death through it to murder your foes with impunity.

StarboundFU_Cheap

I snaked a Radiation Ball right through the one-tile gap to fry that guy.

Cheap? Sure. Effective? Hell yeah.

Armor Combinations – There are over 100 sets of armor added with Frackin’ Universe, so determining what you want to wear can be a challenge. For the most part though, it’s best to craft a bunch of mannequins and just have specialized sets ready for each planet you beam down on. That said, here were my go-to options:

Nautilus Armor / Kraken Armor / Leviathan Armor
This armor series eventually grants you Acid, Poison/Bio, Gas, Pressure, and Oxygen immunities once you reach the end. If you combine this with the Thermal Shell EPP, you will be immune to the most common damage types. A Field Generator EPP will make you further immune to Radiation, at the expense of making lava a concern again. This will cover just about everything aside from Shadow and Insanity, which can handled with EPP Augments.

Valkyrie Armor
With this set, you get Oxygen, Gas, Pressure, and Radiation protection, plus technical immunity to fall damage (you float downwards). This seems like considerably less protections than the same-tier Leviathan Armor set, and it is, but the Valkyrie gear boasts a 500% weapon damage modifier instead of 276%. Definitely a glass-cannon set, with half the armor of Leviathan and a third of War Angel.

Sunwalker Armor
This is a “War Angel-lite” tier-6 set that provides Radiation, Heat, Cold, Breath, and Pressure immunities. Additionally, there is an extra 40% Radiation resist and a +15% bonus to Plasma weapon damage.

War Angel
Basically an endgame armor, this nevertheless makes you immune to Pressure, Cold, Heat, Radiation, knockback, and all fall damage. On top of that, it provides 35% Physical Resist, so you’ll be taking less damage from mobs. Oh, and 93 Armor and tons of extra HP. Definitely a tanky set. Chain Swords deal 250% extra damage in your hands with this set as well.

EPP and Augments –  Much like with Armor, there are dozens of different types of EPPs and Augments to slot into them. The ultimate goal is find a combination that works for your play-style and providing the necessary protection to survive whatever planet you’re on. That said, some of the choices are better than others.

[EPP] Thermal Shell
Providing protection against heat, cold, lava, and burning on top of 20% Fire and Ice Resistance, the Thermal Shell is one of the most useful EPPs in the game. Many armors can give you heat immunity, but none of them will save you from taking damage in lava, which is weird. Even the Field Generator, which appears to be a strict upgrade to the Thermal Shell given how it includes Radiation protection, makes you vulnerable to a lava bath once again.

[EPP] Repulsor Field Pack
While outclassed in the midgame, the Repulsor Field Pack is a fantastic early-game EPP since it provides 20% Physical and Fire Resistance. The “penalty” to Cosmic Resistances isn’t particularly relevant until much later in the game.

[EPP] Plasma Light Pack
The final word in backpack light generation, the Plasma Light Pack doesn’t appear until the endgame and may end up being a fool’s errand to chase after. While it provides Breath and Pressure Immunities, most armors offer the same by then.

[Augment] Immunity I & Immunity Field
Pretty much the final word with Augments, Immunity I provides protection against Heat, Cold, Gas, Radiation, and Proto-Poison at a base level. Immunity Field is a recent, stronger addition that grants a 2nd level protection to those same qualities while adding on Radiation Burning, Poisoning, and Liquid Nitrogen immunities. Still does nothing versus Shadow/Insanity/etc damage, so be wary of what planets you are beaming to. Although having a specialized armor set against those qualities with a Thermal Shell with an Immunity Field Augment to handle the rest will do you well.

Slain Spire

Remember when I said I wouldn’t buy Battlefield 5 because it would consume all my free time but not “accomplish” anything? Well, I did resist the purchase…

…and promptly put like a dozen or so “empty” hours into Slay the Spire instead.

I think my total hours /played in Slay the Spire at this point is north of 50 hours. Those are rookie numbers compared to Zubon at Kill Ten Rats, who probably put more hours into writing Slay the Spire posts last year than I have playing the game. Which it entirely deserves, by the way – it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. It’s just not a novel experience (to me) anymore, and yet I feel compelled to boot it up any time I spend more than thirty seconds looking at my Steam library.

That’s probably a sign of good game design.

Last year, the devs at MegaCrit tweeted that they were looking at a Switch and mobile version of the game after coming out of Early Access. It’s 2019 and the game is still in Early Access, although there has been a third class added and, more recently, Steam mod support. If and when Slay the Spire ever receives a mobile port, is likely the day that I earn a Corrective Action Report at work.

I can’t wait. Because then I might be able to get home sated, and ready to play something else.

Opaque RNG is Indistinguishable from Rigging

My patience with enforced 50% win rates is paper graphene-thin.

“A fair game is one in which you win half the time.” It’s hard to argue against such a notion. What is more fair than a coin flip? The problem is that players aren’t equal sides of a coin, nor are the thousands of potential actions reducible to two, easily predictive binary outcomes. Some approximation is required. Or a developer thumb on the scale.

I am still playing Clash Royale despite the disastrous pivot towards blood stone squeezing, and the conceptual breakdown of all progression for long-term players. But some of their shit is driving me up a wall, and will eventually drive me from the game entirely. Specifically, Clan Wars, and even more specifically, a particular game mode with preconstructed decks.

To be sure, there are learning curves involved. Supercell basically took some “top decks” and added them to a pool, from which you are randomly assigned one for a single game. The problem is that some of these decks are just objectively terrible with no redeeming qualities, and still others are straight-up countered by some of the other matchups. For example, these two Classic Decks Battles:

clashroyal_classicdecks

Bullshit on the left, winners on the right.

