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Microsoft Buys Bethesda, the World

File this under Holy Shit, Batman:

Today is a special day, as we welcome some of the most accomplished studios in the games industry to Xbox. We are thrilled to announce Microsoft has entered into an agreement to acquire ZeniMax Media, parent company of Bethesda Softworks.

As one of the largest, most critically acclaimed, privately held game developers and publishers in the world, Bethesda is an incredibly talented group of 2,300 people worldwide who make up some of the most accomplished creative studios in our industry across Bethesda Softworks, Bethesda Game Studios, id Software, ZeniMax Online Studios, Arkane, MachineGames, Tango Gameworks, Alpha Dog, and Roundhouse Studios. These are the teams responsible for franchises like The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Wolfenstein, DOOM, Dishonored, Prey, Quake, Starfield and many more.

https://news.xbox.com/en-us/2020/09/21/welcoming-bethesda-to-the-xbox-family/?ocid=Parterships_soc_omc_xbo_fb_Video_buy_9.21.1

As it says, Microsoft is buying ZeniMax and all its subsidiaries, of which Bethesda is a part. Among other things, this means that Starfield, Elder Scrolls 6, Fallout 5, etc, will be coming to Game Pass on Day 1. That link also indicates the deal was for $7.5 billion. Which is like… 3.5 Minecrafts.

Another amusing detail is that Bethesda and Obsidian are going to be under the same roof again. Perhaps there could be another New Vegas-esque collaboration? Obsidian are good storytellers when they don’t have to build worlds from scratch. When they do, we get garbage like Outer Worlds.

What else could this mean? Well… since Microsoft is going all-in with the Game Pass, there’s a remote chance that Bethesda-specific subscriptions get rolled into Game Pass itself. For example, Fallout 76 has the Fallout 1st subscription and then there’s Elder Scrolls Online’s sub. Like I mentioned yesterday, Game Pass doesn’t include everything, like DLCs and such. That said, EA Play’s subscription is getting rolled into Game Pass for no extra charge. So who knows?

Overall, I am extremely excited. I feel the same way currently as I did way back in the day, when the first few Steam sales started. I hated that Valve was forcing me to download Steam just to play Half-Life 2 and otherwise jump through a lot of hoops. Then once the sales started, it all clicked that this was the future. Well, the future is happening again. And now instead a future heralding the sale of horse armor, we get a timeline where you can play AAA games on Day 1 for $4.99 $9.99/month.

PC Game Pass Price Doubles

I just received an email from Microsoft that the Game Pass is coming out of “beta” and will be increasing in price from $4.99 to… $9.99. This price increase makes it… still cheaper than the $12 legacy Humble Choice subscription, of which I have paused for the past five months in a row. It’s more expensive than EA Play ($4.99) but still cheaper than EA Play Pro ($14.99).

Will I continue to subscribe to Game Pass? Absolutely.

Looking at my account history, I have given Microsoft $60.96 over the last eight months. The two biggest games I played were Outer Worlds and Metro: Exodus, but there were a slew of “smaller” titles like Carrion, Into the Breach, Children of Morta, Nowhere Prophet, Forager, and Undermine. I’m looking forward to playing Spiritfarer, going through Halo: the Master Chief Collection, Astroneer, Grounded (I may wait until it’s out of Early Access though), Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Frostpunk, and possibly Disgaea 4.

The above isn’t taking into account the games on the service that I already own elsewhere. Fallout 76, My Time at Portia, ARK, Dead Cells, Dishonored 2, Don’t Starve, Final Fantasy 15, Hollow Knight, No Man’s Sky, Slay the Spire, Stellaris, Subnautica, The Long Dark. Shit, I just realized how many crafting/survival games I could have gotten for (relative) free. Oh well.

I don’t know why I continue to shill for this service, other than perhaps to reassure myself that this is actually a thing that exists in this world. I have long railed on the concept of Consumer Surplus and how gaming companies have systematically been extracting every last ounce via DLC, Season Passes, Loot Boxes and so on. This trend towards a Netflix model for gaming has been the one bright spot this decade, it seems, eclipsing even the Humble Bundle model before it.

