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Impressions: Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

It’s kinda funny, looking back and seeing my original review of The Binding of Isaac being posted in November 2011. 11/11/11, in fact. Nearly six years ago is a pretty long-ass time. And yet here I am buying the re-release of a game and its expansion for another go-around. Maybe.

The truth is: I don’t know.

Ostensibly, I bought Rebirth (and Afterbirth DLC) because it was on sale and I had read all the people praising it on Reddit as being far better than the original. One person mentioned that it was simply relaxing to play. Certainly, I felt slightly similar back when I first played the game insofar as I compared it to Solitaire. Just something to play for a little bit without a sense gravity.

At the same time, I constantly found myself pausing the game and going to the Wiki. What does this Tarot card do? What the hell is this buff? Why is this room empty aside from a spike pit in the middle? These mysterious things are traditional trappings of roguelikes in general, but I feel like Isaac spends an inordinate amount of time in being obtuse. Random effects or items? Fine. Obfuscated abilities? Not fine.

It took me three runs to make it down to and defeat Mom, which resulted in about 15 achievements. Among other things, this unlocks the other half of the game (post-Mom), new items that get added to the random pool, new characters to play as, and Challenges. The latter is new to me, but is basically normal Isaac runs with some kind of penalty added on. In fact, pretty much everything I’ve seen so far is just piling on difficulty.

I’m not sure this is me anymore though. It was certainly relaxing to play in the moment… until I started pausing every other room to double-check the Wiki. I’m not going to stop doing that either, as I find blind choices fairly abhorrent. I don’t need to win every time I play a roguelike, but I’m also not going to let myself ruin an otherwise good run with some bullshit “Gotcha!” moment either.

So, yeah. Perhaps this will be my 2nd Steam refund.

Learning to Let Go

For the longest time, I was a believer in playing games to completion no matter what. A large part of this sentiment was codified back in my semi-official reviewing days in which we were required to beat a given game before we could review it. That always seemed like a reasonable request, and it meshed rather nicely with my general sense of optimism (…stop laughing) regarding the possibility of a game making up for its earlier shortcomings in the 11th hour. Kind of like… err… huh. I can’t think of any examples at the moment, but I’m sure there are some. And maybe this next game will be the one!

In the past few weeks, I have made a concerted effort to abandon such sentiments.

You might have noticed that I am reviewing less games these days. While I still enjoy writing reviews, I’m less convinced that many of the games I play either need or deserve them. I finished Batman: Arkham Asylum a few days ago, for example, but who out there would really benefit from my take on a game which has two sequels and a derivative (Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor) already? It’s an open question if anyone benefits from any review I do, but at least more topical games are easier to justify to myself. Once the “review potential” of a game is reduced to zero, I no longer feel any need to finish it.

Or, in some cases, even start them. My original plan was to start playing the old Tomb Raiders before starting the Square Enix reboot, but I just “Nope’d” out of there after seeing some screenshots. Company of Heroes was played just long enough to start realizing that I liked Dawn of War better. I started playing Thief Gold two days ago and stopped this afternoon. Minutes before writing this post, I was going through the tutorial of Fable: the Lost Chapters; camera was a little too wonky for my tastes though, and now here we are.

I still do feel a little bad when I banish a Steam game into my Finished category, as obviously I spent some amount of money acquiring it at some indeterminate point in ages past. But on the other hand? I can acknowledge that I have likely past the threshold beyond which there are more legitimately fun games that I am actually excited to play than I have time on this mortal coil to do so. Perhaps it is crass to say, but… if I had cancer, would I spent my remaining time playing the original Hitman? Or, really, any of the Hitman games (I’ve heard Blood Money is the best though)? Probably not.

It pains me to know other people will not likely experience the joy that was Xenogears or Tenchu or whatever, but I understand the dilemma now more than ever. No matter how good Game X was for Y reason, sometimes the Z era was what made it so. Can I really appreciate the original Thief in the proper context of its time? Well, I did make it to the third level before shutting it down. I have heard conflicting reports as to whether the Thief reboot lived up to its lineage, but I am now more inclined to spend the $6 (deal is over, alas) to purchase the new one than I am to play through the original(s).

