I was stuck in a gaming funk for a while. An embarrassment of riches at my fingertips and I couldn’t muster the energy to choose anything. On a whim, I remembered that I had specifically bought four games to go along with my new PC. With two of them down, why not see if a third could break me out of the funk?
Horizon: Zero Dawn certainly did.
It was a fun experience going into this game effectively blind. Like, I knew the general premise of the game, as will anyone who has ever seen any screenshots: you are a tribesman hunting robot dinosaurs. Basically.
What I was not particularly expecting was the general level of fidelity to the premise. You really are walking around with a bow, arrows, and a spear. After dying a few times on Normal difficulty (!!) in frustrating ways, I took a mental step back. Although things certainly look like a sort of Action Adventure game, this was not Grounded wherein you Perfect Block the attacks of a house-sized spider. You are hunting machines made of metal – you cannot hope to parry with a spear. Of course, you do have a dodge roll with infinite i-frames, but nevermind.
Instead, I started approaching the game as the hunter I was supposed to be. And the game got worlds better. Unlocking the ability to set down elemental tripwires and such certainly helped, but even before that I started approaching from cliffs, and using other terrain to my advantage when possible. Did I still occasionally get one-shotted and lose 20 minutes of progress due to the annoying checkpoint system? Yeah. But I also realized that I was one-shot because I got cocky and wanted to finish off one robot instead of retreating once I aggroed the second. It all sort of reminded me of PvP games and the adage that if you died with cooldowns available, it was your own fault.
Also amazing? The visuals. Yeah, I have a beefy PC so I’m playing a max settings and everything, but the visual direction itself is spectacular. Running around in the machine bases in particular has been a treat. Some of the larger robots are extremely intimidating, even after you are experienced enough (and have the proper tools) to take them out with ease. Plus, as before, even “routine” encounters with robots you have killed dozens of times can quickly turn against you if you aren’t careful. Any time I see a few Snapjaws (robot crocodiles) swimming around, I say “Nope” and go a different way.
Near as I can tell, I’m about halfway through the game. And unfortunately, I fell into the Open World trap of exploring the Open World instead of plowing through with the main story. I say “unfortunately” because at this point I have unlocked all the Skills I was looking forward to, and unlocked all the best weapons. The game is still fun for now, but I’m worried about whether or not I’ll stick around long enough for the ending. I had 80ish hours in Cyberpunk and never actually beat that game, for example. So we’ll have to see what happens with Horizon: Zero Dawn.
I completed Far Cry 5 a few days ago.
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.
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.
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.
Having made it well into hour 30 of The Witcher 3, I am beginning to realize something about the plot. Namely, it is entirely incongruent with the actual gameplay.
The basic premise of Witcher 3 is that Geralt is looking for his adopted daughter, Ciri, who is also being chased by The Wild Hunt. So already there is a trajectory here to the plot, which is “quickly follow the clues to find Ciri.” But every other single element of the game clashes with any sense of urgency that the premise should be bringing.
For example, during a beginning segment of the game, Geralt finds out the baron of the area has met with Ciri. However, the baron refuses to give Geralt any details until he finds the baron’s own missing wife and daughter. Before you can do that though, you will likely need to gain some levels completing other side quests in the area. So you complete quests, level up, go find the wife, then daughter, then head back to the baron to get the full story, 15+ gameplay hours later. The end result is, spoiler alert, Ciri is no longer in the area.
Which of course she isn’t. Literally nobody is the world expects to find Ciri in the very first area indicated by the quest objective. It would actually be incredibly novel for a videogame to feature a “quickly chase down this person” plot structure and actually allow the player to find them in the first area if they are quick enough. It would also make said game really short, and almost punish the player by removing gameplay, but very novel just the same.
The problem in Witcher 3 goes deeper than just using a false sense of urgency though. The problem is actually having any plot whatsoever in an otherwise open-world game. Every time I decide to strike out on my own and investigate every abandoned shack in the woods, inevitably I encounter the end-result of some quest I have yet to accept. For example, I spotted a shack, looted it, found out there was a cave system beneath it, explored and looted that, noticed all the red-highlighted spots (indicative of quest markers), then left the area. An hour or two later, I got a quest to investigate the same shack, “discover” a monster nest in the cave below, and then fight said monster. I ended up feeling punished for exploring on my own.
The irony here is that Witcher 3 would have been screwed either way. It’s bad the way it is. It would almost be worse if there was some kind of plot lock on the cave system, because it would engender a feeling of false open world-ness. “Go anywhere you want! …except here. And there. And over there too.” It wouldn’t be much of an open world if you could only explore the empty bits.