Will it solve all our (gaming) ills? No. Stellaris is on Game Pass but just as the base game – it still has $100+ worth of DLCs in typical Paradox fashion. Same with ARK. But there is a natural tension surrounding extra purchases for “rented” games such that I can see perhaps a higher-tier subscription beginning to include DLC. Or maybe Microsoft will be dicks and force you to purchase the game years after launch for near MSRP to get continued use out of already-purchased DLC.

Nevertheless, companies will need to make the base game worth experiencing if they hope to grab gamers’ attention without leaning on the Sunk Cost/dissonance of ownership. Not every game is going to be on Game Pass, but I absolutely believe that there will be more of these subscription options from other companies, the same way that Netflix is no longer the only, ahem, game in town.

Mainlining Forager

If you ever need to know what my game type is, look at Forager.

Look at all those resources, just begging to be collected.

Forager is distilled, crystallized, crafting/collecting. Everything is stripped down to their elemental components. You are on an island with constantly respawning resources… like every 20 seconds. You bash trees and rocks until you build a Furnace, which you use to smelt iron and gold into bars to craft more buildings. You get XP for everything, and on level-up you get Skill Points to unlock new buildings, buffs, and gear. Once you have acquired enough gold currency, you can “purchase” new islands, which you build bridges to reach. Said islands expand your access to resources, including new ones, along with enemies and item drops. Rinse and repeat, until you have unlocked half the world and you have automatic resource gathering (to an extent), banks minting gold for you, while you are off scraping the landscape clean with lightning wands and magic scrolls.

The first time I booted the game up, I played for three hours straight.

What is extra interesting to me is examining the components of Forager in terms of other games I play and enjoy. Stardew Valley, for example. You can technically farm in Forager: there is a shovel tool for digging plots, a Windmill building to create seeds from already-gathered plants, and even sprinklers to automatically water said plants. But plants in Forager bloom in like 30 seconds. And you’re just as likely to get a similar yield just blasting everything on the screen along with piles of other components. So not really like Stardew Valley at all. 

Now that I think about it, Forager is kind of like a parody of survival/crafting games. Similar to Progress Quest back in the heavy JRPG days, or Cow Clicker during the rise of Facebook games. As it turns out, sometimes parody becomes more fun than the game it makes fun of. 

I will reach a natural satiation point eventually. It may be very soon, as most of the progress I can make at this point is grinding currency for the remaining islands. There is no deeper meaning here, or even particular sense of lasting accomplishment. This is decidedly a wirehead experience. But until my tolerance level reaches its peak, I will continue mainlining this game with no regrets.

Sometimes you just need gratification, instantly. In which case Forager has you covered.

[Fake Edit] Oops, apparently I am done. There is no final boss, I have already completed all the dungeons, bought all the islands, and done all the easy upgrades. No sense grinding for more powerful gear to face non-existent threats. Those 16 hours were a blur.

Who Buys Games Anymore, part 72342

Carrion came out a few days ago, and I was intrigued after reading a review. Basically, it’s a “reverse horror” game where you control the writhing mass of teeth and tentacles as you eat your way out of a research facility. Probably not groundbreaking, but seems like a fun little game to pass the time. Was it worth $20 though? Maybe I’ll just add that to my Steam wishlist and call it a day.

Oh… or I can apparently play it right now on Xbox Game Pass.

I honestly can’t even. How does this business model work? I have the following games installed and ready to be played at a moment’s notice:

  • Halo: Master Chief Collection
  • Carrion
  • Gris
  • Ori and the Will of the Wisps
  • Astroneer
  • Frostpunk
  • Forager
  • Neon Abyss

Those are mostly indie-esque games, but they could be Dishonored 2, FF15, the Gears series, etc.

There apparently was an Xbox or Microsoft or whatever event a week ago, where they demoed a few of the upcoming games. I hadn’t been paying attention at all, until I started hearing people talk about STALKER 2. I enjoyed all three games of that series, jank and all, so hearing that there was a, erm, “sequel” coming out was great news. Bottom text, though? “Coming to Xbox Game Pass on Day 1.”

Also? State of Decay 3. Xbox Game Pass on Day 1.

Also? Destiny 2 and all (?) its expansions coming to Game Pass in September.

I’m paying like $5/month for this shit. How? The “catch” of course is that games rotate in and out all the time. I own none of these games. There really isn’t any modding supp… oh wait, there is. What? 