In any case, that is where I am at the moment. I’m not opposed to older games, but they will have to work extraordinarily hard (and quickly) to keep my attention, starting now. Ain’t nobody got time to play games out of some misguided sense of obligation.

Going Home Again

Tobold is by no means the first person to point out that Warlords of Draenor’s free level 90 character is a “doubling-down” on vertical progression. I mean, I don’t see why anyone would claim that even vanilla WoW was anything other than vertical progression given how you couldn’t grind your way to max level via the Westfall boars, South Park-style, but whatever. The thing that profoundly bothers me in these sort of debates though, is this sort of nonsense:

So we are being told that when the expansion comes out, World of Warcraft will be all about levels 90 to 100. You will play nearly exclusively on the new continent, maybe sometimes visit the capital cities for some features, but will have no reason whatsoever to enter over 90% of the zones of World of Warcraft. If by some server glitch the old zones ceased to exist, most players wouldn’t even notice. I find that rather sad, so much wasted space and potential.

I literally cannot understand this line of reasoning. I understand what is attempting to be said here, but it seems so far removed from reality as to be unintelligible.

First of all, the post-Cataclysm world still exists. Even if we are going to assume that there will be a lot of brand new WoW players coming into the expansion – which we have no reason to believe there will be, at least in comparison to returning players – the fact remains that the world and all of its quests will still be there for that new player’s alts, at a minimum. Assuming, of course, that this hypothetical new person even enjoys questing in the first place. And if they do, there is nothing stopping them from questing from level 1 to 100 while saving the instant 90 for some other purpose. Meanwhile, the returning veterans who quit in the middle of an expansion they presumably didn’t like are being asked to… what? Spend a few dozen hours slogging through 2+ year old content to get to the stuff they were actually excited enough to resubscribe to see?

Secondly, how can the old content ever be considered “wasted?” All of those zones and quests have been utilized, extensively, by millions of players for years. How much more utilized does it need to be? And how? And why? Even in horizontal progression MMOs, where do you find people? Where the new things are. The odds of you finding someone running around the mid-level zones in Guild Wars 2 is approximately zero, unless there happens to be some kind of 2-week patch dragon dropping off a treasure chest every three hours. You’re not going to find an EVE veteran mining Veldspar even if Veldspar remains a critical component of crafting spaceships.

Content obsoletes itself. That is not a problem, that’s linear time working as intended. Novelty only ever decreases, at least in terms of crafted content. Hell, how long can you experience interest in even procedurally-generated content like in Minecraft? At a certain point, even the weirdest terrain formation is reduced to its constituent parts at a glance – it sure as hell isn’t as impressive as the first time you laid eyes on your future mountain fortress location.

Time marches on. Just because you don’t hang out at the playground or swing from monkey bars anymore does not mean they are now wasted content, even if no one else ever uses them again. They existed in a time and a place and served their purpose well. Is that not enough? Were you not entertained?

It always seems the greatest irony in MMOs are those players who wish for living, breathing virtual worlds that never change.


I have been collecting some of the Ghostcrawler tweets in regards to MoP alt-unfriendliness and the overall Blizzard pivot away from alts and back to mains, e.g. entrenchment of old subs vs new ones.

Q: Is the plan in Mists to have raiders go through each raid and let the new ones pile up or use LFR to leapfrog tiers?
A: Want to err on the side of the former. If you want to do 5.2 raid, you can gear up in 5.0 LFR. (source)

Q: Upgradeable gear is okay for honor gear, but it shouldn’t be for Conquest, as it’ll take months to catch up. Thoughts?
A: Problem with catch up (PvE or PvP) is it encourages everyone to play less. We like playing more to feel like it’s worth it. (source)

Q. is there any point in forcing people to be revered with golden lotus to do shado pan dailies?
A. Didn’t want fresh 90s to have to do GL and K and AC and SP and go crazy, then finish in a month and have nothing to do. (source)