The other thing that Witcher 3’s open world is demonstrating to me is how much I do, in fact, loathe fixed-level monsters in open-world settings. It is getting beyond frustrating to be exploring and exploring and all of sudden, skull-level monsters. I mean, it makes sense that there might be monsters out in the world that are super-deadly and Geralt would need to become more powerful to overcome. But quite often there is no delineation going on – you’ll be killing level 10 Drowned one moment, and then 50 ft away is a level 20+ monster. I suppose that it is more “organic” than just having all the monsters coincidentally more powerful near the edges of the map, but again, it feels bad to me as a player wished to engage with the “open” world. Especially considering all this really tells me is that the “right” way to play is to not explore anything until level 20+ so I don’t have to skip areas.
I don’t know. I suppose the conclusion I am coming to is that if a game offers an open-world setting, I almost want it to have little-to-no plot, or really level-based progression of any kind. Fallout 3 allowed me to explore every corner of the non-DC map by level 3 (and had scaling monsters), which is probably why I enjoyed that game so much. Minecraft of course lets you punch trees anywhere. I don’t remember being too put-off by Dragon Age 3 either. In the Witcher 3’s case however, I may as well go back to treating it as the hemmed-in, plot-centric game its two earlier iterations were.
When we last left Firefall, it was in the beta and I was labeling it “Firefail” in a moment of supreme cleverness. Basically, an early tutorial quest that required me to pick up a handgun wouldn’t complete, and a later re-attempt at playing the beta found me unable to download the final 0.04 MB of the file.
This time around, everything worked and I have spent ~13 hours across last week getting a feel for the game.
Firefall is a F2P 3rd-person shooter MMO, vaguely reminiscent of Mass Effect + Borderlands. You play as an ARES pilot, a sort of mercenary with the ability to swap in and out of battleframes, which are themselves the equivalent of classes. Different battleframes have different abilities and primary weapons, and each battleframe levels up independently of each other. At certain levels, you unlock Perks which can (usually) then be applied to your character no matter the battleframe you are wearing.
There are story quests of sorts you can follow in Firefall, although the main thrust of the game has more to do with random, open-world questing than normal MMOs. For example, a 15-minute story quest and a 2-minute quest to repair a generic Thumper generally give the same amount of XP.
The open-world part of questing is emphasized by the literal open-world: aside from needing to click on towers to push back the “Melding” – and the level-based mobs, a huge change from the early beta – you can generally run anywhere. And the world is absolutely HUGE in this game. Huge and vertical, even. Considering every battleframe has a jetpack (of differing quality), this lends itself quite nicely to exploring.
As always, there are downsides. Although the world is huge, it also feels relatively empty. Part of this is literal emptiness, but part of this also comes from the vast distances between quests and the cash shop-based restrictions to moving around. For example, you can purchase a cash shop vehicle right away, or wait until level 25 to get one with a cooldown. Technically you can craft 1-time use transportation solutions (Gliders) too, but it’s generally easier to just turn on auto-run inbetween waypoints as you browse Reddit on your phone.
I like how you have one character that swaps battleframes rather than a stable of alts, but in practice everything ends up feeling more restrictive than less. If you’re playing Assault, I hope you enjoy your grenade launcher primary, because that’s the same weapon you’ll be using forever. If you swap to Engineer for a change of pace after 12 levels, suddenly you’re going to need to hoof it back to the starting zone and kill level 2 mobs again, assuming you even have low-level weapons to use. Since the story missions aren’t particularly rewarding, the end result is you repairing Thumpers 200 times just to get back to where you were in the first place.
The shooty bits are fun for fans of shooty bits, but… it’s hard to describe, but there’s some essential element missing. “Substance” is the best word I can use to describe it – you feel like you are shooting at ghosts all the time. There is technically collision, mind you, it’s just that the enemies never feel like they belong anywhere or behave particularly rationally. On some of the random missions you will walk into a room that is filled with 30+ enemies and get mowed down without understanding why the room had 30+ dudes in it. Was it intentional? A bug? Was it actually a hidden group quest? I actually survived that cave, but mainly by abusing the poor AI rather than any sort of fancy shooting on my part.
Overall, I don’t anticipate playing Firefall for much longer. The game is F2P and it does seem like you could get a lot of gameplay in legitimately without feeling too much like a 2nd-rate citizen. Hitting level 40 (the cap) supposedly gives you the ability to purchase one of the 10 cash shop classes, although you can technically get them off the AH for in-game currency as well. That said, it’s hard to imagine hitting the cap and playing the same routine missions again and again, this time with a different primary gun.
So… Firefall. Certainly not the worst F2P game I have ever played, but there are better options.