I’ve been playing some games. Let’s talk about it.
Subnautica: Below Zero
My experiences thus far can be summed up by this meme:
There is an interesting philosophical debate as to whether Below Zero is a DLC or a sequel, but I think the truth is that it’s neither: it’s a map pack. Almost everything is literally the same: same drop pod, same resources, same recipes, same fish, same upgrades, same base building components, same progression. The moment I stepped out of the drop pod (it is a short walk from opening scene), I said “OK, time to make a scanner and build a Sea Glide.” I didn’t know there was a Sea Glide in this game, but I knew. The last time I touched the original game was 2018, by the way.
The bigger marine fauna is different… sorta. You won’t see any Sand Sharks or Stalkers or Bonesharks. Instead, you have the Brute Shark and Cryptosuchus and another bitey creature you swim away from, because who cares? They all make the same scary-at-first roaring noises as they try to take an easily-ignored percentage of your HP bite. Things are so bad in this department that I didn’t even realize I had encountered the Reaper of Below Zero – named Chelicerate, which totally rolls off the tongue – until I got into a special “totally being eaten whole right now” sequence. Then I said “huh, okay” and swam away because nothing one-shots you from full HP.
So what I’m saying is that the novelty is 100% gone for me. There’s a new story and perhaps some additional lore and new set pieces and such. But what I am finding is that it’s not good enough to justify the short-comings inherent to the Subnautica formula.
For example, new items are unlocked via scanning (3) pieces on the ocean floor. Ostensibly, this is to encourage and reward exploration. The problem is that navigating a 3D underwater environment in 30-40 second increments with hostile creatures and no map is difficult. More difficult still is knowing something is there in the first place. You might be in an area with pieces of an item you already unlocked, and not realize there was a second disassembled item available. Or maybe you found 1 of 3 pieces and now for the life of you can’t remember the area where you found that. And maybe that one piece was part of the Ultra-High Capacity Oxygen Tank, which would double the amount of time you can further explore. And so every minute you play the game not having found the remaining pieces you remember how much more restricted you are exploring anything else for not having it.
“Look it up, then.” I did. Then I saw the rest of the game automatically play out in my mind.
I may ultimately go back and finish Below Zero, but it will be with the reluctance one has in going through the motions of inevitable victory in a Civilization game. In my search for the other Oxygen Tank pieces, I ended up landing on basically every other major location/story node and seeing 80% of what they offered. Part of the whole appeal of discovery is doing whatever you want, but what I want is to not drive around the map in a slow-ass Sea Truck back to the same areas I was blocked from accessing the rest of, due to some item I hadn’t scanned yet.
Which included the Habitat Builder, by the way. You know, the thing that allows you to build a base and utilize 90% of the tech you scan? It was apparently sitting right on a box next to everything else I scanned, but I missed it somehow and had to look that shit up too. I understand that there are a lot of people who don’t like hand-holding or arrows over objectives, but the Habitat Builder is a huge chunk of the appeal of the game. I don’t think anything is improved by allowing that to be missed.
And that kinda sums it up: Below Zero improves nothing on the original.
I am hoping things get better than this.
Granted, I do not consider myself “in the game” quite yet; given how prominently Elizabeth displayed, I’m guessing everything up to her will still be considered tutorial. Of that tutorial though, some things are becoming more and more clear to me:
1) Fantastic visuals have the opposite effect on me.
The visuals, objectively, look awesome. The visuals are also immensely distracting. When I am trying to shoot a guy with a pistol, seeing a particularly well-done cumulus cloud in the background adds nothing positive to that gameplay experience. I had the same issue with Battlefield 3 in the beginning – it was difficult to “see” enemies amidst the Ultra-High settings – so this is something likely to get better over time, e.g. when I start tuning out the visuals.
Incidentally, I never had this problem with Borderlands 2, and I think that is because the moments of cel-shaded beauty are more spaced out, and act as breaks inbetween more functional battlefield back-drops. I don’t want ugly games, of course, just games where you are not overloaded with visuals at time when precision and quick reflexes are called for.
2) Thus far, the theme isn’t all that compelling.