Q. Do you want people to be entertained or do you want people to grind? For many the two are mutually exclusive.
A. Big challenge to MMO dev: players say they want quality but may also unsubscribe if they don’t have enough quantity. (source)

Q: How do you feel about the players getting to 90 just now and not being able to play arena competitively due to being behind
A: We want to reward players who keep playing. Too often in the past catch up was so easy that it trivialized accomplishments. (source)

Q. But you brought this trivialization of content yourselves starting with patch 3.2 >.> … what have you learned since then?
A. We learned not to let players catch up so trivially that it negates everyone else’s accomplishments. (source)

Q. Greg, you need to stop blaming the wrong things for cataclysm failures. Catch up mechanics dont hurt the game
A. We just disagree on that. I understand you have very strong feelings about how things should work. (source)

Q. efficiency is more fun than non-efficiency. non-efficiency = time wasting = frustration.
A. I don’t buy it. Some of the most fun things in life are stupidly inefficient. I think being inefficient in an MMO is a social thing. (source)
A. We call it the Mechanar syndrome. Players didn’t farm Mechanar because it was our crowning achievement in dungeon design. (source)

Q: linear progression was the worst idea you ever could return to.. you leave behind lots of alt-players and returners.
A. We understand that. But the alternative is that other players feel their accomplishments have no meaning if rapid catch up exists. (source)

I am having a difficult time trying to comprehend at which station Ghostcrawler’s logic train got derailed. “Catch-up” mechanics do not invalidate accomplishments; new raiding tiers do. Nobody cares about your Tier N achievements when Tier N+1 comes out, because why would they? Progression and envy are ever-moving targets, so “catch-up” is irrelevant to those desiring one or the other (or both). So we are left with… who? The people disappointed that their hard, planned obsolescent work was rendered meaningless by the next patch but “oh wait, at least I can try the next tier right away so it was worth something“?

No, it just doesn’t fit. What fits is that in the very nervous design meeting that took place two years ago when Cata was hemorrhaging players, it was decided that every goddamn trick in the book to extend playing time was tossed up on the Mists whiteboard. Burning Crusade slideshows were dusted off and replayed. “Things for Player to Do at Cap” was underlined, twice. Removing catch-up mechanisms does, in fact, “generate” several additional raid playthroughs that would not have existed otherwise. But in that TBC playbook, Blizzard glossed over the postmortem section that warned “You can never go home again.”

Raids (etc) have shelf-lives independent of their necessity for linear progression; old raids become mentally reduced to roadblocks, just something you have to endure on your way to where you actually want to be, i.e. with everyone else. It’s tough being proud of accomplishments nearly everyone else achieved months ago, nevermind how the first boss of the next tier has drops that blows your endgame gear out of the water. And this is besides the fact that the longer the raid has aged, the smaller the pool of people willing/available to run it. Queues go up. Mistakes are less tolerated. It becomes a vicious, decaying spiral… which is precisely why the “Current Tier” model of Wrath and Cata was the better design.

I get that people are sad that raids like Ulduar become irrelevant in mere months. But that happens even in linear progression models! Ulduar ceases to be Ulduar when the people zoning in are just there to get a high enough ilevel to unlock ToC. The magic of these places is not wholly contained in the encounters themselves, but in the Time as well. Being there when the whole server was struggling to defeat the same bosses, congratulating each other on loot, and knowing that each gear drop was the best in the game (at that time). That was when Ulduar was Ulduar.

You can’t go home again.

So, yeah. I don’t buy it, Ghostcrawler. Even if the devs truly believe they are going back to linear progression out of deference to the high school quarterbacks of the moot accomplishment world, they are going about it in the wrong way. iLevel gating was a huge improvement over attunements precisely because it was more flexible. Removing or reducing the catch-up mechanisms is simply bringing back the Keys, complete with all its (alt-unfriendly) baggage. If Mists does not lose players over this – relegating the new player or recently returned to the back of the bus under mountains of required, outdated content – it will be because other areas of the game improved enough to compensate.