The last time I used this title was a year ago, when I waffled on whether I wanted to buy Forager. Guess what’s on the Game Pass now? That’s right.

It’s kind of an open question on how much I would be willing to pay Game Pass, if it were not actually only $5. People still pay $15/month to play Battle for Azeroth for some reason, so that’s probably the floor. $30/month? I’m halfway to completing a $20 game that just came out, so maybe. Especially if it was a scenario in which I could sample/beat a lot of high-profile games all in a row. 

Microsoft is not sponsoring this blog, I swear. But at these prices and with these games, they don’t need to.  

Impression: Into the Breach

There are few things that prime the pump more than hearing “from the creators of FTL.” That was one of those games that seemed to come out of nowhere with a simple-yet-actually-brutally-complex system wrapped up in a sweet indie game package and threw me for a loop. It was ultimately a good loop, but a loop nonetheless. 

Despite all that, I had hitherto heard about, got excited for, and then completely forgot about Into the Breach. Until I realized it was on the Xbox Game Pass… and leaving shortly.

Into the Breach is essentially a puzzle game. You command three time-traveling pilots who are trying to protect the remnants of humanity from the Vek by piloting giant mechs. Each turn, the Vek (e.g. aliens) will move around the grid-based map and telegraph the actions they are about to take. During your turn, each mech can make one move and one action to try and foil the Vek’s plans before it occurs. While killing the Vek will cancel their action, the primary mechanism is typically “pushing” the Vek out of place on the grid.

As a general example, the default mech can perform a punch that deals 2 damage and pushes the target back 1 square. Many Vek have 3 or more HP, so this attack by itself will not kill a Vek that is about to attack a skyscraper full of people. But instead of attacking the skyscraper in front of it, that punched Vek will move 1 square away and instead attack whatever is in front of it in that new square. If it’s another skyscraper… well, oops. It could be empty air though. Or even another Vek, if you are clever enough. Or if the Vek was standing next to water/a giant pit/the telegraphed impact location of deadly lightning or whatever, it will die instantly. If the square is blocked, the pushed Vek will take an extra 1 damage and deal 1 damage to whatever blocked its path.

The default squad is the punching mech, a tank that deals 1 damage from range in cardinal directions, and artillery that deals one damage at a location and pushes everyone in cardinal directions 1 square away from the impact. If you successfully clear islands, you can spend reputation points to purchase additional items that can be equipped to give your mechs different abilities. For example, the punching mech can get a shield that makes the Vek turn around instead of pushing them, the artillery unit can get shells that light squares on fire, and so on.

If you cannot tell already, the gameplay ends up both simple and complex at the same time. Victory occurs when X number of turns complete, so you don’t really need to kill every Vek on the screen. Missions always have bonus objections which can complicate things. Incoming Vek reinforcements are telegraphed, and they can be prevented from spawning if their square is blocked – it will deal 1 damage to your mechs, or another Vek if one is pushed there.

Having said all that, this game can also be brutal. The Power Grid represents your life total of the run and it carries over through every mission. Vek destroying 1 building results in 1 less Power Grid for every mission thereafter. While you can take on missions that grant replacement power, that comes at the opportunity cost of missions that reward more reputation, which you spend on buying gear to enhance your team. Your own mechs have HP that is repaired between battles, but losing your HP in a battle will kill the pilot, which results in all their unlocked abilities going away. 

I got super frustrated at one point until I realized… this is a puzzle roguelike. Some situations will go south fast with nothing you could reasonably do. Sometimes the Vek will “waste” all of their attacks on your mechs, which you can simply walk away from. Other times the Vek will spread out and attack buildings everywhere. In a worst case scenario, you can abandon the timeline you are in and take one pilot with you into a fresh game. 

Ultimately, Into the Breach is a decently fun puzzle game. It’s no FTL, but it’s in the same quadrant. I just wish they would port this game to mobile, where it would be a perfect fit IMO. Between this and a mobile Slay the Spire, I might never be productive again.

Exodus Complete

I beat Metro: Exodus a few days after my prior post.

Overall, it was a decently entertaining game. There are many FPS games out there that have stealth tactics just thrown in that aren’t actually viable, but Exodus comes through just like its predecessors. Going from cramped subway tunnels to near-open world initially felt like a big drift away from the “core” Metro experience, but there were plenty creepy/FEAR-y/Metro-esque locations towards the end. And visually, the game is an absolute treat.