In the original Bioshock, the theme was taking Libertarianism to its extreme conclusion – a gaming subject matter particular novel for its time. Bioshock 2 introduced the opposite, showcasing the nefarious side of Collectivism. While it is still early yet, Bioshock Infinite’s theme of religious extremism slash Isolationism slash historical fetishism is… somewhat rote in comparison.
Bigoted religious cults in videogames are right up there with zombies, Nazis, and demons when it comes to stereotypical bad guys. This might be the first time we have seen such (intentional) overt racist imagery in a game, but I feel like I can already plot the rest of the story from here. There is still plenty room for surprises… yet Bioshock Infinite is going to have to surprise me, lest its thematic message be no different than the one you have seen dozens of times in the 32-bit era, or watching Glenn Beck for more than ten minutes.
Also… aside from some nice clouds and sunsets, so far the underwater motif of the original Bioshocks feels worlds better than open sky of Infinite. There was implicit danger at all times in the ocean, along with a sort of fantastic plausibility; underwater buildings are more impractical/expensive versus impossible. Conversely, in Infinite, sometimes it is not especially noticeable that you are in the air at all. Just look at that screenshot up there again.
3) Console Port
The very first sign a game is a console port is when it is Checkpoint-based. My dismay at discovering there was no Quick-Save was both immediate and visceral. Technically Borderlands 2 is also Checkpoint-based, but the difference is that A) those Checkpoints are a known quantity (you know where they are), and B) you can still save at any time when you Exit the game.
I am going to trooper on, of course, and perhaps it is a little unfair of me to expect brilliance from Minute 1. But given that I broke my Day 1 Embargo for Bioshock Infinite, I am a little bit weary of Buyer’s Remorse. I mean, I passed on Far Cry 3 for $30 for god’s sake!
Here is to hoping that I get blown away in the game proper, instead of musing as to whether I might have more fun playing Recettear like I was two days ago.
One of the best 1-month reviews I have read is Julian’s over on KTR. Not so much for the content of the review, but rather for evoking that sort of hollow feeling that I find Guild Wars 2 gives off.
Guild Wars 2 is like bungee-jumping without the cord. It is all fun and excitement on the way down, but there isn’t anything that snaps back and keeps you in the experience.
A lot of the reviews I have been reading (save one) do not do much in the way of differenciating between the game and the MMO aspect. From a game aspect, sure, it will give you more than a 2:1 return on hour of entertainment per dollar. If you are looking for a one-month stand, so to speak, by all means GW2 is your girl. In fact, with all the dynamic events and no-strings attached spontaneous grouping, it is practically a swinger’s paradise.
If instead you are looking for an MMO you can develop a relationship with, one that both allows investment and a perceived return for time spent, you are still basically stuck with pandas or space trolls.¹
But let me zero in on a couple of areas, including the ones I called out pre-launch.
A lot of people talk about the freedom aspect of GW2 questing, of spontaneity. And it is true. But it is a freedom derived from walking around not giving a shit.
It still boggles my mind how little press the complete elimination of quest text has gotten. I have talked about this before, but a month in, these Hearts feel worse than the most banal of WoW’s daily quests. I do not care if you never read quest text anyway, the point is that a writer/designer still had to at least go through the motions. Where are the motions here?
Have you even tried talking to these Renown Heart guys? The dialog interface is awful, and outside of Gravedigger Dumpy, it all feels like it was written by an accountant. Has anyone actually encountered a coherant narrative in the Renown Hearts? I haven’t. And what I mean is have you actually been interested in what is going on beyond the strict gameplay elements introduced? Do you remember any of the NPC names?
This is not about “location-based” questing, this is about questing without context. And if you have filled one meter, you have filled them all.
I have not reached the conclusion of the Story quests, so I shall reserve final judgment on them. But to be honest, most of what I have seen has been phoned in. Story mission difficulty oscillates between trivial and broken, the tone of the narrative is all over the place (one minute everyone is Lawful Good Looney Toons villains, and the next we torture/kill in cold blood), and I have seen no indication that this story is any different than every “dragon terrorizes the land” story ever made. Including and especially the one presented in Cataclysm, which I suppose is unfortunate timing on ArenaNet’s part.