In the first match (at the bottom), my Royal Hogs are immediately countered by Valkyrie, Mega Knight is immediately countered by Inferno Tower. Amusingly, Royal Hogs are also countered by Inferno Tower and Mega Knight by Valkyrie, assuming my opponent times it right. Meanwhile, while I can counter his Goblin Barrel with Arrows, they both cost 3 Elixir and thus end in a wash… with the slightest error on my part resulting in easily >30% tower damage. Meanwhile, my Zappies are basically useless, my Inferno Dragon even more useless, and I can’t use Arrows to counter his Princess or Goblin Gang because then I become vulnerable to Goblin Barrel. I also can’t hope to Fireball him out because he also has Rocket, which deals way more damage than Fireball. The ONLY way anyone could possibly win with the deck I was given was if the opponent was AFK. 1

For a WoW analogy, think Warrior (me) vs Frost Mage (opponent).

The second matchup wasn’t technically as lopsided, but still awful. Bandit is straight-up countered by pretty much every card in the opponent’s deck. Rascals + Zap took care of Minion Horde every time I threw one down, and Hog Rider/Mortar/Goblin Gang meant I could be punished immediately for dropping Elixir Collector or Three Musketeers. Which is what happened, pretty consistently. If I played better, I might have been able to distract a Mortar with my Valkyrie or Bandit in the other lane, and then split a Three Musketeers or something in the middle, followed by a split Minion Horde. Even then, if he played defensive for 20 seconds, my shit would have been countered.

Were these match-ups truly random? Or “enforced” 50% win rates? There is no direct economic incentive for Supercell to “rig” the Classic Decks Battle mode, but the RNG is opaque and it would certainly be a method to ensure that winrates do not get too lopsided.

The third clan war battle I played was Draft. In this game mode, you are given a choice of one of two cards, four times total; whatever you don’t pick goes to your opponent. I’m not sure if the card pairings are 100% random, but you can absolutely get stuck with some extremely shitty decks and/or matchups. And yet I’m fine with that. You as the player have some agency, even with imperfect information, e.g. choosing Minion Horde when opponent might have chosen Arrows. Indeed, Minion Horde in particular is a classical risky pick because of how many cards can counter it… but if your opponent doesn’t have any of those counters, it can be an overwhelming advantage.

My feelings on enforced winrates have changed over the years. Initially, it seemed fine. Necessary, even. But it is rigging, especially in the methods that many game developers go about it: pairing you with terrible teammates, matching you against strong counters, etc. The end result is that I simply cannot trust game developers with (opaque) RNG anymore. They have no incentive to be actually fair – however fairness is defined – and every incentive to produce favorable (to the devs) results. Even if they showed me the specific game code that chooses the matches, I have no reason to believe it operates in that way. This age of monetization and consumer surplus erosion has pushed me past the Cynicism Horizon, from which no trust can escape.

The only thing that game designers can do, and the thing they should be doing, is increasing player agency in the RNG elements. Drafting feels fair, even when the results are not. Maybe it is just another psychological trick to employ, giving someone the “choice” between a rock or a hard place. But it is an important one for not appearing so nakedly rigged in favor of one particular outcome.

1 If you can produce some videos of pros beating non-AFK people with the decks I was given, I’ll concede that I need to L2P. I typically end the season at 4800 trophies and can acknowledge mistakes, but on paper and in practice, those match-ups felt lopsided as hell.

Review: Far Cry 5

I completed Far Cry 5 a few days ago.

farcry5_view

The visuals are quite amazing.

Mechanically, this is the best Far Cry in the series. The gunplay is smooth and tight, weapons are reasonably varied, and vehicles are generally fun to drive. Many of the more rote Far Cry-isms have also been removed. You are no longer forced to climb towers to explore the landscape, nor hunt down sharks to craft a bigger wallet. The whole map is available to explore right away. Screen clutter is practically non-existent, and what quest markers exist are fairly subtle.

Narratively, I feel it is one of the weakest in the series.

farcry5_boomer

That dog ends up being a very Good Boy.

I have no problem with the Christian iconography, the political parallels to present day, the rehashing of Spec Ops: The Line-esque navel-gazing about who the real demon is (hint: it’s you), or the sometimes absurdly comical cruelty. A lot of that is part and parcel to the Far Cry series. What is fairly new is the simple fact that the player is kidnapped NINE TIMES over the course of the story. The purpose is obviously to engineer a scenario in which the player can interact with the cult lieutenants and witness some exposition first-hand. The frequency though, and the ham-handedness, obliterates any semblance of story cohesion.

Seriously, one time I completed a mission, got the “You’re Being Hunted” message, and was apparently taken out by a blowdart… while piloting an attack helicopter hundreds of feet in the air. Cue cutscene and sub-boss taunting, in which it was revealed I had been imprisoned for seven days (!?!) undergoing psychological torture and starvation. Then (spoilers) I broke out of prison for what had been the fifth time at this point, and went back to what I had been doing originally.

farcry5_walls

Walls, eh?

I think the principle problem is that Ubisoft simply cannot outrun the shadow of Far Cry 3. That game had an insufferable trust fund frat boy as a protagonist, but it also had a narrative arc with some progression, substance, and you know, a main character that talks. With the lack of any sort of internal dialog, the devs leaned real hard on Vaas wannabes and contrived capture scenarios. Hell, the main character might have been captured just as many times as in Far Cry 3, but it never felt this arbitrary before.

In any case, after 15 hours, that’s that. Far Cry 5 has good gameplay and a stunningly beautiful open world playground to blow up stuff in. But… so do a lot of other games these days. What sets the series apart isn’t the open world or general shenanigans, it’s the story and general narrative experience. And that’s unfortunately lacking this time around.