My only major annoyances with the game were mechanical. For example, the devs somehow made taking screenshots impossible – not even PrintScreen worked. That is in spite of the fact that there is an in-game Photo Mode. It might be minor, but it also takes forever to load into the game. Once you’re in, there aren’t many loading screens, but its literal minutes to get in even with an SSD.

I completed the entire game via the Xbox Game Pass and do consider Exodus one of the primary drivers towards me subscribing to the service.

Impression: Metro: Exodus

Despite the country being on lockdown and me working from home, my time has actually decreased from before. Figure that one out. Hint: baby.

What I have been doing in extremely limited bursts though, is playing though Metro: Exodus. My overall impression is… better than expected.

The Metro series has been an interesting experience. I reviewed the first game way back in 2012, and the key takeaway was that it was one of the best “authentic” gaming simulations at the time. Features that might otherwise be annoying actually felt right, such as having to pump up your flashlight battery as you explore subway tunnels. The second title was similar, although I seem to recall a truly ridiculous number of “knock you unconscious so we can show exposition” sections. Like, serious traumatic brain injury levels of blackouts.

Exodus starts out in the tunnels and I was not really feeling it. You kinda have to be in a mood to enjoy jump scares and such, right? When the game opened up into an almost Far Cry 3+ way though, it almost felt like too much. You have a map (Far Cry 2-style) and markers, but was it really a Metro experience to just… walk around wherever?

It is, and I like it. Or maybe I’m just getting Fallout vibes and liking that.

Indeed, in addition to pumping up the flashlight, you now have to scavenge for materials to create bullets and repair your gear. There is some minimum level of crafting you can do anywhere, and there are workbenches scattered about to complete bigger tasks like making grenades. Some human enemies drop weapon mods you can otherwise permanently learn, with others being tucked away in remote areas of the world.

There is definitely a tension with exploring though. As usual for the series, the mutants you kill drop nothing. Which itself is a surprisingly uncommon game design mechanism, if you think about it. The result is that sneaking and avoiding enemies is encouraged, which heightens the tension considering how much simpler it’d be to stealth kill them instead. The difficulty I’m on (Normal) doesn’t make avoiding fights necessary, but I do find myself tackling most missions during the daytime, which increases the amount of human enemies, who do drop gear and are easier to take out anyway. Aside from that, the other tension is the lack of fast travel. Exploring is fun and all, until you get to a point where you have to traverse the map in the opposite direction a few times.

I’m not sure how far along in the game I am, but it’s going well. We shall see if Metro: Exodus loses steam or pushes through to the end.

Rent to Never Own

It has been a long time coming, but I have fully surrendered into post-ownership mindset.

The transition is largely semantic. Nobody “owns” a Steam game in their library and never have – just a non-transferable, revocable license… unless you lucked out and live in a sane country that allows resellable digital goods. Nevertheless, a game library was a thing that had value and meaning, you know? It was exciting seeing Steam sales and bargain hunting so you could accumulate stuff.

At least that is what it felt like.

The final, frictionless step was seeing Final Fantasy XV appearing on the Xbox Game Pass. I was already a bit crestfallen seeing how Kingdom Come: Deliverance was on the Epic Store free-game docket, but FF15 just flipped the metaphysical lights off. It’s not that I felt like a chump for spending $12 on the Humble Bundle that included Kingdom Come or, well, however the hell I acquired FF15. It just became increasingly obvious that I don’t need to do anything anymore. Games just happen.

I beat The Outer Worlds on the Game Pass, and I will never play that game again. I also beat Children of Morta, and I will never play that game again either. I just started on Metro: Exodus, and it’s possible I don’t even bother getting through the tutorial. Why force myself to? The game cost nothing other than download time. Compare that to Outward, the first game I purchased in the Epic Store, and how getting my $5.99 refund request denied made me very salty (bought during the Winter sale and first played much later than 14 day limit).

It’s rote to say Netflix obliterated any desire of mine to own physical movie DVDs. And not even really all that accurate – it was Netflix and Hulu and HBO Go and Disney+ that obliterated all desire. Your favorite movie might have fallen off one service, but likely landed on another. Or perhaps the sheer number of choices, which would keep you busier than any free time you had available, simply made the concept of “favorite” meaningless. Who is rewatching movies anyway?