As I said last time around:
If anyone in-game talks about Events a month after launch, it will solely be in the context of “Where do I level now?” and “Where are all the Events?” and “I’ve been waiting for X Event to spawn for six minutes now!” and “Lame, the Waypoint I wanted to use is contested.” Events are not Guild Wars 2′s killer app. Events are fun the first time, promote spontaneous grouping in the immediate area, and technically have branching paths, I guess.
Events also scale horribly with a lot of people (melee in particular get hammered by dozens of instantly spawned +2 level mobs), are boring the 2nd/3rd/nth time around, interfere with normal questing/exploring in the area (yay, 20 kobolds just spawned in this cave again), are not easy to find or fun to wait around for, and become just plain tedious when completed alone. Regardless of how successful or not GW2 does sales-wise, it will not take but a few weeks for the playerbase to diffuse across the leveling/zone spectrum, making the outdoor-raid-esque feel of beta Events turn into the Warhammer’s “Forever Alone” Public Quest ghost towns.
At a minimum, I try to complete the Daily Achievement during my play session, which requires 5 Events. For every day of the prior week, I have had to cheese the achievement by logging onto an alt and flailing about in the rapidly reseting starting zone Events because I simply did not encounter five working Events in 2 hours of level 50-60 gameplay. When non-bugged Events do spawn, a handful of people usually appear out of the ether, but the mood is more akin of starving dogs swarming over table-scraps than “oh, hey, here’s another one of those things which the leveling system is supposedly built around.”
Which is just as well in the scheme of things, because the majority of Events are worse than the Renown Hearts under close scrutiny. Kill X waves of Y monster. Pick up Z items and return. Aaaaaaaaand that’s it. Maybe I am doing the wrong Events? If so, go ahead and tell me where I can find these good “Dynamic” Events and how long I would have to wait in that general area to trigger them.
Is there anyone who is playing GW2 who feels like WvW was designed/executed properly? Anyone?
What I will grant is there are a lot more Waypoints than there was in the beta, making the graveyard slog not as bad. And it is nice that they are dropping the bags of loot from dead players at your feet now instead of asking you to drop down from the castle walls to collect your tokens. Then again… why are you asking players to furiously press F as they dodge and strafe in the press of the zerg, with people dying left and right? Is it a cynical design ploy to help throttle the volume of items generated in these encounters, since X% of legitimately earned items inadvertently go unclaimed?
Ho boy. I have completed two thus far, and… I am going to save my descriptions of them (and hopefully the others) for a future post.
By the way, I spent 45 minutes trying to get a party together for Twilight Arbor story-mode two days ago. As in, I was apparently incapable of getting four other random people grouped together. Is the lack of a LFG tool really a boneheaded mistake that every game designer is going to have to make from now on? Because let me tell you, limiting your LFG “tool” to self-flagged people only in that map is bullshit design that should have been laughed out of the office in 2012. Dungeons were already going to be a niche activity no matter what ArenaNet did, but to further drain the available pool down to “someone with an hour to kill, who hasn’t done the Story mode yet, who happens to be on a level 30/40/50+ character in a level 1-15 zone for some goddamn reason, who specifically replies to map chat requests” is beyond asinine.
With free server transfers, cross-server guilds, multiple guilds, and anonymous grouping, “saving the server community” is not even remotely a legitimate concern.
MMO Aspects Aside…
As a single-player game, it is probably worth your $60. Combat is nowhere near as responsive as WoW, character progression basically ends at level 30, and of course there is no endgame. But what Guild Wars 2 does succeed at is simulating an MMO without all that messy commitment. Which is kind of a shame considering how it succeeds in providing incentives for cooperation that most real MMOs curiously lack altogether, or feel necessary to induce via the threat of pain and loss.
In any case, we will just have to check in two months from now and see where things are heading into the holiday season. I am asking Santa for an actual LFG tool in GW2 and for Blizzard to tweak/remove the rather archaic-seeming mob tagging mechanic, myself.
¹ Yeah, yeah, or Tolkein, or rift chasing, or whatever else you are playing long-term.