I will, of course, still be purchasing games on occasion. Probably. Final Fantasy 7 Remake isn’t going to just show up Day 1 on PS+ or wherever. Probably. But what I’m getting at is that if my Steam library just up and vanished – which is entirely possible, and unable to be appealed – I don’t know if I would be mad. Or even really notice. The last time I played something on Steam was December 8th. And damn near everything I would play is already on the Game Pass.

Impressions: Children of Morta

After completing the “meaty” Outer Worlds, I decided I wanted to play something lighter via the Xbox Game Pass. The first thing that caught my eye was Children of Morta. And somehow, I have been playing it in longer sessions than I ever did with Outer Worlds.

Fundamentally, Children of Morta (CoM) is an indie Diablo-esque roguelite. Well, that might be over-selling it a bit much. Perhaps an isometric Rogue Legacy? You basically run around procedurally-generated levels and kill monsters, leveling up and collecting gold you use to purchase upgrades for the entire Bergson family. There are no permanent equipment drops or anything, just random relics and runes and other temporary, just-this-run type of augmentations.

Having said that, there are a lot of design decisions that enhance and smooth the gameplay loops.

For one thing, death is not permanent. This is not Rogue Legacy where you end up having totally new family members taking over. While you do lose the progress you made in the dungeon itself, the dungeon is only 3 stages long (with a boss fight). The gold you collect is permanent and accumulates, which means that even several brief failures might allow you to purchase an upgrade or two to HP, Damage, or any of the other characteristics.

That less-harsh roguelite theme continues in other areas as well. For example, you can collect a separate, temporary currency during runs that allow you to purchase various (single-run) Relics and such from a merchant, if he happens to spawn. Or you can use this same currency to open chests that contain mostly gold. I can easily imagine “clever” designers making the player choose between using gold for permanent, generic upgrades versus spending gold in-dungeon for temporary buffs to potentially get an edge against an upcoming boss. Luckily, that is not case here.

Another welcome design is how the story sort of moves forward regardless of success or failure. During any particular run, there can be a bonus room with a snippet of lore or a short quest that otherwise results in a cutscene back outside the dungeon. While there are limits to how far the story will go before a particular boss dies, it was incredibly welcome to know that a particularly embarrassing run would not result in a total walk of shame.

I have not completed the game yet, but I have unlocked all the playable characters and am working on the second area of three known ones. Each of the characters plays very different than the others, but a few are more unbalanced than others. Oh, but did I mention that as you level up specific characters they automatically unlock bonuses that apply to the whole family? This design element ensures that you spend time changing up your play style instead of sticking with just one person all the way to the end. Well, that and the fact that Fatigue can build up the longer you play just one character. But the former design element softens the blow of the latter.

Overall, I am very much enjoying the experience.

1st World Problems

We desperately need a consolidated list of the games available via subscription services.

As mentioned on Monday, the Epic Store has a $10 coupon available on games that cost more than $14.99. Having already bought Outward, I browsed the entire Epic catalog (219 games) for games that would qualify that I was also interested in. Next game up was Vampyr. I had been enjoying Rohan’s posts on the game and thought I should get in on the action. But I had a vague sense of unease. Where had I seen that before…?

GamePass_Vampyr

Well then

Yep, Vampyr is included in the Xbox PC Game Pass. Which means I was about to purchase the game for $7 when I could technically play it for “free.” Oh, and it’s also on Origin Premier… which would give you access to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, that new game that just game out. It was thus with a bit of trepidation that I ended up confirming that Outward was not in any game subscription list. But how could I be so sure for other games?

I thought I already purged my Steam wishlist, for example, but Astroneer is still on there (Game Pass). So was Pyre (Origin Premier). They Are Billions (Origin Premier). I even paused my Humble Monthly Choice bundle for December, because one of the headlining games – Shadow of the Tomb Raider – was technically a part of Game Pass already. Granted, it is console-only and not PC, but it’s really all about the principle at this point.

This is my future now. Checking IsThereAnyDeal used to put me at ease, but these days if I don’t already own the game from an Epic Store/Twitch Prime/Humble Bundle, then I could still play for next to nothing via subscription. It used to be that vague senses of “ownership” would drive me to care about purchasing over “renting,” but those sentiments have long since withered away.